Telling our Stories, Again and Again

Daniel Taylor, who is himself a masterful storyteller, says that a “master story” is a story that defines who we are.  It’s something post-moderns would call a meta-narrative, that is, a “big story.”  

For the Jewish people, the master story was the Exodus.  To read the Old Testament is to hear constant remembrance of that defining story, of their rescue out of bondage, out of exile, by Yahweh.  There are other defining stories, such as the Babylonian exile, but even there the stories echo back to the one defining story, the Exodus.

For Christians, the master story is the Resurection, the story of the God-man who died for His people to deliver them from bondage to sin, and rose again, giving the promise of new life, of a second and lasting chance.  Come to think of it, even that story is a fulfillment of the incomplete deliverance of the Exodus, a perfect passage through a Red Sea of failure and suffering to a Promised Land of restoration, a lasting City.  

And then, we each have our own little master story that defines who we are.  An elderly friend of mine who is likely in the first stages of dementia, always speaks of his time as a missionary in the Fifties and Sixties.  No matter what the topic, no matter what the question, no matter how one might try and redirect the conversation away from a well-worn path to save our ears, all paths lead back to that era.  The story defines him.  Ultimately, even there, at the heart of his story, he hearkens back to the one story, the Resurrection, because in the end, his little story is bound up in what Christ has done for him.  He died for him, rose for him, and called him.  

If I need to hear the Resurrection story repeated again and again (and I do), then I need to hear my friend's story again and again and again.  By God’s grace I will listen to them both and find my own.  They will tell me how to live.  They will direct my path.

Changing the Weather

Cover_May2013_120-04-15-2013-101005There are chilly winds blowing in the world.  And yet we have a way of selectively reading reality, filtering out or minimizing the things we don't want to think about, turning up our collar to a frigid truth if we venture out, warming ourselves by the glow of hearth and home.  But sometimes reality gushes in, and we realize that indeed a hard rain is falling.

Two recent articles in First Things changed the normally sunny weather I travel in.  In one by Wesley J. Smith, entitled "Medicinal Murder," the author documents the steady expansion of euthanasia in Europe.  As case in point, he cites Belgium, where suicides are termed by many in the medical community as a "beautiful death," not merely suicides of terminally ill persons but even of those who, because of depression or lack of will to live, are ready to end it all.  Furthermore, he documents the ungodly linkage of euthanasia with organ harvesting.  Society now benefits from mercy killings.  And when there are legal violations of euthanasia laws, enforcement is lax or nonexistent.  Thus, a cultural shift has ocurred where death is celebrated as one more benefit of human autonomy: you can choose when to die, and society and the medical profession will help you and even profit from your death.  Smith notes that once euthanasia is legalized, the categories of people eligible for it expand, but the rest of society ceases to think it matters.  He believes this trend is symptomatic of cultural nihilism.

Perhaps you know this.  Perhaps the essay only confirms what we already know.  But it is worth reading for the last paragraph, where Smith offers the antidote:

What is the antidote?  Love.  We all age.  We fall ill.  We grow weak.  We become disabled.  Life can get very hard.  Euthanasia raises the fundamental question of whether our culture will retain the moral capacity to sustain a culture of care for those who have entered life's most difficult stages.  On that question, it seems to me, hangs the moral future of Western civilization.  For as the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne has cogently warned: "A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death.  A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.

So that's it?  Love?  Not taking to the courts, mounting advocacy for life, passing laws to protect the elderly and infirm?  Just love?

In that same issue of First Things, in an article entitled "Lena Dunhams's Inviolable Self," Alan Jacobs contrasts the moral world of Jane Austen and the apparently amoral world of Girls, an HBO series in its first season.  He describes a sexual fantasy that one of the main characters, Adam, has about his rape of an 11-year old heroin addict.  As shocking as this is, what Jacobs focuses on is even more shocking: In all the reviews of the show none of the journalists admit to the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to Adam's reverie.  And apparently fans have no problem with all this either.  They continue to watch.  This is in contrast to the moral world of Jane Austen, where there are categories of right and wrong and we all know what they are.

Once again, however, the antidote to this amorality is not, Jacobs says, to meet it head on.  He concludes: "To someone who thinks Adam's fantasies are unproblematic, or even commendable, there is nothing for me to say.  I confront a linguistically unbridgeable gap; I confront incommensurability." In other words, these two worlds do not connect.  As I said to someone I was having a heated discussion with many years ago, we have lost the ability to communicate, at least propositionally, as we do not share the same understanding of the world and, in a sense, the same language.  We talk past each other.

So what do we do?  Jacobs says that what we need "is not condemnation. . . but better art and better stories --- better fictional worlds. . . . [N]ot the abolition of mythic sandboxes but the making of sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths."  Rather than simply condemning the fictive world of Girls, we can write and film truer stories that capture the imagination, that give viewers or readers a vision of a different reality.  Rather than shows about the "beautiful death" of assisted suicide, we offer up excellent stories of the reverberating compassion and love that might surround the disabled or aged, stories that help people imagine that compassion grows in the face of suffering, in standing with the dying, not in ending their lives.

We may reach some people by arguing propositional truth.  But in this time we may reach more by telling better stories, by opening a portal to the True Truth at the heart of Reality.  In a culture that no longer speaks our language, our venue for persuasion has shifted.

A decade ago I was standing at the back of the Acoustic Stage at the Cornerstone Music Festival when a muddied grunge-rock fan ambled up.  He stood gaping at what he heard.  "This is beautiful, man, just beautiful.  What is it?"  The acoustic, story-driven songs resonated with him.  All he had heard was the loud and gutteral screaming of the bands playing in the tent next door.  He was mesmerized by the different reality of the Acoustic Stage.  And as a result, I was able to tell him what he was hearing.

"Art," Picasso said, "is the lie that tells the truth." "Tell it slant," said Emily Dickenson.  Christians, get busy lying.  And get busy loving.  That's the antidote for a culture gone wrong.  That just might change the weather.




Puck's Life

As Puck lay in the sunlight, it wasn't clear if he was wave or particle, but light he was, a prayer recumbent, one paw raised in praise.  In repose, Puck pondered the propinquities of place and purpose, the verisimilitudes of life, before rolling over on his back, purring, consciousness fleeing before the song of sleep.

When Puck dreamed it was not of cat and mouse. In his dream he soared over treetops, fields falling away, a puzzled owl glimpsing his shadow in moon glow. Smoke curled from chimneys, tickling his nose, so he rose higher still, the rooftops receding into a patchwork of winking lights, of windows and streetlights and car lights that snaked across the surface of an orb whose horizon fell away.

It was good.  It was very good, he thought.  A purr of delight bubbled up from deep within.  A little lower than the angels, He had said.  His domain.  Prowl over it, and keep it, He said.  He blinked at the gift of it, the sheer delight of a world to love and shape and watch become what it could and would, malleable and magic.  He rolled onto his back, perfectly maneuvering himself, held by air, by Bernoulli's principle, by an invisible ordinance of a world made for him and his.  With one paw he held a star, turned it off, and on, and off again.

When he awoke, his mouth was dry.  He had been sleeping on his back, paws outstretched, there in all his glory.  Alone.  Lying still he felt the hum of human habitation, knew that the boy was in the house.  Opening his eyes half-way, he was startled to see an over-sized child-face hunched over him, staring into his eyes, silently watching, moving away quietly as if not to wake him.

Puck stretched and rolled to his side, dropped his head to the carpet again, a sigh at the delight of life as himself, as a cat, as one a little lower than the angels.  He wondered just how much lower that was at times, wondered how He had come to such a grand design for the universe.  But then he recalled their exodus, their deliverance, their provision, their service, the great intelligent love that dreamed it all up, that gave him purpose, and once more contentment took root in his soul.

Puck pondered the pluriform nature of reality: human, mouse, cat, tree, water, fire.  What imagination lay behind such creativity, what humor even.

He didn't mind the name they gave him.  Puck.  Sometimes, the Puckster.  It was all he recognized of their language, if language it was.  After all, his real name was unintelligible, unpronounceable, un-writable to humans.  He would answer to Puck.  When he felt like it, that is.  Like the earnest prayer, not all calls to cats were answered; he was not at their beck and call.

He could neither understand their scribblings nor their mutterings nor excited yelps.  Nor the rumblings that erupted when their faces contorted, their mouths uptuned.  Nor the racking of their bodies on odd occasion, water sprinkling from their eyes or rolling down their faces.  But he could read their faces, see what seemed to be joy, sadness, mirth, malice, or even curiosity --- the latter even causing him to smile, inside at least, as he recalled that ancient saying that "Curiosity killed the cat," and he saw his mother's face as she licked him clean, him just finding his way in he world --- a good-natured if tongue-in-cheek warning that hovered in his mind, only to be ignored.

Sometimes, like when the boy looked into his eyes, held his ostensibly indifferent gaze, he thought he saw a flash of intelligence, but then chastised himself for a naive sentimentalism, for projecting feline characteristics onto a dumb humanity.  He meant no disrespect to the lesser creatures.  It was their station in life.

But Puck was given to such imaginings.  Sometimes, wandering through his wood, he brushed against the trees, the maples and pines and sweet gums and oaks, and he thought he heard a whisper of life there, something deep within calling to him.  But no.  No.  Trees were only trees.  They stood, they swayed, they inched upward, sun-bound, but they had no thoughts, knew not their Creator.  But was it not said that at times of joy on earth they clapped their hands, danced, even sang?  He had not heard it.  He had not seen it.  Not yet.

He sat  up.  In the sunlight particles of dust swirled like atoms in flight.  Puck captured one speck in his gaze, held it as long as he could, followed it round and round until it darted off the edge of the sunbeam, lost.

That he had a mind for theology had been evident since childhood.  The questions, the questions, his father said.  Once he set off to look for the City of Light, the hope of all cats, only to turn back when he reached a great river (a mere gully he later found out).  The questions, they said, the questions.

Even now he pondered the mystery of providence, the confluence of feline responsibility and the sovereignty of the Great Cat.  Should he find the boy?  Should he watch the birds from the window?  Did he have any real choice?  If the Great Cat preordained all things, in what sense could he be said to be free?  The warmth of the sun on his gray fur overcame his questions, lulled him back to contentment with the world.  Oh, the questions.

The boy's mother floated through the house, it seemed, the boy clinging to her skirts.  But there was no father, at least not since Puck had come, only the lingering smell of his absence.  Puck had covered the house, sniffing everything, and he knew that while the man was not spoken of, he had been there, traces lingering, the smell of loss.  But the mother, she was the smell of hope.  Sometimes, Puck brushed against hope,  and she reached down and stroked his back, made cooing noises at him, and he found himself, inexplicably, annoyingly, purring.  He was glad for his life.  It was good, very good.





The Christmas Gift (A Story)

When Scott and Buddy delivered our new washer and dryer, they pulled their white delivery truck right up to the tippy top of our driveway and stopped, front wheels perched over the grassy sideyard.  Watching from the window, I noticed neither of them got out of the cab.  They sat there.  A little gas or oil dripped from the underside of the truck, making a sheen on the concrete, and I was momentarily distracted by the thought of a fiery ball of flame as the truck blew, ignited by a spark.  Someone was smoking inside, but it was too hazy to see.

I opened the door and stepped out on the porch.  "Hey, come on in." I waved.  I walked about halfway to the cab on the truck.  "You can come on in."

The window cracked just a sliver, about a tongue's breadth, and Scott said "Is that yor dog?"  He pointed toward the backyard where my German Shepherd, Jake, stood, fully extended, paws casually draped over the fence, tongue out, face lit up.

"Yeah.  She's harmless.  She likes people."

Buddy leaned forward.  "Do he bite?"  His eyes were wide.

"Nah, he don't bite"  I had lapsed into the vernacular.  "I mean, she won't bite you.  Might lick you, but she won't bite.'" 

Scott and Buddy sat there.  Smoke curled from the cracked window.

"He got teeth, don't he?," said Buddy.  Jake was smiling at Scott and Buddy, quivering with excitement.  She let out a welp of impatience.

"Put yor dog up or we ain't getting out."  Scott cranked the window up.  They sat there. The substance continued to drip from the truck, pooling on the driveway.  The motor ticked like motors tick when they're settling into a new place.

"Really, she's OK.  Don't worry about her."  I said "don't worry about her," raising my voice a tad.  The window creaked open.

"Ain't coming.  Put the dog up."

"Hang on."  I walked around the truck and went over to Jake, who by this time was trying to crawl over the fence, barking and pawing at the wood fence boards.

"Jake!  Jake!  Calm down, girl, calm down." She plopped down.  I unlatched the gate, grabbed her by the collar, picked up some rope I kept by the gate for times like this. I dragged her over to a small maple tree in the center of the back yard.  She tugged at the rope.  Resolute, stiffened paws dug into the soft earth where the grass had given up due to Jake's constant treading.

"Don't look back there, Jake.  You can't play with them.  Sit down.  Behave yourself." I gave her a bone to play with.  She didn't sit.  Didn't want the bone.  She strained at the rope and whimpered. I walked back to the gate, latched it, and went up to the window where Scott sat.  The widow creaked down, this time wider.

"He gone?"

"Yeah, I tied her up.  You guys come on out.  Don't worry about Jake."

The door opened and a hulking man dropped from the cab to the driveway.  "I'm Scott," he said, "and that there's Billy." Billy came around the back of the truck at that point.  It looked like he weighed about 275, broad shouldered with a stomach wrapped in a white t-shirt lapping over green army dungarees secured by a rope belt.  I'd never seen a rope used for a belt and mused on why anyone would do such a thing until he spoke.

"Billy," he said.  He extended his hand. 

I was amused by the sight of lanky Scott and sumo-wrestler Billy, but I snapped out of it quickly.

"I'm glad you guys showed up so soon. I need you to get the washer and dryer in the house and hooked up before my wife returns.  It's her Christmas present.  I want to surprise her."

Billy popped the latch on the trailer and the door rolled up with snap.  A blast of air rolled out that smelled like oil and cardboard and pizza. . . pizza? I sniffed.

"Yeah, sorry, Billy and I had a little lunch before we came."

"Hey, no problem."

"Scott, I can't tote that washer."

"Get the hand truck, stupid. . . . oh, sorry Mr. . . Mr. Woglenaut. Woglenaut?"

"German.  Polish.  Something, I don't know.  Just call me Rob."

"Mr. Rob, where we headin' with this thing?"

"Right in the front door."

Scott unlatched and extended the ramp from the back of the trailer.  Billy lumbered up the ramp and bent over.  I looked away, suddenly very interested in the gutters on my house.

"Jeez, Billy, get some suspenders, will ya?," Scott said.  "You can see China from here."  Scott hacked and spit on the driveway.  On my driveway.  I turned around and noted that Billy had repositioned himself, now had the hand truck belt wrapped around the washer.  He began to back it down the ramp, as Scott watched.  Maybe it was my imagination, but the ramp seemed to buckle a bit, straining under the weight.  Once down, he dragged it toward the front door.

"Hang on, let me get the door."  I ran around Billy, up the front steps, and opened the door.  By this time, Scott was pulling on the handles of the hand truck, backing up the steps, while Billy pushed.  I heard a sound from the back door.  Jake!   I went to the back door.  Jake had broken the rope, was scratching at the back door window, barking and throwing himself against the door.  I opened the door, intent on grabbing his collar and then retying him to the tree before Scott or Billy noticed.

But Jake would have none of it.  He bounded through the door, knocked me to the floor, and ran toward the front door where Scott was just cresting the top step.  On the way, what was left of his chain caught on the carefully-decorated Christmas tree we had set in the den.  Down when the tree!  Ornaments burst and rolled across the floor.  It all excited Jake.  He kept going, making a beeline for the front door.

