Fried Catfish Sandwich, Jalapenos, Iceberg Lettuce, Pickled Green Tomato, Toasted Roll
The next morning I realized I had a review due for Publisher’s Weekly, so I opened a new page in Word and began entering the header material for the book. The first thing I noticed was that the Hell to Pay words, in red, appeared when I opened the blank page. This was a surprise, but not a shock; my computer is an aging iMac and while it works perfectly well most of the time it will occasionally throw off an annoying error that I have to stop and fix. I deleted the blank page and opened a new one. Same problem. I’ll spare you the various fixes I tried, but after an unfruitful, frustrating fifteen minutes I ended up highlighting the text and changing the font color to white, which made it “disappear” on the page. Yes, crude, akin to fixing a typo on a gravestone by chiseling off the offending letters with a rock, but so far it’s working. It’s there, but I can’t see it and neither can you, so I’ll just pretend it’s gone and hope it eventually fixes itself.
I wrote my review, rewrote it six or seven more times and sent it off to my editor, gathered up my various notebooks and my pack and headed off to the library. Rafe had asked me to go look up his friend there, Professor Aiden Mann.
I have always loved libraries and librarians. I wrote my first published book, Time After Time (still available for purchase at Amazon!) at a table in my tiny, local storefront library in the town of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, while two wonderful elderly librarians took care of my daughter, Leah, who was a baby at the time. She would sit on the checkout counter and play with one of the book stamps while they made sure she didn’t fall off. It was hell getting that ink off her at the end of the day.
The American Library Association selected Till the End of Time as one of their Books of the Year when it was published. When I started my second book, Twice Upon a Time, the library had moved to larger permanent quarters, in the same small town but down the street. My old librarians had been transferred to other branches, and no one was willing to babysit while I wrote. Time, and progress, I guess, marches on.
Hillsborough, another small town, has a terrific library. Housed in a new but old-appearing Greek Revival building, it has lots of books, helpful librarians and many computers for the public. I think they would draw the line at babysitting, but everyone has always been friendly, and as I said, helpful.
When I asked the librarian downstairs if she knew an Aiden Mann, she pointed at the nearby stairs.
“The Professor. He’s up there at a table way in the back,” she said, gesturing toward the rear of the library. “You can’t miss him. He’s the one who looks like he’s camping out.”
I walked up the broad staircase and was distracted by the Recent Novels display. Since I review thrillers professionally, I seldom have time to read for pleasure. I scanned the books on the shelves and though tempted to stop and leaf through a few of the recent bestsellers, I moved on. I was here on a mission.
There were six or seven tables with computers and patrons, but no one who looked like he was camping out. I followed the downstairs librarian’s directions and walked straight back to the rear of the room through ranks of bookcases housing the nonfiction collection. There, at a table that would seat at least eight, was a grey-haired, ruddy complexioned man who could only be the professor. He was seated at the head of the table behind a laptop computer and surrounded by open packs and briefcases that held reams of paper, blue notebooks, snacks of all sorts and bottles of water. He was wearing a blue Duke t-shirt. He looked up over a pair of bright red reading glasses and raised his eyebrows. He was a smallish man, about my size or a little slighter, meaning he wasn’t portly as I tend to be.
“Rafe sent me,” I said, sounding like I had just knocked on the door of a speakeasy and uttered the secret password.
“Aiden,” he said, holding up his hand. We shook. He pushed away a pile of books on the table to his left and gestured to the seat. I sat down. There were several younger people at the far end of the table, but they were working on their computers and didn’t look up.
“You can speak in a normal tone,” he said. “They can’t hear us up front. That’s why they stuck me back here.”
I nodded and sat for a minute trying to decide what I was going to say. I certainly wasn’t going to mention any poltergeists or paranormal activity.
“I live in a house on West Orange. I’ve been researching its history and Rafe said you might have some information about it.”
“What years are you interested in?”
“Probably 1850 to 1857. Maybe before. Up to the Civil War. It’s called the Daisy Lynch house.” Aiden nodded.
“I know the house,” he said. “It’s been pieced together over the years like a three dimensional puzzle. Starting from the old school house, which was procured from the Ashburns by Lemuel Lynch, one of the region’s most famous silversmiths. Actually, I think the schoolhouse was given to the guy who was doing the renovation on the Ashburn house, John Berry. He was a local builder who designed and built the County Courthouse. Lynch probably bought it from Berry.” He stopped a minute and thought. “The Ashburn renovations took place in 1848, so that’s when the interior rooms would have been hauled to their final resting place — your lot.”
I was impressed. “Right, at least as far as I have been able to find. I wonder how I could dig up more information, in particular references to slavery of the period, both in the Ashburn family and the Lynch family. And maybe the Berry family as well.” I thought briefly about my use of the term ‘dig up.’
