Ostensibly, this story—or more accurately, this account—concerns the fate of the erstwhile Tomlinson Hall. I am not, to be clear, a writer by trade, but rather a simple cook. This exercise consists of merely transforming into narrative what my uncle had secretly recorded in ink. Yet I remain conflicted whether this exercise will result in entertainment for you, catharsis for me, or justice for a pair of young cooks.
I admit that—like my uncle Smitty (whom I intend to visit later today)—I too have served as a line cook at the Columbia Club on Monument Circle. I would enjoy sharing with you tales of the unusual things I’ve glimpsed there—the disturbing things I’ve witnessed (whether political, paranormal, or—believe it or not—an unsettling co-mingling of both) within the Scotch-scented, wood-paneled corridors. Perhaps I will impart those tales another time.
Perhaps. Because it wouldn’t be a shocker if I disappeared too.
But I’m already digressing as I’d warned myself not to do.
My function here is a mere omniscient emissary, and I can offer the following as the most accurate illustration of what my uncle experienced.
I know my uncle enjoyed reading, and I’ve learned a lot about writing just from absorbing his journals (most of which were scrawled on the back of sauce-smeared recipes), and he admired a certain writer whose sentiments are an apropos starting point, as I believe I am a better hand at “worming out,” as it were, a story than either my uncle Smitty or his fellow cook and ill-fated friend. “Perhaps there is no other man alive,” wrote that author, “who could narrate to you the following foul and unnatural events.”
It was almost ten o’clock and the tickets were nearly cleared from the pass on a predictably slow Thursday night. Yet perhaps for this night in 1958, it was not all that unusual: it was the end of January, which called for the typical Midwest bouts of frigid air and windblown snow, the weather alone working to keep reservations low in the Harrison Room.
Over on the grill station, Gills had just finished plating one of the last dinner specials: beef tournedoes topped with artichoke bottoms and Bearnaise.
Smitty was already wiping down the sauté station, certain this was the end of the night.
“Have you seen the menu proposal for spring?” said Smitty, using his apron to remove the cast iron grates from the gas range.
Gills kept working. “Yeah. Chef had a copy in the dining room last night, showing it to a few of the members, said he wanted to ‘brainstorm’ some ideas.” Moses “Gills” Gilliam had acquired his nickname through the inevitable surname deterioration so prevalent in the boot camp fraternity of the kitchen, but also through the rumor that he surreptitiously pilfered a quarter-pint of rum—or “gill,” in maritime parlance—from the club’s bar each night before clocking out. “It’s a decent menu.”
One of the dishwashers had a radio playing on the far side of the kitchen, one of Jerry Lee Lewis’s popular songs.
Smitty transitioned to rolling up his meager collection of knives into a canvas satchel. He said, “Did you notice that sweetbreads are on the spring menu?”
Gills was shutting off the gas to the grill. “Uh-huh.”
Smitty nodded. “Isn’t sweetbreads—”
“Brains,” said Gills, hefting one of the charbroiler panels. “Really just a small piece of the brain.”
Smitty had been a cook for years, since his mid-teens, but he’d never encountered a cook—had never encountered competition—like Gills, and had grown fond of the ritual of working with the young man from Crispus Attucks High School. “So what’s chef going to use then, beef?”
Gills was clearly intent on getting his station cleaned; but his tone remained composed, tutelary. “Veal.”
Smitty smirked. “Brains…kidneys…livers—I don’t know why people eat that trash.”
A grin appeared on Gills’s face. “Ain’t you ever had foie gras?”
Smitty had heard of it—something that had to do with force-feeding ducks or geese to fatten or swell their livers. “Nope.”
“Man,” said Gills, again shaking his head, “you’re missing out.” A long stretch of clatter from the dish pit. Eventually Gills said, “Besides, that ‘trash’ you’re talking about is a delicacy.”
“I know that,” said Smitty with a stitch of defensiveness.
“And if you say the word delicacy around those big-wigs they’ll devour it, no questions asked, just for the sake of saying they did it.”
Smitty made a click from the side of his mouth. “What a shame—brains and livers is probably all those poor Republicans can afford.”
