Editor’s note: Listen to Allan Gurganus read his story.
I do dearly despise being late, but here I am, three minutes behind my time. Uncharacteristic and a mighty poor example for you youngsters. Patience is much appreciated and aren’t you a lovely, varied crowd? Big group, too, for my first day back!
As you likely know, you’ve turned up in historic downtown Falls, North Carolina. Our trek will soon involve some strolling. No worry. If a lady of my vintage can hike it in heels, even the biggest of you will do fine. I won’t gallop. There’s simply too much to see and say on this, my return to history and the world.
Some call ours a town that time’s forgotten. But I have not.
I am a volunteer docent, meaning every cent of your ticket goes to preservation. And doesn’t our courthouse square look handsome in this morning light? See those cannon? The city finally varnished them. I had to nag our mayor. Children, to prove my tours are real educational: The plural of “cannon” is “cannon.” Gather closer, please. And disarm all cellphones. These next few minutes I want to be your favorite form of modern communication. Founded in 1824, the …
Right off, we’ve a teeny problem: These little barefoot girls up front are visibly texting. Yes, you. Thank you for looking up. You’re walkie-talkie-ing each other, right? Doubtless chatting about old me and Falls, even older. Girls, how do you think that makes us feel?
Any adult present willing to take responsibility for these two? Well, could you at least stand between them or help them to hang up? Others here have come on purpose—my first day back from the edge—come to hear some actual Hist’ry. Not those clicking speedy little thumbs.—Fine. Nothing personal, all right? Everybody feel ready to move?—It’s this way, actually.
My name, as some may know, is Mrs. Evelyn du Pre Wells. Born and bred two blocks from here, on Summit. I’ve always claimed first dibs on you, our Full-Deluxe $19.95 visitors. You’re a finer class of listener than those who’ll only pay for our $4.95. As we walk, we’ll encounter Falls’ dead and living, politicians and sculptors from centuries past, persons white and black. And you know what all these achievers have in common? They would’ve shelled out the $19.95.—Humor, you see.
Founded in 1824, Falls—known for the purity of its tobacco and its curative River Lithium—still plays host to sixteen churches. Our township produced one minor sculptor, a major general, and several beauties of national note. Could be we’re more famous for those who perished here than ones we midwifed into being. The Civil War’s oldest surviving soldier perished, not three homes from my family’s, in 1958. When that war ended, the boy was still a private. But, thanks to inherited property, his pushy little wife, and the man’s own narrative imagination, he died, promoted by time, to the rank of captain. And here, solely as footnote … may I mention how today’s stroll through history feels important to my own?
After the slightest recent medical setback, I’m fit as a fiddle and raring to go. After my Edmund died, Falls noted I’d become housebound, idled, unusually silent. Town offered me this small late-life career. Since then, thanks to my research and a certain grit, I’ve become Falls’ most-asked-for guide. How, you ask? Oh, it’s not just the social preeminence. Though, there is that.
No, this work takes a certain kind of brain. Narrative imagination. I don’t simply recite history. I interpret. Or “interrupt,” as my middle-aged daughter jokes. “Mother is a licensed ‘historic interrupter,’ ” my girl told her best book group. They all laughed. So I had to. But do you see so much as a clipboard in my hand? I know my stuff. Born here to the town’s best, I am the stuff. Local doubters have hinted how—with me so lately under the weather—I am still not “ready.” But we’ll show them, won’t we?
Maybe form a loose line? and here our more directed walking starts. No, I repeat, dears, more this way. Yes, Falls is tiny, but, as Blake hinted, the universe exists in a grain of sand. Your immersion in all that our village implies will be followed by some lovely chicken salad. It’s served at our best—actually only—bistro, Sally’s on the Square. Sally, she’s a cousin. You won’t soon forget her chicken’s surprise seasoning. Trade secret. I naturally keep Cousin’s recipe safe up here, on trust. Please don’t ask. (Oh, I’ve had cash offers.)
I see you two are certainly dressed for comfort—if you find navigating cobblestones in flip-flops relaxing! To be honest, during the $4.95 hike, especially on overcast days, if their group acts glum or sounds too much from New Jersey? I let their walk “go short.” I call my ten-minute tour the Revised Standard Version. It naturally lacks the grandeur I intend for us today. My comeback is blessed with all this splendid June weather. Youall’re entitled to my whole King James seven-block sweep.
Today will be personal. Mrs. Evelyn has far more than dates to share. You see, this is the first walking tour since my resurrection. Got your attention? I did; I had a slight episode. And I’ve come out the tunnel’s far end a whole new person. I’m back, but somewhat flipped-over, more sunny-side up. More … available, maybe more easily surprised. Today, everything old looks freshly varnished. Everything new’s gone antique-valuable.
