It was a bitter winter that year, 1954. The coldest that century, they said, and fifteen-year-old Ernie Remsen was freezing; the layers of sweaters underneath his blue cotton mechanic’s jacket, a “Texaco” patch on the breast, couldn’t keep out the chill. Sal was the name embroidered over the left pocket. Ernie didn’t know Sal but was grateful he’d donated it to the church rummage sale. It was almost better than nothing.
Still, Ernie had stolen a kid’s coat, a real winter coat, hanging from a hook outside the gym’s locker room. Ernie was either stupid enough or cold enough to wear it around school. The coat didn’t even fit. Had its rightful owner, a boy named Sokol, gone up to him and said it was his, Ernie would have given it back then and there. He wasn’t a bully; he just wanted a warm coat and there it was. Sokol wasn’t about to confront Ernie, though. Ernie Remsen wasn’t a kid you confronted. Avoided was more like it. You don’t mess with kids who never smile. You don’t mess with kids who mumble to themselves. You don’t mess with a kid who once came to school with a black eye.
It was Principal O’Brien’s call to make; suspension or community service. Ernie was half hoping for suspension because time out of school was as good as time in school. But his mother would have a fit and if his father came back this time, Ernie would end up with another black eye and that was only because he’d grown too big for a belt.
He choked up when he offered an apology, saying he didn’t mean any harm and just needed a warm coat. He hated himself for that and choked up some more.
The principal told Ernie to stay seated and not touch anything. He scrounged in a closet that housed the lost-and-found until he found a coat too large for most kids, a dark plaid thing that had been turned in after a football game.
“Here,” said O’Brien. “No one’s claimed it. Anyway, it’s yours so you don’t need to borrow one from a kid half your size.”
Ernie looked up through reddened eyes and mumbled, “Thanks.”
“Now, Mr. Remsen, what to do with you?”
Ernie chewed on the ragged end of a well-chewed thumbnail while staring at his feet. He hesitated before saying, “I don’t know,” his stock response to questions in school even when he knew the answer. The principal was looking at papers on his desk, not at Ernie. The question, Ernie now knew, was rhetorical.
“Ernie, do you know what ‘intimidating’ means?”
“Has anyone ever told you that you look a bit scary?”
Ernie was about to answer no but stopped. He hadn’t been told he was scary; no one would dare. No one ever said much to him, unless there was a problem.
“When something goes wrong, everyone kind of thinks I did it. Like when a window gets broken or when the woods caught fire that time. It was like, ‘Ernie, did you do it?’ I guess I look that way.”
The principal looked at Ernie for a long while. Ernie looked out the window. What else, it would be suspension. That wouldn’t be so bad. Ernie had that term paper on his mind: “A Brush with History.” The idea was to write about something in his life that brought him close to the past. So far he’d come up empty except to blame his father’s behavior on three years as a POW, though his mother had said he’d been a jerk long before that. Maybe he’d go hang out at the town’s library, figure something out, if he could ignore the scowl from the librarian who would ask him why he wasn’t in school. Or if she didn’t kick him out.
“It’s not fair, is it?”
Ernie nodded in agreement. “You know what they say.”
“What’s that Ernie?”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover. I guess I have a bad cover. I needed a coat. I was going to give it back at some point. I think.”
The principal smiled for the first time that morning.
“Well you don’t need a coat now. Nor do you need a suspension. I’ve got community service in mind unless you insist on suspension. Which will it be?”
Ernie didn’t expect a choice. He said, “Community service.”
The principal smiled again. “Good choice.”
Thaddeus Seymour, age 96, lived alone in a house he built in 1897. He’d lost his wife in the Spanish Flu Epidemic. Their daughter, too. The son, an engineer, was killed exploring a mine in Colorado. Their spouses had remarried and moved on with the grandchildren to parts unknown. His friends had gone, too. The best was a dog who died when Seymour was 90. Fifteen-years old that dog. Seymour couldn’t go through that again. Hell, he could barely take care of himself these days.
Seymour didn’t drive, not anymore, even if he wanted to. His license with a rare three-digit number had expired years before. And it was doubtful his Ford Model A would start assuming he had the strength to work the crank. So, he’d would walk to town to shop, get his haircut, get out of the house, get moving. If he had more than one bag of groceries, he’d make multiple trips that would take up his entire day. He’d amble down the road, waving off people offering a ride and eventually make it to wherever he was going. Mike Abernathy, the local police sergeant, once asked him if he wouldn’t rather get there sooner. Seymour groused that then he’d have nothing to do but go for a walk anyway.
“You ever hear the story about the tortoise and the hare?” Seymour said. “Speed only gets you nowhere sooner.” He didn’t wait for a response. He looked at the time on his pocket watch, adjusted his tie, swung his cane, and continued on his way.
