“Photographs of the Civil War”
by Cary Fagan

0

Photo: Nancy Friedland

Warren’s new girlfriend had a son named Benjamin, always called Benny. The boy’s father had infuriated her by taking a job with CBC News in Moncton. Nancy wasn’t sure if he had taken it out of ambition or just to fuck with her. Did he even care about his son? Did he not see how Benny was already suffering? How often would the boy get to see the asshole when he was on the East Coast? What about helping with homework, doctors’ appointments, behavioural issues, or just taking the kid for a night once in a while so she could have a drink with friends and see some goddamn Academy Award-winning movie?

Nancy swore generally, but even more when talking about her ex. Warren considered her anger understandable, especially when it came to practicalities. The kid was afraid of flying; for his first visit to Moncton, he had refused to travel as an unaccompanied minor, so Nancy had been forced to take him then return immediately to Toronto for her business.

His father was supposed to bring him home. Then came the email (“not even a fucking phone call, the coward”) to tell her that some political scandal had broken out and he couldn’t leave. If she wanted Benny home in time for camp, she was going to have to come and get him.

Come and get him? In July, the most insane month of the year? When she had to bake five goddamn cakes a day? Nancy being the proprietor and sole baker for Fancy Nancy’s Wedding Cakes. (It was, Warren had been astonished to learn, her fourth career, after Costa Rican tour guide, high-school guidance counsellor, and real-estate agent.) “What does he expect me to sayto my customers?” she asked, guzzling down half a glass of Chardonnay. This was after midnight, and Nancy was still wearing her icing-flecked smock. They stood at the kitchen counter drinking the wine he’d brought while she ate the remains of whatever had been in her fridge—watery hummus, tasteless little carrots. “How could I do that to people on such short notice? Oh, sorry to ruin your wedding, but I’m sure you can get an ice-cream cake from Baskin-Robbins. Can you imagine the negative Yelp reviews? But then Benny will miss camp. It took me a month to persuade him, and it’s not even overnight. So, if I don’t go I’m the bad parent. No matter what I do, I’m screwed.”

They had been going out for almost five months. Warren was thirty-six, Nancy a couple of years older. He had never been married, had never even lived with someone, and now he was in a relationship with a woman who could rarely find a sitter. He ate dinner with mother and son, played Monopoly, watched Zootopia. But even with so much time spent together, he couldn’t say he knew the boy well. Benny was polite to Warren, but it was his mother he wanted to talk to, or laugh with, or walk beside. Wasn’t ten a little old to want to hold your mother’s hand?

Warren was reasonably self-aware, a measured and cautious person, traits that made him good at his job (private arbitrator) but that were also the reason each of his girlfriends had become fed up. It was the knowledge of those failures that had pushed him to persist with Nancy. With Nancy and Benny. Perhaps it was also what prompted him to speak.

“Why don’t I bring Benny home?”

Nancy put down her glass. “What did you just say?”

“It’s not a big deal for me to reschedule a couple of things. Benny and I have never spent time on our own. Actually, why don’t I take a few days? I can fly to Moncton, rent a car, and Benny and I can drive back. Stop a couple of nights, take the longer scenic route, make a road trip of it. We can be back on Saturday, and Monday he can go to camp.”

Her mouth was actually hanging open. “No fucking way. You would do that?”

“It could be fun.”

She surprised him by starting to cry. “That would be so amazing, I can’t even tell you. No one’s ever done anything like that for me before. But what if it’s a disaster?”

“Why would it be? I’m a nice guy. He’s a good kid.”

“He’s slow to open up. He might not say a word the whole trip. Are you sure?”

“I’m completely positive.”

In fact, he was already flooded with doubt. Clearing his calendar would be difficult. He didn’t like driving cars other than his own. He had no idea how he’d entertain the kid—

Nancy practically leapt across the counter to give him a long, hummusy kiss.

“You are a fucking angel.”

*

“Are you kidding me?” said his sister on the phone. “A road trip with a kid you barely know? You think this is going to be like a Jason Bateman movie?”

“I don’t even know who that is,” Warren said.