Most persons believe history only means “back then.” Maybe that’s why it’spopular? Folks feel that—aside from hearing it—they can change nothing back there. But with me post-bedrest, I see: History’s “right now.” Why, children, things can change in a second! Like, if I say “RIGHT NOW” again, see? Well, now we’re in a whole new place. A new and deeper time. I’m just making this part up but it still feels solid. Maybe what we call the past is just back issues of “RIGHT NOW”? But today, everything’s quickened. Our town’s colors look pure as a Benjamin Moore sample chart.
I feel s’healthy. I want the whipcrack of history’s now to live and burn for you, too, especially these dear youngsters. Pretty, that one. The “Founded in 1824” script? Written by a sixth-grade teacher, charming girl, my late husband’s niece. But she herself sometimes seems an enthused sixth-grader. No names. “Either names or tales. Never both,” Mother warned. Being a name myself, I always choose tales.
Falls doctors’ wives have been filling in for me during the prescribed two months’ recovering. Don’t think me ungrateful. But I am told certain ones constantly flee the big topics: oh, race, litigation, embarrassments. Mrs. Evelyn says: History is embarrassments. What else, in toto, was our attractive if deluded Confederacy? Children, here’s an easy math problem. In 1860 there were 56 million Yankees, but just 17 million Rebels (and 5 million of those were noncombatant slaves). Young’uns, guess which side was bound to win? Right you are! They should have asked YOU! Ooh, don’t get me started. Well, yes, my dear bright child, you already have.
With my returning to the history game, expect some surprises. I know I do. When my truth’s too bluntly presented, I’ve encountered resistance. But, considering the size and importance of Belmont, my home on Summit, even if I grow overly candid, what are they going to do to me? My recent dustup with the mortal left my appetite for answers boiled far nearer the surface.
Soon you’ll all be back on US 301, bound south for Miami. Once there you can scatter Falls’ news to the four winds. But I? I remain. I am so old I can’t name a number vast enough to describe my great leaf pile of years. You’ll never guess my age. No takers? Evelyn’s first day back and she draws a bunch of diplomats? So much for our next hour’s fun! But I do love having you young ones along. I once skipped like that little girl on the end. Oh the joy of using double energy to get not one step farther. Why, if I tried that today, I’d best have an ambulance handy! Still, Little Evelyn remembers.
You two darlings, now that you’ve stopped messaging, you are so much more attractive. I think people squinting at little screens … makes ’em s’ugly. Why, there’s a whole immediate world waiting all up out here! Look, two cardinals and one blue jay. Bird colors are so good they flirt with being cheap.
Moving along nicely. No stragglers, please. Incorporated in 1824, almost immediately made the county seat, Falls still boasts 5,000 souls. We’re down from our peak 7,000 during the commercial boom of ’98. That’s 1898. See that arched bridge? Some say that yonder River Lithium accounts for both our citizens’ soothed temperaments and for how hard we find leaving home. Few local students, matriculating up North, last long there. Kind chemistry might explain why certain of our more world-class minds actually stay put!
On the cheap tour, I lead Yankees straight to Town Hall right past secret sites of major hangings. Mind you, I withhold nothing out of laziness. I simply foresee which group is historically minded—like you-all are. Everybody cannot handle events that once complicated these torch-lit streets. Especially certain midnights in the name of hurry-up justice.
Plus, the $4.95ers get not one dollop of chicken salad. For them I might point out to Carnegie Library yonder. Might call it, “McKim, Mead & White-like.” Little joke. Most Garden Staters don’t “get” it, nary a smile. Sad, public education. In New Jersey. Why, Prince-ton was Granddaddy’s school.
I feel opened today, and isn’t June simply the best? Falls was founded then, right now, June 11, 1824. Can’t help feel that today’s our start-over chance, an anniversary and birth date both. Since the aforementioned surprise medical turn, certain of my personality filters have grown more I’d say … porous. Nerves tuned ever-alert. Times, sunshine almost cuts. What made me three whole minutes late? As I was walking over to greet you, I saw a mangy yellow alley cat trying to carry one of her blind kittens across Main. Just some common collarless house cat without a house. No pedigreed Siamese, mind you. Still, I stopped suddenly. And, as never before, felt for that feral thing. In the mother’s mouth her young one hung by its neck’s loose skin. Both animals faced terrible recent traffic we’re getting off the interstate. Mrs. Mother Cat stood waiting for the green light at a human crosswalk. Hesitating, she looked hard left then right, her kitten swaying as, fearful, her head turning, she made sure, sure. Something … about … her … attempts … the endurance required.
Incorporated in 1824, ever eager to further erode the church-state divide, Falls has given US history one lieutenant governor and three US cabinet-level politicians no more corrupt than forty-nine other states’ greedy boys.
I say “Welcome to Falls,” but would it welcome all of us, of you? Small-town life is made possible by rarely stating one’s true opinions. It’s the bargain we strike to keep getting invited places. But my brief illness just showed me: Mrs. Evelyn here—a good sport far too long—has kept so many ghastly secrets rammed safe down her throat. For nigh onto a century. Secrets must, like bad molars, eventually come out, if you’re to survive. Oh imagine finally feeling sunbaked clean. Still, with inherited gifts go responsibilities. And, socially, I do think you have to be at a certain level in order to see at a certain level.
