CHAPTER 10: OLIVIA
With a permanent population not exceeding twenty-five hundred people, Tomahawk Hill is a quaint Midwestern town with wheat and corn fields, apple orchards and farms.
The town may have gone entirely unnoticed by the rest of the world if not for a Conde' Nast journalist who was in the area visiting relatives a few years ago. Pressed upon by a cousin to get a chocolate malt from the diner, he was dubious that a malt shop in nowheresville Iowa could be memorable, but naturally, he’d been wrong.
In the article, he said that to “stumble upon Tomahawk Hill with its old-timey-saloon doors, and wooden storefronts was to stroll through the world of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, High Noon, or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
That article had put Tomahawk Hill on the map, and suddenly the town was fielding calls from all over the world about tours, places to stay, and things to do. Someone in China had emailed the mayor asking if the diner could airmail a case of the famous chocolate malts the journalist had written about.
Readers were captivated by the romanticized version of our town and city leaders had begun to wonder if my grandfather might have been right, all those years ago, about making Tomahawk Hill more desirable to tourists. But as usual, their interest never turned into action.
As a kid, I’d loved the way Tomahawk Hill was run. In a town meeting government, every vote mattered. It was democracy in its purest form. But that was also the trouble. Residents often had a short-sighted view, which meant investments in the town’s future were not often popular. The town didn’t have deep pockets, and unless a private citizen was willing to pay out of their own pocket for a proposed improvement, permits were not granted and sometimes not even then. Who wanted to spend their own hard-earned dollars for more attractive storefronts when Lindy needed braces and Derek needed a new football jersey?
That’s how the permit for the guardrail on Bluff Road had initially been denied. No one wanted to pay for something that impacted just a fraction of the population. Of course, they hadn’t considered how the death of one person could affect the future of an entire town.
Good luck getting anything done around here without my grandfather. I scowl at no one in particular as I park my grandmother’s car in front of the historic movie theater. It was my favorite building off of Main Street, but it was also a manifestation of what was wrong with this town.
I can hear my grandfather’s words even now. “If Bud Peterson would let your grandmother and the historical society restore it, people from other towns might want to come here for the experience, but Bud, he’s always been stubborn.”
Built in the 1880s, the old theater had been in Bud’s family for decades. He only showed movies Fridays through Sundays at 4:30 pm because that’s when he could collect money and start the film. He’d walk home from the theater to get dinner with Mrs. Peterson while the movie rolled, catch his sports highlights, and then walk back to the theater in time to stop the projector and lock up for the night.
As I’d expected, no one else is here on a Wednesday afternoon but for Bud, his stringy combover just visible behind the ticket window as his head nods up and then down in jerky movements. I can’t help but smile as I see the sign that’s partially turned away from me. If no one is here, please call Bud on his cell.
I knock on the glass gently, but it’s loud enough to wake Bud. His head flops upward, and his eyes squint at me for a moment before he flashes a toothy grin. “Well, if it isn’t my favorite little upstart! How are you, sweetheart? Is it Thanksgiving already?”
I laugh, slip three ones under the glass. “I’m good. Just had to get out of the house and into someplace cool and unpopulated to think. I’m not used to this humidity anymore.”
Bud scratches his head, disrupting his fragile nest of hair. “A real California girl now, eh? Your grandma’s AC broken?”
I shake my head. If I told him I needed space from my grandmother, the gossip would have circled around town ten times by the time I left the theater. “Too quiet at the house.”
I scoop some fresh popcorn from the vintage popcorn maker into a brown paper lunch bag and push my way through the double doors leading into the screening room. It looks like I’m the only one here, which is really not a surprise.
I had always loved this old building with its timid nod to art nouveau--the delicate gold leaf designs peeling in luxurious decay, the intricately crafted wrought iron banisters, the moss green granite floors Therese had shown me once, peeling back a loose corner of ratty red carpet near the stairs.
Much of Tomahawk Hill was like the old theater: beauty hidden beneath years of ignorance and willful neglect. It was the perfect place to pretend that time could stand still, or, if Jake Hurst had his way, go back in time.
I choose a seat right in the middle of the theater, bunch my knees up behind the seat in front of me and wait for the movie to start. As the old black and white Paramount Studios logo lights up the screen, and a familiar soundtrack sails through the speakers, I smile. Bud was on his Fred Astaire kick again which was about right. By October he’d be paying homage to Judy Garland, November to Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart and December was without fail, for Jimmy Stewart alone.
After a few minutes of watching Fred tap dance his way across a sidewalk, I close my eyes and let the memories come. If I concentrated hard enough, I could be back in the carefree summers of my childhood when all that mattered was finding at least ten good books at the Tomahawk Hill library, deciding what movies to watch, horseback riding with Sam and slurping chocolate malts down at the diner.
I open my eyes as the music swells and Fred leads Judy around a stage. He effortless and she, playing uncoordinated.
And now, my grandmother wanted me to take charge of my inheritance—cloud the perfect past with a future I didn’t want. “Your grandfather had the foresight to realize you may feel this way should something happen to him… which is why I waited so long to tell you. You are many things, darling girl, but temperate is not one of them.”
She’d tried to hold my hand, but I was so agitated I’d stood and ran into the house, locked the door to my room. She’d slipped a letter under my door later that morning with a plea. “I know you’re not mad at me—not really. I know this is a lot to take in. Just read the letter, Livy. And you’ll understand… everything. I was doing what your grandfather asked.” The quaver in her voice made me feel guilty, but I was still too angry to open the door. “He would never give you more than you could handle.” When I still didn’t respond, she said, “I trust you. I love you.” And then she’d left me alone to think about my impossible choice.
My grandfather, as it turns out, hadn’t just left me a piece of real estate and the collection of books and art from his study. The truth was, my grandfather had left me the deed to everything in this town, including a whole lot of hopes for my future, tied inexplicably and heartrendingly to his own.