THE 2007 NOVEL OF PROMISE WINNER
My Greatest Hits
A novel by
Tommy said that if he could roll time out like a strip of film, the frame he would go back to and say, “Start here,” is the night Egypt Farms burned, when we saw the ghost hiding in the shimmering shadows of the boxelder.
But I say it started way before that, even before the Civil War. Tommy and I both lived on Lincoln Avenue. Some people say our street got its name because Abraham Lincoln slept one night at the big white house with the porch on three sides and a widow’s walk above. So they named it after him. The street that is, not the house. Other people say it had nothing to do with Abraham Lincoln at all.
Both of those stories are wrong, my father said. He knows the right one.
When Abe Lincoln took the train from Illinois to Washington for his inauguration as president in 1861, he had to go through Baltimore, where he wasn’t popular. There was rumor of a plan to kill him when the train stopped at the Baltimore station.
This assassination plot was a slender and willowy thing, maybe just gossip and braggadocio, maybe the first shots in the coming conflict. But they took it seriously enough. When his train reached the station near us, Honest Abe disembarked, slunk off like a debtor dodging the sheriff, leaving his wife and kids to go ahead on the train without him, supposing --- correctly as it turned out --- that the chivalrous Southerners would have no grudge against them. Lincoln walked up to Mr. Ruen’s house. That is to say, it’s Mr. Ruen’s house now. I don’t know whose it was then.
Tommy says that Mr. Ruen has a shotgun he loads with rock salt and shoots at kids who sneak through the holes in his iron fence. The fence is built of pickets shaped like the lances of Ivanhoe. Mr. Ruen has a big yard, and in the front are the two tallest, easiest-to-climb pine trees in our neighborhood. They are so tall you can look over the top of his widow’s walk toward Baltimore across the yellow-haired cornfields of Egypt Farms, or at the hilly green apple orchard to the east. You can’t actually see the lights of Baltimore, because there is a tree-capped ridge between us, but you know it’s there. I myself had never seen Mr. Ruen shoot at anyone, or even seen him cradle a shotgun. I had no doubt it happens though, because Mr. Ruen is certainly mean enough, and Tommy is reliable mostly on neighborhood affairs.
It was a warm February day. Abe Lincoln sipped whiskey and tea on a bench amid the stripling pine trees that Tommy and I would climb nearly a hundred years later to the annoyance of Mr. Ruen and his hypothetical shotgun. I understand Lincoln later regretted this escapade. Upon reflection, he thought it demeaning. He wished that he had gone straight through Baltimore on the train and the devil take ‘em. The only thing he got out of it was a little street named after him, which I guess is pretty small beer compared to, say, the capital of Nebraska and Lincoln Logs. But I wonder what he thought at that hour? Maybe in the silence before the battle the Great Emancipator was as frightened as an infantryman, willing to thrust his life into the hands of people with bigger guns and faster horses.
The rebel plot might have been ephemeral, but Lincoln’s escape was not a lot better conceived. The president-to-be waited for somebody to take him to Washington. In those days, they didn’t have private drivers and entourages and hordes of bodyguards following new presidents around. Even when Lincoln was actually murdered four years later, he only had one guard with him, and that one drunk.
So he waited. Hours passed. No transport arrived. For whatever reason whoever then owned Mr. Ruen’s house could be of no further help. So Lincoln’s traveling companion walked to the next house down the way, not far, the home of my great-great-grandfather Israel Bartlett Canedy. The Canedys don’t live in that house anymore, though it is still there, built of strong stone carted from quarries in Cockeysville by the Canedy slaves. Israel’s father Eleazar had been something of a liberal among slaveowners. The Canedys always treated their slaves well, my grandmother told me. Eleazar taught his slaves to read the scriptures. He didn’t break up families and sell them separately. He had them learn trades. Along with stonemasons, he had Negro carpenters, blacksmiths, seamstresses and wheelwrights whom he hired out to his neighbors. This may have had more to do with living only a couple dozen leagues from the Pennsylvania state line than with any innate nobility of spirit. A lot of the Canedy slaves went on to become prosperous beacons of the colored community after emancipation. The meandering stone house is now the residence of Brig. Gen. Milton T. Atwater, U.S.A., ret.
My ancestor Israel was not at home, but his son Rufus, my great-grandfather, was. Rufus was fourteen at the time. He was asked to harness the family carriage. Rufus drove Lincoln and an armed companion to Willard’s Hotel at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., in Washington. It took all the rest of the day. They changed horses only once, in Olney.
Family legend says Rufus slept overnight on the floor in Lincoln’s hotel room, and returned home the next day. Family legend does not seem to recall what Mr. Lincoln said to Rufus on their long journey, or even whether Honest Abe spoke to him at all. Grandma knew Rufus when he was an old man. She said he told her that Lincoln wasn’t wearing his signature stovepipe hat. He had on a fedora-style slouch hat as a kind of disguise.