As for my naming names as we tour, if Falls’ historic figures died during the nineteenth century, I consider them fair game, clear up to 1960. Our tourist board threatened to stick me back in the booth with the brochures. But I can talk there, too. Before my near-death experience, I defined myself as “conservative,” believe it or not. Then I woke up being this whole other person, the person I’d been becoming behind my own back.
And History is the only way they’ll let me talk about it!
You, you no-longer-texting pretty youngster skipping on the end? That was a yellow park rose, not your yellow rose. Well, don’t throw it down now; you’re just doubling your crime. Stay closer by. I see that you brightest children need stimulation, stories. You know bears were once so plentiful ’round here people would eat them like you’d go out and kill a hog? I yet own a family recipe, 1689, for “Bear Pie.” Can you guess one thing lets me so confidently lead you? Leadership genes.
My many-greats-back first American granddad, our founder, is still called “Grand Number One.” Big handsome man. He became a Carolinian after getting voted out of the Jamestown settlement for his sanitation ideas.
Yes, throughout my family’s seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, we’ve timbered then farmed till, alas, subdividing (into tasteful five-acre lots) this rich red soil on which we landed, 1607. History for people like us always means what’s next “Right Now.” I won’t be kept in my four-poster bed another two months. Whatever the young doctor says, I shall not be held back from my twice-daily appointments with history and our honored guests. There is a need to fill in Falls. And my people have always filled those. Bargain for you, and lucky for all involved. Never felt better in my life and do hope you find me making sense? Fine then. So I thought.
Well-preserved, you say? Well, aren’t you precious. Care to know my beauty secret? The Twenty-Third Psalm. Keeps coming to Mrs. Evelyn’s rescue. On a summer day this warm so early, I have but to quote, “He maketh me lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.” Best offer I’ve had in months. Say it and your temperature’ll plunge, I swear.
On your left, my right actually, please note our handsome Gothic Revival Courthouse. See its columns topped with carved cornstalks and tobacco leaves? Done by a local boy who headed north to study at the Pennsylvania Academy under respected sculptor, Stirling Calder. (Man was father of the more famous Alexander, twentieth-century inventor of “the mobile.” Stirling’s own daddy forged that huge William Penn atop one tall Philadelphia building.) Our lad from Falls flourished, shot to the head of his class but, first semester, had a breakdown involving the undraped models he was daily subjected to. Of course, to do nude park statues, you need a real stripped thing to look at.
One of his teachers, in a class open to both male and female pupils, saw fit to undrape a man, whole hog—all while making some point about the finer points of the male … anatomy.—Is this too much?
Children? Raise your young hands if Mrs. Evelyn either upsets or confuses you. Blame history. See, it’s all dead-true. That’s what I’m talking about. American facts cannot be beat. I don’t make anything up. In a town this small, fiction’s unnecessary.
Why, if I told a quarter of what I know, the mayor’d disavow me; probably nationalize my lovely home on Summit. One good thing to put in chicken salad? White pepper, not black, is all I’ll say. And if this detail gets mentioned at Sal’s bistro later, Mrs. Evelyn is going with deniability, hear? Yes, dear, you may keep carrying your yellow rose since you went ahead and picked it.
But that art teacher proceeded to yank the cloth off the handiest example of it, I reckon, of the male anatomy. Our delicate Falls boy, whose mother had protected him, even from the minimal coarseness surging along tree-lined Summit Avenue, which you will shortly tread and, as its name implies, is the pinnacle of refined art-loving book-oriented civilized filtration, he saw, for the first time, another … portion of another full-grown male’s full-throttle … anatomy.
From whatever he expected, it must’ve looked … different. The breakdown ensued almost at once. Our boy, later grown ancient, explained (to me as a wee girl) there’d been something about how that brusque teacher whipped off the posing cloth or pouch or whatever. In front of ladies! It was seeing the male model’s own shocked expression. As if a man posing nude for his living had no idea as how all that extruded gear had been waiting shaded under there.
In short, in wintry Yankeeland, the most gifted of our village boys fell pure apart. The lad—found wearing four pairs of winter pants, unable to leave his Walnut Street apartment—was shipped straight home to Falls. He was just one of ours to personally Appomattox, to stage a strenuous public washout up north. Me (except my college years), I stayed, and therefore stayed untested. That was your Mrs. Evelyn’s fate till—after bearing a child then burying a husband—I somehow ascended, half-despite my upbringing and grim good taste, into being Falls’ number one guide.—Well, it gets me out.
Philadelphia’s loss proved our gain, as you see in the courthouse capitals up yonder. Truth is, I always think his depicted corncobs look a little like hand grenades. See that, youngsters? But the peerless veining along his tobacco leaves makes for plants you can all but smell. O, how fragrant it was on Market Days in our Falls before the US Surgeon General, issuing warnings funded by your tax dollars, jinxed my daddy’s business, one highly profitable crop. Yes, madam? Good, a question. Say what? The name? Of whom, dear? The sculptor … of those agricultural products … that … predominated … hereabouts for … he, oh I won’t lie to you. I just forgot. But only his name. Not him. Is that awful? I know it is. Not to answer my dear tourists’ first historical question, all while having by heart our artist’s entire genealogy.
