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American Heart

an extract from the novel

byPaul Kearney

'There never was another day like Antietam. It was pure, concentrated violence...'


Prologue 

The gunfire sends birds in mad career through the woods, stilling the heartbeat-shimmer of the cicadas. A rippling series of dull cracks and then, faintly, men shouting. And all at once the enormous air-shuddering roar of heavier ordinance, so loud it seems to rush through the humid summer afternoon like an urgent, unseen messenger from God.

Soldiers come crashing through the wood, cursing the hazel saplings and thrashing at the brambles. They are dressed in brass-flecked blue, and carry rifle-muskets. Their faces shine wetly. A long, untidy line of them, rent into disordered fragments by the trees. Some whoop as they come and seem oddly ecstatic. Others are intent as hunters.

'Hold it - hold it here boys!' one of them shouts, waving his arms. And then, as though mouthing some potent word from a magical spell, he yells; 'Battle-line!'

Cursing chaos, a muddled tangle of sweating men and long, ungainly weapons. But at the end of a few minutes they stand shoulder to shoulder in two ranks. It is a short line - there are barely fifty of them.

'Load!' the brass-lunged leader shouts. He fumbles at the leather accoutrements which are strapped about his torso. Perspiration streams off the end of his nose and the right corner of his mouth is stained black, as if he has been chewing coal.

The men produce white paper vials which they tear open with their teeth. Then they pour the contents down the muzzles of their rifles. A second, smaller pouch, and from it they bring forth tiny copper caps which they slip on their muskets' metal teats, half-cocking the weapons with a series of clicks.

Out in the green tangle of the wood, the men hear a series of high-pitched screams.

'Who's that out there anyways?' one asks.

'Some South Carolina outfit. Pretty hard-core.'

'I never seen so many pistols,' another says. 'Every son of a bitch out there has one strapped to his ass.'

'Yeah, the Johnnies sure like their toys. But me, I only got two hands.'

Their leader, a burly man with a black mustache and a series of sky-blue stripes on his arm, calls for silence. The line of men stands quiet. Insects sizzle about their shining faces and a stick snaps under someone's foot.

'They're coming up the hill,' the leader says, his ear cocked and listening. 'The minute we see their belt-buckles we'll give them a volley. But wait for my word. All right boys?'

'Yes First Sergeant.'

The sound of crunching vegetation is clear to them all now. The artillery has fallen silent.

'I think they captured the goddamn battery,' someone murmurs.

'Listen in C company,' the First Sergeant calls. 'Ready!'

The men fully cock their muskets and hold them across their chests.

At the head of the slope they have just run down a crowd of figures appears in a tattered line. A red flag hangs limp in the airless space under the trees. The newcomers are dressed in an array of earth-toned clothing, from coffee-brown to nimbus-gray. They yip and yell as though coursing with a pack of hounds. There are perhaps a hundred of them.

'Front rank- aim!' the First Sergeant bellows. Half his men bring their weapons up into the shoulder.

The gray and butternut newcomers on the slope above pause. Dozens begin fumbling in their cartridge-boxes.

'Fire!'

There is an instantaneous blast of smoke and noise. A dense bank of man-made fog spurts out to hang listless and rancid in the air before the blue-clothed ranks.

'Front rank, reload. Rear rank, aim-

'-Fire!'

Again the volley of noise, stabs of flame just visible, sparking out of the muzzle of each rifle in the dim light beneath the trees.

'Reload.'

The First Sergeant steps forward to look beyond the smoke. Return fire cracks and smarts in the air about him but he ignores it. The enemy seems to have disappeared. A few figures lie prone on the floor of the wood. A few more are dragging themselves over the brow of the hill, moaning and swearing. He wipes his face with the back of his sleeve, smearing it black.

'That taught 'em. They've pulled back.'

His men give a serried cheer whilst reloading their weapons. The First Sergeant grins ferociously, but his face clears a second later. He is listening again.

'They're running around out there. Pete - you hear that?'

'Can't hear a damn thing Wilson. My ears are ringing like goddamned bells.'

The men have reloaded. They look quizzically at their Sergeant, wiping their faces. Some swig from canteens.

'They're flanking us. Coming in on the right.'

They all listen. It sounds as though a herd of blind deer are thrashing about in the wood. A grin appears, white and broad below the First Sergeant's mustache.

'We'll bushwhack 'em. All right you fellows - after me, and try not to make too much noise.'