Gills looked over at his fellow cook, a broad smile stretching across his face. The two young men began laughing, the lighthearted sound mingling with the music coming from the static-lashed radio—a Buddy Holly tune—“…That’ll be the day…”
The club’s policy: cooks and dishwashers were prohibited from using restrooms to avoid co-mingling with esteemed members. After all, moneyed politicians likely wouldn’t want to piss next to a sauce-and-blood-spattered cook. It was just another way to maintain that quiet divide between prosperous and proletarian.
That’s why Smitty used a stall. The last one, to be precise—more discreet that way. Smitty finished and was zipping up when he saw it, on the left side of the ceramic tank cover, barely noticeable under the shadow between the lid and the cistern. A small piece of red ribbon.
Smitty had heard stories of toilet tanks—the water within being stale but nevertheless potable—being used as caches for clandestine treasures. It was a game—a sort of private scavenger hunt for drunks. Smitty wondered if that was the case here, and could only guess what these aging playboys would be hiding in here. He reached out and pinched the piece of fabric, experimentally pulling on the ribbon. From inside the tank came a metallic clink. Still holding the ribbon, Smitty cautiously lifted the lid.
From within the cistern Smitty withdrew the ribbon, which was attached to a brass key. He ran his thumb over the base of the key, squinting at a design there: a red circle etched with one horizontal and one vertical line, creating quadrants.
Smitty’s first thought was to slip the key back into the tank and get the hell out of there. That would be responsible, mature. That being said, Smitty slipped the key into the pocket of his wool pea coat and quietly exited the bathroom.
On his way to the rear corridor, he spotted Gills gliding out of the darkened Harrison Room bar and caught up with him near the back dock. “Hey, man,” said Smitty, “I want to show you something.”
With a smirk Gills said, “If it’s how to be a pathetic cook you already showed me that.” Smitty produced the brass key. Perhaps waiting for some sort of punch line, Gills said, “So what?”
“Found it in the mens restroom, in the toilet tank in the back stall.”
Gills winced, angling his face away. “You say you found that thing in the toilet?”
“Not the bowl, dumbass, in the tank.”
Gills said, “Man, you know you’re not supposed to be using the members’ facilities.”
Smitty canted his head. “And you know you’re not supposed to be sneaking around the Harrison Room bar after hours.”
Gills’s expression became momentarily deadly, the aroma of rum evident at this close proximity. Eventually Gills blinked, slowly lifting his hand to inspect the key.
Eagerly, Smitty pointed out the design, the crudely scrawled quadrants cutting through the center of the red circle. He said, “You ever seen that design before?”
Gills was quiet for several long moments as he examined the key; finally he said, “Yeah I have.”
“Like down in the members-only area?” Again, Smitty had the flash of some seedy fraternal ritual—cloaks, paddles, prostitutes.
“No,” said Gills. “Down in the storage cellar.”
Smitty squinted, trying to conceive where this symbol was located. “Where?”
Initially, Gills appeared to ignore the question as he continued examining the key; he offered it back to Smitty, warily eyeing the small device. “On a doorknob.” Smitty had never noticed another door. “It’s at the back along the brick wall, behind one of the racks where they keep the old Champagne.” Gills began slipping on his knit cap ahead of the cold walk to the bus stop. “You probably wouldn’t notice it anyway. It’s been painted over to match the bricks.”
Smitty twisted the key between his fingers. “Show me.”
Gills chuckled. “No way, man. I’m clocked out and I’ve got tomorrow off. I’m going home. If you’re so interested, go find it yourself.”
Smitty stepped in front of his friend. “Come on. Go down there with me.” He brought the key up between them. “I just want to see if it works.”
Gills was still shaking his head and made an attempt to sidestep the other cook. “I told you, I’m not trying to get in trouble tonight.”
“Yeah, but after all the trouble you and me have been in around here,” said Smitty, “wouldn’t it be nice to have some dirt on this place for leverage?”
Gills had nearly made it to the back dock but paused; he turned slowly, stared at Smitty and exhaled. “Leverage,” Gills said flatly.
Smitty smirked. “Leverage.”
In the end, it was Smitty who inserted the key.
As both of the seasoned cooks had been groomed by the pirate-ship resourcefulness of the kitchen industry, the pair managed to enter the storage cellar with inconspicuous ease.