When I started telling you about that model being stripped naked? I feared its drama would take up those very brain cells soon needed for entry-level information. I knew the boy’s mother as clearly as I see you here—with your digital cameras and some sunscreen blobbed beside the nose of that pretty little girl with the Afro on the end, there, that is better—names are the first things you lose, children. He never got real famous, anyway!
I admit I am up onto the very Everest of my time. Air thins. Even ladies’ hair thins. Tree line soon teeters far below. My doctor told me to go back to whole milk after years of slenderizing skimmed. For bones. But you try this, twice daily. To go, Moses-like, leading tours daily at ten then four, without the three-ring binders that certain First Baptist tour ladies in their early fifties must read aloud, read badly. The doctor at Duke told me I’d had “many strokes” till my daughter explained he meant “mini strokes.” As in “miniskirts.” Well, that certainly spelled relief!
One thing, I can still walk. You need to, leading pedestrian tours. Even my $4.95ers respect that. Yes, quite the hiker, my vigorous Scot tradition, kilts, knotted calves. Can still do five miles before my first cup of coffee but his name … Clarence! Clarence Royce Whitted! Born summer 1888, died not twenty-nine years back just two blocks north, 211 Summit.
I will point out his house, if one of you youngsters reminds me. Volunteers? Excellent. This pretty little colored girl right here in front. I choose you, darlin’. Cute as a button and bright, I can always tell. Our most famous sculptor got collected: Why, his statue of Chief Geronimo (1829–1909) stands in our governor’s mansion. Dear Clarence, like a much, much older brother, befriended me while I was just a questioning, if not unpretty child. So, yes, folks, these crop capitals would prove his masterpiece post-Philadelphia-breakdown.—How’m I doing? Be honest. Facts console people. Folks just gulp dates down. They think they can permanently know a thing.
My only child blames me for “hooking” her on history, like some drug. This daughter, “Meade,” family name, she’s sixty already. (Time, I swear!) This morning Meade begged me to stay in bed or, if I was determined to risk this, at least to stick with just facts till I ease back in. “Beside the stilled waters, preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemy, Forgetfulness!”
Now, feeling better and certainly hope you all are. Good. Confidence is the thing.
What say we just keep moving southward, whatever befalls our li’l scouting party? Pioneer spirit. Fact is, while still a girl, on Sunday afternoons, my parents and my friends and theirs, we promenaded right around the square here, still wearing white church clothes. Crinolines made their very private sound, whispery, crackling, even. A brass band’s always playing Victor Herbert or your top hymns. My, but full sun is warming. Mind these cobblestones now. Tricky even for my two-inch heels.
Do these stones feel historically accurate? Should. These are the originals, children. Certain ones are said to have come over as ballast on English ships. “Pavers” can snag even a two-inch heel and break a hip. Certain local ladies my age or younger get so worried about falling, they want to spread tar clear over stones’ own history. Why, if every generation did that, what’d be left to walk my tours through?
Good college friend of mine, she just attended the burial at Arlington Cemetery, for the last sailor found in wreckage of a Civil War ironside. Government had held his body since the seventies, the 1970s. Finally DNA science grew sophisticated to where it could trace which crew member he was. Then they actually contacted that poor sailor-boy’s living kin. This would likely be the last-ever Civil War burial. Big ceremony: Secretary of the Navy spoke, Marine band played, horse-drawn cortege waited out front, news photographers, a nation-mourns type-thing. They saved that chapel’s whole front pew for the dead seaman’s modern offspring. And his kin, they turned up all right. Wearing shorts. One, I am told, in a huge yellow Tweety Bird T-shirt. Here came grieving men and women slouching to Arlington in flip-flops!
No, not criticizing you, dear. Why, that was a state funeral, and we’re in summer with an outdoor group seeking more Mrs. Evelyn information. Apples, oranges. Even so, I say a nation with no formality—with only an obese off-duty sapping casualness—it just makes China’s takeover that much easier!
Let’s keep ours at least a high-end $19.95 nation, right?! Humor again, see. But, in light of some of your footwear, we trailblazers had best stick to historical Falls’ sidewalks, agreed? Lunch ahead, remember. You’ve got a secret treat in store. And the hungrier you get the more you’ll want to know her cold chicken’s spices. Don’t even think of begging me. Sally is a first cousin with a private formula and Mrs. Evelyn’s lips are sealed.
Say what, young lady? Local hangings? Oh dear, yes, we had ’em. But, child, it is scarcely past ten in the a.m. What put you in mind of those? Psychic little girl you are, Voodoo. Sally has probably not yet deboned sufficient white meat to become our chicken salad and here we’ve already hit the historic-racial-punishment question! I prefer tucking that closer to my tour’s end, once I get you all back nearer your cars. My $4.95ers don’t even get to hear the pivotal American word “slavery.”
