by Zak Mucha
The Meat Empire
The sausage king of Moscow was found zip-tied and run through with bolts like St. Sebastian in bed.
Impatient extortionists let his girlfriend slip away to collect her cut after they ditch the
car and crossbow and do something with the other guy they left drugged and cuffed to the bed in their flat.
One last job, just like they say in the movies, to reach the land of Crown Royal bikini tops,
shopping mall lots filled with camouflaged Hum-vees, and Jason Stratham movies that have a sense of humor.
The patron saint of second place check his numbers on Wednesdays and Saturdays, knowing end times come
gently with soft thuds at twilight in fields where men jump from barn gables to meet The Man mid-air.
Just one fly was the debate’s surprise. That guy should have been covered head-to-toe within the hour,
choking from bees born in his mouth like Candyman, a rain of black frogs dotting the studio floor.
Jesus could have stepped on stage, shaking the Buddha’s other sandal from his crook like clicking batteries
into a sock, ready to sift wheat from the tares right before the cameras cut away.
Ghazals for Fat Possum Records
They ran out of North Mississippi bluesmen grown old with swollen ankles, bad hearts, and diabetes,
shirtless in their front yards, cigarettes dangling, posing as if they didn’t give a damn or as
if they didn’t know any eyes were on them. Or as if they had no say or as if maybe they
were in on the white boys’ opportunism long after the first waves of dry recitations.
R.L. slipped from the hospital like Lazarus calling for a wire transfer to the casino.
More white boys who couldn’t sit behind the beat brought the first Theremin to Oxford screaming drunk.
One Rockefeller cannot feed a whole tribe. R.L. reimagined trickster tales of late-night,
pajama-clad, panic attacks shared by Hitler and Tojo hiding with their heads in paper sacks.
And a little monkey, who was actually the probation officer, forcing his way into
the bigger animals’ party, badge hidden, with a front pocket of whiskey and a ass pocket of gin.
The student’s watch and glasses were left behind on an old canoe, his dissertation in his dorm room,
a signal to Mom buried in the scratches of open note hillbilly music before the war.
She responded with a quarter-million dollar reward for information on her boy. Fortune
hunters and documentarians paralleled the shore as arrows plinked the water. Customer
survey cards would fall from Fat Possum packaging, questions mocking embedded race and class issues:
“Where at you get this?” “Where you stay?” “How much money you make?” And above an empty rectangle, the
instruction: “Trace your house key in this box.” The joke died with R.L., leaving British aristocrats
to simulate music of the antebellum south on Jumbotron screens in exchange for your rent.
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The Herald has reviewed The Heavyweight Champion of Nothing:
“Today, Zak Mucha is a psychotherapist living and working in Chicago. But in a previous existence he used to haul furniture, and this novel is inspired both by his own experiences and those of clients he’s treated who were stuck in dead-end jobs and turned to crime. His narrator is Johnny, “an average guy with a babyface”, who has worked for a removal-truck business for five years and fallen in with the “bad boys” on the team. When not griping about their bosses, customers and working conditions, they’re copying keys and robbing homes, fencing stolen goods through a crooked antique dealer – until, inevitably, the law closes in. In prose that’s blunt, direct but eloquent, Mucha summons up the reality of being stuck in no-future jobs and dysfunctional relationships, of men whose lives are defined by tedium, inertia, resentment and empty rituals. A novel that deserves recognition as a street-level classic.”
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Today we announce the release of three books by authors new to Dockyard Press: The Night before Christmas of the Living Dead, a holiday-themed zombie thriller by M.V. Moorhead; The Heavyweight Champion of Nothing, a Chicago novel of working-class disillusionment—and burglary—by Zak Mucha; and Shot, by Gerard Brennan, the first in a new Northern Irish crime series featuring Shannon McNulty, a former London cop gone home to contend with the murder of her gangster uncle and the disappearance of a politician’s daughter. All titles are available as e-books through our in-house store, and in paperback at all discerning bookshops.
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In the summer of 1970, for me the summer between second and third grade, my mother had an operation that left her bedridden for several weeks. I was sent to stay with my Aunt Marion in Washington, DC, for the month of June.
It was a cicada summer that year in DC, a summer of sexual maturity for the Periodical Cicadas—after seventeen summers as underground larvae they had risen, to fill the trees with their vast choral love-music, and to make the birds fat.
