Southern Legitimacy Statement: We were a prototypical southern nuclear family. My Papaw came up in the Great Smokey Mountains, near Farner, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina. When he was nine, he lost track of the time one summer evening, squirrel hunting up on the mountain, and he avoided a sound late-for-dinner whoopin’ by running away with the circus. He didn’t see his own mother again for almost five years; she took him for a drifting mendicant child when he appeared in their doorway one night begging for leftovers and a place to sleep.
He stayed home and worked on the family farm, and in time he got married and filled his own home with six children, all of whom were taken early by TB, among other ailments, along with his young wife. To escape the tragedy of the loss of his family, Papaw left the Smokies altogether, and he eloped with the young English/Cherokee girl who had brushed his late wife’s hair before their wedding. He worked on the railroads as a cook, and he worked in the coal and zinc mines in East Tennessee and West Virginia and Kentucky.
Their first born child was my mother, and they had five more children after that in a little government-issue stick-frame house on Alabama Avenue, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Papaw fibbed his way into a life-long career as a machinist at Y-12 and K-25. Papaw died of intestinal cancer in the late 1970s, though had he survived it, he would have died eventually from complications related to moonshine and general orneriness. Since Mamaw’s Cherokee showed in her cheeks and in her hair in ways that were impossible to disguise, the only job made available to her in the Secret City was one washing radiation suits; her government-issued safety gear was a pair of Rubbermaid gloves. She died of a brain tumor almost forty years ago.
Beneath her name, Julia Bryant, our family tree reads like a medical encyclopedia from an apocalyptic future, but we tend to wear it proudly as a clan. To quote Peter Benchley’s Cpt. Quint, “Anyway . . we delivered the bomb.”
Christmas in Khe Sanh
Bottom Dwellers drifted in and out of the village with the changing of the seasons; by the end of autumn, with the pear trees all bare and shiny along the shopfronts on 17th Street, and a dearth of dry nooks to sleep in, most of the summer residents, the lucky ones, found shelter indoors. By December, most of the summer regulars relocated to the North Side, or left town to stay with family in the Tidewater.
Some of them were migratory, working through a meticulously-planned calendar of locations scheduled around festivals and other tourist lures. Still others had temporary quarters in the neighborhood: Rob the pitcher had a girl who let him stay with her in her apartment above McCormack’s; and Dancin’ Pops’ wife always started feeling sorry for him again once it got cold, and she let him sleep it off in the jalopy they kept parked in the alley out back of their house. He wasn’t allowed to come inside, though, except on rare occasions, and then only to take a shower.
Only a couple of the boys stayed in the Bottom all winter and slept out in the elements; one of them was Rasta Jon, who lived in a shanty on Devil’s Kitchen Island, and the other one was Cal, whose last name nobody knew, and who was referred to generally as just Cal, or Cal the vet. Cal was among the truly homeless in Shockoe Bottom; he had no people, at least none that anybody knew about, and no last name.
Cal’s possessions were few: he had his war memories, the voices in his head, and the boys on the wall. Even the normies, those Bottom Dwellers who paid rent to live there, knew that there was something special and deeply tragic about Cal, and they went out of their way to treat him with compassion and respect. Outsiders gave him a wide berth, or tried to ignore him, even when that was impossible; the cops went out of their way to harass him, rousting him when he slept in the open, and taking him away when they saw he was too drunk to walk.
Cal the vet was a tall man, well over six feet tall, and he wore his hair Don King style in a fashion he himself described as a “bonfire afro en medias res.” He owned one pair of jeans, which had annealed itself to his legs over time, and he wore an old olive-drab warm-weather army jacket that was just like the one he’d worn in Vietnam; to Cal, it was the actual jacket, the exact same one, and in the evenings when he was well medicated, with the sunlight slanting down the walls through the sapling trees on lower Franklin Street just so, Shockoe Bottom became Khe Sanh.
On evenings like that, Cal came home again, in that paradoxical way that all veterans have of coming home through the memory portal that opens at the base of an empty bottle of wine, or at the bottom of a syringe, and he got loose and felt much more at ease interacting with the public. That was what annoyed the cops about him – when Cal interacted with the public. That invariably led to pubic complaints, and frantic calls, and the inevitably redundant slog of paperwork.
The rub was Cal’s unpleasant choice of topic, and his unfortunate choice of audience; Cal commanded a profoundly poor sense of rhetorical moment, approaching the churchiest of the pastel-bonneted church ladies walking past the Franklin Supermarket on their way to Julep’s for Sunday brunch, or the all-too-jolly, all-matching spandex family snapping a nuclear selfie in front of the historical Nonesuch sign describing how smitten Captain Smith was with the rocky base of the James River Falls in the good old days before vagrancy; Cal would lean in danger close and whisper stale Wild Irish Rose at them, close enough for them to feel his breath on their cheeks . .
“Shhhhh . . hey . . hey . . . He was right in front of me, you know? And his head jusss . . psssheeeeww . . jelly . . I can make Moses appear. That’s right. I can call him right now.”
Village residents had heard the Moses story more than once, and none of them ever got one-hundred percent comfortable with it. “Ole’ Cal, he harmless, really” Dancin’ Pops said to Nightfly one morning, following another brief-but-entirely-predictable episode between Cal and the police and a family of tourists. “He just like to share a little bit about the war sometime.”
One weekend in December, Cal added a Santa Clause hat and belt to his winter ensemble, which was identical to his summer ensemble except for the addition of two layers of fleece. He was the same old Cal, but with a bright red Santa Claus hat and belt that he found in a dumpster behind the CVS next to The Market on 25th Street.
