Al walked down McConnell Road in the direction of I-85, as had recently become his morning ritual. He walked along the fence of the Lipton farm and extended his palm for the curious muzzles of the Liptons’ sheep and donkeys which would meet him there. Al would sometimes dwell a while here, whenever there was no chance of meeting a farmer. This morning he did not stop, however. He continued his walk down to the on-ramp. He stepped deliberately through the muddy tracks left behind by successions of big rigs making illegal u-turns or otherwise resting on the empty exit. As he did so he looked down the ramp. It was I-40 West, and I-85 South— westward. That way the traffic flowed toward “Death Valley”, the “Bermuda Triangle” of Greensboro, the place where I-85, I-40, US 29, US 70, US 220, Business 85, and the road to Damascus all split, coincided, intersected, paralleled, rejoined, split again, crossed three lanes in a quarter mile to make an incorrect left exit, eventually got back on in the right direction, and then gave up and decided to stop for lunch in Winston or Charlotte instead.
Al reached the shoulder of the highway and continued walking through clover and grass, past swaying maples and pines, past a barrier, about twenty feet beyond where the on-ramp merged. There he stood, toes on the rumble strip, perpendicular to the road with his view fixed straight across. The vehicles roaring past his line of vision danced and stroked his retinas like an affectionate hand. Here he came to stand and to reflect on the reasons, if there were any, not to walk straight into the traffic. Months ago his ex-wife Agnieszka would have stopped him, he presumed. No one would stop him, now. No one else was a sufficient reason for Al to not walk into traffic. So now the decision was to be left up to him alone, being perhaps the least capable person to have ever had to make such a decision on the continuation or termination of the life of Al. Would she be sorry? Would she be sorry that he didn’t do it earlier, once he was torn apart and spread like roadkill? Al looked at the familiar Coca-Cola warehouse across the highway. He remembered the words spoken by an old white Woolworth’s customer to the Greensboro Four: “I’m disappointed in you… disappointed that it’s taken you so long.” Where was Al’s old woman to congratulate him everytime he didn’t walk into traffic? What great achievement is that, anyway? Not to give in to dejection? It is a great achievement to have the wherewithal to consider yourself worthy to live in certain circumstances, but isn’t it less an achievement than a condition that allows you to live? He wondered briefly if any of the passersby suspected that he may walk into them any second, and then he turned and headed back up the on-ramp.
He walked back to his old gray Toyota Corolla and headed west on McConnell, into town. He passed Buffalo Creek. He passed a plantation home on a hill which served as a leasing office for the mobile home park hiding behind it. He passed North Carolina A&T farmland, with its pristine white fencing. He passed a chicken factory farm, possibly a Perdue affiliate, preparing to have its chickens trucked west to be slapped against the walls with good old-fashioned Carolina gusto— the gander-pullings of old Wilkesboro revived as professional blue-collar sport. He passed Mt. Olivet AME Zion Church, where boxes of canned foods sat open on the curb for any and all takers. He thought of the words of Iago from Othello: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak a word.” That was Agnieszka’s finale, as well. No explanation, no reason, no blame, no shame. Just evil, as it appeared. “What you know, you know”.
