Gettysburg

The house at the end of her parents’ street sat at the edge of the famous Civil War battlefields, on a corner lot that afforded a view of a soft swell of meadow so pleasantly pastoral it was hard to imagine all the men who’d died there. A month ago, when she’d walked past the house for the first time since moving back to Gettysburg, Jen had imagined it peering from the tattered cover of a Nancy Drew novel: Shrubbery rose up around the exterior like a moth-riddled coat, and the faded shutters were varicosed with creeping ivy. Jen could almost smell those musty adolescent mystery novels, their spines pushed to the wall of her childhood bedroom.

Tonight, the humidity was preparing to break under the weight of a summer storm, and Jen stood at the battlefield’s rim watching lightning sink itself into the line of trees a mile away, thunder rolling like cannon fire across the open grass. She could imagine men like her parents’ next door neighbor—a plumber who every Saturday mowed his lawn in his Union soldier uniform—out there in the purple ironweed and black-eyed Susans, long-barreled muskets clasped in their hands, the ticks crawling up the thin legs of their blue pants while the first warm drops of water hit their faces like delicate blood-spatter.

This was how Jen ended every day now: After finishing her shift serving peanut soup and game pies at the Historic Farnsworth House Inn, she would change out of her blue tartan skirt and polyester apron, and take Tina, the aging family spaniel, for a walk through the neighborhood. Jen preferred to stay off the national park roads where buses passed during the day, their passengers encased in cool air and cradled by the hum of pop music as they took pictures of monuments that would offer little meaning for them later—an obelisk they liked or a copper eagle, or simply the name of their home state stamped in greening copper. Even worse were the just-married couples seated at sunset in the back of Amish horse-drawn carriages, celebrating their new union with a ride through what was essentially a cemetery.

Instead, Jen kept to the maze of 1950’s ranch-style homes that skirted the inside of the battlefield’s hoop. She was an observer now, listening for the pleasant chuff of a sprinkler or the snakeskin-shush of a sliding door pulled along its runners as she watched small, brown rabbits flee across the shadowy manicured grass. Signs of life in a town where if you decided to plant a peony, you might find a bullet or a bone fragment in the hole you’d dug.

Often while she was on her walk, Jen would get a message from her older brother, Drew, the vibration against her thigh causing her to stop and slip the phone from her pocket. Drew worked at a brokerage firm in New York. He liked to send her shots of his loafers propped up on a desk with chrome legs, or glistening piles of noodles from late-night business outings in Chinatown.

Tonight, it was a photo of Galen, smiling uncertainly, blond hair slicked back, looking, in his suit and tie, just the way he had when he’d taken her to their college formal last fall.

“New recruit. Says he knows you from Bates. Good guy?”

“Don’t know him,” she texted back, and returned to watching the storm cross toward her over the darkened fields.

The whole town was caught up in the deliciousness of its own horror. Each evening, spring through fall, pimply teenaged guides dressed in scuffed period clothes and carrying battery-powered lanterns would huddle next to the high school football field, telling tedious ghost stories to out-of-towners who’d spent their afternoon posing for tintype photographs with made-in-Taiwan parasols tilted over their shoulders. In the warmer months, reenactors sat under the ancient walnut trees, chewing dry corn pone and discussing their imaginary dysentery. It was a place transformed from real into impersonation, which was the way that Jen had always known it growing up. Only since coming back had it made her feel as if mold were growing over her skin.

Now, as bats carved the sweating air above her head, Jen stood in front of the Nancy Drew house watching for a light to come on behind one of the panes, though she’d never seen one there before. The large windows at the front of the house reflected the orange glow of the streetlight that stood at the edge of the lawn, and Jen imagined plastic-covered furniture suspended in the phosphorescent dark. A life waiting to be picked up where it had left off. But the fleet of rusted cars parked in the driveway made it easier to imagine the house collapsing in on itself, old receipts and antique knives fanned out on the kitchen table like faded peacock feathers.

Of course she’d had too much to drink at the formal. Everyone always had too much to drink, and Galen had offered to walk her home. Twenty minutes later, facedown on her dorm bed, Jen had been ready to sleep for as long as it would take to become herself again. But Galen was still there, standing over her, waiting for something.

Good-naturedly pulling the zipper on her dress, he’d laughed and said, “The question isn’t whether or not we’re going to fuck tonight.” Cheek pressed to her yellow comforter, Jen remembered thinking, Then what is the question? But he never said, just flipped her onto her back and fell forward.

“No, no,” she’d mumbled, shaking her head back and forth. No, no, that isn’t the sandwich I ordered. No, no, that color looks terrible on me. He’d been inside her long enough for her eyes to find the window, the Little Dipper pressed to the glass, before she pulled her knees to her chest and pushed against him with her feet. He came on her stomach with a small grunt like the sound of someone trying to be quietly sick.

