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.




  1. Gail Ingram says:

    Enjoyable story, Bill! Thank you for sharing….

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