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Ghost of a Scientist

by Charles Blackburn, Jr.

Ghost of a Scientist

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Picture by Jon Cain

October 23, 2009

By 3 o’clock most afternoons, once the newspaper had gone to bed, I retreated to my small private office in the Professional Building next to the courthouse on Young Street, where I banged out historical features for The State magazine on an old manual typewriter. It was a refreshing change from the board meetings, court judgments, and police, fire, and rescue incidents normally associated with my byline in the Daily Dispatch

My office shared a foyer with the law office of old Mr. Fred Hines. Passing by his open door, I’d often spy him reclined in his swivel chair, feet propped on the desk, hands clasped across his midsection, sound asleep. He was a tall, boney man of great angularity, with a waxy complexion and a crown of silvery thatch.

Whenever I caught him napping, I’d pause long enough to be reassured by the rise and fall of his chest, indicative of respiration. He was so old it only seemed reasonable to assume I might one day discover him in the inanimate state. 

“And how are you today, Mr. Hines?” I’d call if he were conscious. 

“Hiya, Zoot. Not doing enough work to break the Sabbath.” 

His youngest son, John “Zoot” Hines, had seen more than 50 summers, but I must have favored him somehow when he was my age. A short-circuit in the old man’s memory banks sometimes merged the generations. 

Mr. Hines was semi-retired. Force of habit, rather than constant demand, prompted him to hang little signs on his office door apprising clients of his whereabouts: “Back In 15 Minutes,” “At Lunch,” “In Court” or “Gone For The Day.” 

His law practice was no longer active enough to employ a secretary, even part-time. When in need, Mr. Hines had once been in the habit of invading the Young Street offices of junior members of the bar and pestering their secretaries into helping him out. This foraging for typists was tolerated out of respect for his age, but just barely. 

My arrival, fresh from college, helped alleviate the situation. Early on, Mr. Hines and I came to an arrangement. Typing up the occasional deed or other legal document for him entitled me to use the telephone in his office for local calls. It saved us both a little money and reduced friction on the block. 

One afternoon Mr. Hines approached me with a proposition that, unknown to either of us, would open the door to another world. 

“My wife’s got to go to Chicago to look after her sister, who’s taken sick,” he told me. “I’m a little anxious about staying by myself at night. I was hoping maybe you’d bunk in the guestroom downstairs a few nights. I’d be glad to pay you something.” 

“Not necessary,” I demurred. “Feed me supper, and you’ve got a deal.” 

It was a safe bet Mrs. Hines would leave him well provisioned. The first night we ate cold ham, potato salad, corn pudding, baked beans, turnip greens, and lemon meringue pie. 

The old Hines place was a rambling Victorian pile of lumber, with a wrap-around porch sporting fanciful “gingerbread” trim. I felt like I was stepping back in time. The old boy knew of my interest in history.  

“A man named Wise used to be connected with the tungsten mine,” Mr. Hines told me over supper. “He was a geologist. You know about tungsten?” 

“Light bulb filaments. Steel-making.” 

“That’s right. Cheap tungsten from Bolivia finally put them out of business. But the mine used to rent a room upstairs here, to have available for visitors, including Dr. Wise. 

“Whenever they ran out of tungsten, they’d call Dr. Wise in California. Once when they ran through a vein, he came and drew them a plat. He said to go so many feet this way and then go this way and so on. The miners said they got it, and Dr. Wise went back to California. 

“But after a few weeks, the vein played out, and they asked him to come back. They went down in the mine again, and Dr. Wise said, ‘Look here. You didn’t follow my directions. You went this way, and turned here all right, but went wrong here. If you’ll just follow the plat, you’ll be okay.’ Sure enough, they dug where he said and hit another vein of ore.” 

Mr. Hines paused, and then added, “Dr. Wise was quite a card. He spent time in Las Vegas. Whenever he came through the door here, he tossed silver dollars to the children, saying, ‘Have one of these Nevada nickels.’” 

That first night I dreamed about encountering a strange muttering man in the hallway of the Hines house, only to realize upon waking that my subconscious had seized on the suggestion of the tungsten mine geologist. 

For supper next evening we had sliced eye of the round with horseradish sauce, rice and gravy, black eyed peas, sliced tomatoes, butter beans, and corn bread. Mr. Hines regaled me with stories about local characters after whom our city streets were named. 

The second night, the muttering man appeared in my dreams again. This time I caught a few stray words of his monologue that confirmed his identity. I heard clearly the words “vein” and “ore” and the phrase “if only they’d follow the damn plat.” It was odd, but I didn’t think anything of it. 

Next evening the star of our repast was chicken and dumplings. Breaking out a bottle of Old Crow, Mr. Hines told me about Civil War veterans he had known as a lad. 

My dream that night was stranger still. The geologist was kneeling on the floor of his bedroom. He had a screwdriver, with which he was unscrewing an ornate cast-iron heating grate in the wall, muttering all the while about incompetent miners. He turned to me and said irritably, “They’ll be the death of me yet.” 

It was a vivid dream, down to odd details, such as the wallpaper’s fleur-de-lis motif and the fact that Dr. Wise had cut himself shaving. There was residue from a styptic pencil on his chin. 

Next morning, Mr. Hines was snoring robustly upstairs as I went out the door at 6:30 on my way to copy the police blotter between shifts. “Let me ask you something,” I said when I saw him that afternoon. “What ever happened to the tungsten mine geologist?” 

“Killed in a cave-in. Around 1938.” 

It took awhile to find the news item in the Daily Dispatch archives. But it was just as Mr. Hines had said. The article included a mug shot of Dr. Wise. His face was hauntingly familiar. 

“Something unusual has come up,” I told Mr. Hines that evening. “Mind if I take a look at Dr. Wise’s old room? And have you got a screwdriver handy?” 

Intrigued, the old boy found one and led me upstairs. Sure enough, the bedroom wallpaper had a fleur-de-lis design. “It may be nothing,” I said, kneeling to unscrew the wall heat grate, with no idea what I was seeking. 

Removing the grate didn’t reveal anything, so I reached into the shaft and felt around. Below floor level I discovered a bent nail. Something was hanging from it - a cloth bag - which I retrieved. It was a Carson City Bank bag. When opened, out spilled a pile of silver dollars. 

“Holy mackerel, Zoot!” Mr. Hines remarked. “Nevada nickels!”

“Ghost of a Scientist” originally appeared in the “Sunday Reader” section of the Raleigh News & Observer.

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