“The Mythmaker”

This short story of mine first appeared in the Spring 1990 issue of the Platte Valley Review. That issue was in the days before online journals, so I’ve painstakingly re-keyed it here in case you’d care to read it. I had originally written it for a contest at a now long-defunct print magazine in Kansas City; I didn’t win, but I attended a regional literature conference at the University of Nebraska not long after and met the editor of the Platte Valley Review. He invited me to submit something, and I did. Publication ensued.

The reference I make to Father Donnelly’s Treasure early in the story is an actual mystery of old Kansas City.

After more than twenty years, I still feel proud of this story. I’d love to hear what you think of it.


The Mythmaker


Paul Lamb

Few here remember the name Rambouillet any longer. I’ve discovered such things happen if you live long enough. So many details fall away, lost forever in the folds of history, or on brass placards finally vandalized and gone from memory.

I am at an age where I fear my memory does not serve me well either. I couldn’t recall where I had placed the staple gun I had needed this morning. The day I’d bought it at Casey’s nearly thirty years ago, when it was important to show that I bore no grudge — nor did Casey seem to bear any guilt; I was merely an anonymous customer — I can recall the time I spent deliberating between the two brands offered. I weighed each in my hand; examined the design and craftsmanship as well as my untrained eye could; considered their durability so my choice should last. I recall the disreputably warped and worn oak flooring I stood on, gray with decades of dust and filth, groaning and snapping with each step. The pressed tin ceiling, painted red and pierced by iron pipes feeding sprinkler nozzles. The tall, splintering shelves and squat bins holding nails and brass fittings, the spools of rope and chain. I remember the florid-faced Michael Casey behind the register, leaning with one elbow on the counter. He scarcely moved while ringing my sale.

I recall all of those things as clearly as yesterday’s events, but this morning I could not remember where I’d put my staple gun. Memory is notoriously selective, and I suppose it is somewhat merciful in that way. If we’re lucky it allows us to forget some of the mistakes and embarrassment we cause ourselves. Its danger is in allowing us to forget our selves as well.

Hidden objects generally reveal themselves after a given amount of searching. This is another thing I’ve learned, and it is, I suppose, why a few still nurture the idea that Father Donnelly’s buried treasure can one day be found. I, on the other hand, am convinced that those lost goods, the silver and jewels of wealthy families secreted by him from approaching Confederate troops, were resurrected this century in an anonymous scoop of earth-moving equipment, then scattered unwittingly as backfill around the foundation of some tall building downtown. With over a hundred years of opportunity to lose it, I am sure that the treasure is irretrievably lost, just as the memory of it is disappearing.

The staple gun, however, did reveal itself in a little visited corner of my basement. I don’t know how it got there, but by the time I found it, my morning was well underway and I had promises to keep.

My sister, Louise, seven years my senior, suffered through summers without air conditioning. She relied on the caprices of the breezes for relief. This week she called me to announce that her front door screen, stitched and nursed through several recent summers, was torn beyond repaired and needed replacing. How this had happened she was unwilling to say, but I suspect her son, a grown man who finds difficulty sustaining employment, threw a beer bottle through it.

My first stop, then, was at a hardware store to buy enough screening to repair the entire panel. I had only Louise’s estimates of the size needed. Exact measurements of any sort are foreign to her. This is an inheritance from our mother.

Prudently, I doubled the figures Louise gave me and bought a man-made fabric the young clerk assured me was far superior to metal for the job. I didn’t go to Casey’s, though it would have been on the way, not because I finally bear a grudge, but because Casey’s is no more. The building that once housed Casey’s Hardware Store, and the establishment before that, was razed fifteen years ago after standing vacant for nearly a decade.

Prepared, then with my antique tool and modern fabric, I made my way to my sister’s house on 41st Terrace. By coincidence, this took me through Westport and past our old house.

The faded photos and fading memories I have of our family house do not give it the favor it now receives from the historical society. By the time I had lived in it, the house was well into its decline. The outside trim had last been painted over a decade before. The mortar on the outside and the plaster on the in seemed determined to come loose despite our wishes. And the remnants of the garden were a weed-choked chaos. Had I been older then, I would have attempted some repairs, perhaps in defiance to all that had happened around us which I was, in fact, too young to realize.

We were forced to leave long before I might have begun my singled-handed restoration. I suspect, though, that had that been a possibility, Mother would have disallowed it because it was servile. In fact, she kept a cook until the day we left.

The memory of a crumbling yet comforting home stood unchallenged until my sister and I were invited back decades later by the historical society for its reopening as a museum.

This morning the house sat quietly. Like the neighborhood, it was in repose, before the rush of Saturday morning descended.

