Here’s chapter one of Tietam Cane, coming out this summer with Fireship Press.
That girlie voice, that nagging I-know-every-stupid-thing-in-the-stupid-book tone: Holy Jubal Early! It was Richie Raczynski, the only Yankee I ever knew. It was recess and he must have tagged along behind me and Stub. We always slid down the kudzu bank behind the school to the creek and our dam. The creek was deep and cold and the trees above made a thick covering. There’s nothing better on a hot day than stepping into the cold creek and letting your feet wiggle on the rocks, then throwing some mud and getting pounded by some mud. We only had thirty minutes before the bell rang so we set to work. We’d already put in stones the day before, big muddy boulders, so we rolled up our pants legs and waded in to check if they were still solid.
“So, you fellas are making a real dam, huh?” Richie said.
He wore a shiny New York Yankees baseball cap. Always had this eager look on his face like a puppy that wants you to pet him.
“This is our dam,” I said. “Get lost, Yankee boy.”
Then he got all uppity. “Hey, it’s a free creek,” he said, pointing at the water. “My pop said you southern rebel types are just a bunch of warmed-over Pollack’s.”
Stub leaned over. “We could cut him up into itty bitty Yankee pieces and bury ‘em. “
“This is our dam, “I said, louder.
He paced up and back, picking up rocks.
“I don’t care. I’ll build my own dam.”
“Terrific, Richie,” I said. “Why don’t you do that?”
“And you fellas won’t be allowed to work on it.”
Stub started bawling, a cross between a dying cat and scraping chalk across a blackboard.
“A-w-w-w-w-w-! I can’t work on Richie’s dam!”
For a minute the fool thought Stub was really crying. He squinted and turned his head to the side. “Are you guys…you guys making fun of me?”
“No!” I said my hands on my hips. I tried to look outraged. “Stub, you’re not making fun of him are you?”
Stub picked up a rock, dripping and muddy. “No, we’re not making fun of you. And I’m not gonna chunk this rebel rock right between your sorry Yankee eyes.”
But before he could get it cocked good, Richie had fired off one that popped my elbow and stung like a bee.
I tore out of the water, swinging.
“Get ‘im, Tiet!” Stub yelled. He went into his own boxing routine, bouncing around in the water, shadow boxing himself. “Hit him in the mouth! Keep your left up! “
We rolled over and over and I could feel rocks gouging into my back. I freed myself and started swinging wildly again, but Richie backed calmly away and raised his hands up in front of his face. He was dancing around like Stub! I backed away.
“Don’t back off! “ Stub yelled.
I looked up on the hill where the kids from recess had all gathered to watch. My heart was pounding because I knew we’d all get into big trouble for this. Old lady Crapsey, sure enough.
I tore into him again, swinging like a wind mill.
“You Yankee devil!”
He hit me with three left jabs:
And I was on my knees. Blood gushed out of my nose and mouth down onto my new T-shirt that read: Never Forget! It felt like somebody turned on a water faucet.
Well, you can imagine what happened next. Some teachers grabbed all of us and up the kudzu bank to the old goat’s office. Soon, the nurse was mollycoddling over me with mercurochrome and band-aids, breathing out into my face the stink of her onion sandwich and bad-mouthing wicked boys who fight at school like we were the scum of the earth. All that time Richie sat across the office with his legs crossed like a grown-up and read a Life Magazine that showed that Yankee Kennedy on the cover in his PT 109 hat. Slacky Jacky. Yankee money, Yankee ways taking over the whole south with his pretty face and his wife that talked French.
Mrs. Crapsey stared hard down at me. She was a tall old thing with silver grey hair and always wore a giant carnation on her shoulder and enough jewelry and bracelets to shock an Arab sheikh. When she came down the hall you always knew it because her high heels made a telltale clacking. In her top drawer she kept a butcher knife so she could cut a student’s throat in case he got choked on the crappola food from the cafeteria.
She made up grave poems, too. Every week we got a new one out over the loud speaker like she was the angel of Death:
Life is full of cruel pain.
The grave is open ever,
But you and I may rise again
And some will live forever.
I told her “pain” and “again” didn’t rhyme, but she argued if we spoke English like we’re supposed to they would. When I asked her about the “some” in the last line, she got all huffy and claimed “not everybody goes to heaven, Tietam Cane,” and she stared hard at me.
“Now I don’t want to hear one word about Yankee this or rebel that,” she said. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The stink of all that mercurochrome was making me woozy.