The First Sergeant begins running towards the distant commotion with his rifle held at the trail, bent as if fleeing a swarm of angry bees. The rest of the men follow him in a formless crowd. Not a word is spoken. Streams of sweat pour dripping from their chins.

Two hundred yards further on, and they crash to a halt.

'Spread out. Get yourselves behind trees. Phil, take three men and edge out on the right in case we've come too far forward.'

'Got it Wilson.'

'No-one fires until I do - you hear? Then we pour it into 'em.'

The men assent with nods and smiles. They take up firing positions, some standing, some kneeling.

'I see them!' someone hisses.

'Keep it down! Where?'

'Coming across that clearing. Maybe a dozen of them.'

'All right boys. Hold your water. Wait till I-'

The woods erupt into a furious hell of noise. Off to the left of the blue line a bank of smoke erupts out of the undergrowth along with a series of high-pitched halloos. A second later there come hurtling out of the smoke a mob of screaming fiends in homespun uniforms. Scores of them run down the blue line and smash it into fragments. Men struggle hand-to-hand, swinging rifle-butts or stabbing with the muzzles. Many of the startled blue soldiers take to their heels. Others are left lying motionless on the ground. Still more are screaming and writhing in agony. Their First Sergeant is swearing with volcanic venom. A scar on his temple pulses livid as a worm.

'Fall back C Company! Let's get the-'

He finds himself backed up against a tree with the point of a saber pricking his chest.

'Do you surrender?'

He hesitates wild-eyed, then nods. 'You got us good Johnny. I thought you were coming in on the right.'

His captor grins, drops the point of his sword and proffers a hand. 'It worked at Monroe last year too. You decoy with maybe one squad, get them to make a lot of noise. Still, that rearguard you fought was pretty good.' They shake hands.

'It would only work in woods though,' the First Sergeant says. He takes off his forage cap and wipes his face yet again with the back of his arm. 'Damn, it's hot.'

His captor nods, sheathing his saber. 'You got that right. High summer, and we're running about in wool uniforms. I could be fishing.'

All around them, men in blue and gray have stopped fighting and are engaged in lively conversation. They swap canteens and jokes, clap each other on the back, laugh. Those who have been lying prone on the floor of the wood get up, dust themselves off, and join in the banter.

'Fishing, hell,' the First Sergeant says. He brings a small silver flask out of the breast of his tunic, unscrews the lid and raises it to his captor.

'Here's to Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy.' After a swift slug he hands it over. The other man raises it in his turn. 'Abe Lincoln and black Republicanism.'

They both laugh, then turn and follow the line of men who are strolling out of the woods before them, to where a host of cars sit shimmering in the parking lot beyond.


Part One: Hallowed Ground

One

Wilson Garrity contemplated the final dregs in his glass. Last of the Mohicans. Bummer. He tossed them back and felt the bourbon burn a bright, well-worn path down his throat.

'Another one Will?' the bartender asked him.

'I'm all tapped out Larry. And I'm not even drunk yet. Ain't it a bitch?'

Larry poured a couple of fingers of Jim Beam into the empty glass. 'One on the house, for the road.'

'You are a gentleman and a scholar,' Garrity told him with a smile.

'It don't mean we're engaged or anything.'

'Hell, Larry, don't tell me that. It's all that keeps me going.'

The bar was deserted, the afternoon crowd not having assembled yet. There was just Garrity, the bartender, and a trio of televisions which flickered soundlessly near the ceiling. Garrity hated TV. When he came into the bar to tie one on, Larry knew to switch the sound off.

'What's the time anyways?' Garrity asked him.

'Quarter after one. You in a hurry to get someplace?'

Garrity swallowed his free drink in one gulp. 'Got me a re-enactment weekend to go to.'

'Oh, that Civil War crap. I swear Will, I don't know why a grown man like you gets off on that stuff.'

'It gets me out of the house. Hell, it gets me out of here. You oughta be thankful Larry. Tonight instead of crying in my beer and abusing you I'll be out under the stars.'

'Yeah, well knock yourself out.'

'See ya Monday.'

'Sure Will. Have a nice time saving the Union.'

The sunlight was painfully bright after the dim interior of the bar. Garrity slipped on a pair of Ray-bans, wincing. His truck, a beat-up old Ranger, was parked a block away. He lurched into a swaying walk, feeling the alcohol hit him now that his ass was off of the bar-stool. But he was used to that. Like a sailor familiar with the roll of his ship, he thought with a tight smile.

