Knees buckling about to snap, torso twisted, wavy-haired head smushed in the corner, Abraham Lincoln’s long body is crammed into a too-small coffin. Three mourners stand around the box gawking at him, but the way I drew them then in the Third Grade—without knowledge of depth and perspective—the mourners look like they’re lying down around him. I meant them to be gawking at the dead president who doesn’t fit in his coffin.
The picture-drawing has never been smudged from my memory since Third Grade, and even though I don’t have it before me now, I can still see it perfectly: the cloudy, lead-fogged area where my small palm rested on Lincoln’s pencil-bearded face as I drew the rest of him, only the idea of the beard and eyes and all that exist underneath the cloud. But the drawing has recently begged more from me since I rented this costume, slipped into it carefully—treating the cotton blends like ancient skin—wore it around everywhere, and became Abraham Lincoln.
A durable image has settled stubbornly in my brain since that day in school, has existed side-by-side with the coffin: Sitting in a theater (there is no drawing of this, not by me), gangly and tall in his reserved box, legs sprawled and arms sprawled all over, hanging over everything because he hardly fit in anything, and the war is finally over (and the South lost) and he’s relaxed, despite his not fitting, his stovepipe hat is jammed over his knee, and Mary Todd’s hand nestles in his, and they’re watching the play and “Oh look Dear, I love this part,” to which he leans his war-shriveled, wavy-haired head down to his wife, and before he can say, “I’m sorry Dear, but I’m not paying any attention at all,” his face is in his lap, or part in his lap, part in his wife’s. And for a brief moment, before he can register in his mangled brain that a bullet has entered him, Lincoln is sitting upright again, trying to see where the shot came from, looking around without a face—just a Lincoln-shaped bowl of a head filled with bloody stew. Then he slumps over, and John Wilkes Booth leaps onto the stage from the box and laughs and shouts and the audience thinks it’s part of the show—the actor jumping on a stage after assassinating the President, a strange play it makes, too strange for an audience not to be an audience—and he flees in the night, leaving Old Abe sprawled, then later folded and smushed into a too-small coffin.
And now these images are especially important because, as I said, I was Lincoln (still am in a way). They must have been rattled awake on the day I turned eighteen, and then shaken free from the murky bottom of memory when I was dragged back down South from college after not even one semester to walk into Dr. Kilburn’s office complaining of migraines and walk out with cancer after Mrs. Hinshaw threw off her easy way and attacked the doctor, who, in her eyes, delivered me my death, took away her only son and scratched him good on down his dry, flaky face. Surely these images recognized the fact that things were good for me until that day, that my youngness was just about to transform into a promising manhood which included: the acceptance into a bigtime university where I studied philosophy and literature (but not history); new ideas and knowledge that promised an infinite amount of learning, and at that time, I had forever; and a fiancée named Jenny who worked on her daddy’s farm and drove a skyblue Ford pickup while her huge mass of frizzy yellowwhite hair poured out the open window—surely the images recognized this which propelled them to the surface with the intent of providing rations of explanation for me. Once they reached just below the surface, they waited while I found it impossible to live at home with Professor and Mrs. Hinshaw because of the way they, and Jenny too, reacted to my dying, and me not knowing how to die properly for them, pretending that I wasn’t dying, pretending I wasn’t aware that everyone else was pretending I wasn’t dying—all of which made me leave the Hinshaws and move into my dead Grandma’s house down the road; and once there, the images were waiting for me to be alone and wonder what to do with the short time I had left, wondering if I had to act like an old man waiting to die, if a young baby of a man had to grow a fast beard white hinting silver and act wise, pretending that he’d lived a long full life, wondering how to be young and old at the same time; the images waited for me to find this fate somehow funny, somehow absurd, definitely unfair that I was being smushed into my coffin far too early (surely I wouldn’t fit, they don’t make them that young, do they? Even Lincoln at however old he was, didn’t fit, he was too long with life). They waited for me, the images—Lincoln’s untimely assassination, his murder making everyone think it was a play, his too-small coffin—they remained there in my cancerous brain for a purpose, to define the moment when I would become Abraham Lincoln.
After I moved out, I walked down Eli Pass to the costume shop two blocks away on Main Street—almost everything in Victory, North Carolina was two blocks away from everything else except for the distant farmland, and what we couldn’t find in Victory we could find in Thomasville or Highpoint only ten miles east—and I rented the costume from Mr. Bailey, the only man in Victory who didn’t know I was dying because he’s a Yankee and no one in Victory talks to Yankees—not openly anyway, probably because (as Professor Hinshaw taught me) Yankees went sticking their noses in our business and we Southerners didn’t like it so we seceded and the Yanks wouldn’t let us do that so there was a war and the Yanks with all their money beat us and now, here’s Mr. Bailey coming down from the North to open up a costume shop in the South and the town doesn’t like it none, Professor Hinshaw said, and who can blame them, Professor Hinshaw asked, but didn’t ask me, though I was the only one there. So I rented the Lincoln costume from Mr. Bailey and he looked at me funny and said he never thought he’d rent this out down here and asked me what I was going to do with it and I said wear it and he looked at me for a while, then said fifty bucks and as he handed the costume over to me he said it was due back at the end of the month.
And then I became Lincoln for a brief time, and then I’ll die (but not yet—soon, but not yet).
