Our yard had grown a pimple. It was a rental property in the country, and what lay there popping up out of the grass — well, crabgrass — looked mounded and distinct.
We were in the country, in a house that was white and squat, like a toaster oven. It had a long bit of yard running from the front of the house right back to the piney woods behind us. An electric fence was on one side of the house, protecting the woods and scraggly cows that sat under the pines in the middle of the day. On the other side was a long dirt drive that made our cars dusty when we used it to park out back, next to the kitchen door.
The fence and the drive, these were the two buffers that kept the house from being swallowed by the gawping woods on all three sides of us, while the oily black new road ran past us in the front. In the morning there were stray dogs asleep on the road, probably because it was warm in the morning sun.
We’d gotten this place for the privacy and for the quiet. A place where one could sit on the porch with a mint julep in your hand and become a gentleman scholar, I’d said. After driving several times down the oily road to town and back, she started spotting them. On the back of trucking rigs, or used as window curtains. Hanging over porch railings where they’d been shaken free of dust. Confederate flags. There were more Confederate flags than you could shake a stick at. Faded, small, large. Hook rugs and license plate frames.
She pointed out not the quiet of where we lived — but the disquiet. The discord of silent hate. For example, we got a Sons of the Confederacy club notice in the mail. She left it out on the dining room table as a kind of accusation or reproach. She’d point out that a road we’d just passed was called Lynch Man’s Drive. That kind of thing.
When I had interviewed for the job at the college, they asked me an odd question. What do you do on Sundays? I was a little freaked out. My thesis advisor had not prepared me for such a random question. Sundays, they repeated. Sunday mornings. They wanted to know if I was God fearing. So I talked about her. I was hoping that in such a conservative place they’d see me as less of a fly-by-night godless bastard and more as a solid community member kind of guy if they knew a good woman stood behind me. And on Sundays we … seek … peace, I said. Righteousness. Rightness with the world, if you know what I mean, I babbled. If they were going to talk in code, then I would respond back in code. Because I was that desperate for a job, any job, anywhere.
Having gotten the job, I was walking down the hall my first day of class when a colleague came and squeezed me around the shoulders. Happy? he asked. He was also the chair of our department. Sure, I wheezed out. How’s your sweetie? he said. They were very considerate of Elaine, as if she had a deadly disease or something. To be honest, I was faintly alarmed by their ever-solicitous tone. Eh, I confessed.
They come and they go, he’d said. If the partner’s happy, they stay. Unhappy, then they leave a lot faster, or —
Or —? I prompted, feeling sweat start to seep through my shirt.
Or they get left.
It’s okay, I said to her whenever one of these silent signals appeared to remind us that we were living in another place, nay: in another world from whence we came. It wasn’t okay, with either of us, but I wasn’t above tossing out meaningless reassurances. I just hoped she wouldn’t abandon me here all by myself.
We went to a summer movie. It was a charming spot in the middle of town where an old movie theatre had burned down. Only the back wall of the ruined building remained, and they were projecting an old Doris Day up on the wall. We sat on the lawn watching the film.
Elaine murmured much of the time to a woman next to her while I watched the show. During the intermission Elaine said the woman mentioned that the theatre was a historic site. Turns out that back in the fifties the county leaders refused to stop segregation. So they closed all the schools for six years and the movie theatre was where they held classes for all the white kids.
She also told Elaine that the last cross burning happened in 2000. There was an old couple in their 80s who escaped from an assisted living facility together. They set up house on the outskirts of town. She was white, and he was black and their little house had a cross burned in front of it, and afterwards they no longer lived together. But the woman still comes to the outdoor movies, and the lady Elaine was talking to pointed her out.
The town tried to do other things as well, to rally a sense of community or, failing that, a sense of small town charm lost when the main street burned in the 1930s. They had a farmer’s market at an old train station that we went to once a week. They’d put in brick street crossings, using a handsome herringbone pattern as if to draw our eyes down, away from the drab depression era storefronts, a third of which stood empty. I pointed out these efforts, but the patina of modernity did not assuage her. We tried using the stores. Did they have what we wanted? Nope. Could they order it? I guess. Would they call us when it came in? After a longish pause to consider such a request, a silent nod. We wrote down our number. No one ever called. After the first four months, we stayed out of town, pretty much.
