Nathan C. Bradley
As the train pulled into Washington, uncle Nathan was not happy. He'd been given a furlough and had gladly taken advantage of it to return home to western New York. Every soldier's dream was to return home. Home! A hallowed place that had attained mythic proportions in a soldier's mind. But looking back at it now on the journey back to his regiment, his memories of his trip home were mostly painful. . .
. . . He didn't mind that there was no parade or band at the train station when he arrived. His reunion with Mary was emotional for them both; they hugged, and then all the pent-up anxiety, worry, and fear let itself out with sobs, and tears of joy. That first day there were others besides his wife to spend time with: his mother, his brother1, his father2... Nathan's father, Zenas Bradley, had volunteered for the infantry but his stint was cut short when he was injured on a patrol a few miles from Manassas. Zenas had been invalided out of the army in October. His lower back still pained him mightily, not to mention his leg, injured in that train accident. War is a young man's game.
Nathan found it hard to act as if his war experience had been nothing but a journey to other states. There were awkward silences, punctuated by attempts at normal family conversation.
Nathan and Mary were happy to be together at first, but it soon turned sour. When Mary looked into his eyes she saw a difference. This man resembled her husband but the eyes were far off, focused somewhere else. Not only he had changed. While he was rough-edged, jumpy, and distracted, she had become self-assured and independent, a problem-solver. But he was a problem she couldn't solve.
One day, he went back to the school where he had been a teacher before he enlisted. For some reason it was a difficult decision whether to wear his sergeant's uniform or not. He knew the students would want to see it, but he was so enjoying wearing civilian clothing. He cleaned it and put it on. When he got to the school, he found that some of his students had moved on and were no longer in school, and there were new kids present whom he didn't know. And the visit was more awkward than educational. The kind of questions children will ask! "Did you kill any rebels?" He hadn't wanted to answer that one, and the visit went downhill from there.
Of course Nathan wanted to have sex with his wife. Of course, per the mores of the time, it was her wifely duty to submit. But nothing is that simple. She objected when the sex got uncomfortable, too forceful. Her complaint broke through to his good sense. He was ashamed to discover that he was hurting her, that he could hurt her. He was embarrassed to see that his dear wife perceived him now as having changed for the worse.
A telegram came from Captain Britton. The 130th New York Infantry needed all able-bodied men on hand. Nathan knew something was afoot, a mission or campaign, maybe another seige.
His parting with Mary at the train station was a jumble of emotions. Regret, wistfulness, love, fear, unsatisfied desire. Looking back on it, he worried whether she still loved him, despite his changes. He worried whether he still loved her, because of all the changes. He'd managed to get a few brief naps during the train ride, but his dreams had been tormented and disturbing. His waking periods were full of regrets and anger: at himself, at the war, at the rebels. Maybe a little at Mary . . .
. . . Now as he stepped off the train in Washington City, his senses were assailed by a whirlwind of activity. Soldiers, statesmen, office seekers, hawkers, black porters, women. A boy was selling newspapers. "Draft riots in New York City! Newspaper here!" Nathan bumped into a woman. "Sorry," he said, and started to walk on.
But the woman responded, "You're just walking away like that, Sergeant?"
There was something about her voice. Along with the mild reproof there was softness, a sense of humor tinged with irony and availability for conversation... and maybe even more.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am." He turned to face her, touching the brim of his forage cap. She was adjusting her hat, as though it had been skewed by the minor collision. Everybody wore hats then. She was pretty, Nathan saw. He looked into her eyes and something stirred. He assayed another conversational tidbit. "No offense intended, I assure you."
"You're infantry, aren't you. What regiment?"
"130th New York. My name is Nathan Bradley."
"Well, Sergeant Bradley from New York, you may call me Miss Canterwall."
"Please call me Nathan, Miss Canterwall."
"Where are you headed, Nathan?"
"I have been recalled to my regiment. I'm just back from furlough."
"Oh. No, I meant where are you going now? Or is your regiment just the other side of those doors?" She smiled beguilingly. And now Nathan knew what she was about. And now he had a decision to make. His decision was to not decide, but rather let her decide for him. He thought of Mary, and knew he would regret it, but he succumbed, and allowed Miss Catherwall, if that really was her name, to let him have his way with her. He had not intended to go "down the line" of the capital's red light district, but opportunity, this day, was named Miss Canterwall. He rightly calculated that she would be more expensive, but he had enough money.
A while later, when he was inside her, he became rough. "Oh! Nathaniel! You're pumping just like a steam engine piston!" She looked him in the eyes. "You can put more coal in the firebox, if you like." At first, he didn't get it; he thought she was asking him to go start a fire, but in July? It made no sense. She cleared up the misunderstanding with a smile: "More steam! More steam!"
Afterwards, Nathan was surprised to discover that he didn't feel regret after all. The regret would show its face before too long.
Nathaniel, she'd called him. Remembered his name, but didn't get it quite right.
And a steam engine piston. She probably said that to all the boys.
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© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.