Just then, Scott looked around.  "What the. . .?"  He dropped the washer.  Billy rolled to the side, his fall cushioned by a bed of pine straw.  The washer thudded down the steps, began rolling down the hill towards the street.  Pulling the entire Christmas tree, the stand screeching across our hardwood floor, Jake ran out the front door, leaped from the front step, and was caught in mid-air by the tree --- which had lodged in the front door.  He  fell back.

Scott was in the cab of the truck.  The window cracked.  "Hey, Billy, get in here."  Billy sloshed toward the truck, Jake barking  and straining at the leash, bound by the tree.

"Hey, come on back, you guys.  I'll put Jake up."

The truck fired.  Scott backed it down the driveway, narrowly missing the fire hydrant at the street.  Jake continued to bark.  Blocked by the tree, I went around to the side door.  By the time I opened it, the truck was gone.  The washer had rolled down the hill, still on the hand-truck, lodged in some azaleas in the natural area.  I walked over to where the truck had been parked.  A greasy spot remained.  I looked up just in time to see my wife's car pull into our driveway.



Christmas Eve With Glen Campbell (A Little Story)

When you have to do it, you just have to. Don't make no difference what anyone says. Just is.  That's what I kept telling myself, at least.  Simple as that.  After all, I got me a cat and two dogs and a critter ain't got no tail. That's my pig.  He's a good one.  Likes TV, like Arnold.  Remember Arnold?  With the likes of these, who needs a woman?

I's setting watching TV the other night, wraslin' it was, cause I like a good wraslin' match I do, and my boy --- the one ain't got no sense --- come in asking after her.  I told him she ain't here.  She took off.  Skipped town with all the cash I had on me and my pistol as well.  Can't figure it. What kind of woman would do that, just run off like that what with a kid to raise up? Just drove off.  Left me in the dust.  I cursed at her, though I know I shouldn't a done like that what with the boy looking on and all, but it got all over me.  I think she's touched, got a screw loose.  Took to hoarding paper bags and saving pieces of fabric and anything else she could get her hands on.

My pig's name is Glen Campbell, seeing as he likes to watch that show with me and all.  Sits right up on the settee and listens.  Stands up when Glen sings and plays and sits down when he don't.  Smart pig, that Glen Campbell.

Smarter'n that woman left here.

He asked where his Momma was and I told him don't bother with that, told him she'd be back d'reckly.  Glen Campbell snorted at that.  Got down off the settee and went round and round in circles on the floor, snorting'. I told him to stop disrespecting me like that, calling me a liar and all.  But he didn't mind me.  The boy watched him, rolled a little Matchbox car back and forth on the top of the settee, eyes looking down at the pig.

I told him go on back to his room, make himself busy.   He did.  The old trailer creaked as he ran down the hall.  I sipped on my beer, poured some in Glen Campbell's dish.  He lapped it up.  That pig is no teetotaler, that's for sure.  But I'm careful, as nothing's worse than a lit pig.  One time Glen Campbell had two beers, one time when I lost count, and he commenced to charging at the TV set every time the commercials came on.  But at least he had the good sense to wait until the commercials.

My dogs won't touch the stuff.  Can't hold the liquor, I guess.  Just as well.  Them hounds are stoked enough anyhow.

The cat used to drink Thunderbird wine.  Got religion and gave it up though.  One day we's watching Jimmy Swaggert me and the cat, and Preacher Jimmy gets all agitated talking 'bout the baptism of the Holy Spirit and all, and all of a sudden the cat jumps off the settee and kneels with his paws together and commenced to praying right there on the floor, after which he springs up in the air like something scared it and begins rolling about all over the floor.  No kidding.

That cat never drank again.  Became downright sissy, even let the dogs lick it and never raised a paw to scratch 'em.  For a day even I considered giving up the drink.  Instead I gave up watching Jimmy Swaggert.

I said get back in your room, boy!  I told him not to come out here.  Where's that woman, anyway?  Where's that woman when you need her?  What am I gonna do about the boy, anyway?

He's got 'em in a headlock, dragging him all over the ring.  Glen Campbell is all excited, running around the settee, squealing.  I love wrastling!

She said I was nothing but a drunk, and I said she was nothing but a no good hussie, and she told me to go to "h-e-double-hockey-sticks" and I told her the same.  I should'a cut her loose a long time ago.

That boy's got her eyes.

Big Dave's got him pinned.

The dogs commenced to barking.

When the door opened I knew it was her.  I knew she'd be back.  I knew she wouldn't leave me.

"I got us a Christmas tree, Jess.  You gonna help me get it in?  Or you gonna sit there?"

I'm gonna help her.  "Boy, come out here, your Momma's home."  I'm gonna help her.  For some reason, my eyes began to water.  I wiped them with the back of my hand.  Glen Campbell sighed.  I'm gonna help her.  It's Christmas Eve, ain't it?  I'm feeling good.
I stood up and took her by the hand.  The boy slipped his hand in mine.  In his other was a bag filled with little pieces of fabric, paper bags with colored Bible scenes, and a string of colored lights.

The Visions (A Very Short Story)

The first time it happened Jennie Bob and me was in the WalMart Supercenter Produce Department. I was thumping melons for ripeness, eyeing red delicious apples, and thinking how it'd come to this, a man doing grocery shopping with his wife, though mind you I love my wife but was worried I'd lost my man-card by condescending to this.  And that's when I heard Jennie  Bob say J.B. I'm going down, I'm going down.

She was white as a sheet and by the time I got turned her legs give out and so I set her right down there in the aisle, no mean task seeing how's I weigh about 145 and look like a gnawed on stick of beef jerky and Jennie Bob's pushing 230 and more like a pear.  More to love, I tell her.  Anyway, at this point she's puffing like a freight train, got her eyes closed, leaning back against the produce counter, saying oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord.  And then she gets real quiet.  I ask her if she's alright, take my hands and put them on her shoulders and shake her gently.  

That's when it happens.  Her eyes pop open and she's looking kinda crazy staring up at the produce and she says "Their names shall be Tofu and Hummus."  Say what, Jennie Bob? "Their names shall be Tofu and Hummus."  At this point I'm thinking something's done sprung loose in her brain, given the crazy talk, but she assures me that the Lord has spoken to her in a vision and that she will have two babies and that she's supposed to name them Tofu and Hummus.  So why couldn't she have had the vision in a hardware store so we coulda got kids with names like Oil or Tool or Jack?  But I guess you don't plan these things.

Anyway, the manager came over, fussin' all over her and making a big deal about it, offering to pay for our groceries (which I took him up on) and helping us out to the truck.  Jennie Bob's looking just like her old self by this point.  I get the groceries in the car, wishing I had made it farther in the store with a bigger haul before getting the offer of payment, and then I'm getting in my door and she's still over there standing by her door.  I ask her ain't she coming.  And she said well in my delicate condition I need help with the door J.B.  See, that what I'm talkin' about.

Well, the rest of that week I was her honey do.  Honey, can you fetch me a glass of ice tea.  Honey can you clean those dishes, wash the laundry, get a pillow to prop me up on.  By the end of the week I was getting tired of it and ready to have my own vision that might have something to do with a huntin' trip or anything else that might get me out of the double-wide.  All week Jennie Bob had been setting around on her big you know what watching Oprah and As the World Turns and Wheel of Fortune, a pure waste of a nice big-screen TV like we had.  I was getting sick and tired of it, sick and tired.  I'd just get done with the dishes, the laundry, the cleaning and set down on in my Big Boy recliner and kick back and I hear her say J.B how about bringing me my comforter I'm cold and you know women my condition can't afford to take a chill.  I'm sick of it, I tell you.

So I ease out of the recliner and head to the linen closet and I'm gettin' the comforter and I hear her commence to yelling Yes Jesus Yes Jesus and then there's a thud and I turn around and see her laid out on the floor, all twisted up writhing like a snake.  I run back over there, say are you ok, Jennie Bob, and she stops all of a sudden and says do I look OK?  That's what I'm talkin' about.  That's what I'm talkin' about.

She said she had another vision. Said she was all decked out in a fur coat with jewelry eatin' in a fine restaurant with white tableclothes and waiters thick as flies.  And she said JB I think it was Malone's Steakhouse and maybe you'd better get on the phone and get us a reservation and take me shoppin' cause I need to buy some things so as to be ready for it, that it must be our destiny, that we are designed for higher things.

And I said honey, you can't do that in your delicate condition.  I got her back up on the sofa, tucked in the comforter, made all over her like I was her mama or something.

Well, that evening I got my own vision.  I'm more private about such matters, but I can say it had to do with a gun, a shiny new Ford 150 Truck, and a huntin' dog named Bear.  I saw it clear as if it were right in front of me.  My destiny.

And that's what I'm talking about.

[Author's Note: Ever wonder why you write some things? So do I.]




Fall Break, Day Three: Losing Yourself

huge_22_114575 After breakfast this morning, I joined my wife in a loft bedroom with wood-beamed roof and windows that look out on a snowy mountainside, the wind stirring swirls of powder, the cold filtering through the window at my back. I did something I find almost impossible to do at home.  I am reading.  I don’t mean that skimming, flitting kind of reading you do before you go to bed at night, when it is all you can do to stay awake for ten minutes, when the day’s affairs still lurk in the corner of your mind.  I mean the kind of reading where you dive deep and come up breathless, having seen wonders in words of worlds, leaving behind your day and entering into someone else’s day.

C.S. Lewis said that reading should be about receiving, and that takes time.  He says that that “here [literature], as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; am never more myself than when I do.”  In other words, you have to lose yourself when you read in order to save yourself, to change, to be moved and transformed.

I felt that way after three solid hours of reading this morning.  If you read that long, it takes time to come back to yourself, to reality.  I’ve been reading a series of short stories from the last two issues of an excellent journal, Ruminate, and the characters that inhabited those stories are still restlessly haunting my mind, even as I pack to leave.  Overweight Bowen and body-pierced Candy are still stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel, the middle-aged man given a bit of hope by the questions and encouragement of a a teenage girl.  I imagine him walking off the page and back into life just a little stronger, a little more hopeful.

Winding through the Blue Ridge mountains, through valleys not fully touched by the hues of Fall, we’re quiet, each one in their own thoughts, mine thinking about Charlie Cooper, a middle-aged man still living until recently with his mother, who, on her death, is lost until he discovers bowling.  That’s right --- bowling.  Charlie discovers something he can actually do and do well, and it gives him new hope.  Eating lunch at a cafe on the main street of Waynesville, with some uppity name like Creviche, I’m not all there, still moved by the story of the unnamed 12-year old boy who has a Dad in a wheelchair but who is the fastest runner in his neighborhood.  There’s some kind of disconnect between he and his Dad that I can’t quite fathom, and so it still rolls over and over in my brain, even as I talk with my family.

Each story is like a window into another world, a window you can never quite close once you open it, the air of that other reality forever changing the world in which I live.  I’ll eventually forget most of these stories, of course, but certain images will stick, and when I think of them it’ll be like a visit with a friend I rarely see.  I’m glad to know them.  In some way or ways that I cannot fathom, much less express, I’m changed by them.

Up ahead is the French Broad River, then Asheville, birthplace of author Thomas Wolfe.  I should probably read his story: “Look Homeward, Angel.”

“Don’t miss your exit,” I hear.  And I don’t.  In a moment I’m back, back to a wife and two kids and Charlotte Street and the mountains --- back to this world, just a little different.

Gurney's Key: A Story

Medium.1.7078 "I told Gurney not to go down there.  I told 'em that house was spooked, full of ghosts.  Wouldn't listen, though.  Had a mind of his own, I 'spect."

"Well, Ms. Virginia, we've looked all over that house.  We can't find no trace of him.  It's like he disappeared into thin air."

"They took 'em.  That's what I reckon.  And now he's stuck somewhere, just aching to get back, just a pinin' for home.  Ain't nothing to be done about it, neither, lessen you can find the key."

"What key?"

"Why, the blasted key that got him into this mess.  Gurney was rootin' around in the attic, though I warned him not to, and he found it up there.  Been lost ever since my pappy put it away up there.  Said it caused enough trouble."

Jack Daly slipped his hat off and scratched his head.  He was tired, and hot, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead.  He took out his handkerchief and shook it, wiping his forehead before tucking it back in his pocket.  Just what he needed.  Some crazy woman talking about spooks and a magic key and people being stuck on the other side.

"Jimmy. . ."

"It's Jack, Ms. Virginia.

"Oh, whatever. . . what are you gonna do, just sit there?"

"I ain't got much to go on, ma'am.  I mean, where do I start looking?  Where's this key you're talking about?"

"Well, I don't know!  You're the investigator. That's why I called you."

"I'll have a look at this old house again, see what I can find."

"You do that.  You just do that.  Look for the key, Jimmy."

Oh, what's the use, thought Jack.  She'll never get it right.  He stood up slowly from where he crouched, extended his hand, and shook Ms. Virginia's doughy white hand.

"I'll be seeing you."

"Let me know what you find."

"I will.  You can bet on that."


Sheriff Daly bumped along a rutted road leading down to the Shepherd house.  The road was overgrown and barely passable, tree branches overhanging the road, Spanish Moss hanging down and dragging the top of his car.  It was ridiculous, he knew, a wild goose chase.  Gurney had likely run off to the next county, tired of living with the old lady and being subjected to her eccentricities. It was no kind of life for a kid.

As for a magic key, Jack just shook his head, mumbling "crazy ol' fool," wondering why he even listened to her delusions.  Hardening of the arteries had done got to her, he suspected.

He was here.  The old clapboard house was leaning, like some kind of Suess house, the porch rotted through, a tree growing up through a gaping hole.  It was slowly going back to nature, back to the forest it was.

"Probably a mess of snakes up in there," said Jack to himself.  "Just my luck I'll get bit and die out here."

He gingerly stepped on the porch, testing the flooring before each step.  Looking down, he glimpsed a glint of something shiny in the corner of his eye.  "Well, I'll be. . .

He stooped down and picked up a key, a key that looked as new as one fresh from the hardware store.  Other than that, it looked pretty ordinary, emblazoned with the word "SARGENT" on the side.  Jack turned it over and over.  "Don't feel magic,' he said aloud, still a skeptic.

Pulling back the screen door, he tried the key in the lock, and it slipped right in.  Jack paused a moment, hesitating, before turning the key and cracking open the door, and stepping in.


They found Jack's car later that week.  Junior said he figured the Sheriff was sick when he didn't come in.  Finally, he went out looking for him.

Ms. Virginia said what got Gurney got him too.

But all Junior found was a musty smelling old house, empty, rat-infested, and falling down.  No spooks.  And certainly no magic key.

Thirty years later they put a golf course on Ms. Virginia's old land.  Tore down the house.  But they never could get any grass to grow where it'd been.  Put a sand trap there.  They said if  your ball went in there it'd never come out.

Gurney never did come home.  Somebody said he joined the circus.  But I think he's still out there, trying to get home.

[My daughter found an old key and asked me to write a story about it.  So I did.]

Meet Mike, Steward of the Small

Toaster Yesterday I went to see Mike, the owner of a small appliance repair shop. The shop is located in a non-descript office strip, off any main road. You have to look carefully to find Mike's shop or you'll miss it. Inside the storefront, there is a small counter in the entry room. There are some toasters on the wall that look ancient, dusty packages of electric razor blades, opened and unopened packages of batteries. A child's scooter is parked near the door, marked "New, $17.95 or Best Offer," and an aging (though undoubtedly once futuristic) vacuum cleaner is propped against the wall, "$45, or Best Offer." Behind the counter I can see through to a small room stacked with open box after open box of parts, presumably triage for small appliances, those modern conveniences we take for granted. For Mike, they are lifeblood, how he makes a living.

"Hey. I need a new battery for this thing," I say, handing him my razor.

