WAAGNFNP Posted by peter ramus, 20 Apr 2007 05:35 pm
It’s off to the side there as you enter the building, full with all manner of raw harvested names of the past, folks registered for what must have seemed good and sufficient reason at the time with the age-old compulsive exactitude of the scribe. Stuffed with polling lists, that space is, registries of addresses. List of passenger arrivals on ships entering SF Bay 1860-1889. Reams of privately printed brochures: family trees of folks forever otherwise unremarked in history (The Johnsons of Sussex, World Concordance of Burgesses, that sort of thing). Great midden heap of ur-history in that small room, primary source material, checklists of myriads of common selves living lives only now and then winning the bare notice of public record. But, too, local newspapers on microfilm.
Two articles we’d come to see, printed by the once-lively presses of the Santa Cruz Daily Surf January 26 and 29, 1906, occasioned by the doleful end of James of the Hanahans. First, on the 26th, a curt report under a stark headline from the Central Valley town of Newman:
THE BODY OF JAMES HANAHAN
William Hanahan has received a telegram from a brother who went to Newman that he had unmistakable evidence that the body buried here as Frank Nolan was that of James Hanahan.
And then, on the 29th, another, lengthier piece, written in the newspaper style of the turn of the 20th century, a style still struggling to shrug off formal elements of English prose, to subsume those elements in a plainer style incorporating the easy, arch colloquialism of the frontier work of Harte and Twain.
Apparently the man who owned the corpse in question had come into Newman a few days before Christmas and drunk himself to death.
A fellow no one knew at all well, perhaps he’d called himself James Nolan, and, didn’t he mention a sister living in Santa Cruz? The Santa Cruz Nolans were contacted, notified of the sad particulars.
“James, you say? James Nolan? Sure if he isn’t right here in his bed sleeping it off,” replied the the spokesman for the Nolans (or words to this effect).
Some confusion on the Newman end of the conversation, naturally, followed by full disclosure: scant true knowledge of the deceased, really, description of the body, previous occupation, something about a sister in Santa Cruz. Suddenly it dawns on the Nolans!
“Ah! Oh no, if you aren’t after indicating Frank Nolan that’s the brother of James!” they all cried (we are convinced they all did cry, though the record is silent on this point).
The newsman sees his opening and takes it, noting that the ensuing confusion was sealed because the two men in question, or rather the body of the one and the “Frank” of the other, were easily conflated in that they were “both ranch hands of dissipated habits.” He goes on to report that the mistaken identity held “. . . until Frank Nolan turned up and positively denied the report that he was dead.”
So, in the event, “James Nolan” was found out, his alias, adopted for a reason now never to be known, stripped away from him, and another, equally inaccurate name briefly proposed and then revoked, and finally, at last, the deathfreight of due grief transferred to its rightful owners the Hanahans. History has nothing more of him. A broken life, long since summed in this droll headline in a defunct coastal newspaper, the ghost of its original pages now available only on microfilm:
HANAHAN WAS HANAHAN
AND NOT NOLAN
I look to him,The Da with the sage eye always, taking in this tale in his measured way, unperturbed. Not one to overdemonstrate sensibilities even when confronted with this, his poor grand-uncle’s tale: his grandma’s brother it was, James Hanahannotnolan, whose gravesite we’ve visited, not three blocks distant from my own house here in Santa Cruz. Holy Cross Cemetery in Santa Cruz, the various collected dusts of the Hanahans sunk in earth there, surrounded by a low concrete curb. His mother’s people.
In the library we wind back the spool of microfilm and place it in its box. We give each other our brief looks: shared unwritable language of eyebrows bearing the brunt of meaning.
I see it clearly, the Da failing, no longer nearly spry, catch myself hoping uselessly against his passing.
“Well, I’m thinking you’ll be my executor, eh?” he says abruptly.
We laugh for all the reasons.
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