It would have been a treacherous walk for anyone that day. Powdery snow hid ice under which roots had lifted the cracked sidewalk into a series of little random ridges, valleys, and glaciers. But it was Wednesday, and every other Wednesday he went for a haircut. It had been a routine etched into his life for 50 years always at the same barbershop, though the original owner was long gone. His grandson, Joe, no spring chicken, ran it now. Joe offered to come to Seymour’s home, especially in rough weather. Seymour would have none of it. “And would you bring the rest of your ugly customers with you? How about those girly magazines? No? Then I’ll come to you.”
Before and after his haircut, Seymour would sit in the shop—outside if the weather was fine—and talk to anyone who bothered to listen or listen to anyone who bothered to talk. If no one was talking, he’d read magazines like the Police Gazette, Esquire, or Argosy. And if it wasn’t one of those every-other-Wednesdays, it didn’t matter; it was a place to spend time haircut or not.
The snow had dulled the sheen on his cracked leather brogues. Maybe he’d get a shine if the boy was in the shop. Next time he’d wear the brown shoes and get these resoled again; they needed it. He could use new laces, too. He was thinking about that when the tip of his cane found a narrow crack in the sidewalk that wouldn’t let go. Seymour held onto the cane a moment too long. The cane held fast. Seymour tripped over a root that had grown through a crack, his arms splayed out in surprise. His face met the snowy pavement shattering his wire-rimmed glasses. He was lucky he hit the snow. The only damage was a badly twisted ankle. He recovered the cane and managed to get on his feet. It took him an hour to dodder home.
The doctor making house calls told Seymour to ice his leg and keep off of it. Seymour smirked. He rose and limped to the kitchen returning with a glass of bourbon on the rocks. “See Doc? It’s got ice. I’ll deliver it internally.”
Members of the Ladies Auxiliary from the Methodist church brought over meals and did some cleaning. It was always the same, chicken pot pie. “Easy to chew, easy to stomach and, damn good,” was what he’d say.
Seymour was sitting back in his armchair, bouncing one foot on the floor and alternatively tapping the armrests with his hands. He was staring at the four walls, complaining to infrequent visitors that he’d be climbing them if not for his “damn leg.” The church women thought they were doing him a favor by leaving copies of the Saturday Evening Post and worn editions of Reader’s Digest. Seymour could have cared less for any of those even if he could read them, which he couldn’t without his old glasses. The new ones wouldn’t arrive for a couple of weeks.
“He needs a helper, someone to read to him. He likes history,” said Joan Wright, Chair of the Women’s Auxiliary, to Principal O’Brien. “And, let me be frank, he could use some help with, I don’t mean to be rude, the toilet. You understand? It should be a young man. I thought you might have a student, perhaps a scout working on a merit badge. Someone who could use a little money. We’re offering $5 a week.”
O’Brien was delighted.
“I have just the fellow.”
Ernie made his way up the walk to the porch and knocked on the door. A voice called out, “It’s open. Wipe your feet”
He did as instructed and closed the door behind him.
“Umm, hi. I’m, uhm, Ernie Remsen and—”
“I know who you are and don’t mumble. Come over so I can get a look at you.”
Ernie wiped his feet again and stood before Thaddeus Seymour. “My eyesight, you know. They’re working on new glasses. Take a seat. Now tell me, do you know what day it is?”
Ernie shrugged, “Wednesday.” It came out more as a question than an answer.
“Wednesday, right. That’s why I look handsome. Got a haircut. And a shave. Joe came over from the shop. Did me the honors. I don’t want to look like some ragamuffin for those church ladies, do I? “
Seymour pointed to a stack of magazines. “He left those.”
“Magazines,” said Ernie.
“You might as well start your job. Choose one. I don’t care which.”
For the next two hours Ernie read to Thaddeus Seymour with two breaks to help the old man onto the toilet, discretely standing outside the room until called, and another break for a trip to the kitchen where a plate of cookies had been left by the ladies of the Methodist Auxiliary.
“Take one for yourself. Hell, take two. I can’t eat ‘em all,” said Seymour.
Ernie had hoped Mr. Seymour would fall asleep so he could get to that term paper; he was struggling with his particular brush with history. Seymour wouldn’t cooperate. As Ernie read, Seymour would interrupt constantly. On an article about Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill being turned over to the family trust as a museum, Seymour said, “Voted for the man. Twice. But that Rough Rider stuff? Waste of time. That Hearst fellow just wanted a war to sell his papers.”
Ernie read a Life Magazine piece on the Supreme Court’s ruling on school segregation. Seymour piped in. “’Bout time, too. Colored kids just the same as you, only darker.” He giggled at that. “Get it?”
Then Seymour started to nod his head.
“I saw a lynching once.”
He closed his eyes, still nodding, and stopped speaking.
“Really?” said Ernie. “Was it awful?”
“I didn’t see the murder, just the boy hanging from a tree the next morning. Fifteen he was. His mother – I guess it was his mother – was trying to get his body down. A crowd stood around doing nothing. Happened right here in Maryland if you can believe it.”
Seymour picked up another magazine. “What’s this one?”