At dead Grandma Hinshaw’s house on Eli Pass I had privacy, and spent one whole day just being Lincoln, wearing the big long coat and floppy bowtie, stovepipe hat and glued-on beard—just existing as the man existed in the leadfog of my memory—sitting at Grandma’s small writing desk (Grandpa so dead there was no masculine furniture in the house), stacking old grammar books, falling-apart Bibles, timebroken dictionaries high around me (simulating a scholarly setting like Professor Hinshaw in this study with his books, and this one big fat book), bristly chin balanced on my fist, assuming a Lincolnesque pose, trying to feel how he felt, pretending those clothes were his clothes, and in the lining of the fabric was his actual skin with his real nerves which attached to mine, new redthreaded nerves entwining with old dusty ones. In my desperate hopes, among the diminishing handful of them, there was one that bubbled up haphazardly from the thick tar (the primordial soup of the brain, from where everything comes—not to be confused with the carcinogenic tar that was born from the tarsoup Lord knows when) and settled itself precariously on the surface; it was a hope—like I said, a desperate, haphazard hope, arising at a frantic moment just before telling Professor Hinshaw and not Mrs. Hinshaw that I was leaving the House, going down the road to Grandma’s to die—that simply dressing as Lincoln would solve everything. By existing in his clothes, in his skin, his nerves, by sitting before old books in a chin-to-fist pose, by muttering the few words I knew of the Gettysburg Address (Four score and seven years ago, our fore fathers, in order to form a more perfect Union—), and then by writing Lincolnletters with a shaky hand, by assuming the only identity left for me to connect with, the only identity truly symbolic of my plight, I thought my premature death might magically burst with meaning. I didn’t know how the other young and dying did it (are there others besides me?); what roles did they take up, Washington, Santa Claus, Spiderman? And when I was writing the Lincolnletter to his (my) sister in that shaky penmanship (Dearest Sister, the War is almost over and I gave an address today at Gettysburg and I’m going to the theatre tomorrow but I think I’d rather chop down some trees…), I felt the pain—a sharp pain running from the right side of my skull to my shoulder, like a cord of electricity that bolted up and down each time I breathed, which sent a memory quick and steady into me and when it came to being as a memory, I don’t recall ever having forgotten it, like it was always there and I always remembered it being there so maybe the lightning pain was a jolt to surface the memory. But after that moment of pain, my mind could only focus on this memory, which was a new Lincoln image, and I let it play itself out:
Lincoln in the forest, in a smoky forest, barefoot and barearmed, barechinned—no beard—a pool of smokefog sliming his feet and legs as he whacks at oaks with his rugged ax, felling them left and right, and the rhythm he keeps with his whacking is hypnotic and relentless because he never slows, never quickens, only swings with his ax in the forest continuously.
I could practically feel the cold sweat of the fog on my legs as it slithered by me—the memory, the image hauntingly real, cold and wet with realness. I came to a conclusion then, a thought that inspired action (in the strange way that the physical obeys the ethereal), that the origin of this vision was a picture, and there seemed to be a kind of commentary made on it—like something read, and not just read to me, but to many, and almost condescendingly, or at least to impressionable, undeveloped minds, and so finally—as I sat at Grandma Hinshaw’s small, feminine writing desk—I realized that the image I had of Lincoln came from a picture book that was read to me and my Third Grade class (the last grade of public school before my homeschooling began). I realized the other two images I had of Lincoln also came from this book—one single book that Miss Westmoreland read to me and my class. At that point, my muscles flexed—they wanted the book, I wanted the book, the old dusty Lincoln nerves attached to mine wanted the thoughts that would inflate the clothes, the skin, the nerves and make physical Lincoln-flesh and bones, inflate my bony death with fleshy meaning; I wanted the book because there might be more there, more that I could identify with, or just add more details to the former pictures (now a powerful triad of images) that would inspire the kind of wisdom that the older, more silvery whitebearded men have to accompany their death.
Professor Hinshaw had an entire library of Civil War books (he calls it the War for Southern Independence), all of which were shelved in exquisite Southern Academia fashion in this dark mahogany study at the end of the hall. He spent most of his life in here, the inside of which I’ve seen only three times (not counting now—sitting in here writing). Once was an accident when I was seven, when I was exposed to a haunted room where ghosts were summoned by an obsession with the past: ancient books layered the walls, save for where teatanned maps of battles and a magnificent oil of Jefferson Davis hung in great glory. Two battle scarred flags—the Confederate’s and the Union’s (the latter being more damaged)—silent like skeletons of soldiers on each side of the desk. The huge desk was a pool of milky brown wood, with an antique lamp that fuzzied the study with softorange, scattered papers strewn about and this book opened (I should probably capitalize “book”)—this Book opened, over which Mrs. Hinshaw, disrupting the room’s ghosts, was bent and Professor Hinshaw was in midthrust (he shrieked at me, his mustache was drenched, his otherwise elegant lionmaned hair darkened by sweat, matted against his shoulders and chest, and Mrs. Hinshaw looked up at me, her thick brown hair was twisted atop her head in a bun, except for one fat curl escaping and her brown eyes slanted at me in embarrassment, then suddenly became soft and kind as she smiled—gave me to know I wasn’t in as much trouble as sweaty Professor Hinshaw shrieked—and she pushed back into him, I remember, the tiny splash of golden cross bounced back and forth, her large breasts—like heavy water balloons—trembled and she watched me, smiling, understanding something I didn’t, but making me feel good and funny, but good, and Professor Hinshaw shrieked a second time for me to close the door), and after that I had to stop calling them Mama and Daddy. The second time was a year later, this time I purposely entered, and I met a calmer scene: Professor Hinshaw dry (not wet), quietly