I pointed out the pimple. It’d grown. We waited until twilight, when the sizzling sun was beheaded by the pines. That was when the unbearable heat toppled off and our house clicked in the humid gloaming just like a toaster oven, and we left the doors and windows open so you could watch the heat waves escape and shimmer. The mosquitoes swarmed while we both tried to stand, a little off balance, on the pimple. I was reminded of an old fashioned pitcher’s mound.
Elaine was reminded of high school, she said. She was walking with her friends one night through the high school field and the sprinkler system had broken, causing a mound just like this one. She’d stood on it and started jumping. Soon her friends joined in and as the mound slowly deflated, their feet became covered in muddy water until they were even with the rest of the earth and the water was up to their ankles.
I could have pointed out that we didn’t have a sprinkler system, but Elaine’s idea wasn’t a bad one. So we started jumping. We jumped on the mound until we were both slippery wet with sweat, but no water came out and the pimple didn’t go down.
Should we call the landlord? I asked.
Let’s dig it up, she said.
What if it’s gas?
She paused, her face dripping with sweat, little commas of wet under each breast. Our heat is from natural gas, isn’t it? She bit her forefinger, and I found myself thinking it was a lovely gesture. The fear of losing her had started made me see all her gestures as lyrical, highly feminine, precious.
It won’t be gas, not this close to the surface, she said. Unless it’s a body, she added.
I was thinking: now that would be some excitement. We’d been here long enough that I, for one, was in need of stimulation. I was beginning to understand why youths in silent suburbs sought drugs. Why they did strange things like hollow out a cabbage and try to smoke it. Or sniff solvents. Do whippets. I was starting to understand the senseless brawling my students engaged in every weekend. Better the feel of adrenaline and the smell of blood and beer vomit than this silent, rural nothingness. The lung strangling humidity was keeping us under its thumb until we were tame and silent. While Elaine wilted from isolation, from a lack of social stimulation, I was bored. So bored began to grow curious about rumors of faculty threesomes. Anything was better than the sweet tea sugar coma we’d been living in for weeks.
I got a shovel from the back porch. Took off my shirt. By now the sweat was thick enough, it was like I’d stepped straight out of the shower. Too slick for the mosquitoes to latch onto. I hoisted the shovel like a javelin for the first thrust.
The sod came up easily. The clay beneath not so much, but I was stronger and had more energy than I’d been expecting. What was under there? Soon enough the ground was almost fluffy from whatever was going on below. I could scoop up the feather-fuls of dirt without a problem.
I hit the hat first. The hat was old, and had two crossed rifles pinned to the front. Below the hat was a soldier who was wearing it. I’d dug up a civil war soldier. He came up out of the ground and then sat next to the hole on his butt, knees up, holding his head in his hands. I think our jumping up and down maybe gave him a concussion. I wanted to say sorry, but didn’t know how he might take out his revenge. He didn’t have much to say in response to Elaine’s concerned questions about his head.
At last, he stood up and dusted himself off. Elaine brought him a tall glass of lemonade and though he seemed disinclined to speak, or even meet our eyes, which gave an edge of uncertainty to everything he did, he drank his lemonade so very genteelly that we both relaxed. We had nothing to fear from him in exchange for our hospitality. After that thought I paused, realizing for the first time, My God, I’m starting to know how they think.
In a slip of a soft voice he kindly enquired if we had another shovel, for he’d surely like to help me continue digging.
It was pretty much dark by that time, but with the porch light on, we could still see, the soldier and I said. About twenty minutes later, even Elaine realized that wasn’t true. But we wanted to keep digging, so we tried running the car perpendicular to the drive and using the headlights. The hole was still a very deep dark pit with some kind of a mining chemical stink rising off from the dirt. The soldier finally unbuttoned his coat and threw it up on the grass. We got to work, alternating our strokes into the dirt, while every fifteen minutes or so we were alternating beer, lemonade, and water to keep hydrated while the sweat poured from us.
