McCain and other losses

Posted: September 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

A nation desperately in need of a hero gave Senator John McCain a heartfelt sendoff after his death last week of primary glioblastoma, a cancer of the brain that is very aggressive and quickly took his life.

McCain was a public servant of the first rank, and we owe him a final thank-you for showing us once again how the finest facets of citizenship in our country can sparkle. As he has throughout his life, the naval aviator still shows us a path through parlous times.

Through all the pomp and ceremony, my mind occasionally drifted to others whose lives were shortened by this particular  cancer. Another stalwart of democracy, Ted Kennedy, died of the same cancer several years ago. But I’m thinking about other victims — more common but just as significant in our local lives and just as heroic in their struggle with the brain disease.

Danny Fetzer, the brother of my longtime friend Marie Bryant, came into our life after his diagnosis two or three years ago, and we supported him in small ways as he sought treatments at Duke University hospital. We felt for his family when at last the tumor took him.

Most personal to me was the death of Alan Seneker, one of my Alumni Dorm mates from Carson-Newman College and one of my housemates when he was an exhibit designer at the Cheekwood art museum in Nashville. Al was an artist extraordinaire whose creativity finally found a niche (that could barely contain him) in Knox County schools, where he was a legendary art teacher and mentor. There are few times that I don’t mourn the fact that he is no longer with us.

O most Holy,

whom we humbly call Abba, Father,

Look on us your children

on this day we set aside to honor those

who have taken on the parenting of children.

As our own children leave the sanctuary,

Let us laugh at their youth and celebrate their growth.

Bless them with health and hope, and

Help us shepherd them in ways you would have them go.

Let us be thankful for caregivers we know and trust

who will soothe their fears and mend their hurts

until we see them again.

This morning, our Father,

let us see with YOUR eyes

the young ones just like ours across this nation,

tucked away in small cells in big-box stores,

the kids with fears that can’t be cured

by Teddy bears and three-squares.

Let us see with YOUR eyes

the fathers and mothers

too worried about their children

to face up to their own fears.

Let us see with YOUR eyes

the rent-a-caregivers who have

way too many kids to teach and wipe and hug.

Give them a portion of your compassion and strength.

Forgive us, O Father,

for the part we are playing in creating that loneliness,

for the fears our apathy forces on other families.

Show us your mercy so that we can share it with all who need it.

And give us your vision, O Abba,

to turn us to your own son Jesus,

who called on us to allow the children to come,

to welcome the stranger, to love the neighbor as we love ourselves.

Strengthen us to love mercy and bring an end to injustice.



Strands of compassion

Posted: June 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

The web of compassion is complex. Not all of its strands are visible. 
As I take Haley to work I often pass a solitary walker on Delrose or Riverside Drive. He’s always wearing a reflective vest and always walking into traffic, a good practice on a two-lane road heavy with fast dump truck traffic and people hurrying toward downtown. 

When it’s convenient and safe, I pick him up. Usually he’s in transit between home on Delrose and Paul’s Riverside Mkt and Deli. 
This morning he came in to Paul’s while I was having my morning biscuit. As I was finishing my breakfast, he finished his and ask me for a ride home. When he got to the car he was carrying white gallon jugs tied up in a bunch, throwaways from the distilled water the deli uses in some of its equipment. 
“What are these for?” I was pulling into his driveway when I got around to asking. 
“I hope you don’t mind carrying them. I fill them with water for the homeless.”
“No, not at all. But how do you deliver them?” I had seen him carrying groceries home from Burlington and knew he couldn’t carry the filled jugs downtown, where homeless people congregate. 

“Oh, I give them to homeless people who pass on the road.” He gestured at the street in front of his house. “There seem to be more of them these days.”

Even with his transit limits, my friend has found a way to reclaim discarded plasticware and serve the most basic need of human beings that themselves are discarded by our society. 
The vaunted safety net of the 1980s never self-deployed, but individual human beings still cast out strands of compassion that snare their needy fellows and provide life-giving refreshment. 

Hope for dessert

Posted: March 22, 2017 in Uncategorized

Yesterday we made three stack cakes (short stack) for the bake sale Project Search is holding today at UT Medical Center. Project Search is a nine-month internship program offering people with intellectual/developmental disabilities the chance to develop skills that make them employable at the hospital or other similar enterprises. 
The PS interns (including daughter Haley) decided the proceeds would go to the med center’s canine squad, not their own program. For people too often forced to depend on the kindness of strangers, the opportunity to make a contribution is vital. No one wants to feel like a drain on the community. 

