By Priscilla Long
This story appeared in Passages North (Winter/Spring 2004).
Gregory Mattson struggled up from his typewriter. Sweat trickled down his lard-pale belly and darkened the elastic of his boxer shorts. Sumter yowled and rolled on the floor and scratched fleas. In the next room, a television newscaster moaned on about the heat, for it was the hottest September in memory. Gregory tore the sheet out of the typewriter carriage, crushed it in his fist, and tossed it on the floor. Crumpled pages lay scattered across the cramped little room. Lesson plans on the Civil War, now three weeks overdue. Charles Humphrey, newly appointed Headmaster of the Latona Private School for Boys, required this demeaning obeisance of all returning instructors, no matter how seasoned. Besides failed lesson plans, Gregory’s bedroom with its meager desk and narrow bed served as repository for an old pizza box, the reeking cat pan, dirty socks, dirty tee-shirts, tennis shoes, khaki trousers heaped on the floor, and pages of the novel, some marked up, others crumbled, others arranged in some precise but forgotten order under the bed.
Gregory shuffled into the hallway through file folders, piles of junk mail and bills, and boxes of research notes written on index cards in his own tiny hand. He went into the stifling kitchen. He hunted for a clean glass, gave up, rinsed a dirty glass, ran tap water into it, and poured the water over his head. The telephone rang. Gregory counted twenty rings. He did not wish to speak to his mother. He let the jangling telephone mix with the drone of the television man advising to take a cold shower, to go to bed without drying off, to keep still, to drink water. Gregory walked into the living room and stopped. There was a man sitting on the Davenport. He was dressed in rags and had a matted red beard.
Gregory was running a fever. He had not slept for three days. The heat was so extreme, so insufferable, that he was not really surprised to find this figment of his imagination sitting on the frayed Davenport. In this heat, nothing would have surprised him. A unicorn fast asleep on the living room rug would not have surprised him. An elf or a cupid would not have surprised him. Even if the unbearable Mr. Humphrey shaking his fat finger had materialized in Gregory’s living room, this would not have surprised him. Gregory returned to the kitchen, hunted among the crusted plates and cups for another glass, filled it with tapwater, and poured it over his balding head. Then he returned to the living room.
The man’s eyes stared out of dark sockets. He sat with his hands folded, his long fingers thin as bone. He sat motionless as death in a blue double-breasted coat with bent metal buttons, torn trousers, stocking feet. His beard was the color of dried blood, his mouth was shut to a thin line. Gregory knew the Civil War uniform and he knew the face. This was a Federal. Very like William, the hero of the novel lying unfinished under the bed. Confederates at Gettysburg had scavenged William’s boots. The soldier gave off an odor of grass and blood. He did not move or speak. Gregory wiped the sweat off his own face with the back of his hand. The telephone stopped ringing. Gregory noticed William eyeing the television commentator.
Gregory decided to offer the man a glass of water. He shuffled back through the heat into the kitchen, ran the spigot, actually washed a glass with hot water and dish detergent, rinsed the glass, and filled it with tapwater. Shuffling back to the living room, he decided that if the apparition were gone, he would merely drink the water himself and put the episode out of his mind. Moreover he was not returning to the Latona Private School for Boys as Master of American Civilization. Fuck it! He was at the end of his rope. The apparition was still there. Gregory stood before it and held out the glass of water. William stared at him out of watery blue eyes. With a start, Gregory recognized the scar in the bushy, rust-colored right eyebrow. He didn’t know what to think. If it really was William Kehot, what was he doing here? And if it wasn’t William, who was it?
It came to him that if the man was simply an apparition, which any agitated, overwrought person might find in his living quarters during such a heatwave, then he would be invisible to others. Gregory called his mother and asked her to please come over. Within ten minutes, Gloria Mattson was at the door. Gregory let her in. She had covered her large form in a bright purple dress. Dark purple sweat circles had formed under each armpit. Her hair was wound up under a scarf and she carried a broom, a mop, a dustpan, and a bucketful of cleaning supplies, along with her straw pocketbook. She entered the living room and shrieked, “Who is that?”
Gregory felt a stab of relief that his mother could see the exhausted soldier. In his worst case scenario, he got dementia and had to go home and play Canasta with his mother for the rest of his days. He had nothing against Canasta, but in his better moments he had imagined a more exotic future.
