In Horseheads, New York, in late winter/early spring 1962 befriended Willie James Judd, state-licensed notary public and head clerk, Department of Records, Chemung County Courthouse. At that time waitressing at the Blue Moon Caf'e on Depot Street, Horseheads. A young widow, just her and the little boy. A popular presence at the Blue Moon where most of the customers were men but the men quickly learned to respect the young widow. See, Hazel is like your own sister. You don’t come on to your own damn sister do you?
Willie James Judd was near to retirement from his longtime county employment. Ate most of his meals at the Blue Moon where he became acquainted with the new waitress Hazel Jones who was also known to him through his younger sister Ethel Sweet who’d married the owner of the ramshackle Horseheads Inn where the young widow and her child rented a room by the week. Ethel Sweet liked publicly to marvel how uncomplaining Hazel Jones was. Not like other boarders. Quiet, kept to herself. Never any visitors. Never wasted towels, linens, hot water, soap. Never went out without switching off all the lights in her room. Nor did she allow the child to run on the stairs, to play noisily even outdoors behind the Inn. Nor did she allow the child to sneak downstairs and watch TV in the parlor with other boarders.
Almost, Ethel said approvingly, you would not know a child was there.
And Hazel’s life had not been easy: gradually it was revealed to Ethel Sweet how the young widow had lost both her parents as a child, her father in a house fire when she was four years old, her mother to cancer-of-the-breast when she was nine. Taken in then by relatives up in Port Oriskany who were begrudging to her, never found room for her in their hearts made her quit school at age sixteen to work as a chambermaid till at last at age eighteen she ran away with a man twice her age, married him and realized her mistake afterward learning he’d been married twice before, had children he was not supporting, he was a heavy drinker, beat her and their child and threatened to kill them both so at last unable to bear it she’d run away one night taking the terrified child with her this had been three years now and she had not stopped running out of fear of the man finding her.
No they had not been divorced. He would never give her a divorce. He would wish to see her dead first. And their son, too.
Ethel Sweet reported how, telling this, Hazel began to tremble. It was so real to her!
But now, in Horseheads, she wished to remain. In Horseheads she’d made friends, she was happy. She was content. She wished to enroll Zacharias in the elementary school next fall. He would be almost six years old in September.
Saying to Ethel maybe she’d noticed, Zacharias is not like other boys? Doesn’t play with other children, he’s shy and fearful of being hurt, his father had beat him so often, only just needed to raise his fist and the child would become terrified so she had to shelter him from the roughness of men and boys, boys’ games and loud shouting, also Zacharias had a musical gift, he would be a concert pianist someday and so he must not injure his hands.
Ethel Sweet was so touched! That Hazel who had a reputation in Horseheads for keeping to herself and avoiding personal remarks and questions at the Blue Moon by simply smiling and saying not a word should suddenly open her heart to Ethel, whose own daughters were grown and gone and didn’t give a damn for their mother they’d always taken for granted.
Except Ethel saw that the young woman was nervous and worried-like. Asked what was wrong and Hazel says she don’t have the right papers to enroll Zacharias in school.
Like what kind of papers, Ethel asked. Birth certificate?
Hazel said yes. Birth certificate for her son but also one for her, too.
What had happened was: Hazel’s birth certificate had burned in the house fire when she was four years old. There was no record of her birth anywhere! The fire had been in some town upstate, Hazel did not even know for certain, for her mother had taken her away to live elsewhere in one town after another in the Chautauqua Valley. And her mother had died when Hazel was nine. And her relatives she lived with had no care for her. She had been told she’d been born on a boat from Europe, in New York harbor, her parents had been immigrants from Poland or maybe Hungary but she had not been told which boat, she wasn’t sure when it had crossed, she had seen no record of her birth. It was like they wished to erase me soon as I was born, Hazel told Ethel. But not complaining-like, only just stating a fact.
And Zacharias’s birth certificate was in the possession of his father unless it too had been lost or willfully destroyed.