But, you did pay nearly twenty dollars, adults, children, five, I believe. So Mrs. Evelyn, as local hostess to history’s embarrassing present tense, should not deny you. Of course, I’d be going up against the Chamber of Commerce boys again. There are three main censors, uniformly Young Republicans, all named “Skeeter,” each one’s mind a forty-watt bulb. They’ll once more likely threaten me with silence. But … only if one amongst you should return to the Visitors Center and gripe afterward. Well, but you promise?
If I do tell the “whole truth and nothing but,” you’ll defend your Mrs. Evelyn? Show of hands. Well, I declare. I am a wee bit flattered. My first day back and maybe our nation’s still a democracy, after all!
But, should anybody care to skip this part, go wait over in that shady old bandstand. I’ll send my teacher’s pet here to retrieve you the second my topics get easier.
Well, now that Miss Flip-Flop’s gone, the answer’s “yes.” Some. Some hangings did occur. This has never before been a tour stop. I am possibly overstepping. But, see this giant sycamore right here, silent? It did not go uninvolved. Hanging is a more complicated social pattern than is commonly … And, m’young ones, more historical vocabulary: The proper verb here is a person’s being “hanged.” Not “hung.” That is something else.
Vigilantism I’d call mighty unfortunate. See, poor white workers resented freed slaves taking their jobs for even lower wages. Much of the South’s trouble came down to our poor whites and how very little my own people, the more fortunate badminton Summit Avenue crowd, did to control Caucasian riffraff hereabouts. Gentry looked the other way. Generations living in a … cloud and I don’t know what silly mists! Bourbon, certain ones. Sad comment—especially from a town once called “the Athens of this far into Eastern North Carolina.”
But we will always have the poor, certain uneducated bog-Irish lurking about, inebriated, intermarrying and making Saturday mischief. The facts about lynching, all over the US and not merely in the South, appall any thinking person.
(But, wait. Owing to this child’s question, aren’t I suddenly telling you Falls completely out of order? Seems I was just getting our pretty town founded in that butter-colored 1824. To offer you a newer reference point, that yellow mother cat trying and get her poor blind baby across four lanes of traffic? They occurred right here today. Does that give you a sense of the epic pageantry involved? But this question, see, reorganizes me just when I can likely least afford it.)
I am told that, between the 1880s and the early 1960s when it went completely out of fashion, thank God, at least 5,000 persons were done away with in this savage manner. And zero prosecutions, since the men who do it too often wear pillowcase hoods or pull their hat brims down or are your actual sheriff. So this very sycamore, grown up to shade a courthouse so McKim, Mead & White-like. Thank you for that knowing smile. Are you a schoolteacher? Yes, African-American schoolteachers just warm my heart. I am proud of those who look after their own community. You folks and your little girl who just asked this question, I assume she is yours, do seem so bright, which just makes my work that much easier. Why, if this tree could talk, we’d pay it not to.
Two of our worst hangings depended on participation from this self-same sycamore. But, no, Professional Educator, you hear that passive construction I just indulged? It was weak of me and is shaming. That was the old me talking, the pre-mini-stroke Evelyn, a lifelong default-setting Daughter of the American Revolution. Fact is, this tree had little to do with it. Plain human meanness inspires such acts.
Most of the hanged men—all ours were men—proved innocent. But only afterward, see. The white girl recanted but she’d always been homely and had lied from day one about having random boyfriends. And that stolen silver punch bowl—very valuable, made by Gorham, an early prototype of the “Viking Bowl” shown at 1893’s Columbian Exposition—was later found under a dining-room table. It had been placed there the day before by one cautious housepainter, not wanting to drip enamel on that grade of sterling. The owner who reported it stolen? She did not know this precious wedding gift’s whereabouts. Oh and that lady she was very hard on herself afterward. Later railed against herself for having accused a boy named Sammy, someone she’d known, liked, and hired his entire short life. It was terrible for everybody, really. Shocking when country men dragged that hollering child my age from a jail cell where police had stuck him just as a one-night lesson.
Poppa said I could absolutely not go downtown, what with this mess roaring everywhere. But you know me. In my nightclothes and slippers I simply monkey-climbed my bedroom’s wisteria arbor, just came running these two blocks here to Courthouse Square, hoping and save our funny quiet Sammy. Running, I planned a speech! I feared grownups might reprimand me for being on the public street in a nightgown; but what with torches and the screaming, everybody was looking up at what was, not supposed to be, but hung twenty feet right in this tree. Poor boy. Skin ashy gray already. And hadn’t done not one thing wrong, Sammy. Oh, my my. This is … extra. Must not tell, you must not tell, I ever told that.
So … but. I know how long she suffered, the woman that accused our Sammy wrongly, because, well, she was no stranger to me, but related by blood. Let it not be said I do not implicate my own family, given its central role in our town’s and nation’s founding.