“Ma, this is the hero of my novel. His name is William Kehot.”
His mother scrutinized the soldier. She set down her cleaning equipage, and went over to look at him. She put her hands on her hips and frowned. Her round face was flushed with the heat. A brown curl stuck damply to her forehead.
“Gregory,” she said. “Don’t you ever put me in a novel.”
“Ma, you don’t understand.” He picked up a teeshirt from the living room floor, mopped his face with it and dropped it back to the floor.
She turned and looked at Gregory through squinting eyes. “Gregory, I understand a lot more than you think I do.” She turned back to look at the obviously shell-shocked soldier.
“Have you eaten?” she demanded of William.
“I haven’t fed him much,” Gregory said.
The man raised his hand slightly and then let it drop to his lap as if fatigue had gotten the better of him. He kept eyeing the television set on which now a Marlboro cowboy was galloping into the dust.
“I should feed him more,” said Gregory. He turned off the television, pushed a stack of newspapers off the easychair and sat down across from William. Sumter leapt up onto the Davenport and began sniffing the man’s leg.
His mother threw Gregory a disparaging look.
“He hasn’t eaten anything but berries and grass for three weeks,” Gregory remembered with a frown. He studied William.
“He’s got to eat! I’ll fix him something.” She fished in her pocketbook. “Gregory, dear, could you go to the store?”
Gregory had come to the end of fighting with his mother about what he should and should not do. He went to the store. By the time he returned with blueberries, bananas, and Clark’s Bars, his mother had nearly finished cleaning the kitchen. She took the things from Gregory and quickly handed the man a candy bar. William kept turning it over in his hands, looking at it. He wouldn’t eat it. In fact they couldn’t get him to eat anything.
“Well, who is he and why won’t he eat?” Mrs. Mattson demanded.
“It’s William,” said Gregory, looking at William as he spoke.. “He’s the hero of my novel. He fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. William didn’t die but he was wounded and he wandered away. Before the war, he was just a kid. He had commenced the study of Latin.”
Gloria Mattson dismissed Gregory’s explanation with a wave of her hand. “Whoever he is, I’m calling Miriam.”
Miriam Rothstein was his mother’s best friend. As soon as Gloria told her there was a strange man sitting in Gregory’s living room looking like he’d wandered in from the dump, and the question was, should she call 911, or what should she do? Miriam came right over. She took one look at William sitting in a stupor and decided he was a person returned from a past life. Miriam believed firmly in past lives and had received the incontrovertible information that she herself had once been an Austrian princess.
Miriam Rothstein telephoned the members of her investment club to come over and see what they thought. Soon the house filled with club members, and in no time at all, the spouses arrived. The question was, was the man really alive? Had he returned from the past with some sort of message, and found himself too faint to speak? Or was he an alien in a very well done, very dirty Civil War costume, wandered in from one of the UFO’s that had been on the news? This was the firm believe of the Smiths, John and Barbara, who led groups to suspected landing sites, conducted vigils, and relayed messages to other worlds.
“He’s wearing shoddy trousers,” Gregory explained, but none of the confabulators had the slightest idea what he was talking about. No one had ever paid much attention to Gregory, and no one thought to do so now.
One of the spouses, Mark Weston III, was an attorney and he called his partners to see if there was anything to litigate. The partners arrived and the after some joking about doing women’s work, two of the husbands made cold chicken salad. Quite suddenly in the early evening the heat broke and everyone found themselves in an expansive mood, laughing and talking until they had almost forgotten Gregory and the unknown soldier lost in Gregory’s living room. Gregory shut the hubbub out of his mind, and sat in his boxer shorts opposite William.
The telephone rang. Jeanne Peabody took the call. She came into the living room in her Chino shorts and sleeveless Madras shirt, and sat on the arm of Gregory’s easychair. She took his hand and quietly told him that Mr. Humphrey, Headmaster of the Latona Private School for Boys, had relieved him of his position as Master of American Civilization. Gregory withdrew his hand and thanked her politely. He told her that he would count this as one of his all time lucky days. He told her that he had already, in his mind, quit the wage-slavery at the hand of the excruciating Charles Humphrey, and Mr. Humphrey had merely saved him the detail of telling him so.