A bare, pull-chain bulb hung from the ceiling. Gills had been correct—there was a door down here painted to match the brick, partially concealed by a wooden rack. And sure enough the symbol on the key, that dark red circle sectioned into four portions by a vertical and horizontal slash, matched the worn design on the doorknob.
Smitty looked at Gills. “Well,” he whispered, “do you want to do the honors or shall I?”
Gills cocked his head. “Your idea, your show. I’m just looking inside, that’s it, then I’m gone.”
Unaware that he was holding his breath, Smitty lifted the brass key and placed it in the lock, the teeth coarsely chattering as it tumbled into place.
As the door yawned open, a curtain of cave-cool air billowed through the threshold, the cellar light falling on a set of narrow, stone-and-mortar stairs that descended into darkness.
Gills had already shuffled backward. Smitty slowed his friend’s retreat by producing a lighter. “Man, don’t tell me you’re going to turn back now.”
Gills responded by petulantly producing his own lighter. With the blade of one hand, he made a wide sweep toward the opening—the mock-gesture of a subservient doorman. “After you, sir.”
Smitty bowed his head with equal Vaudevillian exaggeration. “Much obliged.”
Both cooks were quiet for a moment before Smitty entered the corridor, the glow from their lighters dancing on the stone walls. After about thirty feet the stairs leveled off into a passageway.
“Can’t believe I’m following your dumb ass,” said Gills.
“You can turn around anytime you want.”
Gills hissed a laugh. “Man, both of us are risking our jobs. Plus now, this might be trespassing.”
Smitty said, “Actually, you’ve got more to lose than I do.”
Gills actually chuckled. “What do you mean?”
“Drop the act,” Smitty said without heat. “You know chef is considering promoting you to chef de cuisine.”
Gills was quiet for a few seconds. “Man, there’s no way I’d get promoted before you.”
Smitty frowned, still shuffling forward with the bouquet of flickering light. “Please. You know more about food than I’ll ever learn. Chef knows that.” Smitty’s lighter was getting too hot and he let his thumb off the lever.
Gills gave Smitty a hard look. “It ain’t got nothing to do with skills, man.” Silence for several moments. “Even in the kitchen.”
Smitty opened his mouth to protest but thought better of it. He now realized what Gills was talking about and clenched his teeth. Now Gills took his thumb of the lever. Darkness. Smitty said, “You know I think that’s the most crooked racket there is.”
Gills exhaled. “Don’t matter what you think. What are you—what am I—going to do about it?”
“I’ll tell you what I’d do first,” said Smitty, who was preparing to spark his lighter. “I’d march up to those bigots and—”
Gills cut him off. “Shut up, man—check it out.”
In the dark, Smitty’s vision had adjusted. A faint, amber-orange light flickered in the distance.
The young men made their way to the mouth of the passage which perpendicularly terminated at a T, and a wider tunnel with an arched ceiling stretched in two directions, to the left and the right. The light here, though dim, was produced by a guttering glow within wall-mounted sconces, a seething sound making it apparent that natural gas was fueling the shadow-shifting illumination.
Despite himself, Smitty gave an astonished laugh. “What the hell?” Both took several steps into this wider tunnel. The masonry down here was impressive—stone blocks and limestone columns; and every ten feet or so the walls gave into unlit, barrel-shaped recesses. Smitty noticed something else: On the wall next to the cellar tunnel were a set of chalk marks—a crude pair of double zeroes.
Smitty glanced at Gills. “What do you think this is?”
Gills was quiet as he looked toward the ceiling, scrutinizing the tunnel, casting his gaze to the left and to the right. “I have no idea,” he said, turning to inspect the direction from which they’d entered. “But if we just came north from the cellar, up above us is Monument Circle, or at least really close.”
Both cooks were silent as they continued studying the poorly lit space. Gills pointed left. “So that tunnel would run under Market Street east, and the other one west.”
Smitty stepped a few more paces into the tunnel and stopped, training his attention to the concrete floor. “I’ll be damned.”
Stretching out in opposite directions were a pair of slim rails, the type used for a light train cars or trolley.
