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Authors: Chris Adrian

Gob's Grief

BOOK: Gob's Grief
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Gob’s Grief
“Thrilling…. Adrian manages to bring to life the brutal aftermath of the Civil War: an America still divided between future and past, living and dead.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Mesmerizing … inspired … filled with rich, sonorous bitterness.”
“A combination of lunatic and poetic visionary, [Gob] is a marvelous creation.”
—The Baltimore Sun

Gob’s Grief is
something new. Chris Adrian’s ambitious first novel is no less than a magical realist work of historical fiction…. But what does stand out in Adrian’s novel is the way he combines verisimilitude with implausibility.”
—Boston Review of Books
“A novel that blends history and fiction, political struggle and metaphysical speculation, generating a vision of America in the late 19th century that is utterly eccentric and quite engaging…. Adrian’s invention never flags.”
—The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Richly accomplished….
Gob’s Grief
might be destined for canonical status.”
—The News & Observer
“Haunting…. The magic and machinery in
Gob’s Grief
, its overlapping story lines and its parade of colorful characters are all unforgettable.”
“Masterly historical impressionism.”
—The Wall Street Journal
Gob’s Grief
was born in Washington, D.C. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is currently a medical student in San Francisco. His fiction has appeared in
The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Ploughshares
, and


when he ran away from home to join the Union army. One night in August of 1863, he sprinted down a white road that seemed to bloom out of the darkness as a bright moon climbed higher and higher in the sky above him. He was in a hurry to catch the train that passed a mile east of the shack where he lived with his brother, his mama, and her family, the notorious Claflins of Homer, Ohio.

The train was halfway gone when he got to the tracks. Tomo ran alongside the boxcars, cursing at the top of his voice. “You shit for a train won’t you just
He would have been grateful for just a bit of slowing. But the train moved on speedy and serene. He wished he had a gun to shoot it with.

Glancing back, Tomo saw that the caboose was coming up fast. He cursed again, louder and fiercer, the curses escalating into a wordless howl as he threw himself up at an open boxcar, managing a precarious grip, which he knew he must lose in a moment because he was not strong enough to hold on. He had resigned himself to slipping away, and launched a final “Shit on you!” at the train, when suddenly a set of pale hands came out from within the car and hauled him up and in.

“Why are you making all that racket?” asked his savior, who was just a dark shape until he put Tomo down and turned up a lamp. The man had brown hair and bright blue eyes, and fat lips so red that they seemed stolen from a girl. “Why are you being so noisy? Do you know I was trying to sleep?” He spoke, like Tomo’s grandmother, with a heavy German accent.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” said Tomo.

“Where are you going, that you call a train a shit and wake a poor soldier from his sweet dreams?”

“To the war,” said Tomo.

“The war? I think you had better go home to your mama, little Fenzmaus.” His fellow passenger started to push Tomo toward the door, telling him to roll when he hit the ground. Tomo spun away, out of the man’s grip, and threw himself to his knees on the rough floor of the car.

“She’s dead!” Tomo cried. “My mama’s dead, with my papa and my brother and my aunts, my uncle and my granny and grampy! We all got the typhoid and I ought’ve died too, but I didn’t, ‘cause I’m the damned unluckiest boy who ever breathed a breath. Throw me out! Go on! I don’t care. It’s all shit anyhow. I’ll just lie down by the tracks and
Tomo dropped down on his stomach with his head on his arms, and wept with great drama, peeping up a little to see the man standing above him with both hands on his head, as if holding a hat down against a high wind. It was all a lie. Tomo’s family were sleeping peacefully in the falling-down shack they called home. His twin brother ought to have been with him, but he wasn’t. He’d stayed in Homer for the sake of cowardice. Tomo pounded his fist against the floor in imitation of despair, but really it was rage against his brother that moved his hand.

“I …” the man said, kneeling down to touch Tomo on the shoulder. He stood up and crossed the car, then came back to kneel again, and push something gritty against Tomo’s wet cheek. “Would you like a cookie?” he asked. “My little Frieda baked them, so I could take them back to my Niners. Do you see? Do you see the nine?”

Tomo sat up and took the thing. It was a molasses cookie, fully half the size of his head, and stamped like a coin with the number nine in the center. Still crying his false tears, Tomo bit, chewed, and swallowed.

“Do you like it?” asked the man.

Tomo nodded.

“Children and soldiers, they both love cookies. Poor Fenzmaus. Haven’t you got anybody to watch over you?”

“Don’t need nobody,” said Tomo.

“No family. Not anywhere?”

“Just Betty.”