PS is a boon for Haley. She has always had a tremendous work ethic, and the job coaching she is getting is giving her the skills to work effectively and independently in the complex hospital environment. The training has started with the basics — getting to the work site, putting on rubber gloves — and has moved to wiping down equipment and other involved tasks. And she is being recognized as one of their best interns (sometimes a good work ethic pays off).
The transition out of Carter HS has been hard for Haley. She is very social and the inclusion programs at CHS were very supportive. In the months since leaving Carter, she has floundered without the accepting environment of her teachers and fellow students. 
Project Search is rescuing her. She has bought into her new role as a working girl. Recently when I suggested that she might need to miss a day of work, she rejected that in no uncertain terms. “I have to go. The hospital needs me.” And she is building new friends among the other PS interns. They gather as a group around the entrance before going in to their assignments. 
Every morning at 7:55, it’s a joyous experience to watch her get out of the van and stride purposefully toward the door, facing her day with all the fortitude of a WWI doughboy going over the top. It gives me fresh hope that she can make her way in the world as she faces the other changes life is sure to bring her. 

Hope for dessert

Posted: March 22, 2017 in Uncategorized

Yesterday we made three stack cakes (short stack) for the bake sale Project Search is holding today at UT Medical Center. Project Search is a nine-month internship program offering people with intellectual/developmental disabilities the chance to develop skills that make them employable at the hospital or other similar enterprises.

The PS interns (including daughter Haley) decided the proceeds would go to the med center’s canine squad, not their own program. For people too often forced to depend on the kindness of strangers, the opportunity to make a contribution is vital. No one wants to feel like a drain on the community.

PS is a boon for Haley. She has always had a tremendous work ethic, and the job coaching she is getting is giving her the skills to work effectively and independently in the complex hospital environment. The training has started with the basics — getting to the work site, putting on rubber gloves — and has moved to wiping down equipment and other involved tasks. And she is being recognized as one of their best interns (sometimes a good work ethic pays off).

The transition out of Carter HS has been hard for Haley. She is very social and the inclusion programs at CHS were very supportive. In the months since leaving Carter, she has floundered without the accepting environment of her teachers and fellow students.

Project Search is rescuing her. She has bought into her new role as a working girl. Recently when I suggested that she might need to miss a day of work, she rejected that in no uncertain terms. “I have to go. The hospital needs me.” And she is building new friends among the other PS interns. They gather as a group around the entrance before going in to their assignments.

Every morning at 7:55, it’s a joyous experience to watch her get out of the van and stride purposefully toward the door, facing her day with all the fortitude of a WWI doughboy going over the top. It gives me fresh hope that she can make her way in the world as she faces the other changes life is sure to bring her.

In the Bleak Midwinter

Posted: December 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

When Jay’s mom dropped him off at church, the bus was parked outside the educational building, huffing out a thin bluish smoke that smelled faintly of oil. Mr. Dwight’s silhouette, bunched over the steering wheel, showed against the security lights above the Tastee-Freez across the parking lot.

Jay had wanted to give the bus some slightly disreputable but affectionate nickname — he liked Blue Goose — but he couldn’t make it stick. Most of the kids already knew the retired bus as Old 26, which had served the Allensville run to the elementary and high schools for almost two decades. And it wasn’t blue, not even where the primer was showing through the oxidized yellow paint.

As his mother’s car disappeared around the building, a gust of sleet and rain ambushed Jay from behind. He pinched his sports coat together in front and hurried inside, past the darkened fellowship hall toward the bright, noisy choir room at the end of the corridor. He paused for a moment before entering the commotion.

Mrs. Nicely was stacking old hymnals into a cardboard box. Susie and Tammy had Brent cornered against a rack of choir robes — their chatter accounted for more than half the racket in the room. Michelle was sorting sheet music into the cubbyholes that held their choir folders. Her dress was a Christmasy red-and-green plaid, made frilly with a touch of white lace at the collar. Walt was nowhere to be seen.

Jay checked his new tie, a dark brown one with a tiny, sophisticated symbol—a chevron or fleur-de-lis, he wasn’t sure which—embroidered onto it. It was the first tie he had ever bought for himself and, unlike the spotted and wrinkled hand-me-downs from his dad, was a classy modern clip-on with a matching handkerchief he had folded and tucked neatly into his hip pocket. He fingered his fly, marked Michelle’s whereabouts again, and stepped into the room.

“Jay!” Walt ambushed him from behind the door. “How are they hangin’?”

