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American Historical Fiction

Willoughby clutched into the soggy ground trying to get lower. Around him bullets popped into the mud, splashing him. Thousands of them hundreds of thousands? How many men did they have? He was soaked from it all. There was a boom off to the left. Artillery. The boom just went on as if a whole line of cannons were firing in turn. He dug further praying the shells would pass over head. Then there was that smell, that sharp stench of burning Sulphur, acrid smoke, men so frightened they soiled themselves. 

“Mister Willoughby!” He turned his head to see the massive white figure standing over him. The figure called for help. It kneeled and gently took his arm. He wanted to yell, ‘Get down you fool.’ He wanted to claw deeper to safety. But he knew that wasn’t the thing to say, not here, not now.

“Honestly, Mister Willoughby, what are you doing on the floor?” said the figure.

“I can get up without your paws all over me,” he groused. He got to his knees, hands on the ground, and stuck there. “Okay then, give me a boost.”

The large nurse lifted him like a feather, just like that, like picking up a tossed-away tissue. He’d once been a big man, nearly two hundred pounds, with a belly that would push the watch at the end of its chain out of his pocket. Too fat, he supposed. But he’d earned that surely. It was a mark of achievement. He’d been, once, a prosperous fellow and had the stomach to show for it even if needed help getting up on a horse. 

“And, oh Mister Willoughby, I think you had an accident.”

He looked up, confused. He couldn’t see anything, not in the dark; it was still night. Why would they attack in the night? A flash of light illuminated the scene for him.

Willoughby was on the floor of his room. The bullets? No more than thick rain splattering the windowpanes. The blast? A close clap of thunder. The flash? Lightening. All that would let up soon, he knew that. Rain this hard came on fast and left just as quickly, hightailing it back to the cover of the clouds to disperse, recover, and rally again some other day. 

The nurse helped him back onto his bed. Willoughby had to shake his head, a gesture that he felt immediately in the eternally sore muscles and creaking vertebrae of his neck. The discomfort didn’t bother him any more than the memories the pelting rain brought up. There were a lot of happy memories in there as well. “I’m getting old,” he thought. He coughed up a laugh. Silly old geezer. 

“Now get some rest. You have a busy day ahead,” said the nurse.

Another day, he thought, one he couldn’t wait to see come to an end. He tried some mental math; 365 days in a year times 103 years would be? He lost count but concluded more than enough. 

Willoughby shook his head at that thought, too, though more gently this time. Couldn’t wait for the day to end? Hell, he should be grateful for every second he had left at his age. He was once, grateful that is. Especially just after the real storm. Willoughby had a long memory of those who didn’t make it, those who did then passed on as the years went by. Everyone. He was lonely now but for those recollections. He’d had his wife, but she left too early. And their kids, then the grandkids. He forgot how many. Didn’t that nurse, the big one, tell him that they had children of their own? It would make him a grandfather no, great grandfather. Now one went and had a baby. She was named Willoughby, nick-named Willow. “Isn’t that sweet?” the nurse had said. 

Why bother with the Willoughby part, he asked himself, but she wasn’t his daughter. It wasn’t a girl’s name and, hell, she wasn’t even his granddaughter. Willow…he struggled with math again…she’s one-sixteenth me! He smiled that he had enough marbles to do the calculation. There was a picture of her somewhere in his room. Or maybe that was someone else.

The rain stopped. Willoughby knew it would. Rain like that can’t last. He knew from experience. When he was a boy, hardly a man, they’d tramped along dirt roads and sloshed through mud like pigs in such downpours counting the steps until it ended. And then, hopefully, the sun would come and dry them out. Or maybe not and they’d spend the day shivering until they made camp falling asleep before they hit the ground. 

The sun was just coming up, the grey clouds retreating south. It’ll be a fine day weatherwise, he thought. They won’t cancel the thing. Too bad for me. He took a deep breath resulting in a raspy cough and shuffled back to get dressed. 

“Mr. Willoughby, can’t you wait for me?”

It was her again. What was her name? Clara maybe. Or Sarah. Or Tara. She looked like a Tara; it was the red hair. “Figured I’d get the jump on things.”