Tonight, she stood on the sidewalk in front of the Nancy Drew house, watching a single rabbit hunched in the grass beneath the streetlight—a lawn statue but for its twitching nose and look of focused terror. The engine of a car in a neighboring driveway ticked as it cooled, and the sound joined with the click and call of the cicadas, an invisible multitude, a blanket of sound that hung in the deepening blue over the houses. Tina, who in the normal course of a day might not walk further than the foot between her bed and her water bowl, gagged on her collar as she leaned all of her trembling weight against the leash. There was a part of Jen that wanted to let her off her lead to see what she might do with her newfound liveliness.

Jen didn’t know if her no had counted, if it had indeed been the kind they’d learned about at orientation freshman year. But once Galen had fallen asleep, she snuck to the communal bathroom in the hall and showered in the dark, not wanting to see herself passing in the mirror. When Jen returned to her room, camouflaged in a layer of sweats, Galen was on his hands and knees next to her bed asking for his boxers. Silently, she helped him find them, then locked the door after he left.

Now the rabbit began to leap through the overgrown grass. Jen watched its white tail as it dashed toward the house and then, as if by magic, through a screen door propped open with a brick, and into the garage. But of course it wasn’t magic, just fear. And the house, the way the streetlight’s rusty glow lit it up from outside as the rabbit lost itself in the gloom of the interior—Jen wished she could disappear so easily into the folds of her own life.

Though she could have gone to the college in Gettysburg—their mascot The Bullets and the administrative building haunted by a sentinel’s ghost—Jen had wanted to see who she might become once removed from her hometown. The friends she’d made at her small college in Maine were primarily from the large mid-Atlantic and New England cities—Boston, New York, Philadelphia—and their surrounding suburbs. When her friends moved back in with their parents after graduation, it had been to take competitive unpaid internships at advertising firms and media corporations just a commuter train ride away. Jen had moved back home, too, but not for a job. And now, having returned, the place felt foreign to her.

Jen’s father worked for the National Park Service as an education officer at the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center, designing tours, training docents, and occasionally keeping children from touching the renowned cyclorama. Even after twenty years and the shepherding of millions of visitors through the historic site, her father’s enthusiasm for the battlefield remained unabated. That spring, before Jen’s graduation, her parents had moved from her childhood home on the north side, into a faux Victorian on the southern edge of the battlefield’s inner circle. The house was an old ranch rambler some previous Civil War enthusiast had outfitted with gables, leaded glass windows, a wrap-around porch, and one fake dormer over the garage. And Jen’s parents picked up where he’d left off, redoing the interior, too, in the period style. They excised even Jen’s blond pine bed frame and dresser and replaced them with heavy cherry pieces covered in doilies, a porcelain bowl and pitcher taking up the surface of the small vanity table that sat below a warped antique mirror. She was a stranger there, though it was the one place she’d hoped to still remember herself inside of.

Jen felt most present during her shifts at the Farnsworth, where she didn’t need to be conscious of anything beyond that moment of work. She’d waited tables there in high school, and the manager had welcomed her back, no questions asked, when she went looking for a job after graduation. Often she shared a shift with Renee, another twenty-something, small and dark-haired with a laugh that came careening out the side of her mouth. Nothing needed to be funny for Renee to find a reason to erupt. In fact, the more humorless the situation, the louder her hiccupping response. She’d served a tour in Afghanistan with the National Guard, and when Jen thanked her for her service, she’d responded with a nod accompanied by a disconcerting snort.

Renee’s cousin owned a pawnshop in town, and Renee worked the counter most mornings, with her afternoons off before the dinner shift started. It was always an incongruous sight to see Renee emerge from her black Honda in a bonnet and white stockings, hefting a hoopskirt over her shoulder as she crossed the cracked asphalt. But Renee wore her costume the same way she wore her body, as if limbs and torso didn’t exist outside their utilitarian purposes of clearing plates and lifting trays. She made physical disregard look easy, something Jen hadn’t mastered yet, though she’d been trying to learn.

“I’m sorry if you’re upset,” Galen had said a week after the formal.

They’d talked sitting side by side on her bed. In the window, the afternoon sun was stained red at the bottom sill with fallen maple leaves. He was holding her hand. For a moment, Jen thought he had become her boyfriend. He hadn’t, but they started sleeping together after that, and this made Jen feel as though what had happened was acceptable, simply a misunderstanding in the opening stages of a casual courtship. There were so many details from that night she could have gotten wrong, memories that could now mean something different from what she’d first thought. Galen had had a lot to drink too. She could choose to hear his voice that night as playful. Maybe it had been.

Jen turned from the house to face the battlefields again. Despite the approaching storm, she could see the buck and rail fencelines silhouetted by the moon and running like surgical stitches along the spine of each hill. Jen realized she had never seen any deer in the fields, though they stretched for miles and were full of sweet grasses and wildflowers. It was as if no animal wanted to live on that land, no matter how beautifully it presented itself.