Hearing this Ethel said hotly it was ridiculous, a person is alive in front of you she or him was certainly born. Why you’d need a document to prove this fact made no God-damn sense.
Saying hotly, What it is is just damn-fool lawyers. The law. Willie over at the Courthouse thirty-eight years could tell you tales to make you laugh like hell, or throw up you’d be so disgusted. And that goes for the judges, too.
Saying yet more hotly, What it is, Hazel, is men. Shooting off their mouths, and charging for it like you wouldn’t believe-seventy-five dollars an hour some of ‘em charge! If it was up to women, you would not need legal documents for any damn thing from buying or selling a henhouse to making out your own will.
Hazel thanked her for being so understanding. Hazel said she had gone a long time not confiding in another person. It was a thorn in her heart, she had no proof that either Zacharias or her had ever been born. It wasn’t like the old days now, you needed legal documents to make your way. There was no avoiding it. At the Blue Moon she was paid off the books and of course tips are off the books but if she kept on this way she would be retired someday and an old woman with no Social Security payments, not a penny.
Ethel said without thinking, “Oh honey you got to get married. That’s what you got to do, get married.”
And Hazel said biting her lower lip, looking like she wanted to cry and Ethel could’ve bit her own tongue speaking as she’d done, “I can’t. I am already married, I can never be married again.”
Right away then Ethel called her brother Willie. She knew Willie had a generous heart. In Horseheads he had a reputation for being a prickly old bastard liked to boss folks around but that was only toward individuals who rubbed him the wrong way. He was a decent man. Felt sorry for the girl Hazel Jones. And the little boy quiet like a deaf-mute. At the County Hall of Records Willie Judd was the man to see for any kind of document you required. Had access to any kind of document you could name. Birth certificate, wedding certificate, death certificate. Two hundred years of yellowing old wills in faded ink, real estate documents dating back to the 1700s, deeds executed with the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Legal forms of any damn kind you wished. And Willie was a notary public owning his own New York State notary seal.
In this way in spring 1962 Willie Judd took pity on Hazel Jones. Willie was not a man given to ease with others and very rarely to pity, sympathy. It would have to be secret. Invited the young woman to his office in the basement of the courthouse just at 5 P.M. closing time of a weekday to explain her situation to him which she did, carefully writing down for Willie certain facts. As she wrote these, she paused to wipe at her eyes. Her birth name was “Hazel Jones” but her married name of course was a different last name she did not care to say; Zacharias’s last name was not “Jones” of course but the name of her husband she was in terror would find the boy, if his legal name was revealed. That was why, Hazel said, they had always to keep going, to live in different places where they would not be known. But now in Horseheads they hoped for a permanent residence.
Willie brushed aside these details as he’d brush aside a swarm of gnats. Head clerk at the Hall of Records for thirty-eight years plus he was a notary public. Had the power of any damn judge in the U.S. almost. Could draw up any document he damn well wished and to anybody’s eye it would be legal.
So! A few swigs of good malt whiskey and Willie Judd was God-damn inspired.
Drew up surrogate birth certificates for Hazel Jones and her son. Willie’s imagination in full gear. There was a form, Chemung County Courthouse letterhead, allowed for such documents to replicate documents that had existed but had been lost or destroyed. Only in recent decades did you need “certificate of birth” anyway. Old-timers, nobody gave a damn. Like adoption. You’d take in a kid, any-age kid, he was yours, no formal adoption papers, none of that bullshit. Now it would be a matter of public record, she’d have the documents to prove it: Hazel Esther Jones born May 11,
1936 New York harbor, New York parentage unknown.
For Zacharias, he’d had to type in a name for the father. Could not see a way around it. Any suggestions? he asked Hazel and she said all smiling and without thinking-Willie? I mean, William.
We could say Judd.
Christ he was pleased by this. Flattered to hell.