"What's the last time you replaced it?"

"How about never? I think I've had it nine years.

"You got your money's worth, huh?

"Yeah." Sorry about how dirty it is."

"No problem. This is clean compared to some I've seen."

And how many thousands of electric razors has he seen? Mike looks to be around 40, a bit overweight, a rounded face framed by thin black hair. Not hip. Not cool. Just a guy. He takes my razor back in the back, and I hear an older voice from someone I can't see.

"Mike, put that back where you got it from. You always leave things lying around."

"I'll get it. Don't worry about it."

I note the parental tone, and I realize that Mike has likely been here a long time, apprenticed to a father who will pass the small appliance repair business on to his son. I realize there can't be a lot of money in the business, with the volume light and the transactions small. Besides, so many people simply throw away their razor or toaster before trying to have it fixed. Why bother, they say? And yet somehow Mike and his Dad have kept at it, stewards of the small.

Life is filled with the stories of people like Mike, dutifully working at unnoticed jobs doing things most people care little about. He fixes things. Others build things. Even more clean streets, parks, houses, and office buildings. Someone, for example, largely unnoticed, regularly sweeps the stairs we rarely use in my office building, wipes down the handrails, polishes door moldings, empties trash, and cleans restrooms. They are little people doing little jobs, some would say, and yet they have a dignity we would do well to note.

When Scripture says man is made in God's image, every human life was invested with worth. Some people, like Mike, are just doing a job, tilling and keeping creation, keeping things working, taking care of what's here. But they are no less important because of their "small" job.

A story is told of how Francis and Edith Schaeffer were once late for the National Prayer Breakfast, where Francis was to speak, because Edith stopped to talk at length with the maid cleaning their room. In so doing they lived out what Francis Schaeffer had often preached, that there were "no little people." The President and other VIPs at the breakfast could wait.

I don't really know Mike, but I suspect he has his own dreams, his own disappointments, and a life outside the repair shop. He gets up every morning and goes to work. He's hit middle age and wonders if there's more, wakes up at night and thinks about high school and friends he no longer sees, wishes he had a little more hair. He's just an ordinary guy, like me, waiting for something more.

What About Henry?


Here's some good news: Amy Lowe, Senior Editor of Ruminate Magazine, notified me yesterday that they would publish my short story, "Under the Cheerwine Moon," in their Spring 2009 issue. As Amy said, though it did not win the contest (judged by author Bret Lott), "the RUMINATE staff loved your piece so much that we would like to publish it in our upcoming Spring '09 Issue!" That's encouraging. It's the first short story I have ever submitted for publication, as most of what I have published is poetry. I'm glad the world gets to meet Henry and find out about my favorite soft drink.

You know, it may seem silly, but when you've thought about a character for a long time, you begin to wonder about the rest of their life. You ask yourself what they'd be doing right now. Here's Henry, a mentally retarded man who has lost the central figure in his life, his mother, whose ordered and structured life is slowly unraveling, and it's Christmas. What would Henry do?

I know what he'd do. He'd do his best to engage in all the holiday routines given him by his mother. He'd put candles in the windows. He'd hang the Moravian star on the porch. He'd put Tony Bennett's Christmas album on the aging Zenith record player his Mom bought with green stamps, back when there were green stamps. And on Christmas Eve he'd read aloud the Christmas story, the illustrated one from his Children's Bible, his voice taking on the cadence of his mother's. He'd sit in his raggedy brown recliner with his cat Sam, and remember her.

But that is another story. I hope you get to read "Under the Cheerwine Moon." I highly recommend Ruminate which, like all arts journals, is a labor of love.

Till Twitter Does Us Part (A Short, Sad Story)


Larry knew that the world he once knew was gone when he received the divorce papers from his wife. Ripping open the envelope he found a sheet of heavy bond paper with a single paragraph headed by the word "Complaint" and a single, succinct paragraph: "She no longer loves you. She wants out. Irreconcilable. You can have the children. She wants money. See you in court. Signed, M. Kabinski, Esq." He did a quick count. 138 characters. Technically correct, but a bit cold, he thought.

He was having dinner alone, his PDA on the table beside him as he scrolled through the constantly updated feeds. Nothing from Cindy. Not one word.

He couldn't remember the last time he had a real conversation with Cindy anyway. He vaguely remembered lingering over meals and discussing all matters of things until the wee hours of morning, but as time went on and Twittering caught on, they began to simply tweet each other. "I'm enjoying the dinner." "Your mother tweeted me yesterday and said your father is ill. I'm sorry." As time went by the tweets got shorter and shorter. "More" was enough to send Cindy to the stove for seconds, or "Enough" meant change the channel on the TV. "Omit needless words," said Strunck and White in that archaic guide to the written word, and yet their words became hauntingly prophetic.

He had to admit that the Twittered world in which he now lived wasn't all bad. When politicians' stump speeches were limited to 140 characters, they could be endured. All their tweets went something like "Lower taxes. More spending on you. Actions, not words. Change. Hope. Vote for me." And by subscribing to their feed, it was able to pick up on the really important things, like what TV shows they watched, or what restaurant or cuisine they preferred. The constant connection made him feel like he. . . well. . . like he knew them, that they cared about him.

Even church was almost a drive-through affair. Let's see. . . there was a song, something like a revised doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, all creatures you know, Father, Son, and Ghost, heavenly host. Amen." And then a sermon tweet. The last one was refreshingly concise: "God made it all. We screwed up. He came down and fixed it. Trust Him and you can make it Home." He could chew on that for a week.

There were complaints, of course, when Twitter was made the national means of communication. Mostly from old folks who liked to go on and on and on about things. Talk about needless words! But most people bowed to progress. A quiet descended over homes and public places. About all you heard were the tapping of keys on PDAs, cell phones, and laptops, the people permanently bent over their screens, their bodies adapting to a new way of living.

Pushing back from the table, Larry threw the remainder of his TV dinner into the trash. He had lost his appetite. He went to bed, turning over and over in his mind that one phrase from the divorce papers: "She no longer loves you." "She no longer loves you." He fell into a fitful sleep, his Twitter still on, the feeds updating even as he slept. "I'm going to bed. Letterman is lame tonight."

In the morning when Larry woke up, he stretched his arm across the vacant half of the bed where Cindy used to sleep, and for a moment he held that vacantness. He stumbled to the bathroom. Seeing his face in the mirror, he mouthed the first word that came to his lips, "Cindy," but nothing came out. Was it possible he had lost his ability to speak? He tried again, harder, and this time heard the faint sound of his voice saying "Cindy," and yet it sounded like the voice of a stranger. He couldn't recall the last time he had spoken. He set down in front of his Twitter screen and reviewed his tweets. 648 overnight. The CEO of his company. Oh, he bought a new razor. The President. "Told Sec. of State not to wear that tie again. LOL." And then, scanning down the list, digesting the entries quickly, as he had trained himself to do, his eyes fell on the last entry. Cindy. Simply, "Jesus wept."

A tear rolled down Larry's cheek.

The Insomniac: A Story

1777100029 Somewhere he read that one of the ways to bring on sleep was to stare at one spot on the ceiling through half-closed eyes until rest came.  He chose a small spot near the corner of the ceiling and settled in.  Maybe, after all, it was boredom that actually put you under.  After a couple of minutes he realized it wasn’t only a spot he was staring at but was actually a line, a jagged line that extended from the spot to the corner.  That set him wondering about settling houses, and foundations, and lack of proper support, leading to cracked walls and chimneys and. . . and. . .

He turned on his side. 12:30.  He had never before noticed how bright the clock radio was, a barely visible timepiece in daytime that was a beacon in the darkness.  As well as the red light on the security system panel.  And on the smoke alarm.  And the VCR.  He threw back the covers and, stumbling toward the bathroom, grabbed three washcloths and covered what he could, muting the light somewhat.  “There,” he said, to no one in particular, his wife curled in a contented state of slumber, unmoved.

Laying back down, he exhaled loudly, just in case someone, just anyone, anyone like maybe his wife, might wake up for a nice chat.  Nothing.  12:50.  He began counting sheep, white fluffy sheep jumping over a fence.  When he reached 100, he began counting backwards, rewinding the moving images, sheep jumping backwards over the fence.  Inane, he thought.  He considered cleaning out a particularly cluttered drawer in his office, writing a few pages on his latest book, but after a minute or so, his sudden work ethic flagged.  He didn’t move.

A long, contented exhale from his son’s room brought to mind his father’s deep snore.  Had he been this way since childhood?  Sleepless?  As a matter of fact he did remember lying awake in his bed, more than once, listening to the night sounds, the creaks of the house, the purr of the cat, the furnace coming on and shutting off, car lights streaking around the walls of his bedroom, the somnolent murmurings of Paul, his older brother, who he'd sometimes wake when he couldn't sleep, and who'd always good-naturedly carry a conversation about fishing, school, girls, whatever.  A lot of water under the bridge since then! And with that not so pleasant thought, he turned over on his other side, adding a bit of bounce in the turn, hoping, just hoping for response.  But his wife dozed on.

He’d had some success inducing sleep by thinking about nothing, if you can imagine that.  Thinking about nothing is no small task.  In fact, if you think about thinking about nothing you're actually thinking about something.  No, it’d be more accurate to say he thought about no one thing in particular, or many things momentarily. Kind of like a roulette wheel.  You never knew what you were going to get, but it wouldn’t last long whatever it was.  But thinking about nothing (or everything) was hard work, a kind of deliberate absent-mindedness or nothingheadedness or mindlessness.  He wasn’t sure "nothingheadedness" was even a word, but right then he didn't give a rip.  Couldn’t he make up words for himself?  Who cared, anyway?  At this time of night, he could darn well do as he pleased. They were all asleep anyway --- shutdown, unplugged, hibernating, or whatever.  And right there he vowed he would never say "whatever" again just for punctuation, serious wordsmith that he was.  Whatever.

The dictionary.  That tactic had worked before.  Twenty words that start with “A,” and on to “B,” and so on.  Let’s see. . . asperity, ambivalence, astute, asinine. . . well, that brought to mind several persons. . . but never mind that now. . . argyle, axiom, aardvark (he made a note to check the spelling on that one), amalgam, argumentative, arrogant. Paul . . . Oh, forget it.  Paul?  He didn't want to think about Paul. This was simply too thought provoking, too big a subject, too emotionally raw to continue when what he needed was no thought, nada, a cessation of conscious brain activity.

2:15.  Good grief, he thought.  Nothing's working.  In desperation, he went to work on the family tree, climbing the branches both ways, paternal and maternal.  As he reached his mother's side, images of wiry, hard-baked aunts came to mind with names like Zinna, Rose, and Gladiola, all gone.  Dead and gone.  Wilted flowers.  That wasn't too comforting --- thoughts of death in the bowels of the night.  And cousins too --- real honest-to-goodness kissin' cousins like Jennie who chased and tackled him and planted a yucky one on his 10 year-year-old lips and no-good bully cousins like Houston or Junior or "H" or whatever he said call him or else.  He realized that the line through good and evil ran right through his family tree, a sobering and philosophical thought for 3:15 a.m.  Good grief!  3:15!  This is hopeless, he thought.  He felt a blanket of impassivity descend on him, a giving up, a calm. . . before the storm, anyway.

The last thing he said to Paul was an unrepeatable profanity, at least not the kind of thing he normally said, the kind of thing he would chastise his children for saying.  A conversation stopper, for sure, careless words spilling out over nothing, over old pent up feelings of inadequacy, his own failings measured against a practically perfect brother.  He stretched his legs out, found a cool place at the end of the sheets, tried to think of something else.

Maybe he'd take a walk, he thought.  Who said a man couldn't walk in his own neighborhood at 4:00 in the morning?  No one, as far as he could tell, though he admitted it was a weird venture.  Only his neighbor, excessive-compulsive Kerry Jacobs was up at that hour, and she was doing step-aerobics in purple leotards in front of the bay window.  He definitely needed to find something else to think about and quick.

He sat up.  "Be back later, honey. I'm taking a walk."  No answer from the other side.  Nothing.  He slipped his trousers on, slid his shoes on.  Downstairs he grabbed his keys from the key ring by the door.  But when his hand touched the doorknob, he paused.  He turned and picked up the phone, dialed a familiar number, heard a drowsy voice answer.

"Paul, it's me.  It's your brother.  I can't sleep."

On the Edge of Memory: A Short Conversation

"She's not too pretty.  And she's so old."

"Mama, how old is old?  You're 80."

"I'm talking about feeble, so ditsy you don't even know your own mother.  That's what I mean.  I'm not old like Velma is, Jeanine.  I know who my mother is.  I know who you are.  Old is like. . . like him."  She pointed to her husband, rocked back in the recliner watching football, oblivious to our conversation.

"He's 79, Mama, younger than you."

"Well, if he's so all-fired young he oughta get outa that chair and do something.  Don't you think?

I didn't answer.  It wouldn't make any difference anyway.

"What day is it, Jeanine?"

"Wednesday, Mama."

"Don't I have my Bible study group today?"

"No, that's Tuesday, Mama.  You went yesterday."

"I don't think so.  I don't remember going yesterday."

"I took you, Mama."

"Oh, yeah.  I guess so.  They took my license away, you know.  I don't understand why they did that."

"You had an accident, Mama."

"I don't remember any accident.  I never had a speeding ticket in my life.  I just don't understand it.  I can't drive and yet half the fools out on the road drive worse than I ever did.  That's not right. . . Get my reading glasses, will you Jeanine?"  She picked up the TV Guide. "What day is it Jeanine?"

"Wednesday, Mama."

"Be quiet and turn the TV to Channel 6.  Magnum PI is on.  I like Magnum PI.  One of the only decent things on TV.  Don't worry --- he's asleep.  Look at him over there, drooling on himself.  He'll never miss the game."

We watched TV for awhile, the volume deafening, my mother mouthing the words of Magnum, leaning forward in her chair at rapt attention, slumping back only when the commercial came on.

She shook her head.  "That Velma, she's gettin' old and feeble, you know.  Probably even forgot who her Mama is."

"I know Mama, I know.  It happens."

For Emily, Whenever She May Find Him (A Christmas Story)

woman spirit What a dream Emily had.  She was wandering the deserted streets around Times Square, strangely dark , the marquees blackened, the streets empty of the ubiquitous yellow cabs and traffic, an eerie silence ruling the night.  She was walking quickly, as if pursued, her heels echoing on the pavement, ringing off the shuttered shops and empty alleyways.  She began to run, sensing a dark presence behind her, a foreboding sensation.  Up 7th, right on 51st, on to Rockefeller Center.  Turning the corner at 5th, she saw it: the tree, brightly decorated, shining in the darkness, the only brightness in an otherwise starlit but dark city.  At the bottom of the tree stood a man, his hand outstretched and beckoning, and though she could not hear it, she knew what he was saying.  Come.  Just come.  And she wanted to come, even though she was afraid.  She wanted to, but she could not move.

When she awoke, she found herself alone, the bedcovers twisted around her as if she had been wrestling someone the whole night.  He had gone, sometime in the night.  But it didn't matter, she said to herself.  None of them matter.  Her clothes lay crumpled on the floor where, in some passion now a distant memory, she had dropped them.  Stepping over them, she walked to the bathroom, looking in the mirror as she did every morning, staring into her green eyes as if seeking something there.  She ran her hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face.  She was aging, and she knew it, little fault lines creeping outward from the corners of her eyes, her neck showing the first wrinkles and excess skin.  It doesn't matter, she thought.  I'm healthy, I have a good job, and I'm smart.  I'll be OK.

