BY TONY GENTRY
Here they go digging me up again, and may I considerately add that it’s about time. Just imagine your own bones planted upright under a concrete plinth in the dizzy middle of a traffic circle sometime and see how you prefer it. I do appreciate the attention but plainly have not been able to take to it even after all these passing years. And they got my statue backed up to a grammar school where all colors of people drop their brood off mixing in together. Was a time I’d scoot up and fit myself in the thing – it’s roomy, a might fuller at the shoulders than I am or was in my time – and enjoy the look through its stony eyes, but I’ve lost the flavor for it now.
Gave no warning a’tall, though I should have seen it coming after all the hoo hah down on Monument Avenue with the rabble marching around Massah Robert like they do. Poor old General Lee, he’s got so many statues in so many places, his ghost is split up to just a wisp in any one of them. Old boy is just a scrim of gray, stretched out like a morning fog burning off across the whole Southland that way. And them tearing up his statues and moving them like checker pieces from traffic circles and downtown parks out to battlefields and plantations, man’s busy as a bee in a clover field these days.
Not that any of us asked for all this fuss in the first place. I’d have done just fine laid down to the home place up in Culpeper like a normal civilian of the peacetime world, and General Lee was all good and settled in his mausoleum all sleepy like with even his old gray steed Traveler stuffed like a game trophy at his side, out in the Shenandoah Valley where it’s so pretty in peacetime or war. But no. They had to start putting up these stone likenesses and it’s just your required responsibility to get up and go do the job, haunt the things, and get on with it. I had no choice in the matter, of course. Dug me up like a mealy potato and replanted me with the dagger of this plinth on my head, did me the great honor of all that, thank you kindly, so here I reside.
Man can’t get a decent minute off to himself here in the old Capitol City either, I mean Lord what an other-worldly way station old Richmond has become! Convention last week of the smokers lined up on both sides of the river past Williamsburg out East and up the river clear to Lynchburg, I’d guess, called here by what killed them, the tobacco warehouses. I went to the keynote just for the company I suppose but wish I hadn’t now. Learned that the pleasure of a good puff or two has put down more men and womenfolk than all the wars and battles of all time. Don’t that just seem backwards to you? And then maybe you’d hoped come your last sour breath you might revert to that deep lunged boy or sweet-scented gal of your youth but no you ghost up like you left here, hunched and coughing, some with sputtering stomas in their throats like they was shot through and through, and smelling like a festering death and tarred smoke both. Now you call up what they say was a couple hundred million of them lost souls bunched in around the neighboring counties, well it’s an awful thing to contemplate and just a rabble to walk among. I think even the living felt it on them. They’ve been gone a week and the stench still hangs on us even after a drenching summer rain or two. That weed is a widow maker for sure.
Was finally able to get back out to Belle Isle and the old open air war prison again once the last steamy stragglers dragged off with their phantom oxygen tanks on wheels, poor buggers. It’s a sorry sight on the island, too, but them zombies because they died an honest death no fault of their own have their old hale and hearty forms back and we’ve gotten where we can get along and no real hard feelings or if there is it’s nothing we can do about it now. We’re in the same boat for as long as she floats and that’s about all we know. So I’ll stride over on the hanging bridge and listen to the boys fiddle and jew’s harp some old Yankee tune from the old country, German and Irish youngsters who never halfway got their feet on the ground here in the New World before shuffling off to this hell hole. Starved or shat themselves to death with dysentery or yellow fever but now they stand as robust and manly in their clean blue uniforms as the proud day they mustered in, a whole army of dead boys marching the trails around the island for all time and can’t get off no way. But they’s with their brothers as clueless as boys always are and that company’s worth something, I suppose.
Cain’t get old Stonewall to cross the bridge, cranky as he always was, and President Davis wouldn’t muss his boots off his pedestal either, which is fine with me. They’re about as dispersed as Massa Robert, I suppose, trying to keep up appearances at all the statues they got around the South. It’s a lucky day a man can even get their attention, vacant as a mirror image, just a scent of them really. Though the President’s body, like my own, is weighed down by his monument, so he wafts off from that spot and you’d think he’d hang here mostly, but he hates Richmond, still sees her burning, and that shame’s eternal of his shirking off in a woman’s clothes when he abandoned his post that night. Never could live it down and now he can’t seem to die it down either (haw haw). I never had much use for the old school marm anyway, and that last shameful flight put a nail in it for me.