She turned to Richie.
“Did he call you a Yankee devil?”
“He sure did.”
“Did he cuss at you?”
I tried to think back. I must have called him a Yankee Devil and a carpet bagger. I couldn’t believe I didn’t cuss him. She turned back to me. She was trying hard to be calm, plucking at that carnation like it would cough up some strategy. She would pluck and then stare off out the window, pluck and stare, pluck and stare.
“Antietam, why did you strike Richie?”
“How you know he didn’t hit me first?”
That set her off. Now she stooped over in my face and started wagging that long wag-finger of hers. You know I think I may have actually had nightmares about that finger.
“Because I know you, ’Tietam Cane! I know you and that grandfather of yours are still fighting the Civil War…”
“The War between the States!”
“… and I know Richie here is the only boy in this entire school who came to us from above the Mason-Dixon line and I know that is just the kind of thing that would set that little battle-happy brain of yours off.”
“He was horning in on our dam,” I said. “Typical Yankee land grab. Come down here and steal our land.”
“I don’t want your stupid land,” he said. “You rebel redneck!“
“Richie!” Mrs. Crapsey yelled.
“You know shouldn’t be playing in that creek in the first place!” she said to me. “I declare—if I’ve told you once…” Here she seemed to get all tangled up inside and she put her hand over her face like she was tired. “Is there anybody at home to come pick you up? You may need stitches, boy.”
“Use my phone and call her. At least, Bean’s got some sense. And for heaven’s sake, tell her not to bring your grandfather or he’ll start in on me again about how Longstreet lost the war.”
After I phoned Bean, Richie’s mother stormed in.
“Where’s my son? His teacher telephoned and said there’d been a fight.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of these folks who are cock sure the whole world is watching them so when they walk in a room they just glow with all the attention they think they’re getting. She had on some kind of fox fur around her shoulders, and long black gloves and she was smoking a cigarette–in a plastic holder! But the hat was the killer. Boy, I’d love to have a picture of that contraption. Like some undersea critter washed up on the beach. On one side it hung down over her ear, dead and limp, and on the other it rose up prickly and shiny like a porcupine if you spray-painted it silver. One side was dead and one side was alive.
Out in front of the school her black Cadillac was idling. Inside, sat a fat black driver in sun glasses reading the paper.
Mrs. Crapsey all of a sudden changed her tune. Here was the queen of Sheba. I thought she was going to get down on her knees and beg the woman to forgive her because precious little Richie got in trouble. Yankee money, Yankee power, my granddaddy, Junius, would say.
“Mrs. Raczynski, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule. We had a little row. Nothing big. “
The woman looked down at me in my chair like I was a bug she was about to crush and the little fox head on her shoulder looked like he would enjoy it when she did.
“You ever been to a NFL game?” I asked her.
She looked surprised. “No.”
“60,000 fans. Well, take 10 stadiums holding 60,000 fans and set out ‘em side by side. Know what you get?”
“You get the number of people who died in the Civil War.”
“How interesting.” She decided to sit down. I have never seen a woman take so much time and trouble just getting her fanny in a chair.
“That’s like 40,000 elevators each one with 15 people or if it’s parking garages you’d need 100 garages full of four door sedans with four people inside each sedan so 240,000 sedans.”
She turned to Mrs. Crapsey. “You know until we moved down from Connecticut I didn’t know there was still so much interest in the Civil War.”
“Oh, there’s plenty of interest,” Mrs. Crapsey said. “The question is who’s interested.”
“We could have stopped Sherman,” I said. “There were forces amassed in Augusta, Milledgeville, and Macon, not to mention the Georgia Militia. We just didn’t know which way he was headed. Abe Lincoln’s favorite song was ‘Dixie.’”
“Nathan B Forrest had 29 horses shot out from under him. The Confederacy spread over more than 750,000 square miles and it claimed a 3,500-mile coastline. 200 harbors and navigable river mouths.”
I decided it was time to balance my blood so I held up my right arm.
“Yes?” Mrs. Crapsey asked.
I just stared straight ahead. Richie put down his magazine. In a while Mrs. Crapsey leaned down and stared in my face. I noticed her eyelashes were running a little.
“Antietam, why is your hand up?”
I waited a little. It’s always good to wait when you’re about to say something folks don’t expect ever to hear coming out of your mouth.
“I’m balancin’ my blood, like General Jackson.”
The two women looked at each other. After Mrs. Crapsey had folded her arms and taken a deep breath, she asked what I meant.
