Red Tides (part 4)

They stood inside the small museum and discussed the Boot Monument at Saratoga, the nameless memorial to Benedict Arnold’s one untreacherous foot. Like Santa Anna’s one heroic leg. Robert figured that he himself had some appendage for this museum, but didn’t much want to give it his name. Mr. Brundick shook Robert’s hand limply, extending his horizontally in a manner which Robert imagined would have put off grandfather Pellicer for all get out. This “cracker” had the expectation of an elder’s handshake, not so eager to prove his physical worth and assuming of older customs to a fault — Robert knew nothing of such handshakes until that day. 50 year old Mr. Devalt is a “good ol south Georgia boy,” Mr. Brundick explains. He has a sharper critical mind, but one which likely exasperates Mr. Brundick.

“Do y’all believe that Southern history is losing its importance to people today?” Robert asked. Mr. Brundick, of no poor hearing, asked for clarification. “Are people losing their interest in their Southern heritage?” Mr. Devalt clarifies. Mr. Brundick’s big blue eyes looked at Robert out of a well of sorrow, and from the gravel down around that well’s bottom he tells himself and the others, “Yes, and at a frightful pace.”

Robert looked around for the man named Old Bull, and saw him buried under a straw hat at the end of the counter, just under the kitchen window. “You want Old Bull, do you?” asked Billy, chuckling. “Hey Gen’ral! A-TEN-SHUN!” he hollered. The man in the straw hat looked up. He looked to be about eighty years old, small and frail with a little paunch protruding from an open Confederate jacket. He sat before a plate of cleaned ribs and a large glass of sweet tea, half empty. His eyes seemed to be closed as he slowly turned in his seat to face the voice who called for him, and once his head had fully turned he slammed one fist on the counter and boomed, “Beauregard! General Beauregard!”

The waitress smiled again, “That’s Old Bull, he’s crazy as the dickens, but he’s better to talk to than these rednecks here. Besides, you seem like you got half a brain…,” she spoke softly, “don’t let Billy scare you, he ain’t never left Cross City cause he ain’t got the brains for it, he’s just one a them people you see hanging over the swamps like a bunch a moss, but ain’t never gonna get his toes wet,” she smiled sweetly. Robert walked over to Old Bull where one of Billy’s companions pulled out a stool for him. “Beauregard? You’re a general?” he asked.

“Naw, son, I just do the reenactments at Olustee once a year,” said Old Bull, “If you’re from out a town we can use more Yankees come February, Lord knows everyone this side a the S’wannee wants to play one a Finegan’s men.”

“So she says to ask you about… about Dixie?” Robert asked. “Well, this here is Dixie County, and on account of there not bein no Yankees nowhere near here when Price and Sherman was raidin and stormin down to the rest a the gulf and puttin em on high alert, all cause Gen’ral Seymour never set foot past Olustee and made the entire Union give up their Florida ambition.” Robert looked around at the rest of the restaurant as Old Bull spoke, and for the first time since he came in. He saw old pictures, tin signs. ‘So Price stopped at Olustee, as did time, an individual individual soul, a petrified hope, the relation of your effect to their cause, reason like the scorching sun under which nothing can hide, history like the Old Bull at the end of a county road. Every pioneer of Western civilization is right here, this his sense of the passage of time below this bridge, this his deification of the South and this that ceaseless activity which feeds upon itself. Everyone has come to this land except as a friend, a consul, a homesteader of expert comprehension. The land has resisted. And the sky now takes it back.’

“That’s right, Gen’ral!” said Billy. His companions laughed loudly.

“Oh Billy,” wailed his second in command, “you tell em, brother!”

It started raining hard again outside. “Well, it looks like Jacksonville brought the storm with him!” said the second in command, “I hope you boarded up your windows back home ‘fore you left.” “No, I didn’t,” said Robert. He didn’t tell anyone, he left. He left like there was nothing to say, like he knew the time which had come. He left like a ‘possum out of her hollow, not out of fear exactly but out of cold reaction to smell. It smelt like moist dirt, not like winter or wetlands.