The cover had been torn off. Ernie opened to an article and read the title, “The Flight of John Wilkes Booth.”
Seymour nodded, “Go on.”
The article described Booth sneaking into Lincoln’s box, stabbing the Major who was with the President, breaking his leg when he leaped onto the stage yelling “Sic semper tyrannis,” and then limping off to make his escape. Ernie stopped reading periodically when he got caught up in the drama.
“Good story if you speak up,” said Seymour. “Truth is better than fiction if you ask me.” The story went on how Booth was killed in a tobacco barn after a 12-day manhunt. Seymour kept asking Ernie to reread parts, offering comments like, “Yup”, “Nope,” and the occasional, “Ha.”
When he’d finished, Ernie looked up to see Seymour, eyes closed, sitting back in his chair. He got up to shovel snow off the porch; part of his job was to find things to do. “I’ll just go clear outside. Need anything?” He whispered, thinking Seymour might had fallen asleep. He hadn’t.
“They always get that part wrong,” Seymour said.
“What’s that Mr. Seymour?”
His eyes remained closed. “That ‘sic semper’ nonsense. They always get that wrong. It means ‘Thus always to tyrants.’ Virginia’s state motto. Bet you didn’t know that. Booth didn’t say it. Bet you didn’t know that either.”
Ernie sat back down. “No, I didn’t.”
Seymour’s eyes opened and looked at Ernie. Maybe his eyesight was poor without his glasses, but his focus suggested he could see perfectly well.
“Well, he didn’t. I can tell you that much.”
“No! First, he screamed. He wasn’t as loud as Mrs. Lincoln, who was screaming too, but plenty loud. What came out was ‘The south is avenged.’ Then he dragged himself away. He still had that big knife waving everywhere. They said he was trying to scare off the actors, but I think he was just trying to keep his balance. Then everyone started screaming when they figured he wasn’t part of the play.”
Ernie shook his head thinking Seymour was telling a story he once heard. When Seymour returned with slow and deep nods, Ernie had to ask, “How do you know all that?”
“It was my birthday,” he said. “April 14. Still is by the way.” He laughed to himself. “Still is.”
“Paps wanted to go,” Seymour continued. “We lived in Maryland. You could spit into Washington we were that close. I was seven, sitting in front with my parents. I didn’t pay much attention to that play, but they laughed so it must have been funny.
“Me? I was looking at the uniforms. That’s what a little boy cares about. Paps was a doctor in one of those Army hospitals. A Union man, make no mistake. He kept elbowing me, pointing to the stage, but I didn’t care. I was looking at the box, you know, where the President was. He was laughing, too. Having a grand old time.
“And I’m telling you, he caught sight of me, he did. I waved a little. Know what he did? He waved back. Gave me a smile. And winked. Imagine that. President Lincoln winking at me. Then all hell broke loose. I wasn’t 15 feet from Booth when he dropped. I saw him spit when he yelled. That’s how close I was. The things you remember. And that is the truth and I’ll swear it on a stack of bibles.”
Seymour leaned forward, his eyes never leaving Ernie, and said, “I must be the last person alive who was there. When I go, they’ll be no one to fix that sic semper nonsense. A shame, too.”
Ernie hungered for details—Was he scared? What did his parents say? Where did he go after that? Did they ride in a wagon? Ernie wanted it all. Seymour’s eyes were wide open when he recalled holding his father’s belt when they carried Lincoln out. “I remember looking at the cobblestones. There was blood on them. Lincoln’s.”
He directed Ernie to a roll-top desk. In a slot meant for letters was a small folder. “Take a look,” said Seymour. Inside was a yellowed paper rectangle, the ink faded brown with age. “Ford’s Theater” was printed at the top and below, in handwritten script, the words “Washington D.C. April 14, 1865. Maj. T. C. Seymour has secured seats 29, 30 and 31 in Orchestra.”
Then Seymour started to snore. Ernie went to shovel off the porch. He only left when a stout lady wearing a thick wool coat arrived with a dinner of chicken pot pie. “If I knew you’d be here I would’ve brought two,” she said. “What about tomorrow?”
Ernie loved chicken pot pie. He came back every day for weeks, even after the county decided a live-in nurse was needed. He’d read to Seymour who didn’t mention he’d received his new glasses. If Seymour tired of Ernie’s questions, he never mentioned that, either. When the county nurse took charge, she cleared up the magazines, and shooed Ernie away. “You exhaust the old man,” she said.
Not long after that, Seymour was sitting in his chair, staring outside. He brushed his fingers through his hair and frowned. It was a Wednesday. He got himself up, cane in hand, and walked out the front door. He probably didn’t see the sheet of ice that had formed on his porch. His obituary said nothing about the night of April 14, 1865.
Ernie got a C on his paper, “The Last Witness.” His teacher thought he made most of it up. He resubmitted it as a short story to Argosy Magazine, which published it and paid him $100. The story became the basis for a Twilight Zone episode some years later.
Ernie Remsen wrote the screenplay.