After round one of my TIA mini-strokes, they said I’d only keep “losing function.” But I have also gained things. Have taken onboard a whole new admiration for the visible world, plus certain old secrets I am flat saddened to finally know. But human life and history, it’s not all subtraction, children, no. We’re added onto, too. Or so I …
Is it not humid out today? Surely we heirs of these very Carolinas’ founders should be used to it. Northern European stock was just not meant for this Africanized tropical climate. Imagine what all noon might bring. Should have worn a big garden hat. But it seemed, in my hall mirror, too “intentional,” overtly picturesque. Even for you, the more educated Deluxe crowd. I was not thinking practically, nor of myself. So many little concessions to others. Well, what say we tarry a moment in this tree’s generous shade. See how many uses a sycamore can serve? Note its handsome mottled bark, unique … botanically.
You don’t usually find an Altar Guild churchwoman willing to meet with strangers on public streets, much less go near the subject of race. But me, I am stronger than that. Mother brought us up different. She made her own mistakes but the woman learned. We’ll soon stroll off onto Summit Avenue, runs parallel. I’ll point out Belmont, 1824, my own home but we can’t go in, as it is her day for downstairs vacuuming and she’d kill me.
Summit’s been the scene of major coming-out parties, seven murders for sure, and more suicides than have ever been called that. One good thing modern is medicine. I thank you, Madame Schoolteacher, for passing me your brochure to use as my personal hand fan. S’thoughtful of you. Getting toasty out. Nice, your complimenting me on the spring in my step. Guess how old? Still unwilling? Maybe that is personal. I hail from a long line of walkers, and I do not mean the rolling aluminum kind! Another recent advance is how the race subject can be addressed front and center, at least among thinking persons like us. And especially, my lucky first time back, to draw, like ours today, a “mixed” crowd.
My daughter, near retirement age, belongs to several local book groups. One still reads books. My Meade just idolizes Jefferson. By now it’s drifted way past “crush.” Why, nothing in Meade’s backyard, eighteenth-century knot-garden is not first in Jefferson. The man ghostwrote our Declaration at age thirty-five and who can deny his genius? Of course I myself bought Meade all those worshipful children’s biographies. Before we understood the full extent of his interest in animal husbandry, if you grownups see my meaning.
Meade will tell you her two muses are the scientific Jefferson and her dog, a pug she calls Wallis in honor of the Duchess of Windsor, one of the most selfish people ever to draw breath. All pugs, lacking actual noses, snuffle like a TB ward. To top that, her Wallis, he has asthma.
My girl keeps a reproduction of Houdon’s life-sized bust of Jefferson in her dining room, has a man’s fedora propped on it, cocked at an angle. I asked her, only once, why that hat was there. Meade answered, “Cute on him. Other questions, Historical Interrupter?” She often mentions Jefferson’s weight and height, red hair, shyness. Except, I guess, around his personal staff.
Meade calls Jefferson “Master Tom.” Or, after sufficient martinis, “Massah Tom.” I tell you: Her expectations of him are just not realistic!—She remains unmarried. Has a willful streak I find mysterious. Never a beauty, Meade. Took after my husband’s mother, poor dear thing. (But, I do notice, out at our mall, the utter lack of looks doesn’t stop those countless frog-like couples from rubbing all up against each other.)
Anyway, her book group that still reads chartered a bus to Monticello again. They included me. We’re there so often, Meade bought one of their out-of-town memberships.
DNA sure changed Jefferson scholarship. Last time we’d toured, his “slaves” were still called “servants.” Since then crime-scene science had advanced and got the jump on our founding father. We filed into Monticello’s great foyer still rich with the gigantic antlers of Lewis and Clark’s trophy specimen. Our tour guide was a lovely undergraduate girl studying history at UVA. Pretty mint-green cotton dress but worn with running shoes. Not sure why.
Funny but her name was Martha, same as his late wife’s. She welcomes us to the home and immediately brings up the third President’s slave mistress. Goes straight to Ms. Hemings’ being mother to Jefferson’s, what? Six or eight bright, dusky, sideline children. Well, my daughter’s face started duskying up. Meade let out a single hiccup that soon edged toward growl. I just sensed trouble coming. Me? I do dearly despise “a scene.” Someone of my blood pitching a public fit? Can have no greater enemy than me.
But in terms of what can be said these days, even at Monticello, sex can be discussed. Especially there. Good thing, too. (Say what? You want more of the tour’s walking part? Soon as your Mrs. Evelyn gets herself cooled off a little. But what I am guiding here aloud is itself quite a procession. If you’ll bother to listen. History cannot be sidestepped, whatever your footwear.) Getting back to Thomas Jefferson, for the few of you still interested? Well, thank you, School Teacher.