The next day, Elaine brought home a solar powered camping lamp from the big box an hour away, and we found a way to hang it in the open hole using a broom pole. It took a lot of digging to unearth our next find. It was a camera.
The soldier hopped down into the hole without my asking — the hole was shaped long and wide now, like a grave, and he pulled out the large old squeezebox shaped camera for our inspection. I skipped classes the next day, cancelling them because I wanted to dig. My darling girl gave me a kiss and went off to do what paid the bills.
By the time she returned with groceries for dinner for the three of us, I’d unearthed two photographers, a rotting hospital cot, several bulging bags of corn meal loaded with mealworms, and we were working — the four of us now — on hauling a cannon up. The cannon was much smaller than I’d have thought. It took shot the size of my fist. With the cannon out, a new protuberance formed at the bottom of our hole. The dirt was bulging with mystery.
I stopped only to go inside, shower, and eat something. It didn’t matter. Things kept pouring out of the hole.
One time, a few years back, I’d fallen on an outdoor basketball court and bloodied up my knee pretty badly. Eventually my knee healed but I started noticing after awhile that there was a greenish bruise on it that was getting bigger. Turned out that the gravel caught deep in the flesh was working its way to the surface. Soon it emerged bit by bit.
This was like that.
I wasn’t even digging any more. I was sitting up on the porch, drinking and watching what came out. The soldier gave me a gun and showed me how to load it. Because you never know, he said and assumed I wanted to keep my sweetheart safe. What came up were units of men, battalions. They silently trod straight back into our piney woods, guns ready to fire. It was like watching a flood streaming around the house, the cars. A dry flood that left behind the smell of pine needles and dust.
I was tense once they were out of eyesight, waiting, but around the house it stayed silent. If anything, the woods became more hushed, the cicadas and crickets mute as the careful foot treads marched through the shadows.
Glad they had moved on, I turned my focus back to our now somewhat crowded front yard. Those who’d emerged from the hole earlier relaxed again. Rifles that sat across knees were leaned up against each other, silvery dull bayonets crisscrossing. Like a brook’s babble, the clusters of men kept up a continuous low murmur of discussion. Someone had set up a tripod with a black kettle over a campfire. The kettle burpled with a mystery stew in it. The wasps from a hole in the ground nearby flew out at night and just like moths attracted to light, they dove into the fire.
Off near our porch, a group of soldiers — Union? It was hard to tell, the uniforms were a little mixed up on the battlefield — played cards. They used the side of a dead horse for their card table. No one came up onto the porch, except one polite soul, asking for the stub of a pencil to write to his sweetheart with. My darling, the love of my life, gave one to him, received his thanks with grace, and then retreated inside. She stayed in there a lot now. I saw her looking out the windows at what was going on, and knew nothing of her thoughts, her attitudes towards all this.
Things kept pouring out from the hole. If it kept up, then what?
Even when my brain wasn’t being boiled from the thickening heat, no answer came to mind. Inside, the house was quiet, except for the rattle of our box a/c unit. You couldn’t tell what was going on out there, until you looked out our window and saw some man with a long mustache and narrow shoulders standing at the side of our house, taking a drink from our rubber hose.
When I came out the next evening it was clear that the soldiers playing cards had decided enough was enough. They began shooting down the hole, standing right to the edge, close to anything else that tried to come up.
Which just made the pressure from the hole build up. The square pit began to bow up in the middle. The more it bowed, the more vigilant the soldiers became. They aimed their bayonets at the edge of the hole, kept guns oiled and ready. Their rotting butterfly camping chairs had been switched out for Walmart plastic stuff, but they were no longer sitting, they were crouching and standing all around the hole.
The Confederate flag was rigged up to our porch railings. It wasn’t put there by me — by us, I should say. It just showed up one morning, along with a lot of local types — men with trucking rigs, baseball caps, and worn jeans riding low. The flag seemed to keep the soldiers away from the house, and the new men, too, I told Elaine, so we left it up. She reluctantly admitted that with all the rather silent, flint-eyed men around, she felt safer with it. I agreed. I even suggested it might be smart to stay on the right side of things, just now … just in case.