But that might make for complications, Willie observed. Maybe it would be wiser to reverse these. Hazel Judd, William Jones. And so, Hazel Jones when married.
Hazel laughed, a wild stricken cry. Her son’s birth certificate would read Zacharias August Jones born November 29, 1956 Port Oriskany New York mother Hazel Jones father William Jones.
Now her own name-her name-would be, not Hazel Jones, but Hazel Judd. Yet only on this stiff sheet of paper with the Chemung County Courthouse letterhead.
Thanking the old man, Hazel burst into tears. No one had been so kind to her in a long long time.
(Nobody was to know. Not Ethel, even. The woman had a mouth on her, she’d blab. She’d be proud of her brother interceding like he’d done on behalf of Hazel Jones, she’d blab and get them into trouble. This way, Hazel has the documents, nobody will challenge them, why’d anybody challenge them?
Each year he lived, Willie Judd came to see there was no clear logic to why things happened as they did. Could’ve just as easy happened some other way.
You typed out a form. You typed out another form. You signed your name. Administered the seal of the State of New York, Notary Public. That’s it.)
At the Blue Moon Caf'e next evening Willie Judd came in earlier than usual for supper and stayed later. Ordered the chicken pot pie which was a Blue Moon special. Sat in Hazel Jones’s row of booths as always elbows on the table gazing smiling at the waitress with his tea-colored eyes. It was raining outside like hell, Willie’d worn his black oilcloth slicker people kidded him made him look like a sea lion. This enormous shiny garment he’d hung at the coatrack dripping wet onto the floor. He would ask Hazel Jones to marry him. He had not married, the only one in the family who had not and why exactly he’d never known. Shy, maybe. Beneath his Willie mask. He’d been damn proud of himself rising to head clerk. Only one of the family till then to graduate from high school. So it was a curse, maybe! Willie was the special son, hadn’t found a girl to marry him like the others had done with lower expectations. Time’s a whirlpool, Christ he was sixty-four. Would retire next birthday. Pensioned off by the county, that was a good thing but melancholy, too. Enough to sober you. He had seen in Hazel’s eyes a certain warmth. A certain promise. She’d made him the father of her son. Hazel was always so sweet and transparent smiling at everybody like who’s it Doris Day but there was a touch-me-not air about the girl, everybody remarked upon. A man had to respect. Bringing Willie a draft ale foaming to the top of the heavy stein and over. Bringing Willie one of the least flyspecked menus with blue moon specials stapled to the front like Willie who’d been coming to the Blue Moon half his lifetime needed to be reminded what to order. And bringing Willie extra butter to smear on his Parker House rolls, and the rolls piping-hot.
Somehow it happened. Willie must’ve had too much ale. Not like Willie who’d used to be a drunk but had reformed, to a degree. Could not burn off the alcohol like he’d done. Your liver starts to weaken. Once you turn fifty. Telling Hazel when she brought him his chocolate cream custard pie and coffee about the old days in Horseheads, when him and Ethel had been kids. And Hazel nodding and smiling politely though she had other customers to serve, and tables to clear. And Willie hears this loud old-man’s voice asking, “D’you know why Horseheads is named like it is, Hazel?” and the young woman smiles saying no she guesses she don’t, Willie is all but touching her elbow to keep her from running off saying, “There was actual horseheads here! I mean actual horse-heads. A long time ago, see. We’re talking like-1780s. Before the settlers came. Some of ‘ em were Judds, see. My people. Me and Ethel’s people. Great-great-great-great somethin’, if you figured it. A long time ago. There was this General Sullivan fighting the Iroquois. Had to come up from Pennsylvania. There was three hundred horses for the soldiers and to carry things. They fought the damn Indians, and had to retreat. And the horses collapsed. There was three hundred of ‘em. It was said the soldiers had to shoot ’em. But didn’t bury ‘em. You can see you wouldn’t, huh? You would not bury three hundred horses if you were near to collapsing yourself, huh? Fighting the Iroquois that’d as soon tear out your liver and guzzle it as look at you. They did that to their own kind, other Indians. Tried to wipe ’ em out. The Iroquois was the worst, like the Comanches out west. Sayin‘ then it was the white man brought evil to this continent, bullshit! The evil was in this continent in this actual soil when the white man showed up. My people came from somewhere in north England. Landed in New York right where you was born, Hazel, ain’t that a coincidence? ”New York harbor.