He looked toward the ceiling for a minute. “I’d try the census materials, sometimes they listed slaves as part of the property of the household. The library carries family genealogy material, but slaves are almost never mentioned. It’s not something modern folks want remembered or brought to the notice of others. The Orange County tax records might list them as declared property of the family you’re interested in. I know John Berry had slaves. He used them in his building business, trained them and when they reached a certain proficiency he gave them their freedom and hired them. At least some of them.”
“He sounds like he must have been one of the good guys.”
Aiden’s eyes narrowed. “There was nothing good about slavery. Nothing. If you meant he had slightly more enlightened ideas than most of the people of the day, you would probably be correct. But I wouldn’t go much further than that. Why are you interested in slavery?”
Now what was I going to tell him? Well, Mister Historian, there’s the ghost of a young slave girl living under my house.
“I’m interested in history in general. I wrote a series of time travel books that were set in different historical periods, the Civil War being one of them. I like to get a feel for what life was like in whatever period I’m researching. Since I’m interested in this town fifteen or twenty years before the Civil War, that would have to include slavery.”
I could see he was weighing my words. I hadn’t meant to piss him off, but it appeared from his expression that I had done so.
“What are going to do with this research?”
“I’m not sure. I have I blog I write about Hillsborough and my house. Slavery was a part of that history. Am I doing something wrong?” I gave him one of the cards I had printed up. They list the blog site, http://www.my69drinks.blog and read, Sit back; Have a drink; Start from the beginning. I have trouble getting people who aren’t keeping up with the posts or who have fallen behind from just skipping to the current post. Aiden glanced at the card and tucked it into the small notebook he was writing in.
“Are you doing something wrong? Not that I know of. I’m a bit touchy on the subject because I’ve seen so many people romanticize that part of the history of the South. There was nothing romantic about it as far as the enslaved were concerned. Every day was a reminder of their condition, of the burden they suffered under.” He looked away for a minute then went on. “I taught history at the University for 30 years and I watched as most professors got it wrong. They taught the good parts: Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, Elizabeth Keckley, Frederick Douglass, all the success stories of people of color rising above their servitude. Elementary school stuff. Meanwhile they mostly left out the hard parts, the daily life of 99% of the rest of enslaved humanity. The part that no one wants to hear or even think about now.” He stopped and took a breath.
I had really set him off.
“Sorry,” he said. “As you can see, this is something of a sore subject for me. Actually I’m not really sorry. I tell you what, here’s a homework assignment. Go on the website of the Library of Congress and look up the Hillsborough Record. That was the newspaper here during the period you’re interested in. Read it and see if you can find articles that include the men you’re asking about, Lynch and Berry, the Ashford School, anything that might have to do with your house. Pay attention to the advertisements on the back page, that’s a good place to get a feel for how the regular people lived. Come back in a week and we’ll talk.” He picked up his notebook and wrote a few words.
Dismissed, I thought.
“Rafe said I should be reading the old Hillsborough newspaper as well.” Aiden nodded.
As I turned to leave he said, “Just a minute, when you see Rafe tell him to come see me, I have a job for him.”
I stopped. “I have no idea when or even if I’m going to see Rafe. I don’t know how to get in touch with him. He was extremely vague on the details of his life. He just kind of shows up.”
Aiden laughed. “Yeah, well, that’s our Rafe.”
I walked over to the Penny and ordered a catfish sandwich, which came with jalapenos, pickled green tomatoes and lettuce on a toasted roll. I love catfish sandwiches. I studied my list of drinks and ordered a Woodford Reserve. It’s a medium-to-expensive Kentucky Bourbon that I have had before. There’s a realtor in Hillsborough who’s named Woodford and he uses little airline bottles of the bourbon as kind of a calling card. He invited me over to his house one night, and I drank so many of those little bottles I should have been ashamed. I wasn’t. He hasn’t invited me back.
I looked the distillery up on my cell phone while I was sitting there and found it was/is one of the oldest in the US having been founded in 1780. The distillery building still in use was built in 1838, so this whiskey was probably pretty much like what they were drinking back when they were dragging my house onto the lot and covering up graves. I added to my research chores trying to find out how whiskeys differ today from back then. While I ate my catfish and French fries I thought about my meeting with historian Aiden Mann and how I was now headed down a road that was beginning to feel like I was working on a dissertation.
Besides the homework, I had a couple of unfinished tasks, or maybe I should call them opportunities. I still hadn’t done anything about putting a camera under the house, and I hadn’t really thought about the old bottle the crawlspace guy had found jammed in one of the pillars. Cleaned up it sure as hell looked like an old whiskey bottle that was three-quarters full of old whiskey. Definitely an opportunity. I wanted to find out how whiskey then differed from whiskey now? All I had to do was pull the cork, carefully, and take a taste. Now, if this was a story by some dope on the Internet, the next words would be… “After all, what could go wrong?”