Bernice was Skyping from her tiny cottage on Salt Spring Island, where she and Rosemary had lived for thirteen years. She was his senior by ten years, and now, with their parents gone, seemed to feel it her duty to tell him at every opportunity what a mess he was making of his life.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Nancy’s terrific. But trust me, mothers always put their kids first. You’re going to be sacrificed on that altar until miserably do you part.”

“Jesus, Bernice. It’s two nights. Maybe three. I’m doing Nancy a favour. And if it doesn’t turn out well, then at least I’ll know what I’m up against.”

The image broke up, but he could still hear her drawing on a cigarette. “Shit, it’s starting to rain here again. I haven’t seen the sun in a month. I worry about you, Warren. But maybe you’re right and it’ll be really nice. Good for you, being an optimist.”

*

He rented a car online without bothering to look at the model. It turned out to be a green Ford Taurus. Would a convertible or a van have made the tripmore fun for Benny? Second-guessing every decision was not going to help him get through this.

Nancy’s ex had rented a house in a desirable Moncton subdivision called Hall’s Creek. Only when the door opened did Warren realize he’d seen the man on television. In person, he was unshaven and bulkier.

“So you’re my replacement. Norman, is it?” A flash of professionally whitened teeth.

“It’s Warren, actually.”

“How’s Nancy? Still the same?”

“I wouldn’t—”

“So what do you do, Warren? I asked Benny but he didn’t have the slightest idea.”

“Really? Because I’ve told him. I’m an arbitrator.”

“A what?” “When parties in dispute don’t want to resort to the courts—”

“No wonder he didn’t understand you.” He turned and shouted, “Hey, little man! Your ride’s here.”

Warren was used to hostile men from his work. He said, mildly, “Can you make sure Benny doesn’t forget anything?”

The boy appeared wearing a backpack and pulling a suitcase big enough for him to fit into.

“Warren here wants to know if you have everything.”

“I guess so?”

His father shrugged. “Straight from the horse’s mouth.”

“Do you need to go to the bathroom?”

“I went. Wait, I have to go again.”

The boy let go of the suitcase and ran back the way he had come. Warren said to his father, “We’re only going to drive about three hours today. Of course I’ll keep in touch with Nancy along the way, but if you want, I can text you.”

“Hey…” the man held up his big hands, “I’m off the clock.”

The boy returned and started to drag the suitcase off the porch. The chill wind smelled of the sea. Warren looked at the boy’s anxious face and realized that no matter how much he’d tried to imagine this beforehand, he hadn’t understood what it would feel like for either of them.

“Should I take that giant suitcase from you?” He asked with forced jollity.

“That’s okay. It has wheels.”

Benny went down the stairs first, bump bump, and headed to the car. One of the wheels got caught in the unpaved drive, yanking the boy backwards off his feet. Like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, Warren couldn’t help thinking. He moved to help, but the boy bounced up and began to wipe every speck of dust off himself.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m a klutz.”

“No, it wasn’t you.”

“You should see me in gym class. I’m like Buster Keaton. Crash. Bang. Boing.”

The boy made quite funny motions, pretending to bang into invisible walls.

Warren said, “You know Buster Keaton? I love his movies.”

“I know. Mom told me so I asked if we could watch one. Steamboat Bill. It was great.”

He wanted to watch a film because Warren liked it? His heart went out to the kid. “I was no good at sports either,” Warren said, not quite truthfully.

Benny pulled his suitcase to the car. “In soccer I scored a goal against my own team. Twice.”

“Well, if you’d been on the other team, you would have been a hero.”

“I never thought of that.”

This was going to be a cakewalk. “Come ride shotgun with me,” Warren said as he hefted the suitcase into the trunk.

Benny opened the back door. “I’m not legally allowed to sit in the front seat. I’m short for my age.”

“Right. We wouldn’t want the fuzz on our tail.”

As he got behind the wheel, he heard the click of Benny’s seatbelt. “Do you have one of those Game Boy things to pass the time? If not, there are some games on my phone.”

“No thanks. I have comic books and coloured pencils and my knitting.”

“Knitting?”

“Mom thought it would be good for my hyperactive brain. Knitting isn’t just for girls, you know. That’s sexist.”