studying this Book, looking like a Southern general, genteel yet delicate, hair pulled back around his smooth pretty face, a perfectly groomed mustache; I showed him my picture-drawing of Abraham Lincoln—diagonal in the coffin, leadfogged face—and he glanced at it and stared at me for a long, uncomfortable, impossible moment, then nodded at my drawing and said, “That’s real nice, boy,” and told me to leave him alone, and called for Mrs. Hinshaw who escorted me out of his study while smiling at the picture of Abe I showed her; I felt funny but good about my drawing’s authenticity (since a scholar of history and a scholar’s wife approved of it). And the third time was only a couple days ago when I entered deliberately, and Mrs. Hinshaw was there again, but sitting and clothed and clenching a tissue (which she quickly hid) and she smiled at me—but not the funny good smile, it was a forced broken smile, one that revealed the constant anger in her—and I told her firmly to leave, and she had to because the men needed to talk, and she obediently, yet elegantly accepted her powerless role, and I told her to shut the door on the way out, and told Professor Hinshaw to sit down in his very own study, the one he forbid me to enter my entire life, and I told him plainly that I was leaving to die on my own at Grandma Hinshaw’s (because that was the only place I could go), and that he could do nothing to stop me, and it was difficult because he always protected me; he sent me off to college when he felt I needed to escape (but forbid me to study history), he kept Mrs. Hinshaw from me when he felt she wasn’t behaving, and I’m sure he kept me from this study because there was something in here he felt would harm me, so I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t leaving because I was angry, but I was firm, and I had him bent over this desk and no one was smiling.
If I needed a book on Lincoln then—probably even a children’s book—I knew exactly where to go. But I had seceded from the Hinshaws (they would not let this be for long, however, they would again seek me out to restore the Family—and I would seek them out too), and I decided I would never return to this study, nor this House, again. It was more than the awkwardness I felt dying in front of Professor, Mrs. Hinshaw, and Jenny that made me leave—more than the forced smiles, the fake strength, the pretending, the baths, more even than the fight and what Jenny became afterwards, which I was forced to juxtapose with all she was before, especially the first day in this House, last summer, her hair blazing from her head like ropes of white flame, when she stood on the front porch in a tanktop and cut jeans, the bronzed arms and legs of an athlete, hands deep red from handling cattle and greasy machinery on her daddy’s farm, her face was vibrant and pure with beauty, eyes anxious and determined, when she stood there on the porch before me and Professor and Mrs. Hinshaw, then she stepped through the threshold of our House. At that moment she was the bravest creature in Victory, because Jenny knew what she was getting into. Jenny handled herself well with Professor (treating him like a man), and as well as she could with Mrs. Hinshaw (treating her like the woman whom she was replacing)(something intense but hidden occurred between the two of them); then we escaped to my bedroom where I was exposed to a second naked female form to rival the first, yet Jenny looked the same clothed as she did naked—there was no real mystery in what her body would be like: I knew her breasts would be that muscular, her hipbones that jagged, even her pubic hair that wild well before she shirked her clothes. She moved in on me quick and rough, perhaps expecting me to resist, and she bit and scratched me and handled me like a calf, and then—just as I thought I was going to lose my virginity, the fluffy snakes of her hair slithered down my chest and tickled my hips, and she peered up at me from below, her eyes green and feral—Jenny gave me the first of what would be many blowjobs.
It was late November, and it was still hot and bright and the sky TarHeelBlue (and it’s not that color in New York City, only in North Carolina), and I walked through town to get to Levi Ridge Elementary. Victory already heard of my dying because the Hinshaws were absent from Victory First Baptist and when the Hinshaws don’t attend church, it gets noticed—when anyone in Victory doesn’t attend church (except for Mr. Bailey who is a Catholic) it gets noticed—especially the Hinshaws because the collection basket looks empty and the women don’t have Mrs. Hinshaw’s unChristian dresses to quietly scoff at (“This isn’t no fashion show, look at how low—” “Sshh, she’ll hear you!”), and the men don’t have Professor Hinshaw’s genteel beauty and prissy ways to condemn under their breaths and no one has the husband and wife’s queer relationship toward each other—or the way they walk and sometimes talk like each other—to silently rebuke, and after the service, the entire Church has no line to form before the Hinshaw’s pew so Victory can greet the Hinshaws, smile big at them, sometimes ask them for money, always so polite. So Reverend Perviance, using his weekly Sunday night phonecall, usually used to thank Professor for his generosity with the collection, investigated the situation. But when he visited us the next day with Mr. and Mrs. Overcash and Mr. Tyndall carrying a basket of fruit and potted flowers, looking devastated, singing Holy Ghost songs right then and there on the front porch, Mrs. Hinshaw answered the door and I could see the fierce thing beneath her easiness rattle with fury as she glared at them all like she had known all along what they were saying about her and her family and that this time this act of kindness wouldn’t be tolerated because everything was different, and she said to them “Ain’t no holy ghost going to save none of us now” and her choice of “us” confused me because it not only included me dying, but it seemed to put Victory in a similar category, and I wonder if it included the Hinshaws as well—“none of us”—and Mrs. Hinshaw slammed the door on them and forced an unstable smile for me standing there next to her, then ran down the end of the hall, fighting to keep her composure, closed the study door quietly, then used her creeping-up fury on Professor Hinshaw. They hadn’t heard of me like this though, the dead boy dressed like Lincoln leaning into town, black hat and coat against teelblue—which must have mucked up their system of always knowing before seeing, a system of preparedness that gave Victory its order, its Christian Order, its Old Southern Order. They never expected a Lincoln in that Order.
