Last Casualty
by Jenn Blair

The cannonball was not the real one, but the twelve pound fraud still put out Gus’s back. Bending down wasn’t the problem, not even picking the cannonball up. It was when he tried to rise. Crick. A half second before the snap— he just knew.

It was Clara’s fault. Somewhat. She was the only reason they had stopped at the cannonball house in the first place. They had been coming back down to Valdosta after visiting their daughter Amy and her family in Atlanta when Clara said she always wanted to see Macon. The traffic had been light, they were running early, and Gus was in a good mood. So he agreed. Once there, they had followed the signs to the visitor’s center. The lady behind the desk suggested they take advantage of the trolley package because it would take them to all the important sites. While she droned on about some poet’s house, Gus stared at the picture of Lionel Ritchie. How had they blown the singer’s face up so big?

“Does that include the Cannonball House?” Clara asked.

Gus tuned back into the conversation.

“Oh yes. Of course,” the lady smiled. Clara looked at Gus and grinned, then tapped his arm lightly. Their usual sign. He found his wallet.

They rode the trolley with one other couple and a middle aged man who smelled strongly of cigarette smoke.

“What were you asking about back there—that had to do with cannons?” he asked, taking Clara’s hand.

“The Cannonball House. My Aunt Lucy told me about it. She and Uncle Charles visited back in the eighties and there were ladies there all dressed up like belles in hoop skirts.” As they got closer to the Hays house, Clara pulled back her hand and read aloud to him from the brochure:

Built in 1854, it is furnished with handsome antiques of that period, and Confederate military artifacts are exhibited in the adjoining servants’ quarters. The Cannonball House gets its name from a lone shot from General Stoneman’s artillery that ‘struck the sand sidewalk, passed through the second column from the left on the gallery, and entered the parlor over a window, landing unexploded in the hall.

When the trolley finally stopped at the cannonball house, the gate stuck when Gus tried to open it. Then the front door was locked.

“Well, this isn’t your typical southern welcome, is it?” the man who smelled like smoke chortled. They all stood out on the porch, while Clara rang the bell. Soon, a woman, black hair pulled back tightly in a bun, came to let them in. Gus noticed she was wearing jeans with a blouse and a pin with a small teddy bear. But if Clara was disappointed about what the woman was wearing, she didn’t show it.

“Welcome to the Cannonball House!” the woman cried, pulling open the door the rest of the way.

“Oh look, Gus, there it is!” Clara said as soon as they stepped inside. And sure enough, there at the bottom of the stairs was a dent in the wooden floor, and a cannonball sitting neatly in the chip. It was startling, to see it up front like that, all at once. Now that they had seen the thing they might as well turn right around.

But Clara was already signing the guest book, murmuring her appreciation at the single pink rose in the green vase by the book. Wasn’t that a nice touch? her face said. Gus had to smile. Sometime back, he had finally realized that what sometimes irritated him about Clara was perhaps one of the things he loved most: her enthusiasm. The lady told them the tour would begin in a few minutes. Until then, if they wanted to see the gift shop…. As they all shuffled into the backroom, the other lady who had been on the trolley asked Clara, “Where you folks from?”

“Valdosta.”

“Just on our way home,” she added.

“Not too far! And you’ve never been here before?”

“No,” Clara said.

“I guess it’s like they say,” the single man interrupted, as he picked up a cookbook with a peach on it. “Off to China to see a dancing flea, but if the Ark of the Covenant was in your own backyard you couldn’t be bothered to pull back the curtain and take a look.”

“That’s so true,” chirped the woman. “Skip and I live forty-five miles from the fountain of youth, and we lived there ten years before we stopped.”

Clara smiled at her and nodded. “How is that?”

“What?”

“The fountain.”

“Oh, it’s great. They have a train you can ride. And a lovely diorama. Visitors are encouraged to sample the waters.”

“But you got to watch out. The water tastes terrible,” her husband added, making a face. “Rotten egg central.”

“Well,” Clara replied, “Gus and I might need to get down there soon and drink some. Does it help arthritis? I’m getting some in my hands lately.”

“Sure, or your money back!” the man winked.

Clara smiled at him, and handed Gus some postcards and a magnet. Well…those wouldn’t break the bank. While his receipt was printing out, she went over to a nearby table and rifled through the basket of confederate flag erasers: “Maybe we should get Jack something?” Jack was their daughter Amy’s six year old son.