“I’m right handed,” I said. “My blood stays on the right side. I got to raise my right arm up high so the blood’ll flow back down into my left. That’s how you balance your blood.”
Richie glared at me over his magazine.
So I stood up and walked around with my arm up, back and forth across Mrs. Crapsey’s office. The others stared at me like they’d like to send me to Milledgeville.
“I feel more balanced already,” I said.
Oh I’m a good old rebel, that’s what I am.
I won’t be reconstructed and I don’t give a…hoot”
“Stop singing that rebel song!” Mrs. Crapsey said.
While we waited for Bean, Mrs. Raczynski changed her cigarette. Put her cigarette in her holder. I watched so I could explain how it was done to Stub.
“Excuse me, ma’m,” I asked.
The woman looked at me slowly with that same who-the-heck-do-you-think-you-are-talking-to-me stare.
“What brand are you smoking?”
The caked powder on her face cracked a kind of a smile. “Why, Pall Malls.”
“Why, I smoke Pall Malls, too!” I said. Now, up to that point the lady hadn’t impressed me much. Just another carpetbagger come down here to the barefoot south to teach us manners and how to sip tea with our pinkie up, but when I discovered that she smoked Pall Malls I actually considered liking the woman. Shoot, I thought. It’s like Junius once told me: a man’s brand of smoke is personal, like a cattle brand. It marks you and when you see somebody carryin’ your mark your heart just reaches out.
“Can I have a drag?” I asked.
The woman started laughing and shot a glance over at old lady Crapsey.
Mrs. Crapsey had sat down to do paperwork behind her desk, but when she heard me ask Richie’s mother for a drag, she glared at me over her glasses. She thinks it’s a scary look, but I’d seen it enough by now to know there wasn’t much in the way of punishment behind it, a tongue lashing, maybe, or maybe you’d have to stay after school and clean the cigarette butts out of the teachers‘ lounge, but this time she stood up and scraped her chair loud.
Now that worried me. Old lady Crapsey had a thing about scraping a chair on her freshly waxed linoleum floor. I wondered if maybe this was one of those times in the week that Bean is always talking about when a woman starts to change inside and sometimes her blood’s out of balance–needs to hold her right hand up–so she gets real grouchy. The janitor, Shot, stuck his head in the door.
“Miz-z-z Crapsey, you all right?“
Before I could say Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard she had me in the next room and I was over her lap while she pounded my backside with a hardback. It wasn’t easy pretending it didn’t hurt–when it did. It hurt bad. That woman knew how to whip your butt.
And all the time she kept saying this Bible verse over and over.
“Lord you prepare my hands for battle and you give me the heart to fight.“
I was rocking back and forth and I swallowed hard and closed my eyes and kept swallowing every time I had the urge to yell out. By the time she finished my back end felt like I had sat down in a bed of fire ants and my private parts were stinging some, too.
I didn’t say peep to Bean as we drove home. The rattles in our old pickup made me sad and when we got home I got out the El Cheapo confederate cap my mama sent me when I turned five–the only present she ever sent me–and went down to the river. I don’t know why but that beating made me hurt inside more than it hurt my fanny. I sat and threw rocks in the water and watched a water snake curve his way across. The sky was dark and a breeze was blowing leaves like a deep shudder was passing through everything, me most of all sitting there wondering why I felt so sad and why my mama and daddy didn’t want me enough to even write a letter every now and then. I fought back the tears because I hated tears and I hated people who cry just because they think they’re sad. There was no reason to cry about nothing. No reason. They weren’t ever coming back and that’s all there was to it. No use in crying like a blubbery girl. And that old Crapsey bird would never touch me again like that, no sir. I knew then the day was coming when me and Richie Raczynski would meet up again and I would be ready and I would know how to
fight or whatever it was he did when he put his hands up in front of his face and calmly punched me out. And me bleeding like a stuck pig! I wanted to say some words that I knew I shouldn‘t say. I wanted to say ‘em real bad because I felt like if I said those words I would be a man and would be stronger and Richie Raczynski would know that I could say them and he would know those words gave a man power. But something inside held me back. It was like a little voice inside me, still and sweet that begged me not to say those words because if I did something inside me wouldn’t be right. I didn’t even know what it was that wouldn’t be right, but whatever it was, it was alive and tender and sweet and I didn’t want to kill whatever it was, so I didn’t say a thing, and I watched that snake cross the river and was racked with shivering from head to foot until, finally, he reached the other side.