“Betty? Is that your sister?”

Tomo shook his head. “My horn,” he said, indicating the bugle that hung at his side. He put her to his lips and blew, not a military tune, but something sad and angry that he made up on the spot. The man leaned back on his heels and covered his eyes with his hands. “I know camp music, too,” Tomo said, and played “Boots and Saddles.” Tomo was a splendid little bugler—he knew all the drill calls, be they for bugle or fife, for cavalry, infantry, or artillery. He could play anything if he heard it once.

“So pretty!” declared the man. “Play me another.”

Tomo played and played, until it was almost dawn, and the man said it was time for them to go to bed. They had become acquainted, between songs. The man’s name was Aaron Stanz. He was a private on French leave from the Ninth Ohio Volunteers, who were camped in Tennessee, awaiting orders from General Rosecrans. In a contest of lots Stanz had won the privilege of visiting his young wife, whom he had not seen since he kissed her goodbye at Camp Harrison in the summer of ’61. “How long can a man and his wife be apart?” he asked Tomo, who said, “Always,” because he was thinking of his mama and papa, divorced since before the war.

The Ninth, as it happened, was short on field musicians. And Company C, from which Aaron Stanz hailed, had only a drummer; their fifer had died at Hoover’s Gap. Tomo closed his eyes and had a brief vision of departing horses—it had been his hope to bugle for a cavalry regiment—but then he said he felt it was divinely sanctioned that he go and bugle for Company C. Aaron Stanz said he did not believe in God, but admitted the convenience of the arrangement. It would not be traditional or entirely in accord with regulations, having a bugler instead of a fifer, but he was sure Captain Schroeder would agree that Tomo must do in this pinch. Anyhow, though there were no angels except in the minds of men deranged by their religion, Tomo blew like one, and Aaron Stanz could not imagine that the Captain would resist the charms of Tomo’s bugling.

When it was time for bed, Tomo lay down on Aaron Stanz’s rubber blanket, and tried to sleep with his head pillowed on that man’s arm. He complained that it was too bright to sleep, and that he wanted to go look at green Kentucky passing by outside the door. Aaron Stanz put his cap over Tomo’s face, and called him Fenzmaus again, which was pipsqueak—Tomo’s grandmother Anna called him and his brother that sometimes, though never with such gentle affection as Aaron Stanz invested in the word. Eventually, Tomo drifted to sleep, lulled by the steady noise of the train, but shortly woke with a start from a dream of falling. The cap fell from his face, and he cried out softly. Tomo reached around him for his brother, away from whom he had never spent a single night. But then he remembered how Gob was back in Homer, afraid of the war and the great wide world.

The journey south was uneventful, except for a stop in Tullahoma, where a soldier poked his head into the car and made a perfunctory search while Tomo and his new friend hid behind stacked barrels of salt pork. “He wouldn’t understand my special arrangement,” said Aaron Stanz.

They arrived at Camp Thomas, after rolling from the train near Winchester and walking for some five miles, during which time Aaron Stanz was always supremely certain of his way. He was welcomed in camp not like a technical deserter, but like a hero. Stanz’s welcome had to do with his popularity—it was immediately obvious to Tomo that he had had the good fortune to fall in with the best-liked fellow in his company—and with the gifts he brought back. In addition to his wife’s molasses cookies, he’d brought two sacks stuffed with roast turkeys and soft bread, new boots for three men (each boot filled with candy and chewing gum), and best of all a small barrel of cool beer. The Ninth Ohio was an all-German regiment, and every man in Company C greatly missed his beer. There was little opportunity to get any in the wilds of Tennessee.

That evening, they had a little party. Though the company had died back to half its original strength of one hundred and two, there was only enough beer for every man to have a few swallows directly from the tap. Fortunately every third turkey was stuffed with a bottle of whiskey. Aaron Stanz called it oil of gladness and poured a cup for Tomo, who took it behind a wedge-tent and did not drink it, but only held it under his nose, and thought of his papa, because when they were very small he and Gob had snuggled up to him, sometimes, after he’d drunk himself senseless.

While Tomo was savoring his cup of whiskey, another boy came up and accosted him rudely. The boy was about Tomo’s age, and very fair; blond as a broom straw and white as a grub. Without so much as a how-do-you-do he knocked Tomo’s tin whiskey cup from his hand, then kicked him over and sat on Tomo’s belly. The boy pulled out a set of drumsticks and played a brutal little number on Tomo’s head.