“Back off, Walt, back off,”  Jay growled and turned to see whether Michelle had heard the impropriety.

“What’sa matter, Buddy? The mean old quarterback hasn’t been bothering your little missionary. I been watchin’ him.”

“Second-string.” Jay glanced at Brent, who was still tied up with Susie and Tammy.

“What? Oh, yeah, man, the mean old second-string quarterback. So, you ready to go sing to the jailbirds.”

“Walter Boling. Shame on you.” Coming up behind them, Mrs. Nicely had overheard Walt’s last tease. “That’s no way for a deacon’s son to be talking about people less fortunate than we are. I don’t want to hear that again.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Turtlelike, Walt drew his head a little deeper into his collar and slunk out of range. Jay looked over at Brent, who was breaking away from the girls and edging toward Michelle.

“Now, Jay, I couldn’t reach Mrs. Wilson about the autoharp, so I just think we’ll have to do this a cappella. Should we take a pitch pipe? It would have been so much better with the autoharp.” Mrs. Nicely was wound up. “Now I plan to ask Michelle to read the Christmas story. I’d like for you, as president of the choir, to have a short prayer at the end.”

She was off to another task before Jay could reply. Normally he would have groaned, but the director’s suggestion put him on the program with Michelle. Walt caught his eye.

“Let’s all sing like the jailbirds sing, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet.” Walt sang in a whisper and made discreet flapping movements with his arms.

Jay scowled and reached for him but he skittered off between the folding chairs. He turned around to find himself face to face with Michelle. She was attractive in a slender, delicate way that left him almost senseless when he was around her.

“That’s such a pretty, uh, uh, . . .” He pointed at the shiny foil ornament pinned above the modest mound  of her left breast.

“Reindeer.” She smiled.

“Yeah. Uh, I think, uh. . . .” He groped for something profound to say about the season. “Just to think, Jesus died so you could wear that reindeer.”

It didn’t sound strange until Walt snorted behind him, which prompted him to notice Michelle’s somewhat baffled look.

“I mean, no, the reindeer, uh, . . . “

“Time to go.” Before he could recover, Mrs. Nicely dumped a dozen folders into his hands and began ushering them toward the door. “I told the sheriff we’d be there promptly at 6:30. Brent, Susie, grab that music. Rhonda, turn off the lights, Dear.”

The group rolled noisily out to the bus. Jay held back, letting the boys who wanted the back seat rush up the steps first. He took a seat on the right side of the bus, about  a third of the way back, and was turning to look for Michelle when Walt slid in beside him.

“Don’t you want to sit in the back?” Jay glowered.

“Nah, they’ll get in trouble back there. Besides she’s already sitting with Rhonda.”

Jay looked to the front of the bus, where Michelle’s willowy figure was settling in next to Rhonda’s thickset form. He slumped onto the bench seat.

The highway to the county seat wound through low, nobby hills dotted with cluttered little farmsteads, each with its own streetlight. Jay watched these vaguely until he realized that the mirrored reflections on the inside of the bus windows let him watch Michelle without being obvious. Seeing her grace, her beauty, her purity, even reflected darkly in a makeshift mirror, he thought back to the moment when he had proposed this trip. Mrs. Nicely had wanted the youth choir to carol, but no one was enthusiastic. Someone had proposed the nursing home, but the Methodist youth choir already had that wrapped up; he had been sitting across from Michelle watching her chew unselfconsciously on her lower lip when the idea hit him.

“We could go to the county jail and carol for the prisoners.”

No one else had been enthusiastic, but Michelle had looked up and smiled at him, which was the all he needed to fire up first himself and then Mrs. Nicely on the project. It had been pure inspiration, put in his mind by God, he was confident, as an opportunity to win souls to Christ and impress Michelle, the child of missionaries to the wilds of Costa Rica, that he, too, was worthy.

His thoughts drifted to the upcoming performance. He had never been inside the jail, had never thought that he would be, but now he was sure it would be a spirit-filled place where he and this band of young Christians would change the lives of sinners less fortunate — or maybe more willful — than he. He could see Otis-like characters coming out of the cells and falling on their knees, repenting and accepting the Lord, while the choir quietly hummed “Silent Night” and the amiable sheriff, looking remarkably like Andy Griffith, beamed nearby and he and Michelle shared words of assurance with the newly convicted convicts.

“Get offa me.” Walt elbowed him in the ribs. “I’m gonna hurt you if you don’t get offa me.”

