'You Were Our Father, A Veteran and So Full of Desperation'
– The National
The year was 1777 and the month was December. On the morning of the 27th, the commander and leader of Continental soldiers declined his usual private breakfast and hot bath. He donned his favorite coat, the royal blue one with gold trim at each cuff and shoulder. In the mirror, Washington straightened the powdered wig on his head and told the secretary that he would be among his troops for the day.
The commander made his rounds of camp, saluting the withering crowds of soldiers who trembled before meager campfires. The men smiled and came to attention as he passed, but relaxed when their leader asked to be told the latest dirty joke. An old standby was in fashion for the week: one about four farm girls, and a three-legged cow. At each telling, Washington laughed with sharp snorts and proclaimed, "I nearly spit out my wooden teeth!" His comment set the troops laughing a little harder, until the sick began to cough and a sharp wind reminded the healthy of hunger pangs and the severity of New England winters.
On a hill overlooking the camp, the old commander admired a thinned march followed by a stingy target practice. He turned away, proud of his men but also sorry for them. He spent the rest of the afternoon bedside to one of his dying Lieutenants. And when the life was extinguished, the doctors left Washington alone in the tent with the corpse.
The seasonal sun sank early and Washington trudged through camp in the day's dying hue. He stared down as he walked and spotted the tarnished silver of a Continental dollar in the snow outside the makeshift stables. When he reached his private tent, Washington looked to the horizon where darkness was soaking down through the view to cast the sky in a deep blue that matched the color of the coat on his back. He waited until the world fell entirely black and lit the lantern hanging on the tall hitching post beside his tent.
Inside, Washington found his secretary defrosting an inkpot and quill in candle flame. The commander requested bread and wine and sat tired behind his writing desk, rubbing the ache out of his naked knuckles.
Over a supper that was more wine than bread, Washington wrote frivolous letters to his wife. After he sealed the envelopes, he took a deep slug of wine straight from the bottle and gazed into a small portrait of her. Martha. The artist had desired to accentuate the hair and eyes, but his paints failed to replicate what was once vigorously chestnut, what once enriched Martha's beauty and also made her strong, independent – Washington's first reasons for loving her. Eighteen years, thought the commander. He wondered if she still bothered to read his letters before burning them; he gave up writing to the children long ago.
Washington poured himself a fresh drink and shut his wife's portrait into one of the desk drawers. He checked his pocket watch for no reason in particular and felt a deep longing for something, though he could not expressly say what – something so old, he had lost the name of it.
The commander was put to bed drunk, still wearing his coat and boots. In the stillness of the tent, he shut his eyes and whispered the words of inspiring hymns until great dreams came to him.***
He stood on the cement steps to a great, stone building. The front doors opened to a wide rotunda, the office of the principal and vice principals. He entered with the impending sensation of being late for an appointment. Crowds of teenagers moved through the lengthy hallways with their heads bowed to cell phones and notebooks. They chattered and flirted like a flock of ugly birds, the sounds echoing off the tin lining of lockers that stretched the length of the hallway. Washington hustled through the masses, bumping into shoulders and bookbags, apologizing as he went.
His first class was English. The class was discussing Naked Lunch by William S. Boroughs, but the old commander retreated to a lonely corner desk. He fought laughter as he flipped through the book's pages, half-listening to the open discourse, half-considering the presented images. When Mr. Moore, the instructor, asked for an opinion from Washington, the old general shook his head, staring down at the wood grain of his desk and hoped the attention would swiftly turn elsewhere.
"Too much already on the mind, I suppose," said the portly teacher. He tugged at his belt and itched his mustache, before steering the discussion towards his next point. Washington was relieved as though having dodged a musket ball.
The commander was completely lost in the material of Pre-Cal, but not failing as bad as some, even having forgotten his graphing calculator at home.
There was a lab in his biology class, where he and a meek girl in thick-framed glasses were supposed to dissect a crawfish together, but since the class was absently lead by an athletics coach, the partners decided to copy from the work of their lab neighbors.
At lunch, Washington walked the hallways alone, tapping his fingers on the lockers he passed, holding his other hand high every time he stepped beneath a paper banner. The glittering paint proclaimed slogans such as "CAGE THE TIGERS," "WE READY," and "THE COLONIALS ARE STATE BOUND!"
A girl in a skirted uniform walked towards him. Her sweater was brightly striped in the school colors – red and blue. To Washington, the young legs were spun from silk. He watched each of her muscles systematically flex, glowing confidence in each fanciful step. The girl smiled real, pearly teeth at him and tickled the air with her fingertips, waving. Her hair was pulled tight into a long, golden ponytail that reached down her back to bob just above her shapely rear end.
Washington corrected his posture. "May I ask where are you going?"
The girl spun back perfectly on her heel. "I'm running notes for the counselor's office," she said. "I have an off-period after lunch."
"Then perhaps I could escort you?"
She shrugged. At first they walked together in silence, but then Washington cleared his throat and introduced himself. "My name is George."
"Duh," she said. "Everyone knows who you are."
She put a finger to her lips to shush him and opened the door to a foreign language class. He watched her through the thin window in the door. She handed a small note on blue paper to the teacher and waltzed out quickly. He wanted more than anything to love the girl – to fight and die for her.
As the door shut gently, she asked if he ever got nervous.
"About tonight. The big game?"
"No I suppose not." He licked his lips. "I haven't thought about it much." He thought about taking her delicate hand in his own. He thought about sex.
"You haven't thought, even for one second, about tonight's game?"
He scratched the back of his head nervously, as though his answer could make or break everything. "Not until now."
The girl laughed. "If only the people knew! Mr. Football in the state of Texas doesn't think about matching up against a rival school for a shot at the state title. Even the afternoon before the game."