Al pulled over in front of an empty lot housing one historical marker. It was where in 1979, with tacit police approval, Klansmen shot down a group of Maoists at a “Death to the Klan” demonstration. “The Greensboro Massacre”. The Klansmen were subsequently all acquitted by a white jury. Al got out and stared at a red quilt in his backseat for a moment. He then briskly walked up to the marker with his hands shoved in his jacket pockets. He thought about the practical applications of a person in his state; a person able to just die. He could be like a faithless, secular Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish friar who took another prisoner’s place in Auschwitz. If only he was now face-to-face with some heinous massacre to jump into. He remembered when he and Agnieszka visited Oświęcim. He stood in Birkenau between the Personal Effects Depot, “Canada”, and the uncompleted Lager BIII, “Mexico”. He stood among the pine and birch trees, the forest of death, to which the ‘unfit’ were first marched straight from the cattle cars. He looked right to “Canada”, and left to “Mexico”. He looked out on the rest of the camp. Maybe that’s all America, and maybe this stand of sleepy trees on the way to the gas chamber is the South. “Poland is Mexico,” Agnieszka had said, “You know that is why we have more Polish babies in the UK now than here in Poland. You know we are Europe’s Mexico. You know, those stupid Poles with primitive Communist minds, who don’t understand which side of a fence an apple tree is on…”. Al had shrugged, “Sure, sure, Poland, that poor Christ, that fallen vanquisher of the Ottomans, that medieval paragon of religious toleration. Well, I’m sure you got European white trash, too, that know their fence sides but just don’t give a—” He had stopped, struck by the strangeness of the conversation being held early in the morning by two living people in Birkenau’s death forest. “It reminds me of findin slave bones,” Al had said, “My brother and I did, back in Georgia, around Brunswick. Just a slave cemetery, forgotten, neglected. Still is.”
That was what he had always wanted Agnieszka to know. He was loving her because he could see himself in her predicament. The reviled collaborator, the reviled Confederate. The forsaken resistor gasping for life as the Red Army watched, the Unionist ancestor forgotten the moment you name your home state or display an accent. The trees of Katyn, the trees of Birkenau. Black bodies hanging from such trees, burned alive and mutilated, flesh sliced off for souvenirs. The lampshades made of mothers’ skins. New arrivals at the train platforms smelling cooking, human meat cooking, like anyone may have in this or that little town in Alabama or Virginia during a lynching or church burning. Synagogues, entire communities, neighbors, erased overnight. Entire neighborhoods bulldozed overnight, black Alexandrias cleared out on the order of liquidation. He wanted to say he understood. He understood the Past, he understood the search for work, for shelter, for responsibility, for understanding. “They hid in the woods,” she’d explained about the villagers who did not remain to drink and smoke with her grandmother, “They hid in the woods and made their ways toward Białowieża Forest, to join the resistance.” As she spoke she had evoked both the pines of Białystok and the Great Dismal Swamp, refuge of the fugitive slave. “What do you understand?” she had asked. “I just wanted to say that I understand this,” he had answered, “this growing up around ghosts, around horrors, around a vacuum of loss, around an ambiguity of guilt, around an unequal legacy of inequality.”
“I don’t know that I understand,” Agnieszka had said, “It is just what I know, I do not say I understand.” There was an old photo in her attic in Białystok of a youthful looking woman in the Polish resistance. She wore a uniform resembling that of the Home Army, with her white eagle on her cap, which rested cockeyed on her wavy locks. Goggles dangled around her neck, and she smiled sweetly. Childishly, perhaps about to march off to kill Nazis with a spring in her step like Saint Stephen singing in the stones. The kind of woman to die beside. She had an uncanny resemblance to Agnieszka. “She looks like you!” Al had said. “You’re right, she does!” Agnieszka had taken the old photo of the mystery soldier. “She is me,” Agnieszka had said softly, sitting cross-legged between the rafters of the old attic and smiling proudly. Then there was simply no more mystery to the thing for her. She gave the photo back to Al, and he put it in his pocket. The photo was actually of a woman named Janina Forbertówna, and now Al was no longer going to die beside Agnieszka.
All held up the photo of Janina on McConnell Road. He dug a hole in the dirt with his foot in front of the historical marker and dropped the photo in. He kicked the dirt back over it, shrugged, and thought to himself, ‘who knows, maybe one a y’all could make use a it’. Then he returned to his car. He opened the back door and pulled away the top fold of the red quilt, looking at his Winchester Model 94 and Iver Johnson shotgun. He looked at them for a moment, flipped the quilt back over them, and then got in and continued driving to Bold Moon.