To confirm this, Gills said, “I know, look up.” Above them were a corresponding collection of wires and cables. “Just like on an interurban.”
Smitty shook his head. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well,” said Gills, scratching his chin. “This all might have been a stock vault.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I see farmers coming into the city market. Maybe they use it to store food.”
“Food?” Frowning, Smitty said, “Storing food a quarter of a mile away?”
Gills cocked his head. “Man, I’m just guessing.”
And with that, both young men angled their attention in the opposite direction, toward the west. Smitty: “So what’s your guess about where that track goes?”
From behind them, a ragged cough echo-swirled through the tunnel. Both young men spun around, wide-eyed.
Smitty looked at the arch-shaped recess he’d noticed earlier and jogged toward it to seek cover.
“Man,” said Gills, “what are you doing?”
Smitty waved for Gills to join him in the shadowed space. Gills hustled over to join his friend. Inside the small alcove, Smitty saw that there was a hallway that ran parallel to the main tunnel, connecting each stone cubby hole. The metallic whine of wheels sounded on the railway.
Both young men pressed their backs against the wall as the front end of a small-scale trolley appeared on the tracks outside the alcove. The tram—painted black, the gas lights playing over its glistening exterior—was moving slowly but smoothly over the tracks; the vehicle came to a stop near the corridor that led to the Columbia Club’s cellar. A figure shifted up in the front car, as if inspecting something. Smitty thought of the weird chalk marks scrawled on the side of the wall.
Smitty’s heart was thrumming at what he thought was full capacity until he noticed the cart hitched to the rear of to the trolley—a flatbed of wooden slats. A thick blanket covered a mound of oddly-angled shapes there. Smitty counted six pairs of feet—some with worn shoes or boots, some without—poking out from under the fabric.
The black trolley began moving again, and the protruding feet, jostling slightly, gave the impression of waving goodbye on behalf of their supine owners as the black tram disappeared over the low slope on the west end of the tunnel.
Many silent minutes passed before Smitty and Gills budged or spoke. “Like I said,” whispered Smitty, licking his lips, trying to get his pulse under control. “What’s your guess about where that track goes?”
After a while Smitty shifted his attention in the opposite direction—to the east, from where the small, black tram had come from. Gills said, “You’re going to ask me to follow you that way, aren’t you?”
They headed east, staying out of the main tunnel and out of sight, remaining in the narrow aisle that connected the barrel-shaped alcoves. Eventually their momentum slowed when they came upon brighter light and coarse voices.
Crouched down behind a stack of wine crates, they could see movement in some of the spaces up ahead but the commotion was difficult to define because of the corner of a stone wall. Finally, the commotion ceased and Gills began to move forward. Smitty grabbed his friend’s coat. “Wait, man,” he whispered, “they got to be coming back.”
“I know,” said Gills, “that’s why I want to see now.”
Smitty clenched his teeth, let go of Gills’s coat, and followed him out of the alcove.
They shuffled along the wall, nearing the corner. Just then an arm sprang out near the floor, filthy fingers weakly scrabbling at the concrete and dirt.
The young men recoiled; but Gills said, “Wait.” Now Smitty saw that the hand was moving with such frailty that it was an unmistakable signal for help. They ambled forward and turned the corner.
A man, dressed in tattered, grim-smeared clothes, was lying on the floor just outside a large stone stall. Smitty was about to kneel when he noticed the other men, none of whom were moving—several figures stretched out on benches, a few slumped in the corner, all wearing the threadbare clothing of vagrants. The smell was very strong here, a mix of alcohol, sweat, and the pungent aroma of rotting produce.
Both young men knelt beside him, his eyes bobbing open and shut; his chapped lips feebly worked to form words. “Gave…us…a drink…”
“Who did?” said Gills.
“Same…guy…who told us…it was warm down here.” Smitty thought about the frigid January night, and how easy it would be to lure a desperate person in doors.
The man’s eyes closed but Gills gently clutched the guy’s shoulders. “Where did they bring you?” Gills had to shake him again to open his eyes.
The homeless man seized a final moment of consciousness and looked directly at Gills. “Tomlinson Hall…said they’d give us a warm place to sleep, something to eat. But…that ain’t where…they taking us.”