Several hours after Rufus and Abe Lincoln trotted down the Pimlico Road toward the nation’s capital, Great-great-grandfather Israel returned home drunk, tired and disgusted. He had lain in wait for nearly two days with several other Sons of the South near the railway station in Baltimore, pistols primed, powder dry, whistles wet. But their quarry had outwitted them, vanished like a jungle cat. So what seemed to Lincoln the skulking retreat of a coward had appeared to his enemies as the cleverness of street magician.
Great-great-grandmother Dorcas, who was full to her eye teeth with Israel’s drunkenness, his whoring around and his hooligan friends, said if he had only followed common sense instead of his lust, he could have murdered Abe Lincoln right there in the comfort of the sitting room, saving himself the long ride into Baltimore.
My name is Rufus Canedy, same as my Lincoln-life-saving great grandfather. They spared me Roman numerals --- no Rufus Canedy II or III or god-knows-how-many. I think if our family had retained its former plantation eminence, I could not have escaped that encumbrance. But the Canedys have slipped far into the crowded middle class, without so much as a corrupt alderman in the clan for two generations now. In this degraded condition, Roman numerals were too pretentious for my mother’s Irish Catholic punctilio.
But my family expects great things of me, at the very least the restoration to our rightful place in the social pantheon, maybe more, things worthy of Roman numerals in the multiple digits. It surprises me a little that the staunchest guardians of the Canedy name were the women, who volunteered for it, rather than the men, who had inherited it. My grandmother would sometimes say, “In America, any boy can grow up to be president,” then peer at me under hooded brows.
But my father would answer for me, “Mother, I think grandfather Rufus got as close to the presidency as any Canedy is going to.”
My mother too has ambitions for me. I have to remind her occasionally that there has never been a Pope Rufus.
In my mind the frame that starts the story begins with an incident involving my grandmother, only a day or two before the Egypt Farms fire. Tommy and I spent a good deal of time in each other’s company and visiting each other’s houses. There were many reasons for this, none complex on its own, but when combined they wove a strong, interlocking web. It would make an interesting study, I think, the origin of friendships. Someone could put a percentage on how much is mutual interest, how much coincidence, how much insecurity, how much simple physical proximity.
We were the only kids the same age within easy walking distance. There were quite a few kids in the neighborhood, but all of them were either older or younger than we were. The age groups mixed for baseball, football, kick the can, but best friends were bonded among those closest in age. So on this count, Tommy and I were pretty much stuck with each other.
For generations, Lutherville had been a dirt road town, isolated from the trolley car clangor of Baltimore. But my father had brought home a television set one day, a small, heavy box built like a child’s coffin, with a screen where the head would lay. He set it on a milk crate. Dad thought television was a fad that people would soon tire of. Tommy lived in a rambling shingled house down the street. They had no television yet. So he would come over to watch Howdy Doody.
I would go to Tommy’s house because they had no television. It’s not that I didn’t like television. I did. I was as enthusiastic about Howdy Doody as Tommy was. But Tommy’s house had a serenity missing at mine. His parents didn’t fight. His siblings didn’t scream. Tommy’s parents were the two calmest, quietest adults I knew. We would follow his dad around the yard while he pottered away at his yard work, doing small chores, or small pieces of big chores. He was “killing snakes,” he said. I don’t know if he said that so we wouldn’t follow him around, or so that we would.
Tommy lived directly across the street from the ballfield with its wood-frame, chicken-wire backstop and weedy outfield. We played baseball there nearly every day. When we didn’t play, I liked to sit on his front porch contemplating the field, planning improvements --- an overhang atop the backstop, a high wall like Fenway Park to stop baseballs rolling into the orchard in left. I imagined a green fence ringing the outfield, a grass infield, pure white, sand-filled bases, chalked foul lines, clean uniforms with orange-and-black piping and cursive lettering across the chest.
Tommy had little interest in ballfield improvements, but he would sit on the porch with me trading baseball cards. Or we would play an elaborate baseball game he had invented using dice, pencils, statistics from the back of each player’s card, and most of the area of their front porch.
The ballfield was not perfectly flat. It sloped downward to the east toward my imaginary Green Monster in left. At the top of this slope --- about twenty paces west of first base --- was a small family graveyard, three headstones, all engraved with one date, 1861. There were no names, no birth dates, no “Here lies ...” Just the four stark numbers of that Fort Sumter year. These graves were not, so far as he knew, from Tommy’s family, but his father tended them anyway, keeping them trimmed and neat.
Even though the Catholic Church frowned on superstition, I was frightened by these graves. I didn’t even like to stand on first base, and would try to stretch every hit into a double. Tommy used this to best advantage, throwing me out at second and missing no opportunity to scare me out of my wits. He said we had to call each other by secret names when we were near them, so the ghosts could not learn our true identities. “If they find out who we really are,” he said, “they’ll haunt us and murder us in our sleep.”
A ragged ring of boxelder trees shaded these graves, weeping helicopter seeds each spring, covering them in a brown blanket. Tommy’s dad would rake them away, and again the dying leaves in the fall.