What right side of things?
I mean … I mean … the way they think of it, I said, however it is they’re thinking. I had to do this with my students, of course — understand how they thought. Most were tobacco farmers’ daughters and the first in their family to attend a four-year university. Their bumper stickers declared Tobacco Money Paid For This Car.
The local men and the soldiers mixed and mingled with little effort. One of the soldiers started wearing camouflage. Another got a T-shirt that read, “It’s about heritage, not hate.” A third started wearing crocs and shot at the groundhogs climbing up the kudzu vines that wrapped around the laundry pole in the back yard. A fat groundhog went tumbling down, hidden in the kudzu that had leapt the electric fence. Poor fat hog, it too was destined for the black kettle.
People saw our yard. They stopped their cars, got out, came around sort of shy, and asked if we had any ‘collectibles.’ War re-enactors started coming by, wanting to hang out. They sat cross-legged at the feet of the soldiers in plastic chairs. This went on for ages, so we tried to work around them. We tried to start a raised bed, grow some veggies. Something uncomplicated, she said, bending over the dark dirt, casting little warty nuggets into the ground.
“Yessum,” I agreed and she frowned.
There were things that came up in the raised bed, postcards of lynchings like packets of seeds rising in front of where we’d planted collards, tomatoes, okra, and kale. We hit the middle of summer and it was too hot for anything to grow. Men circled their chairs around the hole and sat, passing corn liquor. Activity was definitely slowing down. Some of them hitched rides in town, didn’t come back. Others shot streams of tobacco into the hole.
We came out very early one morning at dawn after hearing shots. Saw some heads poking up just a few inches from the hole. More shots and the heads poking up fell back down again. One of the soldiers caught our eye. “Deserters,” he said.
Like all things, it eventually came to an end. The hole slowly stopped its historical purge. The soldiers would spot something down there. They’d reach down, pluck up a rusted medal from the shallow hole, toss it out towards the road in disgust, then spit more tobacco into its depths.
Whenever I mowed around them, I noticed the hole seemed less deep. Soon it was a flat and level depression and I could mow right across it. Level but bare. Ugly. Grass won’t grow there, though annoying ash seedlings with their arrow shaped leaves violate the sanctity of bare dirt. Around the same time, we abandoned the garden, deciding it was just too hot. Even watering the plants at night didn’t work. Elaine figured out that when the cool well water hit the baking hot dirt, the plants’ roots simply boiled, sending them into shock until they wilted and died.
One day the hole was gone. I had to go into campus for a committee meeting. The parking lot near the athletic field was empty, but the noise of the sprinkler sounded like the spit of tobacco. I drove into our empty yard and parked the car, the echo of that fast spit repeating in my head. Yet at home our property was silent. I stood with a dark brown loafer on the bare spot and looked around. Once again the cicadas began to scream from the woods. There were some cows sleeping in the shade of the white pines, their backs to me. Sweat began to spring out all over my torso and I went inside.
Overall, it’d been an uneasy live and let live approach. We felt they could turn on us at any moment, but they never did. In fact, people passing in their trucks and cars now regularly waved at us if we were outside. We always make sure to wave right back.
The last soldier hitched into town and we finally took the flag down off our front porch. She wanted to put it in the trash or burn it. Isn’t there a law against flag burning? I asked.
The American flag, she said, indignant. Then she looked at me like she didn’t know who I was or where I came from. I resented it. I was just asking.
She said, I’ll take care of it. I stood there holding it until she reached out and tugged it away from me.
I’ll take care of it, she repeated, and began folding it up. Just go, she told me.
Just git, I joked and gave a little laugh, hoping she’d parrot me back.
Just git, I joked again.
She looked down at the flag instead of at me, folding it up, her lips pressed together.
Okay, baby doll, I said and kissed her silent cheek. In the end she put the flag in the car along with a bunch of other items for the Goodwill. I snuck it out and put under our spare set of jumper cables in the shed. Because you never know.