“We got him a Falcons hat yesterday.”

“I guess you’re right. Amy says we spoil him too much already.”

They waited a few more minutes until another couple from Ohio joined them. Then, the bun lady cleared her throat and clapped her hands like she was a fourth grade school teacher: “Alright, let’s get started. I’ll show you the dining room, and then I’ll have my assistant Roger take you out back, then we’ll do the parlor last.”

“Wait! Sandra! Can you take three more?” It was the lady from the gift shop, standing there with a young couple both wearing tan shorts and a small boy in a yellow T-shirt who looked five or six. They joined the group and the boy stood right beside him picking his nose and looking around at everything expectantly.

After the three had been added, they went and stood around a dining room table. Clara was in her element now. Both she and the Fountain of Youth lady murmured approvingly at everything said. At first, Gus looked over at the woman’s husband, to catch his eye—give him that glance. That silent, can you believe we are here instead of home watching the basketball game look. But the husband was too busy maneuvering his video and digital cameras. Soon, he set the cameras down to readjust his fanny pack, then picked it up and interrupted the guide: “Last year, we got down to Biloxi…to see Varina Davis’s beginnings. And we’re going to the Jarrell plantation next.”

“We love to travel,” the wife added. “We read about things, and then we go find them.” When the guide talked about the Federal glass above the fireplace, they both looked rapt.

“Ladies used to have fans to hold up to their faces when they stood near the fire, so their beeswax make up wouldn’t slide off—”

“Oh I know about that!” the husband interrupted again, “and they had chicken pox and small pox scars they had to cover up.”

“Yes. Anyhow, this practice is probably where the term ‘saving face’ came from.”

“And do you know why they said sleep tight—I read about that in a forward my cousin sent me—” the man added. Gus felt himself growing annoyed. Why wouldn’t they just shut up and listen? Right then, Clara took his hand. She was happy. So Gus was happy. He sighed. Soon, the guide wrested the conversation back.

“Each of the chairs around the table has needlepoint on it. Take a look.”

Gus looked down. Each chair had the seal of a state, and he happened to be standing right behind Texas.

“You might not notice,” the guide went on, “but the way the chairs are arranged tells a story. Can anyone guess what the order means?”

She looked hopeful, scanning everyone’s faces, while they all continued to stand there silent.

“I guess we don’t get an A on the test later,” chuckled the man with the camera equipment.

“Well,” the guide said dramatically, as if she had finally decided to put them out of suspense “they are arranged in the order the states left the Union.”

“Oh,” Clara breathed.

“Rob! Stand back from there!” a voice barked. Gus looked. Rob, the boy in the yellow shirt had his arms draped over one of the chairs and was hugging it.

The boy looked up, reluctantly, at his mother. “You heard your father!” she barked. “You could ruin that.” Sullenly, he let go of the chair.

After this part of the tour, the woman handed them over to a boy who was a junior on break from college.

“My name’s Roger. I’m a native of Macon and a psychology major, but I haven’t graduated yet, so don’t ask me to look inside your head just yet. Now that you know about me, let me add that I’m glad you are here with us today. Now, if you don’t mind, let’s head out back.” Clara and Mrs. Florida looked approvingly on. They stood there like two car headlights, beaming at the next generation.

Clara even had love in her heart for the nose picker. “How old is he?” she asked the mother.

“A handful!” she said. “Six.”

“Well,” Clara told her, “They grow up fast. He’ll appreciate that you brought him here one day.”

The mother smiled, but it was a wan smile, mostly polite, Gus thought. He glanced over at the boy kicking some plastic edging near some purple Irish bushes. People shouldn’t bring their kids on these types of things. They just got bored and misbehaved. Next, their group went out to the kitchen, and saw the carved down bricks by the door jamb slaves had sharpened their knives upon, as well as the Confederate museum that mainly consisted of old Confederate jackets and a palmetto hat.

“Well, the war wasn’t just about slavery. It was mainly two different economies, butting heads like a pair of bulls,” the cigarette man philosophized, staring at some tufts of cotton and a bullet that struck a young soldier in the foot.

“Where you from?” asked the camera juggler, suddenly interested in the sermonizing.