Jay started, surprised to find that he was leaning on Walt. He sat up and looked out the window in time to see the gothic courthouse pass. The bus turned into a parking lot behind the courthouse and pulled to the front of a squat, unadorned two-story building. As the choir began to stir, Mrs. Nicely stepped out of the bus briskly and hurried up the concrete steps to the jail’s front entrance.

“Let’s all sing like the jailbirds do, tweet, tweet-tweet. . . .”

Jay ignored Walt and started toward the front of the bus. Mrs. Nicely stepped out on the porch and began to motion people inside.

The front walk was flanked by scrappy squares of brown lawn. Battered metal cauldrons and tubs and copper tubing were displayed sculpturelike in each. A light dusting of snow threw the dents and twists into white relief. Behind the stills, white plastic candlesticks with blue electric bulbs shone from curtained windows at ground level. Walt nudged Jay.

“That’s where the sheriff and his family live.” Jay did not believe him for an instant.

At the top of the steep steps, Mrs. Nicely held the heavy metal door open for them.

“Welcome to your county jail.” Sheriff Dunn was a tall, big-boned man with angular features and joints that seemed to jut out at odd places through his khaki uniform. He addressed them in a deep, somewhat hoarse voice that took on a preachy, cautionary tone for their benefit. “We’re glad to see good folks like you, especially under circumstances like these.” He winked at Tammy.

“Look at him.” Walt turned his head and talked into his cupped hand. “His parts ain’t all from the same model year.” Jay grimaced and sidled away from Walt. The group was standing in a hall that ran the length of the main floor. Metal doors cut by screened windows lined either side of the passage. Dunn made a gesture that indicated the doors on the right side of the hall.

“This is our contraband room, and these are our special confinement cells.” He nodded toward two doors. “We put runaways and other special cases here to keep them out of the lockup upstairs.”

“Look at the beer.” Walt was peeking through the window of the first cell. Jay glanced in to see a room stacked with boxes of liquor, cases of beer, and other contraband stacked haphazardly on the bunks in the cell and even on the stainless steel commode in the middle of the far wall. He was surprised — he had never thought about where prisoners went to the bathroom.

“Sheriff!” A radio crackled in a room on the other side of the hall , and Dunn poked his head into the dispatcher’s office. He stuck his head out the door to give orders to a deputy. “LeRoy, take these folks up the back stairs to the kitchen. I’m going to have to tend to this.”

“Come this way, Folks.” LeRoy headed toward the other end of the hall with Mrs. Nicely and most of the rest of the choir in tow. Jay checked to see if everyone was headed upstairs, but found Walt, Brent, and a couple of other boys clustered outside a cell struggling to see in the tiny window. Snickering, they scattered as he came up to the window.

Inside was a teenager, a girl, twirling slowly in the middle of the cell, as if she were in a trance. Through the reinforced glass it took Jay a minute to realize she had taken off her blouse and was dancing topless. Jay’s head snapped around as if he had been slapped, but he had seen enough — the small nipples on the almost flat boyish chest. He had never seen a girl’s bare breasts before, and he wanted to turn back and stare but, no, he had always planned to save that for his wedding night with the woman he would marry, maybe, in his most recent fantasies, Michelle.

“You like lookin’ at our runaways?” The hoarse bass voice right at Jay’s ear sent a jolt through him. “We picked her up a couple of hours ago. When she comes down off of whatever she’s been takin’, we’ll try to find out who she is and where she belongs.”

The sheriff looked him up and down.

“Now you get upstairs with the rest of ’em. I’ll be up in a couple of minutes.”

As Jay hurried down the hall, the sheriff stood looking in the cell window.

In the kitchen, Jay found Mrs. Nicely arranging the way she wanted the choir to stand. When she finished,  the deputy fitted a big brass key, worn shiny by decades of use, into the lock in a heavy door on the other side of the kitchen and swung it wide. The choir filed quietly into a long narrow hall against the outside wall, which had barred, meshed windows at regular intervals. The other side of the hall was the lockup, a large barred cell with benches and a battered metal picnic table bolted to the floor. With the exception of two stainless steel toilets that stuck out from the wall on either end of the room, everything was covered in varying shades of green enamel, all with a uniform crust of grime.

Within the lockup some 20 to 30 men sat crowded on benches or lounged against the bars, smoking or talking quietly or playing cards. They slowly fell silent and turned as one to look at the entering group. The smell of the place was a pissy meld of unwashed bodies and cigarette smoke with overtones of Pinesol and stale grease. The stench was magnified by ovenlike heat wafting from radiators under the windows. Instinctively, Jay stepped back against the wall, bumping against Walt, who for once was silent. All the choir members seemed suddenly to shrink in size and significance as they cowered before their audience.

