Smoked Pulled Pork w/Loaded Mashed Yukon Potatoes, Sautéed Green Beans, Texas Toast
I’m not sure what I think about my evening yesterday with Rafe. I guess I know far more than I knew before, but the question remains, as it has all along: do I believe what I now “know?” Talking to Rafe was, at times, like talking to a man from another time. Or another something. It could just as easily be that he’s the crazy one, not me.
I spent the morning today surfing around on the Internet, primarily on the site Rafe told me about that has the photocopies of the old local newspaper of the period, the Hillsborough Record. Here’s the Library of Congress website for one of the pages if you’re interested. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026472/1850-02-06/ed-1/seq-4/#
Those of you who do a lot of historical research will understand when I say combing through these old newspapers will lead to insanity and blindness because of the visual difficulty of trying to read the old newsprint, but there is a certain thrill to be in touch so intimately with the past. One starts out a session vowing to only spend X amount of time looking at the newspapers, and then hours go by and you find yourself thinking, Just one more, Just one more. I think of it as History Porn.
I didn’t find anything that referred directly to my house or to the Ashburns or any incidents concerning them or their slaves, but it was fascinating to read contemporary accounts of life at the time, especially the local stuff, but also what was going on in Congress in Washington and the world in general. For instance, the newspaper ran many articles as early as 1850 saying that those politicians who kept bringing up succession from the Union as a tactic were obviously lunatics, that nothing like that would ever happen in America, that the South loved the Union and would never leave it. Knowing what was going to happen in 14 years made that definitive an opinion seem ludicrous. The advertisements were also interesting: many were for various remedies to cure the ills of the time, particularly Piles (hemorrhoids) and Female Problems, but pretty much any known disease was curable with one nostrum or another.
The most disturbing advertisements to me were those placed by people selling slaves, which are shocking to see through modern eyes. I understand that this is a cliché, but it’s one thing to know something intellectually and another to see it in stark black and white. The slaves were often sold in portions – ½, 1/3, ¼, and whole – men, women, and children. This selling by portion was something that I didn’t know happened; learning a detail like this is like seeing the actual ads, an oddity that makes something terrible even more so.
But there’s a lot I don’t know about what happened back then. I remember the look in Rafe’s eyes as he leaned toward me and spoke about the terrible truths of slavery. And I remember his last words to me, “Hell to pay.”
I was at the Penny and, for once, the room was only half full. I was at the bar and Big Guy was tending. I was drinking a Baker’s bourbon, which BG informed me (the man is a font of whiskey wisdom) was a higher proof offering from Jim Beam. Also that it was named for Jim Beam’s grandnephew, Baker Beam. That’s a hell of a moniker to drag around your whole life. I liked the bourbon; it’s not sweet and it’s got a high alcohol burn.
BG leaned on the sink and dried his hands on a white bar towel. He put his initials on my paper list of drinks. “So, you a friend of Raphael’s?” he asked.
“Not exactly a friend, I only met him recently. He told me he has a room upstairs?”
“That’s right. He came in about a year ago and offered to help out in the kitchen if we had a place for him to stay. Everyone likes him, a really nice guy. He doesn’t work in the kitchen much anymore, but he’s here most nights when he’s in town.”
“Why have I never seen him in here before?”
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” He nodded at the corner of the bar. “He usually sits over there. He kind of blends in or something; you don’t notice him unless he hails you and then all of a sudden there he is.”
“You must see a lot of him if he lives upstairs.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him up there. Most of the rooms are used for storage except the one he stays in. He goes away for long periods, and then all of a sudden he turns up again. He has some sort of a strange job, but he’s never told me what it is. I don’t think it pays much.”
His job is digging up graves underneath my house, I thought. This is not something I would share with BG. He wouldn’t understand; I barely understand it myself. I’ve never told BG or any of the Penny personnel about this blog. I’ve learned that people can get pissed off about the strangest things, or at least they’re strange to me. This is the reason I’ve changed the name of the bar, as I’ve said elsewhere, to the Lead Penny.
“I’ve never seen him sit with anyone as long as he sat at the table with you last night. He’s friendly, he’ll talk to people around him, but mostly he keeps to himself.”
BG didn’t exactly ask a question, but you could tell he wanted to know how I knew Rafe. “He and I are working on a project,” I said. “It has to do with the Ashburn School.” BG nodded and moved off to snag a Budweiser out of the cooler and put it on the bar in front of a customer. I’ve never understood why someone would drink a Bud, especially when they’re in a classic barroom that features a revolving list of excellent draft craft beers, carefully chosen for their interest. The only reason I can think of is that Bud is cheap. One can drink a couple of them for the cost of one draft. But the alcohol content is half that of the higher priced, more interesting brews. So what’s the point?
“What’s that he drinks?” I asked. “You served it to him in an iced shot glass. Is it on my list?”
BG laughed. “I have no idea what it is. He brought in a really ancient bottle early on and had me put it on the shelf. Here, I’ll show you.” He went back to a corner of the bar over the cash register, or rather the computer screen that functions as a cash register in these modern times. He brought back a bottle and held it up for me to see. It was an exact duplicate of the one Jason Longwell the foundation inspector found underneath my house jammed into one of the pillars. Except the liquid in this one was perfectly clear, unlike the dark amber in my bottle.
“The weird thing, “ BG said, “is that when you pour it into a shot glass it turns ice cold. The glass gets misty with condensation. I’m the only one who’s allowed to touch the bottle.”
“Has anyone ever tasted it?” I asked. BG appeared shocked at the suggestion and shook his head. “Nope. Rafe’s never offered.” He looked at me and leaned closer. “The dude’s not the sort you’d want to cross. I don’t think it would be smart to poach his liquor. He’s not that big, but there’s something about him. You know what I mean?”
I knew what he meant. Not the sort of dude you’d want to cross. I remembered the feeling when he dragged me out from under the house. As if I weighed next to nothing.
I paid my tab and walked home. It was just getting dark. The house was lonely with Sherry gone. I thought about all the entities that were knocking around, or might be knocking around underneath. I wondered if Rafe would be down there tonight, digging away, collecting bones, trying to put to rest one spirit and prevent another from arising. Hell to pay, I thought.
I went upstairs to type this entry, which I’m doing right now. Then I’ll go to the Library of Congress website and pull up more of the Hillsborough Record, looking for any clues to why the house is where it is and why there are graves underneath.
Hell to pay. I watched as the words appear on the screen, unaware that I had typed them. I stared at them for a minute and deleted them. Now the screen was the way you see it. Blank from here on down. What words will I fill it with in the future? I have no idea.
I must have typed the words Hell To Pay. Didn’t I? Then I deleted them. Right. If so, why has this just appeared on my screen?
HELL TO PAY