At my sister’s the gaping hole in the screen door was the first sight to greet me. Framed by that was the second. My nephew, our only legacy, lay sweating across Louise’s couch, suffering the combined onslaughts of sloth and hangover. One hand rested on his forehead. In the other he held a fly swatter that he waved idly through the air.

I let the screen door slam harshly behind me. His eyelids fluttered and then he squinted at me.

‘Come t’ repair the screen, Chuck?” he mumbled, using the name I have never preferred. “The flies’r ’bout to inherit this oven.”

The exertion called for all the strength he could muster, and he quickly fell back into his coma, the hand with the swatter resting on a glistening, rounded belly peeking out between his undershirt and pants.

Perhaps the smell of rotting flesh attracts them, I thought.

“Charles, is that you?” my sister called from the kitchen.

“Yes,” I answered, stepping across the room. “I’ve come to repair your door.”

She sat at the table, her hands gripping a glass of iced lemonade. Already this morning she sought relief from the heat the same way she has for over sixty years.

“Charles Francois, you are an angel to care for me.” She paused, and I knew what was coming next. “We are all we have left, you know. You and I.” Her eyes traveled to the glass and she quickly lapsed into the world of her memories where she now spends most of her time. “Nous sommes les dernieres,” she sighed, looking much like our mother.

Nous sommes les dernieres. Her credo. We are the last. I am the last to bear the family name, and she, forsaking the name long ago for marriage, will be the next to last to be carried off.

“Would you care for a lemonade?” she asked, reviving somewhat. “I’m afraid it’s from a can. Not fresh.”

I declined, suggesting that I should begin work on her screen door as soon as possible to prevent more flies from entering. In truth I declined the lemonade because of the bitter taste it has for me.

“To think a Rambouillet must descend to battling flies,” she called after me resentfully as I set my equipment down and began to study the door.

I feared that she would rouse the sleeping sloth, and then I’d have his help to contend with. But he dozed on, giving an occasional grunting snore to let us know he was alive.

Rambouillets, my sister does not care to hear, actually rose in one generation from rather rough stock. Our flower of fineness was quite brief, in fact. But we were colorful, and several times, though no longer, I was asked to speak at luncheons about the place our family had in the founding and development of the city.

We originated in northern France, near the town of Rambouillet. It is not clear when the name crossed the Atlantic. The records of other families, though, indicate that there were Rambouillets in the French settlement of Kaskaskia until it was inundated by the Mississippi. We then appeared in the fledgling town of St. Louis. It was here that we crossed paths with the Chouteau family.

In later 1820s, when the Chouteaus were organizing an expedition to establishing a trading post farther up the Missouri River, my great grandfather, Jean Baptiste Rambouillet, joined them and soon brought our name here.

We know little of him, partly because he was not a member of any aristocracy, and partly because he could neither read nor write. We do know that he was born in 1801 and died in 1857. Sometime before 1840 he married and had a son. My great grandfather amassed a good sum of money, first from the fur trade, then by outfitting early travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. And according to family tradition he had a mercurial temperament. Tradition says that he fought two duels, in the latter sustaining a leg would that gave him a lifelong limp. The matter of the violent and romantic duels always brought a chatter to my audiences.

Camille Rambouillet, his son and my grandfather, personified our family at its zenith. His portrait was always painted with the brightest colors when my mother recited our family history those many nights of our third floor exile.

Camille was a true entrepreneur, taking the handsome sum he’d inherited and turning it into a personal fortune and successful enterprise. The Santa Fe trade was strong during my grandfather’s youth, but by the time he came into the actual management of the business national events had changed the nature of the market, providing him with further opportunities.

The first indications of the changes came in the 1830s. Travelers and traders on the Trail began to report increases in the number of robber and Indian attacks. The government soon established a string of forts along the Trail to protect their lives and commerce.

My great-grandfather, Jean Baptiste, realized these garrisons would need supplies just as the traders using the Trail did. He moved quickly to establish commerce with several of the eastern forts, primarily Fort Leavenworth, being careful not to commit himself to more than he could deliver. The bulk of his business was still with the traders, but he proved himself a reliable military supplier.

When the Civil War came, interrupting trade along the Trail, and increasing the significance of the military market, Camille Rambouillet, now running the business, was positioned to supply them. By the time others recognized the shift in the market, my grandfather was firmly established as a military supplier.

Yet just as Jean Baptiste had been aware that a war was coming, Camille knew that it would not last forever, so he made certain that his commercial markets were nurtured and cultivated during that period. After the war, trade quickly returned to normal.