The McGruider Brothers were the first to notice me as they were the first to notice everything that came through Victory because they were the watchmen, the guards of the Order. They sat in front of their autoshop all afternoon and evening, big slow quiet men sitting with intense purpose below a neon sign reading Only Jesus Saves, watching me carefully, glaring from the shadows of their meshed hats, hating me calmly, like I was pulling some prank on the town, on the Brothers who cherished their heritage seriously—probably more so than anyone else (except for Professor Hinshaw, but that’s different). They immediately hated me, calmly, with somber, relaxed shoulders, unable to do anything but hate, a hate that would have sent me running if I was still afraid of the living and breathing. Everyone else reacted more obviously than the McGruider Brothers. The town did share the Brothers’ sentiments, as trucks and old cars had bumper stickers that said Heritage Not Hate; If At First You Don’t Secede, Try Try Again, or just the old Stars and Bars. As I walked on down Main Street, the few people in cars stopped right there in the road to stare at me, and Reverend Perviance who was talking to Mr. Tyndall outside Walker’s Pharmacy stopped in mid-sentence, his mouth agape, watching me walk by as if I was a ghost, and as I went past Lola Mae’s Salon, I saw Mrs. Overcash try to stand while under the chrome curling helmet to get a better view of me through the window, and all of the old men having their afternoon coffee at Strobel’s set their cups down quick and eyed me suspiciously, something dusty in them getting worked up and they pulled their pants up over their bulging bellies and walked outside, and Mr. Bailey even stepped out from his shop to see what was going on, but he only found me funny and went back in. I think everyone gathered and followed me, but it was hard to tell since I focused solely on getting to the school.
I am tall. Not as tall as Lincoln, but over six feet, and I must have appeared even more absurd in this miniature world made for miniature people, ducking through the doorway, my stovepipe hat skimming the ceiling. The kids who passed in their perfect girl-boy lines giggled and stared (I stared back because their life was just as absurd) and the teachers looked just as shocked as those outside, but they were more reserved about it, trying to keep the children quiet.
I wandered around the cramped halls, not sure how to get to the library, or if I wanted to try to find Miss Westmoreland’s classroom. She herself wouldn’t be there because she was fired right after I was removed from Levi Ridge, and I was made to sit at home while Professor Hinshaw taught me math, science, and philosophy—no history—and Mrs. Hinshaw taught me French and literature—women’s subjects she said with a smile—and I hardly ever left this House and it didn’t take me long to not want to leave, but to want to continue these lessons, for I had a hunger for knowledge, a curiosity to know, just as I wanted so badly to go into Professor Hinshaw’s study and read all of these books in here. But Professor was hardly in here anymore himself, not since he nodded at my picture-drawing and pulled me out of school, and he strictly forbade me to come in here. I knew that I couldn’t disobey him because of the deathly serious way in which he demanded my obedience on the issue.
And then I saw him there in the hallway, just as I thought I might, the little boy with messy hair, but he didn’t recognize me, didn’t even seem to see me because he was walking quickly. I followed as he bounced on past the multi-purpose room, past the gym; he seemed preoccupied with his little hands, balling them up in tight fists, then opening them and wriggling the fingers before his face, then he barged into the bathroom and came out two minutes later, slapping a paper towel about those hands in guilt, like he did something bad, and then I remembered what he was doing with his hands, with his cleanliness: Mrs. Hinshaw had a fascination with both, a caring attention to my hands and to cleaning me—giving me baths everyday, which she began again only a few weeks ago because, I guess, she was angry at me dying and she couldn’t understand how her son could betray her so completely, divorce himself so absolutely from her, so all she could do is bathe me, like she used to more than once a day sometimes, all the way up until when Professor Hinshaw wouldn’t let her anymore—when he sent me away to college,—but she returned to it, drawing my bath and tying her thick brown hair up off her barewhite shoulders stained with bloodsplotched freckles, and taking her time with my cleanliness, smiling easy, the way she used to smile easy when I was in Third Grade and thereafter, and she’d take my hands into hers at the end of the day and ask me in nothing more than a whisper “I want you to tell me everything your hands have done today” and the easy smile combined with the splash of golden cross on the whitefreckled skin of her chest made me have to (want to) tell her everything, slowly as she commanded, and we both acted as though I was in trouble and she was scolding me, and yet she kissed my hands and when I finished telling her, she drew me a bath and cleaned me until my late teens when Professor Hinshaw intervened and informed both of us in his pretty voice that I’d be going far away for college,—he said it like he had rehearsed it, made up his mind long ago—and Mrs. Hinshaw only listened to him because he was a man—only in comparison to her—and she had been born into the South. Now that I was dying, she must have felt the rules were different (they were), and she once again began to bathe me. I let it happen because it had always happened, since the beginning of time, since forever—I was part of the bond that made me a Hinshaw, part of the secrets that made our family strong and different. So at that time, when the baths began again, when actions became furtive again, I went along with it not to preserve the secrecy, but to preserve tradition, for Mrs. Hinshaw’s sake, mostly, for I felt guilty dying on her, breaking the trust, injuring her faith in love and God and family, and if all that could be preserved by a harmless bath, then Amen.
