I’d just dropped out of med school, but I hadn’t yet gone for the powder so I was poor on account of being unsure of who I was. Then, I mostly slept to escape the body I inhabited. I failed because every third dream showed me the ways that the girl who had left me could torture me from afar. In those dreams she called and asked me to help her move. When I got to her house and rang the bell, she never answered. But every time she called, I went. Something I would’ve done when I was awake.
That day I’d awoken to the sound of the train bleating its way across the city. Strange, as I’d become used to it over the years I’d lived in Columbia. I rolled over to check the alarm clock and saw it was only eight, four hours before I usually got up.
The bleating transformed into the phone’s ringing in my dreams. For a few minutes, I lay paralyzed beneath the covers wondering if the train had called me into a somnambulant state. After a long swill of whiskey from a bottle on the nightstand, the hard taste vanquished this concern. Pretty soon I longed for coffee, but I only had the energy to turn on the TV.
It was on the History Channel, even though I knew I hadn’t watched it in weeks. A documentary was on about the Army of Tennessee’s destruction. At that moment, the narrator began discussing the Battle of Franklin that had taken place about five miles from where I’d grown up. A new train moaned. I flicked off the TV.
When I was in fifth grade, I went on a tour of the Carter House with my uncle. The house had served as Union headquarters during the battle. After the tour, I cried when he wouldn’t buy me a toy saber in the gift shop. Instead, he bought me a book called Five Tragic Hours: The Battle of Franklin. When I’d finished reading it, I called him on the phone and explained that a pile of bodies had trapped the Carter family in their basement for three days. Then, I recited the names of the five Confederate generals that had died. I read it twice more before my mom took it away because she thought I had an unhealthy obsession.
I did, however, write a poem about five mice named after the generals for the school poetry contest. The poem won honorable mention. After that I decided to become a poet. Then a year later, my poem about five wolves named after the generals failed to place. I gave up on verse.
I got out of bed to make coffee. I tried to remember the names of the generals, the names of the mice or the wolves, but nothing came to me. When I looked at my clock, it was only 8:45 so I decided that I might as well make a trip to the university library and see if I could find the book I’d read as a child.
Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was the way cars stopped for me as I crossed the street. I started thinking of writing poems again. Poems might be the way out. Or stories. I could write a story and inhabit it with my characters. There I would find a place to hide from her.
The Civil War generals. What would they be thinking in the here and now? Their faces, the setting came to me. Ten of them would be sitting on folding chairs in a room. Their legs would be crossed. The carpet would be orange. And on the room’s walls, TV screens would be playing a continuous feed of The Falling Man. As The Falling Man fell, the generals would discuss matters of polite society. Is Lincoln really in love with what’s his name? Where was President Davis dining this evening? The generals would not wonder at the steel building. Neither would they be concerned by the smoke thicker than any they’d seen in battle nor the figure falling from a height at which they believed men could not breathe. But why?
If my story were discussed in a classroom, some tired student would posit that the generals were all blind. That student would complete my story. And if there were a second student who guessed this, she would also complete my story. The story would then be endlessly completed. If the student also suggested that the generals could not leave the room because janitors of the building had piled bodies outside, then that student would not only complete the story but also understand the author. The professor in that classroom would take that student’s idea and write a paper that the committee of the American Journal of Literature would accept. The published article might be enough for the professor to get a tenure-track position.
By the time I walked in the library doors, I’d decided that the professor would ultimately lose out because the story and the author would be overlooked while the next cannon construction took place. The professor would wither into an old woman housed somewhere at a satellite campus in Idaho. She’d never teach the story again.
At the library computers, I found the book’s call number. I hadn’t brought paper with me so I took a notecard from a pile and wrote E468.9 .F385 2008. As I was riding the elevator down to the third floor, I realized I held a card from the library’s dismantled card catalogue. I flipped it over thinking, wouldn’t it be a story if the card held the location of the book that I was looking for? It didn’t of course.
No. The author of the book on this card was Achen, Lotte. She had entitled her book, Hand in her Pockets: The Abridged Memoirs of Lauren Eyler. The call number read PT 2687. E85 S7 1996. This number indicated that the book had been translated. Since I knew Ms. Achen hailed from Dortmund and I had spent a number of years of my life with her, I knew the book had been translated from German.
Before I returned to the elevator, I retrieved the book on Franklin. I thought over General Hood, who’d had an arm and a leg amputated during the war. In the black-and-white photos I remembered, he looked no better than the Army of Tennessee that he had spent the entire war destroying in an attempt to win. He had gone about planning battles as stupidly as a general could and for this I took a strong disliking to him as a child. For me, as a Tennessean and uninformed youth, he lost the war for us. This was a bad thing when I thought about it then. Here I am obliged to say that I don’t think of it as a bad thing now. In fact, it is a fine thing, a fine thing what General Hood had done in trying to win because he had lost.
Envision a library, a college library. Imagine a forest. Allow the shelves to become trees and the trees to become shelves. The experiences are now one. In both places, you never know what you might find, a flower that leads to a stream that leads to a hill—the book you stumble across whose index leads you to another that leads you to a magazine in which you encounter a phrase that defines you at that very moment in time. I strode across the carpet of the library’s sixth floor. The sense of merging urged me forward. I felt the same tears flow together, the exact same tears I cried when I read the line you haunt me from a letter I had received from Lotte two years before.
I did not find a book. Instead, I found a piece of paper. The paper looked as if it had been jammed in a bag full of rocks before it had been shelved between two titles of which I feel ashamed to write the names.
The title of the book only existed on the card. The ink was blue, the only color she wrote letters in, but the handwriting was as unfamiliar and insignificant as the font of any book worth reading.
She lived nineteen years before she discovered me, she the conquistador and I from Aztlan. And though you want this to be from her perspective because of this volume’s title it is not. She does not understand herself as what she trod upon and left. In her mind, she is a character in a novel. She is the character that disappoints her crowd and then won’t go home again.
We went to Normandy. She walked out onto the pier and stood above water where the remnants of 10,000 men soak and float. There she put her hands in the pockets of her long black coat. Her posture said I am looking at myself as a person who is looking at a tragedy. Later that night, she said she should have died weighted down by a helmet and bullets before arriving at the beach. She also told me she loved me, but she told this to too many people and the words were no more than soaked and floating skin.
I am the non-existent victim of the car crash she had. I am the one that would have landed her in jail for the rest of her life. I am also the police officer that would have given her the ten DUIs she had snuck by.
Tell her when you see her that she wants answers to questions that cannot be answered. She wanted to know over the phone why I could not answer them. I never answered those questions because if I had she would have attempted to live them. She could not have lived those answers any more then she could have died on D-Day. No more than she could have ever died for a cause.
If she wants to know if I will talk to her please tell her I will not. Wreckage cannot speak.
And if she finds that this is overwritten tell her it is not more overwritten than her account of her own life.
Do I write that I never left the library? No, the truth is more important. I left. Do I say I learned that liking General Hood left me looking like him? No. I will still say that I will be like Pollock and will kill people when I’m drinking and driving and leave my wife a widow. After I have died, she will make mediocre art. And she will think she has gotten rid of me, but I will hang across from her in the Tate Modern next to a can of Campbell’s Soup.
Lauren Eyler is a second year MFA student at the University of South Carolina. She is also the co-editor of their literary magazine, Yemassee.