The Phantom of Lambert Flat
By Marvin Payne
(responding to a folk tale captured and articulated by Jan Vincent, who was born in Alpine)
Welcome backstage again. For a couple of decades, I’ve had the dream of establishing an intimate theatre (that means the audience is in close proximity to the stage; it has no reference whatever to subject matter. ((And hey, what is it with the little warning that comes up on PBS before certain shows that says something like, “The following program contains adult language”? Come on! What they really mean is “The following program contains junior high language, spoken by adults who don’t seem to have outgrown it.” Sheesh. (((This, far from being a specimen of the language in question, is actually a euphemism for “sheep,” used here disparagingly with regard to the tendency of thoughtless speakers to “talk like the guys on PBS.”)))) in Alpine, where I live. (I should start a new paragraph here, but we’ve only had two sentences, so stretch your attention span a bit.) But my dream has been hijacked. A lady moved here from London, where she had a theatre, and thought “Hey, why not here, too?” So six weeks later (I’d been putting it off for about thirty years, you will recall) what had been erected as a hardware store was suddenly a jewel of a theatre! Dude! It’s nice enough that I abandoned all thought of being jealous, and just hoped I’d get cast in something (I thought it’d be nice to walk to work).
Well, here comes “Jane Eyre,” the Broadway musical (although from henceforth it’s more likely to known abroad as “The Second West Musical”). They denied me the title role, but let me play the ugly guy who gets the girl anyway (how do beat that?), and we open in January. Come. It doesn’t cost much – especially if you book one of those cheaper airlines where you pick a number, bring your own peanuts, and then fly it yourself.
After that is “Man of La Mancha” at the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City. For this, my gender happily qualifies me to play the title role. (Is your gender happy?) Meetcha at La Mancha.
Which reminds me of what I want to share with you in this column. The last time I played the Grand, I was the “Phantom.” (Hmm … I just noticed that, whereas I used to be the dad in everything, now I seem to be pulling down roles as the old and/or ugly guy – oh well, the Phantom got the girl, too – sort of. So what the hey? ((This, too, is a euphemism – for “What? The hay?” which is a line uttered in the period of Renaissance Theatre by Bottom, the character in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” when he awoke at breakfast time beside the fairy queen, Titania (((No, this, again, is not “intimate theatre” – trust me.)))) And “Phantom” is in the title of what I want to share.
Two columns ago (rudely interrupted by having to write about the Election) I suggested here that a way to get going on a personal history would be to write about your town. The following is about my town. By way of example.
There is, in Alpine, a ruin of an old house, the Lambert House, about three-quarters of the way from the center of town to the Rodeo Grounds, as the buzzard flies. The city owns all the land, about a hundred thirty acres, around what’s left of the house, which isn’t much. They bought the land a long time ago for seventy-nine bucks an acre, not for the land, but for the water from Box Elder Canyon that went with it. What the city didn’t know was that the whole place is haunted by the Phantom of Lambert Flat. The ghost isn’t much of a problem, though; it takes a lot to get him to appear. In fact, I only know of one genuine appearance, only one encounter witnessed by a number of people all at once. And that’s the story I’ll tell you now.
Not too many years back, maybe fifteen or so, a lady in Alpine, a Sister Mutz – Janice Mutz – had the awesome responsibility of training up young women in the ways of virtue and grace. As she taught them, she grew to love them, and she wanted to do something special for them, to create a teaching moment that would impress them to live purely and lovingly for the rest of their lives.
Ah, but how to do it? You can’t just cook up a magical evening like sponge cake out of a recipe. She thought long and hard, scratched her head north and scratched it south, and then, as though all that scratching had dislodged something, she remembered a story she’d heard often as a child that she suddenly thought just might inspire the socks off her young women. And it was a true story! Of love and faithfulness in the early days of Alpine. She remembered as hard as she could, then wrote it down as carefully as she could remember it. And then she had an even better idea. Wouldn’t the story sink right into their hearts if those girls heard it told at the very place where it had happened?
So one early evening as May was just bending into June, Sister Mutz led her young women on a dusty trek through acres of sage and scrub oak, past an occasional rattlesnake (mercifully hiding), and gathered them around the crumbling old ruin of a house – really just a couple of walls rising from a rubble-filled hole.