'Hey man, spare me a quarter,' an old black derelict wheezed, holding out a filthy, long-nailed hand. And then: 'Wilson!'

Garrity paused, and dug into his pocket. He came up with a handful of nickels and pennies and a bunch of lint. 'Look at that, pop. I'm damn near as broke as you.' He handed it over. The old man beamed toothlessly at him, delighted. Garrity stared at him a moment, frowning.

'Ah, hell.' He dug his money clip out of his other pocket and peeled off his last note, a ten.

'Get yourself something to eat, Sal, and give the booze a rest for a while.'

'Sure, Wilson,' the old man nodded, still beaming.

'That boy of yours still sending you the checks regular?'

'Ev'ry month,' the old man said firmly. 'He's a good boy, my Lucas.'

He's a crack-dealing scumbag Garrity thought, but said aloud, 'You take care now. And remember - get yourself something to eat with that.'

'Sure. The Lord bless you Wilson,' the old man wheezed. 'You got a good heart.'

'Yeah well, we'll keep that to ourselves, all right?'

Garrity walked on. Sal had been a fixture on the block for going on ten years. He'd been a respectable family man once, in the days when Paterson had been a pleasant place to live in. But his wife was dead and the son was in the City somewheres, busy getting himself a record in every boro he passed through. Garrity sometimes had the disturbing feeling that old Sal might be himself, forty years on. Washed up. Alone.

The hell with that, he snapped at himself savagely. I'll eat the muzzle of a gun first.

A trio of young men eyed him from the corner of the street. One of them was spinning a thin metal chain playfully. Garrity took off his sunglasses and stared at them as he passed, coming just close enough to invade some personal space. They looked away.

Still got it, he thought with sour satisfaction. Still got those bad ass vibes. Well, that's something.

He found his pickup, and stabbed his car-key into the door. Damn, he hadn't even locked it. A miracle it was still here.

He got in, the car creaking under his weight, and stared at himself a moment in the rear-view mirror. A dark, heavy face frowned back at him, the mouth framed by a thick black mustache. His eyes were a cold gray, the color of a knife-blade, and along one temple a pale scar wound like candle wax on his skin.

That memory of wet heat, like a hot flannel over a gasping face. The stink of excrement burning in oil-drums. Blood spattered on wide green leaves.

'Fuck' Garrity said aloud, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his fingers. He gouged away the perspiration which had collected in the hollows of his eye-sockets, and started up the Ranger with a vicious twist of the ignition. Another one of those nights. He could feel it coming on already. Perhaps it would be all right once he got out in the country, got some clean wind on his face.

Garrity lived in a top floor apartment in Paterson New Jersey. It wasn't the greatest neighborhood in the world, but he'd never had any trouble, at least not after he'd kicked the crap out of a mugger one night and left him bleeding on the sidewalk outside. Live and let live, that was his motto. And he had a Remington twelve-gauge in his closet just in case some wise-guy disagreed.

Along with the Remington there was a three-band Enfield and enough black powder to launch the space shuttle. Garrity intended to spend an hour or so making up fresh cartridges for the weekend, with his old buddy J. Daniels to keep him company. Then he'd drive out to a field somewhere in western Maryland, haul on a blue uniform, and with luck be in time for a skirmish late that afternoon. From then on he'd be someone else for a few days, doing something different. And he'd grab himself some kind of a life for a while - unreal, make-believe, but a life nonetheless.

He parked the Ranger, remembering to lock it this time, and labored up the rickety wooden steps to his apartment. He had the top half of a crumbling clapboard house which might once have been painted white but was now fading into turd-brown anonymity. He kind of liked it. It went with the rest of the street.

Slamming his front door behind him, he peered around his grimy little abode. Empty Pizza-boxes stood in gaping rows by the sink, and tumbled ranks of beer-bottles jostled for precarious space at the lip of the trash. Clothes littered the floor, and an ashtray overflowed with gray ash and brown cigar-butts.

Home Sweet Home. Now, how had it ever come down to this?

But he knew the answer to that one of course, knew it only too well.

He lit himself one of the half-smoked butts, puffing on it until his head was wreathed in smoke. Then he poured himself a snort of JD and sat down on the sagging couch. There were burn-holes in it he could put his thumb through. The only neat things in the place were stacked on the kitchen table. His uniform and leathers, and the Enfield, oiled and shining. He felt better just looking at them.

