On the Green Line subway from Boston University to Copley Square, Professor George Alexander Saunders was pondering his dilemma – Where could he go tomorrow night to get away from it? It will be reverberating all throughout his tony Back Bay neighborhood: TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-DUM-DUM-DUM…BOOM! TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-DUM-DUM-DUM…BOOM! That damned Boston Pops in the Hatch Shell playing that damned 1812 Overture with those damned fireworks. He could take a drive down to the Cape… Nah… On the Fourth of July the Southeast Expressway will be murder, and getting the car in and out of storage is a pain in the ass. Not much going on during the summer on campus either. Just about anywhere he’d go, fools would be celebrating, and for what – over two centuries of oppression, imperialism and exploitation?
In his funk he stared out the windows, as the subway car sped through light and darkness, creating that strobe light effect that, oddly enough, he found soothing, until he bolted straight up in his seat with his eyes wide. There was an on-again off-again image in the window a few empty seats up on the opposite side… He could account for no phenomenon that could explain the image of anybody flickering in that window, let alone that of his favorite professor, dead now these past seven years…
There was no mistaking him – the silver mane combed back, the owlish eyes with the dark brows, and one of those rumpled V-neck sweaters he always wore. As the COPLEY SQUARE sign flashed through the window, the image disappeared as fast as it had come. George shook himself like a retriever after a swim, and rubbed his eyes. The babushka with the head scarf two seats over got up and headed for the door, scowling at him, snapping his mind back into place. He followed her out the door.
As he surfaced at Boylston and Dartmouth, he was still shaken up, but a reminder brought him back to what he had been thinking of before this… this… thing happened. He could hear in the distance the Boston Pops warming up for their preliminary "night before" concert. George focused again upon tomorrow night’s dilemma, forcing the events of a few moments ago from his mind. He walked up Dartmouth and turned on Newbury. As he approached his apartment, the familiar surroundings relaxed his mind, and his rapid heart rate he now be attributed to his brisk pace.
He unlocked the door, and tossed his Boston Globe on the kitchen counter. The "Colorado cookie" in the corner near the fridge caught his eye, and seemed to wink back at him. He had taken a road trip out to CU Denver for a conference, and another professor he’d partied with had given it to him, telling him that there was a little something extra in the recipe besides the usual weed – the chocolate chips had been replaced by "buttons" from a certain southwest cactus. "Before you eat any of this, make sure your mind is tranquil," he had warned, "and don’t get greedy."
On an impulse, George grabbed the cookie, took off the cellophane, and took two big bites. His face puckered up. He ran to the fridge, pulled out a Molson, popped off the top and took a big gulp – to get that awful bitter taste out of his mouth that no amount of cookie dough could hide. "Eeeewww… that was rough." he mumbled. "What’s for supper? He asked himself, as he rummaged through the packages in his freezer, finally pulling out a pizza and tossing it in the microwave.
After he ate, he wandered over to the couch, and clicked the remote to the guide channel. He saw that The Wizard of Oz would be on in a few minutes, and thought that a trip down his childhood’s memory lane would be therapeutic. He got himself another Molson and noticed that he hadn’t put the rest of the cookie away. It had been a while and he wasn’t feeling much of anything, so, what the hell…
He ate the rest of the cookie.
He began his own transition at about the same time the movie transited from the drab greys, blacks and whites of Kansas to the bright colors of Munchkin land. Boy, those little people were a hellava lot funnier than he remembered… He laughed until his jaw hurt and his eyes teared up.
Everything was rollicking along just swell, until he noticed that the Yellow Brick Road everybody was singing about started to curl outside of the TV set, with flowers, plants and munchkins popping up along the side of it. "Um, that’s not right…" he thought. "These things should confine themselves to the screen." He tried to reassure himself by glancing around the room to see if everything else was in good order.
It wasn’t. The image from the subway was back.
Dr. Howard Zinn was standing in the corner with his elbow on the bookshelf.
He appeared just as he had in life, with two noticeable exceptions. First, the color of his appearance – skin, clothes, everything – was faded to varying shades of grey, as if he was a character from the Kansas part of the movie dropped into Oz. Second, he had a book hanging around his neck by one of those lanyards used to hold an ID card. The title was plainly visible: A People’s History of the United States.
"Professor Zinn?"
The answer came not in speech per se, but popped up unbidden in his mind.
"Who else do you think your addled brain and that crazy cookie would conjure up – the prophet Samuel? Banquo?"
"Whaaa… How… Why?"
"Penance, dear boy, penance… In life, I influenced young minds to confuse a blessing with a curse – that being, of course, my country. To move on, I must introduce a few of them to a spirit more capable than I am of correction in this regard. I wear this book around my neck to keep me on task. Now I usually go about this undetected by the subject, but you ate that cookie, you see… so here we are."