“Looky here,” said the boy. “There’s only one drummer in this regiment, and it ain’t you.” He raised his sticks again, but Tomo had grabbed his cup out of the dirt, and he crushed it against the boy’s face before he could bring his sticks down. The boy fell over to the side, and in a moment Tomo was straddling his chest. Tomo took the sticks and drove them into the ground on either side of the boy’s head.

“I got nothing to do with drumming, I’m a bugler,” Tomo said, taking Betty out from under his jacket. Aaron Stanz had told him to hide her there, because he wanted to surprise his comrades with music, a last gift. Not only did Company C have no fifer, the Ninth’s regimental band had been absent since September of ’62, when the government had refused to salary them any longer. Tomo blew a note straight into the small white ear of his assailant. “See?” he said. “I got nothing to do with drumming.”

“I can’t hear a thing!” screamed the boy.

Aaron Stanz dragged Tomo off of him. The noise had attracted a swarm of men.

“He deafened me!” the boy wailed, sitting up now, and brandishing his sticks again.

“Shut up, Johnny,” said Aaron Stanz. The men were looking at the bugle, glinting in the light from the torches that lined the camp streets.

“I forgot to tell you, boys. The Fenzmaus is a bugler. Isn’t that a lucky thing?” The men of the company stared wordlessly at Aaron Stanz. Then there was a rush of murmuring all around the circle.

“Jesus sent me here to play for you,” said Tomo. The boy called Johnny laughed cruelly.

“Also, spiel mal!” said a man, whose name, Tomo would come to know, was Raimund Herrman. He picked Tomo up and put him on one of his massive shoulders, and then pranced down the company street to a big cook fire. Tomo stood on the empty beer barrel, which some clever soldier had labeled “molasses” to confuse the authorities, and blew out tune after tune, while the men of Company C drank and danced with each other. Tomo blew marches, because they were soldiers, and vile polkas, because he knew that was the sort of music his grandmother liked, and she was the only German whose tastes and habits he knew. Men called out song names to him, begging him to play “Anna Engelke,” or “Romberg Park: Elf Uhr,” or “Liebe Birgit.” Tomo knew none of those songs, but if they hummed a few bars he could make something up, and that seemed to satisfy them. The boy called Johnny skulked out of the darkness, with his big Eagle drum, and though he sat far away from Tomo, he offered up a friendly beat to Tomo’s bugling. Men from other companies came to listen, and they danced, too, until the dancing pairs were four and five deep around the fire.

Tomo could have played all night, but the party only lasted until somebody got the idea of serenading Colonel Kammerling in his tent. A procession was formed, with Tomo and Johnny at its head. They marched the revelers across the camp, to the Colonel’s tent, where they fell into rank and sang in voices that were deep and lovely and drunk.

Colonel Kammerling appeared behind an adjutant who was shouting himself hoarse trying to silence the crowd. There were cries from the men of “Speech, speech!” The Colonel stepped up to Tomo, who was still tooting merrily, snatched the bugle from his mouth, then handed it back, bell first. Tomo took it meekly, because Colonel Kammerling was a severe-looking gentleman.

“Go to bed, boys,” was all he gave for a speech. He turned and went back to his tent, and the party was suddenly over. As soon as he stopped playing, Tomo felt very sleepy. He clutched Betty to his chest and followed Aaron Stanz back to his dog tent, where he slept between Stanz and another soldier, Private Frohmann. He found he could not sleep in the middle, so he rolled over Aaron Stanz, who mumbled “Frieda!” at him, and kissed the back of his head, and snored like a hog. That night, Tomo dreamed that his brother was looking for him all over their small room. Under the rickety bed, in the old wardrobe with the shrieking hinges—over and over again Gob looked in the same places, over and over again he asked of the air, “Tomo, where are you?”

Aaron Stanz shook Tomo awake at five o’ clock the next morning.

“Get up, Schlaftier!” he said. “Get up, Fenzmaus! You’ve got your work to do!” Aaron Stanz dragged him, still half asleep, across the silent camp, and stood him on the barrel near the ashes of the previous night’s great fire. Johnny the drummer boy was waiting for them. Tomo rubbed his eyes and yawned, and looked out over the slumbering camp. The air, warm and heavy, hung in low blue patches between the tents. Tomo yawned again and said, “It ain’t even lightened yet.” But he took a deep breath and blew the assembly. It rang out brashly through the still air. Johnny said it was too queer, the bugle and drum playing for infantry. “You won’t last a week in this company!” he yelled at Tomo, then stormed off, beating angrily on his drum. “Don’t you pay any mind to him,” said Aaron Stanz.

BOOK: Gob's Grief
11.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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