Another thing that bound us, Tommy and I both liked to play difficult and intricate board games. In my room, we were playing “Gettysburg.” This game combined the virtues of nearly unintelligible rules with widespread carnage as Pickett and his doomed brigade charged up the notch toward Cemetery Ridge. My mother was in the kitchen mixing a pitcher of whiskey sours in anticipation of a visit from my grandmother, even though my grandmother wouldn’t drink one.
I was Grandma’s favorite grandson. Not that there were so many to choose from --- my two brothers and I. I spent many happy weekends at her house, playing cards with her --- she knew more card games than Hoyle --- making pies, stealing her cigarettes. She smoked Lucky Strikes, two packs a day. When she opened a pack, she would slide the cellophane wrapping off of it, then carefully separate the glued edges until she had flat, clear rectangle. These she folded neatly, geometrically, compulsively, each fold about millimeter apart, crossing perpendicularly until the cellophane was crosshatched like crystal graph paper. I imagined there was some mysterious grownup use for these carefully crafted works of art. I spent many boring hours trying to fold the wrappers of my parents’ cigarettes as perfectly as Gram folded hers.
She was a Roaring Twenties kind of lady. She drank martinis, smoked in a regal style with all the motion confined to her wrist. She moved gracefully. My mother said Gram had been a flapper. She didn’t make it sound like a compliment. Her house was dark in subtle purples and pinks, overstuffed chairs with rounded corners, the ghost of art deco outliving World War II in this one dim corner of democracy. It smelled of smoke. I would sit in front of the fireplace on winter evenings on a reddish-brown, threadbare oriental rug, shading eyeballs on Little Orphan Annie, or tearing pages from the Saturday Evening Post, throwing them on the grate and contemplating the blue-yellow-green flames that spit from them. On the walls were a couple of original drawings of New Yorker cartoons. One was called the “Clown with the Broken Heart,” by John Held and signed, “For Anna, H.” I didn’t get it. Cartoons are supposed to be funny.
Gram was tall and slender and curled over at the shoulders, My mother said this was the result of lazy posture in her youth, and whenever I was with Gram, my mother would admonish me to stand up straight, as if bad posture was contagious. Gram had osteoporosis. She had waist length black hair, which she braided in two ponytails and then wrapped and pinned on top of her head like a tiara. I had never seen her in real life with any other hair style, except when she let her hair down at her dressing table before bed to brush it fifty strokes on each side.
But in the shoe boxes in her back room there were a few black-and-white photographs of a beautiful young woman with a bobbed page boy haircut and large, haunting eyes, an aquiline face with high cheekbones circled by a wisp of smoke, flirting with the camera, sensuality straight out of a speakeasy. I came back to these pictures many times before I realized that this was my grandmother as a young woman, in the days of New York and Held and romance with my grandfather. It made me very uncomfortable.
Tommy was lining up his troops for the ritual charge up Cemetery Ridge. Both of us preferred to play the Confederate general. The disposition of troops, the lay of the land, the tide of history so heavily favored the North that it was no challenge to command them. The blue counters --- Meade, Gamble, Fitzhugh, Merritt --- nearly always won. If you could win using poor brave Lee, Longstreet, Jeb Stuart and the rest charging heroically at the ridges against the blazing Yankee artillery, you could not only win the game but change the course of the entire Civil War.
Grandma’s eyesight was beginning to fail, so she was reluctant to drive. Her increasingly rare visits were treated as state occasions, with baked Virginia ham and the good china. I heard the front screen door slap shut. Gram said hello to my mother and refused her first whiskey sour. Ordinarily, I would have gotten up to greet Grandma in the living room, but I was about to crush the chivalrous, brave, obedient, idiotic Virginia troops of Gen. George E. Pickett in the blue pincers laid out on the wooded slopes next to Little Round Top.
So Grandma inquired after me. In moments her lean, elegant frame filled the doorway leading into my room. I got to my feet to kiss her hello, but she spun on her heels, clomped out through the living room and back to the front porch. The wooden screen door slapped shut again, and she shouted at my mother through the mesh, “I will not stay in this house while my grandson is playing with a nigger!”
The house went quiet as a pond. The strip of film froze on this frame. Tommy and I stared at each other. Mom whispered, “He’s just a boy, mother.”
Grandma shouted, “You ought to have better sense, his own mother!”
A moment later, my mother came to the door, sloshing a round crystal glass of whiskey sour. She took a sip. Her eyes gleamed.
“I’m sorry, Tommy,” she said softly. “Rufus’s grandmother is here for a visit, and you’ll have to go home now.”
Tommy got up. I accompanied him through the living room, past my grandmother who stood on the front porch, arms crossed, an angry Seraphim guarding the gates of Eden, lacking only the flaming sword. Tommy walked slowly down the curving walk, down the short, steep driveway, stroking the chrome strip along the side of Gram’s blue 1950 Ford as he passed. When he reached the street he went a little faster with each step until he was running down Lincoln Avenue, over the little rise which separated black from white.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAN WHIPPLE
OCEAN COOPERATIVE ANNOUNCES THE 2007 WINNER
THE COMPETITION RULES AND PRIZES
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