But it was festooned with stands of flaming red poppies that fairly shouted their color into the late afternoon, and a runaway tangle of yellow roses, bigger than a baby rhino. And a darn sight prettier.
The girls were so astounded by the flowers that they forgot to complain about the dust, or the bugs, or the inconvenience of being out among the horned toads instead of in the mall. There was something magic about those flowers. And in that moment of astounded silence, Sister Mutz pulled out her paper and earnestly began her story.
“My dear young sisters, this story is called ‘Legacy of Love.’ I learned of it from Jan Vincent, who wrote it down beautifully, just as she’d heard it from her family and the old folks in Alpine. (Jan’s grandchildren are eighth-generation Alpiners.) I love this story, and I hope it will touch your lives.”
She read, “Annie Lambert knelt in the warm spring sunshine, gently patting dirt around the roots of a wild yellow rose. Finishing, Annie brushed her hand over the tender spring leaves, sat back on her heels, and gazed over the beautiful valley to the lake shimmering in the distance. She felt so blessed; her precious baby daughter lay on a quilt in the sunshine, giggling at a fluttering blue butterfly that had landed just beyond the reach of her chubby baby hands. A cozy rock house was rising strong and beautiful on their very own homestead, and already the poppies her husband John had planted the previous fall were pushing their fat, fuzzy heads toward the warm spring sun. Soon they would bloom, a hot orange-red next to the stern hewn rock of the house.”
Sister Mutz fell silent then, for just a moment, because she was distracted by an odd, echoey sound, a little like wind, a little like distant thunder, but very soft – a moan, a long, low breath of sound. “Zhhheeeooorrrzzzhhh…”
Again, “Geeeooorrrggge…” It was a little spooky. But it stopped, so she went on.
“Annie looked across the rich fields and saw John stop the plow and, with a kind word for the horse, bend and heft two more rocks atop the stone fence that would border the lane to their home. She smiled as John again picked up the reins and resumed the patient process of plowing.”
Sister Mutz fell silent again, for the sound had returned. But it had changed. “Mmmaaayyyddd Pppaaayyypppurrr…” Sister Mutz shuddered slightly, sniffed, and went on with the story.
“They had been sent to build this new home by Brigham Young, with a promise that, with work and faith, this good land would blossom like a rose.”
Again, the sound came. And again, it had changed. And now the young women noticed it too, because they could almost hear words in it. Scary words. It sounded like, “Hhheeezzz dddeeeaaaddd…” But Sister Mutz was not to be detoured from her tender tale, and continued, forcing gentleness into her voice.
“Annie smiled, and leaned over to pick up her baby for a hug. They would have such a good life, rich in love, faith, and family. She looked fondly at the tiny new rose bush and gave the rich soil surrounding it one last gentle pat before standing. Its future of promised yellow glory would always be a legacy celebrating the love passed from mother to daughter.”
Sister Mutz stopped for moment and glanced around suspiciously. It was about time for her to be interrupted again, but all was still. Ghostly still.
She continued. “Annie’s mother had kissed her mother goodbye in Ohio. And with her new husband, Annie’s father, had carefully tended her mother’s farewell gift of a little yellow rose bush over two thousand miles of prairie, to their new home in the Salt Lake Valley. And then, on Annie and John’s wedding day, had given Annie a slip from the yellow rose as she and John had set off to build their own home in a sheltered cove south of the Salt Lake Valley.”
“Annie rocked and cuddled her own little daughter. Some day this child would kiss Annie goodbye also, and go off to build a new home and family. There she would plant her own yellow rose.”
“Yellow roses would always tie mother to daughter, heart to heart, as each generation shared this bright golden legacy of love.”
Sister Mutz shivered. At this point, the breeze had grown suddenly chill. No words this time, but chill. And they heard a dull clunk, like stone on stone, as though someone had leaned against the wall and disturbed it, or trodden in the rocks behind it — as though someone were lurking back there. Listening. The girls didn’t really notice, except they felt a little colder. And hey, if somebody was listening, Sister Mutz was plowing ahead.