Standing on the balcony of Aunt Marion’s apartment one afternoon, I saw a starling grab a cicada in mid-air. Possibly my earliest clear memory of death. Then I went home to Pennsylvania, where I finished out the summer, and finished out grade school, and finished out high school. Then I went to Penn State for a while, but left to get married, and then I got divorced. And then I got accepted as a transfer student at Georgetown, and landed back in DC—not Richard Nixon’s DC; now it was Ronald Reagan’s—seventeen years later, in 1987. That’s when I met Stan Zelinski.
He was drunk when I met him, and in danger of losing his life. I had gone to work, a couple of nights a week, as an usher at a movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. One of my fellow ushers was Trent, a big aggressively friendly Georgetown undergrad, and a frat boy. Trent talked me into showing up at a frat party one Friday night after work.
Loud music, smoke and none of the decadence I’d seen in the movies. Oh well.
Less than an hour, and I was about to leave, when I happened to notice a kid of eighteen or nineteen, a yuppie-type with full cheeks and brown eyes, talking to a fleshy, buxom blond girl of about the same age in a blue blouse too small for her.
She was doing the talking, actually—talking and talking away to this kid, and dancing while she talked, with a beer in her hand. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it looked like the usual: what’s your major, what’re you going to do this summer? The kid wasn’t saying much. He was smiling at her, his eyes lowered. It looked like they were lowered in shyness. It was a charming expression.
Then he grabbed her bouncing tits, one with each hand.
For me, it was like a stretched-out moment in a car accident—I knew he was going to do it a split second before he did.
She yelled and pushed him away, and he fell on his ass. One of the other frat guys also saw it happen, and told several others, including Trent, and they dragged him out the door. I wandered out after them, and followed them around the side of the house. By the time I got there, they had already bloodied his nose.
“Want us to lose our fuckin’ charter, you little fuck?” Trent was saying, as he flung the kid to the ground. He raised a foot over the kid’s head.
“Hey, Trent. Cool it.”
They all looked at me.
“You see what this piece of shit freshman did?”
“Yeah, I saw it, and he deserves everything you gave him. But go any farther, he’ll end up in the hospital. Or worse. And then you’re screwed. There goes your summer.”
I said I’d take care of him. They said to make sure he never came near the place again. I helped the kid up, and walked him off into the milling streets of Georgetown. Bloody and mumbling though he was, we attracted surprisingly little notice from passersby.
“What’s your name?”
“Stan. Who would’ve thought frat boys would take it so hard?”
“Yeah, who would’ve thought. Where do you live?”
“Brlffnglb. Hllllb...” He dropped to his knees and vomited. Then he told me which dorm he was in.
“Shit, that’s far. OK, let’s get you there.”
“You can stay over, if you want. My roommate’s gone for the summer. Thank God. Are you gay?”
He sang a few bars of some song in a foreign language. Odd, he didn't look or sound foreign. Then he stopped, dropped and vomited again, several times. A trio of girls laughed at us as they gave us a wide berth on the sidewalk.
I got him up and kept him going. He started singing again, in English this time. “‘When I get excited, my little China Girl says, ‘Oh baby, just you shut your mouth’...”
“Bowie,” I said. “If you like Bowie, you can’t be too evil.”
“I like China Girls. China Girls.”
“Oh yeah, and that was a real lotus blossom you were putting your smooth move on back there.”
I cleaned him up in the dorm bathroom, then helped him back to his room. It was cluttered on his side, empty on his roommate’s side.
“Like I said, you can stay over, if you want. Are you gay? It doesn’t matter, you can stay. Are you gay?”
“No, I’m not gay. And if I was, I wouldn’t be interested in your drunken ass.”
“Haw. I’m drunk.”
“That’s like saying Madonna’s got an ego.”
I laid down on his roommate’s sheetless bed.
“You’re the best friend I ever had,” he slurred, face down across the room.
“I don’t doubt it.”
Within a few days, we really had become friends. It turned out his name was Stan Zelinski, like I said, and like me, he was a Pennsylvanian. He was from the other side of the state, though, from Philadelphia.
By the middle of May, he had moved in with me. I lived in a one-room cellar, with adjoining bathroom but no kitchen, in the bowels of a rowhouse not far from the steep stone staircase the priest plunges down at the end of The Exorcist. I had shared it that year with a guy named Danny, our futons homophobically at opposite ends of the room. But Danny was moving in with his girlfriend Gretchen in Bethesda, and even a cellar in Georgetown was more than I could afford on my own.