Everything was set out and ready on the coffee-table. A tin of black powder, cartridge papers, and a powder-measure. Humming contentedly to himself, Garrity began filling cartridges, sixty grains at a time, and then folded them shut, his thick fingers working swiftly and with surprising deftness. If the ash from the cigar were allowed to spill onto the table, it would be all she wrote. He liked that. It focused the mind wonderfully.

Someone hammered at the door, making him flinch. Black powder spilled from the cartridge he held. Goddamn it - he hated that. What the hell was a doorbell for anyways? He rose angrily and padded to the door, yanking it open.

A woman stood in the doorway, dark-haired and lean. She wore frayed jeans and a white T-shirt, and leaned against the door-post as though she had been waiting there for some time.

'Oh, Christ,' Garrity said.

'Good to see you too honey.'

''What is it Marge? I'm kinda busy here.'

'Yeah, your life is one big social whirl, isn't it Will? Do I stand here or do you let me in?'

Garrity backed away and the woman entered his apartment, wrinkling her nose at the mess inside.

'Maid didn't come today, huh?'

'Cut the crap.' Garrity turned away. He found it hard to look at her, even now. 'What do you want Marge? If it's a screaming match then you're all out of luck. I haven't a yell left in me.'

'I'll settle for some cash, sugar. I got things to do too. I don't want to use foul language, but the A-word comes to mind. It's late.'

'The hell you say. '

'First of the month came round Will, and to my surprise no little check in my mailbox. I wouldn't mind, but I had to chase you up last month too, and I got a life to lead. I can't keep coming round to your lair to beg for it.'

'Beg! That'll be the day.'

'Write the goddamned check will you? And I'll be on my way. '

Garrity sat down heavily on the couch and gestured to Marge to do the same. She shook her head. 'This is no social call, nor is it going to become a habit.'

'You look good Marge. Real good.'

To his delight she flushed pink, but her face remained hard. 'As you said, let's cut the crap. I want my money.'

'All right. Give me a second here.' He rose and fumbled in the drawers of an old, scarred dresser that squatted by the far wall. His ex-wife folded her thin arms and watched him.

'See you been keeping to the routine,' he said over his shoulder.

'I get by.'

His wife had been a homely, plump woman, long-suffering and taken utterly for granted. She had cooked his meals, washed his clothes, and hauled his sodden ass out of a thousand grimy watering-holes when he was too far gone to make it on his own. That had gone on since - since after the Nam. Years of it. Then one fine day Garrity had had divorce papers presented to him at work, and when he gotten home with flowers in his hand and his excuses all lined up, he had found her gone. He hadn't seen her again for six months, and when at last he did, she had been transformed into this slender, wiseass firebrand. The hell of it was, he found her more attractive now than he ever had. What had changed her, what breaking-point she had reached in the evenings alone while he polished a bar-stool, he didn't know. And the real kicker - he liked the person she had become, and loved her still. But it was too late now. It was her separation from him which had given birth to the new Marge, the one he liked better. Irony, he thought. That's what it was, irony pure and simple.

He wrote the check, saying a quick, hunted mental prayer that it would clear, and handed it to her.

'Now was that so hard?' she asked him.

'Stay and have a drink,' he said lamely. It was at once agonizing and comforting to have her here. He didn't want her to leave, and he wished she had never come.

'I thought you were busy. Things to do.'

'They'll keep.'

She eyed him as though he were a stranger trying to pick her up in a bar, and that hurt more than he could have imagined. He beat down the feeling, locked it away.

'What's with the gear - you off to refight Gettysburg or something?'

He smiled. 'Antietam, as a matter of fact.'

She shook her head. 'You just don't change Will. You're like a rock.'

'Aw shucks.'

'It's not a compliment. The world around you could be going to hell in a handbasket and you'd still be running away to play soldiers for the weekend and rub shoulders with barflies in the evenings. Hell, what am I saying? You are a barfly, you just hide it better than some.'

'Did you come here to get the money or just to sound off?' Garrity asked her quietly, but there was a grim light smoldering in his eyes.

She paused. 'Both I guess. You make me so mad Will. You threw so much away.'

'I know,' he told her. 'I really do.' He advanced towards her. One step, then another. If he could say something-

'You and that damned war-'

The half-formed words turned to ash in his mouth. Her phrase brought back the beginning of a thousand arguments. Ugly pictures that hurt worse than the shrapnel ever had.