But Jenny didn’t like this at all. Jenny was not slow and easy like Mrs. Hinshaw; she was quick and tenacious and had always been in competition with her. Jenny hadn’t the luxury to be reserved like Mrs. Hinshaw, Jenny was a ripe sixteen and had calculated in her relentless mind that she wanted me, she wanted a Hinshaw, and she felt she could have me as I was quiet and impressionable and, at the time, afraid of leaving the South, entering the big city for college, and so she moved in on me on Easter Sunday and she had to be fierce because to date me would be to enter the Hinshaw House and Jenny was only one girl, a girl with her daddy’s truck and a plan, and she had to be fierce to survive the Hinshaws and Lord knows she was brave to enter by herself and Lord knows there would be a time when she wouldn’t walk out of this House, not on her own. But Jenny did love me despite her calculating plan to get me to propose to her—she loved me more than she ought; it seemed she didn’t love me but loved something far deeper than me, like the idea of me, the origin of me, and all I was left to do was let myself be loved in that way, for I could not reciprocate since I didn’t know her own beginning, her own essence, I didn’t even know her sex because she kept it from me, kept her virginity, but did not keep her lust, kept her perfect Southern belle flower, but did not keep her dignity, and she would use her mouth on me and expected nothing in return, but would use her mouth and I could only let her do this for it was beyond my understanding why she would act so slutty (“Do it to my face”) yet feign the desire to preserve her body in some Southern tradition. While these strange acts of physical love occurred I could feel Mrs. Hinshaw hovering about—not spying, not even physically present, but feeling her ghost in Jenny, like she was somehow Jenny’s beginning, Jenny’s essence, and Jenny must’ve felt this too, felt that I felt this, because she tensed whenever Mrs. Hinshaw was (physically) about, and the two females were like animals instinctually knowing the other to be the enemy, stepping stealthily around each other like lionesses, with me in the middle—until Jenny found me in the bath with Mrs. Hinshaw, the careful watching turning into bitter growls and Jenny must have gained some courage while I was away at college for she called Mrs. Hinshaw a name that hurt even me, and Mrs. Hinshaw’s latent wildness (the essence I could always sense—the scent of a sweating beast—which always laid just beneath her easy and slow façade) kicked in and she pounced on Jenny taking half the bathwater with her and grabbed Jenny’s bigfrizzy hair and yanked her down on the bathroom floor, smacked and scratched her good across the face and would have clawed and maybe bit her to death if Professor Hinshaw hadn’t held his wife back, at which time she calmed herself, dried off with a towel, took cotton balls and peroxide from the cabinet, and carefully nursed Jenny’s wounds. I helped Jenny out of the House, and the next day I spoke to Professor Hinshaw (telling Mrs. Hinshaw to leave us alone), and told him I was leaving.
In the empty hallways at Levi Ridge, the messy-haired boy with his perfectly expensive cardigan and slacks looked in my direction, his mama’s dark brown eyes seeing Lord knows what—perhaps the Lincoln he’d become—but whatever it was it frightened him and he ran off down the hall, shoes clapclapping on the linoleum floor, and he turned the corner in the direction of the library. Instead of going into the library he scurried farther down the hall into a wing of classrooms where I caught the tail end of his cardigan disappear in through a door. I followed him into that classroom door and stepped through the doorway just in time to see him sitting down at his desk in a room full of students with Miss Westmoreland reading to the class and she hurried towards me and I thought she was going to say something to me—which I deemed somehow possible—but instead she reached for the door handle and I moved inside the room as she stuck her head into the hallway, looked around, then quietly closed the door. She began reading; she sat up on her stool right before the messy-haired boy who sat in the front row with a notebook open and a pencil in hand and his little chubby face resting on his little dirty hands as he seemed to be barely paying attention to Miss Westmoreland who appeared to be reading directly to him, holding up the book to show the pictures to the class, but giving him the best view, and there was teenage Lincoln in the forest with his ax (the sound of him whacking on the trees) and the boy glanced up at this, and Miss Westmoreland continued reading in muffled sounds—the whole scene was muffled and muted, diluted by a sheet of fog—about Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War and freeing the slaves and the end of the War and Lincoln in the theater and (and the boy tapped the pencil on the page, not looking up) John Wilkes Booth and (and the boy, how could it be so vivid to him when he’s not even—) the assassination and leaping onto the stage and carrying Lincoln out of the theater and bringing the President into a boarding house and finding a room and laying him on the bed—and I got a sick, sick feeling just then as I watched myself put lead to paper and pull lines across the page as Miss Westmoreland talked about mourners looking into the coffin, a sick sick feeling as the boy got enthusiastic about his picture-drawing and Miss Westmoreland closed the book, looked down on the boy, and she smiled wearily and I fell backwards against the door, wanting out and the entire room—save for the boy—looked sharply at me, and I scrambled for the handle and pulled it open and raced out of there heaving and frantic and I stood in the hallway for a wild moment, then made for the library in a dash.