“It was early spring again. John Lambert could feel the tears running hot and bitter down his cheeks. Annie and their precious baby lay in a cold grave at his feet. He looked east toward his little rock house. It would be so hollow and empty without his Annie.”
Again the ghostly whisper, “Mmmaaarrreeeaaallliiisss…” This one actually sounded enough like real wind that Sister Mutz went on without a break.
“Annie had told him as she lay dying in his arms how dearly she would always love him, how much she wanted him to be happy, and promised that if he watched carefully he would always have her near him. He had held her tightly to his breaking heart and made to her his own promises of eternity.
“John turned and started the lonely walk home. The spring sun had been teasing its way from cloud to cloud, making the air cool and warm by turns; and the sun hid as John trudged homeward, his face stiff and cold from his tears.
“As he reached out to open his gate a fat white cloud rolled out from under the sun. His little stone house was suddenly bathed in warm spring sunlight. John lifted his face heavenward to feel the warm, healing rays. He looked again at his house, the sun warming the gray rock and a soft spring breeze fluttering the curtains Annie had hung at the open window. His aching heart contracted, wishing he could hear Annie singing as she went about her work, and the giggling of their baby inside.”
“Sssiiixxxtttyyy-tttwwwooo…” What was that? Sixty-two? Sister Mutz knew the wind couldn’t be whispering numbers at her. “Nnnooommmooorrr bbbaaayyybbbeeezzz…” But she was just getting to the best part. She clutched the paper more tightly and went on.
“Then John saw Annie’s rosebush; the warm spring sunshine had opened the tight green buds, and new yellow petals were unfolding in the warm sun.”
Sister Mutz was having trouble, now, maintaining the attention of her audience. The young women were decidedly agitated. But spooked as they were, they wanted about as badly as Sister Mutz did to get to the punch line.
“John knelt, and brushed his hand over the soft yellow petals. He could hear Annie’s voice, ‘I love you so much, John. Please be happy. If you watch closely, you will always feel my love nearby.’ He gently brushed the petals again and understood. Here under his hands was Annie’s promise.
“John looked across the valley to the mound of Annie’s grave, and kneeling by her roses he answered her promise. He would tend her yellow rosebush, and the bright red poppies she loved so much. The yellow roses would grow in front of their little stone house, and the poppies would spread happily around their homestead…”
“Tttwwwennntttyyy-ttthhhrrreee dddolllaaarrrzzz annn aaayyychrrr.”
“…forever reminding generations and generations to come of Annie and her bright legacy of love.”
It’s hard to imagine those young women being anything besides terrified, but the story really had moved them. It was a glowy story, and they felt glowy. If it hadn’t been for all the weird windy interruptions, they would all have been crying. As it was, they merely glowed.
That is, until the shadowy transparent man appeared on top of the wall. Then they screamed their heads off.
Sister Mutz, however, was too mad to be scared. “How dare you mess up my story! Who are you, anyway?!”
“I ttolldd yyoou,” said the phantom on the wall. “Gggeeeooorrrggge…”
“Gee-oh-ur-j, George. George Lambert. George Cannon Lambert. Not John!”
“Why should I care what your name is?”
“Because this house, these flowers, this land, the rock walls — they’re all my idea! And my name is George!”
“You’re sure it’s not John?”
“Fine. ‘George,’ then. It doesn’t change the story any. Happy now?”
“NO! I tried to be subtle and communicate in a way that becomes a ghost, but I didn’t seem to be getting through!”
When the young women heard the word “ghost,” they stopped screaming. And started howling. Both Sister Mutz and the ghost yelled in unison, “QUIET!” And the girls were quiet. Trembling, but quiet.
The phantom spoke again. “There were other words, you know. I said other words.”
“Hmm, I thought there might have been words.”
“You didn’t hear ‘Mmaayydd ppaayyppurrr’?”
“Made paper! You had me pushing a plow! I wasn’t a farmer, blessed with wholesome poverty. I made paper!”
“Oh… Oh! A starving artisan!”
“No! I owned a paper factory in Salt Lake City. And I was rich!”
“Yes! And you didn’t hear ‘Hheezzz ddeeaaadd’?”