“Nevada. Reno,” the man replied. “But I’ve always liked this part of the country. Lots of history here.”

The Florida man looked at him, for a second, then nodded appreciatively.

“Hot out there too, isn’t it? In the desert.”

“Yes. But no humidity,” he said, wiping some sweat away from his forehead as if to prove a point.

“You have family here?” The camera man kept on.

“No. Business trip,” he said, then rolled up a brochure and stuck it in his back pocket. He didn’t offer more.

“Oh…do you like to gamble?” The camera man wasn’t willing to give up yet.

“I do. But not too much. I don’t like it too much.”

“Ha-yeah right! And you ain’t never noticed those showgirls’ long legs neither” At this, the man adjusted his camera equipment so he could free a hand and slap the man lightly on the shoulder. Instant conspirators, they chuckled. While folks were looking at the odds and ends on display in lighted glass cases, silence reigned. When they gathered back together, the guide asked them if they had any questions about any of the ‘artifacts.’ Gus thought that word belonged to Indiana Jones but not the cotton tufts and lithograph facsimile of Jefferson Davis hiding out in a hotel.

“Yeah I do have a question” the boy said, raising his hand.

“Yes?” the guide seemed surprised and so did the boy’s parents.

“Why did people keep people’s hair? That’s sick.” The guide hesitated, “It is a little odd,” he agreed with the boy. Clara nodded at the guide as he paused, encouraging him to go on: “But back then it was more the custom. People wanted to remember their loved ones who died.”

“Oh,” the boy said, dragging his one now untied shoe on the floor then raising it to kick it once. “Well we don’t have any of Uncle Joey’s hair. He used to make me macaroni but then he hung himself in a bathtub. Right?” At this, he turned around to his mother for verification of the facts but instead her face crumpled, and she left the group rushing down the stairs.

“What did I do?” the boy asked his father.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Nothing. We’ll talk about it later,” the father said, putting his arm around the boy with a tenderness that belied his former impatience.

“Oh boy,” the camera man said.

“Well, ummm…you guys come on back down to the garden when you are ready,” the guide said, his face somewhat pale.

“That is just terrible. Something really terrible must have happened to that boy,” Clara shook her head.

“Sounds like it. But it’s their business,” Gus didn’t want her getting all emotional right now.

“I don’t know,” Clara retorted, “How you can say that. Of course it’s our business! We’re humans, and Christians to boot.”

“Honey, I know you care,” Gus tried again, “I just mean that it’s best to leave them alone.” She nodded, but seemed upset. After a few minutes more of milling around, the group went back to the entryway, and the college guide told them the story of the cannonball. After that, he invited them to place their hands on the treasure.

“Who’d like to go first?” he asked. He motioned to a woman standing in the door frame.

“Oh no,” frowned the lady from Columbus in Ohio, as if she would never dream of committing such a forward act.

“Me! I’m going to!” the boy in the yellow t-shirt said. He flexed an arm to show a non-existent muscle.

“Wait your turn!” the father barked, back in his usual disciplinarian post. “You can’t go first. Let someone else go first.”

Gus didn’t know why not. There was no law. The boy kept whimpering, but

of their group of ten, no one else moving. Clara looked at Gus with a look that said, “Why don’t you dear” and Gus, knowing the look too well, reluctantly stepped forward.

“Here’s a customer!” the guide said, sounding relieved.

Gus stooped down. Crick. And Gus looking up, at his wife, the guide (who had a few pimples on his cheeks), and the Florida history hounds—could only think to say,

“Well…bad idea.”

He slowly straightened himself up but he still seemed curled, the heel left in the bag of bread. They rode back with some of the others on the trolley, including the boy in the yellow shirt. He made faces at the cars speeding past them while his father sat quietly with an arm around his mother. A snot. But really, was Jack their grandson that different? The only thing that probably made him more loveable was that he was theirs.

Clara drove home. Gus was in the driver’s seat, seat all the way down, closing his eyes, trying to make the crick un-happen.

“Oh Mr. Gus, I’m so sorry,” Clara said gripping the wheel, glancing in the rearview mirror, and then switching back over to the slow lane. Gus didn’t know when she had started calling him that. Come to think of it, he didn’t care for it. It was strange. Formal. From another century. Too prim. Mostly, it made him sound old.