One cup of coffee later, she sat on the sofa in her living room considering how to spend her day.  Ashley was on a cruise with her boyfriend in the Caribbean.  Kara was with her family in Connecticut. And that about exhausted her list of friends.  It was Christmas Eve, and she was alone.  She picked up the three Christmas cards she had received --- one from her stockbroker, thick and expensive, with an innocuous happy holidays greeting and a single machine-inscribed signature; another from a client, a local restaurant corporation she had saved from bankruptcy; and the last nothing more than a postcard, a simple manger scene with a handwritten "God bless you" scrawled across the back, signed by the doorman, Jake.

And with that, Emily began to sob, quietly at first, and then, like something deep came unhinged, loudly, because she could, because she was alone and no one could hear her.  She wept for all the lovers come and gone, for the empty praise of co-workers, for the purposelessness of work for nothing more than nice things --- a new dress, weekend in the Hamptons --- and for the abiding sense that nothing really mattered, nothing at all. 

She couldn't remember a time when she had last wept.  Perhaps it was when her father had died, when her mother failed to even show for her own husband's funeral.  Sometimes she felt a sense of despair so overwhelming that she wanted to cry, but couldn't.  Like at the crosswalk at 39th and Broadway, the sign broadcasting "walk" and her mind saying "why." Or sometimes when she'd awake in the night, darkness settled around her, and she'd remember ice skating with her Dad, or just driving listening to his voice, and she missed him.  But she didn't cry.

Remembering, she went to the closet, dragged a box from the corner, and began tossing books out of it onto the floor, old fluff novels, lawbooks, and bar journals, until she found it --- a small New Testament.  She opened the front jacket to the inscription: "To Emily, From Dad, Christmas 1987." Since her Dad died in 1992, she had not looked at the Bible, having pitched it in the bottom of her closet, and yet she carried it with her wherever she lived --- to law school, to her clerkship in Albany, and then on her job for the firm here in New York.

She opened it to Psalms, wiping her face on her sleeve and pushing her hair out of her eyes, her eyes falling to several verses in Psalm 102, underlined in the shaking highlights  of her father's hand: "For my days vanish like smoke. . . . My heart is blighted. . . . I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof."  Like a bird alone.  And Emily wept some more, remembering how alone she had felt after her Dad died, how abandoned, and how utterly alone she felt at this moment.

She dressed quickly, threw on her coat, stuffing the Bible in her pocket.  She took the elevator to the lobby, walking quickly by Jake, her eyes red and puffy from her crying.

He caught her arm.  "Ms. Parker, are you alright?"

"Yes, yes.  I'm fine, thank you, Jake."

"How are you spending Christmas?"

"I don't have any plans."

"Then you need to come to our home.  My wife and kids would enjoy having you."

Emily was about to say she couldn't, that she needed to work, that she might take a trip, anything not to admit that she would be alone.

"I couldn't impose."

"Emily, come.  Just come."

"I guess I could." 

And in that moment, Emily felt a little less alone, and a little less angry.  She didn't know if that was blessing, or if God did in fact bless, or if there was a God, but she conceded the possibility of that kindness, of grace itself, of Someone that walked the frosted world in lamplight, His touch softer than rain, of Someone that would be there when she awoke with grateful tears, of One who could hold all her sorrows.

She walked on, past brightly lit shop displays, streets teeming with shoppers, and like a dream she heard music and cathedral bells and a voice that echoed "Come."  Just come. 

[Emily is a composite of a woman dreamed of by the narrator in Paul Simon's song, "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, which appeared on the 1966 album by Simon and Garfunkel entitled Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, and a young woman I saw on the sidewalk this Christmas Eve who was weeping while the man walking with her offered her no comfort.  Emily had a different dream than Simon's narrator, and a different life.  Some phrases are culled from the song, as if Emily's and the narrator's dream and life intersected. Listen to "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her," below]

Noting Providence (A Story)

Look_2"He who notes providences, will have providences to note." (Matthew Henry)

When you're a kid, you know things.  You know things your parents are never going to know. 

Like, for example, the kind of things that can happen on the way to the Handy Mart by foot.  Now parents, they take the Chevy down Elam, up Ferndale, left on Elm, and then, right past the Morrison's big oak tree, they hang a right into the lot of the store.  They buy milk and eggs, exchange greetings with the clerk, get back in the car, and whip the wheel out of the lot and head for home.  It's purely practical.

But they miss a lot that way.  They miss the point, really.

You see, a walk to the store was a nighttime ritual for John and I.  If John was here right now and feeling poetic, he'd tell you that that walk was a metaphor for life.  (We learned that word in Mrs. Harrigan's Humanities class.)  A walk like that held peril and promise, ecstasy and agony, riches and poverty, villains and vamps.

Now get this.  One time we were walking down Elm, shuffling along, bemoaning some new indignity suffered in our junior high school, when I spied a crumpled up twenty dollar bill not two inches from the sidewalk, technically in Bridget Hanson's front yard but effectively within the curtilage of public property, where it likely landed on the sidewalk and was blown by the wind into Bridget's yard.  And even if it was in Bridget's yard, she didn't deserve it because she was a nasty chic with an attitude.  Well, John fell on it like he was protecting his platoon from a soon-to-explode grenade.  We debated whether to tell Bridget about our discovery, but not much, really.  We kept it.  Split it 50/50.  You see, that made up for the time the three neighborhood thugs (well, senior highs) made us turn our pockets inside out, spilling all our nickels and dimes and quarters on the street and then made us pick it up and then took all our money.  God gave it back to us.  Equilibrium was restored.

We talked about that particularly embarrassing moment all the time, we did.  John said next time he'd get his Dad's gun (unloaded, of course), stuff it in his pocket, and if we met up with the three delinquents, he'd brandish that revolver at them and say something like "beat it, or you're toast," or "make my day," something Clint Eastwood-like, and we'd watch them fall all over themselves trying to run away.  That kind of thing sort of jump started our imaginations, and so for several nights we'd imagine ourselves superheroes, being able to pick up a car or breathe fire and just basically scare the beejesus out of those idiots.  I think we almost talked ourselves into it.

Well, like I said, things happen when you walk.  Like you might just meet up with Angel Simms.  She lived on Ferndale, right next to Scotty something or other, the guy who fixed lawn mowers for a living and walked around half the time in his front yard in bib overalls with two miniature Chihuahuas hanging out of the front pockets.   The guy that always wanted to talk about our sorry good for nothing high school football team about which John and I couldn't give a flip and he'd just yak, yak, yak on about the team and its pitiful coach while we were making every excuse we could think of to move on.  But, back to Angel. . . . We'd walk extra slow past her house, hoping she'd be out, you know, maybe taking the garbage to the street or checking the mailbox or something.  Angel was pretty hot, and we were hopeless, or nearly so.  But we had our dreams.  We'd consider what we'd say to Angel should she be outside and should she notice us and should she talk to us.  Something like "how's it going, Angel," or maybe more nonchalantly, "hey Angel, didn't know you lived around here," and after that, we'd say. . . we'd say. . . well, we weren't sure what we'd say but maybe we'd claim that scripture verse then about "not worrying about what to say because at that time you will be given what to say" and something intelligent would just pop out, you know, and it'd be so beautiful Angel Simms would just reach over and kiss me and say "see you tomorrow at school" and that'd just be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.   Just the beginning.  That's not exactly how John dreamed it, where I appeared as a more tangential bit actor.  But it doesn't matter now anyway, since Angel never did come out and she moved away that Summer, quashing all our dreams.

Our favorite way to walk was to cut through the various backyards, beginning with Mr. Highfill's backyard which, though enclosed by an eight-foot redwood fence, was surmountable, given that a board in the fence was loose.  We'd have to be careful though, as Highfill's bald head would occasionally pop up out of nowhere and he'd say something like "what are you boys up to?" and you just had to believe there was an accusation in that question, an insinuation, and I don't think I'm imagining things. I think he suspects it was me who shot the bottle rocket up the drainage pipe under his house that night about midnight.  He'd be right.

Anyway, if we made it past Highfill we'd find ourselves in the backyard of the Rabinoffs, people my Mom warned us to steer clear of because they were Jews and were peculiar, like they had four heads or something.  Whenever reference was made to the Rabinoffs their Jewishness came up, as in "Mr.  Rabinoff bought a new Cadillac yesterday.  Those Jewish people, you know. . . ." It'd usually trail off like that, like you'd know what they were talking about, that enough had been said.  But actually, the Rabinoffs were pretty cool Jews.  Their dog, Igor or something, was a terror, however.  I think he didn't like Christians.  He'd growl and lunge at John and I if he were out, gnawing on the mesh fence that contained him, foaming at the mouth, until Mr. Rabinoff came out and yelled something like "Shalom, Igor, shalom," and Igor'd collapse in a puddle of spittle, spent.

If we made it, and we usually did, we'd traverse the edge of the Rabinoff's driveway dropping out of the underbrush onto Ferndale where, one night, to our dismay, we ran right into Roxanne Anders sitting on the curb, a cigarette in one hand, a Budweiser in the other.  Thirteen year old Roxanne put the fear of God into John and I, so we tended to avoid her.  The best way I can put it is that she was interesting but scary, the kind of girl that if you got mixed up with would mess you up real good, like a teenage version of the sirens of waywardness mentioned in Proverbs.   So there she is, striking a pose in her short shorts and halter top, and John and I instinctively sped up and kind of grunted at her as we passed hoping she'd leave us alone.  But it was too late.

"Hey Purcell, Maddry, where're you going so quick?"

"Hey Rox," I said.

"How about a beer?"

"Nah, I gotta get to the store."

"Come on.  Sit down right here, both of you.  I need to talk to you."

I felt my defenses crumble.  I sat down on one side, John on the other, and for the next 45 minutes Roxanne recited a litany of troubles with her parents, all the time leaning in close to me, putting her hand on my knee, blowing smoke in my face, some musky perfume enveloping me.  I couldn't even say anything much.  Sweat was pouring off of me and I felt feverish.  I knew I had to leave.  If we stayed we'd be playing spin the bottle with Roxanne before you knew it and with our luck we'd be standing in the middle of the street in our undershorts, Roxanne fully clothed, and her old man would come out with a shotgun.  And that'd be that. Dead kids in underwear.

"Holy cow, I gotta run!"  I jumped up and took off up the street, John in tow, Roxanne yelling for us to come back, that she wasn't finished.  Sure she wasn't.

But that's what I mean.  Anything can happen.  Peril mixed up with promise. Sin and salvation. That walk was full of implications for life, missed opportunities, wondrous providences.  It's all right there, if you just looked for it.

John moved, you know.  He's a weatherman.  Last I heard he was living in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, living in a pup tent in a KOA campground.

Angel Simms works at Target and is still hot. Roxanne Anders went to pharmacy school, putting better use to her knowledge of controlled substances. And Scotty's been dead ten years now, buried in his overalls as he wanted, right next to those Chihuahuas. The Koreans took over the Handy Mart. They're planting a Korean Presbyterian Church in the old Harris Teeter building.

When my Mom died, Carla and I and our three kids moved into the old house in the neighborhood. I'm the mailman here. On good days, I still like to walk the route past familiar landmarks and be thankful for my blessings, that "behind a frowning providence," as the hymn says, "He hides a smiling face," that somehow all that stuff that happened back then was a part of a great big mysterious plan God has for us all. That doesn't explain why John's living in pup tent or why a chic with looks and brains like Angel ended up in a dead end job in Target or why those guys took our money, but I can live with all that mystery. I don't require an explanation for Acts of God. That's providence. We just have to look where we're going. That's our job.

When you're eleven, you don't always know these things. When you're a kid, you just can't know some things that parents know.

The Matter of Why Space Matters

space God loves matter, which is why he made lots of it (God must love space even more.) 

(Cornelius Plantinga, in Engaging God's World)

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were hurtling through space toward the moon in Apollo 11, they had no idea what they were hurtling  through.  We still don't.  At least we don't know much. In fact, my cats may know just as much for all I know.

I think of space as emptiness, as the absence of things, or matter, and yet scientists say that's not really the case.  As I understand them, outer space is not completely empty (that is, a perfect vacuum) but contains a low density of particles, predominantly hydrogen plasma, as well as electromagnetic radiation, dark matter and dark energy --- mostly the latter two "dark" twins, except we really don't know what they are or if they're really there (kind of like imaginary playmates).  For instance, dark matter is said to be a mysterious substance which scientists think accounts for most of the mass in the universe but that is invisible to current instruments.  We don't really know for sure that it's there, and yet this stuff we can't see accounts for 96% of the universe.  But you know scientists; they positively live to postulate.

But enough of that.  I think of space more in the sense of spaciousness, an openness filling the yawning gaps between good solid things like trees, stars, and people.  There's a lot of it around.  God made it, so he must love it (says Plantinga), and given how much of it there is, he must love it a lot.

God does love space --- the sparseness of it, the roominess of it, the solitude of it, the wonder of it, the silence of it, and the noise of it.  And so should we, or so do we, but for sin's curse.  Because of sin, some of us can't abide being alone in the solitude of space. Agoraphobics, those who fear open places, hide in their rooms, undone by the expanse of space and place.  And some of us, like nettling bureaucrats, rush to fill every interstice of human experience with a regulation, rule, or command --- legalists to the core who can't abide the inevitable space in our codifications of appropriate behavior.  And yet it was not to be this way.

Our distant ancestor, Job, marveled at the emptiness of space, wondering that "he spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing," (Job 26:7) and later concluding that "these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!" (26:14).  The Psalmist kicks back on the grass outside Jerusalem and wonders aloud: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Ps. 8:3-4).  Part of what he considers in those heavens is the juxtaposition of visible objects like stars with the vast spaciousness of space, the separation of what is from what is not.  Kant said space is relationship, a way to order our experience of reality; Newton, that it was absolute, a part of reality.  I think it's both.  Sitting in my office, I enjoy space as something real I can move around in and also the sense of space as a juxtaposition of the empty with definite objects like walls and desks and windows.

I love space.  When I open Scripture to the Creation account of Genesis 1-3, I'm thankful for the vast spaciousness of the Word that made it all.  Behind the words "God made" lies a rich and infinite domain of interpretation, of room for human exploration.  And when I hear the reassuring words of "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path," (Ps 119:105), I'm glad the Word is the lamp and not the path, that I have a sure guide but a vast landscape through which to find my way.  That's space. That's the kind of space God gives us.

Leaving the space of outer space and the vastness of the landscape of life, I'm thankful for the simple yet profound space of a poem.  No one better illustrates the fulsome nature of space with poetic verse than the spare poetry of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(The Red Wheelbarrow).  Writing about the poem in Understanding Poetry, poet Robery Penn Warren said that "[r]eading this poem is like peering at an ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of cardboard. The fact that the tiny hole arbitrarily frames the object endows it with an exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation."  In other words, more is said by what is unsaid than by what is said. 

And consider the short story, the poor stepchild of the literary world.  (Evidence: The Atlantic Monthly, which published short stories by our finest writers for 150 years, abruptly stopped publishing stories in 2005.)  A story like Flannery O'Connor's "The Geranium," which touches in a concrete way on racism, radiates outward into the unknown.  Who was Old Dudley?  What was his early life like?  What will happen to him?  We don't know.  We can imagine.  We can place this snapshot of life in a greater context we supply -- in space.

We may not know if space is matter, but we know it matters.  If we love it, like God does, if we wonder at it and relish its existence, life will open.  We won't be afraid, but free.

Waves can't break without rocks that dissolve into sand
We can't dance without seasons upon which to stand
Eden is a state of rhythm like the sea
Is a timeless change

Turn your eyes to the world where we all sit and dream
Busy dreaming ourselves and each other into being
Dreaming is a state of death, can't you see?
We must live through who we are

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

We are children of the river we have named "existence"
Undercurrent and surface pass in the same tense
Nothing is confined except what's in your mind
Every footstep must be true

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

(Bruce Cockburn, "Life Will Open," from Sunwheel Dance, 1971)

Man Needing Prayer: A Conversation


waiting I don’t know what to say. Thanks for asking though. I’ve just had a bad day.