Gregory was a Civil War buff, Gloria Mattson remembered the following Wednesday after the house had been crowded for nearly a week with astrologers, New Age seekers, psychics, tea-leaf readers, Hari Krishnas, and followers of the Maharaji. So many people were interested in this man who had returned from the Civil War to leave some sort of message before he went back into his own time (but was unable to communicate the message through exhaustion or amnesia or for some other reason), that it might be very educational to set up a Civil War museum. That would give Gregory something to do. Come to think of it, at one time he had claimed to be writing some sort of novel about the Civil War. They would charge admission, perhaps do a little advertising at the tourist bureau.
So it came to pass that Gregory’s house became a tourist attraction. William became one of the many artifacts displayed at the museum, along with old harness, a canonball, uniforms both Federal and Confederate, canteens, revolvers, keepsake pictures, lead knuckles, a coin purse, a shaving mirror, and so forth. Indeed, many museum patrons who looked at William believed him to be a skillfully fabricated wax figure.
Gregory worried about William. He tried to get him to eat. One day he remembered Pemmican. It was one of the few foods he’d gotten around to putting in the novel. He got some beef, cut it thin, slow baked it for hours to dry it, pounded it into bits, stirred hot fat and blackberries into it, and let it cool in a bread pan. When he proffered a slice to William, the old-young man, for that is how Gregory thought of the war-weary soldier, began to eat.
Meanwhile, Ms. Gloria, as his mother had begun calling herself, blossomed. She spent her days talking to museum patrons, acting as docent, and showing them around. She also had much running around town to do, making contacts, arranging for museum publicity and distributing it. This required prodigious energy, so much so that she lost weight, became more attractive, and for the first time in 45 years, forgot to keep track of Gregory. And, she completely forgot Gregory’s father, his drunken rampages, the night he smashed every dish in the house and slammed out the door, never to return.
Ms. Gloria boned up on the Civil War by asking Gregory questions every evening before she went home for the night. Much to her surprise, her son was a walking encyclopedia on the Civil War. He told her how the boys called socks booties. He told her how some 620,000 boys had died, more casualties than in all other American wars combined, 50,000 dead at Gettysburg alone. He told her about Pemmican.
Gregory went down to the public library and checked out a book of recipes (reciepts they called them) of Civil War cuisine. He made Mullagatawny soup with veal and ham, onions, turnips, apples, flour, and curry powder. He made rabbit soup. He roasted pork and served it with applesauce. He would bring a plate of roast pork in to William and announce, “Slow deer!” A young federal had recorded in his diary how the boys would slaughter other people’s hogs and roast the pork and hoot “Slow deer!” to one another as they scarfed down the stolen pork. William munched on Gregory’s slow deer, smiling a little to himself.
Gregory became so preoccupied with the rather greasy Civil War cuisine, and spent so much time in the kitchen trying this and that dish – Johnny cakes, Sally Lunns, hot cross buns, corn pone, fried eels — that his mother decided that a museum café and restaurant would be a nice idea. Gregory turned out to be an excellent chef, and the specialty of the house was authentic Civil War cuisine. The restaurant became popular with rather heavy-set persons who did not want to hear anything more about vegetables or jogging, thank you. Geoffrey’s Indian Pudding served with homemade vanilla ice cream was so delicious that people would drive halfway across the state to have it for desert.
A certain Jacob Otis began to visit the museum. He was a tall, formerly thin man with a Buddha belly, a flushed red face, and a white beard. He was a garrulous, even-tempered Civil War collector who wore suspenders to keep his trousers suspended and who had the habit of pulling a large white handkerchief out of his back pocket and with it mopping his bald head and red face. He would reminisce to Ms. Gloria about his adventures at estate sales and flea markets, and once he made for the museum a little display on how a canon worked. A while later, he donated a musket to the museum, and then a rare small barrel with only one stave missing. It was not long before Jacob Otis seemed to be at the museum more often than not. One day, Gregory’s mother entered the kitchen where Gregory was preparing a new batch of Pemmican and told him that she and Jacob Otis planned to be married.
Jacob, as it developed, was a man of means, a first cousin to the Otis Elevator Empire. Ms. Gloria engaged a retired World War II vet to oversee the museum during its afternoon hours. Jacob settled a modest trust fund upon Gregory, whom he considered hopelessly unemployable. He and Gloria were married, and drove off in their RV for a honeymoon tour of Civil War sites and flea market opportunities.
