Chapter 1: The Chronicler

The first coincidence—back when I still believed in coincidence—was the Sunday afternoon Julia Mooney knocked on my door.  It was late in January, one of those clear, cold days we get in Northern California, bright and brittle as glass.  On Sundays, which is when Will plays poker over at the Indian casino, I actually enjoy washing my windows.  Iris cleans my house, but I do the windows.  The smell of Windex, the squeak paper towels make, the little bit of mindless exercise while looking out at the view, I like it.  My front-room windows face the ruins of the old Wildman gold mine.  When the county archivist found out my maiden name is Wildman, he about dropped his jaw.  It’s an old pioneer name in Sutter Creek, and unusual enough that if I were willing to do the research I’d probably discover a connection. Just knowing a family with my name once lived here is interesting enough, so I’m letting it go at that. Anyway, that particular Sunday, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which I like for that poignant theme, “Going Home,” was on the stereo, and I was thinking about Rachel’s novel that I’d promised to edit.

I suppose I should say who I am. My name is Sandra, and you are, in my English-major mind anyway, “dear reader.” Well, maybe “dear reader” is too quaint for writing in the 1990s.   Anyway, I’m Sandra and I’m the chronicler of this story, by default.  It’s not my story, as far as I can tell.  At least not at the time I’m starting to write it down.  Sometimes it’s your movie that you’re in, and sometimes it’s someone else’s movie.  In this case, I think it’s just my fate – or call it coincidence again – to bear witness to the peculiar events that began unfolding the day I opened the door and saw Julia for the first time.
“I can see your house from my house,” she said with a big grin.  Julia has this really great, toothy smile, as disarmingly eager as an excited puppy. It’s impossible not to smile in return. Other than that, she’s a rather unremarkable woman in her early thirties, medium height, medium build, unpretentious—she was wearing Levis and a shapeless red sweater. She has a nice complexion and wears no makeup, not even mascara, which would accent nicely her gray-green eyes.
I’m from the Max Factor generation myself, when women ‘put on their face’ before they went out the door. My prime was the 1950s and ‘60s. I still think shoes with pointed toes and high heels look good, although you couldn’t pay me to wear a pair now. And pantyhose—I remember when they were introduced.  The big advantage was getting rid of those tabs on girdles that looked like warts on your thighs when you sat down in a tight skirt.  It took awhile for manufacturers to get pantyhose right, so they wouldn’t bag around the knees.  When they were first available, in the sixties, you could, by the end of the day, haul them up to your armpits. But I digress.
So there’s Julia in my doorway, big grin. She can see my house from hers.  Not a particularly strange conversation opener in these parts, believe it or not. In rural areas people sometimes know each other’s houses before they know each other.  There aren’t that many houses, or people—maybe thirty thousand in the whole county.  And Amador’s a huge county, extending from the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, up the foothills to the crest of the Sierra Nevada. For someone from Los Angeles, it looks almost empty.  You could practically put the county’s entire population in an L.A. shopping mall.
When Will and I first moved from Los Angeles to Amador County, we bought a house upcountry. It wasn’t long before we sold it and moved to Sutter Creek. Upcountry is what the locals call the less-populated, higher elevations, which are mostly pine forest. Living upcountry is entirely different.  I wasn’t comfortable there.  Too remote.  Meth labs and survivalists.  There was this strange, one-armed guy, for instance, who bought about a hundred acres adjoining our property and built a house by himself.  Which can’t have been easy.  Later we heard he hanged himself.  That can’t have been easy either.
Anyway, from our upcountry house, which had great windows like this one does, we could see across the Moke River canyon – that’s the Mokelumne River, mo-KUL-um-nee it’s pronounced, an Indian name frequently abbreviated to Moke, probably because it looks unpronounceable.  We could see across the canyon to this other house just visible in the pines. We used to imagine the people there wondering who lived in the one house they could see, which was us.  But we never drove over the bridge, found the place, and knocked on the door. The people we bought the house from had already done that.  There’s not a lot to say after you say, “Hi, we’re from the house you can see from your house.”  But people here do that kind of thing.
So Julia Mooney’s announcement wasn’t so peculiar.  More so, to my mind at the time, was that she picked my house from the several houses on this side of town that all have her house square in their view.  Any one of them would have served her purpose, which was to take a photograph of her own house. But, she picked mine. So I was the one who got to hear how and why she bought her house.   Which she had just done that morning, so she was this brand-new homeowner and eager to tell someone all about it.
If Will had been home I probably wouldn’t have taken the time.  Maybe that’s another coincidence. But, as I said, my husband regularly plays poker Sundays at the Indian casino.  It’s his favorite pastime. Even that fact came to possess a significance I didn’t suspect before Julia.  I tend to see a patina of time on all kinds of things now—behavior, places, events, people—which I didn’t then.  Anyway, I invited Julia in.  It was the friendly thing to do, and I didn’t have anything going on that day except washing windows and editing Rachel’s novel.
Actually, I’d better introduce Rachel here, before I get to Julia’s house story, because there’s a connection. Not that I saw it then, of course. But like everything else tangential to Julia’s arrival, I see significance now where some people might see simple coincidence. It’s not simple, not at all.
So, Rachel.  Rachel had been a travel writer—freelance, for magazines—before she and her husband, Ben, a travel photographer, retired here.  They first came to the county to research an article on gold mines.  Most people don’t realize there’s still plenty of gold in “them thar” hills.  New mines and the reopening of old ones is—like timbering—a continuing commercial interest in these parts.  The difference now is that corporations try to do the mining and the local people try to stop it. The general feeling these days, contrary to a 150 years ago, is that tearing up the environment is a no-no.