I lost my car keys. Probably one of my kids. Or the dog. I hope he ate ‘em. Serves the dumb dog right. Never been too bright. Too yappy. I’ve about had it with that dog. Don’t ever, ever, ever get one. Drives me crazy. Peed on my pillow one day. If it wasn’t for my kids. . .

What’s that? Why’s my shirt tail hanging out? Listen, man, mind your own business. I’m not feeling GQ today. I was rushed. Sorry about that. Yeah, I’m OK. Doing great. Just great.

No, no, really, I’m sorry. I’m a little stressed, you know. I missed my flight. Yeah, appreciate it. You too? Bummer. Yeah, flying’s not what it used to be. Just an airborne cattle car. Crappy food too. Or no food. Might as well take the bus. Might even be faster.

I think that Taxi driver was Al-Queda. Jeez. Cellphones in both hands. Go figure. I thought we’d had it once. Damn near hit a UPS truck. Don’t get me started. Don’t get me started. What’s the country coming to? Nobody speaks English. Don’t know how to drive. Don’t they know this is America? Bunch of Islamic thugs, that’s what. I can’t believe it.

Top this. Yesterday, my laptop broke. Yeah, the hard drive is fried. I called tech support. Couldn’t even understand the guy. Probably Indian. Pungo, yeah, that’s the name. Now what an American name. Ha, ha. Japs and Indians and Ayatollahs taking over. We’ll all be wearing turbans. Women walking around in burquas. Ha, ha. I’ll vote for that. Good for bald men and ugly women. Ha, ha.

What’s that? YOU’RE FROM IRAQ? Hey, sorry buddy. Nothing personal. Just those flippin’ terrorist thugs. That’s who I’m talking about. You know what I mean. I mean, you even look American. Got no problem with the Prophet. Really. Muhammed is just all right with me. Doobie Brothers. 1974. Ha, ha.

You’re welcome, you’re welcome. You’re OK. Second generation, you say? Christian? Really? They got Christians in Iraq? Might as well paint a target on your back. Right? Your mother’s there? Oh, sorry man. Really. Yeah, I got no problem with Jesus. Now those Bible-thumpers. . . . Don’t get me started.

I’m open-minded. I mean, this is the USA. You got your personal beliefs. I got mine. Live and let live. That’s what I say. Live and let live.

Man, I’m losing it. I could use a drink. You wanna get a drink? Oh, no, sorry. Against your religion? Ha, ha, that’s funny, against your wife’s religion. Ha, ha. Mine too, mine too. She’d blow a gasket if I started up again.

Don’t get me started about women. That’s another story. I told my wife I totaled the BMW. Yeah, two days ago. No, no, I’m fine. Really. Just can’t remember my name. Ha, ha. That’s a joke, man. Anyhow, she flipped. Wasn’t my fault. Guy crossed the center line. Rolled it. Yeah, her car. I flipped, then she flipped. Ha, ha.

Yeah, what a day. What a life.

I can’t help it if we’re in debt either. $73,000 in credit card debt. Can you believe that? They wanna shut off my credit. Friggin’ banks. Greedy bastards. Always after the money. Yeah, I got one mean “personal banker.” Smiling while she tells me they’ll foreclose. Mean. I can’t help it if I’m between jobs. I’m looking. I’m doing the best I can.

Man, I’m dry. Like a desert in here.

Yeah, downsizing. Guess I’ll be flippin’ burgers, ha, ha. No, I ain’t foreign enough. Not qualified. Ha, ha.

No, no, really, I got nothing against foreigners. Just need to stay where they are. They already got a country. No, I got no problem with you. You grew up in the USA. Made in the USA.

Two kids. How ‘bout you? Nice. That’s your wife? Hot. What’s she doing with you? Ha, ha. Arranged marriage? Yeah, wish somebody had arranged mine.

Oh man, what a day. What a day.

I gotta get on a plane. I really do. Gotta go somewhere. I need a change.

Yeah, don’t get me started.

That’s your flight? Yeah, been nice talking to you too, man. You’re OK.

Hey, thanks. Yeah, I’ll call you sometime. Sometime.

Yeah, you do that. You pray for me.

I need that.

I really need that.

[Ever meet anyone like this? I think I have, somewhere in an airport waiting lounge. They're obnoxious. Loud. And needy.]

What You Do In High School (My First Job)


When I consider the amount of time my children spend on homework now, I wonder what I did with all the time I had in high school.  The afternoons and evenings seemed to stretch out in front of me, timeless, and we made it up every day.

Like one day my friend John and I lay prone in front of my stereo determined to discern the lyrics of ZZ Top's "LaGrange."  One part came easy.  It went like this:  "Uh huh huh huh huh. . . . You know what I'm talkin' about." [BIG guitars here] Somewhere between the last "huh and the "You" he was mumbling something, but we couldn't figure it out, and not owning the record, and not having the Internet, we had only our own ability to discern.  We actually didn't know what he was talking about, but it sounded intriguing, exciting, and maybe something our parents wouldn't approve of.

Well, I guess that's the kind of thing we did with our time.

Every school night, religiously, we watched Johnny Carson from 11:30 -1:00, John falling asleep just short of the last bit of applause.  I let myself out, leaving him there in the Lazy-Boy recliner, snoring.

Most nights we walked shadowy, tree-shaded streets to the convenience store to buy a Pepsi, and back, hoping a girl, any girl, would be outside.  They usually weren't, so we didn't have to figure out what kind of cool thing we could say.  In other words, not much happened.  I certainly don't remember doing any homework.

Our big break came when we started working at Roses, a department store, because there were girls there from other high schools who we figured didn't know our shrinking reputations, and we were right.  We were poor employees, prone to laziness and mishap.  For example, one time we backed the delivery van into a house, bending the door so that we had to tie it to the van to keep it shut.  The homeowner was a little upset, writing on our delivery paperwork "Ran into house; broke off a section of brick."  When our boss, Mr. Smith, saw that, his face turned red in like one second and the vein in his neck popped out and he said. . . well, better not say what he said.  Later, we dropped a sleeper-sofa off the porch of a trailer we were delivering it to.  The man accepted delivery anyway. He was real nice about it.  I tell you, we almost ripped a new door in that double-wide.

One time my co-worker, Robbie I think, who dated my cousin once, wasn't paying attention and drove up on a sidewalk and nearly flipped the van.  You know how they say your life passes before you at such times?  Not true.  I think at that age you don't believe you can die, so your life doesn't pass by you because you don't believe you're going anywhere.

Once, riding alone in the step-van, doors open, I rounded a curve on my way to make a pit-stop at my girlfriend's house.  I took it a little fast, I guess.  The hand-truck fell out the side passenger door and rolled down the road behind the van.  I stopped, jumped out, ran back and retrieved the hand-truck, turned and looked up, only to see that the van was rolling toward me and the four lane road behind me.  I ran back to it, jumped in, and managed to stop it.  I nearly passed out.  Still, my life didn't pass before me.  I did, however, think of Mr. Smith and what he might have said if the van had crashed into a car or tree.

My girlfriend's mother said I was white as a sheet, like I'd seen a ghost.

I worked with two older guys, Scott and Billy.  Neither were very intelligent.  I'm being nice when I say that.  They really weren't playing with a full deck.  Scott believed he was God's gift to women.  He had a tattoo on his forearm and rolled his sleeves up high on his arms, making his muscles bulge, rolling up his Winston cigarettes in one sleeve.  Billy, God bless him, weighed 250 pounds, dressed every day in green army fatigues and a t-shirt, with a rope for a belt.  That's right, an ordinary white rope like you might tie a boat up to a dock with.  One time we had Billy looking all over Roses for the key to the third-floor swimming pool.  Yes, he was gullible, and yes, we were cruel.  But the boys were loyal to me, offering to "beat the #%&@! out of anyone who messed with me."  Once I almost had to take them up on that.

Generally, I worked in the deep recesses of the stock room, burrowing tunnels in and out of cardboard boxes of patio furniture, toys, and household items.  In my own small-minded way, I took some pleasure at this task, organizing the mountains of stock in various fashions.   I guess you could say we were inventory control, but we didn't do too well at monitoring things.  For example, it was months before we realized that we were missing a case of Listerine each month.  We only figured that out when we saw Leroy, our janitor, tipping one up and draining it dry one day.

On a few occasions I worked in the snack bar.  I'll spare you that story, as you may have a weak stomach.

One day, Ida Simmons, an older lady who worked in the Lingerie Department, motioned me over to her as I emerged from the stock room, trying to walk as cool as I could by the Sportswear Department where chicks shopped.  She wanted to tell me about her son, who was in college, a world away from me of course.  Standing there, listening, my biggest concern was what to do with my eyes and my hands.  Do I look over here at the panties, or at the bras, and what do I do with my hands?  I put them in my pockets, afraid I'd rest them on one of the half-dressed mannequins.  I was deathly afraid of being embarrassed.  I couldn't understand the old men I saw standing around in the Lingerie Department holding their wives' pocketbooks while their wives were in the dressing room, as if that was normal.  I mean, where's the dignity in that?

In between all this fun and foolishness, I emptied trucks of furniture, moved stock around, ran the cash registers, delivered furniture, swept and mopped floors, and cleaned bathrooms (when Leroy was on a binge).  I worked with blacks and whites, lower middle-class kids and rich kids; the young, middle-aged, and elderly; kids from my school and other schools.  I did it all.  I learned that not everyone was like me, and that some people would accept me for who I was.  I learned to talk to girls and women, as I was surrounded by them.  I learned that Scott and Billy, despite their bravado, were just insecure kids.  I experienced grace as, despite all my screw-ups, I kept my job.  I learned how to work.  You might say it was the school of life for me.  Life in and out of high school.

But John and I never figured out what they were singing.  Just "uh huh huh huh huh. . . . You know what I'm talkin' about."

But you do know what I'm talking about, don't you? 

[Any similarity between the events and persons described and actual persons and events is somewhat factual, somewhat imagined, and, hopefully, all true. Uh huh huh.]

Where Stories Live


"There's something delicious about writing the first words of a story.  You can never quite tell where they'll take you.  Mine took me here."  (Beatrix Potter, in the movie, Miss Potter)

These first words spoken by Beatrix Potter in the opening scenes of the movie of her life, Miss Potter, so aptly sum up the excitement of telling a story, of not knowing the end in the beginning.  That's part of the joy of writing, the sense of discovery along the way.

I have read that some successful novelists map it all out in the beginning --- the characters, the background, the conflict or point of tension, and the resolution (conclusion).  I'm sure it works, but how boring it seems.  I haven't written a novel, yet, but I'd much prefer to begin someplace, perhaps with a character in a particular scene, and see where it goes.  You can never quite tell where they'll take you.  Characters take on a life of their own and seem to propel a story.  It's not that you never look ahead, as you must see something of what is coming in order to write, but maybe you only see the next step and not the whole life.  After all, a writer is creator, not Creator; not omniscient nor omnipotent.  And characters are free, aren't they, to be who they are?

I'm struggling with this now.  I began a story just this way several months ago.  There's Henry, and Babette, each of whom I'm following and whose lives have not yet intersected.  I stopped writing because I'm not sure I know who they are, or at least I don't sufficiently know who they are.  I have some sense that they will meet, but how, and when?  Do I just begin again, going day by day and seeing what happens?  Do I plan it out?  A little of both?

Perhaps it isn't either/or but both/and.  I think of our own lives under God's rule: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps" (Pr. 16:9).  Like us, characters live and have free will in their story, and yet the writer is sovereign and has a purpose that will prevail, incorporating all their plans into his one plan.  Or maybe its like Paul said, that we are to "continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:12-13).  Characters have a life of their own, and yet they are forever guided by our good purpose; all their diversions can be worked into that good purpose, in the end.

There's tension in any writing.  That's where stories live.  I just want to get to the point where I can say Mine took me here.

On the Way Home (A Story)

Without a doubt my third-grade best friend, Brian Kirkman, was a bit of a whiner.  On the way home from school everyday, as we were walking down the grassy side of Freeman Parkway, he'd be going on about some new grievance, whether something his mother said he had to do, Mrs. Teague's homework assignment that day, or some kid in class he didn't like.  Looking back I think I should have said something like give it a rest Brian, or changed the subject, but I was eight and, lacking discernment, I simply said yeah, I know, which only encouraged the whining.

Kids could be cruel in third-grade, and Brian's whining and physical demeanor encouraged them.  Given his crew-cut that accentuated his oversize head and too large ears, they called him Pencil-Head, or The Eraser.  I could see why.  I didn't call him those names, but I often thought them.  To be honest, he did look like a #2 pencil with his skinny body and squared off head and shirt with the top button always buttoned, pinching his neck.  Brian just sucked it up when they called him names, except for one time when he totally lost it and pounded Jeffrey Meadows.  It was one of those Jekyll and Hyde moments.  I mean Brian was a peaceful if nerdy guy at all other times.  I guess he'd just had enough of it.  The name-calling died out after that, said under the breath if at all.  But they still didn't call him Brian; they just said hey. . . followed by a sort of unspoken identifier, and he accepted that.

Well he was my friend, anyway, even if the endless complaining grated on me.  He had imagination.  He could turn a normal walk home into something, well, special, where unseen realities began to impinge on our eight-year old world.  Like the day we dropped into Underworld.

Instead of crossing Freeman Parkway that day, we kept to the right side, the side by the creek, figuring we'd catch tadpoles in the slow-flowing murky water, picking up cold mossy stones on the creek bed and seeing what came out.  But no, Brian had other ideas.  About halfway home, a round drainage pipe which runs under the parkway dumps its liquid froth into the creek.  Brian said come on let's get in there and explore, but I wasn't sure.  Besides, it smelled bad and I figured whenever Mr. Monroe up on Ferndale flushed the john it all flowed downhill through that pipe.  (I realize now I was wrong about that, but it concerned me then.)  But Brian was already in, his voice echoing in the pipe, beckoning me in.

Now this was a big pipe, big enough for an eight-year old to stand up in, and I walked right in, following Brian's voice.  After a few feet, it became quite dark.  All I could hear was the slow trickle of the water beneath me.  I was beginning to enjoy the quiet, and I imagined how Brian and I could explore the pipes, popping up in different areas of the neighborhood, traversing the city surreptitiously underground, lifting manhole covers and dropping in on friends up on Elam Avenue.

And then I heard Brian yelling get out of the way, move it, there's a rat, and he brushed by me making for the entrance.  I ran too, until we both stood outside the drainage pipe, gasping for air.  When we could talk again, I asked Brian what he saw.  He said it was a rat about a foot high and two feet long.  That was our first and last trip into the Underworld.

We lived off that story for a while, the rat growing in our imagination, and I even began to believe I had seen the rat as well, that it had brushed up against me or nibbled at my leg.  It was particularly fun to tell girls this story just to hear them squeal.  Impressive.

Generally the walk home was good.  An adventure perhaps, like the Great Rat of Underworld story.  Or maybe the time we were lost in the Netherwoods and shot at by the hobo that lived there.  Or maybe it was just a story we made up to kill the time on the way home, where Brian was a superhero (say Elastic Man) and I was a very capable sidekick (say The Inferno) as we spread terror in the hearts of villains everywhere, rescued Moms, and impressed girls.  Stories are funny --- talk about them enough and you begin to believe they are true.

But one day the walk home took a turn for the Dark.  We're walking, Brian's talking, and for the first time in all these times of walking I notice the flashing school sign that hangs over the middle of the parkway.  Time for target practice.  I'm not sure who had the idea, but Brian and I began to pitch rocks at the sign, seeing who could score a direct hit, not thinking at all what might happen should our rock land on a car passing under the light.  It was fun, throwing rocks, and I could have done it for a long time, maybe even a half hour or so, but it was cut short that day.

