Jul/Aug 2023  •   Fiction

The Man from Lake Diablo

by Laura Canon

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

This was in the days when everything was wide and open, just like that. Everything went on forever. In the West, if you turned your car east, you crossed state after state, endless fields, with only a few towns in between. The South held miles of sawgrass swamps and flat beaches on which the ocean rolled up gently. In the North there were mountains and the ocean raged; even on a small island you could drive for days, in and out of the woods. It was not just land: the houses were enormous, room after room, endless, attics and secret passages. Bookstores had rows and rows of cramped stacks, extending into attics and annexes. Subways ran for miles beyond the cities. There was no end. That was the point. Nothing had to end.

A man came to the Casino in Mansfield by train from Lake Diablo. The Casino was on the waterfront along the lake, itself a nice place to walk, summer and winter, when there were often storms and enormous waves. The lake touched many other places in the country; you could travel on day after day, seeing new towns all along the way. The further you went, the more of the past was there, in every town, the country as it had once been—canals, stone courthouses, the ruins of large insane asylums, the sites of Indian massacres, the earthen mounds of the Woodlands people. The Casino, too, was very large, with hallways leading to restaurants and meeting rooms and terraces and the hotel, the latter a solid stone tower. People could, and did, wander endlessly in it. However busy the Casino was, it always had an air of everything accounted for, everything taken care of, an idea of management so unobtrusive that as you pleased yourself, you had no idea you were also pleasing them. It was therefore a happy and popular place.

In Room 638 of the tower, the man from Lake Diablo killed himself. No one knew his name. His register entry was evidently false, as he had written the name of the president for his own. Later it was recalled by the staff that this man had stood on the casino floor and made a speech about the war going on at the time. The casino, after hearing him out for a few minutes, had discouraged him from continuing, although the war was a popular one and the general theme of the speech—every man would do his duty—was also very much in line with popular belief. In any case, this did not help identify him. Eventually there was nothing to do but, as behooved a civilized community with an unknown body on its hands, bury him in the local cemetery. The stone carver chiseled UNKNOWN in squarish letters, and a notation was made in the record book of the graveyard that he came from Lake Diablo (the train ticket in his pocket confirmed this) and had killed himself at the Casino, should anyone ever inquire. Also, he might have some connection to the war.

The man from Lake Diablo was a bit of news, a story to be told, a mystery, and perhaps because of this, his story eventually became part of the annals of the Casino. The unknown man from Lake Diablo. The bitter aroma of cyanide in the room where the body was discovered. It did not matter that other people had killed themselves in the Casino from time to time. The man from Lake Diablo gained a place never granted to another. It was the combination perhaps of a few small but precise details—Lake Diablo, the obsession with war—with the larger unknowns—why the Casino? Why, indeed, Mansfield? People discussed it at dinner in the casino restaurants. Sometimes, if they were staying on, for instance, the fifth floor of the hotel, they went up to the sixth floor—just accidentally—and walked by 638—since they were there anyway. Some went further: over and over again these amateur detectives consulted archives in Mansfield and Lake Diablo, turning back through birth, jail, immigration, and other records, trying to identify possible candidates. But even if they were successful to their own satisfaction, allowing that taking into account this wrong name and this wrong date, the most likely person is X, the other amateurs would not accept it. Local tourist guides and histories began to mention the man from Lake Diablo. The Casino, wanting to put the best face on things, now named one of its private dining rooms Lake Diablo and hired an artist to paint of mural showing the man on the floor of the casino, imploring those around him to join the army.