“Hey, Babe.” One of the prisoners pointed at Michelle. “What you doin’ after this gig?”

“Shut up, Rauhuff.” The deputy made a threatening move toward the bars. “Now listen here. These nice kids ’ve come to sing for you. You show ’em respect or we’ll have some personalized discussions about it when they’re gone.” The crowd mumbled and stirred.

The circumstances didn’t daunt Mrs. Nicely. She stepped forward and addressed the prisoners without hesitation.

“Hello. We are the youth choir from Evergreen Community Baptist Church, and we’re here to sing for you and wish you a Merry Christmas. Our church is a spirit-filled, growing fellowship, and we invite you to visit us sometime when you are,” she had not seen where this was going, “uh . . . vailable.” Someone in the crowd snickered loudly. Jay saw one of the men retreat toward the back wall.

“O, Come All Ye Faithful.” Mrs. Nicely turned briskly, snapped her hands into directing position, and hummed a pitch softly. She looked over her shoulder into the lockup. “Feel free to sing along.”

O, come, all ye faithful . . . . The start was ragged but the choir found a pitch they liked and picked up by the end of the first line. . . . joyful and triumphant, . . . Jay could not hear any of the prisoners joining. . . . O, come ye, O, come ye, to Bethlehem. . . . “

The second verse was weaker as various choir members turned to the carol books in the dim light, but Jay leaned into the bass line, and again the choir seemed to suck in its gut and put forth more sound. They were halfway through the third verse, and Jay was thinking about hijacking the group into doing the Latin version of the first verse when someone started choking and wheezing. The singing died off as if a plug had been pulled and the choir wilted against the wall. Jay heard someone gasping. Michelle was doubled over, unable either to cough or to draw breath.

“Where’s her inhaler?” Mrs. Nicely began to pat down the pockets of Michelle’s dress and sweater. Suddenly there was the sound of plastic hitting concrete, and the inhaler skittered across the floor in parts. The little canister rolled under the bars and into the lockup, and Jay saw a prisoner palm it.

“Hey, you’ve got Michelle’s inhaler. Hey.” Jay moved to the bars to confront a short man with greasy dark hair.

“What? No, Kid, what. . . .” The man started to back away from the bars.

“Give it back, Dumb Ass.” Another prisoner, a big man in denim overalls, clapped a hand on the first man’s shoulder from behind. “It’s not drugs; it’s the little girl’s inhaler.”

“Who you callin’ dumb ass?”

The big man snatched the piece and handed it through the bars to Jay. Mrs. Nicely snapped the device together. Michelle clutched it to her lips, pumped, and inhaled greedily.

“Let’s get her out of this hot room.” Mrs. Nicely put an arm across her back and led her out. She paused in the door. “Jay, sing something.”

For a moment, Jay thought she meant for him to sing a solo, but Walt tugged him around and handed him a carol book. It fell open to “In the Bleak Midwinter” and, taking that as a sign, Jay called out the number. He stepped to the front of the group, held up his hand for their attention, and hummed the first pitch that came to mind.

If “Bleak Midwinter” was a sign, it was not an auspicious sign. The choir was not very familiar with it and kept having to grope for the words on the page. Jay had pitched it too high, and when the choir came to snow was falling, snow on snow, sno-o-ow on snow all the boys dropped out. Jay soldiered on with the bass line, but by the time they reached the end of the second verse, the ensemble had been reduced to a duet between himself and Tammy, who was firmly staying the course on the alto line. Before Tammy could launch into the third verse, he cut the song off. The inmates were beginning to snigger and murmur. As Jay was turning desperately through the book for another carol, the sheriff burst in through the kitchen door carrying something that look like, but not entirely like, a guitar.

“Have I missed all the singin’?”

Dunn stepped up beside Jay and faced the choir. He strummed a broad chord on the guitar-shaped instrument. The sound was unexpectedly loud and twangy. Several singers flinched and Jay took a quick step back.

“Not many people know it, but in my other life, I’m known as Dobro Dunn, the Musical Lawman. I used to play regular before I was elected sheriff, but I don’t have much time for it now.”

He struck another chord and slid what looked like the neck of a blue-green Coke bottle up the frets of the instrument.

“You want to do ‘Amazin’ Grace’?”

Jay drew back, searching for words. “Well, we were trying to stick with carols, Christmas music. I don’t think. . . .”