Stan had decided to stay in DC for the summer, so the fit was perfect. He even bought Danny’s disgusting futon for thirty bucks.
By the first week in June, I’d gotten Stan a job, too. Trent had left the movie theatre for a summer job in Florida, and Stan took over for him.
That’s where he met Grace Khanket, which ruined his whole summer. You see, it also turned out that when Stan Zelinski drunkenly told me that he liked “China Girls,” he hadn’t just been raving. He worshipped and coveted Asian—or, as we still said in those days, “Oriental”—women.
He had been an exchange student his senior year in high school, to Thailand. He’d fallen in love with every third girl he met, and also with the food, and the weather, and the land. And also with the language—he’d picked it up easily, and soon discovered that he was the rare and lucky American with a gift for Asian tongues. It was a prodigal gift, really—he was fluent in Thai and Lao already, and had a smattering of Japanese, Cantonese and Vietnamese.
He hoped that a Georgetown degree in Japanese would get him a lucrative career in international business with a Far East specialization. But the a priori behind this ambition was the hope of a string of delectable Asian girlfriends, culminating in a delectable but bringable-home-to-Mom Asian fiancée.
“You’ll have to meet this chick, Grace, who works down at the theatre,” I said.
Grace Khanket, who worked the concession stand, was a tiny, maddeningly beautiful Thai-American girl who dressed in black and wore Lois Lane spectacles.
She was a freshman, too, at George Washington University, but she didn’t live in the dorms; she was local, and lived with her large family across the river in Arlington, near the restaurant they ran.
The minute Stan saw her, the first night he worked, he knew why he had been put on earth. I introduced them, and as soon as she wasn’t looking, Stan turned back to me with his eyes bugging out and his teeth clenched, an expression of something like rage, as if I should have known, should have known upon meeting him that he needed to be introduced to her at once, shouldn’t have delayed this meeting all these weeks.
Though she was really a reserved, even slightly dour young woman, Grace chatted with him pleasantly enough that night. Between shows, when he tried some Thai on her, she paid him the compliment of saying that his pronunciation was better than hers. This was true, too; even a nonspeaker could tell that—Grace’s Thai, while flawlessly confident, was delivered in a honking Yank shopping-mall accent.
Stan was transported. After work he and I got burgers at Roy Rogers, then walked toward home, through the mugginess of a June night in DC. When we reached The Exorcist stairway, we sat on the top step and ate, and looked out across the black Potomac at Virginia.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgetown,” I said.
“I’ve met her,” said Stan. “I’ve met her already. I figured it would be years. I figured I’d be twenty-five, thirty maybe, and I’d meet her over there somewhere.”
“Her. The One. The Perfect One for Me. The perfect balance of sexiness and class. I feel cheated, almost.”
“I had anticipated years as a single man, years to date dozens of women of all races, mostly Oriental but all races, to savor all that life has to offer. That’s out of the question now.”
“You’re drunk even when you’re sober.”
“I wonder if she masturbates.”
“I wonder. Do you think she masturbates?”
“Why am I having this conversation?”
“Seriously. It’s too incredible to imagine. To witness that would be like finding the Secret Elephant Graveyard.”
“I know what you’re getting at there, but you might want to find a different image before you say that to Grace.”
“Seriously, though, I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
“Maybe, say, a movie first, or some dinner?”
“A mere formality. Does she have a boyfriend? I’ll do a fucking header down these steps if she has a boyfriend. Not that it matters; we’re getting married anyway.”
“I don’t think she has a boyfriend.”
“But you still don’t have much a shot with her.”
“Bullshit, why not?”
“I heard her say she doesn’t like American guys.”
“She only likes Oriental guys?”
“No, she likes them even less. She gets into English guys. That guy from Room With a View, Something Something Hyphenated, she gets into him. You know, she’s an English Lit major, which tells you...”
“Excuse me, excuse me,” said Stan. He was looking up. “What the hell is that noise?”
I listened. I hadn’t been paying attention, but he was right. There was a high, insistent whirring, symphonically loud, pealing from the treetops all around us.
“It’s the cicadas,” I said. “They’re out this summer.”
“Cicadas. Okay, as long as I know that.”