He felt the eyes of Billy’s company slowly leave him and return to their coffees. “You know the real irony,” Old Bull spoke, as though picking up where he laid off, “is that Yankeetown cross the river from here. That was where someone from Illi-noise done moved, and folks just kind a took to callin it that. But over there is Levy County, and a fine story that one is. Levy was a Confederate as surely as Finegan’s men, you know, but his daddy come here from Africa as a Jew – a white man, mind you, and a Hebrew. Aimed at startin a plantation somewhere ’round Gainesville. Anyways, so far’s his son Levy’s concerned it’s as good a name as Dixie, cause that man Levy knew come time he’d ought a leave Washington for Florida and let the Lord find him wherever he could find two mens to whom he belonged as neighbor.”

“So God called him back?” asked Robert. There was silence in the restaurant. Robert could hear the rain outside and for the first time the soft rumors of a radio somewhere. The waitress came over and put her hands on the edge of the counter. “You want more coffee, or something to eat?” Old Bull put his hand on her wrist. “Let him alone, Alisha. He just thinks we’re superstitious out here, talkin bout the Good Word like his folks talk bout crime or whatever.”

“I’m sorry,” said Robert, “I didn’t mean it in a bad way. It just seems like there wouldn’t be much difference, being called from Africa or Washington. I really don’t think y’all are superstitious or anything –– ”

“Super-stit-chiss?” hollered Billy to his friends, “what’re them boys talkin bout over there?”

Laughter.

“Marchin orders, sir?”

Laughter.

“What I mean is, honestly,” continued Robert, first checking that Billy was occupied again with his troop, “what I mean is that y’all don’t seem superstitious to me, in fact. To me you all seem… too rational. What little I’ve heard since I’ve been here, but also all I know about…. I mean, all I know about where we’re from… I’d say it isn’t what we don’t know, but what we do. Everything makes too much sense: this is Dixie because Seymour never passed Olustee, Israel is in Flor’da because some boat was going there one day, I reckon. And those steel pipe crosses I saw coming into town are right where they should be because someone who was right put them – right there. So long as Seymour lost at Olustee, it ought to have happened. But if he won, it’d just be one very senseless thing in this otherwise very sensible town, I guess. Just like, what, the senseless people in Ocala?

“I mean no disrespect, I’m just trying to get my sense of things myself, because this hurricane makes no sense at all, and all I know is that in a hurricane you had better have something in order, or else be ready to join the debris.” Robert finished.

“And I reckon you made some sense just now,” said Old Bull. “You know, I’m a kind a historian, as you may a guessed,” the general spoke, “and when you lookit history, either the War or whenever, you know you find those moments when awl your explainin just dries up, and somethin just up and happens that don’t make a lick a sense. That’s what makes a good story, really. But who’s to say it ain’t the Devil messin round, cause they used to say, for instance, that awl these hurricanes came on account a the Devil who made him a deal with God. You can’t tell me they’re the work a the Lord, these hurricanes.”

“No sir, I can’t,” said Robert, standing from his seat, “I can’t, and I won’t, say either way for sure. Because right now I’m waiting for something senseless to come over those pines out back and all you’re saying sounds like Greek to me. I wouldn’t want to say for sure, I just want to hope I make it. I can’t do anything with a hope that never changes because it drew the short straw once, I need a hope that hopes for the other side of that door and hopes again for somewhere else. Hope that drives and not hope that fights that same old Olustee battle over again every year.” He dropped his money beside his coffee cup, “Again, no offense, gen’ral. I just wouldn’t bedevil the hurricane to spite the Devil. After all, he’s been mighty kind to you, letting you win that battle at his expense.”

With that Robert walked out, got in his car, and sped off. The first sign he found pointed him home: “Deadman’s Bay”.

These memories crossed Camilla’s mind as she lingered around the fence of the playground during recess, anticipating the music class, but uneasy about her new classmates. The class was taught by Mr. Strickland, a thin, pale man with a narrow, spectacled face and slick black hair meticulously parted on the side and combed flat. When Camilla got into the music room she saw a bunch of small guitars against the wall, and one boy shouted loudly, “When do we get to use those?” Camilla wanted to ask, as well. “You don’t get to use those,” answered Mr. Strickland flatly, “They cost a lot of money. Leave them alone and sit down on a number written on the blue tape on the ground.” Mr. Strickland pointed to the floor and the lines of blue tape that formed rows through the class parallel with the chalkboard. This was an unusual procedure, and the students then sensed the coming storm of pedagogical strictness like animals who smelling a hurricane coming from miles off at sea.

