blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Bell's Tavern

Each day, walking to work or walking home, I pass the place where Bell's Tavern once was, not far from the river docks & a block past the Farmer's Market. There's nothing there now but an asphalt lot under a freeway overpass, & no one there except a pair of men who look homeless, who sometimes sway a little as if they've been drinking when they walk ahead of me, lurch to a stop together, & confer about something.

Bell's Tavern is no more now than a few square yards of dark, acrid air & windblown trash, but it was, once, a recruitment center for the Confederacy. It was also the place in which the plot to assassinate Mr. Lincoln was invented, or where it gave birth to itself, since the idea was no one's. It flew into the smoky tavern on the wing of a joke—all jokes have only one wing, & this is why they can only fly in large circles, & why, incidentally, we find them funny. The joke that would become Mr. Lincoln's death took the shape of a casual remark in order to be born, & nourished itself on smoke & laughter.

But the assassination was carried to its fruition because of an oversight & misunderstanding on the part of Booth, what they call a defect now that tragedy & falling from some great height is no longer possible. Booth was an actor & still did not realize that, because of this gift which had made him famous, there was no Booth, only a series of manifestations, in which he inhabited others, exhausted them on stage, & then withdrew, but not into himself, not into Booth. Booth wasn't there. Of course Booth still thought he was Booth even as the plot began to assume a serious shape in his mind, even as he began to consume more brandy in the evenings. His friends at Bell's sometimes thought it was odd that Booth did not act the way a famous actor should have acted, that he seemed so like the others who drank there, so . . . ordinary. For one thing, he complained all the time, which was what everyone else did at Bell's who didn't have a career on the stage. Like men up from the docks Booth complained about the usual things, even weather & horses though he worked indoors & did not own a horse. In a week or so, he became more specific in his complaints: a bout of insomnia; a flu that kept him in bed for three days; a stage manager he had always felt contempt for. One afternoon a wren, with gray wings & faint yellow throat & underbelly, flew into the tavern, alighted for a moment on a rafter behind the bar, then flew out again. Booth glanced at it, & afterward seemed sullen & bitter. His friends left him to his mood & went on talking. How could they know Booth was suspicious of the wren's colors, thought that gray & yellow did not belong together, thought further that the wren was not a wren, but something else entirely.

But it wasn't. It was a wren.

As the War went on, Booth began to seem, even to friends at Bell's who liked him, too mundane, too much himself—that is, he never seemed preoccupied with anything, not even with the plot he discussed privately with two of them there. And all the while Booth was trying to play a character who didn't exist, someone who had never been there in the first place. In a way he did a good job of it, for to be alive & not to inhabit yourself, is only rare when it continues, uninterrupted by anything. Each day there are long moments when most people, a majority in fact, aren't there though they appear to be—sitting under a hair dryer; or lecturing behind a podium of blond wood on the hitherto unacknowledged significance of Renaissance putti; or fishing for carp from the Mayo Bridge. Long moments pass when all of the three aforementioned are not there, not present, & though they look as if they are, they know they are not.

Booth assumed Booth was there, that Booth inhabited Booth, & that everyone else did the same. He thought this the most incontrovertibly ordinary fact of all, that one not only possessed, but in fact was, in our threadbare word for it, the Self. Booth assumed, without thinking about it much, that he enjoyed the same things other ordinary people enjoyed: drinking brandy at Bell's, complaining, & plotting the assassination of the President of the United States.

Booth thought all this was completely ordinary without ever realizing that being completely ordinary and being completely insane is the same thing.


There's nothing there now, where Bell's Tavern was, but litter, oil stains, gray flange after flange of steel & girders, the constant, milling, breathy sound of traffic, like a sawmill when the lumber has gone through but the blades continue for a moment or so afterward.

You say one thing is like another thing, you bring the two different things together to see if they align. If they do, it is a way of being there, a way of inhabiting who you are.

Booth lived out his whole life without once inhabiting Booth.