“You ever see that movie when you were a kid, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, where the spaceships attack Washington? That’s what it sounds like to me. I thought maybe aliens were down at the Mall, blowing up the Capitol and the White House.”
“No such luck. Nope, just horny bugs.”
We’re not talking here about the big, clumsy, dull-black annual cicadas, or “locusts,” as they’re sometimes called. Like the name implies, those show up every year, looking like giant houseflies, to startle us with their loud, ungainly buzzing. That summer in DC was the season of their more glamorous cousins, the Periodical Cicadas or “Seventeen-Year Locusts”—smaller, sleeker, shiny black, with cherry-red eyes and lacy wings that hum rather than buzz.
Periodical Cicadas remain underground, around trees, feeding on the fluids of the root, for seventeen years, before emerging as yellowish-brown nymphs to crawl up the sides of the trunk. They shed their exoskeletons, leaving them behind, split-back and still clinging to the bark, and take to the air and the upper branches for a few feverish weeks of singing, mating and laying eggs. They don’t sting or bite, but they’re still technically regarded as pests, because the females inflict tiny wounds on trees with their ovipositors, the organs with which they plant their eggs. These “oviposition wounds” can be so numerous that it’s inadvisable to plant young trees too close to a Periodical Cicada season.
Periodical Cicadas are also a classic example of “predator satiation,” an evolutionary adaptation in which the survival chances of individuals are increased by the abundance of prey available to predators. So the cicada I saw the starling snatch that day when I was a kid was just doing its Darwinian duty to its species.
For a couple of weeks, it looked like I was right about Stan Zelinksi’s chances with Grace Khanket. She wasn’t unfriendly to him, and they had long, lively, sometimes even contentious conversations, Stan leaning against the concession stand in the longueurs between showtimes. But she was icy—aloof to his suggestions that they do something together outside of work. They were the same age, but she saw him as a pesky kid with a crush, and herself as a sophisticated woman.
Then one day, seemingly all at once, her manner toward him changed. I never knew how exactly—neither did Stan—but he’d broken through with her. Their conversations became softer, less animated, more intimate, less inclusive of the others that worked at the theatre. They started taking breaks together.
A few evenings later, on a Friday in late June, Grace agreed to go for a drink with Stan after work. He came back from this date to our wretched little cellar, beaming.
“Did you score?”
“Please. It’s not like that, I told you.”
“So you didn’t.”
“OK, so how’d it go?”
“Yep. For like half an hour.”
“That’s not all. I’m meeting her family.”
“I’m meeting her family. This Sunday.”
“You’re going to her house?”
“Nah. I’m going down to the Mall. Some Asian cultural festival this weekend. I saw something about it on the bulletin board. Turns out her family is going to have a food booth there. She wants me to come down there Sunday and meet everybody.”
“I have to say, I never thought you’d get this far. I’m impressed.”
“Don’t be. It’s fate.”
Maybe what happened that Sunday was fate, too. That was certainly Stan Zelinski’s disgusted opinion, after his big date on the Mall that beautiful Sunday, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. He came back around dusk, and I asked him once again:
“How’d it go?”
“I don’t know. Not good.”
“I was going to order some Domino’s. You want to go in on it?”
“No, I’m definitely full.”
“Well, tell me what happened.”
He flung himself on his futon, and stared at the ceiling for a while. Then:
“OK, I get there. She’s there, gives me a kiss. A kiss. On the lips. Right in front of her old man, who she then introduces me to.”
“Yeah. Her Dad is very friendly, but he seems nervous, like he thinks I’ll kill him or something. Her Mom is not friendly. At all. But there are a bunch of brothers and sisters around, and working the booth is Gramma.”
“What’s she like?”
“Just what you’d expect. Several thousand years old, and about the size of a fireplug.”
“Wispy gray hair, wire-rimmed-glasses?”
“You’ve met her. She doesn’t like me either, I don’t think, but Grace is obviously her favorite, and I’m Grace’s guest, so she hands me a Styrofoam plate. Shrimp. I say thanks, and she just nods. So she doesn’t speak English, I gather. This, I think, is my opening. So I eat the shrimp, and man are they good.”