“Did you happen to overhear what the guide was telling that couple while we were waiting for the trolley? Since you were sitting down with the bag of ice by the door, I guess you didn’t. That was nice of that boy to go get some for you, wasn’t it? Roger, right? I think he said he was in a fraternity that did a lot of service projects. Restoring old tombstones. Anyhow, he told us that one time, all those chairs around the dining hall table got put out of order.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. And none of them knew exactly how they went, but luckily, one older lady who works on Tuesdays remembered and set them right.”

“I guess you could always look in a book.”

“Yes. You couldn’t carry around all that in your mind. At least I couldn’t. I barely have enough room for the grocery list most days.”

“Hmmm.” Gus knew the feeling.

“Other people say ghosts move them but I can’t believe that. Though the Bible does say our battle isn’t against flesh and blood…”

“Well, most ghosts are harmless old ladies, moving around cutlery and dollhouse furniture and stuff if the Discovery Channel is correct.” Gus wanted to be difficult.

They rode for awhile in silence, and then—

“Do you want us to pray about it, right now, right here?”

“What?” Gus hadn’t anticipated this Pentecostal turn.

“Pray. Both of us and out loud. For your back and for that family and whatever they are going through. Remember, whenever two or more….”

“Okay, sure,” Gus mumbled, “but let’s not close our eyes. You especially cause you’re driving.”

After she prayed for a few minutes, thanking God for Gus and what a good man he was, always providing for her and their family, then prayed for the person who had hung himself, Joey I think but you know his last name Lord and you know his troubles, or knew them, she shook her head once and smiled, re-gripped the steering wheel, then grew more serious looking.

“What’s the matter, honey?” Gus asked.

“Nothing. I was just thinking about that prayer show where the man in that two toned sweater, what’s his name?”

“Reverend Stuck in the Eighties?”

“Gus.” She sounded offended.

“That last show we saw, his sweater could have doubled for a marbleized cake.”

“Well, it’s about the heart,” she reprimanded, “but my point was going to be about those prayer cloths he had.”

Gus thought about it. Oh yes. The man had put a number in high yellow letters up on the bottom of the screen. People were supposed to call in if they wanted a magical hankie sent to them, ala Paul in the New Testament. He thought it sounded hokish-pokish. What was someone supposed to do? Apply it directly to the throbbing area like a heating pad?

“I remember that. What about them?”

“Well, if you keep having trouble with your back…maybe we could,” she paused, “maybe I…”

“Yes?”

“Could send for one.”

Gus tried not to panic. Clara had always been one of the last ones out of the kitchen after a church potluck, but her religion had previously seemed, well contained, fitting neatly into Sunday mornings, the occasional Bible Study, and a morality that fit neatly under the already existing rubric of good neighbor behavior. She loved Tammy Faye but seemed a bit skeptical when she heard that one of the woman’s warts was removed by placing it in the communion cup of wine when she was a young girl. That seemed…a little too much to her at the time. Was she now going overboard in late life? He didn’t know what to say.

“Maybe so,” he said, as a Shell station whizzed by on their left. He made an effort to carefully twist his neck so he could check their fuel gauge. Still holding at half. “Let’s wait and see.”

When they finally got home, Clara insisted Gus leave the luggage in the car, that she would get it later. She helped him into bed, then went and fixed him a light dinner—some cheese and crackers, and a bagel and some strawberries.

“We’ll have you right in no time, Mr. Gus. Don’t you worry about that,” Clara said, putting the tray down by his pillow. Now you sit up and try and take some nourishment.” Gus sat up.

“Try and take some nourishment?” Maybe it was all those Christian historical romance novels she read. She called them her “girl books.” Those ones where a couple was on board a ship during a storm, and the woman was a wilted piece of lettuce in a falling off dress, and the bare-chested man was using one arm to anchor them and the other arm to hold onto the woman. He didn’t see how they tried to fit God into all that sop. He inched up and grimaced.

“Damn.”

“What was that Mr. Gus?”

Oops. Clara did not stand for swearing. She took her Bible quite literally, and the Lord had said not to swear by heaven or earth or by anything else, and to let your yes be yes and no be no. The old small moldy looking Bible on the mantle of the Confederate museum might be a relic to some. But to her, the words the pages held were so new, they wouldn’t even be written until tomorrow morning.