'Forget about it.' He turned away from her.

'You see? You won't talk about it, so you try to drown it in Jacky D. It'll never go away Will. It's been eating you up for twenty years.'

His voice hardened, and he felt them both slipping helplessly into their familiar foxholes. 'Is that so? Well it's my problem now Marge. Not yours. You gave up trying to solve it a long time ago. The little rat got the hell off the sinking ship.'

She seemed about to fly at him. Her face was flushed with fury and her hands had clenched into tight little fists. His own anger died away at the sight, slid into an awful bleak sadness. He thought at that moment that she was beautiful, and almost told her so, but the glitter of her eyes stopped him.

'I'm sorry Marge. You didn't deserve that.'

'You are such a destructive bastard,' she hissed at him, and her eyes were full of tears. She turned to leave.

'Marge, wait-' he began.

'No Will. There's no point.' Her anger had died as quickly as his. They stood looking silently at one another for a moment, as if some armistice had suddenly been declared.

'You - you take care of yourself,' Marge told him at last. She smiled now, a little sadly, and then left, shutting the door quietly behind her.

Garrity stood like a statue, the pain writhing in him. It seemed to him that he had a brief glimpse of his own life, as if it were some huge canvas hung painted on a wall. A sere wasteland with nothing in it of warmth or value, the things he loved hidden and lost somewhere beyond some dark, inaccessible horizon.

He fumbled for the bottle like a blind man, and drank swallow after aching swallow from the neck as though his life depended upon it.

Two 

We were hungry of course, but, as no fires were allowed, we could only mix our ground coffee and sugar in our hands and eat them dry. I think we were the more easily inclined to this crude disposal of our rations from a feeling that for many of us the need of drawing them would cease forever with the following day.

'Philip. Philip honey - you there?' That old voice, dry as a fall leaf, drifted through the screen door.

Where else would I be, he wondered.

'I'm just out here on the porch mama. Reading.'

'I swear, that man has hidden my glasses again. I cain't find them nowhere. He does it a purpose you know. You got to watch them Philip. I keep telling you.'

'For God's sake mama, he's-'

The voice sang out, now shrill as wire. 'Don't you take the Lord's name in front of me, boy. That's not the way you was raised.'

'Sorry.'

Phil Keyser marked his page, set down his book, and got up out of his seat. His forefinger rose to push his own glasses back up towards the bridge of his nose. Through the screen door he could see an apparition enthroned in white.

'You've just mislaid them again. I'll find them for you. You carry on like this and he'll hear you.'

'That's a good boy. And while you're on your feet, hows about another glass of iced tea? That last one is warm as blood.'

'Sure mama.'

She sat her wheelchair in the kitchen and watched him as he reached on top of the refrigerator for the spectacles he knew would be there, as they always were. How she got them up that high was a mystery to him.

'Well I declare! He put them up there Philip, I'm telling you. He likes to keep me bat-blind so I can't see what he's at. That man-'

'Is going to melt away. Whew - it's hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. Missus Keyser, have you been hiding things again?'

A burly, middle-aged black man had entered the kitchen with an empty laundry basket in his arms. He tossed it to the floor and set his hands on his hips. 'Can't you let Phil alone for an hour? I'll make you all the iced tea you want - it's what you pay me for.'

The old woman went silent as wood, her lower lip outhrust and quivering.

'It's all right John. I could do with one myself anyway. You want one?'

'Hired help don't eat in the house. That's a rule. That's our rule,' Keyser's mother squawked.

The black man smiled. 'I reckon I'll have mine out on the porch Phil. Ah wouldn't want to offend anyone.' He winked and left the kitchen.

'They steal, you know.' Keyser's mother hissed. 'Little things you don't notice for a week, until you ain't sure whether they took them or you lost them yourself. Your father would never have had them in the house.'

Keyser's father had been a pillar of the community, a clerk in the mayor's office. And a rabid, racist son of a bitch whose untimely death had elicited from his son not one grudging tear. According to Phil Keyser senior, a boy could have courage, integrity and manhood beaten into him with the flat of a belt, and he had spent years inculcating those virtues into his sullen son. Keyser junior still had the scars to prove it.

'Don't be silly mama. He's been working here these five years and we've never misplaced so much as a pin. Now you calm yourself down and I'll get you something cool.'