“Pretty spicy, yeah, more so than the crap you get in the restaurants here. But I’m a vet, right? So I just wolf them down. Then I say thank you to her, and tell her it was great, in Thai. And she gives me a look, the old lady. Not a smile, exactly, just a startled look like I may not be completely worthless. And she hands me another plate, this one with chicken in some kind of black sauce. Absolutely delicious. So at this point Gramma starts talking to me, slowly at first, but then she’s talking faster and faster.”
“About food, mostly, at first. The kind of food they made back in her village in the old country. She’s giving me more food while she talks—a plate of this and a plate of that, and it’s all great. I’m actually starting to get full. She’s talking faster and faster, testing me I think, and I’m keeping up, pretty much, talking back almost as fast. Pretty soon she’s talking about Grace, what a special girl she is and everything, and I’m agreeing all over the place of course. And then Grace’s parents are listening in, they can’t believe it.”
“And then it happened.”
He rolled on his side and faced me.
“The old lady hands me a plate of your bugs. Those cicadas.”
“Oh, Jesus. No way.”
“Oh yeah. Nicely wok-steamed, in some kind of light sauce. All golden-brown.”
“You see the position I’m in? I can’t turn them down. But I figure, anyway, hey, this’ll cinch the deal with Gramma, thus with Grace. So I dig in.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“Nope. I just started crunching them up. There were all these little Americanized Thai kids with their skateboards standing around, and they’re all going, ‘Whoa, Dude, that’s sick.’ But I ate the whole fucking plate.”
“How were they?”
“Not bad. Not real good, either.”
“No. Sort of like shrimp, I guess. But not as good.”
“Oh, shit. You threw up, didn’t you? That’s where all this is heading?”
“Nope. Like I said, I’m full. But after I was finished, I’m thinking, I’ll be Grace’s hero now. I turn to her, and she’s looking at me with this look of revulsion. She was looking at me just like the kids were. She couldn’t believe I’d eaten them.”
“Wasn’t she pleased? I mean, you must have made a great impression with Gramma.”
“Oh, Gramma thinks I kick ass. So do her parents, I think. That’s just it. I don’t think that I was supposed to make a good impression. I think I was supposed to piss them off.”
“Ah. You should’ve showed up in a leather jacket, on a motorcycle.”
“Exactly. Shit, man, I really fucked up. Grace walked me back to the Metro, reluctantly, and she didn’t want me to kiss her goodbye. She shied away and laughed when I went to kiss her. She was too grossed-out by what I’d been eating.”
“After she kissed you in front of her parents.”
“She kissed me in front of her parents, but she wouldn’t kiss me when we were alone.”
“Well, at least you got a good meal out of it.”
“You’re a fucking riot.”
That was that. At the theatre the following night, Grace was back to chilly reserve toward Stan. Even their earlier conversational rapport was gone. After a week he couldn’t take it any more. He quit the movie theatre, and took a job waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant a few blocks away.
By mid-July, the cicadas had gone quiet.
Stan and I lived together for a few more months, but then we both got better-paying jobs which allowed us to move into better digs, mine in Adams Morgan, his elsewhere in Georgetown. We saw less and less of each other after that, and within a few years we had both left DC. I still get an email from him now and then.
He did spend one semester in Osaka, but that was it for his Far East dream. After graduation he got a very good position with a firm in Texas, and married a woman he met there. He sent me their wedding picture. His wife was blond and fleshy and looked not at all unlike the woman he violated the night I met him.
Predictably enough, Grace ended up—according to Stan—marrying a Thai doctor she met at a cousin’s wedding. They had four kids, and still live in Arlington.
I moved west, and I got married, too. The other day it occurred to me that next summer will be cicada time again in DC. The descendants of the very bugs that Stan Zelinksi ate that day on the Mall, in a misguided attempt to win Grace Khanket’s heart, will be singing in the trees, trying to win hearts for themselves.
I wish I could get there, just to walk the streets, and hear the music. After all, how many seventeenth summers do I have left, before the Big Starling catches me?
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gloaming eased to darkness, the wind blew steady. a hut nestled within a copse of trees stood above the animal path.
i entered and sat on the earthen floor. there was a small hearth and fire.
i began to cough.
within my throat, a deep scratching tickle intensified. i began to retch. i rolled onto my hands and knees and vomited a dark, long, stringy mass. it was a thick rope of hair.
a few wet hairs stuck to my lips and face; i felt them move as my stuttered breath slowed. i placed the mass of hair in the fire. it smoldered before burning.
from behind, something moved towards me from the corner darkness. i leaned back against its legs to rest. it placed a thorny branch in my left hand and painted three horizontal stripes across my forehead. i closed my eyes. the skin beneath the stripes stung.