The hat just wouldn’t stay put, so Cal eventually let it dangle down his back from the end of its fabricated cotton beard: it encircled his neck like the festive lace chokers the front-pew ladies wore to Christmas Eve Mass up at St. John’s, except that the edges of it had already gotten a bit ragged and sooty and knotted in places. He looked like a Christmas doll abandoned in a drainage creek, but he was a jolly sooty, slightly-knotted drainage-creek Christmas doll; and the added seasonal wardrobe modifications really seemed to do him some good. The change had improved his overall outlook on life, the same way a new hairdo did for the ladies who promenaded proudly in and out of Cheryl’s Salon on Sunday afternoons.
As Christmas drew near, Cal took to bellowing out a long lung’s full of “ho-ho-hooooooo” at random intervals on his circuitous pattern through the village. To full-time residents, Cal’s new Saint Nick persona made it feel like Christmas in Shockoe Bottom in a way that it never had before: in fact, besides the seasonal loads of chitterlings pushed one cart at a time from the double doors of the Franklin Supermarket, Cal was the only real sign of Christmas in Shockoe Bottom, which normally abhorred the season of advent, approaching it from behind and off to one side, like a spiritual pickpocket intent on welcoming the season in her own secular way.
Truth be told, Shockoe Bottom belonged to Halloween; if what you wanted was a Joyeuse Noel, then you had to go up to Church Hill: they had Joyeuse to spare up on Church Hill; in fact, they were so full of Joyeuse, it came curling from their assholes like a play-dough fun factory; every night in December, throngs of babushka’d carolers prowled gaslit cobblestone lanes through hip-deep coils of Joyeuse, singing Greensleeves at unopened, elaborately-festooned verandas where be-glittered scrolls hung festively, demanding, in fonts unsettlingly reminiscent of high German, that you Have a Joyeuse Noel!
One morning, just a few days before Christmas, Cal decided, as he often did, to enjoy a short nap on the sidewalk at the corner next to the alley connecting the Franklin Supermarket to Walnut Alley. None of the local residents had any issue with Cal sleeping on the sidewalk, and he did so as often as the spirit moved him. It was like Pops called it; Cal was harmless to everyone but himself.
Unfortunately for Cal, the cops saw things differently. They were giving him a pretty hard time that day, taking unfair shots, chiding him, kicking him lightly in the ribs when they thought no one was looking. Rob the Pitcher and Dancin’ Pops were looking, though, and they walked over from the corner to see if they could lend him a hand. Surely there had been some misunderstanding . . .
“Excuse me, sir. Ain’t no need for that,” Pops said, forcing a smile. “He harmless, man; he just a old vet, you know? Just down on his luck.”
“Yeah, yeah. We know who he is. Unless you want to spend the night downtown, buddy, you need to just walk on by and mind your own business,” the Cop said. Rob the pitcher glared at him as he spoke, staring at his jaw as if he were looking for a place to punch it.
“Sir, Cal ain’t botherin’ anybody,” Rob said. “He’s just sleepin’ it off, man, y’know? I mean . . he fought at Khe Sanh; he can sleep on the governor’s front lawn as far as anyone down here cares. Just leave the poor fuckin’ guy alone . . please . . .”
“This is the last time I’ll ask you, pal,” was all they had to hear to know that this was the end of their conversation, unless they wanted to continue it through a grid of iron bars. Rob glared poison up and down at the cop, and then he and Dancin’ Pops quietly and slowly turned and walked away toward the river.
It wasn’t so much the cop’s immediate treatment of Cal that had infuriated him, Rob explained later when he told the story to the other Boys on the Wall, though that had infuriated him plenty; what really got Rob’s goat on that particular day was the unmistakable blank void of non-recognition that he saw replace all of the disdain in that cop’s eyes at the exact moment he’d said the words Khe Sahn.
Nobody ever got to hear the story from Cal about what happened next that day, because he died before any of the boys got to talk to him again. There was a severe cold front later that same weekend, and according to Buster, who got the story from Rasta Jon later on, Cal had broken into the house where his family used to live somewhere in Jackson Ward, where he had grown up, to escape the cold. The house was no longer occupied, and was in fact condemned; Cal had sneaked in through a basement window, but he froze to death that night when the temperature suddenly dropped below zero.
“I never knew he was from Richmond,” Rob the pitcher said when Buster told them the story.
“Fuck an A,” Hippie John said. “I always thought he was from North Carolina.”
The boys on the wall had all gathered to drink a toast to Cal, by way of a combination memorial service and wake. Buster came, and Dancin’ Pops and Rob the pitcher and Nightfly and Hippie John and the Great Pumpkin, and even Dr. Mindy, the resident professor, joined them for a drink of Richard’s Wild Irish; she had always had a soft spot for Cal, and she worried over him, bringing him hot soup on cold winter nights whenever she could find his hiding place.
“Where do you think his family might be now?” she said.
Buster shrugged. “I’m sure I don’t know,” he said. He shook his head.
“I never even knew he had a family until this very minute,” Hippie John said.
“Me neither,” Pops said. “I feel terrible about that. Ain’t nobody should have to die like that. Alone like that.” He shook his head, and he turned away so they wouldn’t see the tears. The others who had gathered all nodded their heads in agreement. A breeze passed down Franklin Street toward the Main Street Station, trapping a whorl of dry leaves in a vortex against the wall at the opening of the alley.
“Still,” Buster said, finishing the last of the wine, “ . . I guess at least he finally made it home.”