So I’ll mosey on over to the slave stables and admire the doings there, though if I was a judging man I’d call it unfair that they get the dispensation none of us old warriors are allowed, the chance to match up again with their loved ones, their wives and children, and even decide on their own what age of their lives they want to be from now on into eternity. If you can get past the pity party about your own situation, it is some entertainment, I will say, to eavesdrop on the reunions and the ghostly hugging and tears and all the deciding as a man shows off all the ways he was for his woman to choose one. Spavined little boy straight off the boat ramp, shiny black buck thickened out with field work and fatback, then that quick flash they go through in a hurry (when they can) of the back stripes and tendon hobbling and lost teeth if they had any spirit at all which is where the show ends for most of them. Same with the women, though the transformations can get so with them you don’t really care to look, what we white folks did to these people, just a devilish behavior, and on this side of death it’s all there to ponder any time you want. I come here part way just to make myself own it some. Who knows? If it works on me enough maybe there’s some other level I can get to and leave these hellish rounds?
Which is me being the prideful prick I was all my 40 years of embattled human life even now in the wasteland of the spirit world. You show me a city anywhere in the world’s got more to answer for. If we had an ounce of weight the place’d sink beneath the James from all the pain she’s brought on. And don’t get me started with the Algonquin nation, up on Church Hill in their huts that are almost solid, jiggling like a jelly made of ether inside the good old Federal design townhouses lined up on those cobblestoned streets that still feel like the old home place to me. Crazy things go on up there. The Indians have a dark familiarity with the death side of things and can work all sorts of dire magic on the temporary folks nearby. They can make a poodle dog turn up lame. They can waggle a finger and a gun goes off. Or a fire starts up in a chimney stove just out of boredom I suppose. Old man Christopher Newport planted that cross at the foot of the hill, lied straight up that it was just his old English king’s way of reaching out a hug to the good red people of America. Powhatan will tell you that he saw through that the same way anybody sees through ignorant condescension and he’s been playing the long game ever since. He won’t say he knew all along what the tobacco would do, but he allows a grim Indian sort of smile if you bring it up.
So I make my rounds one last time, tip my cock hat to the ladies. It’s a skirmish back at my monument, same as it will be for Massa Lee and old Stonewall and the President when their times come. Old man Davis says I’m a test case, take out a minor statue first and see what kind of hornet’s nest that stirs up, before they go off and knock down the whole line of gray hot shots on Monument Avenue. He would say that, call me a minor figure, him in his old lady dress and bonnet. I think we can agree I’m about done with him. The crowds have been tussling all weekend but I can guarantee you nary a one could name a battle I was in. Waving that old tired Confederate battle flag that got so many young farmers kilt. And go figure this one. What they call neo-Nazi’s with that crooked flag from the other side in that later war that left all them forlorn widows in the cemeteries all around. Then there’s the folks yelling back at them, saying tear it down tear it down, more whoop and holler over my crumbly skeleton than any one dead man deserves.
I’ll go when they move me off. As I reckon it, that’s all we can do. Probably down to Petersburg battlefield, where the mini ball got me, and pile on more dues mingling with the headless and legless ghosts blown up in the Crater there. Or up to Fredericksburg where the blue boys splash in the river, turning it a red only ghosts can read every night is what I’ve heard. I do wish, though, that the living people would calm down. That they’d see what I can see on my jaunts around this godless metropolis. They’s a hundred easy ways to kill a man, and this place has pretty much tried them all to powerful effect. It’s no wonder people’s minds are poisoned by all the haints stacked up around here. I do wish, though, that they’d just stop for one solitary minute and look around. Feel what it is to breathe air. Know how good a manly hug of another living person can be. Experience what a burden the lower urges bring on them once they come to my side of the ledger.
Because I can tell you right now that the one thing any of us old warrior boys wish we could have is to lie down in a quiet place away from all the hub-bub and leave this horrible hash people make of their quick winks of living and do what needs doing in this other space whenever we’ve paid whatever debt it was that keeps us hanging here to helplessly ponder the waste we all made of sweet life. Oh hell, I can tell you that for sure.