Seeing security in diversity, he also began supplying the homesteaders who were passing through Kansas City. He added a general hardware supply to his staples of flour, beans, and bacon. The growing town around him also supported this trade, making his hardware business flourish.

Camille Rambouillet built the family house in Westport immediately after the Civil War. He would have been in his late twenties then, but already an important citizen and successful businessman. In its time the house was considered elaborate and luxurious, and as it was his intent to fill it with family, he married soon after.

His wife was a Chouteau, descended from the city founders and a member of a then still prominent family. The wedding ceremony was in French, a language that boasted a few remaining speakers in the American Midwest of the 1860s. Ever the businessman, my grandfather took his bride to honeymoon in Cincinnati, where he pursued business interests while entertaining the stirrings of romance.

Life was grand for them. The entire continent, it seemed, was heading west, and nearly all of them came through Kansas City. My grandfather’s trade flourished and he always had time to listen to travelers’ tales of a limitless frontier waiting for civilization.

In 1870 my father, Andre Rambouillet, was born into this family of commercial success and soaring expectations. From early on he was drilled with the idea that the West was a gigantic sponge drawing people into it. As long as masses headed west, they would need provisioning, and that was what a Rambouillet did.

By the time my father had the store, he could allow his staff to run its day-to-day affairs while he remained aloof in his office and attempted to plot its course. I can only speculate about what he would say if he knew his son now stapled screening to a rotting wooden door for his impoverished, widowed daughter.

“You do fine work, Charles Francois,” my sister said from behind me, having padded in quietly.

I stepped back to examine my work. The modern fabric looked out of place against the gray wood, and I thought I should return next weekend to paint the tired old door and resurrect it a bit.

“Can I persuade you to divide the irises now, Charles?” It’s time.”

Her irises. The fleur de lis. She stole the plants, if I must speak honestly. After we were forced to leave the house, it appears she returned one night to uproot as many irises from the overgrown garden as she could carry. Strictly speaking, they did not belong to us any longer, as the house did not.

I say that she stole them, but she’s denied it to this day. What I can say is that a new bed of irises appeared in the Benoist family garden soon after we left Westport. My mother was a Benoist, and after our eviction we came to their home to occupy a third floor once devoted to servants. Tending the irises became my sister’s passion, and as they are a plant that can withstand a good deal of tending, she was well occupied. Our mother must have realized our descent was permanent, for she never interfered with Louise’s gardening. Perhaps she shared Louise’s attraction to the plants, being links to our past.

The irises she spoke of now are cuttings from that new iris bed in the Benoist garden. My grandmother had laid out and planted the garden at the Westport home, so it seems likely that the irises came west with the Chouteaus last century.

“Louise, I must go.”

Her face fell.

“I have an appointment I must keep.”

“There is always next weekend,” she said agreeably, recovering. “There are several more weekends before the winter.”

I collected the scraps of fabric and my tools, then kissed my sister on the forehead before letting myself out the door.

“You should have married, Charles Francois. You should have given us a son. Nous sommes les dernieres.”

I did not turn to acknowledge her call, hoping she would imagine I did not hear. But I could see her without turning. She would be standing in the doorway, behind the new screening, hugging herself. And I did hear something else. Her son grunted like a pig in his sleep.

Knowing that she would try calling me a home, I decided to occupy myself for an hour or two so I wouldn’t be caught in my lie.

As I passed the house in Westport once again I saw that the staff had been busy since early morning. A large banner hanging from the second story windows read HERB BOUTIQUE.

I had last been in the house on the day of its reopening. Louise does not return because she cannot leave her past. I have not returned because I choose not to live in mine. Neither is found there. Yet our past is a resource that not only grows more valuable over time, but more inaccessible. I decided I ought to visit the Herb Boutique to see whose past was being represented today.

I parked my car beside the house. Above me were holes in the bricks where a brass sign once hung to identify the house. The sign is now at the bottom of the Missouri River, I suspect, courtesy of vandals.

With luck, I thought, I could join a group about to assemble and so endure the tour anonymously. A family of a half dozen were mounting the porch, and I thought if I hurried I could blend with them.

Fortunately I caught them in the entry hall as the last was signing the guest register. A gray-haired matron stood over the scribbling patrons, nodding and smiling as each signed in. My fortune continued because as the last finished signing, she turned and handed me the pen as unreservedly as if I were family.

“Where are you folks from?” the matron asked, having stepped behind the counter that divides the hallway. She counted our number with several nods of her head. The lead of their party was thumbing some bills in his wallet to pay their admission.

“Overland Park,” they mumbled in relative chorus.