Just wish I had taught my daughter more directly about birds and bees and men’s willingness to do or pay anything for it. My poor Edmund. Maybe my cowardice about sex talk stunted our Meade, you think? I’ve become liberal; but could be too late! Oh, my daughter is intelligent, the admired executive vice president of our local college. But I should not have withheld being casual, plus early sex information. She’s never had one boyfriend. By now I’d be happy with her finding some nice woman roommate, maybe a trust-funded potter out of Sarah Lawrence or somewhere. But it’s always just Meade alone being stubborn Meade. If generalized sex is embarrassing, her evident virginity’s worse.
By now my daughter was staring absolute daggers at the Monticello docent. I confess to stepping slightly away from my own flesh and blood. I did. Our guide had lovely skin and you could see she was of good family. But before she’d got Jefferson’s ink dry on the Louisiana Purchase, she was off into his sex-with-the-slave thing.
Well, my daughter’s breathing grew so labored, she had to cross her arms to keep standing. Meade’s face contorted to where Miss Docent, cool, dignified, pointed: “Question, I believe? This attentive lady…”
“I mean,” Meade started. “Just name us what a man of his refinement might have found to discuss with a semi-literate subservient girl-servant and for all those years? Name one common interest!”
Well, everybody looked at their feet. Our guide, being young and trained, did not back down.
“In common, Miss? You’ve clearly done some homework. So you’ll know that Sally Hemings was not just any ole ‘subservient.’ Your word. She chanced to be the beautiful nearly identical-looking younger half-sister to Jefferson’s own recently dead wife. His Martha had forced on him a deathbed promise never to remarry. What possible interest? What activity or fascination might he and Hemings find to share? Could some universal language be spoken day or night across every border of class and race? Hmmn. We are all women of the world, no? One common interest, while living in sight of each other far out here, on their ‘little mountain,’ day in day out? Possibly S-E-X? You and I, Miss, can both acknowledge Jefferson was one energetic man, highly driven and not a little … ‘project oriented.’ ” This was Martha using humor, see? “But let’s turn away from his merely personal flukes. Let us turn toward the sun of his genius that brings daily buses like yours to … ”
“ ‘Flukes’!” Meade screamed it. She grabs that girl by one arm, spins her clear around. Then, right in Monticello, Meade orders the guide to go wash her mouth out. With lye soap, period-appropriate! She said “lye soap!” Implying a mistruth, I suppose.
Before they called security, before the black guard made her tear up her out-of-town membership card in front of Yankees and everybody, I explained how our docent had not written that foyer speech. I told Meade: Martha’s welcome had not been freeform. (Not the way that I—being always over-prepared—sometimes allow mine to evolve, if I get, like you-all, an especially receptive group.) No, the girl’s had been scripted by the very historians you see on PBS. And I explained to everyone: This young coed had not herself climbed up on any helpless slave girl. So why be mad at her, Meade?
But you know, I basically found it tonic. How a docent can clear the air. Why, with race touched on right away, we could more freely focus on his room colors and love of Palladio’s villas. But my daughter’d already huffed to the bus, waiting out there with her Wallis. Yes, she had brought him along in a French traveling case! Still, as shocked as Meade’s book club was, rattling home, I inwardly determined to be fresher, more preemptive, in my tours. Then the mini-strokes pushed that even closer to certain truths the Chamber of Commerce feared would … might … the … Is it hot out here or is this just … residue from my recent unpleasantness?
You were kind to earlier point out my springy step. That’s due to titanium. This hip is made from the material that forges jet-rocket airplanes. I am secretly so modern, what holds me up is what keeps airplanes in the sky! Now watch out ahead for these huge tree roots coming. See how they buckle sidewalk here? I’ve been after the mayor for years to … Children, care-ful.
Dear me. But see how fast I caught myself? Family tradition. Basically fine. Only let me … gather myself … somewhere. Please let me sit down. Sorry. Better. Give me a wee minute. Why, thank you, child. Your yellow rose all for me? Can’t people be wonderful? You are so sweet. Now that this flower is both of ours, I love it more for being stolen. Wish I’d broken more laws while I could still reach ’em.
Feeling better’n better. Mustn’t worry. Most of my days are spent losing then finding things and almost falling but, knock wood, not. Just shook me’s all. Here I was, trying to clear your paths! Typical. My nearly falling hurts way less than having it be so seen.
Let’s all test these park benches, what say? Think it’s too early for our slipping into Sally’s place? Could one of you ladies steal over, just tap on her door, ask if I and my today’s stellar group might come in, just sit a spell under their electric fans while they ready our lunch? Thank you, ma’am, for going. I would near-about kill right now for a glass of iced tea.
Upsetting … Jefferson. And a grown daughter who disbelieves in DNA while living jealous of one poor trapped slave girl. My late Edmund was a whiz at earning money but not enjoying it. I had to seem to enjoy for all of us and it …
These spells come over me now. And, should this episode persist and expand, you will not be charged, even given how far I have already got … Here, more nice Victorian reproduction benches in the shade of a real sycamore. The sycamore. Sweet Sammy’s tree.