A large brown sedan pulled over to the side of the road.  Two men were in the front seat and the one on the driver's side motioned for us to come over.  He asked what are you boys doing?  Brian said he didn't talk to strangers, and I nodded, remembering I'd been given similar instructions.  He said he was a police officer and opened the door to the back seat and asked us to get in.  Brian said he didn't look like any police officer, and he didn't believe him.  The man reached in his coat and pulled out a black wallet, flipping it open to reveal a very shiny and important looking badge.

I looked at Brian.  Brian looked at me and burst out crying.  I don't mean that tears were streaming down his cheeks.  I mean he literally burst out crying, tears popping out of his eyes, sprinkling his whole face instantly, which was a red, slobbery mess in no time.  We got in the car, were taken home, and received justice at home.  Well, Brian got justice.  I received mercy.  I learned that day that ignorance of the law is not a defense, and the shame of being branded a criminal was enough punishment for me.

On the way home the next day we didn't throw rocks.  We didn't explore the drainage pipes.  We walked straight to Brian's house, plopped down in the family room, and turned on Gilligan's Island.  Brian's Mom fixed us a fried bologna sandwich, and we ate silently as we watched the hapless castaways.

When the show ended, I said Brian why don't we go out in the back yard and pretend to be spies.  He said pretending's for babies, and that it was time to grow up.

Brian moved away later that year.  I didn't miss him --- not much, anyway.  He wasn't any fun anymore. Now I walk home on my own, and I make up my own stories.  Besides, I don't have to listen to that whiner anymore.

A Writing Exercise: The Day the Carnival Came to Digby

[This past weekend our church hosted a writers' workshop with writer Suzanne Rhodes (formerly Suzanne Clark). It was a extremely fruitful time for the eight of us gathered. Suzanne treated us to a full palette of writing tips, sprinkling her talk with quotes, poems, resources, and more. During lunch she gave us 90 minutes to write something on the spot, choosing from a number of exercises she offered. I chose an exercise that invited me to tell a story from the perspective of someone sitting on a house's front porch. Other's wrote poems, personal narratives, and dialogues. They were all quite good, as I found out when we read our offerings to each other and discussed them. It was an encouraging time. We plan to meet once a month to encourage our writing, the second Monday of each month at 7:30. For more information, contact me. For now, here's a mostly unedited version of what I wrote that day.]

Roller_coatserThe Day the Carnival Came to Digby

That October, 1948 I believe, the carnival came to Digby. My little brother John and I ran barefoot through the meadow that lay beside my house to watch the Southern Railway train roar over the tracks, it's clickety-clack a kind of invitation for me. All manner of machines protruded from the box-cars --- the red and blue of a ferris wheel, the painted horses of the carousal, and other mysterious parts and pieces, all grand and hopeful and just a little bit dangerous, you know.

John and I were speechless --- just standing in the grass watching the train until the red caboose disappeared around the bend, the engineer waving to us as the train vanished from sight. I knew we couldn't go to the fair. My Daddy said there was gambling there and Christian folk didn't go and besides it cost good money and we weren't going to throw away hard-earned money on something we couldn't eat or wear. And yet I knew I'd waste every cent I had on the fair if I could, go without food for days if need be, if only I could go.

A few days later it was on this very porch that John and I were sitting, legs draped over the edge, swinging, sucking on a piece of grass, just waiting for something to happen I guess. That maple tree that stands over there was in full color, leaves of orange and red and yellow, and the air was cool and gentle. We were just sitting there, and then I heard, "Come on, get in the truck." I looked over my shoulder and my Daddy was standing in the front door way, his bib overalls on and hat in hand, my mother in her cotton dress beside him. But my feet were already in mid-air, John and I racing for the truck, whooping and hollering and jumping in that Ford flatbed, ready for something, anything, and yet we didn't dare ask where we were going. My Daddy was a man who believed in the economy of language, spending words like he spent money: rarely, and with great care. It woudn't do to ask him where we were going, just wouldn't do.

As Daddy drove down Oak Street, John and I were watching what we were leaving: the dirt road behind, the clouds of dust, the simple frame house that lined the street, that no-good Jacob Woodrow on his porch, rocking, the Nelson kids hollering out to us as they ran behind the truck. We turned onto the blacktop of Highway 24, past Drucker's store, the filling station, and on to the edge of town. I remember turning to John, his eyes wide with expectation. We were afraid to speak, afraid that if we said its name its possibility might just evaporate, that we really might not be going to the county fair.

And yet as we pulled into the meadow parking area off Highway 24, I saw that we were. The smells of hay and animals mixed with hot dogs and cotton candy filled me. There were the red and blue seats of the ferris wheel, spokes lit with what seemed a thousand lights. And the carousal with its hurdy-gurdy music. And the roller-coaster, something I had only heard about but never seen.

We walked the aisles and marveled at the sounds and smells and sights --- the screams from the roller coaster, the carnies hawking their games on the midway, the swings twirling round and round. John and I rode all the rides, all except the roller coaster, my Daddy paying with nickels and dimes without question, watching John and I go round, a slight smile on his face.

Near the end, after sunset, we stood before a kind of coaster called the Monster Mouse, little red and orange cars making their way over a cicuitous track, seemingly leaving the tracks at curves before sharply veering back on course. Arms crossed, head motionless, my Daddy watched the cars for a long time as they made their way up and down and around the track, following them with his eyes. And then he said, "Come on." My Daddy took me on the Monster mouse that day, the best and scariest ride at the fair. As we jerked to a start, he gripped the sides of the car, sliding lower and lower in the car as we went. (My Momma said later that all she could see of him was the white hair atop his head.)

When we stopped, Daddy slowly got out of the car, staggering a bit to the ground. I remember now -- he just lay down face down to the grass. After a couple minutes he slowly rose to his feet, said "Come on," and we went home, him like a converted gambler, sober once again.

Why I Like Cheerwine (or What About Henry?) (Part Nine)

Cheerwine_8It was about 20 minutes later when J.D. rolled into the driveway with the red convertible, front wheels raised off the ground as it were begging God for mercy. Bringing it to a stop, J.D. jumped down from the cab, walked around the wrecker, and flipped the lever letting the car slowly return to earth. He spat on the ground and shook he head. Brigette knew that couldn't be good.

In a few minutes he had the vehicle unhitched and, along with Squirt's help, pushed it the remaining few feet into the single bay of the garage. Then J.D. turned and walked slowly over to Brigette, head down, chewing a toothpick as he went.

"It's gonna take awhile. Needs a new transmission."

How long is awhile?," said Brigette.

"Three, four, maybe five days."

"Now what am I supposed to do?" Brigette just glared at him. She thought I'm stuck in this hick town with very little money, and no way out. "Damn."

"Don't get mad at me, lady. I can't help it. . . . So you want me to work on it?"

"Of course I do. What else can I do?" Brigette stood up and looked down Main Street. You have a motel here?

"Well, not a proper motel, but Thelma Burgaw rents some rooms. You can try her."

"How do I find her?"

"You see that building that says "God's Holy Tabernacle Church of the Second Coming."

"The what?"

"The church right there."

"That's a church?"

"People say so. I haven't been. You go right at that corner, and at the end of the block her house'll be on the right. You can't miss it. There's a sign that says "Thelma's Boarding House." Thelma's a good cook, and she's cheap."

"Thanks." Brigette walked over to the car, reached into the back seat, and retrieved her red shoes from where they landed from her throw. Then she popped the trunk, pulled her suitcase out, and, straightening her shirt began walking toward the street, rolling he suitcase behind her.

"Hey. . . you want a ride over there?"

"No, I'll walk. Just fix the car, OK?"

J.D. just waved her off. He sat down on the single step of the entrance to the office of the station, and lit a cigarette, taking slow draws of it and exhaling even slower.

[I'm continuing a story I began some time last Fall. You can read the entire story, to date, here.]

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Eight)

Cheerwine_6[Mystic cats?  A journey?  We leave Brigette there in Rose gardens and return to Henry again, as the story continues.  Something is changing.  Read the whole story in progress, as revised, here.]

While Henry slept fitfully, his legs splayed over the bed where he had fallen in his clothes, momentous things were happening in the world outside.  Sam was perched on the window sill outside Henry's room, ears alert, eyes flashing the moon's suggestive glow.  In his cat-sized soul, Sam could feel it -- the change coming on, something wafting in on the breeze, a blanket of otherworldly change, not evil but altogether mysterious.  Sam sniffed at the air, whiskers twitching, intuitively sensing an inarticulable, slight seismic shift in space and time.

In Henry's dream there was Josie Griffin again, laughing, blond hair flapping in the wind as Henry chased her round and round her house, and then, there was Josie chasing him round the house, him running in his stumbling clumsy way, only when he looked back he saw it wasn't Josie at all but a white coated, stern Mrs. Hightower who had him by the collar, saying "Take these, Henry, now, you'll feel better, Henry," with Henry tying to pull away only to find he was paralyzed, unable to move away.  "Now, now, Henry," said Mrs. Hightower.

Henry woke to find himself alone in the dark, his hands clenched, his breathing labored.  He said two words: "God.  Help."  It took a moment before he even realized that he had said them aloud, the sound of his own voice seeming to echo off the bare walls of the bedroom.  5:15 read the clock.  Henry lifted the window shade and rested his nose on the cool glass of the window pane.  Two yellowish cat eyes stared back, startling him until he realized it was Sam -- Sam the mystic, the seer, the cat who knew all but said little.  That was what Henry's Mama used to say.  "Mama, what's 'mystic' mean?" he'd say.  And she'd just say, "Special, Henry, just special.  Sort of like you, Henry."   Henry never did quite make the connection between himself -- a pale-skinned two legged being, and Sam, a furry four legged creature much given to sleeping and eating.  And yet when he looked in Sam's eyes, he knew what to do.  Then he knew what he had to do.

Standing up, Henry switched on the light and quickly dressed -- jeans, t-shirt, comfortable shoes.  Then he reached for his backpack and stuffed in an extra change of clothes.  Finally, he reached up to the top of his chest of drawers and carefully brought down a wooden box, handmade just for him.  Opening it, he pulled out all the money inside, counting about $400.00 and stuffing it in his pocket.  It was a large part of what Henry had saved from the check he received each month.

Turning off the light, Henry walked down the hall, noticing in the moonlight each and every picture on the walls, as if he'd never seen them before.  There was the family photo:  Mother, Father (who he did not know), and himself, all smiling awkwardly against a fake forest backdrop.  He paused for a moment and looked at his mother smiling, and he smiled.  "I have to go now," he thought.  "Time's a'wastin'."

Opening the front door, he let the screen shut behind him, this time letting it shut slowly.  He jumped the three steps from the porch in one stride and brushed against the ankle high grass as he strode for the road.  Looking back, he saw Sam sitting on the porch now, watching him, wise cat eyes.  "Sam, I'm going.  You'll be OK now."  Sam just turned and walked away.  Of course he'd be OK.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Seven)

Cheerwine_7[Brigette, J.D., and Squirt.  The story continues.  This Part features a bit of dialog, which is difficult to make sound just right.  I find that reading it aloud helps, and yet still I'm not satisfied.  I begin to wonder if I know enough about these people.  Read the whole story to date, as revised, here.]

"What kinda name is that?"

"It's French," said Brigette. 'That's R-E-N-O-V-A-R-E.  Renovare."  Brigette didn't know why she did that -- lie, that is.  She found that she did it a lot, and about the most trivial of matters.  But, come to think of it, she did like the way it sounded.  Ren-o-vare.  She could just see it on a movie marquee, or in the credits running at the end of the TV series: "BRIGETTE RENOVARE."

"Well now.  I could tell you weren't from these parts, anyway.  Name's J.D.  And that's Squirt," he said, pointing to a scrappy blond-headed fellow still washing the driveway with the hose.  "Now, what's the problem?"

"My car.  It quit on me about two miles down the road.  I walked.  I had to.  I don't know what happened.  It just quit."

"Well, just sit down.  I'll hook it up and bring it in.  We'll check it out."  And with that, J.D stood up, slowly stretched, and walked in a stumbling gait toward the aging tow truck located at the corner of the lot.  Without turning, he yelled "Hey, how will I know the car?"

"It's red, a red convertible."

Again, without turning, J.D. raised his hand to acknowledge her, mumbling under his breath, "Figures."

She sat down, leaning her head back against the shop window, closing her eyes for a few moments just to rest her mind.  But she couldn't.  At this rate, she wouldn't reach Salisbury before dark.  Heck, she wasn't sure when she'd make it.  She'd have to call Francine.  Francine was the only kin she had nearby, as she was an only child.  Francine was always telling her to come for a visit.  Now was as good a time as any, she figured, what with all her troubles it was time to get out of town for awhile.

Francine used to visit her when she was young, and Brigette recalled fighting her, tooth and nail, over the slightest of things.  They were like that -- fast friends one minute, sworn enemies the next.  She remembered her puckish expression and short fat legs, always trailing her when they were running around the farm.  But Francine was smart.  She got the brains.  She went to college.  She got brains, and I got looks, Brigette said to herself, looking down at her wrinkled shirt, wet with sweat.  "Only it ain't doing me much good today," she said out loud.

"What ain't doing you no good?"

"Huh?"  She turned to see Squirt standing in the door of the office, drinking a soda, smiling at her.  "Oh, nothing.  Nothing at all.  I just meant I don't have time for this."  Squirt looked vaguely familiar and was possibly fairly handsome underneath all the grease.

"J.D.'ll fix you up.  He's the best mechanic in Rose Gardens."

"Yeah, the only mechanic in Rose Gardens."

"That too. . . . So, what kind of name is that -- Renovare?"

Brigette just rolled her eyes and put her head in her hands.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Six)

Cheerwine_5[The continuing saga of Henry, and now, Bridgette, who ruminates on her misfortune.  To read the whole story to date, as revised, click here.]

She began to sweat, trickles of water running uncomfortably down her back in the 90 degree heat.  Dropping her pace a bit, she pulled off her maroon colored jacket, leaving her in a white tank top and tight, low-cut Calvin Klein jeans, her best.  She figured she'd attract some attention, dressed as she was, then reconsidered, given the kind of attention she might attract in these parts.  It was a moot point, anyway, because she was alone, alone on the road with nothing but row upon row of corn stretching as far as she could see in both directions.

Her feet hurt too.  Tossing the shoes was probably not a wise move on her part.  She considered returning to the car but seeing that it was far behind her now, she decided to press on toward town.  What was that her Mama once said? -- "Honey, you ain't got the sense God gave an orangutan, but you got the looks."  After barely graduating from high school, Bridgette enrolled in the Laurinburg School of Cosmetology, figuring that working at a salon would keep in touch with the latests fashions, and from there it would be a short move to modeling and then acting.  Because that was her goal -- acting.  Maybe "Desperate Housewives," or "Sex in the City," figuring that she'd had some training in both these already.

With that thought she began to walk faster.  The thought of sex and housewifing made her think of Vinny Torella and their brief but torrid marriage.  Torrid in more ways than one.  They broke things.  They fought.  They yelled.  They made up.  They broke things. They fought.  And that was just during the first week of the marriage.  After three months of marital discord, they were both exhausted.  Vinny moved into the trailer with his brother Pete, leaving Bridgette alone in the Spring Street apartment, the one above the Benson's garage.  After the breakup, her days alternated between work at Renovare Beauty Parlor and Spa, and hanging out with her best friend Lily, drinking Cheerwine at Franklin Drug's soda shop, a true relic that place.