“No, of course it isn’t. Knitting’s great.”

“I’m making a scarf. It’s my third one. It’s going to be for you.”

“For me? That’s amazing. What colour is it?”

Benny pulled the knitting out of his backpack and held it up so Warren could see it in his rear-view mirror. Very yellow. No danger of being hit by a car wearing that. He backed out of the drive.

“You know, I thought about us staying in Moncton for a day, but then realized you must have seen Magnetic Hill and every other sight with your dad already.” He made a right-hand turn. “Okay, here we go. Our adventure begins!”

“What’s Magnetic Hill?” Benny asked as his needles began to clack.

*

“Does he really seem all right?”

Nancy sounded as if she didn’t believe him. He was standing in the motel lobby, idly looking at a rack of Celtic Life magazines. They were still in New Brunswick, close to the border. “Yes, really. We had hamburgers and fries for dinner and watched Ghostbusters on my laptop. The original. He fell asleep almost right after.”

“And he’s actually been talking?”

“Chatty as anything. Whatever comes into his mind. I think he wants me to know all his self-perceived weaknesses, to see if I’ll still like him. He’s a very sweet kid.”

“And he’s not bored?”

“Not with that knitting. I was a bit skeptical at first, to be honest. But he’s quite adept and I can see how satisfying it must be. And it’s a relief he’s not one of those video-game-obsessed boys.”

“Thank you, Warren. I’m so relieved. Did he like that dumb movie?”

“Come on, it’s a classic. That boy recognizes great comedy when he sees it. He did ask me a lot of questions, like what ectoplasm was.”

“You don’t think he’s  depressed? I know the divorce is still hard on him. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Nancy, relax. I mean it. Everything’s great. Tomorrow I’ll call during the day so you can say hi to him. By the way, I miss you.”

Perhaps she didn’t hear him. “I hope I’m not a terrible mother,” she said.

*

Warren tried to make a big thing about crossing into Maine, and Benny got into the spirit by trying to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with him and making up the words they didn’t know. As they drove on, Warren noticed signs of rural poverty: houses with broken windows, their cracks covered in duct tape; half-burnt piles of trash; rusting cars up on blocks. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he saw that Benny had stopped knitting.

They passed a clothesline with three raccoon skins hanging from it.

“Could a person have a raccoon for a pet?” Benny asked.

That was what the skins made him think of? Warren said, “I know it’s illegal in Toronto, but maybe not everywhere. When they get big they’re dangerous. They can bite.”

“Okay. Did you have any pets?”

“One summer, when I was kid, a woman came by the house pulling a wagon full of puppies. My mother was a softy and fell in love with one. He was a nice dog but very badly behaved, which I suppose was our fault. He used to get out of the backyard and run over to the school to steal kids’ lunch bags. He even got arrested once.”

“What happened to him?”

“My parents found a farm where he’d have lots of room.”

At least that’s what they’d said. It struck him only now as a probable fiction, since they didn’t know anyone who lived in the country. Did parents always lie about the important things?

“I had a hamster once,” Benny said.

“Nice. What was his name?”

“Clodhopper McGee.”

“That’s a ridiculous name!”

“I know. When I was cleaning out his cage he escaped.”

“What happened to him?”

“He disappeared for a long time. My mom said he probably got out of the house. But then one day the cleaning lady started screaming. He was living behind the fridge. I managed to grab him. He was really skinny. And he was missing a leg.”

“Yikes.”

“I know. But he fattened right up again.”

“Could he walk?”

“Kind of draggy on one side. But he could still move pretty quick. I tried to make a wooden leg for him out of a Popsicle stick.”

“No! Did it work?”

“I couldn’t get him to stay still long enough for the glue to dry.” Benny sat back again. Clack, clack went the knitting needles. “Are we going to have lunch soon?”

“Great idea. Hey, look!” Warren pointed to a billboard.

Donna’s Family Amusement Park

Fun! Fun! Fun!

Exit Two Miles

“I don’t really like rides,” Benny said. “One time I screamed on a merry-go-round.”