All of the young children sitting Indian-style on the carpet before the librarian, Mrs. Lowell, burst out into laughter as I came rushing inside. Mrs. Lowell looked up at me in a kind of horror—the kind that accompanies the sudden perversion of logic—and she stood up to me as the kids laughed and my eyes raced around the little brightly colored room full of books and she asked me “What are you doing here?” and I went to find the book and she followed me and asked “Are you a reader for the children?” even though it would make no sense in Victory to have someone read Lincoln unless that person wanted to get fired (like Miss Westmoreland). I scanned the shelves for History—History or Biography—and the children laughed and I found the book and Mrs. Lowell finally recognized me and gasped and I gravitated towards the children as I flipped through the pages of the book almost wildly, hand trembling, book itself shaking so that when I reached the part—the part about his assassination, after his assassination, the carrying him out of the theater and into the room and laying him down on the bed—the words bounced on the page so that I could hardly read them. But I did. I did outloud, and Mrs. Lowell sat back down and the kids listened as I read fast and then I skipped over it and had to read it again, then again, it was just a phrase that I needed, just a phrase that I read two thousand times over in that library until I could believe it and then I only almost believed it as the book fell form my hands and I got cold and sick and I groped for the door to leave as Mrs. Lowell said still in shock, “Kenneth Hinshaw? That really you?”
At that point I was terribly afraid. I knew where I needed to go, and I knew that waiting for me there, besides the ghosts, besides the deep mahogany air, besides the three distinct memories (three fossils of me imprinted forever in that wood), was the source of this entire, horrible mess. I was afraid, yet I yearned to get there—here—to where I did not belong, where I was never allowed. It finally made sense why this room was forbidden to me, because all of the secretes lived here, the phantoms of people long-past fluttering about the darkness like moths around Professor Hinshaw’s bent head, around this Book that always occupied him, the source from where the ghosts came and to where they sought to return. Return to the Book. I wanted this Book.
As I walked down Main Street it seemed like every resident of Victory was not only following me, but pushing me on: Reverend Perviance, Mr. and Mrs. Overcash, Mr. Tyndall, (was Miss Westmoreland really there?), even the McGruider Brothers— following me past Victory First Baptist, up Silers View Road, up where few people other than Hinshaws have ever been—the stomping of many feet on the gravel road (like the sound of a whacking ax). When I got to the House and raced up the steps to the wrap-around porch, all of Victory stopped, and they waited silently, intimidated by this House—I guess a mansion to them—twenty foot bleached white pillars could easily look like fangs to them, and huge doors behind those fangs, a sweaty black mouth. Victory stood in the shadow of the Hinshaw House, as they’ve done their entire lives, and they shuddered at its mere presence, and I knew that they would not go in with me, that I’d be doing this alone, though I had no intention of doing it with or for anyone else anyhow—but they remained in that windy shadow (the wind picking up, getting excited with all of us), and they nodded me forward. I walked inside.
I knew there would be nobody home. I just seemed to know it, like it was a morsel of knowledge born in me from the beginning that would reveal itself when the time was right, when I was ready for it, and now I’m sensing that it’s all this way, that my entire life, past present and future is contained inside my weakening chest, in me from the beginning, and only Death has made me sensitive to it, ready to become aware that I needed to be in this study; I was drawn to this study, as I was my entire life. Now I’m thinking (writing) that it wasn’t curiosity. Now I’m thinking it was something much greater, something I belonged to, something withheld or simply lied about as Professor Hinshaw lied about my picture-drawing, nodded at it artificially (forcing me into this identity), verified the drawing’s authenticity right here in this room—a room where truths were falsified and protected, so, logically, a room where they must also exist.
I pushed open the weary door as the wind screamed from outside, and the blackest brown engulfed me, and I stood in it, at the mercy of the emptiness—the lack of forms—and was thus forced to insert the images using my memory and so at first Professor and Mrs. Hinshaw were sweating over the huge desk—Mrs. Hinshaw smiling easy at me; I was handing Professor my picture-drawing of Lincoln, which he studied in silence, then smiled and nodded at me and pushed me out; I had my bags packed and told him I was leaving to die—and then my eyes adjusted and the books shined through the darkness, the maps, the Davis painting, the tired flags, the enormous pool of rich wood, a single lamp, and the Book. The Book was so still, yet seemed so powerful, larger and more obvious than the memories I had of it: a huge hunk of rust-colored pages, a thick skin of leather, and the faded gold seal raised up from the cover, cold to the touch, an H in a circle. I moved around the desk, and sat down in Professor Hinshaw’s leather chair, and saw the study from his eyes and felt hypnotized. I could have stayed in this chair my entire life if I gave into the trance, because it was such a powerful feeling to be in this position, but I needed to break open the Book. I stuck my thumb into the dirty meat of its pages, right inside toward the end, and I opened the Book as it moaned and creaked in anger. Before me was a long, inkblotted scroll laid out across the two pages in perfect lines (nothing like the falling-off lines I’m writing), filling the entire page, more ink than golden brown page, and at first the lines, the penmanship, seemed indiscernible until I read the very first word, and as if reading that word were some magical password, like I had broken some code, everything on the page became block letters, and I could read it all easily, because—as I now know—this Book was waiting to be read by me.