“Christmas music. Sure. I can play ‘Silent Night.’ ” He chorded a phrase that Jay thought might be the first line of the carol. “All right. ‘Silent Night.’ ”

Before Jay could raise his arms to get the choir’s attention, the sheriff was into a shrill, tinny rendition that echoed off the cinderblock walls. Jay gave up the notion of conducting and began to sing along, hoping to catch the eyes of the choir and encourage them to join in.

. . . sleep in heavenly puh-eeeeece . . . The dobro spilled a whole scale of tones as the sheriff slid to the high note. . . . suh-leep in heavenly peace. Jay struggled to hold to the bass line, then, as the sheriff moved into the second verse, abandoned that in favor of hunting for the melody. The sheriff was bent over his dobro when Rhonda rushed the bars. Holding to the steel, she stood on tiptoe and tried to see over the crowd to a man who hung back against the far wall.

“Bobby? Bobby! Is that you, Bobby? Over here, Bobby.”

The prisoner, chubby in orange coveralls, looked at her and then glanced away. The chords of the carol reverberated through the room.

“Bobby. Bobby. Momma said you were in South Carolina. She said you had a job. Bobby.”

The man edged forward slowly, hesitantly, looking at the floor like he wished he could sink into it. When he got within reach, Rhonda thrust her arms through the bars and grabbed his clothing, pulling him to her.

“Oh, Bobby.” She began to sob, and he reached through to put a hand on her head. The twang of the dobro choked off.

“Here! HYAR! Get away from the prisoners! Get back! Get BACK!”

The sheriff slung the instrument behind him on its strap and wrestled Rhonda off the bars. He thrust her at a uniformed deputy who had come running.

“You get back.” The sheriff fixed a long stare on Bobby. “Godammit. Now we’re going to have to have a lockdown and search everybody.”

The officers hustled Rhonda out and, as the door slammed behind them, Jay again found both choir and prisoners looking expectantly at him. He paused for only a second before turning to Susie, who had brought her Bible. He held the book vertically in front of him. He had been a champion at Sword Drill when he was younger, and now he was going to put that training to use. He opened the Bible to where he thought the Gospels would be and began to look for the Christmas story. Scanning the page, he found familiar words. He held up his hand and the prisoners grew quiet, even, he thought, a little reverential.

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up and, as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read.”

It didn’t sound quite the way Jay remembered it, but it mentioned Nazareth, and he had everyone’s attention. He pushed on.

“And there was delivered to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And he found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor,” — Jay straightened and stood a little taller, his voiced moved into a lower register — “he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives,” someone in the lockup gave a shrill whistle, “set at liberty them that are bruised . . .”

“Hey, yeah!” A voice from the lockup rose above his. “Yeah, set free the captives, that’s it. Turn us loose, let us out of here.” Another joined him. “Yeah, we want out. Now.” And another. “I want to go home for Christmas. Let me out.”

Jay tried to go on with the reading but fell silent as the group turned “Let me out” into a rhythmic chant and began to beat on the metal table and the benches. “Let. Us. Out. Let. Us. Out. Let. Us. . . . “

The deputy scurried out, to return only seconds later with the sheriff.

“What the hell is going on in here.” The sheriff strode to the center of the room, followed by three deputies with nightsticks. The officers began to hit at any hand sticking out through the bars, while the sheriff turned to the choir.

“Get the HELL out of my jail. I don’t want to see you in here ever again, unless you’re in handcuffs,” he focused on Jay, “and then you’ll pay for this.”

Brent broke for the door and the rest of the choir was sucked out behind him through the kitchen and down the stairs. Dazed, Jay took a last look into the room, where more deputies had come to help the first officers. The chanting had given way to yells and screams.

Outside, the spitting sleet had ceased and the black sky was Lucite-clear. After the hot, dank jail, the air was gelid, all-enveloping. Jay took a deep breath, then another. He came down the steps heavily and joined the others at the bus door. Walt was eager to talk.

“Whoa. Rhonda’s brother in the slammer. What a Christmas surprise.”

“Shut up, Walt.” Jay glanced around but did not see Rhonda.

“Well, jeez, you’d think her momma would tell her her brother’s doing eleven-twenty-nine.”

Jay elbowed Walt in the ribs and stepped away from the group. He was the last to climb on the bus. Mrs. Nicely was standing behind the driver, moving her lips and one finger as she quietly counted the choir. Michelle was sitting by herself about half way back, spent and small against the window. Closer to the front with no one near her, Rhonda sat, her shoulders twitching rhythmically. Walt was on the back seat, chattering manically — Jay caught the words “cons” and “riot” and “jailbreak.” Everyone else was paired in downcast little knots near the emergency door in the rear of the bus.