"But that book was your magnum opus. You must be proud to wear it…"
"You forget it’s over 600 pages, and this is the hardcover. Care to try it on?"
"No, no… No thank you. You said something about an introduction?"
"Yes, tailored for each case. Yours should be here any… Ah, there she is. Bon voyage!"
The professor pointed towards the opposite corner of the room, then he faded one part at a time – the smile last – like the Cheshire cat. George watched him go. Then he turned towards the other corner, and saw a lady in prim Victorian dress, buttoned to the neck and bound with a cameo, her dark skirt billowing out to the floor. Like the professor, her image had little in the way of color, except for a bright red ribbon tying her hair tightly across her ears, and a strange pin or badge above her left breast. As he cautiously approached, he could see the badge more clearly – it was a red circle with what looked like a spinning wheel in the middle, and the words HEROINES OF JERICHO written on it. Her face was not pretty, but handsome. Her dark eyes shined with a sternness seasoned with mercy.
"She looks like a schoolmarm." He thought to himself.
"I am a school teacher; in fact I come from a family of school teachers. You may address me as Miss Clarissa… You, sir, are to be schooled this night; if you will have it. If so, kindly touch this badge with your finger…"
George figured he was getting used to spirits by now, in fact he was feeling a bit cocky. He took the last few steps towards her in bold stride and touched the badge, as if to say "I ain’t a-scared o’ you!"
Miss Clarissa smiled. Everything went dark.
George felt a cool breeze, and smelled damp leaves and human sweat. It seemed like the night itself was wriggling past him. He heard rustling, clanking and murmuring. His eyes adjusted, assisted by an approaching dawn, and he began to make out that he was surrounded by a sea of marching men. A bit more light, and he could see their blue uniforms.
"Where am I?"
"You are standing in the yard of the Poffenberger Farm."
"Never heard of it… and these men?"
"Third Division, First Corps, Army of the Potomac. Pennsylvania boys, mostly. You see that man on the porch in the white coat? By nightfall he will be trying to operate on hundreds of these men with the light from one candle stub, until I show him the lanterns I brought in my wagon. That young man there who just passed you? This afternoon he will beg me to dig a bullet out of his face with my penknife, and I will oblige… Never had to do THAT in a schoolyard. Why don’t we travel along and see where they are going?"
He felt himself carried alongside a color guard carrying two flags – the U.S. flag, and some kind of regimental banner. They entered a cornfield, and although the stalks tangled in the legs of some of the men, George seem to glide through, not under his own power.
A sound like bees flying past his hears… Men being thrown to the ground screaming… then a crack-crack-crack that sounded like Chinese firecrackers only much louder. Blood…
"PRESENT…! PRESENT…! Present…!" echoed down the lines from one officer to another.
"FIRE…!"
Licks of flame, and then so much smoke that all he could see were the two flags nearest him. He heard a "thwump" and then a groan. The national flag started to fall, until a hand reach up out of the smoke to hold it back up.
"Why don’t they get out of here?!" he yelled.
"A few will run, but most will stay in this leaden rain and iron hail – fighting and killing; bleeding and dying – until those flags move forward or backward."
"Brave fools!"
"They are neither… They are as frightened as you would be, and many of them will die today crying for their mothers. You want to call them fools, do you? Perhaps I should take you over there to the east, where we will find the Harvard Regiment… just your sort, I would imagine. Would you care to tell Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that he is a fool, the unwitting slave of some fat industrialist? He will be shot through the neck on this day."
A soldier came into view through the smoke just a few yards away. There was a "whooshing" sound, and his head disappeared. The body wavered, the neck bubbling blood, and then toppled over. An object pin-wheeled out of the smoke, but instead of hitting George, it went through him. When it landed, he saw that it was a human arm in a blue sleeve.
"GET ME OUT OF HERE! PLEASE!" George begged of his guide.
"Very well, then. There are fields south of here that are fairly peaceful this morning. Perhaps we should go there to refresh you."
He glided across the ground faster, and a few feet above, it seemed. Somehow he doubted her promise of peace and refreshment. They stopped near a steep-sided road, and there were indeed peaceful, undulating fields all about. Scores of men in grey and butternut came running up, jumped into the road, and began rearranging the crisscrossed fence rails along the side. He looked at Miss Clarissa questioningly, but she just stood like a scarecrow, pointing her arm straight out to the field in front of these men.
George shaded his eyes and scanned the low hill a couple hundred yards out. He began to see the tops of two flags – one the U.S. and the other a beautiful emerald green. In a minute or so, he could see the heads of the men under those flags, and finally the rest of them – perfect silhouettes between earth and sky. Drums were rattling.
"Aim for their belt buckles, boys!" A man in grey with a sword in his hand yelled to the men in the road.
"I know what’s going to happen… Please, I don’t want to watch this." George wasn’t finding this place refreshing in the least.