The first passage detailed a story I couldn’t understand. This author seemed to know the story all too well, and most everything was implied. There were names that kept creeping up—Eli, Levi, Elias, and the most frequent name, Siler—all of a town called Siler Cross, and this passage spoke of a burning, a seemingly awful burning, and a shame this author bore heavily, his language and lamentable tone indicated he was somehow responsible for the burning, but no other explanation came. I reached the end of the page, where the hand was shakiest, and it was signed Everett Hinshaw, some month, 1967. I turned earlier in the Book, and met with a similar hand—long and shaky—and read the same names, Levi, Eli, Elias, whom, it was mentioned, fought in the Civil War, in the 42nd North Carolina, Davidson County Company, and only one son returned, but it didn’t say who, and this author was trying to explain some kind of miscommunication, a letter, there was a letter that the surviving son sent his daddy warning him about some General Sherman—this author spoke of a letter and, as before, the handwriting became precarious by the end, by the time he wrote The Union never came, and signed it Sylvester Hinshaw, 1933. Further I flipped backwards, knowing I should have begun in the beginning—as stories need to begin—but also understanding that there was something big here, bigger than me, and that I had to ease into it, I had to be careful with this truth lest it overtake me (the wind cackling, the whacking rhythm), and I turned over Sylvester’s signature until I reached the next name, Jasper, Jasper Hinshaw, 1910, and I read that passage, having an idea of what information needed to be satisfied—a burning, a miscommunication—and this one, this Jasper had the heavy tone like Everett, a burden and a shame, yet in that tone was also determination, and in this tone he spoke of his greatgranddaddy—no name—just Greatgrandpa Hinshaw who went crazy with sorrow at the loss of his two sons, Levi and Eli, and Jasper went on and on about this sorrow, the complexity of such a loss and the loss of his beloved South and his town and his hard work, how such a loss could create such a sorrow, such a heated, adamant sorrow, the kind that could justify anything, and Jasper ended on that, and I anxiously skipped the rest of Jasper’s lifetime of entries because I was realizing that each author—each Hinshaw—seemed to be focusing on one distinct element of this single event, like it was assigned to them somehow, so I understood that if I kept reading Jasper, I’d keep reading about sorrow. Further back, now nearly an inch from the beginning, where the pages were brittle as November leaves and smelled of rotting memories, I turned the pages carefully, yet anxiously: there was a miscommunication, a burning, and a sorrow that justified something; and I came to Ephraim Hinshaw, 1885, who had a thick heavy penmanship, the words more inkblots than cursive (but it was all very very clear, shockingly clear). I imagined him an obese man with a thick beard and a lead hand, and I read from him cautiously, knowing he wrote his words with dense meaning—each one a brick—and I could be bludgeoned if I read too fast. Ephraim was assigned the burden of detailing the Catastrophe at Siler Cross, as he called it, where the entire town was burnt down, the crops burned, the houses burned, the church burned (slowly, I had to read with caution) all at night, Ephraim emphasized this, at night these homes were torched, Ephraim, the large burly man with wet eyes wrote, heaving, lips pressed tightly to hold it in—I could see it all in the ink—the entire town was torched and Siler Hinshaw himself did it, ordered it, ordered his unfreed slaves to do it, the entire town—at night, Ephraim again stressed—and when his slaves had finished, sparing only one house, only one House, Siler Hinshaw ordered his slaves—his own property—inside the old barn with their torches still aflame, and he locked them in there, and here Ephraim gave in, the huge heavy man exploded with grief and it showed in a great big black splotch of ink, whereafter, after he composed himself again, he wrote, This is what I have to vindicate.
I was beginning to understand what was going on, yet I was also understanding how deep this went, and Ephraim was telling me I had to keep this deep inside me, where it was born, I had to hold this silent and deep like a swallowed brick, keep it sacred, or just keep it, and with that I turned to the final lump of entries, which was the first, written by Elias Hinshaw. His hand was sturdy and elegant and I could not guess at its emotion, for he wrote plainly, in an indifferent tone, and in this tone he gave the simple facts: his father, Siler Hinshaw, tobacco and cotton farmer, owner of many slaves, owner of many miles of land which he called Siler Cross, a place where he let people settle for a yearly fee, a rich proud man, who sent his only three sons to go off and war with the Yanks to protect his land and his town, his slaves, his South, hearing only one year later that his eldest son Levi was killed in Richmond, Virginia, then his next son, Eli, died of typhoid in Wilmington, North Carolina, only three months before the War was to end, and at this point Elias sent his daddy a letter, a short three sentence letter (it was attached), telling his father that Union General Tecumseh Sherman was on a violent march up from Atlanta, Georgia, which he burned down, to Columbia, South Carolina, which he also burned down, destroying towns and crops and cattle, freeing the already emancipated slaves that the South refused to give up, and he had recently entered North Carolina where he might march straight through, perhaps through Siler Cross, but the 42nd anticipated meeting him in Goldsboro—the letter was a warning of what might be, only a possibility, Elias tried to make clear in the entry, getting defensive—at which point Siler, already grieving to the point of madness over his sons’ deaths and even angrier about the losing situation of the Confederacy, and still ever proud, burned the town himself, not wanting any rich, nigger-loving Yanks to have the pleasure of doing it. The Union never came. After this, Siler draped the Confederate flag over his head and shoulders, tied the Union flag around his neck, and hanged himself from the balcony of this House, his body still rotting from the noose three months later when Elias finally returned from the tragic surrender and found Siler Cross in ruin, his daddy dead, his mama and sisters God knows where. After this account, Elias said that he was rebuilding Siler Cross, renaming it Victory, and that he was slowly accumulating folks desperate enough to take up residence on the tragic land, and he himself was searching for a wife strong and self-willed enough to bear the Hinshaw name. He ended with an order: each Hinshaw is to have only one son, and each Hinshaw man is to bear the name’s history with shame, but also with the hope that the events of the past can be vindicated, that the name can once again be as noble and proud as the greatest names of the South, and that no Hinshaw will rest until the name is made pure again. He signed his name boldly, like a true Southern gentleman, Elias J. Hinshaw, 1865.
