Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Civil War

This is what is war.
I had read that politicians and their wives sat upon the hilltops overlooking the Occoquan River to watch the first battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run or Manassas. They imagined that they were going to have a picnic. This was about 150 years ago. The battle turned and they abandoned the hilltops and fled for their lives.
The fellow sitting at the counter next to me was staring into his coffee cup. He shook his head. "I saw glowing cats in the shelterbelt behind my house."
"What?" The smoke over the Occoquan valley vanished and I looked at his face, pale, loose and baggy like the skin on a rotting gourd. I smiled. "Maybe it was marsh gas, Will-O-The-Wisp. You know. Blue flames."
"No, they were cats. I see them every fall. They herd up at this time of the year, forming a defensive alignment - like Musk Oxen. The females are on the outer edge, facing outward, hissing, protecting their young."
"Where are the menfolk?" I wiped my mouth with the napkin, the one with a phone number I had intended to keep, but blue cats absorbed my thoughts and the napkin was taken away by the waitress.
He looked up, bewildered, his mouth open, exposing toast and eggs. There were no words.
I signaled the waitress, slid five dollars across the counter, excused myself, put on my hat, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. His eyes followed me out the door. I looked up and down the road. It was a small town: one grocery, one gasoline station, one bank, one florist, one funeral home and one beauty salon. I think it was a beauty salon - named Prairie Hair Design. Huh. I wondered if they did prescribed burns. Out walked a woman with blue hair. Is that - ?
A wildland fire usually has one point of origin: a lightning strike, a spark from a railroad car, a runaway campfire, an overheated muffler, a branch on a power line. From above, the boundaries of the fire have a teardrop shape, expanding outward from the point of origin, much like the outline of an island in a river or a patterned peatland. Forensics at the point of origin can determine the cause of the fire. So, working backwards to the point of origin it might be possible to determine the cause of all of the puffy hairdos with blue rinse in the community. Was it a stray lightning strike? Hot cinders tossed by a passing rail car? A gust of wind on the unattended campfire? A branch across two high voltage transmission lines? I figure that's why beauticians go to school for cosmetology; the occupational hazards are formidable and one needs rigorous safety training before setting up shop and releasing all of these chemically-altered fur bearers into the public arena.
But the line between cosmetology and cosmology is a fine one, as is the line between cosmology and astrology, and this transitivity supports my suspicion that the whole business of hair repair and maintenance is simply a superstitious act, like divining the future from the marks on one's hand or witching water with a willow twig or tossing a black cat over one's shoulder or walking beneath a cracked mirror. They strut out of the salon and onto this same sidewalk, puffy and proud, coming toward me with their glowing blue auras. Eager to meet the future. You will meet a dark and handsome stranger today! Luck awaits you around the corner! New experiences will happen to you and emotional connections await! And that lucky stranger just might be me. This mob, why, it looked like a herd of glowing cats. There they were. This set me in the opposite direction, toward the outskirts of town.
The town is surrounded by shortgrass hills, plain and featureless, like a beige wool sport-coat. A side slope overlooking the village has a pile of whitewashed rocks assembled in the form of a large letter "A", the first letter of the village name. It is visible for miles around and to the occasional light plane that might drift overhead, on its way to dust crops. The rocks were moved from the crest of the hill to the side slope a half-century ago by boys from the high school. It was an afternoon outing, a break from classroom studies, a community project. None of the boys noticed the that the rocks they were moving had been arranged in seven circles on the hill crest. Nobody noticed the flakes of black flint scattered around the rim of the hill. The teacher was busy staking out the edges of the letter. One boy found an arrowhead. He put it in his pocket; every kid had an arrowhead collection. Another boy pulled a coffee-colored leg bone out of the soft clay on the western edge of the hill. The teacher shouted and they both trotted back to the group. The letter was constructed and they marched down the hill and back to the school. They admired it from below. "You will be remembered for this as long as those rocks are there," said the teacher. Every year since, a group of students have marched back up that hill to repaint and readjust the rocks.
A century earlier, seven families would set up camp on this hilltop, using the rocks to hold down the skirts of their lodges. They had been doing this as long as they could remember and the keepers of oral history said that their ancestors had been doing it since the day they emerged from the Hole in the earth. The River was visible to the camp and they would venture down to the sandbars and riverbanks each day to trade and to visit. They thought it would last forever.
Well, the village came, bringing forever to an end. The valley where the village was built was in the opposite direction of the River, at the base of the hills. The seven families abandoned the hill.
On the way to that hill, I passed the fellow I talked to at the cafe. "I can't get the cats out of my head," he said, shaking his head like he had wasps in his ears.
"I am trying to forget." I kept on a fast pace, walking up-slope toward the crest of the hill. I could hear him swatting the air behind me and arguing with cats. I raced up the hill and reached the crest, spotted with yucca and sandstone blocks and granite glacial erratics. Standing behind the letter A, near the missing stone circles, I turned and looked down on the village. Cars and pedestrians worked the sidewalks and streets below.
I don't think it would be possible to get too far away from anything in a town like this. Here, the mortician is the beautician's husband, and nobody seems to know the difference, the banker is the brother of the chief of police who has a key to the vault, the Mayor owns the saloon where the pastor moonlights as the bartender so long as he doesn't tell the Mayor's wife anything about his visits, the church group meets in back of the grocery store and sings songs about sin with hearty vigor, and no wonder, they were celebrating the communion with the same brand of wine they drank at the saloon the night before and were singing the same songs they sang that night - with some alterations at the end of the final verse to express penance and sorrow for the backsliding ways expressed in the first verse - and the florist works nights as a nursing assistant at the hospital (her flower arrangements are slightly used), the gasoline station owner runs an insurance agency from his garage, the same garage where he keeps the fire truck, and the ambulance driver is the mortician, never known to speed. This place is everywhere. As the village grows into a city, the connections multiply and mutate and suddenly, it exceeds our natural limitations and simultaneously it exceeds our ability to understand it. A new class of merchants arise, those that ply statistical approximations and primitive, mathematical models to describe our new, self-replicating, autonomous reality, all of which fall desperately short. It is Dystopia, where industrial output of ignorance and error is growing nine-percent a year and everyone has a manufacturing job. In this environment, we don't even recognize our own children.
Thus, you bounce a check at the grocery store and you may end up getting a fatal manicure in a burning church.
At that moment, I recall that I think that I recalled that phone number. It was the number for the mortician. No, the beautician. Or was it the mortician. Ah, what's the difference? It's a thin line between a mortician and a beautician; the difference is the vigor of your client. I think. I know that one or both or neither of them wanted me for something or maybe not for something. That is for sure.
Man, I thought it would be a picnic, being up on that hill, but things turned out far, far worse than anyone could have expected. That I will remember for a long time.