Poor Meade. I did encourage her love of history. But historical monogamy is impossible. Lately she’s joined a charismatic sect (if still Episcopal.) My daughter acts so hidebound, old-fashioned. I feel “newer” than she. No, what’s the concept? Yes, “younger” than she. Whenever I visit Meade she keeps trying to give me tours of her tiny townhouse. Lead me! Why, there’s not one good thing in there I didn’t give her! Seems history keeps crushing us with what we’re proudest of.
Times, I just don’t know m’precious Meade. Is she and that poor wheezing dog all I’ll really leave behind? Have I made even one small stride? Doesn’t our white-folks’ tribe just kept falling back, ever weaker, in the pursuit of … pursuit? And since I nearly tripped, here I am perspiring, too. “Glowing,” we were taught to say as girls. Field hands “sweated.” But now so am I.
Certainly wish that teacher would get back from Sally’s. Not wholly myself today. Might some man run check where that other one wandered off to, after I trusted her? See? The restaurant’s directly yonder. Their plaque is still turned with “Closed” facing outward. But there is another side. You can fall at any minute. No help then. But the main sign can so soon reverse … and say Open. To us all. “As the sheep of his pasture, enter into his gates and under his palm fans.” There will be a first seating but next there will be a raising up and then the last leveling. I only hope that those, however flawed, who battled for enlightened views, those whose families treated theirs as close-knit members of … I only hope, in this town, which is all I know of home but which can actually be a festering little bandstand pagoda made of solid shit if you youngsters will excuse my sudden potty mouth.
Your children disappoint. The Bible tells us that. Do you mind? I feel I need this entire bench to stretch out on. Could that prettiest child come fan me, please. Others go stand nearer the tree, please. All of you. But someone spry do run for Cousin Sally, say “Mrs. Evelyn is poorly and down in the Square.” Hardly anyone anywhere knows now. Who my people were. When to wear real, shined, self-respecting shoes. I feel … where was I? Let us take me from the top.
“ ‘1824’ foundered itself in … ” No. Bad. Am reversing again. They told me I might and to come quick, so if. “If so.” Not good, see? Quick, send your strongest child fleet of foot to young Doc Wembly. He got us through the dreadful Spanish flu, my whooping cough. He’ll know. I said: Run fetch Doc. Yes, you. Said stop fanning me. Run, you pretty little nigra-girl I been spoiling. Do as I tell you, I say … Why stare? Have you never seen a lady? Have you never seen an actual lad-y, you?
Deliver me … someone even phone m’Meade. Text, girls, text now! Meade’s organized, knows everybody. Scolded me this morning I was not ready. This concludes any walking tour’s possible … Full refund. How much can one convey in an hour?
And now that I look closer at you people, I find you’re all unknown to me! Not one family resemblance present. Why, you’ve swarmed into Courthouse Square uninvited, empty-handed, wearing shower shoes. Pretenders. All you’ve ever brought us off that godless highway is carpetbags, Dutch elm disease, fire ants. You’re squashing local cats and being absolutely no help to your elders.
Eager to be told History by those who’re mainly made of its endured embarrassments. You expect to hear that for under twenty dollars per riffraff-head? Oh, Mrs. Evelyn thinks not. And I’ve already spared you half the worst! Lady school principals caught working as actual Raleigh whores. Mayors stealing us blind for thirty years and then forgiven. Preachers corrupting little boys … I mean, of diaper age! I’ve never given one tour worth even $4.95. Why? ’Cause, if I took you up to the full twenty-dollar truth level? your ears’d bleed. Admit you’re here to suck culture from us, the way black snakes put fangs into Momma’s white hens’ eggs.
God gives so little guidance to His faithful guides. He must’ve taken early retirement. Left no practical instructions. Where are still waters to lead you people off beside? Presence of mine enemies, oh I know you now. Such cold stares from false familiars. Have I just lost all my last looks? You the country posse come for me?
And, as for you, ma’am. Why should you of all people wear short-shorts? To show us those huge white tree legs? Sequoias of foam rubber! Is such germ warfare your Jersey way? Naisty. Please cover those. History’s hard enough without your needing to display all that! No shame? No home-mirror? You think Jefferson would’ve been caught dead looking like you anyplace? Even in his house? Even while doing Sally anywhere? Even after candles out? Where’s the least dignity?
Here, you people can at least come help me to stand. That’s all I need. Will breathe easier. Well, do as I say. Here, you and you and that on the legs, come help me rise. Try leaning me up solid, back against Sammy’s tree.
All right, you federal spies. Hard bargain you drive. Those your final terms? You were always going to win. It is: Use seedless green grapes, white pepper, lots of mace, toast those damn almonds. And now you’ve got our secret? Go home North. Back on off away from me.
Believe I hear help coming.
Falls’ ambulances will know me.
Mustn’t be found like this, fallen among barefoot strangers, down, in a public park.
But, wait, attention group.
Last thing. And I’m meaning this.
Look! Why … there … so suddenly …
Directly to your left.