For the first time, Gregory was really alone with William. He sat with him during long November evenings, sipping homemade Blackberry wine, barely rested sufficiently, but which Willliam enjoyed as much as Gregory did. Gregory would try to make conversation. William had very few lines to say. Gregory recognized this as a fault, and apologized. William said nothing in response to the apology.
Gregory began to leaf through the pages of his novel. One morning after he had served himself and William coffee, he sat down to the scene where William had wondered into the young widow’s kitchen garden. The girl, for she was hardly more than that, had taken in the Union soldier and fed him, supposedly, but Gregory had forgotten to specify what she had prepared for William’s breakfast. He now wrote, “The young widow set a plate of apple fritters in front of William, and then, seeing that William could not yet work his hands, she sat beside him and fork-fed him the sugared fritters.” Then Gregory went to the kitchen, fried his apple fritters in lard, returned to William with a plateful of fritters, and fork-fed them to the soldier. William ate and Gregory thought he detected a grateful look in his eye.
One winter morning, Gregory found William sitting in his preferred corner where for some reason he always went to sit when the museum was closed. Gregory lit the wax log in the fireplace, and pulled over for his own chair one of his cardboard boxes stuffed with his handwritten notes on the Civil War. He began to silently read the novel. William stared at the fire. Sumter took his usual place in the corner beside William, for soldier and cat had become fast friends. Gregory read for several hours. When he was done, he spread the sheets in ten piles, one for each chapter. He began to read out loud.
Gregory and William both smelt blood and diarrhea, heard the reports of cannonballs, breathed the hazy smoke-air, as if they were bleeding in the same corpse-clotted ditch. They passed back and forth a scavenged Confederate-issue canteen full of whiskey. Their breathing was loud and ragged. Eyes startled and stared. They heard the groans of the dying. They watched a wounded Confederate soldier roll into a cook fire, and burn up. They saw a frightened Chestnut horse rear and step on the head of a wounded Union soldier, crushing his skull.
After that, Gregory cogitated on William constantly. He finally realized that the young widow who had taken in the young soldier and nursed him back to health would fall in love with him. And William would fall in love with her. He would learn to feel again. As soon as Gregory thought this, he realized that William had no feelings. Why he had no feelings, Gregory did not know. Then he did know. It was like when his Dad would go on a rampage and Gregory would hide in the closet in his mother’s dresses. Gregory had no feelings either.
Gregory had resisted such a sappy ending. But looking at William slumped in the corner with his stiff shoulders and watery blue eyes and stunned look, he decided that love was the least he could do for him.
William began to improve. He would sit with his eyes shut all afternoon during museum hours but when the museum closed, he would stiffly rise and go to the bathroom, close the door, and stay for a long time. One time Gregory opened the door on him and found him staring at his own face in the mirror. Gregory went into the museum and got him a shaving mirror and a razor, and then left him alone to shave. William emerged clean-shaven, with a moustache, looking years younger.
Gregory passed his days reading to William, or listening as William began to speak, haltingly at first, and with great trembling, about all that had occurred during his fairly short lifetime. Gregory had had no idea that William, who was only 23, had married, and that his young wife had died in childbirth. He had no idea that William had joined the Union Army hoping to be shot in short order. But that one morning he’d woken up glad to be alive.
Gregory got closer and closer to the end of the novel, which now seemed almost to be writing itself. Gregory decided to invite his Civil War Book Club to meet at the museum. The clubmembers, five veterans, two from Vietnam and three from World War II, plus Gregory, began to meet every Thursday evening at the Civil War Museum. The club began and concluded each meeting by singing “Johnny I hardly knew ye.” They accepted William kindly into the club and without question, notwithstanding their complete befuddlement as to how he got there, and notwithstanding his invariable silence at Civil War Book Club meetings.
One night, Gregory handed William a glass of blackberry wine and then went to his easy chair and put up his feet and fell immediately to sleep. In his sleep he found himself trying to remember William’s face. Somehow, he’d lost it. He opened his eyes to look at William, but William was gone. All that was there was a dent in the pillow where William had leaned his tired head. Sumter was curled asleep on the Davenport, trembling the way cats do when they dream. Gregory shook his head and closed his eyes again. He held William in his mind’s eye. Then it was William and Sarah Pederson Kehot, both learning how to love all over again.