Jonathan B. Fitzgerald was a practical man with polished black shoes. To truly describe him one would have to have known him, and few did, for he was reluctant to let anyone beyond his tightly buttoned suit jacket. With the imperial stature of French nobility, the cold eyes of a Norse god, and the cultivated temperament that is usually found only along the Eastern seaboard, his small-town Illinois origins were all but brushed away with a brisk sweep of his well-trimmed hand. Wire spectacles rested lightly on the crest of his pointed nose, and he analyzed the world through their thin lenses (although one may have asked if he really needed them, for he saw what needed to be seen regardless of whether or not it was visible). He would never leave home without his monogrammed briefcase, a linen square in his pocket, and a measured stride. He seemed a decent man in all respects but, as Frank once put it, he was “the kind of fella to know your name and not much more.”
He took up residence in a tidy room at the Elite Hotel, across from Ward’s Dress and Notions, in late May, although perhaps residence is not quite the right word. For although he resided in Clark City, Montana, Jonathan B. Fitzgerald hovered above it, like a placid mist rising over a choppy river. He did not sink into the daily life that existed in the noisy chatter of the Elks Club and the Starlight Five and Dime. As the gears and cogs of the world clicked and turned, he sat in his office and observed the motion around him. The ‘office’ was simply an empty storeroom at the back of the barbershop, but Jonathan B. Fitzgerald saw it as an office, so that is what it was.
Hanging from a rusty nail on one dead-white wall of this office was possibly Mr. Fitzgerald’s most interesting possession. He called it “The Catalogue,” but to the uneducated eye, it seemed to be a large chalkboard, covered with white lines and names and numbers. Mr. Fitzgerald’s boss at Regal Real Estate Company (based in Butte, one hundred and ten miles to the west) would have called it a job well done, almost worthy of a raise. This board contained Mr. Fitzgerald’s carefully compiled list of all the properties in Clark City, each boiled down to a precise set of specifications, including probable value, tax assessment, and number of residents per lot. Mr. Fitzgerald’s job was to create this list and bring it back to his superiors, who were considering diversifying into the automobile sales business and had provisional franchise deals with both Ford and Texaco. Two lots on the east end of town owned by Walter Guthrie, proprietor of Guthrie’s General Store and the ramshackle bungalow next to it, had caught Mr. Fitzgerald’s eye.
Walter liked to say that he would make a fortune on the General Store if only more people would buy the items he stocked. Someone needed flour and eggs? He had flour and eggs. The bolts of cloth might be a little dusty, but they weren’t too faded. For a fresh cut of beef or sound words of advice, people shopped elsewhere. Still, money can’t always buy the pride a man feels in keeping his own shop, and everyone knew Walter wouldn’t sell cheap. For a few weeks, the gravel crunched loudly under Fitzgerald’s black shoes as he walked along the street, and people remarked on the vigor with which Walter now cleaned the store windows on a daily basis.
The third day of September dropped a bright blue curtain behind Clark City’s Labor Day festivities. Trumpets shone in the sun, banners waved, and a general feeling of unity filled the air. The Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club had each built a float for the parade, and Martin was selling wrapped chicken sandwiches out of his train car diner. Townsfolk lined the leafy parade route, which wound along the west side’s broader streets. It was a good parade, but the thing people remembered about it was that no one had noticed Jonathan B. Fitzgerald among the viewers.
By the end of the day, word had spread like prairie fire that Guthrie’s General Store and the land on which it sat had been soaked with gasoline, and Jonathan B. Fitzgerald had disappeared. The store was beyond repair, and most guessed that since Walter was likely not insured for gasoline flood insurance, he would have to sell for a song. Everyone knew who had done it, although no one could prove it, and the act spoke more to people’s philosophical than their forensic natures. Doc impressively called it Fitzgerald’s apotheosis, while Reverend Phillips quietly wondered if the realtor had baptized the land for its future life. Mrs. Jenkins, who was polishing the samovar in the church basement, simply clicked her tongue and said, “Who knows what rattles around in a body when there isn’t a soul to take up space?”
If Mr. Fitzgerald had been there to answer, he might have said he was simply filtering the important from the insignificant. He might have said it was simply business. But he was on a train, traveling one hundred and ten miles to the west. He looked out the window, where the early morning sun had begun to melt the mist over the Yellowstone River and heat the sky to a rosy pink. He observed the scene for one minute then turned his head to face the seat in front of him.
“You can say what you will about Jonathan B. Fitzgerald,” Abby summed it up several weeks later, while combing her magnificent red hair. “That he’s cold, that he’s conceited, that he’s criminal. But I guarantee that no one this side of the Rocky Mountains could ever say that he is not a practical man.”
Landon Smith is a student from Hanover, New Hampshire. He enjoys writing, composing music, and rowing on various rivers.