- A Long Shot
I’m going to tell you this story second-hand. Or maybe it’s third-hand. It’s hard to say. And the details, the veracity? Well, who knows? Details get changed: times, dates, faces. We don’t know the world—we only know stories about the world.
He was the oldest man I’d ever met. His name was Reuben Carew. He had been a journalist, like me, but was now waiting out his time on a porch in small-town America, goading the weather, swatting mosquitoes, watching the days creep by. He was bony all over. His spidery hands were green-veined, the knuckles knobbed and mottled, resting on the arms of his straight-backed wooden chair. His grey eyes were veiled with a smear of water and there were traces of red in the pouchy underhang of his eye bags. Besides these blemishes, he was white, almost translucent in the way that only the very old can be. He wore a frayed blue shirt, just a little dirty around the collar, and black cotton trousers from which the shape of his knees protruded.
“Let me get this straight. You interviewed her in 1936.”
“I told you I did. I told you that already. You’re a writer? Then write it down.”
“I did. I just need to confirm.”
“Confirm? 1936. I’ve said it three times now. Why didn’t you bring a cassette recorder?”
“Because I’m old fashioned,” I said. “I prefer to make notes. 1936. For the Federal Writers’ Project.”
“For the Federal Writers’ Project. Are we going to do this all over again? I interviewed her in 1936 for the Federal Writers’ Project. She was one hundred and twenty-one years old.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry. It’s been a long journey.”
“You think you had a long journey? I’m ninety-eight years old. I had a long journey.”
“I know, Mr. Carew. Let’s continue. What do you remember about her?”
“Her name was Mary Courtney. Of course that wasn’t her real name. That was her slave name, given to her by the master or mistress of the house. She said she was born in 1815. She worked in the cotton fields for Mr. Darius Courtney, a wealthy landowner in what is now Texas. He was fair but tough. He once beat a slave to death after the slave tried to run away for a third time.”
You call that fair, I thought to myself. Maybe around here.
“And Mary Courtney told you her age?”
“Yes, she did.”
“And you believed her?”
“Of course not. Someone tells you they’re a hundred and twenty-one years old, the first thing you think is they’re lying. Or guessing. The records were scarce. And scarcer for slaves.”
“But you eventually came to believe her?”
“Yes, I did.”
“How come?” [End Page 199]
“Because I was a journalist. I investigated. I went to the county records and I matched up everything she said.”
Carew shifted a little in his seat. A crow flew by. The old man wasn’t looking at me now. His watery eyes were fixed on the past, trying to dredge up something.
“Darius Courtney owned a lot of land so there were records. Births and deaths, even transactions with his neighbors. And she remembered when he died. She said she was about forty when it happened. I go to the records. Sure enough, Darius Courtney dropped dead in 1855. So she wasn’t about forty. She was forty. But even before that, she tells me she remembers a lot of rain.”
“Floods. When she was eighteen. She tells me she carried her newborn up on her head, keep him safe. I go to the weather records. It’s a farming area, see. There are records since before 1800. Sure enough, in 1833 there’s a flood that lasts all winter. Destroys the roads so the traders can’t move the goods. Bankrupts half the farmers. You see, she’s not even approximately right. She gets the exact year.”
“And did this make you suspicious?”
“Suspicious? You think an old...