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by Meat & Bones | 肉そして骨
The sun cleared the horizon. The breeze carried hints of oncoming heat. I walked the road encircling the neighborhood. On one side, a ten-foot wall; the other, open desert.
A car passed, the driver disregarding the thirty mile-per-hour speed limit.
Desert sounds intermingled with those of the neighborhood: mourning doves cried, starlings rattled, air conditioners droned, purple finches chirped, black-tailed gnatcathers whistled, swimming pool pumps hummed, sprinklers ticked.
I saw and heard a male quail call to his mate. Her body lay against the curb, dead. He called then nudged her body with his head, hopped up the curb, hopped down and called then bumped her body again.
The male flew and landed atop the wall, called twice and waited. He flew down to her. He called then stood a few seconds more before flying away.
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by Alexander Thompson
The Mitchell Library is the biggest in Glasgow, occupying five floors and containing more than a million books. The librarians are friendly or not, depending on your accent, skin colour and clothing.
K. would show up there most mornings, go to the general literature section, browse the shelves, pick a book. Sometimes that would take a few minutes, sometimes an hour. K. would take the book to a table, sit down, and read for the rest of the day. Lunch was out of a bag, a cheese roll, packet of crisps, can of Irn-Bru. The first few days at the Mitchell, K. would eat there at the table, reading. But then a librarian came over and said it wasn’t allowed.
“Sorry, I didn’t know,” K. said, and carried the food outside, ate, then came back in.
Some days when K. came back after eating lunch, a librarian would have taken that day’s book from the table, even if there were plenty of unoccupied tables. Sometimes they’d just put the book back on the shelf, but other times they hadn’t, and K. would have to approach their desk and ask them for it.
Some days K. would have finished reading a book by early afternoon, and would browse the shelves and find another one. Sometimes the book K. had been reading would mention another book that seemed interesting, and K. would go to the librarian’s desk and ask if they had it, and the librarian would give K. a card on which to write the title of the book and the name of the author. If the library had the book — it almost always did — they’d either have it brought from whatever department had it, or they’d tell K. to go and read it there. K. never knew why it was sometimes one and sometimes the other.
One morning K. asked the librarian for The Fishmonger’s Violin. “I was going to look on the shelf, but I don’t know the name of the author.”
“Here,” said the librarian, handing K. a card and a pen.
Five minutes later, the librarian said they couldn’t find any record of it.
“Any idea who else might have it?” K. asked.
“No. It’s not just that we don’t have it, there’s no record of it. Are you sure you’ve got the title right?”
“Where did you hear about it?”
I made it up, K. thought, but said, “Somebody told me about it. It’s supposed to be really good.”
“Well. I don’t know.”
K. went to the bookshelves and browsed for a while, but didn’t choose a book.
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About two months ago, while driving through a rather remote and isolated part of Arizona, I pulled over to read a roadside historical marker. It referred to the Camp Grant Massacre, which happened nearby in April of 1871.
Ever heard of it? I had not, and neither had a friend of mine who worked for decades at a Native American museum. Briefly: A mob of more than a hundred Anglos, Mexican-Americans and Tohono O’odhams, led by Tucson mayor William Oury, raided a settlement near the Camp Grant outpost and murdered more than a hundred Apaches, most of them women and children; others were captured and enslaved in Mexico. It was a national story at the time and led to a shift in sympathy toward the plight of the Apache, although the killers were acquitted at trial in Tucson.
I didn’t learn all of this from the marker, of course; it inspired me to read up a bit on the incident. The marker is a simple stone slab with a metal plaque and plain, functional, unemotional text. If anybody suggested removing it for any ideological reason, or for any reason other than the information was determined to be inaccurate and needed updating, I would object. Despite its lonely location, it’s possible that more people learn about the Camp Grant Massacre every year from this little marker than hear about it in a high school history class. To remove it truly would be “erasing history.”