And yet there are those who are always there, or almost always. Lee, no matter what view you take of him, inhabited Lee completely. His attention lapsed only once, & only for about seven minutes. He was in his tent, a map spread before him on a requisitioned table, a pen in his hand, & his hand in midair. He did not notice, in those next few moments, the way he slowly lowered his hand until the nib of the pen rested for a moment there, on the map, on some place on the map. When he came back to himself a small ink blot had already become a familiar shape on the map, &, within a few seconds, the shape had already become, in Lee's mind, part of the battle plan for Gettysburg, a part he would come back to, later, to work out the details it still needed. It was, anyway, only to be the initial attack, the charge led by another general, across a meadow. But it would look to Grant as if the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia were moving toward him at once, while any victory depended, as it always did, upon outflanking the passionless & soon to be astonished boys who, although they had marched all week under tree after tree without a leaf on it because of what rifle fire had done to them, did not even once look up & notice, & who, in that case, couldn't have any idea what war was really like.

There was a simplicity about Lee. Lee loved Virginia. He did not like slavery nor believe in it, although, as he had never been a slave, he could not have any idea what slavery was really like. Nor, someday, will anyone else, thought Mr. Lincoln one cold afternoon as he sat at the bedside of his son, his hand on the child's forehead to register the degree & duration of his fever.

After the surrender at Appomattox, Lee returned to live with his family in a modest brick townhouse on Franklin Street. He negotiated until he finally forgave himself two things: Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, & the death of J.E.B. Stuart. All the rest of it he consigned, with his usual graciousness, to oblivion or to history. It was no longer his affair.

And Lincoln? After the War he found the words "Great Emancipator" in print. They referred to him. The phrase rang with a harsh, mocking, sarcastically apt eloquence in his ears. He had not, he discovered, invented freedom, but only a new form of war—the genocide of one people against itself. He had devised & implemented, via diplomatic means that failed, 600,000 deaths—the virtual extinction of an entire generation of men on one of the earth's seven continents.

But he was not, even so, the unhappiest person on earth. His wife was the unhappiest person on earth. There was almost a kind of justice in the illogic of it all, he thought, because he always did that, always thought about what he had just thought; it had become an ineradicable habit of mind to him, now, & a bitter solace.


In Renaissance Italian art, putti are the diminutive, plump infant angels that crowd canvases & appear with no apparent reason above cornices, eaves, archways, at the edges of sculpture. They look unconvincing, stylized, decorative, a kind of graffiti or defacement over everything. And are painted or given such shapes because, in the artists' minds, they represented nothing. They represented nothing because angels have no souls, & have no need for them. Angels are what is not there, are the air itself. An avenging angel is sent, we say. to destroy something. When he destroys he does so impersonally, perfectly, & completely, & can do so because he isn't there, is most absent when most present, most apparent & most invisible when he acts.

Booth, whom no one inhabited, was an avenging angel, someone sent to do a job. He stopped, with two shots from a pistol, the pain Lincoln felt at knowing completely who Mr. Lincoln was, & the pain he felt, simultaneously, at not knowing at all who Lincoln was though he had to be him, nevertheless.


And me? I pass the begrimed marker, affixed to the flange on the overpass, that designated the place where Bell's Tavern had been. It was the 7th of March. I strolled through the town & watched the moon rise, full, slow. There was the smell of spring in the night air, & a vee of geese flying over the rock bar & porno theater on Grace Street. When I got home I listened to a tape of Coltrane that is hard to find now, & to the only remaining tape of a lost Okie who used to sing in the oil-field bars around Bakersfield before he was murdered in one of them. I made some coffee & began writing this. I am still writing it, &, in a few minutes, I will begin turning away from it, getting up, getting ready to welcome the pain that flows into me whenever something is over, welcoming that hour when pain takes complete possession of me, that hour in which one tries to avert his face from everything as if Christ had walked in & sat down in one of the rickety chairs in the kitchen & taken off his hat, that still time when you realize that he doesn't exist, that he has never existed, & yet is sitting across from you now, as if he has all the time in the world.

And I will welcome the moments that come in the wake of this pain, when I go over it all again, reading the scrawl I've made on the these pages, checking it to make sure it has two wings like the wren that flew into Bell's Tavern & then out again, & not just one.  

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