“ There ain’t many folks born in ”New York harbor.“ I b’lieve in coincidences. The settlers pushed all the way out here. Damn if I know why. Must’ve been a wilderness then it ain’t exactly Fifth Avenue, New York, now, huh? Anyway, the settlers come out here, a year or so later, first damn thing they see is these horse skeletons all over. Along the riverbank and in the fields. Three hundred horse skulls and skeletons. They couldn’t figure what the hell it was, there was not much knowledge of history in those days. You’d hear things by rumor I suppose. You could not turn on the radio, TV. Three hundred horse skulls all bleached in the sun so they called it ”Horseheads.“” Willie was panting by this time. Willie had reached out to grasp the waitress’s elbow by this time. In the Blue Moon everybody had ceased talking and even the jukebox had gone abruptly silent where Rosemary Clooney had been singing just a minute ago. Could hear a pin drop it would be reported. Ethel Sweet would be stricken to the heart next day. Hearing how her big brother Willie had gotten drunk and lovesick over Hazel he’d done a favor for and would have reason to think she would do some favor for him not wishing to consider would a woman that young and pretty wish to marry a man his age, and girth.
So Willie starts to stammer. Flush-faced, knowing he’s made a spectacle of himself. But not knowing how to back out of it saying, guffawing, “Anyway, Hazel. That’s how ”Horseheads’ came to be. What you got to wonder, is why’d they stay here? Why the hell’d anybody stay here? Poke through the grass there’s not one or two or a dozen horse heads there’s three hundred. And you decide to stay, settle down and stake out a claim, build a house, plow the land and have your kids and the rest is history. That’s the twenty-four-dollar question, Hazel, God damn ain’t it?“
Hazel was startled by Willie’s vehemence. Loud-laughing and red in the face as she’d never seen him. Murmuring some muffled words not overheard by anyone except Willie, the waitress slipped away from his grasp and hurried through the swinging doors into the kitchen.
Willie’d seen the repugnance in her face. All that talk of horse skeletons, skulls, “Horseheads”-he’d ruined any beauty the moment might have had.
Next morning, Hazel Jones and the child were gone forever from Horseheads.
It was an early, 7:20 A.M. Greyhound bus they’d caught out on route 13 with all their suitcases, cardboard boxes, and shopping bags. The Greyhound was southbound from Syracuse and Ithaca to Elmira, Binghamton and beyond. Hazel would leave their room spic-and-span Ethel Sweet would report. Her bed and the child’s cot stripped of all linens including the mattress covers and these neatly folded for the wash. The bathroom Hazel and the child had shared with two other boarders, Hazel left equally clean, the bathtub scrubbed after she’d used it very early that morning, her towels folded for the wash. The single closet in the room was empty, all the wire hangers remaining. Every drawer of the bureau was empty. Not a pin, not a button remained. The wicker wastebasket in the room had been emptied into one of the trash cans at the rear of the Inn. On the bureau top was an envelope addressed to mrs. ethel sweet. Inside were several bills constituting full payment for the room through the entire month of April (though it was only April 17) and a brief note, heartbreaking to Ethel Sweet who was losing not just her most reliable boarder but a kind of daughter as she was coming to think of Hazel Jones. The neatly handwritten note would be shown to numerous individuals, read and reread and pondered in Horseheads for a long time.
Zacharias and I are called away suddenly, we are sorry to leave such a warm good place. I hope this will suffise for April rent.
Maybe we will all meet again sometime, my thanks to you and to Willie from the bottom of my heart.
Your friend “Hazel”