Ben died recently, which almost did Rachel in.  They’d had some forty devoted years together, traveling the world, one of those fairy-tale marriages. Actually, not all that different from my own, but Will and I have only been married 30 years.  After Ben’s death, when Rachel finally came out of her house, she only got as far as the Imperial Hotel in Amador City, which has this great funky bar from gold-rush times.  Rachel planted herself on a stool at that bar regularly for about three months, trying to learn to drink.  Eventually, the hotel’s owner—his name is Doug and I’ll be getting back to him later—sent her to the county historical society to try to find out about that bar, give her something else to do. One thing leads to another. The reason Rachel started writing a historical novel was because the people at the historical society persuaded her to do some volunteer archiving.  This whole county operates on the willing backs of volunteers, mostly retired folks happy to fill their time helping with Sheriff’s Day or the Duck Races or whatever appeals to them. Doug’s mother, Bobbie Danzhoff, cooks. She’s a great cook, constantly making stuff for one fund-raiser or another, but an anomaly in that she pretty much hates country living.  She moved here because of Doug, which is admirable as long as he doesn’t mind.  He seems mostly not to notice.
I volunteer to do newsletters for the arts council, which is probably how Rachel learned I’d been a copyeditor for a Los Angeles newspaper. Or maybe Iris mentioned it.  Everyone knows everyone else here, if not directly, then through a neighbor or a friend.  A person can network the whole county in about six months.  Anyway, Rachel asked if I’d edit her novel.  I told her I don’t know anything about history, but I know where the commas go.  That’s all she wanted from me. I had just read the first chapter the day Julia showed up.
Well, there I was with a bottle of Windex in my hand and there was Julia with a disposable camera, the kind you buy last minute at the drugstore, in hers.  I invited her in.
From my front door you see straight down the hall to the family room, which has this great bank of windows with a view of the hill on the other side of town. I don’t need a pool, or even a fireplace, but I like plenty of windows.  We bought this house new a couple of years ago, after getting disillusioned with living upcountry.  It’s a common pattern for people who retire here.  You think you need to get away from it all, and the pines are so pretty, and the sky at night so stunningly filled with stars, and the quiet.  Well, the quiet is a sometime thing.  It’s quieter here in town than it ever was upcountry.  Up there it was chainsaws.  Nonstop.  Someone was always cutting down trees, or clearing brush, like that one-armed guy.  And down at the river, kids were always target shooting. Bang, bang, bang at tin cans and bottles.  We heard guns all the time. Even out of season someone was always shooting a deer or something.  It was enough to make me give up meat.
Anyway, I like everything about this house except the pocket doors on the closets. I hate them. I like the closet door closed. Who wants to see cluttered shelves and messes of shoes everywhere? A regular door, you grab the knob and pull the door shut. Out of sight, out of mind. But with pocket doors, which slide into the wall, you’ve got to flip up this little brass tab and actually pull the door out of the wall. I got a carpenter to come look and tell me what it would take to replace those doors.  Money. You can do anything if you’re willing to pay for it. But this is an expensive proposition, new doors, building a new jamb to take the weight of the door, all the hardware, etcetera, etcetera
But I digress.
Julia identified her house for me as she snapped photos through my family room windows.  Her house is fairly typical of older houses in town, white clapboard with green shutters, a wrap-around porch, old and generally in need of repair. Probably creaky.  Much like the population.  Myself included.
Julia, as I mentioned, looked to be in her early thirties, which is young for the county demographic.  She wore no wedding ring, and a woman her age with a house of her own is uncommon here.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked, looking out at the house she’d pointed to. Mooney isn’t a local name.  Usually the only young people here are those whose families settled the area in gold rush times, like the Fischers and the Tuckers, or most of the Italians, who came later to work the mines.  My question was part courtesy, part curiosity, something to say to someone who lived in the town.  Which is pretty small; three blocks in any direction and you’ve moved on.
“I don’t live here,” she said, her eye pressed against the viewfinder.  “I live in San Jose.  I just bought the house—I mean I just wrote a check for the down payment or the offer or something.”
She had that puppy friendliness all over her.  It was hard not to be happy for her, although you couldn’t give me one of those old houses.  Something always needs replacing, or repairing, or painting.
“Well, congratulations.  This is quite a move.”  I know San Jose and it’s well on its way to becoming the Los Angeles of the Bay Area.  I was surprised someone as young as Julia would know already that she wanted out of the rat race.
“No, no, I’m not moving,” she said, dropping the camera back in her bag, one of those colorful woven things from Mexico or South America. “I’ve got this great job in San Jose. Actually, I’m not sure why I bought that house.”  She looked at me, and the sudden puzzlement on her face reflected my own.  “It’s just that Otis said—”
“It’s kind of a long story.”
Will has this poker saying, ‘Care to sit a spell?,’ an invitation to empty your pockets into his because he’s really good at poker. The National Hotel in Jackson, about four miles from here, hasn’t closed its doors in something like 140 years and looks pretty much the way it did when it opened, except shabbier. Tourists love the place. Once, Will was sitting at the bar when a tourist, on advice of the bartender, asked Will if he was a poker player. “Care to sit a spell,” Will asked, like he was in a movie or something.

That’s what I should have said to Julia.  What I said was, “Have a seat.”  But it was pretty much the same thing.  I love a good story.  And Julia’s was good.


Order the newest release from author JoAnn Levy The Sutter Creek Chronicles – A Love Story


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