Jay’s hand went to his neck. He yanked at the clip-on, crumbled it into a coat pocket, and headed down the aisle toward Michelle. He was passing Rhonda when he heard a snuffle and a whimper. He looked back at Rhonda and groped in his back pocket for a hankie. The slick new kerchief came to hand. With another glance toward Michelle and then toward the scarred sheet-metal roof, he slipped into the seat beside Rhonda and handed her the square of cloth. Without looking up she took it and blotted her nose and eyes. Awkwardly, he put his arm on the back of the seat. Mrs. Nicely caught his eye — he couldn’t read her look — and then said something quietly to Mr. Dwight. The door closed, the gears shifted, and  with a clank and a growl, the bus began to roll out of the parking lot.

Rhonda’s sobs grew irregular and phlegmy and she slowly relaxed against Jay. He sat a little straighter and put his arm across her shoulders. He looked toward the window. In the cold glassy reflection, he could see Michelle. Brent had taken the seat beside her, and she was snuggled in next to him, her eyes closed, his arm around her, his hand draped loosely over the Christmas foil reindeer.

Rhonda began to snore gently. Jay refocused his eyes on the darkling landscape unreeling outside the bus: a dilapidated carwash, closed for the season, a trash barrel blocking one of the bays; an insurance office with a tinfoil Christmas tree in the window, glittering first red, then blue, then green, then yellow; Christmas lights garnishing a distant subdivision; sage grass fields deckled with rows of black cedars and, above the mounded hills, crisp stars.

NOTE: I wrote this story for a graduate class in creative writing at the University of Tennessee way back in 2006. It’s never been published and has languished in the nether regions of my hard drive ever since. I’m publishing it on my blog (while retaining all rights to any future use of it) as a present for you this Christmas 2015.

Liz Gilbert, whose writing course I took when she was a guest artist at UT, told me once that my style was like that in stories out of the ’40s or ’50s. For a long time, I took that as a compliment, but I’ve since realized that my old road is rapidly aging. If I’m to put this in front of a readership who will appreciate it without copious footnotes, I’ve got to get it into print now. So here it is.

For anyone who spent time in or around the Sevier County Jail in the mid-’70s, or who thinks he or she sang in the Evergreen youth choir, no real-life reputations were damaged in the telling of this tale — except maybe my own. Though the story is a complete fiction, nonetheless every word is true.




The lop-tailed white-and-yellow cat prowling the savannas of Sterling College had found prey. A rodenty creature — chipmunk or ground squirrel or whatever the Vermont equivalent of a boomer is — had made the mistake of crossing the lawn behind Madison Dorm while the cat was on guard. Several of us, fresh from environmental writing workshops, paused to watch the interplay.

Across the lush grass, the chipmunk skittered toward an island of ferns and wild plants near the dorm. The cat looked on with whetted attention, eyes focused, ears erect, ready instantly to mount an interception. But it didn’t. The chipmunk reached the sanctuary of the knee-high growth without mishap.

Then the cat began its stalking. It patrolled the edges of the wild bed, peeking over and around the fern stalks, poking its nose under the broad burdock leaves. Occasionally it jumped into the patch, sometimes emerging with the wiggling ‘munk in its mouth. But it always managed to drop the squirrel, which would immediately disappear back into the wild patch. Then the cat would go back to its stalking, delighted — if feline delight can be inferred from alertness and vitality — to be in the hunt again.

Finally the boomer made a break for the dorm. It ran along the foundation, trying to find a chink in the stone, but there was none. Nor would the basement windows open no matter how hard it chunked its small body desperately against the glass. The cat caught up with it and caught it — again and again and again. Occasionally it would issue a peep of pain or protest; sometimes it would stand up defiantly to combat the cat.

Some of the onlookers considered an intervention. For me there were issues with acting: After the rescue, what would we do with the ‘munk, which was already showing signs of injury? Take it to a wildlife ER? What if it escaped only to set up residence in the dorm. Infestations of chipmunks can do major damage to structures. The informal consensus of the crowd was that a cat’s gotta do what a cat’s gotta do.

For all its skill in the hunt, the cat seemed unsure about administering the coup de grace. Catlike it continued to toy with the squirrel, which by this point had taken refuge under its persecutor. Finally, bowed up either from injury or anger, the chipmunk rounded the front corner of the dorm with the cat in close pursuit. The show over, the spectators began to scatter.