Tourists, I thought. We survive on their graces and on the ripples of prosperity that come from the ascendancy of suburbia. Something else my father could never have adapted to.

The leader of the group received his change, thrusting it into his pocket without counting it. I assumed he’d paid my admission unknowingly, but fingered a couple of bills in my pocket in case I should be stopped.

By charging an admission, and hosting a ridiculous Herb Boutique, the old house justifies its continued existence in the required way. Yet I can’t help imagining it as a faded but once grand lady now prostituting herself in order to be kept around.

The matron ignored me as she slipped past the group and headed to the back of the house. She soon returned, leading a young woman.

‘Jennifer will conduct your tour this morning,” the matron said. “And afterward I hope you will join us out back for our Herb Boutique. We’re selling seasoning herbs, sachets and potpourris from the herbe garden today.” She beamed a final time before giving our group over to Jennifer.

Jennifer offered us an embarrassed smile, flashing a full set of braces and blushing all around.

“Hi,” she said with an abrupt swat of a wave. “Welcome to the Rambouillet House. I’ll be your tour guide this morning. My name’s Jennifer.”

Jennifer tossed in the l’s and t when saying the name. It’s actually uncommon for a lame such as mine to have remained unAnglicized. I might have been a Ramboley, or even a Ramble had that been the case. But our name crossed the Atlantic when French was the dominant language of the Midwest, when the Midwest was part of France. And so it survived, another thread connected to the past.

“This house was built between 1866 and 1867 and was considered very luxurious at the time,” Jennifer continued in her rapid-fire manner, adding with a giggle, “though it’s hard to imagine nowadays.”

That brought some return chuckles and a few appreciative nods as members of the group looked around the room.

“This is the parlor. The lady of the house would entertain here, and the man of the house might conduct business here too.” Her arms moved as mechanically as her voice when she gestured to various furnishings around us.

“The furniture you see was typical of the era. Many of the objects are antiques dating from the turn of the century. We ask that you please do not touch any of them because they are really fragile.”

Jennifer gave us a few moments to marvel at the mismatched collection of threadbare furniture before leading us into the formal dining room.

These rooms, which should release a torrent of memories, stir very little in me. I suppose Louise, who lived here seven years longer than I, could be brought to tears by her recollections. But for me there are only generalizations: the floor plan, the overgrown garden, the dark coal bin in the basement, my room near the top of the stairs. The hand-carved walnut molding, irreplaceable today, was missing when the museum was opened. The furniture in it today was not ours, but cast-offs from attics around the city.

Jennifer chattered on as we moved through the rooms. “Outside this window you get a wonderful view of our herb garden. Growing herbs was an important part of daily life. The housewife would use them for medicine and cooking.”

Not my mother, dear. If she ever prepared a single meal in her life, it was never recorded. Cooking, cleaning and gardening were for a sphere below her. As money grew dear, the gardener, the maid and the cook were, in that order, reluctantly let go.

Outside the window was a crescent-shaped bed of leafy shrubs. Ornate signs identified the different herbs. A small awning covering the Boutique flapped in the breeze. It was all picturesque and orderly, and in complete disagreement with the home I knew.

“As you can tell from the parking lot,” Jennifer continued distantly from the next room where all but me had followed, “this is a very large house. The back half is devoted to offices so we won’t go through there. But if you’ll follow me I”ll show you the upstairs.”

“The owners must have been very wealthy,” remarked one of our group as we climbed the narrow back stairs.

Jennifer waited to respond until everyone had assembled in a room at the top of the stairs — my bedroom, I realized.

“The man who built this house owned a successful business in town. He made a lot of money, but lost it all through mismanagement and reckless spending,” Jennifer said by rote, a look of supercilious pity flashing briefly across her face.

Well, that was certainly one interpretation, and maybe that’s how posterity will judge the Rambouillets, assuming posterity does judge the Rambouillets.

It was my father’s unfortunate fate to be born without a head for business, and to have that head filled with commercial philosophy that was outdated and unadaptable.

Andre Rambouillet, my father, was just ten years old when the death blow was delivered to the family empire. Mercilessly, it was a slow poison that killed over time, bringing greater suffering as it progressed. However, my grandfather, who proved so prescient about earlier changes in the market, either did not see what was happening, or refused to give it the credit it deserved.

In 1880 the first rail line to Santa Fe was completed. This meant the end of the commercial value of the overland trail. It also meant a change in the nature of the trade. For example, fresh produce from the warmer climates, including lemons for lemonade, became more available.

Partly because of the vitality of the hardware side of the business, revenues stayed near their usual pace and my grandfather was undisturbed. He continued to coach my father in outdated market approaches, filling him with plans for a vast, unspoiled frontier, even as that frontier was closing.