They all sat down, uneasy and not knowing exactly what to expect. “Now, who knows what harmony is?” asked Mr. Strickland. The boy who asked about the guitars raised his hand. “Yes?” Mr. Strickland called. “It’s when everybody lives together in peace!” answered the boy. Mr. Strickland looked at him blankly through his glasses. A moment passed, in which the boy may have become embarrassed but instead became scared. “Who knows what harmony is?” Mr. Strickland repeated, eventually. The class continued like this, agonizingly, before Mr. Strickland passed out a sheet of paper and told his students that they were going to sing a song called “Goober Peas”.

Camilla was excited to learn a new song, but after they started singing Mr. Strickland stopped them and told them they sang it wrong. He continued to ask them to sing “Goober Peas” before stopping them again, telling them that once more they had sang it incorrectly. He told the students to listen, and he sang the first two lines of words. This did no good, as the children were stopped once more in the middle of the most faithful repetition of his example possible. Mr. Strickland was becoming upset, and began yelling, “No, no no!” Camilla had never heard a teacher yell like that before, and it looked like none of the other students had, either.

By the time the bell rang for the students to leave for the buses Mr. Strickland was exhausted and sweating. Camilla was disappointed and scared, and dreaded seeing Mr. Strickland again after recess the next day. After recess the next day, Camilla was found hiding behind a dumpster outside of the school cafeteria, talking to a record sleeve. The school called her parents. ‘For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor.’

“So why don’t you go? Anywhere?”

He paused, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. When he opened his eyes again he turned his head out to the water and saw a few birds fluttering overhead. The railroad bridge downtown, corroding iron. A city lacking the lack of industry. A city which is the knowledge of a grave on the Northside and a mall in Arlington which no in-town experience could tell you is desolate and small. He thought of his stories. His lived stories. “Ok. Here it is,” he began.

“You shatter all intermediary offerings and for one restless professionlike that of faithor protestation, your labor has unassailable import to the worldif not (yet?) in it. They call this communion, and I cannot bring you it here – but can confess it. That alterity is teeming and stolid, and so far removed from all wont of personability. Keep your accounts there, count as good the good ‘til death with faith in that end to justify itself.

“Stories? But there are no stories to live… The best in life begins as a story. But then, you are utterly accountable to the alterity. That alterity is Life, is God, is whatever. Your story? It may be thought of as such, as a story, in moments of intense retrospection. In moments of your keeping account of it all… But keep account with God, do not keep account with some multitude! I would even hesitate about keeping account with an individual, unless you keep the same account together. You lack a story? Well, your freedom ails you! The freedom of privilege, the privilege of freedom. The privilege to feel detached. No, Camilla. And No to myself in my own times of floundering, and No to those towns out by Lake City… No! Your sentiments of terrible freedom are not terrible, nor indicative of freedom. Your charitable love is extinguished in their mundane captivity. That freedom is no liberation. That is the freedom of keeping your accounts with this damn city. The result is that your life is only, pathetically, a story whenever you feel that it is terribly storyless!

“You cannot have presence in this life if you do not suspend the matter of intention. Your love, your charity, must be relegated to times of satisfying unanswerable guilt. We do not want your beauty, your love, your charity. We want the only story which never was and never will be anything but our own, all of ours, and always – and therefore hardly any kind of story at all.”

Camilla looked at the sky getting darker, and thought about how they’d be getting home or evacuating the coast, and how he could think of never returning there again, and what she might think over time of his grand conclusion. “What do we want?”

“Continual liberation. Communion. Honest desperation, borne out of earnest longing. We want – we all want to and we all must – to be Holy.”

“Well I don’t believe in God, Robert.”

“You don’t have to. It would seem as though you are being believed in at present by God.”

“By whom?”

“No more stories.”

The sky continued to darken over San Marco across the river. The square there would have some people in it later, and some of them might have met one another for the first time. They might have been visitors eager to leave, they might have been residents. They might have moved for CSX, Aetna or Prudential, or they might have been named for Lee or Forrest. All that would have been consistent with the hundreds of years and the flow of the river… north, out to sea, draining everything. Two people might have met, however. They might have had something to say. They might not have. But by the end of it all, and each being missed by another to varying degrees, they all went on, out to the teeming and stolid sea.

⛬END⛬

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