On more than one occasion, I have made a different choice in these life-and-death dramas.

My father was a beekeeper and honey producer. Our garden was forever full of bee stands , and summers the white clover in the yard was always awash in bees. By the time I was a sixth-grader, I was expected to help move hives and carry supers of honey as needed. Though I hated being stung and was never to be an apiarist, I took pride in Dad’s accomplishments among the bees and felt a marginal level of ownership in the enterprise.

It was in that spirit that I reacted one day when I found a worker bee caught in a strand of spider web in our garage. The strand was old and ragged, not obviously a part of any intricate web, so after checking for any menacing spiders, I decided to free the insect. It was, after all, one of our bees.

First I tried breaking lose some of the surrounding strands, but that didn’t help. Then I decided to put my finger up to the bee to give it a place to stand while I broke the final silk loose. A moment later,the bee was writhing on the floor and its stinger, complete with venom sack, was pulsing in the flesh of my forefinger.

I was stung by the ingratitude. Not only was my finger throbbing, but the dumb bee was going to die anyway — because, unlike wasps and hornets, a bee guts itself when it uses its barbed stinger. My altruistic impulse had accomplished nothing — except maybe to deny an industrious spider its supper. At that tender age, nursing my finger,  I resolved not  to interfere again in the natural order, even on behalf of a family-owned insect.


That was a promise I didn’t keep.

Two dozen years later, I found a dirt dauber in the same circumstances as those of the long-dead bee — hung up in an abandoned strand of silk on my parents’ back porch. I thought back to the philosophical pledge of my childhood, but this time I realized there was an important difference: Dirt daubers don’t sting people. They sting spiders, which they load, alive but paralyzed, into the long mud tubes where they lay their eggs. When spring comes, the wasp larvae feed on a meal of living spiders, still fresh thanks to the miracle of suspended animation.

So I looked around for a spider and, seeing none, freed the wasp, as a benevolence from one of God’s well-intending creatures to another. No sooner did the last of the cord fall away than the dauber flew in a beeline to another web further along the porch. There it landed on a fresh web and, as I watched, gave the web a firm shake. When it shook the web a second time, a small spider, hairy like a little terrier, stepped from hiding and advanced boldly to claim its prey.

What happened next had all the choreographed formality of a balletic pas-de-deux. The spider reared back on its hind sets of legs and lifted its front legs to grasp the wasp. In a move that was almost sexual, the dauber squatted over the spider and hunched down on it. The spider wilted visibly, its eight legs drawing up under its body in an arachnine fetal position as the venom took effect. Then, like a mother cat picks up its kitten, the wasp flew off toward its nest with the spider hanging from its mouth.


Human beings are “the ethical animal,” in C.H. Waddington’s phrase. Unlike other species, we can act out of altruism, a sense of fairness, a notion of justice, a belief that there are necessary actions that must be taken, even when those actions appear not to be in the best interest of the individual. Among most of us, there is some assumption that this is the way the world itself is structured, that our best wishes are somehow woven into the DNA of all creation, patterned in the structure of atoms, mirrored in the cosmos.

We’re wrong about that.

The cat’s tendency to play with its food, the bee’s impulse to sting when it perceives danger, the intricate dance staged by the wasp and the spider — these have been bred into behavior by the confluence of evolution and circumstance. Free choice does not exist there; nor does gratitude. There are no neutral actions — just neural actions. Each bee that is freed leaves a hungry spider. Each wasp turned loose is a dead spider. Each escaped chipmunk leaves a cat with an unfilled destiny — and belly.

But our impulse to interfere, our tendency to read human values and motives into natural events and circumstances — these are part of our makeup as human beings. As much as the cat is instinctively a stalker and a toyer, we are evolutionarily determined to make self-conscious, anthropomorphic value judgments. We, too, have no freedom. We see through human eyes and add a patina of human values to the situations that present themselves to our awareness. That is the state of our being. We can do no other.


A few moments after the cat disappeared in pursuit of the chipmunk, one of my fellow workshoppers came around the corner of the dorm and spooked both cat and ‘munk into the open lawn again. A cat lover herself, she addressed the feline: “We can’t have that.” It looked up at her, and the chipmunk used that instant of inattention to scamper up a nearby maple, leaving the cat on the ground looking up the tree.

Wildbranch Writing Conference

Sterling College

Craftsbury Common, Vermont

07 June 2007