“Last time you got a jump on things,” she said with air quotes, “You broke your hip and claimed you were ready to go.”

“I was ready, damn it!” What was I supposed to be ready for? He couldn’t remember. Maybe a big birthday.

“Good,” said Tara helping Willoughby into the brown vinal Barcalounger. “And you need to get ready for today. You’re the Man of Honor.”

Willoughby groused unintelligible words as the nurse helped him undress, how degrading, and removed his damp underwear. He ground his teeth. Then she went to the set of drawers that held his clothes and things, picking up a pad. “I don’t need a damn diaper woman!” She ignored him only to say. “It’s your big day. We don’t want to have an accident do we?”

Willoughby grumbled. He was thinking he’d be perfectly content with an accident like having the Lincoln convertible they’d sit him in fall off a high cliff.

The nurse, whose name was Lara, helped Willoughby into his best suit. It was his only suit and had been for these last 30 years. It once fit, too. Now it hung on him like a bag that could have fit another scrawny man. He pushed Lara’s hands away when she tried to tie his tie – “I can do that woman. I was doing this before your grandmother was born.” Lara brought out various medals hanging from colorful ribbons and pinned them to the suit. She blew a cloud of dust off the wide-brimmed hat, its blue wool faded into purple. It bore a tarnished wreath with the letters G.A.R. on its front.

“Where’d you find that?” Willoughby asked. If Lara answered he didn’t hear or didn’t bother to listen. “Should have been buried years ago. Like me.”

Lara nudged him gently. “Buried years ago! What an awful thought. What would I do without you?”

“Change someone else’s diapers I suppose,” he said. Lara blushed at the remark. He didn’t mean it as a joke.

“Well, let’s visit the bathroom, hmm? Get you a cup of coffee and something to eat. They baked your favorite. It’s a big day ahead. There will be reporters. they’ll want to speak with you.”

Willoughby couldn’t remember what his ‘favorite’ was. Baked, she said. What do I like that’s baked? As he ran through the list of possible he realized he was hungry and decided he could do with a muffin, a corn muffin, with lots of butter and a dash of salt. His wife used to tease him about putting salt on a muffin. He sighed at the memory.

“I could do with a corn muffin,” he said. Lara replied that of course they’d baked corn muffins for him this morning. “Those are your favorite,” she reminded him. He snorted. “Don’t you think I know that? I might have two that’s how hungry I am.”

An aide brought up a pot of hot water and two muffins with butter patties on the side. “Your prayers are answered,” she said instructing the aid to put the goods on a tray where Willoughby sat struggling to tie his shoes. He looked up and asked where the coffee was. The aide wiggled a small jar from the tray. “Postum!” exclaimed Willoughby. “Get me some real coffee.”

“Now Mister, the diet lady says you ain’t supposed to get coffee. This Postum tastes just like coffee. Better even,” said the aid.

“Mud water,” said Willoughby. He kicked off an untied shoe which hit the aid in the leg then reconsidered his tactics. “Just a bit nervous. You know, the parade and all. But I could sure use a cup of real coffee. At my age, there aren’t many pleasures left.” He furrowed his eyebrows in an effort to look sad. It worked.

“Just a small pot, Billy,” Lara said to the aid. “Sanka.” As she spoke Willoughby slathered the butter on the warm muffins. The melting butter slid onto his fingers which helped him pick up the crumbs before he devoured both. “And bring another muffin, son,” he said. “For later you know. And take one for yourself.”

Sly. He was smiling inside. I’ve still got a few marbles to play with. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a lousy day. Nah, he thought, it would be lousy. His mind wandered. What’s it about marbles? He saw the boys in the parlor, flicking their thumbs into marbles. One would shout he’d won. The other shouted he’d cheated, and Willoughby would break up the ensuing wrestling match until both boys were on top of him claiming he had been pinned. 

“Are you okay Mister Willoughby? You’re groaning.” She couldn’t make out the smile from his deep wrinkles.

“I was somewhere else,” he said. “I’m fine. I was fine. Once.”

A horn blew outside the home. Lara pulled aside the curtain and knocked on the window holding up a finger. “They’re early,” she said. “But you’re almost ready.” She waved off the reporter holding the boxy camera.  