That’s what I keep hearing from folks opposed to the recent push to remove public statues dedicated to historical figures deemed offensive, especially Confederates—that the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park or town square, or changing the name of a military base from Bragg or Hood to something, you know, not derived from an enemy of the U.S.—is a foolish and oppressive attempt to “erase history,” like what Stalin did (and, ironically, what eventually happened to Stalin). In some cases, this is even followed by a sage quoting of Santayana’s, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Very respectfully…that’s crap. Is the “erasing history” crowd actually suggesting that a statue of Lee, majestic on his horse in a city park or outside a courthouse or capitol building, is intended to prevent another Civil War?
A statue isn’t a history book. It isn’t a museum; it isn’t even that modest historical marker in Middle-of-Nowhere Arizona. A statue isn’t principally informational in purpose. A statue is—at least usually—intended as a celebration of its subject. People don’t normally erect statues of historical figures they don’t like and admire.
And a historical figure needn’t be perfect, or even close to perfect, to be liked and admired. But it seems to me that they shouldn’t be actual insurrectionists who betrayed their country in the cause of preserving white supremacy and legal enslavement.
This seems so obvious that it’s difficult for me to believe that the “erasing history” complainers don’t know it, deep down. “They’re trying to erase history!” is just a catchphrase, one that they hope you won’t think about too hard.
If you did, it might occur to you that after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians tore down statues of Lenin. Were they wrong? When Baghdad fell, Iraqis tore down statues of Saddam Hussein. Were they wrong? If you don’t think so, then why is it wrong to get rid of statues of Confederate bigwigs?
Well, I’ve heard it argued that a statue of Lee, for instance, is intended not as a tribute to the Confederacy, but to honor Lee’s supposed military brilliance, or the supposed great gentility of his character. Even setting aside the historians who suggest that both of these traits may have been overrated, you’re going to have to do better than that. Rommel, I understand, is widely regarded as a fine general by military historians, but there aren’t many Rommel Parks or Rommel Memorial Boulevards around the United States (though I’m unsure how much the current administration would mind if there were).
There is, indeed, important history to be found in the Confederate statuary that sprang up so many places around this country in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but it isn’t, on the whole, a history that the people who want the statues left alone prefer to emphasize. The real, subtle historical significance of those statues is in the calculated and tireless efforts of the Daughters of the Confederacy and other “heritage” organizations to sponsor such memorials, and through them to gradually make the Confederacy and its leaders respectable, even revered and tragically gallant in their romantic “lost cause.”
To give this campaign its due, it’s been far longer-lasting than the Confederacy, far more strategically sophisticated, and far more successful. I experienced it, even as a kid in the North—more than one of my elementary and high-school history teachers passed on the received wisdom that “the War wasn’t really about slavery,” but rather about “economics” or “States’ Rights.” Many years later, it occurred to me that the embrace of these abstractions may have less to do with shame over slavery and more with a desire to debunk the idea that black people could be important enough to fight a war over.
Renouncing the rehabilitation of the Confederacy is an easy call, at least for me. When you move past the Confederacy toward memorials to other notable Americans who were slaveholders or had other aspects of their lives now understood to be reprehensible, I admit that the issue can become more complex.
There were calls this past week to remove statues of Thomas Jefferson from New York’s city hall and from the University of Missouri; another statue of Jefferson was removed from a park in Decatur, Georgia at the donor’s request, for its own safety. Statues of George Washington and Francis Scott Key were pulled down in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, respectively. And a creepy statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York, depicting him flanked by and towering over Native American and African-American figures, is reportedly slated to be removed.
This is another issue. Jefferson, at least, should get to stay, in my opinion; despite the despicable, hypocritical aspects of his private life—not to mention his and the other Founders’ failure to abolish slavery at the beginning of this nation—his documents and the vision they articulate have been essential to the progress of civil rights and the ideal of human equality not only here but around the world.
But you know what? That’s easy for me to say. If Jefferson statues have to go, as part of starting to make things right in this country, so be it. A statue or two more or less isn’t the hill I want to die on, if the spirit inspired by Jefferson’s words in those documents is furthered by removing them.
In any case, while I have zero problem with the removal of Confederate statues—and I say this as the great-grandson of a Confederate soldier from Mississippi, albeit one who, family legend claims, deserted and went to Indiana in search of his POW brother—I would also make the “Don’t Erase History” crowd a counterproposal: Leave the statues, but add signage describing the barbaric institution for which they traitorously and ignominiously fought. Or, maybe, add statues of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Barack Obama next to each one; taller, and looking down with a smirk.
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