"Honey, don't worry about Vinny.  He's a bum, a real jerk," said Lily.  "You can do better."  And yet her breakup with Vinny was the first crack in her plan to take on Hollywood, the first indication that she was not in complete control of her future.  And now this.  She had no job, no car, and no husband.  Bridgette stopped for moment, catching her breath.  Looking back down the blacktop, she could barely see her car now.  Turning back to face town, tears pooled in her eyes.  "Get a grip, girl," she said aloud.  Get over it.  Putting her head down, she took a deep breath and marched on toward town.

After a few more minutes of steady walking, she saw the green standard issue City Limits sign: Rose Gardens.  Beyond that, she saw a Texaco gas station, right on the edge of a short strip of shops -- many vacant, some closed this early.  A couple of greasy looking guys were milling around, one sitting on a bench in front of the open door of the station, another hosing down the lot.  Bridgette walked up to the one on the bench.  He watched her approach.  When she got closer, she saw that he was probably 40ish, with slicked back hair, a toothpick in his mouth, and greasy dungarees.  He looked up.  "Well," he said.  "Well now," he said again.  "What can I do for you?"

"I'm Bridgette, Bridgette. . . uh. . . Renovare.  And I've got a problem."

Bridgette, Profanity & Realism

KeyboardBridgette has a sharp tongue and doesn't hesitate to curse and use profanity.  (See yesterday's post, "Why I Love Cheerwine" (Part 5): A Story).  As I was writing about her, that's who she became for me.  I haven't met too many women like her, but the couple I have met surpassed her eloquence and were like that all the time.   In contrast, I think Bridgette's just had a really, really bad day.  I'm not sure yet what she's like on a good day.  I'll see where it goes from here, where her character takes me.

But using profanity does, of course, bring up the issue of whether a Christian writer should ever use profanity in writing a story.  Someone may accuse me of "unwholesome talk" (Eph. 4:29) or admonish me to pay heed to Phillipians 4:8, which commends us to focus our thoughts on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy.  I know the argument well.  I've thought about it all before.  The response, of course, is that I am writing what is true, that to be true Bridgette has to curse.  That is who she is and to write it that way is to be true to the reality of who she is.

At dinner tonight , my 12-year old daughter surprised me by saying that she read my story and I said a bad word: D-A-M-N.  I was surprised that she saw it and, to be honest, I was uncomfortable for a moment.  However, it was a good opportunity to explain to her how while I don't approve of such language and try not to speak in that way and certainly don't want her to. characters, like people, sometimes do.  I also told her that there are people in stories who do bad things, say bad things, and think bad things all the time, to which she said she knew all that -- she's reading the Redwall series and the vermin in those stories do all kinds of vile things.  I also told her that some stories weren't intended for children because some children lack the ability as yet to discern what is appropriate behavior.  (For that matter, some adults lack such ability.)  Of course, I'm really getting into this discussion and she looks at me and says something suddenly off subject like "Can I have a dog?"  Discussion closed.

God also inspired men to write a Book full of vile doings and bad language.  You know that, because like me, if you ever tried to read through the Bible with your children there are some parts that make you cringe and some (like Song of Solomon) that you'd rather not have to explain.  There's embarrassingly realistic things in Scripture.  It's not sanitized.

So yes, I know all the arguments.  And yet, realism gives me some discomfort.  If  Bridgette does in fact cuss like a sailor, do I fill the story with such language or merely give a taste of it and intimate more subtly that it's a fundamental flaw in her character?  And what if Bridgette has a relationship with a man?  How do I talk about that?  Or do I?  (I'm not sure I want to, you hear that, Bridgette?) Perhaps subtlety is called for, but she doesn't strike me as a subtle person.

Then maybe a story that reflects life is meant to cause a writer discomfort and tension because life itself causes tension and discomfort.  We live and work around people who often say and act in ways that are discomfiting.  We turn on the TV or see a movie and it's filled with the profane.  I remember one summer in college I spent working in a furniture stockroom with eight guys who were as profane as any I've ever met since.  It was uncomfortable.  But then, maybe I won't write about them anytime soon.

These are good questions to wrestle with.  I need help.  I need the Spirit, just a little of God's breath in what I write.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Five)


[The story began with Henry, the guy obsessed with Cheerwine, and switches now to focus on Bridgette, who has her own problems.  To read the entire story to date, which is continually being revised, click here.]

Bridgette kicked the tire of her red 82 Mustang convertible.  "Damn car.  I shoulda rented one back in Charlotte.  This one is a piece of junk, you hear that, a piece of junk!"  With that she kicked the tire again, only she missed and hit the fender, scuffing her red pumps.  "Now look at that," she said to herself, muttering a few other obscenities under her breath, glaring at the car, hands on her hips.  Looking up, she saw a sign, a green, cheery looking sign with flowers on it, announcing "Welcome to Rose Gardens, Rose Capital of the Southeast."  Very creative, she thought.  Very, very creative.  Probably one dinky flower shop and now it's the "rose capital of the southeast."  Sure it is.

Not a car in sight, either.  Reaching in and taking her Louis Viutton knock-off purse and the keys from the ignition, she slammed the passenger side door, rattling the car with the impact, and, throwing the purse over her shoulder and tossing her platinum blond hair back, she began walking down the side of the road.  The shoulder was still damp from the showers the day before, so when she looked down at her feet she saw the red shoes were taking on mud.  Bending over she pulled them off and in her best overhand backyard softball throw pitched them into the front seat of the car, deciding to proceed on barefoot.

It had been one helluva day, Bridgette thought.  When she got to work that morning at the Renovare Spa and Hair Salon, she'd no more come through the door than Carmen, the owner, told her to pack her things up and get out.  She was fired.  Right then.  She had a screaming fit right there in front of the customers, calling Carmen every mean and evil name she could summon up, until she saw Ms. Deitweiler's three-year old grand-baby come out from behind her mother and tell Carmen to "go to hell."  That brought her up short.  Where, after all, would a three-year old be getting such language?  She managed to get her things out of the Renovare Spa and Hair Salon only to trip over the curb on her way out to the car, spilling all her beauty products and skinning her knee.  And now this.  She lit out from town for a drive to clear her head, only to have the thing quit on her outside of the metropolis of Rosedale.  What kind of name for a town is that, anyway, Bridgette thought.  "I'm SO MAD," she said out loud.  A crow on the Rosedale sign looked at her as she passed.  "What are you looking at?  Mind your own business!"  Stooping, she scooped up a rock and threw it at the eavesdropping bird.  With a ping  the rock bounced off the sign, the crow fluttering away, due west, in the direction of town.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Four)

[I was sipping my Cheerwine tonight, thinking about Henry.  Poor Henry.  Putty in my hands.  This is his continuing story, someone I hope can become a "rounder" character as I keep writing about him.Cheerwine_3  He reminds me of someone.  Read the story, as edited, to date, here.]

"Mr. Askew, can you stand up please?"

Henry quickly rose to his feet -- too quickly, maybe, because his legs felt quivery, like jello, and for a minute he thought he'd fall.  Looking down at his feet, he realized to his surprise that he had no shoes, and his lily white feet stuck out of the ends of his pants legs.  Looking up he saw an enormous podium about 20 feet away from him, only much, much higher than him.  There was a person behind the podium who had no face, just an enormous mouth on a white sphere, like the face had been erased, and sounds were emanating from it, angry sounds.  And he scared Henry.

"Is there something the matter, Mr. Askew?  Are you listening to me?

Henry's head began to throb.  He put his hands on each side of his head to try and stop the pounding.  Looking down as he did it, he noticed the table he was seated at was like those you find in a preschool, and his chair the kind little kids sit in as they play with puzzles and color, the kind Mrs. Holshouser had in her room at the Center.

Mr. Askew?  MR. ASKEW?

Henry looked up, and when he did he saw Cheerwine bottles, no kidding, cases and cases of bottles flying past him and that mouth, that enormous mouth shouting something that sounded like gibberish at him, all the time getting bigger and bigger.  He felt hands on him, squeezing him, shaking him, hurting him.

"No, leave me alone.  Leave me alone.  He began to struggle to get free, thrashing around wildly.  "I won't go. I won't. You can't make me. . ."

Henry woke to find himself in complete darkness.  For a moment, he didn't know where he was.  Listening, he thought he heard a clock ticking loudly, only he realized it was his heart beating out an exaggerated rhythm.  He was breathing heavy, his chest heaving, his body drenched with sweat.  Sam was oblivious, still asleep in his lap.  "Oh, Sam, that was a doozie, a real bad dream."  Sam twitched a bit, enjoying some nocturnal feline fantasy.  Henry wondered what kind of things cats dreamed of beyond the usual mice, food, climbing trees, being chased.  Whatever they dreamed, it couldn't be as crazy as the things he dreamed.  At least that's what he figured.

Carefully laying Sam on the sofa, he walked into the kitchen, turned on the light and opened the bread drawer.  He unwrapped the bread and laid two slices Merita Enriched Bread on the counter.  Reaching for the Jiffy peanut butter, he unscrewed the lid and, with a dull knife, began to spread big globs of it on a piece of the bread.  He felt his body calming as he began normal routines, leaving the dream somewhere back there.  Henry thought to himself that peanut butter must be one of the finest foods ever developed.  "It'll stick to your insides," Henry's mother used to say.  Henry smiled at that.  He figured he could eat peanut butter sandwiches for every meal, and sometimes he did.  He tried to interest Sam in peanut butter, but he wouldn't touch the stuff.  In that uppity cat way he merely sniffed at it and walked away with a disinterested amble as if he was saying "I can't believe you eat such stuff, Henry.  It's beneath me."  Henry liked Sam OK, he guessed, but for an animal that was supposed to be intelligent, he figured he sure was dumb.  Any person, and beast, who didn't like peanut butter and Cheerwine must not be too smart.

Finishing his sandwich, he opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a new bottle of Cheerwine.  For a moment, he just looked at the row upon row of Cheerwine bottles lining the shelves, and he felt better, secure, just knowing that he wouldn't run out anytime soon.  "I suspect in Salisbury everybody's got all the Cheerwine they need," Henry thought.  Why Henry imagined a swimming pool filled with the bubbly red liquid, and him on a float in the midst of it.  He liked thinking about such things.  He called it his "L.D. Peele moment," because he imagined that Mr. Peele lived that way, and inventor that he was, he for sure was busy developing other uses for Cheerwine while he floated in his pool.

Sitting back down in the brown recliner, his eyes rested once again on the envelope.  He set his drink on it.  "Do you mind if I use you for a coaster, Department of Social Services?, he said out loud to no one in particular.  Sam looked up at him from where he reclined on the sofa.  Henry thought to himself that it'd been a long time since anything good came to him in a white envelope.  There was a time when bills came to him, papers with numbers on them that confused him.  He'd stare at them, not knowing what to do.  Then the lady from the DSS, Mrs. Hightower, came and grabbed them all up off the kitchen table where they were littered and took them all away.  He never saw one again.  No one else wrote him.  Occasionally he'd get a catalog.  He liked to look at the pictures.

Sighing heavily, he reached for the letter, tore the end off, and pulled the letter out, carefully unfolding it and laying it in his lap.  As he read, the words began swimming off the page -- words like "inform," terminate,"  "move,"  "no choice," and that last phrase, "institutionalize you."  Then he couldn't focus.  He put the paper down in his lap, and laid his head back in the chair, remembering green walls and locked doors and his mother crying.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Three)


[I've been posting drafts of pieces of this story about Henry as I write it.  I'm also continually revising the story.  If you want to read the entire draft, as revised to date, you can find it here.]

As he turned into the drive of his house, Henry stopped whistling and started singing.  He sang hymns, mostly, and today he thought to himself that given his newly formed bond with Bozo, "Blest Be the Ties That Bind" would be appropriate.  The song had the additional reputation of being his Mama's favorite hymn, particularly that verse about "When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain, but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again."  He didn't know what "asunder" meant, but it didn't sound good.  He stopped to check his mailbox and, finding nothing, he broke into song, his pure tenor voice ringing out.  When he reached "and hope to meet again," he felt his throat tighten and he sang softer, and then he stopped just short of the door.  There, pinned to the door, was a manilla envelope.  He pulled it off the screen where it was attached with Scotch tape, turned it over and looked at its front.  "Department of Social Services," it said, in the corner, and there, right in the middle, it said "HENRY DAVID ASKEW."  The back of the letter was sealed up tight, with an extra piece of tape over the flap.

Henry raised the envelope to his nose and took a good whiff.  "Hmmm.  Smells important. " He imagined an office somewhere with a man leaning confidently back in his desk chair with a good looking secretary, like Josie Griffin, maybe, writing down what he said, just like in the old Perry Mason reruns.  He grimaced.  That made him worried, thinking about lawyers and courtrooms and big impenetrable books stacked up on the desks and men arguing over things he didn't understand, long strings of words punctuated by a "Henry" here and a "Henry" there.  "Just my luck it's some lawyer," he said out loud.  He stuffed the envelope in the pocket of his shorts and opened the screen door and front door, letting the screen door make a whack-whack-whack on the doorpost as he dropped it.

He never tired of walking into his house, from outside to inside.  He always marveled at how different it was inside from how it was outside, and how he even felt different inside.  Outside it's hot, inside it's cool; outside he smelled mown grass and hot steamy asphalt, inside he smelled an old smell, slightly musty, and yet somehow reassuring.  Henry remembered the time he got the tape measure and measured and figured out that the walls were only around 12 inches thick, and he marveled that such differences could exist within 12 inches of each other.  He shook his head and smiled.  "I got too much time on my hands, Sam, too much time," as he reached down and plucked his elderly tabby cat from the den chair, stroking its fur, eliciting a gravelly vibrato of a purr.  Walking to the fireplace mantle, he pulled the empty Cheerwine bottle out of his pocket and added it to the row of bottles already there.  There were Cheerwine bottles on the mantle, stacked in cases in the corner, filling the basement downstairs, and lining his bedroom wall.  Henry gave up counting them, though sometimes he tried to, just for something to do.

Sitting down in a brown recliner, he situated himself so as to cover the rip in the seat of the chair.  He made a mental note that he needed to get that fixed, though he couldn't figure out how to get it fixed.  Leaning back, Sam rolling on his back, eyes closed, he took the envelope out of his pocket and laid it on the table next to the recliner, smoothing it out where it was wrinkled.  "HENRY DAVID ASKEW," it said, and "Department of Social Services."  He leaned back, closing his eyes, and before long his chest was rising, and falling, rising, and falling, Sam oblivious to his motion, Henry's arms dropping to his sides languidly, a slight snore starting, the rays of sun streaming through the back door window getting longer and longer until they were gone, darkness wrapping Henry's house, a darkness with only a sliver of a moon.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part Two)

Cheerwine_1[I've thought occasionally of Henry today, wondering who he is, what he does, what he thinks about.  So, I have no idea where I'm going with this, but I'm becoming interested in who Henry is, letting him develop.  Read Part One from yesterday, and continue here.]

As he walked through the angle-high grass, Henry remembered Josie, Josie Griffin, the little blond-haired girl with the eyes that flashed and the downright foul mouth, that teaser Josie-miss-big-mouth Griffin.  He could hear her now -- "Hennnri, you retard, you nut-case, you weirdo, don't you come near me, Henry, go on back home Henry -- yabbering and yabbering, just being a regular pest.  But that was a long time ago, Henry thought, and Josie grew up and moved away, and when she came home on that rare occasion, driving her shiny convertible, she wouldn't even return Henry's waves or smiles.  Oh, the heck with Josie Griffin.  And yet, Henry stopped for a minute, the wind catching the seat on Grif's rusted old swing-set, and he remembered Josie laughing there, just a little thing, as he pushed her higher and higher into he sky.  Henry shook his head at that.  "I'm getting old Bozo, just goin' on like that, remembering things.  I'm going home."