  Willoughby managed to stand up by himself which made him stand that much straighter. Lara was unlocking the wheels from a wooden wheelchair that stood in a dark corner of the room. Willoughby grabbed a cane that stood against a wall and shuffled to the chair which he slapped with its grip. “Now Mister Willoughby…” she started to say. “Your leg has been bothering you.”  

He slammed the cane against his leg, hard, the sound of wood against wood giving him satisfaction. The slap sent a sharp pain past what should have been his knee. He gritted his teeth, holding back a grimace. “I’ll walk to the car, dammit, I’m not a cripple.”

He’d walked these last eighty years, more, and done quite well thank you very much. He’d walked far longer on that fake leg than he had on the real one. People shook their heads when he told them the story. They wouldn’t amputate these days. And they couldn’t believe he’d been awake when they did it. Willoughby could laugh about that later. “We were real men,” he’d say. “Not like you ninnies.” But oh, how he begged for more of that vile laudanum even if it did make him vomit. He didn’t think the screams were his. He stuck with whiskey as he learned how to walk again, first on crutches, then with the wooden contraption.

The flashes went off with pops. The reporters urged him to smile but Willoughby just stared through his thick lenses. He was in the backseat of the car, nestled between a Boy Scout who was twiddling the sash of badges around his body, and a stiff soldier – sergeant from the stripes – who saluted just about everyone lining the parade route. Willoughby closed his eyes, tired just as they got underway, but the loud cheers of the crowd and the photographers with their volley of questions kept him awake. 

“How you doin’ there Colonel?” said a smiling policeman leaning over the door of the convertible. Willoughby feared the man’s protruding belly would bust the door open. Willoughby looked, shielding his eyes with his hand. Colonel. Hah. I never was higher than a private. He was all set to grumble but decided to take advantage of the situation. “Wouldn’t mind a coffee if you could fetch me one.”

The man in blue returned what he must have thought was a salute, said something to someone, and seconds later handed him a paper cup with a lid on it. “Here you go, Colonel,” said the beaming cop. “Two cups so you don’t burn your hand,” he added. This time Willoughby gave him a deliberate salute which the cop returned with a flourish for a cameraman who snapped a photo.

Willoughby sipped, his shaky hand spilling some on his lap. I didn’t ask for cream and sugar. I just wanted a damn black coffee. Still, it was better than nothing even if the lukewarm brew didn’t warrant two cups. As he took a long sip, the Boy Scout held his hand out. “Sir, I’ll take that so you can wave to the crowd.” Willoughby glared at the boy through what he called his prescription ashtrays. “No, you won’t son. Not unless you’re working on a coffee brewing Merit Badge.” He still had it in him. The boy said they didn’t have such an award. “Well, they should.” The soldier on either side of Willoughby sat stock still, eyes ahead, as if at attention before the President or someone. Jackass thought Willoughby. 

Willoughby didn’t wave to the crowd; he glowered. He thought about coffee. He thought such a Merit Badge was a good idea. His regiment, hell the whole Army, survived on coffee. This Scout, maybe he was seventeen, probably didn’t drink the stuff. Willoughby was barely seventeen when he’d enlisted and wouldn’t have made it without that coffee so thick you could stand a spoon in it, so strong they joked it would melt the bottom through of the thin metal cups. They were so young back then, young and old. 

The Scout took Willoughby’s reluctant hand and waved to the throngs. The unsmiling soldier continued to stare ahead. Alongside the car, sweating but smiling walked the cop at a faster pace than he was used to, his hand holding the car as if trying to slow its already glacial pace down.  

To the policeman’s relief, the car came to a halt in front of a grandstand, covered with red, white, and blue bunting, and loaded with people roaring cheers at Willoughby. He was helped out of the car, more carried than helped, by the Scout and sergeant, and ushered to the grandstand. The stiff sergeant warmed up. “This is for you, old soldier. God bless.” Willoughby looked at the banner over the stand, letters so large he could actually read them. He had to snort. To no one, to everyone, and especially to his long-lost friends, he said, “There was nothing civil about it.”

The banner read, “In Honor Thomas Willoughby. The Last Veteran of Our Civil War.”

August 17, 2023 20:45

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