Smitty said, “Where?”
The man mumbled, “Square…22.” His head lolled and his upper body sagged in Gills’s arms. Both young men checked for a pulse. Nothing. Smitty was certain no pulse would be found on the other motionless forms either. Smitty looked at Gills, whose expression held a mixture of hopelessness and fury.
Smitty and Gills were distracted and did not notice the tall, lantern-jawed man standing on the far side of the room. Smitty was the first to register movement as the big man, holding some type of long baton, rushed forward.
“Gills!” was all Smitty could manage as the cop-shaped man, clad in an all-black jumpsuit, brought the baton down across Gills’s back, who cried out and toppled over the dead vagrant.
Smitty staggered backward and fell against the wall, the collision to mind his satchel of rolled-up kitchen knives. He unfastened the clasp and dumped the knives, grabbing one and running forward.
The tall man was yanking at Gills’s collar when Smitty swung his arm in a haymaker slash at the man; but the man’s baton came around quicker and it connected with Smitty’s temple. He reeled, colliding with one of the flickering sconces and sending it into a stack of wine crates which toppled over as he crumpled to the floor.
The tall man was shouting something now, hovering over Smitty. But just as the man raised the baton Smitty saw the flash of silver and watched Gills plunge one of the other spilled knives into the guy’s upper arm.
Howling, the man whirled on Gills who instantly threw his fist into the guy’s face. The two then tangled in a vicious struggle.
Smitty was struggling to his feet, now noticing the flames licking up within the stone stall.
Gills, who had his fists raised as he hitched in breaths, had landed enough punches that the tall man was down on one knee. Smitty ambled forward and clutched Gills’s coat. “Come on, man—”
The tall man, lit from behind by the glow of the growing fire, lurched to his feet, and in his hand was a revolver, which unsteadily attempted to train on the pair of trespassers.
Gills looked over at Smitty, giving his friend a terrible message in that glance a split-instant pulling his arm free from the cook’s grip and sprinting forward.
“Don’t!” Smitty cried out, watching Gills barrel into the tall man and hearing the peal of a gunshot. Still, Gills had rushed into the man with enough momentum that it sent both of them crashing into the fire-consumed stall. Smitty scrambled forward, seeing that his friend continued fighting with furious, churning movements. He heard another gunshot and everything—save for the spreading flames which were now creeping into the crate-lined corridor near the stairwell—became still.
The spreading flames danced on Smitty’s back as he clasped a hand to his mouth, turned and ran.
Tomlinson Hall burned beyond repair on a Thursday night in January, 1958. People who witnessed the event said that, due to the frigid night, the overrun from the fire hoses transformed Market Street into a lake of ice. They demolished what was left of the scorched structure the following summer.
The last things you need to know from Uncle Smitty’s notes: Square 22 was a small parcel of land on the westside of Indy, originally used as a “lunatic” asylum back in the nineteenth century. Later, the state purchased 160 acres three miles from the city, constructing numerous facilities that would later be called Central State Hospital, or as former patient Albert Thayer termed it, the “Indiana Crazy House.” And beneath the grounds of the bygone asylum lies a dark warren of service tunnels which spans five miles.
Though my uncle Smitty survived the night, he never returned to work and disappeared a few weeks later. According to my father, my uncle was last seen boarding a bus bound for the west side of the city. I like to believe he confronted those involved—on the medical side, at least—in that perverse practice of body snatching.
I’m going out there later today, to the west side, to the Medical History Museum. I don’t ask questions on the tours, I just examine the specimens and wonder if one of them is my uncle. Sure, they say the brains in those whiskey-tinted jars are corporeal gifts—contributions to science; but I think about the things my uncle recorded and remain skeptical.
And I’ll let you speculate about the cellar in the Columbia Club, and of any culinary quid pro quo that may have occurred in those sordid spaces beneath Tomlinson Hall. Like Gills said, people will eat anything if you tell them it’s a delicacy.
Clint Smith is an honors graduate of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, Le Cordon Bleu. His fiction collection, Ghouljaw and Other Stories, is due to be released by Hippocampus Press in 2014. Read more on Twitter @clintsmithtales and clintsmithfiction.com.