Garnet is the 17 year old South Carolina high school student main character. Bill is her teacher. They are returning from a conference in DC. Garnet, during the preceding months fell in love, or something akin to that, with Robert E. Lee.
The Valiant sped across the Key Bridge into Virginia.
"Good ol' Dixie!" David Dale rolled down the window all the way and sniffed the air as if it should somehow smell better on this side of the Potomac.
We drove on in silence, the radio humming with static. The guys wanted to stop for lunch in Richmond but Bill met my eyes in the mirror and drove on, finally stopping further on in a little town that meant nothing to me.
I got out of the car and balanced on my crutches, face to the blue wall of the Blue Ridge that barricaded me from the Shenandoah. I was shut out. I was shut out because I no longer had the energy to will myself inside. But the mountains were real. They were real mountains, solid and massive and stone. And I was the victim of the physical world; I was somebody unspecial who could break my leg doing something ludicrous.
Bill helped me into the coffeeshop. "I wouldn't have flipped out just because we stopped in Richmond," I told him while the guys shopped for magazines at the news stand next door.
Bill put down his coffee cup and lit a cigarette. "How do you feel?"
"Perfectly sane, if that's what you mean. Gimme a cigarette."
He lit one for me. I asked the waitress for more coffee.
"Lee still gone?"
"I don't know. The mountains look so solid."
"You sound drugged and spaced-out again."
I took a slug of my coffee. "He's buried on the other side of those mountains yonder. They look so solid. It's a hard impression to overcome, their solidity. I should never have come up here and seen and touched. There's nothing to see and touch, except mountains and brass barricades at Arlington. I don't know what I'm gonna do with myself now, Bill."
"What did you do with yourself before all this happened?"
"Worried about my crappy leg."
"How many times are you going to need to stop at gas stations, drinking all that coffee?"
I leaned into the cushions in my booth seat and blew smoke into the chilled food-smelling air. "I'm numb. It's like I've had a shock treatment of something. I'll be too numb to pee."
He doodled in the spilled sugar on the formica table top. "You'll have to grieve some, you know, lady. You'll have to get it all out of your system. Before you can put all of this behind you."
There was a void inside me. "Put WHAT behind me? What was this thing? What have I been through?"
"You want me to classify it? To label it?"
I stared. "Yes. Call it a neurotic episode. The first of many, perhaps."
He looked troubled. "I can't do that, lady. If this was a movie . . . Oh, they'd give you a label: 'Garnet Laney was a psychic. A medium.' Or maybe, 'Garnet Laney was a reincarnation of somebody else.'"
"Or 'Garnet Laney' went a little gaga when she was seventeen years old.'"
"Maybe," he said. "But things don't always have neat little labels. I don't know what this was. We won't ever know for sure. Neither of us. Thank God it's ending, though. You couldn't have lived your life-"
"Yes I could. Yes. Yes."
"Now that's the craziest thing I've ever heard you say," he said severely.
I stubbed out my cigarette in an ashtray. "There is a lot of inspiration in loving from a distance. Look at Dante and Beatrice."
"Bullshit. That's crap. No one can live like that. If Lee were alive, would he want you to live like that? Would he, Garnet?"
I knew the answer immediately. "No."
"You are the damndest woman."
I drained my cup. Put it down. "Maybe this is the last crazy thing you'll every [sic] hear me say, Bill. Maybe this is the last crazy thought I'll ever have, but I only wish that I could have done something to help him. If part of me ever lived in the nineteenth century, I only hope that I helped him."
"This is nuts," he agreed while truck drivers swarmed in around us and put money into the juke box. "This is crazy."
"But he helped me, Bill. He's helped me turn a big corner in my life. And if I ever make something of myself, it'll be because he lived."
He laughed. Flicked sugar into my hair.
"Stoppit. You're not Southern. You haven't grown up with the inferiority complex that we grow up with. You haven't had the rest of the country always putting you down and telling you how dumb and benighted and stupid and racist you are."
"Okay. Lee wasn't dumb or benighted or racist. Do you know anything about immigrants, Garnet?" Do you know what it's like not being a WASP?"
"Well that's not the same thing! It's not cool to make ethnic jokes anymore about Polacks or Jews-"
"-or Armenians," he said.
"I've never heard any Armenian jokes. Hush! I'm trying to make a point! People who tell mean ethnic jokes about immigrants are not cool. But nobody minds if someone wants to poke fun at a redneck. Rednecks aren't supposed to mind. They're supposed to just laugh along and say, 'Aw, shucks!' Well dammit, I'm not laughing along anymore. I'm sorry if you and Eva What's-her'face find it morally wrong for me to be proud of my traitor slaveholding ancestors, Bill. But they are all the ancestors I've got, and I love them, even if I don't love what they stood for.
"So you can keep grant and Sherman and all the rest. And put up a statue of Robert E. Lee in the National Capitol Building, if you want. Write about him as the most innovative military mind in American history and speak of his influence upon Doug MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower all you want to, as if the line was unbroken from American general to American general. Try to co-opt him now, if you want to. You can't. The line has been broken. Y'all did it. You wouldn't claim him after the war. Fine. He's ours, ours alone, forever and ever, by mutual choice. We chose him and he chose us. We were worth choosing. SO the rest of you will just have to make do with Sherman and Grant and the rest of the second-raters. We haven't had any U.S. Presidents until Johnson. We're used to being a joke. The poorest. The baddest. And we are bad. Yes, we're bad. But we've got Robert E. Lee, and you can't have him."