One more stop further south, and then we shall leave." Miss Clarissa promised.
They glided again over the ground, this time stopping near an arched stone bridge, crowded at one end with blue clad soldiers milling about. Miss Clarissa looked them over, and then smiled, pointing down near the water.
"Ah! There they are! My favorite regiment – the 21st Massachusetts! Let’s go down and see them… I had dozens of these boys in my classroom!"
"Are they going into a fight?" George asked balefully, as they glided down to the stream.
"Not for an hour or so. There is someone I would like you to meet. Do you see that smiling Irishman with the chin whiskers and the Sergeant stripes? That’s Thomas Plunkett… In another battle a few months after this one, he will rush forward to take the national flag when the bearer is hit, and carry it forward. A shell will blow both his arms off. He will wrap the bloody remains around that flag, and keep going forward yelling ‘Don’t let it fall, boys! Don’t let it fall!’"
The Sergeant took out a clay pipe and a tobacco pouch, and began to fill the pipe. George watched the movement of those hands that would soon be lost. He felt a lump in his throat and his eyes began to tear up. He tried desperately to think of something – a person, place, thing or idea – anything that he could love deeply enough to do what that man would do.
"You promised we could leave after this."
"Indeed I did. Please touch the badge." George was anxious to obey.
It went dark again. Once his eyes were adjusted, the first things he saw were large moonlit windows. There was a musty smell. Miss Clarissa lit a kerosene lamp. They were in a large office, with papers, maps and books scattered all about. There was a fireplace, a large wooden table in the middle of the room, an armchair between the windows, a couple of sofas and some wooden chairs. Up against the window wall was a mahogany writing desk with pigeon holes.
"Do you see that folded bit of paper in the upper right compartment of the desk? It was placed there months ago, and has had to remain there until the news of the battle we have visited reaches this office. Would you kindly take it out and read it?" George pulled the paper out and brought it near the lamp.
That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…
"The Emancipation Proclamation… We’re in Lincoln’s Office!" The paper dropped from his hand.
"Quite so, and we are fresh from the fields of Antietam, on America’s bloodiest day. This is the office of the president who also warned us that if God wills it, ‘…every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.’ Tell me now, sir, has there been sufficient atonement to meet with your satisfaction, and for sins with which this nation was born – paid for not only at Antietam, but upon hundreds of other battlefields, times and places?"
George could not answer.
"I see… Please pick up the paper and return it to its place. This office is untidy enough as it is, and we should not contribute to it."
"Yes, Miss Clarissa." He had intended the thought to be sarcastic, but it turned out genuine.
"George, I feel that in the short time we have been together, we have become friends, and my friends call me Clara."
"Clara?! My God, you’re Clara Barton, the Angel of the Battlefield…! I remember you from high school history class!"
"At your service, Sir, or so I hope I have been." She politely curtsied. "We have one short lesson left, if you are willing. Lincoln also claimed that this nation was ‘…the last, best hope of earth.’ Would you care for a brief glimpse of what civilization would be like if the United States had ceased to exist – if those flags you saw had fallen, never to rise again? If so, please close your eyes…"
As usual, George instantly obeyed her.
"Tell me what you see."
"Nothing… I’ve got my eyes closed!"
"Ah, what a clever young man – so sharp-witted! And with the correct answer, too, for that is exactly what would be left: NOBODY, NOTHING… NEMO, NIHILUM… Nemo, Nihilum… Nemo, Nihilum…"
George opened his eyes.
He was lying on his coach in a cold sweat, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, and craving orange juice. He looked at his watch. 10:30 am, July 4th… Hmmmm. In pondering the dream, trip, experience, or whatever it was George tried to remember where he had seen a lady’s face like that recently. It was softer though – pretty, actually. Oh yeah… that grad student from Ukraine in 2C – Katrina.
That brought to mind something he’d said to her that he wished he hadn’t. At that wine and cheese thing the other night, she had been talking about some of the choices she had on where to study. She’d been offered a place in Amsterdam, Stockholm, and even Paris, but she had always wanted to come to the United States.
"Why?" someone had asked.
"Because here I can do anything; be anybody I want if I try hard enough. You don’t know what that feels like if you don’t come from a place like I did."
"Boy, somebody sure sold you a bill of goods." George had sneered. He remembered the hurt look on her face.
George returned to his dilemma concerning that evening. He picked up his cell phone.
"Hey, Katrina… It’s George… George Saunders in 2A. Look, I’m sorry about that crack I made the other night, when you told us why you came here. I want to make it up to you. Would you let me buy you a hot dog at the stand down the street later on? Then after, maybe we could go down the Esplanade and find a good spot to listen to the Pops…"
"You would? Cool… I’ll come by around six… And I’ll let ya ask me anything you want about America, and I promise not to be a smart-ass. She’s quite a lady, you know."
THE END
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