“Brigham Young. I didn’t even come to Alpine until 1910. Brigham Young couldn’t have sent me here, he’d been dead for thirty-three years! My wife’s name was not Annie. It was Mary Alice! Mary Alice and Rosina. I had two of ’em!”
Sister Mutz was stunned. “That’s not romantic at all!”
The phantom went on, “Did you hear a number?”
The girls all yelled, “Yes! We heard a number! Sixty-two!”
His voice dropped, and he announced primly, “In 1910 I was sixty-two years old. No more babies!”
Then he picked up speed again. “And ‘homestead’? You said ‘homestead’ twice in your ridiculous story! I bought this ground for hard cash. Three thousand bucks! Twenty-three dollars an acre! And I hired the bishop to build this house! It was a summer getaway, a retirement home.”
Sister Mutz clapped her hands over her ears and wailed, “Sir, you are changing history!”
“Madam, I am history!”
The girls looked betrayed. Sister Mutz looked crushed, as though Santa himself had announced that he doesn’t exist, or if he does exist, he doesn’t like children. She loved that story. It was good, it was holy, it was … believed.
“So what if it isn’t true?” she whimpered. “It’s beautiful! Don’t you want these walls you built, this place that bears your name, to stand for something sweet and inspiring and romantic?”
At this point the girls, emptied of their fright, all chimed in, “Yeah, who wants dusty old history? Sister Mutz’s story is better!”
The phantom sneered, “Better, huh? All right, I suppose messing about with a little house in Alpine for a half-a-dozen years and then going broke and pulling out of town doesn’t win any prizes for ‘romantic.’ Well, sweet and inspiring and romantic is all just ducky, but where will it end? If we have no respect for the truth, if the truth isn’t worth remembering, if we’re tossing it out like this morning’s dishwater, why don’t we replace it with something really astounding? I know, how about this? ‘In the early days of Alpine, there was a dragon lurking in Box Elder Canyon, and he’d stolen young Mary Alice Lambert from her yellow roses!’ No, no, no — here’s something better! ‘George Lambert was a fierce pirate, terrorizing the queen’s treasure galleons on the Great Salt Lake, burning and sinking and pillaging, burying his plunder on Antelope Island. One day he kidnapped the fair young Mary Alice, and forced her to build, with her bare and bloodied hands, a stone tower in the land of Alpine, where he locked her up. To taunt her, he surrounded the tower with poppies and yellow roses, and told her she could not come down and enjoy them until she agreed to fall in love with him. But her heart was pure, so the poppies grew up the side of the tower and pulled it down. Captain Lambert’s heart was melted to see how deeply the flowers loved her, so he married her anyway, whether she was in love with him or not, and then he piled the rocks on either side of the driveway to show her how he cared. Get real!’ ” And then the phantom vanished in an angry crack of thunder.
In the silence he left, you could have heard a cricket burp. It was as quiet as the empty mines on the mountainside above them, silent as the graves of all the real people with real stories buried under the plaques and shafts and stones on Cemetery Hill. The girls were perfectly still, not daring to look at one another in their embarrassment. They were chastened. Sister Mutz could only look down at the dust on her sandals. George Lambert had said it, they had heard it, and they had felt it. The truth was important. Shame hung in the air, so tangible you could have crumbled it over your salad. It was nearly dark now, and the stars were beginning to appear. The sober little circle of souls turned and walked away home. To their real homes, jammed to the rafters with real people, living the ordinary truth. Making real history with their elegantly simple lives.
It would be years before anybody ventured up to the ruined Lambert house to try to teach their children the lessons of life. Oh, joggers and hikers and folks with their dogs would amble by, going out of their way to see the poppies and roses, but no classes of impressionable young women.
Finally, though, in a certain spring, one of Sister Mutz’s own young women dared return to the Lambert Place. But by now she was all grown up and full of wisdom, with a far different story in her mind than the one her teacher had told. And with her was a circle of girls, astounded into silence by the brilliance of the flowers. So as the sun left its last lingering kiss on the petals of red and yellow, she began, with reverence, to tell it.
“Once, in the early days of Alpine, the feared but tender pirate George Lambert built a tower for his bride…”
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)