“You must have been a lot younger. Let’s give it a try.”

“Okay. But I warned you.”

He pulled off the highway and onto a mica-inflected gravel road. It ran through an abandoned apple orchard to a wooden gate. A stuffed bear standing on its hind legs was wearing a hula skirt. Some teenagers and families were walking around a few rides and a small midway.

Their first stop was the food shack. Warren’s usual restraint gave way in the presence of bad food and he slathered his hot dog with sauerkraut, pickles, pepper rings, and barbecue sauce, but Benny wanted only a thin line of ketchup. As they ate, they watched the few people on the modest roller coaster giving mock screams and waving their hands with pretend fear.

“Please don’t make me go on. It’s too fast.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. But how about the bumper cars? I loved them as a kid. You just zip around and try to bang into other people.”

In the oval rink, a couple of teenage boys were chasing each other.

“I guess so. If you don’t bump me too hard.”

“Or we can just walk around some more.”

“No, let’s do this.”

Was the boy doing it for him? And why was Warren pushing so hard? But he didn’t want to discourage this little act of bravery, and so he bought tickets and put Benny into a car, strapping him in with the shoulder-lap belt. He got into another as the lights began flashing. The two teenagers remained in their cars. Elvis Presley came through the crackling speakers and the metal bars that rose from the cars to the electrical grid sparked to life. The teenagers had stayed on and now hollered as they went after each other. Warren pressed down on the pedal and circled the rink. Coming round again, he saw that Benny hadn’t moved an inch.

One of the teenage boys was turning towards him.

Benny saw the boy. His eyes grew wide, but instead of moving, he merely shut them. Warren floored his car and managed to glance against the teenager’s back bumper, sending him into a spin. Swiveling, he saw the other boy heading for Benny with a look of demonic glee. Warren met the boy’s car almost head on, and the two of them bounced backwards with what felt like minor whiplash.

Benny, having remained in place, threw up over the side of his car.

*

“I told you I have a really quick barf trigger. Do you want to play skeeball?”

“That’s okay, Benny. This was my mistake. We can keep driving.”

“No, I actually like skeeball.”

“Oh. Sure, then.”

He wasn’t lying. They played beside one another, tossing the wooden balls up the inclines, joshing each other as they missed the holes. When a ball went in, tickets clanked out a slot at the bottom. Afterwards, they took their accumulated winnings to the counter for a prize. Benny looked through the glass at the plastic whistles, fake coins, whirligigs. “Can I get a glider?” he asked the girl behind the counter.

“You don’t have enough tickets.”

“I could pay the difference,” I said.

“It has to be tickets.”

Benny chose a whistle that made a thin sound when he blew into it.

*

“He threw up  without even moving? That’s awful. He’s got a really quick barf trigger.”

“That’s what he said. But really, I think it was great he tried. And we laughed about it after. He kept saying, ‘I’m sitting in a chair. Barf. I’m picking up a pencil. Barf.’ He was really funny.”

“It sounds like he’s getting quite attached to you.”

“And I am to him.”

“But what if it doesn’t work out? We’ve only known each other a few months. What if I’m too much for you? And what if that eerie calm of yours drives me crazy. If we break up, he’ll suffer another loss.”

“It’s just a few days, I’m not that important to him. Besides, let’s not anticipate the worst. Benny is having a good time and so am I. Everything is fine.”

“See? Your calm is driving me crazy right now.”

*

They passed through the bottom of New Hampshire and into the top of Massachusetts. The towns had restored nineteenth-century storefronts, quaint shop signs, banners announcing a blueberry festival or square dance. For lunch they got a pre-packed straw basket filled with gourmet sandwiches and homemade brownies, bottles of ginger beer, even a tablecloth and napkins. They spread out on a picnic table between a fishpond and a gazebo. Benny saved some of his bread to feed the giant koi that rose to the pond’s surface. A family entered the park, a mother with an infant in a sling, a father racing his little boy. Benny watched them through narrowed eyes, his side pushed against Warren.

“Can we go now?”

“Sure.”

