The last two mornings, my wife and I have woken to a scurrying sound over our heads, and the last two afternoons, I’ve pulled down the attic ladder and climbed up to see what’s there, roaming around the flattened cardboard boxes we stored when we moved to Fredericksburg two years ago.
Today I went up, hammer and stapler and roll of screening and scissors in my pocket, and frog-walked under the roof beams to the windows, where something tore away the screens and bent the thin metal slats. I affixed new barriers to our house, another bulwark against invaders.
Walsh, I’m trying to remember if we had Mr. Dillon’s history class together, and if we learned about the Civil War in it. I find that now, 15 years since we graduated, so much of high school has escaped me—the quadratic equation and the point of Marbury v. Madison, the Council of Trent and almost anything I did in Student Council.
I remember you looking older than you actually were, a freshman who could have stepped onto an assembly line and picked up a welding gun. You drove a black car, a hand-me-down from some relative, I guessed, with a Dead Kennedys bumper sticker, and I was intimidated by you and your fuck-you cool. I can’t remember how we got to be friends. People in common, maybe.
Anyway, Walsh, the reason I bring up the Civil War is that I now live within a 20-minute drive of four major battlefields. I teach in a building that’s next to Confederate artillery earthworks, walk our dog down the Sunken Road that the Union tried and failed to take, and run along Stonewall Jackson’s trench lines, visible in the earth after 150 years. In Mr. Dillon’s class, the war felt abstract, “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown and all those things they used to try to connect it back to where we lived; I don’t know about you, but it was always arrows on a map to me. Grant moves here; Lee moves here; Stuart rides here.
But, Walsh, I get it now. I’ve run up the hill of Marye’s Heights, thinking about doing it under fire; I’ve stood at the point at Chancellorsville where Jackson’s soldiers burst out onto Hooker’s unsuspecting soldiers, scattering them, scarring them. I’ve visited Gettysburg, driven from the start of Pickett’s Charge to the spot where it fell back, and I have to admit that at that spot, the whole thing—the romanticism of the Lost Cause, the reenactors who loiter on my town’s sidewalks, the sentimentality of a sacrifice I never believed in—it all made sense to me.
I keep waiting for you to call bullshit on me. Our first year, before we were friends, our school held a prayer service for soldiers in the Persian Gulf. My cousin was in the Navy, and I read his name into the microphone in our darkened gymnasium. I felt uncomfortable with the saber-rattling of those days, of President Bush (the first) announcing that the “world could wait no longer,” of the oohs and aahs that accompanied the footage of the tracer bullets streaking across the Baghdad night sky.
Where were you then? Were you in the bleachers with everyone else, bored? Had you snuck out, smoking alone in the January cold of the Kansas winter that we hated, that we would both find a way out of?
I find it hard to imagine: You might have thought then about joining the military. You might have imagined then—although it seems unlikely—that another Bush might send you to Iraq, that you would die in the flash of a roadside bomb.
I want to apologize, Walsh, for not knowing for three years that you had died. I didn’t keep up with anyone after high school, so desperate to get away from Kansas that I ran all over the country, abandoning everyone in the process. Getting ready to teach and picking a book off the shelf not far from the book of poetry you told me I should buy: I thought you were alive. Hearing the radio play the song you told me about months before it broke big, suddenly everyone we disdained singing along: I thought you were alive. Standing in the bleachers at games, remembering you, at our graduation breakfast, saying “I’m so glad not everything’s going to be about fucking sports anymore”: I thought you were alive.
And you weren’t. For three years, I went on like this. And I want to say that if I didn’t know that you were dead, then you were still alive.
I keep trying to remember the last time I would have seen you; probably during that summer, before I left for college. I would have been dating Gina M. then, and we would have seen you at one of the shows in someone’s garage. But I can’t be sure.
I apparently live in the most haunted city in America. So many dead soldiers, dead civilians, walking around the streets of Fredericksburg. I don’t believe in ghosts but I wouldn’t mind seeing you one more time.
Do you know the story of Stonewall Jackson’s arm? He was wounded by his own men at Chancellorsville—a case of mistaken identity—and his arm had to be amputated. Someone retrieved his arm and buried it in the family cemetery. I visited it two weeks ago on a beautiful November day, the cemetery surrounded by dried cornstalks. If it hadn’t been for the hills, I would have sworn I was back in Kansas.
Walsh, it’s late, and I should get to bed. My wife is already there, sleep mask on, dog at her feet. Whatever ghost is in our attic sleeps too, having made it past the screen I tacked up this afternoon. And you—you’re somewhere out there, too, at rest in what you are, and no longer are, a phantom, a shadow cast along the fields in the daytime.
Colin Rafferty teaches creative writing at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Excerpted from Bellingham Review (Spring 2011), an annual literary journal based out of the Pacific Northwest and specializing in creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction.www.wwu.edu/bhreview
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.