Now was the time to remember how he had found them. The spot where he found Agnieszka. At the end of the trail. The clearing on the banks just off the trail, just off the wagon road, bordered by oak roots. Al had come home from work and went to Bold Moon for a walk. Agnieszka’s car was strangely parked there. He never saw another vehicle parked there. Never. She wasn’t at work? All along the trail, ‘I will see Agnieszka, and begin our evening a lil early!’ Past the loving trees. Did his heart sink? Did he intuit something? At the end of the trail. Voices. Hers. A man. Together on a blanket. The blanket from the couch at home. On the clearing on the banks bordered by oak roots. She wore a dress, not work clothes. She wore no ring. Somehow the transition from before to after happened as a continuous sequence, not as a complete stop and new beginning. Somehow it was a thing he had been alive all the way through. But now he wasn’t going to die beside Agnieszka. Now he wasn’t going to give any children of his lessons following the footsteps of Tadeusz Kościuszko through the forests of the Piedmont. Now he was in a death forest himself. There were denials, there were denials. There was an uncouth word from the stranger, there was his face two inches from Al’s. There was Al’s bowie knife, right there in his pocket. Ready. Clean. Slit his throat open. Make it nice an jiggly. See that little skin flap neck open, find yer words don’t make it out the mouth no more, but blow blood bubbles out yer new sloppy tracheotomy you bastard an take one in the stomach, too. Open him wide up. If he’s got somethin ta say open him wide up an we’ll jus let it slide right on out. Stab him through the gut an scrape it hollow til the tip breaks off inta dry chiseled spine, an make a pipe outta that. “Go on, I dare you,” the stranger spoke, the stranger who would have never died beside her, who would never have gone through attic photos in Białystok, who would have never made all the phonecalls, who would have never filled out all the forms, who would have never cooked meals for her family, who would have never written her resumes, who would have never signed for her car, who would have never fought for her, who would have never prayed late at night for another immigration letter, who would have never given up his own country if that next immigration letter never came… that stranger who would never have been her husband. Al looked at the stranger. Then he just didn’t care anymore, and he turned and walked away.
Al’s was the only car at Bold Moon, as usual. He took the Iver Johnson out of the car with a box of shells. He stepped quickly and methodically down the trail toward Reedy Fork. The loving trees looked like two opposing armies strangling each other. He would have chopped them down just then if he could. He marched on. He marched on like a demon trumpeting through a procession of trees, like an evil restrained only by its quickening approach. He marched toward the water with his shotgun like an old farmer come to put down the fox in the henhouse for the last time. Because it didn’t matter anymore who was what and with which past. Nobody was anything but individual actions, individual, groping, desiring, self-destroying actions. He had wasted years patiently for her to hold his hand again, to just hold his actual hand, never for once suspecting that she would be out there, foolin around. They had hid in the woods together, and now she hid in the woods with a stranger— from him! How else could this thing end? ‘Here!’ he thought, reaching the clearing bordered by oak roots. He plopped down on the ground, resting his arms on his knees and staring into the running water. He opened the box of shells and loaded the gun. ‘I understood more than that,’ he thought, ‘I understood the guns. Even more than you ever did, I understood the guns. An you were never made to die shootin, you coward. You were made to die in the village with an opportunity fer the next invader.’
Al rested his forehead against the barrel of his upturned, skyward pointing shotgun and began to cry.
“Do you know who I am?” asked the voice beside him.
“I imagine you are a figment of my imagination, a hallucination brought about by my diminished mental state,” replied Al.
“Do you know who I am?” asked the voice.
Without looking Al answered, “You’re Tadeusz Kościuszko, and you’re here to talk me out of blowing my brains out with this gun. Like you tried unsuccessfully to talk Thomas Jefferson into freeing his slaves. Sure, why not? Go ahead, Tadek, be my spirit guide. It was my choice, anyways.”
“Of course it was,” replied Kościuszko.