The city continued to grow, though away from the central location of the story. By the 1890s, when my father was in his twenties, my grandfather grew frustrated with market changes and revenues that had begun to show the early signs of their downward spiral. Feeling he had trained his son as well as he could, grandfather handed him the business and embarked on a national tour. Camille Rambouillet died enroute to the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, a celebration many say signalled the close of the West.

My father was left to muddle through as best he could, not understanding the changes whirling around him, but confident that he could meet any challenge as long as he struck to the philosophy that had served his father so well.

Revenues continued to fall, though the hardware store was valiant in its way of disguising the inevitable. Yet after the turn of the century, not even my father believed that the overland trade would resurrect itself.

Finally realizing that he had serious troubles, he took two bold steps. First he married my mother. He was past forty and had been a bachelor all his life. Whether he married out of a late-blooming love, or as part of some scheme to shore up a sagging empire, I cannot judge. All I can say is that soon after this my sister was born, and seven years later, in 1920, I joined the Rambouillets.

His second step was to erect a grand new building to house his hardware store and offices. It was an elaborate, three-storied structure near Westport, and he must have been convinced that this was what was needed to bring greatness back. He borrowed against everything he had to finance the construction. Unfortunately, it was an all or nothing gamble.

With the coming of the First World War, an expedition overseas and far removed from my father’s ability to carry out his military provisioning birthright, things got worse. Construction demand dropped enough for my father to see that his gamble was an irreversible failure.

He died shortly after I was born. Whether it was a natural death or suicide I never knew. When the matter interested me, Mother would tolerate no comment that portrayed Father as less than an heroic, clear-thinking man of business. Now I really don’t want to know.

With even less management ability, Mother inherited the moribund business. The high margins it operated under meant that what income it managed to generate went directly back into it, postponing the inevitable and making ours a classic life of genteel poverty. This was the greatest blow for my mother because the life she felt entitled to live was draining away from her. With no money to finance upkeep, the house began to decay. Apparently we survived there as long as we did on the beneficence of her family.

But creditors pressed for payment and soon the collapse arrived. As settlement for father’s debts, we turned over the business, its fine new structure, and our decaying home.

There was little interest in the crumbling behemoth house and it stood idle for many years. A low-margin operator name Casey took over the hardware business and managed to keep it running for a while. We three were packed off to Mother’s parents and feigned a dignified life there.

So ended the 100-year history of the Rambouillets. Because I never rose to more than a clerical supervisor at a downtown bank holding company, I don’t include my life in the retelling.

Our upstairs tour was nearly completed. Jennifer managed to keep the group one room ahead of me the entire time.

An older woman of our group seemed more interested than the others. Her generation came closer to sharing the heritage portrayed in the museum house. It was she who broke our collective silence, brining up the topic that was curiously missing from Jennifer’s monologue.

“Who were the people who built this place? These Ram–,” she struggled with the name.

“The Rambouillets,” Jennifer salvaged, and savaged. There’s not much in the history books about them. They’re notable only for leaving this house, really. I think it’s like a French name, but around here we just call them the Rambos.”

The group roared as Jennifer led them down the stairs. I followed them to the top of the stairs, then lingered. They didn’t seem to miss me, and I realized that I had seen enough of how history was being represented.

An antique Regulator clock ticked on the wall in the room beside me. My boyhood room. Its rhythm overcame the murmurs of the group now downstairs.

I suddenly felt exhausted, too tired to descend the stairs. With the ticking clock as my witness, I passed under the velvet barricade rope and walked slowly to a forbidden chair. In my past the chair faced the window so the little boy could look out in wonder at the world. Now it showed an herb boutique.

I tugged the old, dusty chair until it was before my window. Then I sat down quietly, and the chair, joining my conspiracy, sighed quielty.

Closing my eyes, I let my thoughts drift. I was in a forbidden chair. A forbidden room. And somehow it seemed that I belonged here. A man in a museum window.

Nous sommes les derniers, I thought. Je le les derniers.


2 Comments on ““The Mythmaker””

  1. Annam Says:

    What a magically rendered story – so sad in turn, and so beautiful in others. I love these lines – “In my past the chair faced the window so the little boy could look out in wonder at the world. Now it showed an herb boutique.” Where has that little boy gone, now lost in the worries/troubles of adulthood. This concluding credo can be applied to many people’s lives, especially those with such rich histories and promise. Thanks for this story.

  2. Brian Keaney Says:

    ‘A man in a museum window’ – I like that very much. It’s a story that speaks to me about what people aspire to and how they measure themselves.

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