He made his mother another iced tea while she watched him intently, a gray-haired hawk in a wheelchair. It was hot inside the little clapboard colonial - Fall had not yet begun to bite here in Virginia. Keyser could feel the sweat oozing in his armpits, but his mother seemed wholly unaffected by the damp heat, the cloying closeness of the house. She accompanied him to church every Sunday, but aside from that had not been any farther than the front porch or back yard for years.

Sometimes Keyser thought he could feel the weight of all that heavy mass of his time bearing down on his narrow shoulders.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose where the round spectacles had carved two notches for themselves. The wire rims were slick with sweat.

'I swear,' he exclaimed with sudden peevishness, 'One of these days we are going to get air conditioning in this house. This is the twentieth century.'

'Waste of money,' his mother snapped. 'And it's a sin to waste good money. All my life I've lived without it - don't see why I should start now. The good Lord made the weather what it is. It's part and parcel of His creation - it's not for us to meddle with it.'

We water the goddamn lawn enough though Keyser thought. You permit that improvement on His creation.

He was a slight man, with a narrow, sharp-nosed face which when he was angry could look forbidding in a pinched, underfed sort of way. But those round granny spectacles ruined the effect somewhat. He looked what he was; a bookish high-school teacher who loved his job. Unmarried at forty-five, he lived with his mother because no other alternative had ever presented itself. Besides, she needed him.

Back out on the porch at last, his mother placated. Evening was creeping out of the trees, the quiet broken only by the occasional car on the road in front. Keyser handed a frosted glass to John and stood sipping at his own.

'The heat makes her cranky, though she won't admit it,' he said.

'Don't worry about it Phil - it's water off a duck's back to me. Your mama's a good woman, but this house is near as much a prison to her as it is to you. She has to kick out sometimes. It don't bother me none.'

Surprised, Keyser stared at him as he sat serenely on the porch swing. John caught his eyes, and chuckled. 'What am I, blind? I see your face when you're taking off in that old Lincoln for the weekend. You're like a boy let out of school. You stick on that Yankee uniform and go playing in the woods with your pals. Hell, everyone got to let off steam some way or other, else we'd all explode.'

Keyser took a seat beside him. 'I hadn't thought it was that obvious.'

'Come on Phil. Half the town knows how much you love that blue uniform - you a Virginian, too.

'Winfield Scott and George Thomas were Virginians, but they went with the Union,' Keyser said defensively.

John laughed. 'Who? You living in the past, Phil. You got to get out in the real world a little more.'

The real world. Which part of America was that, Keyser wondered. This manicured confection of lawn-sprinklers and leaf-blowers and barbecues? Jesus Christ, how he hated it - the blinkered, ignorant, self-satisfied cosiness of it all. This real world.

It had been different once, this country. People had believed in things. They had fought and died for them in their hundreds of thousands, shouldering that awful burden without hesitation.

'If running about in a wool coat and pants in ninety degree heat doesn't teach you what's real, what will?' he asked mildly.

John snorted. 'Boys and they toys. I got nothing against it mind - some guys like hot-rods, others baseball. But you Phil, you jest love that old war.'

Phil smiled. 'Guess I do.'

Or perhaps the idea of it, to be more precise. Ever since he'd been a child bearing the welts of his father's belt, he had been fascinated by that long-ago conflict. It had started with armies of toy soldiers, graduated to board wargames, and finally found its fruition in Civil War Re-enacting.

And that was fitting. In this world, this plastic century, he might not have been given the chance to be a soldier, but back then they would have given him a Springfield and a sack coat and put him in a battle-line - bookish schoolteacher or no. Because it was the people who had fought that war, the citizenry of a great country. Not a clique of meatheads with automatic weapons - the so-called professional army.

And so most weekends Spring through Fall, Keyser could be found dressed in a blue coat hunkered round a campfire, or marching in a column of like-minded men. It was his one eccentricity, the only part of his life that was truly his own. Even his mother dared not speak out against it, though she complained unceasingly that he neglected her, and was moreover scandalised that he had chosen to re-enact as a Union soldier, not a Confederate. In this one thing, he was immune to any form of moral blackmail she cared to utilise.

But Keyser was no ordinary Civil War enthusiast. He had made a life study of it.

