Standing in the shelter of the tent -- a rejected hospital tent on which the rain now dripped , no longer drumming -- Adam watched his own hands touch the objects on the improvised counter of boards laid across two beer barrels .
There was , of course , no real need to rearrange everything .
A quarter inch this way or that for the hardbake , or the toffee , or the barley sugar , or the sardines , or the bitters , or the condensed milk , or the stationery , or the needles -- what could it mean ? ?
Adam watched his own hands make the caressing , anxious movement that , when rain falls and nobody comes , and ruin draws close like a cat rubbing against the ankles , has been the ritual of stall vendors , forever .
He recognized the gesture .
He knew its meaning .
He had seen a dry , old , yellowing hand reach out , with that painful solicitude , to touch , to rearrange , to shift aimlessly , some object worth a pfennig .
Back in Bavaria he had seen that gesture , and at that sight his heart had always died within him .
On such occasions he had not had the courage to look at the face above the hand , whatever face it might be .
Now the face was his own .
He wondered what expression , as he made that gesture , was on his face .
He wondered if it wore the old anxiety , or the old , taut stoicism .
But there was no need , he remembered , for his hand to reach out , for his face to show concern or stoicism .
It was nothing to him if rain fell and nobody came .
Then why was he assuming the role -- the gesture and the suffering ? ?
What was he expiating ? ?
Or was he now taking the role -- the gesture and the suffering -- because it was the only way to affirm his history and identity in the torpid , befogged loneliness of this land .
This was Virginia .
He looked out of the tent at the company street .
The rain dripped on the freezing loblolly of the street .
Beyond that misty gray of the rain , he saw the stretching hutment , low diminutive log cabins , chinked with mud , with doorways a man would have to crouch to get through , with roofs of tenting laid over boughs or boards from hardtack boxes , or fence rails , with cranky chimneys of sticks and dried mud .
The chimney of the hut across from him was surmounted by a beef barrel with ends knocked out .
In this heavy air , however , that device did not seem to help .
The smoke from that chimney rose as sluggishly as smoke from any other , and hung as sadly in the drizzle , creeping back down along the sopping canvas of the roof .
Over the door was a board with large , inept lettering : home sweet home .
This was the hut of Simms Purdew , the hero .
The men were huddled in those lairs .
Adam knew the names of some .
He knew the faces of all , hairy or shaven , old or young , fat or thin , suffering or hardened , sad or gay , good or bad .
When they stood about his tent , chaffing each other , exchanging their obscenities , cursing command or weather , he had studied their faces .
He had had the need to understand what life lurked behind the mask of flesh , behind the oath , the banter , the sadness .
Once covertly looking at Simms Purdew , the only man in the world whom he hated , he had seen the heavy , slack , bestubbled jaw open and close to emit the cruel , obscene banter , and had seen the pale-blue eyes go watery with whisky and merriment , and suddenly he was not seeing the face of that vile creature .
He was seeing , somehow , the face of a young boy , the boy Simms Purdew must once have been , a boy with sorrel hair , and blue eyes dancing with gaiety , and the boy mouth grinning trustfully among the freckles .
In that moment of vision Adam heard the voice within himself saying : I must not hate him , I must not hate him or I shall die .
His heart suddenly opened to joy .
He thought that if once , only once , he could talk with Simms Purdew , something about his own life , and all life , would be clear and simple .
If Simms Purdew would turn to him and say : `` Adam , you know when I was a boy , it was a funny thing happened .
Lemme tell you now '' --
If only Simms Purdew could do that , whatever the thing he remembered and told .
It would be a sign for the untellable , and he , Adam , would understand .
Now , Adam , in the gray light of afternoon , stared across at the hut opposite his tent , and thought of Simms Purdew lying in there in the gloom , snoring on his bunk , with the fumes of whisky choking the air .
He saw the sign above the door of the hut : home sweet home .
He saw the figure of a man in a poncho coming up the company street , with an armful of wood .
It was Pullen James , the campmate of Simms Purdew .
He carried the wood , carried the water , did the cooking , cleaning and mending , and occasionally got a kick in the butt for his pains .
Adam watched the moisture flow from the poncho .
It gave the rubberized fabric a dull gleam , like metal .
Pullen James humbly lowered his head , pushed aside the hardtack-box door of the hut , and was gone from sight .
Adam stared at the door and remembered that Simms Purdew had been awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry at Antietam .
The street was again empty .
The drizzle was slacking off now , but the light was grayer .
With enormous interest , Adam watched his hands as they touched and shifted the objects on the board directly before him .
Into the emptiness of the street , and his spirit , moved a form .
The form was swathed in an army blanket , much patched , fastened at the neck with a cord .
From under the shapeless huddle of blanket the feet moved in the mud .
The feet wore army shoes , in obvious disrepair .
The head was wrapped in a turban and on top of the turban rode a great hamper across which a piece of poncho had been flung .
The gray face stared straight ahead in the drizzle .
