A Fight in the Bloody Angles While I Do Dishes
by Chris Allen Clark
My parents had 3rd great uncles in the Civil War who fought at places like Antietam, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania. While I do the laundry, dishes, or bag up garbage, I find myself in a Forty Acre Cornfield with Maxcy Greggís Brigade at the battle of Antietam, or crossing the Emmitsburg Road at Gettysburg with some grisly looking mountain man named Lafayette McLaws. Or I might be leading my Brigade into the Mule Shoe, or the Bloody Angle as it was known, at Spotsylvania just as General Lee had done for Nathaniel Harrisí Brigade.
I carry clothes to wash in a garbage bag because I have trouble walking. I use a walker, which can be a nuisance in public. I balance a big bag of clothes on top of the walker basket and I am off to the laundry room ready to start my day. Ready, set, GO! I literally have to fling my full bag across the floor at times to move forward, then fumble and strain to haul it back up into place.
I wonder if Lafayette McLaws had so much trouble as he made his way across the Emmitsburg Road. He did, according to Longstreetís Report of the ensuing battle that came to be known as Gettysburg. He told how McLaws had spotted Union troops along his right flank, and how he delayed in order to attempt a surprise attack. There was no surprise. My surprise is found amidst the wet towels still in the dryer. I sometimes see Union troops hide behind the washing machine.
I sling a garbage bag full of clean clothes across the garage floor as I come into the house. Our laundry room is almost two garages away. My arms trace the sweeping motion of a Samurai warrior tossing aside the body of a fallen foe, or perhaps an Angola prisoner on the chain gang. Heave Ho! Heave Ho! I sling my bag full of clothes across the garage floor with Sam Cookeís song in my head. It keeps me going.
"Thatís the sound of the men working on the chain gang."
I am endlessly haunted by garbage. Our black and white Shih Tzu Stormy barks at something, or someone, lurching down 4th Avenue. It is a ghost. I try to imagine it as it carries a bag of garbage, our garbage, down the street.
If the garbage becomes too full, I find myself seated on my rump in the middle of our granite floor in an attempt to tie it up. Maxcy Gregg found himself in the middle of a field picking daisies at the Civil War Battle of 2nd Bull Run. He was not worried as his ammunition and men ran out. He hollered out to survivors: "Let us die here like men!" Often, I find myself on the granite floor with a bag of garbage as I say: "Let us die here like men!"
With a severe attack of hypoglycemia on the way, I quickly measure my English peas out and start to season them as my mother asks me what Roman emperor fiddled while Rome burned.
"Why did he play fiddle while Rome burned?" My mother curiously asks as she chops an onion.
I open the jar of Cayenne pepper and pour it by the teaspoon. I answer: "Because he was mad."
It is obvious. He used too much cayenne pepper. Stonewall Jackson was a deeply religious man who never seasoned his food with pepper because it made his left leg ache. My left leg aches profoundly after I drink rum. It swells from a disease Civil War soldiers called Dropsy. If a soldier was diagnosed with Dropsy, he was sent home, incapable of active duty, unable to wash his own clothes.
My mother made flour gravy before my father dumped a can of stewed tomatoes in it. Often one will pour ketchup on eggs to make them taste better. Daddy pours ketchup on everything he eats. Even when away from home, he looks for a ketchup bottle. A nice meal can program one to do certain things. I wonder why.
When you pour a can of stewed tomatoes over flour gravy, the gravy becomes hard to remove once it dries and cakes on in the fry pan. Imagine tomato paste coagulating blood. It bleeds for air outside the flour. Some nights, my mother will blend together ground beef with tomato sauce and make a spaghetti sauce pate. Imagine spaghetti sauce pate as it coagulates into something that looks like blood. It bleeds for air outside the blender. I think of Gettysburg and blood. Lafayette McLaws and blood. Letís talk.
Lafayette McLaws was obviously not a vegetarian as I view a picture of him taken around the time of Gettysburg. He was a large man. I would not say obese. It sounds as though he could not get around. He could. He made his way through Gettysburg and later retired to a quiet life as postmaster general in the state of Georgia. He wrote about the war just as my ancestor John Crawford had done.