He had gone over every battle of the War Between the States, as they called it around here, tabulating the forces involved, the battle-plans, the tactical successes and reverses, the casualty lists (rows of numbers minutely examined - one of the best ways to keep score). He knew the personalities of most general officers on both sides - in the Eastern theater, anyway. The Corps commander of his re-enactment regiment would have been good old Ambrose Burnside, that well-meant, mutton-chopped disaster who had been responsible for the debacle at Fredericksberg. Twelve thousand Union casualties, piled up like cordwood below Marye's Heights. He had just kept sending them up there, and the Johnnies had kept shooting them down. Now if Keyser had been in charge, things would have been different...

Inevitably, he was a teacher of history, but that was just his excuse for being able to read about it in almost every waking moment. The movement of regiments, brigades, divisions, corps and armies - the very vocabulary of military history - flank marches, line of battle, skirmish-order, march-column. He found it all strangely addictive. There was a power in such words, a resonance. As his students might have put it, Keyser found it all incredibly cool.

When he read of such things he somehow pictured himself a brawnier, more self assured man - without those damn spectacles - his face bronzed with hard living. An officer who directed the movements of brigades with implacable calm in the midst of the firestorm. He could have done that, he knew. He would have made a better general than any of those hidebound nineteenth-century fools. Could anyone have done worse in the field than Pope or Burnside - or even McClellan on the Peninsula? Hell no.

In this modern-day world he had, unfortunately, never served himself. Chronic short-sightedness had barred him from everything except ROTC, but he remembered avidly watching the news accounts of the war in Vietnam as a young man, thrilled by the whole spectacle - the helicopters, the bombs, the sheer power on display. He had several times tried to get the Regiment's First Sergeant, Wilson Garrity to open up about the war during re-enactment weekends, but the veteran had pretty much told him to go screw himself. A strange man. Keyser had done a little research on him, his curiosity piqued by the veteran's caustic defensiveness. It turned out that Garrity had joined the 1st Air Cav in 1965, and had taken part in the Ia Drang Valley battles - some of the bloodiest of the entire war. Keyser secretly envied him his scars and his combat record. Some of the other men in the regiment considered him an alcoholic, though his thorough knowledge of 19th Century drill had gotten him sergeant's stripes despite that and his ornery nature. Keyser knew the drill-books inside out, but no-one would ever take him seriously with that many stripes on his arm. He just wasn't the right type, whereas when Garrity barked, men jumped. It was so damned unfair.

'Phil, you all right?' John asked. 'Listen, don't you go chewing over things like you do. I didn't mean anything...'

'It's all right. It's just fine.' Keyser smiled at him. 'I was just woolgathering, is all.'

'You pay no heed to me - I'm just an ignorant old fool. If it makes you feel good, you do it, you hear?' His voice changed. 'You wear that Union blue, stuff it down their damned throats ev'ry weekend. You let them know who won that damned thing.'

Keyser stared at him 'I hear. Thanks, John.' Almost he reached out to touch the black man's arm. Almost. 'And you're nobody's fool anyhow.'

They sat there with the warm evening quiet as a blessing about them, the porch swing squeaking every now and again as they swung gently back and forth.

At last John tapped his knee, smiling, and rose. ' I got to go now. Tomorrow, same time?'

'Tomorrow, same time.'

As John clumped off the porch Keyser realised that the hired help probably knew him better than anyone. It made things bearable and unbearable at the same time.

'Philip...'

His mother's voice again, tremulous yet powerful. It had anchored him here in this backwater until his youth had dried up and blown away. Too late now to be anything other than he was - all those adolescent dreams were mere husks in some forgotten corner of his memory. This porch, this lawn, this picket fence. The sniggering teenagers he taught, the church he sat in absently every week. These were all his life would ever be. He knew that now.

And then he imagined himself in a blue battle-line with his musket at right shoulder shift, advancing to meet butternut foes, the artillery a smoking thunder all about him. And his mind cleared. This weekend at least, he would find some release. It was crazy play-acting, a vast fantasy, but when he wore that blue uniform he was part of something larger than himself, no longer an outsider. He belonged. And the other men of the regiment accepted him, even Garrity. He thought some of them might even consider him a friend.

That was why he did it. To belong to something - even if it were a fiction - something greater than the sum of his own petty failures and humiliations. Sometimes he thought it was all that kept him sane.

Ignoring the plaintive calls from within, he took up his book again. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, a fat, satisfying nineteenth-century looking tome. Where had he been? Ah, yes.

Antietam.


Paul Kearney 2003.
American Heart
is a work-in-progress.

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