Moisture ran down the cheeks , gathered at the tip of the nose , and at the chin .
The figure was close enough now for him to see the nose twitching to dislodge the drop clinging there .
The figure stopped and one hand was perilously freed from the hamper to scratch the nose .
Then the figure moved on .
This was one of the Irish women who had built their own huts down near the river .
They did washing .
Adam recognized this one .
He recognized her because she was the one who , in a winter twilight , on the edge of camp , had once stopped him and reached down her hand to touch his fly .
`` Slice o' mutton , bhoy '' ? ?
She had queried in her soft guttural .
`` Slice o' mutton '' ? ?
Her name was Mollie .
They called her Mollie the Mutton , and laughed .
Looking down the street after her , Adam saw that she had again stopped and again removed one hand from the basket .
He could not make out , but he knew that again she was scratching her nose .
Mollie the Mutton was scratching her nose .
The words ran crazily in his head : Mollie the Mutton is scratching her nose in the rain .
Then the words fell into a pattern : `` Mollie the Mutton is scratching her nose , Scratching her nose in the rain .
Mollie the Mutton is scratching her nose in the rain '' .
The pattern would not stop .
It came again and again .
He felt trapped in that pattern , in the repetition .
Suddenly he thought he might weep .
`` What's the matter with me '' ? ?
He demanded out loud .
He looked wildly around , at the now empty street , at the mud , at the rain .
`` Oh , what's the matter with me '' ? ?
He demanded .
When he had stored his stock in the great oak chest , locked the two big hasps and secured the additional chain , tied the fly of the tent , and picked up the cash box , he moved up the darkening street .
He would consign the cash box into the hands of Jed Hawksworth , then stand by while his employer checked the contents and the list of items sold .
Then he --
Then what ? ?
He did not know .
His mind closed on that prospect , as though fog had descended to blot out a valley .
Far off , in the dusk , he heard voices singing , muffled but strong .
In one of the huts a group of men were huddled together , singing .
He stopped .
He strained to hear .
He heard the words : `` Rock of Ages , cleft for me , Let me hide myself in Thee ! !
Let the water and the blood From Thy riven side flow ! !
He thought : I am a Jew from Bavaria .
He was standing there , he thought , in Virginia , in the thickening dusk , in a costly greatcoat that had belonged to another Jew .
That other Jew , a young man too , had left that greatcoat behind , in a rich house , and marched away .
He had crossed the river which now , beyond the woods yonder , was sliding darkly under the mist .
He had plunged into the dark woods beyond .
He had died there .
What had that man , that other young Jew , felt as he stood in the twilight and heard other men , far away , singing together ? ?
Adam thought of the hutments , regiment after regiment , row after row , the thousands of huts , stretching away into the night .
He thought of the men , the nameless thousands , huddling in them .
He thought of Simms Purdew snoring on his bunk while Pullen James crouched by the hearth , skirmishing an undershirt for lice , and a wet log sizzled .
He thought of Simms Purdew , who once had risen at the edge of a cornfield , a maniacal scream on his lips , and swung a clubbed musket like a flail to beat down the swirl of Rebel bayonets about him .
He thought of Simms Purdew rising up , fearless in glory .
He felt the sweetness of pity flood through him , veining his very flesh .
Those men , lying in the huts , they did not know .
They did not know who they were or know their own worth .
In the pity for them his loneliness was gone .
Then he thought of Aaron Blaustein standing in his rich house saying : `` God is tired of taking the blame .
He is going to let History take the blame for a while '' .
He thought of the old man laughing under the glitter of the great chandelier .
He thought : Only in my heart can I make the world hang together .
Adam rose from the crouch necessary to enter the hut .
He saw Mose squatting by the hearth , breaking up hardtack into a pan .
A pot was boiling on the coals .
`` Gonna give Ole Buckra all his money '' ? ?
Mose asked softly .
Adam nodded .
`` Yeah '' , Mose murmured , `` yeah .
And look what he done give us '' .
Adam looked at the pot .
`` What is it '' ? ?
He asked .
`` Chicken '' , Mose said , and theatrically licked his lips .
`` Gre't big fat chicken , yeah '' .
He licked his lips again .
Then : `` yeah .
A chicken with six tits and a tail lak a corkscrew .
And it squealed for slop '' .
Mose giggled .
`` Fooled you , huh ? ?
It is the same ole same , tell me its name .
It is sowbelly with tits on .
It is salt po'k .
It is salt po'k and skippers .
That po'k , it was so full of skippers it would jump and run and not come when you say , hoo-pig .
Had to put my foot on it to hole it down while I cut it up fer the lob-scuse '' .
He dumped the pan of crumbled hardtack into the boiling pot of lobscouse .
`` Good ole lob-scuse '' , he mumbled , and stirred the pot .
He stopped stirring and looked over his shoulder .
`` Know what Ole Buckra et tonight '' ? ?
He demanded .
`` Know what I had to fix fer Ole Him '' ? ?
Adam shook his head .
`` Chicken '' , Mose said .