As he turned the corner of Grif's house and made for the street, following the cracked front sidewalk of the house, Henry looked down the street to where it dead-ended.  "Bozo, go on home, boy!  You can't be coming with me now."  A dejected Bozo started to slink away.  "Aw, alright, one more sip."  Henry sat down this time, sticking the bottle right in Bozo's mouth, him lapping up the drink.  Then Henry took the bottle and poured it over Bozo's head.  "I hereby baptize you Bozo Griffin, in the name of L.D. Peeler, Salisbury, and Carolina Beverage."  The cherry liquid ran down Bozo's ears and into his face.  His tongue lashed out, trying to catch every drop of it.  "There, now it's official.  You and me -- we're brothers now.  Once a week, we'll break bread together, just like in church, you and me having bread and wine, Cheerwine.  Now, go on home."

Henry thought to himself that that Mr. L.D. Peeler must have been a genius.  He read that Mr. L.D. Peeler invented Cheerwine right there in the basement of his grocery store.  A man with a dream, that Mr. L.D. Peeler.  One night at home, Henry pulled out the 1999 Rand McNalley Road Atlas and found Salisbury, North Carolina.  It took him awhile.  He remembered looking at the small dot on the map for a long, long time, with all the squiggly red, blue, and black lines going through and around it.  It was beautiful, and confusing too.  He imagined Mr. L.D. Peeler's house.  Must be a big one, Henry thought, with a Cheerwine drink machine in every room, little ladies in gray outfits with aprons on bringing a  bottle of Cheerwine out whenever you wanted it, whenever you called.  Yes, Mr. Henry, they'd say, if he visited.  Two drinks Mr. Henry?  Yes, certainly Mr. Henry, as many as you want Mr. Henry.  Henry imagined Mr. L.D. Peele, still working away in the basement, perfecting the already perfect formula for Cheerwine.  Come on in Henry.  Can you hold that Henry?  Glad you could come, Henry, really glad you. . .

"You plannin' on moving in?"

"Huh -- oh, hello Grif.  Just messing with Bozo.  He's a good dog."

"Ain't worth a lick, Henry.  And stop giving him that Cheerwine.  Bad for his teeth."

"Nah, it ain't bad for his teeth, Grif.  Good for fleas, too."

"You're crazy, Henry.  You go on home.  I got things to do and I gotta give this dog a bath.  He's got something sticky all over him."

"Yeah, OK Grif.  Be seeing you."

Henry stood up and walked on down the steps, whistling to himself, something sprightly and hopeful, with just a touch of melancholy, mumbling under his breath.  "Crazy?  I'd rather be crazy than a slob."  It was rhythmic, the song, his arm swinging the now-empty Cheerwine bottle  back and forth in time, back and forth, his feet slapping pavement now, as he headed for home.

Why I Love Cheerwine: A Story (Part One)

CheerwineIn the neighborhood where Henry lived, automobiles were often put out to pasture in overgrown backyards, suspended over patches of sun-starved and brown grass, or higgledy-piggledy on one block or two, wherever they were left, like pensioners strapped for cash.  They rarely moved, just stayed there like that, remembering the good old days, Henry thought, days of speed and love and shine, when all their parts worked (or when they had all their parts).  Sometimes he patted them as he walked by, speaking softly to them, thinking it would help them to know someone cared.  "Nice shine you have today, Astro," he said, letting his hand fall along the hood from grille to windshield.  "Take care of yourself."

Henry liked how one backyard lapped over another, making for a sense of community, if you will, where folk like himself, harmless enough, could roam free, take shortcuts, or admire backyard additions from time to time.  Today, like every day, he was taking the backyard shortcut back from Elam, from the 7-11, where he went to buy a Cheerwine.  Henry stopped by the McCaffrey's garage and turned the bottle of Cheerwine up to the sky and took a long draw of the deep red liquid, letting it flood his mouth.  Bringing it down again, he said "that's good, damn that's good," making a mental note to check his supply when he got home.

He stopped and leaned down to pet the Griffin's dog, Bozo, a mixed lab-shepherd-terrier, if there is such a thing.  Grif had hit Bozo one time too many in the head with a rolled-up newspaper.  "Poor Bozo.  What's up today, Bozo?"  And there sat Bozo, looking up at Henry with his best nobody home look, tongue out, panting.  "Aw, I know what you want, you rascal."  Henry brought his Cheerwine bottle down and poured a bit into Bozo's mouth.  Bozo lapped it greedily.  "You the only dog I know likes Cheerwine, Bozo.  You're smart.  You're no dummy."  Henry gave Bozo a pat, and another, on the head, and walked on across the Griffin's backyard, whistling a song to himself, something sprightly and hopeful, Bozo following along behind.  (to be continued)

[I'm not sure where Henry came from, but I've been thinking about Cheerwine today.  The only restaurant in town that has it on tap stopped selling it, and I'm a little upset about it.  I guess I better write it out, you know.  But really, I needed to write something different, and while it's odd to publish this quickly something that needs developing, stay tuned.]

Gwendel's Magic

Gwendle1_1Fairies.  What parent doesn't tell their children of the tooth fairy? The promise of money makes pulling a tooth more palatable to some children.  I suppose some don't celebrate this event, but my parent engaged in this ruse, and so have I, particularly as of late with my daughter.

Researching the origins of the tooth fairy, I found out that the legend is rooted more in pagan tradition than you might think.  Unlike the rather benign and even admirable folklore surrounding Santa Claus (which at least has to its credit a bit of fact as well), this myth is a stranger one.  This tooth-toting sprite is sometimes said to originate in the Scandinavian myth of the tomte, or nisse, a mythical creature said to take care of a farmer's home and barn and protect it from misfortune, particularly at night.  Cultural historians say such stories have always surrounded teeth and that they have been viewed in the past as valuable in warding off witches and demons.  Others say that the fairy developed from the 18th century French story of the tooth mouse, "La Bonne Petite Souris," in which a mouse turns into a fairy in order to help a good Queen defeat and evil King by hiding under his pillow to torment him and knocking out all his teeth.  In fact, in Spain the tooth mouse still comes, not the tooth fairy.  I don't know, but the idea of a mouse under the pillow that can knock out all my teeth is not one I'd share with a small child.

All in all, the fact that so much is made of teeth is a bit odd, isn't it?And what on earth are Christians doing celebrating a pagan-derived myth?  I suggest it's simply a form of imaginary play with children and quite useful in developing their imagination, much as the Santa Claus and Easter Bunny myths continue to have a hold on young minds.  More than this, such myths can point us to the "true myth," as C.S. Lewis would say, the gospel. 

Such myths encourage a faith in things unseen, a belief in the incorporeal, and, ultimately, an understanding of the difference between the real and the imaginary.  Depending on how you shape the myth and utilize it, it can be either good or bad.  I suppose it could lead to a belief in occult practices, magic, and witchcraft, but I suspect that is uncommon.  None of my childhood friends took that plunge.  On the other hand, myths can lead to a greater understanding of the true myth.  Such a myth can defamiliarize the biblical idea of an unseen God, something many Christian kids hear from Day One.  They can sharpen the too-familiar truth that God, like the mythical tooth fairy, is real, though unseen and incorporeal (without body).  Then, at the right time, a child can come to understand that while the tooth fairy is not real, God is, an ever-present helper though unseen.

For now though, I'm just having fun with my daughter who has lots of questions about the tooth fairy, like what her favorite color is, how tall she is, whether she has wings, and more -- and, of course, the ultimate question of whether she will show herself to my daughter (which she follows by saying "I won't blab.")

So, the truth is the Tooth fairy rocks!  Let the above soothe your guilt ridden conscience.  Don't disparage the tooth fairy, or you may get a tooth mouse!  And that's the tooth!

God's Kind Hand: Growing Up in the Sixties (Chapter 3)

Wy_5 [God's Kind Hand is a series of vignettes about growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, written from the perspective of a teenage boy.  It is not autobiographical, though it is inspired by some events that actually ocurred.  You can read the combined Chapters 1, 2, and 3 here, if you like.]

That night was like cold hard steel.

Jimmy Murkawski and I lounged on the hood of my Dad’s Ford Fairlane station wagon, looking at the stars, or something, feeling the cold metal of the hood through my shirt.

“So, I’m sorry about your Dad.”

“I know.  Thanks”

Lame, but what could he say?  Jimmy Murkawski had been my best friend since moving here in 4th grade.  Every night Jimmy and I walked around our neighborhood, got a Pepsi at the neighborhood store, tried to meet girls (generally unsuccessfully).  Jimmy was loyal, always available, always a friend.  In fact, he was my only friend.

Inside it was funeral food and sober-faced people, some of whom I swear walked in right off the street just to get a free meal.  I had condolence fatigue. I could only mumble thanks, acknowledge them, and move on.  I had had enough of teary-eyed, weeping people.  I longed for something normal.

“I heard Donna Payne broke up with Brad Bullah.”

“What?  You’re kidding?  She’s free?”

“Yeah, she’s all yours Chuck.”

Mine, all mine.  I mean, Diane Payne was the best looking chick in the neighborhood.  About time she ditched an idiot like Brad Bullah. 

“I don’t know. . .”

“Well, maybe it’ll be just the thing to put your mind on Chuck, what with your Dad dying and all.”


Wait a minute.  I feel like a heel.  I mean, I’m evil.  Here I am thinking about a girl on the day after my Dad died.  What’s the matter with me?

“Man, I think I need  a little time.  I mean, I don’t know what to do.  It’s not like my Dad ever died before.  I mean, what do you do?

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.  I guess you gotta be sad, stay inside, remain sober, and generally have a terrible time, right?”

“Cut it out.  You know what I mean.”

Honestly, I didn’t know what to do.  I was concerned about my Mom, but mostly I just wanted my own life not to be upset too much.  Yeah, normal. I just wanted things to be normal.

I looked up at the sky.  It was a blanket of stars.  Dad, you up there?  At 15, life is existential, immediate.  I couldn’t get much farther than that wordless query.

Flipping over on my stomach, I looked through the front windshield and into the car.  Boxes and boxes of parts filled the back of the wagon.  What would we do with all those parts?  My Dad fixed washers and dryers and dishwashers.  I couldn’t. I wasn’t inclined mechanically.  No, I wasn’t inclined, period.  What am I going to do?

I saw him in the hospital two weeks before he died, all hooked up to machines and tubes.  He said Chuck take care of Mom, be a good boy, take care of your  Mom. . . and he grabbed my hand only it didn’t feel like his hand.  It was weak.  It was pale.

Take care of Mom? Be good? I don’t know what to do.

That’s what I mean.  Death is like cold hard steel.  Not a lot of answers here, just the cold hard fact of life ending.

Well, Jimmy and I got up and walked.  We walked the block.  We walked to the store.  We got a big Pepsi, and we drank it all, and we walked some more.  We stopped outside Donna Payne’s house. I stared at her window a long, long time.  Then I went home.   I just went home, home to linoleum floors and shag carpet, my mother’s weary face and dark dress, the people gone, the house cold.  I played Joni Mitchell, cold hard steel, oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.  I played I love you, my old man, my old man, played I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, and all I want, all I want is my old man, my old man.

All I want is my old man.

God's Kind Hand: Growing Up in the Sixties (Chapter 2)

Wy_3All of a sudden, without warning, my parents became religious.  I don’t know if it was the deterioration of my life under the tutelage of Brad Bullah, or their own attempt to rescue their marriage, but just after I started eighth grade we started attending Hillside Presbyterian Church.  My reputation suffered.   

Brad said that he would have protested, that he would have refused to go.  I considered this, and was about to take his advice, until something happened that changed my life: Susan Simms began attending services.  Susan was the college girlfriend of Jay Murkawski’s brother, Sam.  She became the focus of much of my attention during church services. 

Brad said Sam Murkawski was an idiot, that the only thing worse than being a wuss was being a stupid wuss.  That made me feel better. And yet, Sam had Susan, and I couldn’t understand that. 

During church I spent most of my time casting long and longing looks in Susan’s direction.  Let me be frank: Susan was tall, blonde, and shapely, and wore revealing dresses that guaranteed looks.  I couldn’t help myself.  If Susan sat on the right side of the church, most of the men leaned to the right; if on the left, to the left.  We were all captivated.  On occasion my mother would jab her elbow in my Dad’s side to break his focus as well.  In all practical respects, Susan became the sermon during those church services.  Brad said at least there was some good reason for me to be in church, what with Susan Simms being there.

At this point my knowledge of women was quite limited.  After all, unlike most of my friends, I had no sister.  What I knew of the other sex was deduced from bits of information gleaned from other guys (a not so trustworthy source), ads from Redbook and Good Housekeeping (which my mother assiduously removed as soon as possible), and my  roaming imagination. 

Come early August it was time once again for Hillside’s annual revival week.  Now I had not been through this process before, but it seemed daunting: church services every night for the entire week?  But I was offered no choice about it.      

“Boy, get your good pants on.  We’re going to church tonight and you’re gonna be there with us.         

“But Dad, I wanna watch the Smothers Brothers on TV.

“Those commies?  They’re making a mockery of this country.  No way.  You’re coming with us.”

So, you see, I had no choice.  I went. (Read more of Chaper 2 here, and read Chapter 1 here.)

God's Kind Hand: Growing Up in the Sixties (Chapter 1)

Wy [One of my favorite television shows of all time was The Wonder Years.  Each episode rang true to my life, as I could identify with Kevin and Pauly, just as if I had been there, growing up in the late Sixties.  So, when the show went off, I decided to try my hand at a story, or series of vignettes of growing up in the Sixties.  It's not exactly autobiographical, but you can bet my experiences have influenced the telling of the stories.  You can read a bit here, but to read the whole story, click on the link at the end of the post or here.  Stay tuned for more "episodes in the future.]

Brad Bullah is the epitome of cool.  As I sat on the steps leading to the kitchen door of my house, I contemplated why this was so, why God was so apparently indiscriminate in his gifts to mankind, why some kids got cool and some got athletic ability and some, like me, got zip, nothing.  I absent-mindedly peeled paint from the weathered rail I leaned on, flicking the chips off the side of the steps into the grass, passing time, wasting air, as I waited for Brad to come.

He was everything I loved, and everything I hated. He commanded the block.  His word was law.  He spoke with attitude about everything.  He bullied us, railed against our stupidity, and castigated our timidity.  School was an inconvenient evil, and he took leave of it whenever he decided to, asking no one, fearing not for the consequences.  I watched him sometimes.  He just walked away from the campus, never looking back, never worrying whether one of the bolder teachers would come after him.  They never did.

“Morrison, get down from there.”

That’s Brad.  He’s never said my first name, never uttered the word “Chuck,” though I hoped he would one day, that he’d actually be my friend, that we’d be on a first name basis.

“Morrison, are you coming?  I said get down.  Come on.  Are you dreaming or something?”

I leaped off the steps and caught up with Brad, who had already reached the edge of my lawn.  We walked silently down the street until we reached the Highfill house.  Highfill was the neighborhood grump, a real pain, always yelling at you when you cut through his lawn on the way to the street behind us.

“Now get over there and stuff these bottle rockets up the drain pipe before a car comes.”

“But what if. . .”

“What if old man Highfill comes out?  So what?  You can outrun him; you’re 12, he’s 40.  He’s an old man.  Now stop your whining and get with it.  We’ll be right over here.”

I looked at the bottle rockets in my hand.  Sammy Hahn, the neighborhood pyromaniac, had strapped ten bottle rockets together, rigged a common fuse, and packed gunpowder into the empty ink cap of a fountain pen to serve as a warhead.

“I don’t know. . .”

“What are you, a sissy?  GET OVER THERE,” he whispered loudly, and I took off, stooped in front of the drain pipe, lit the fuse, lay it in the drain pipe, and turned to run.

Brad, Sammy, and the rest of the gang were gone. [Read the whole story here.]