Back on Main Street, Warren noticed Duffy’s Used Books across the road. It wasn’t in one of the restored buildings, but in a concrete-block structure. Outside the door, a rack of paperbacks tilted precariously to one side. “We haven’t been in a bookstore this whole trip. Want to take a look?”

“I guess.”

“Tell you what. Both of us have to buy a book. No leaving without one. Deal?”

Benny looked up and grinned. As they crossed the street, he reached up and took Warren’s hand. Inside, the place smelled of crumbling paper. Behind the over-burdened desk sat a densely bearded man writing the price of a book onto its flyleaf.

“We’d like to browse around,” Warren said.

“Be my guest.”

“Do you have a kids’ section?”

“In the back room, beside American History, or what I like to call American Tragedy.”

Warren gave Benny a pat on the back. “Find something you like.”

“Okay.”

The boy headed to the back, bouncing from one foot to the other, a sign of high spirits, maybe. He said to the man, “Any mystery novels?”

“You’ve ever been to a used bookstore that didn’t have mystery novels? On the right.”

He went over. Most of the wall was taken up with Tom Clancy and James Patterson, but he found the first of those Dragon Tattoo novels everyone had been reading a few years back and decided on that. When he turned around, Benny was standing behind him.

“Jesus, you scared me.”

“I found a book.”

“Excellent.”

Benny’s hands were behind his back. “It’s kind of expensive.”

“Better to get something you want. Can I see it?” He brought out a small, almost-square book with a knobby red cover and faded spine. Warren opened it to
the title page.

Photographs of the Civil War

A Semi-Centennial Memorial Keepsake

New York

Riverview Press Co.

1911

Each page was a single photograph surrounded by an ornate border. A line of Union soldiers on horseback. White tents against the sky. A torn flag hanging from a destroyed building. A pile of captured cannons. The pages were the colour of tea, the reproductions grainy.

He turned the page to a row of dead soldiers propped against a wagon. Then two dead horses, their bodies half disintegrated in the mud. A series of studio portraits against a painted cloth backdrop: a young man with puckered stumps for arms, an older man with a crater in his head.

“This is what you want?”

Benny dug into his own pocket and came up with a crumpled bill. “I have twenty dollars of my own money.”

*

“Exactly how gruesome are they?” Nancy asked.

“I’m sure he’s seen worse. I mean, the way movies and video games are these days. Have you seen The Walking Dead?”

“Benny’s afraid of the costumes at Halloween. Those are pictures of real people. I’m trying to understand why you would let him buy it. I really am, Warren. This is a sensitive boy who has nightmares. Who doesn’t make friends—”

“I just didn’t feel I could say no.”

“That’s a parent’s job. To say no. Where are you now?”

“Outside of Albany. The motel has a water slide. It’s very cool.”

In fact, Benny had refused to try the slide, and stood watching two sisters go down it, over and over. Warren said, “I’m sure he’ll grow bored of the book. We’ll be home in the afternoon.”

“I know you’re doing your best.” She sounded as if she were trying to convince herself.

*

They drove through New York State. Every so often, Benny would put down his knitting and look at his book. Warren wished Benny had something to distract himself with, some kid’s book on CD, like Harry Potter, or whatever was popular nowadays. He’d run out of his own childhood stories and all the strange facts he could think of.

They stopped outside Syracuse to use a washroom.

They drove.

“Are you getting hungry?” Warren asked.

“Kind of.”

“What do you feel like eating?”

“Chinese food?”

“Seems unlikely around here. There’s a sign for McDonald’s up ahead.”

“Okay.”

He pulled off the highway, around a traffic circle with exits for a Comfort Inn, Super 8 Motel, KFC, and into the McDonald’s parking lot. He held the glass door and Benny walked through, carrying the book under his arm. It was an older McDonald’s, with orange tables and a larger-than-life Ronald McDonald by the washrooms. They got their order and carried it to a table.

Warren said, “The burger and fries are for you. The salad is for me. The Sprite is for me. The coffee is for you.”

The boy didn’t acknowledge the joke. He put a fry into his mouth and opened the book to a pair of photographs. Lounging soldiers, not dead at least.

“Did you ever do anything bad?”

“Sorry?”

“I mean when you were a kid.”