John Crawford, my paternal 3rd great uncle, served in the 16th Mississippi Infantry. I can almost recite bits and pieces from his letters written back home the way my psychiatrist would recite passages from the Koran. He, a Confederate soldier, fishes on one side of the Rappahannock, while a Yankee fishes the other side, always with one eye on the pole and the other on him. In his letter, Uncle John says: "We fish together." Somewhere amidst the spilt blood of Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania, thereís always time to fish.
I got the food put up, but I still do not know how to clean the stovetop. It is one of those $10,000 Wolf stoves, too complex to clean with simple water. That will wait for mother. I donít want to be blamed if some intrinsic part turns green.
A storm howls outside. I can hear it from the kitchen window while I wash dishes and place them in one of our two dishwashers. My father rides the John Deere mower after the storm. Earlier, as a strong rainstorm approached, the siren from the top of the police station screamed out a tornado warning. Here, tornadoes rip tin roofs off of Fredís Dollar Store and spin the Sonic sign topsy-turvy. Where do they come from in their darkened fury except Kansas?
Three of my motherís Bloody Marys will bring tornadoes and my fatherís John Deere mower. You are not supposed to cut grass after a storm, but after three Bloody Marys, who cares? Letís ride. Iíll play my Wilbert Harrison CD and do dishes. I will go to Kansas City, but I donít want a tornado to take me there.
Five years ago, I sat with my psychiatrist, a short bald man fascinated with reciting passages from the Koran. He immediately diagnosed me as paranoid schizophrenic after I compared washing clothes with being lost in the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania. When our session ended, he rubbed his bald head dry of oil and worry. I looked for a basket of clothes to wash and asked: "Where is my underwear?"
We fight our "Bloody Angles" here between the kitchen and the washroom. Somehow, the vortex of all this chaos is always found when my mother cooks. Perhaps Stonewall Jackson, Maxcy Gregg, Lafayette McLaws, or even General Lee himself will come to dinner one night. I will pray for them all.
The Mule Shoe Salient, also called the Bloody Angle, was one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Civil War on May 12, 1864. I had five great great great uncles there. Twenty hours of ferocious combat between Confederate and Union soldiers proved to be inconclusive for Grant. He moved on to Cold Harbor.
Somewhere trapped in the Salient, a thought of home hits a lost soldier like lightning. Did you know lightning struck an oak tree the day after the battle was fought May 12, 1864? Jeb Stuart had been killed the day before, pursuing General Phil Sheridanís men at a place called Yellow Tavern.
At the end of the day, I want to go to bed the way you do. Donít I have a right? I want to sleep and smell deep rich Maxwell House in the morning. What I want is a pillow against my head and not the sink. Nor do I want the toilet. Iím tired of holding on to counters in order to pre-make coffee. Iím tired of you and Iím tired of me. I washed your clothes and your dishes, threw out the garbage for the 7:00 a.m. truck, provided the cats donít look for chicken bones hidden inside the garbage. I will pull a wish bone with the cats and wish for them to go away. Go away!
Tomorrow, I will follow Jeb Stuart and his cavalry into Spotsylvania in pursuit of Phil Sheridan at Yellow Tavern. I may find time to go into the tavern and have a drink. I may die of some rare disease caused by too much clothes detergent or I may be shot and killed by some of Sheridanís men. In either case, I itch constantly. Tonight, I do dishes. Tomorrow, I will meet you for drinks at the Yellow Tavern.
Postscript from the Salient or the Kitchen. I donít know which.
We will follow A.P. Hill out of Harperís Ferry, rushing through the South Mountains to the battle of Antietam. Along the Mountains we may stop awhile. There, I will hire a teamster to haul to the battlefield the hundreds of cans of bologna I have fed to you throughout this story.
© 2007 Chris Allen Clark
Bio: Chris Allen Clark lives in Morton, Mississippi, where he writes poetry and short stories. Clark had ancestors at the Bloody Angle, but he despises ketchup. He has a passion for Classical and Jazz music, especially Brubeck's "Take Five," and is also a history and art fanatic. What is life all about? Only the art of Edward Hopper can tell. Mr. Clark's work has also appeared in The Mississippi Review, JMWW, and Big City Lit.
E-mail: Chris Allen Clark
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