In fact many people who lived in Lake Diablo were originally from Mansfield. It had been forgotten, but there were links between the towns. It was part of the general migration west, first to Mansfield, where land was cleared and log cabins built, then, later, along with the building of the railroad, into the drier areas of the country, where there were larger acreages of land to be claimed. It was along this same railroad that the man from Lake Diablo had ridden back to Mansfield, urged by an ancestral link, a wish to lay eyes on the land his grandparents had known. Lake Diablo was in fact a beautiful place to come from. There were wide streets and tall trees and the houses with large porches occupied by girls in sweeping dresses who poured out of them to go to church picnics. The man from Lake Diablo, for instance, had five sisters. They leaned out of bedroom windows, calling; they had picture of their beaux in their sock drawers; they played tennis and kept journals and spoke a language they had made up as children. They wore corsets. Surely, if men in any era ever admired women, it was women like these: girls full of fun, straining at the leash with ambition to live. The sun made droplets of light beneath grape arbors. The houses were deep and wide and had many rooms. People still slept in attics containing trunks from their grandparents' era.

When the train left Lake Diablo, the day was warm and dry. Blowing smoke, sparks and ashes flying, it crossed prairies and forests, tunneling under mountains and out again. It waited for other trains crossing its tracks, trains heading south, where his grandfather, killed in a mishap, lay buried in a swamp; trains heading east to the cities; trains heading west, flowing and dividing into smaller and smaller lines, their whistles blowing in the night.

In Hanover a child crossed an empty schoolyard, late, towards a drab, windowless building. Rain over a cemetery in Prestonburg: an orderly space with white tombstones covered with moss, worn lambs for small children long dead of cholera.

In New Buffalo a river baptism, the sun shining, the candidates in white, standing in water up to their knees. In the distance, light struck through the clouds in shafts, on far-off hillsides and towns, on church steeples.

In Cassopolis passenger pigeons flew up in the sky, shapeless flocks in front of the sun, never ending; from Salem to Lebanon starlings, in murmurations, one after the other, as the passing of the train disturbed their roosts.

In Marengo a distillery, a brick warehouse stuffed with barrels. The train passed through limestone cuts, water dripping down the layers of rock, across rivers, along the valleys, creeks tumbling over dams, turning millwheels.

Crossing farm fields slivers of light shone through the sides of barns. Wild turkeys gathered to feed on hickory nuts. White-tailed deer jumped away into the woods. At night smoke came from factory chimneys and radio towers blinked on Shawnee Mountain.

In Kankofee a log-cabin tavern, horses tied up outside. Around the next bend, a truck stop, long rectangles of trailers in the parking lot. Over the hill the exit back onto the east-west interstate.

In Mahomet a row of boarding houses near a factory, rooms to let, the last one tilted to one side, falling down, a dog barking in the yard.

In Frazeyburg, below a terraced hillside, a row of planted trees and a beige hospital, long and concrete, signs pointing to parking for the emergency room and the rehab clinic.

Cutting through the hills, the tracks turning, the whistle blowing, the cyanide pill already next to his teeth, waiting. Remembering letters from preachers' daughters, dances where the wrong sort were shown the door, fights outside afterwards, real slugfests, bloody noses and black eyes. Digging pits for outhouses, up to the waist. Elderly aunts who pushed their glasses up their noses, blinking their eyes sincerely, for one could have quite a fulfilling life without a husband. Greek and Hebrew grammars with miniscule print, locked up in glass cabinets. The Lays of Ancient Romeand Horatius at the bridge. How can a man die better... It was all there, past and present, everything that had ever been.

Here a man, passing down the corridor of the train, turned, thinking to recognize him, faltered, went on. Nothing was said. They had been born in the same corner.

In Mansfield he stumbled into the Casino, he spoke, raising his hands, until the security guards discouraged him, turning him around, pushing him towards the bar. Simmer down, fellow, go have a drink, Okay?

Hours later, upstairs, he turned on his side, biting the capsule, choking on the bitterness, his heart racing, so that he died in agony rather than the calmness he had anticipated.

After that, things were no longer endless. The country shrank, maps shrank, you walked up against fences and boundaries. Houses burst at the seams. The lake retreated, year after year, until it was no longer desirable to travel on it.

I still do not know his name.