“Let me think. I once stole a pack of gum from a variety store.”

“You did?”

“Sure.” It had really been his sister Beatrice. He’d only been the unwilling lookout. “And I threw a pear at another kid in the dark. I missed him and the pear broke a window.” Beatrice again.

Benny looked impressed.

“That’s about it. Oh, I let somebody cheat by looking at my math-test answers.” That one was true. “I did it because I was afraid of the kid, a real bruiser. But there’s one thing I’ve never told anyone. So you can’t tell your mom.”

“Okay .” He leaned forward expectantly.

“After class, I went up to the teacher and told her.”

“Did the kid get punished?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And did he beat you up?”

“He tried to. But I kept running away, and then after a while he just gave up.”

Benny nodded. He said, “I don’t think I should tell you mine.”

“It’s up to you.”

“You won’t tell Mom, either?”

“Hey, we’re buddies.”

“Okay. There’s this girl who lives next door to us. She’s six. Sometimes I sit on her porch and read stories to her.”

“That’s very nice.”

“And I crack walnuts with this metal pincer thing and give her pieces and me pieces. She likes that.”

“Nothing wrong so far.”

“This one time I told her she was going to die.”

“What?”

“I told her that one day she was going to die. I told her that her mom and dad were going to die, and that her brother was going to die, and that she was going to die. She said no, they wouldn’t. But I said yes, they all would. And she would.”

“Jesus. What happened?”

“First she kind of sniffled. I kept saying it and she started to cry. I didn’t want to get into trouble, so I ran into my house and got a cookie and ran back out and she ate it and stopped crying. It was just the once.”

“Why do you think you did it?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you won’t do it again?”

“No.”

“You mean it?”

“Yes. I don’t want to.”

“I believe you.”

“You said you wouldn’t tell. Can I have an ice cream?”

“It’s our last meal, after all. Here’s some money. You can get it yourself.”

The boy got up. Warren swiveled the book around and noticed a Band-Aid that had been used as a bookmark. He opened to the page and saw a photograph of a young girl wearing the period’s ornate dress. She was very pale, with hair that looked to be the colour of straw, and she had an unworldly air, as if she were experiencing some religious vision. The caption read: Girl blinded during house raid in Waterford, Virginia.

Benny came back with his cone. He licked the ice cream as he looked down at the photograph. “That’s her,” he said.

“Her?”

“The girl I told you about.”

*

They crossed over the Burlington Skyway and onto the last stretch before Toronto. Benny had finished the yellow scarf, and Warren had put it on while driving, even though it was warm in the car. Now he looked back to see that Benny had fallen asleep.

So that was why Benny had wanted the book. But he seemed to think the photograph was of the actual girl. Whether he was being strangely deep or was confused, Warren couldn’t puzzle out. He knew Benny better than he had before the trip, but the boy was still a mystery to him. If he were Benny’s parent, he’d be worried. In fact, he was worried about him.

Traffic slowed as they slid into the city. From Lakeshore Boulevard he could see people picnicking and biking and skateboarding along the lake, and he almost wished that he and Benny were still on the road, could pull over to throw pebbles into the water. He turned up Jameson and into the tangle of downtown streets.

“Hey, kiddo, we’re almost home,” Warren said.

“Are we?”

In the rear-view mirror he could see Benny rub his eyes. “Hey, there’s our house! And there’s Mom on the porch!”

She was sitting in an Adirondack chair reading a book. The sunlight had turned her hair the colour of aluminum. She glanced up, but didn’t recognize the rental car and continued reading. Warren pulled up to the curb and she looked again. Benny was already unclipping his seatbelt and now he threw open the door. Mother and son hurried to each other as Warren sat in the driver’s seat, watching. The knowledge that he would betray the boy and tell Nancy about the girl next door made him feel ill. Still, the trip had been good, even if he didn’t know whether or not it would help bring the three of them together. And now that the first hugs and kisses were over, he threw the scarf around his neck and got out of the car.

—From CNQ 105, Fall 2019

We post only a small fraction of our content online. To get access to the best in criticism, reviews, and fiction, subscribe!

Comments are closed.