Jen pulled her phone from her back pocket. “Tell him I remember him,” she started to type. But she couldn’t decide if she was angry, if she wanted to punish him. And why? Because Galen had stopped coming by her room a month before the end of the school year? Or because he had never accounted for the way things had begun? Otherwise, what was this feeling crouched inside her, curled at the base of her tongue like a piece of hard, cool ash? She’d begun to see that she was the only one who could decide if he’d done something wrong, or if she had.

Not that Jen told many people what had happened. In fact, Renee was the only one who knew. Jen and her mother had always been close, but Galen wasn’t something she could share with her. And she couldn’t tell her friends at school, especially after she’d let on that she and Galen had started hooking up. That night was a story only appropriate for someone Jen knew hardly at all, someone who didn’t really know her.

The last few weeks, on hot afternoons, Jen often changed into an old swimsuit, and took a magazine and a beach towel out onto her parents’ lawn. Each time, as she changed, she was always careful not to catch sight of her naked form in the bedroom’s antique mirror. There was nothing to examine there, nothing she didn’t already know: brown arms against a pale belly, and the freckles on her backside that had made Galen, briefly, open and close his mouth as if he were going to ask her a question, and then changed his mind.

A week ago, Renee had come over and joined her in the backyard where they’d lain on the grass with their arms flung over their faces. The shrubs were perfectly manicured, and three fruit trees—a cherry, a plum, and a quince—stood toward the back like hesitant dancers waiting for their cue. Jen stared up at the sky, imagining she could see the waves of humidity rolling over her and the town, covering her body in a protective cocoon of heat and moisture. Beside her, Renee lay face-up, chin tilted toward the sun, sweat pooling in the lines where her shoulders met her neck. To Jen, Renee’s body looked unremarkable, painless, a safe place to deliver this thing she’d been carrying inside her.

But her revelation hadn’t worked the way she’d thought it would. Instead of Renee’s characteristic laugh or even an offering of awkward sympathy, she turned a cold gaze on Jen and said, “At least you know now what to be looking out for.”

At their next shift, she pulled a buck knife from a short leather sheath and showed Jen how to hold it in her hand, thumb along the hilt. “The pawn shop has tons,” she said as she snapped it back into its sheath and dropped it into Jen’s palm. “I even sharpened it for you.”

At home, Jen examined the blade like a piece of expensive jewelry, holding it up to the light coming through her bedroom window, testing the knife point against the pads of each finger. She carried it with her now on her evening walks through the neighborhood, but it wasn’t a comfort to her. Instead, its presence radiating from her hip where she’d clipped it to her belt felt like a reminder, something new that came with an old, bitter aftertaste. She could never imagine using it on Galen. She knew him; he wasn’t a stranger. He hadn’t been trying to hurt her.

Jen glanced back in the direction of the house, as dark and untouched as all the nights before. Then she bent to unclip Tina’s leash from the collar. The dog darted away from her and towards the open screen door as Jen took her first step onto the lawn of the house. She didn’t feel angry, or afraid. She didn’t feel anything.

The screen door slapped against the frame behind her, and Jen became aware that it had started raining while she’d been standing outside. Water dripped from her bangs, and the drumming on the roof was a hard, furious dance. Tina had disappeared. Jen used her cell phone as a flashlight to guide herself across the empty garage, up the two short steps, and through the open door into the hallway of the house. Now that she was inside, Jen could see how easy it might be for a story to change, like a scar suddenly without the memory of a wound to accompany it.

Jen tried the light switch on the wall, but nothing happened. There was the faint smell of mildew, and, in the kitchen, the even fainter smell of old frying oil. Clearly, no one had lived there for years. Some rooms in the house had been entirely emptied. In others, framed prints—a hunting party, a pair of doves with gold neckbands—still hung on the walls. Overfull cardboard boxes lined the hallway, unlabeled. In the bathroom, a toothbrush holder and soap dish sat on the counter beside the sink. But the mirror that had hung above it was gone, just a jagged line of yellow caulk and four screw holes marked where it had once been. It was as if whoever had lived in the house changed their mind halfway through the move out, deciding not to take their past with them after all, but instead to abandon it here, to hope, perhaps, for a fire, a strike of lightning to descend from the sky and erase whatever had been left behind.

Jen peered through the small bathroom window that faced out onto the battlefields. It looked different from here: the rough weather, the violence of the land framed now and set at a comfortable distance. There was nothing on the horizon—no silhouettes of horses and bayonets, no men in loose gray tunics, no mist creeping over the fences—nothing to frighten her. She could see now: This was simply shame. How obvious it suddenly felt washing over her. How important to hide it here, to bury it and leave it behind forever, to hope that no one ever stumbled into these rooms, and, if they did, that they wouldn’t understand what they were seeing.

Behind her, from somewhere deep in the house, Jen heard a bark, then a muffled cry quickly snuffed out.

Copyright © 2004–2017 Memorious