“Honey, it hurts.”

“I know, I know,” said Clara. “I’ll get you some orange juice. Or would you rather some water?”

“Do we have any ginger ale?”

“Oh, I think I still have some left from the last time Jack was here.” Clara went out to look. Gus stared at the digital clock. 8:23 pm. Clara shortly returned, with a cup.

“We did have some!” She placed the glass on the tray.

“Wasn’t it interesting,” she went on, sitting down on the bed beside him, “That silver pitcher they made from the cups that replaced the one they lost when they buried it, to hide it from Sherman? But what I don’t understand is, if they melted all the cups to make another pitcher, what would the pitcher have to pour itself into?”

Gus sometimes thought Clara had an overactive thyroid…in her head.

“Good question,” he said, putting the ginger ale to his lips.

“I hope that family with the boy got home alright. And that he didn’t give his mother too much more trouble. You know how children are. They don’t know what they are supposed to say in public or not, bless their hearts.”

“Yes, bless their hearts.”

Clara sat there, quiet for a few more moments.

“Did you get something to eat yet?” Gus asked.

“Oh, Mr. Gus, don’t worry about me. A woman must attend to her matrimonial duties first.”

“Well, I’m fine, thanks. You better go eat. We had lunch a long time ago.” Clara looked like she was considering the idea, and then—

“Well, I do believe you’re right. I do feel a little pang. Here,” she said, putting her hand up, “in my side.” She went out of the room.

Gus watched the back of her move out of the doorway. He then took another bite of a cracker with some Swiss on it. “Matrimonial duties?” In his mind, that would mean something else. Sex mainly. If he could remember right, they last time that matrimonial event had taken place, well…was it two months ago? It had seemed a warm night, but maybe that was just because Clara had just finished her quilting project, and didn’t feel the need to do anything to better her person. Dear Lord, he thought, they might be in their early sixties now, but her person had felt fine enough to him. He wasn’t sure how to talk about their love life—or lack thereof—with her. She would probably say something about how they had done their part propagating the earth, and now the only proper thing to do, would be to meekly fade away. Until Gus could find a way to bring the issue up, he would have to make do without. Of course, with this back, probably any little extra exertion was getting to be too strenuous. Listen to him! He sounded like Clara.

“Mr. Gus, do you need anything else?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want you to become the last casualty of the Civil War.”

She stood and looked at him, then gave a small laugh, and left the room. After she had gone, Gus suddenly felt uneasy. What was it about that laugh that unnerved him? Of course she didn’t want him to perish. But maybe…maybe she did wish he’d be thrilling in a way he was not now. Be a man in a good crisp uniform who had the good sense to die young. She would then be left free to spend her evenings scrap booking and making wreathes, her light, his “faded visage” shining out at her from its oval frame. Then she could think about his nobleness for the rest of her life. Without having him hobbling along beside her in the grocery store every Saturday, and asking her what row was the baking soda in again. Seeing his varicose veins, when they played golf on Saturdays, the one on his back left calf, a blue firework perpetually halfway through exploding.

That night he fell asleep, dreaming he was in a room near a pile of chairs. Arranging them, or trying to in his head before he put them against the table.

“What time do you want to eat dinner?” he yelled into a doorway of pure light.

“Take sustenance? Oh, not yet. But soon. How about half past six?”

“I’ll get everything ready. Set the table,” Gus called.

“Lovely. Let’s use the good China.”

“With the small blue rose pattern? Certainly. And don’t forget the napkins are in the oak bureau by the window.”

He rushed over and opened the drawer. There they were, on top, and already folded, looking suspiciously like a stack of prayer clothes. He reached out for them, then paused. He had better hurry—get everything in order. But before he did that, he needed to fix the chairs. South Carolina, of course, went first. But then things got a little muddled. Mississippi and then Florida—or Florida then Mississippi? Just as he was about to move one, a figure entered the room, featureless but brightly illuminated. Gus didn’t know who it was exactly. He stood back, confused. Just then, Clara came into the room with a silver tray full of golden macaroni, beaming. A few other effulgent figures arrived, and Clara gestured that they should grab a chair for the table. Finally, Gus remembered he was there too, and started handing over the chairs to the figures. When they took them and all sat down, it didn’t seem to matter so much anymore which was which.