It was windy that day, that day when Siler received his son’s letter and he torched his own town, his own people—I know this, I can’t not know it as the wind shrieks like a banshee through the 150 year-old House, because I was somehow there, and I am somehow responsible, like all us Hinshaws. There was one more author I hadn’t yet read, the one I skipped, the one I read right before beginning my own version: Professor Hinshaw’s. I turned to the last entry in the Book dated 1992 and signed Jackson Hinshaw. It said: It ends here, with me, and then something like, Kenneth is not fit, he’s not right, he’s different and he knows it and all of Victory knows it and he would abuse this knowledge, this name, so it ends with me, and when he’s of age, I will send him out of the South, and at least the name, however still defamed, will keep some dignity… It must have been windy that day.
Send me out indeed, on that Easter Sunday. Professor stood up there in church after the service and held me by the elbow and told all of Victory in his pretty voice he was sending me off to New York University. Everyone looked confused—or was it anger? It was that very Easter Sunday that Jenny first came up to me, right after church, when she must have sensed my own confusion (or was it anger?). Jenny looked at me the way Mrs. Hinshaw did, but she acted on that look, the rest of the hot dizzy summer a sexual rassling match, but with her mouth imitating her other hot hole. She gave me her face, but never her body—she put me in embarrassing, bestial positions, but kept my virgin innocence intact. For all the friction between her and Mrs. Hinshaw, I now see the troubling relationship: Mrs. Hinshaw must have scared Jenny good into keeping me unsexed, and Jenny obeyed faithfully. Why? Perhaps the reason lies with my first experience in this study, when Professor and Mrs. Hinshaw were still Daddy and Mama, when Daddy had Mama bent over this desk, and her hair was tied up tight on her head, like she was… a boy. Yes, because Professor cannot be the kind of man to enjoy the act of sex with a woman, and Mrs. Hinshaw can’t be the kind of lady to submit herself to the grotesque act with that kind of… man. And that must be where I came in—the man of the House, or at that time, the potential man, one that could be shaped and molded into the perfect man—if I was wet enough, soaking in a bathtub for eleven years. Yes, she must have seen the man I would become, at seven more masculine than her own husband, and she wanted my sexual energy—wanted it soaked in bathwater, liquid flowing from between my legs to between hers; sexual understanding that only a mother can share with her son; not incest but love that began in her womb and should be taught by that same body, and if it was dirty, the bath would cleanse our souls of the sin. And then there was Professor catching us in the tub, hitting her across the face (she must have liked his aggression) and telling her—not me, though I was there—that he was sending me off to New York (she must not have liked that), and the very next day, Sunday, Easter Sunday, he told Victory the very same thing, almost in the very same tone. And yes, yes they were angry. He knew Victory had some hope in me to treat the history of this town differently, and he wouldn’t have it. Victory must have had hope in me from the beginning, yet I’m not sure why (the fact that I have Lincoln all over me shows their instincts were right). It makes sense, though, that they were angry, and it makes sense that they are outside this House at this moment, waiting on me to finish. Of course it does. Here’s six generations of Hinshaws trying to justify an event that should just be apologized for. But because of these endless years and lines of inky theories, Victory’s trapped in this history of Hinshaw language. Of course they were angry, though they applauded. And now they’re waiting for me to stop writing and put an end to all this mess.
I leave the Book open to let the ink dry and push away from the desk when I feel a tickle on my earlobe. I wheel around to see the stained rebel flag keeping still, pretending that it hadn’t just reached out and touched me, next to it the faded Union flag, both stained with Siler’s damned soul. I scramble away from them, from the study, the House.
Back outside among the wind and the distinct, weary faces of Victory, looking up to me for the next move. I know what I have to do, and I walk through them, splitting them open down the middle, heading towards Grandma Hinshaw’s. The three need to see me, and Professor especially needs to see me with Victory as my wake, and Victory needs to show themselves to the Hinshaws (all the ghosts will be there) to tell them No more. No damn more.
We walk in silence, our stampede of footsteps absorbed by the hollow earth road. The house of Grandma Hinshaw is in view, and the specs of Jenny, Professor, and Mrs. Hinshaw run out into the yard. This will make an impact on us all—this strange scene. They will remember it for a long long time, long after I am gone. It needs to be this strange to replace the tragedy Siler Hinshaw committed. Now these people, this town has their scene, they even have a brand-new story, in writing. In the Book. I’ve written myself into words that can be read by desperate people and arranged any old way to say what they need to hear. Like Lincoln diagonal in his coffin. Entirely wrong, entirely false.
But it’s too late now; too late to return to the House and tear up the pages. And so what am I left to do, standing before Jenny, Mama, and Daddy, their faces scrunched up in pain? Victory behind me, waiting for their fate to change? I can only think to warn them, leave them with something honest before I’m gone. And I’m leaving quickly. My knees give, and I find myself on the ground, the three standing over me and looking down. I can barely see them through the blurry cloud, the fog looking eerily like smudged lead. Their voices are drowned out by a deafening rhythm—an ax whacking away at an oak, but the swings are slowing, the oak is winning. I need to find my voice in all this before it’s too late, before I’m taken without leaving that something behind. And as I open my mouth, I feel the tightness of the glued-on beard clenching my jaw. But I find the words.
“He was in a bed. He was diagonal in a bed.”