"What's Texas," asked the commander, shyly.
She scoffed through her perky nose. "You're trying too hard to be modest. But even starting quarterbacks have to go to fifth period." She left him for the counselor's office, and soon he was sprinting to American History with Mrs. Wilkins.
He slid into the classroom and took a seat saved for him by a group of larger boys in matching letterman jackets. Mrs. Wilkins rolled her eyes at him and continued on with her lecture. The boy to Washington's left leaned over and slipped the commander a silver flask of whiskey.
During Mrs. Wilkins' presentation on the Kennedy assassination, the seasoned general couldn't help but feel something was being expected of him; but not just in class, something more. He was beginning to catch on to the staring and pats on the back. But Washington decided not to worry; instead, he relaxed in his chair and waited for his next turn at the whiskey flask. He was once again young and so caught up in the blissful possibilities that he had forgotten Martha and the children - the winter wind and Valley Forge - the colonial war and the whole Goddamned revolution entirely.
After school, Washington rode up the hill to the field house in the back of an enormous pick up truck with other members of the football team. They turned off the road and steered over a dirt path to a secluded spot in the brush behind school grounds. The driver counted paces and stopped on his twenty-fifth step from a marked cedar tree. Hands quickly moved dirt to reveal the top of a buried cooler. The boys smoked cigars and drank beers; they ate peanut butter sandwiches and protein bars; they laughed and chided each other. Everyone seemed to vie for the favor of the commander, something he was accustomed to among his troops.
The game loomed steadily closer and the mouths began to shut and straighten. In the locker room, Washington suited up and donned the home jersey, royal blue with a golden "C" on his right shoulder. A man came in with a medical bag and wrapped the commander's ankles in black tape.
Coach Schumaker sent for Washington to come into the office alone. A grainy videotape of past games played on a television screen in the corner. Gold trophies decorated a single shelf, which wrapped itself around the circumference of the office. The Commander of the Continental Army and his head coach sat down and the two minds reviewed game plans and strategies and zone reads and blitz packages, until the coach flipped off the television, stood, and said, "You know what we're playing for. I have faith that you won't let us down."
Washington rejoined his ready teammates to march hand-in-hand downhill to the field where they congregated in a cement tunnel on the Northeast corner of a stadium the size of a palace. In front of them a thin, metal door, rattled in the thunder of the crowds outside. Nearby heartbeats were heard throbbing in throats. Washington was glad he remembered to vomit in private, before the game; others had not.
In an instant, the door was raised and Washington found himself running through thick fog, out of a giant, inflatable helmet and onto a field where the team was hailed by rows of cheerleaders and serenaded with a fight song from the costumed, marching band. He felt invincible again. He felt like a private charging into his first battle, his spirit banging on the back of his teeth as adrenaline surged through every fraction of his body.
Then the rain came and they played in the mud. They played hard through broken knuckles and cracked ribs. His opponents fired off at every snap, stalking him in hatred. Sometimes the line held; other times it did not. They pushed onward, slowly, to the endzone and a scoreboard paid for by a local bank and fastfood chain. The crowd lifted their pride and the boys lifted each other. They huddled around Washington, made brothers in the shared struggle.
Late in the fourth quarter, Washington broke outside on an option play. He sprinted the sidelines, sloshing through puddles and mud with a lead blocker. He thrust a stiff arm into a free safety's facemask and dove for the orange pylon in the corner of the endzone. He slid through the slop and when he turned over, an official signaled touchdown – a winning score that set the stands into pandemonium.
The fans poured onto the field like a flood and clung to his teammates in a crowded dance. The cheerleaders perched Washington's body onto their shoulders and carried him off in a march of the entire town, shaking pom-poms and hollering into megaphones.
In the school parking lot, car lights shined the way and people honked horns in salute. The cheerleaders pushed him onto the overhang above the rotunda, the face of the school, and he stood there with a water-logged football and his battered helmet and looked out at his followers and held his arms high in victory and yelled to them until his voice was gone. Washington's eyes scoured the crowd for his girl and when they spotted her, he heaved off his shoulder pads and helmet and he leapt out to her and held her at the waist and he kissed her long and good in the center of a crowd. The band continued playing. The people continued cheering.
When the crowds dispersed to all-night burger joints and beer barns, Washington lay with the girl, alone, on the metal bleachers of the stadium. They cut lines of coke on her makeup mirror and talked for hours about nothing, underneath a bright night sky lit by the stars. They kissed in the rare moments when neither could think of something to say.
The dawn broke and they watched the sun rise from behind the superstore shopping center on Wild Cherry Hill. A cold wind blew through the bleachers and a shrill shiver rippled across Washington's back. He sniffed at the familiar air and sat up worried, as though captured by the scent of his past.
"I have to wake up," he told her, stroking her hair as it glittered in the new daylight. "The English are waiting and I don't know what to do."
"Do you believe in fate," she asked.
He kissed her one last time. "I wish I did."***
When he woke, the commander rose stiffly, pained with a nasty wine hangover and the air's heartless chill. Washington straightened his wrinkled coat in the mirror, and scoured his reflection for any trace of the dream, but found nothing. The secretary carried in the day's agenda and various memorandums. "You've slept in too late," he said and helped the commander out of his coat. "Your bath has fallen tepid."
"I'm no blue blood," said Washington.
"You are the new blue blood, sir."
Washington struggled to recall the exact taste of young lips and the sensation of being carried. But before he was even out of the bath it had all become just a distant memory to him – then a complete hoax – and, finally, another dream fumbled and forgotten. He shut his eyes and slid beneath the water's surface and held his breath until it hurt.
The Continental Commander finally breached and sat gasping for air. And when Washington rose to dry and dress himself, it was only because it was too late not to.