Two Hundred Years Ago
The bundle in his throat was not an unfamiliar visitor. The lump always came in February. It especially made itself known on his birthday. It wasn’t easy being born on February 12, the son of two beaming parents who had attended a university named after Abraham Lincoln. With parents so devoted to their alma mater, they thought it would be honorable to name their son Lincoln. Every single one of his birthdays was overshadowed by the father of his past.
It wasn’t necessarily his parents’ fault or even Abraham Lincoln’s fault that Lincoln Cartwright was prone to anxiety attacks in the month of February. It was his fault, he always thought, for wanting to receive so much attention and appreciation from his peers. Fortunately, at the age of twenty-nine, he had a modest position in a firm way up in Chicago, so far away from the mountains and well water he had always known, that provided him with adequate insurance to ease the costs of the most patient psychiatrists and the anxiety medication they prescribed to him. As he turned off exit 84 towards Lexington and Louisville, he reminded himself of the reason for going to his alma mater. That night, Cartwright would be a bigger name than Lincoln.
Cartwright was pressured into attending the same university as his parents. They were first-generation college students, and how they were proud! Before them, it wasn’t encouraged for “their kind” to get an education. Cartwright’s father was expected to stay home and help out with the farm. Cartwright’s mother was expected to help her grandmother take care of her younger siblings while her father went to the coal mine in Hyden, Kentucky. In school, they picked up terms like Appalachian and agrarian to describe their lifestyles. Cartwright’s father worked on a local farm to pay for his education, and his mother sold poems to magazines to cover her debts. When the two finally met and fell in love close to graduation, they had picked up terms like hunger and diligence.
Cartwright would have resembled the south end of a north bound donkey if he told his parents he wasn’t interested in earning a college diploma at the university that allowed poor, low-class people like his parents to finally receive an education. He went to school, earned moderate grades, joined several clubs, and enjoyed the attention of a select few ladies from cities he had only read about in geography. Several years later, the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln landed on a Thursday. Several of his college buddies planned a weekend-long reunion that would consist of basketball games, alcohol, and stories that only they knew. Cartwright’s birthday would be ignored once more. That night, Cartwright decided to be a larger figure than Lincoln.
His campus had changed a great deal over the last six years. Trees had been lost to progress, and buildings had been erected that were once just dreams of an elite few people that did not fear disappointment. The sun breathed warm air into the clear sky that day, but the green grass and colorful leaves impressed into his memory would not wake up for months to come.
Lincoln remained the same. He stared down at every person who entered the school he guarded. Cartwright felt the pressure from the stone gaze as their eyes met, and he popped a Xanax into his mouth. That night, Cartwright would stand taller than Lincoln.
Photograph by Jackie Walker
No wishes of good health reached Cartwright’s ears in the motel room that night. His friends barely recognized his face. They had all brought their wives or girlfriends, and they shared stories about how they met or got into fights over their loved ones. Much alcohol had been consumed that night by most of the people in the room, and every yarn spun was funnier than the last tale that was woven.
Cartwright drank a Xanax with his beer and wondered how he was even invited. He knew he would later regret mixing his medication and beverages together, and the fuzzy thought made him want to consume another one. The lump in his throat distracted him. How he desperately wanted to swallow all of his incoming tears, leap onto a chair, and prove he was worth being remembered! He was determined to become as famous as Lincoln - if not more famous.
He formulated a speech in his mind, mouthing every word to make sure he could pronounce it. John Walter’s account of the time he got chased by skunks in the woods while he was trying to find his way back to the dorm after an outrageous party that involved the president of the university threatening to call the police generated a round of laughter that buzzed in Cartwright’s ears. He found a chair and climbed up on it, waiting for everyone to notice him. It was almost midnight, and it would no longer be his birthday very soon. His speech would go to waste. He slipped another Xanax down his throat with some difficulty, and the coughing fit that came from it summoned everyone’s eyes to him.
“I have a speech to make,” he said with all the poise he could muster. “A toast, if you will, to celebrate our being here in this little motel room in Middlesboro.” The men raised their beers with great expectations, and some of the more sober women wrinkled their brows with concern.
“On this day, two hundred years ago, Abraham Lincoln was born–”
“Two hundred years ago, nobody cared about Lincoln!” shouted one of the men. The group erupted into snickers and chuckles. Cartwright was too busy replaying the outburst in his mind to notice who interrupted him. His lips curled upward with relief for the first time in his life, as if a much needed message was finally delivered to him. He bowed to his audience who no longer was paying attention to him and graciously stepped down from the chair. –e-