The Manger Is Empty – Part 1 of 3

This second Christmas story is for everyone, inasmuch as the Christmas Story itself is. The first story I shared unfolded a wondrous, physical miracle that is perfectly explainable. . . yet remarkably outside the spread of galactic chances.

This story, is a father’s glimpse into a soul so big in one so young. It is a story without guile, unashamed at its own goodness and wisdom. Let it take you where it will:

The Manger Is Emptyby Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Part I

We have a custom in our congregation: Always we gather on the Sunday evening before Christmas, bundled and hatted and happy, and we go out into the sharp December darkness to sing carols. Down the streets of the city we go, the children bounding forward, adults all striding behind, chattering, making congenial noises, puffing ghosts of breath beneath the streetlights, laughing and glad for the company. Does anyone think it will snow? It’s cold enough to snow, and the air is still, and the stars are already a snow-dust in heaven.

We crowd on the porches of the old folks. The children feel a squealing excitement because they think we’re about to astonish Mrs. Moody in her parlor by our sudden appearing—carols from the out-of-doors, you know. She’ll be so surprised! So they giggle and roar a marvelous Hark! with their faces pressed against her window: Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king. . .

Mrs. Moody turns on her porch light, then opens her curtains, and there she is, shaking her head and smiling, and the children fairly burst with glee. They can hardly stand it, to be so good. She turns on her porch light, and here we are, 15, maybe 20 of us, spilling down her steps into the little yard, lifting our faces, lifting our voices—doing silly things, like lifting our key rings to the refrain of “Jingle Bells” and making a perfect, rhythmic jangle.Everybody’s willing to be a kid. Nobody minds the cold tonight. The white faces among us are pinched with pink, the black ones (we are mostly black ones) frost, as though the cold were a white dust on our cheeks.

And down the street we go again, and so we sing for Mrs. Lander and Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Buckman and Mrs. DeWitt.

And though we can be silly, and though this is just an ordinary custom, yet we are no ordinary choir. Many of us sing for the Sounds of Grace, a choir of legitimate repute. And some of us have been blessed by God with voices the angels would weep to own.

Mary, whose heart could ponder so much.

And so it was that on Sunday evening, the 20th of December, 1981, we kept our custom and went out caroling. My daughter Mary was seven years old then. Dee Dee Lawrence, that blinking, innocent child whose beauty was not remarkable until she sang, was eight. Timmy Moore, with his husky and generous tenor voice, was with us, and the Hildreth children. Most of the children’s choir, in fact, had come along. The night was not much different from those that went before – except for this, the when we had finished our round of houses we went to St. Mary’s Hospital to sing for several members who were patients at Christmas time. We divided into three groups. As pastor, I myself led a handful of children to the room of Odessa Williams because her condition was worse than the others.

It was Odessa Williams who made the night different.

The children had never laid eyes on her before. When they crept into the ward and saw her cadaverous body, they were speechless. Scared, I think. Mary’s blue eyes grew very large, and I felt pity for her.

Well, I knew what to expect, but Mary didn’t. I had been visiting the woman for several years now –first in her apartment, where she’d been housebound, then in the nursing home –and I had watched the wasting of Odessa.

Two years ago she had been a strapping tall woman of strong ways, strong opinions, and very strong affections. Fiercely she had loved the church that she couldn’t actually attend. She’d kept abreast of congregational activities by telephone, by a gossip system, bu bulletins and newsletters and friends –and by me. She pumped me for information every time I visited her, striding about her apartment in crushed slippers, waving her old black arms in strong declaration of the things she thought I ought to do and the things I ought not, as pastor, to be doing.

I had learned, for my own protection, to check her mouth as soon as I entered her room. If the woman wore dentures, she was mad: She wanted her words to click with clarity, to snap and hiss with a precision equal to her anger. Mad at me, she needed teeth. But if she smiled a toothless smile on me, then I knew that her language would be soft and I had her approval – that week. She was particularly fierce regarding her children, the choir, the Sounds of Grace, though she had never heard them sing. She loved them. She swelled with a grand, maternal love for them. And if ever I had not, by her estimate, done right by these children, the teeth in the mouth of Odessa Williams were the flashing, clacking weapons of an avenging angel.

The disease that kept her housebound and sent her to the nursing home was cancer.

Cancer, finally, had laid her in the hospital.

And it was cancer that frightened the children when they crept around her bed on Sunday night, coming to sing carols to her. It put the odor of warm rot in the air. It had wasted Odessa to bone.

Mary and Dee Dee and Timmy and the others tried to touch nothing in the little space, not the bed, not the wall behind them. They grew solemn, unable to take their eyes from the form before them. One little lamp shed an orange light on the hollows of Odessa’s face, sunken cheeks and sunken temples and deep, deep eyes. The lids on her eyes were thin as onion skin, half closed; her flesh was dry like parchment; and the body that once was strapping now resembled broomsticks in her bed – skinny arms on a caven stomach, fingers as long as chalk. And who could tell if the woman was breathing?

Mary stood across the bed from me, not looking at me, gazing down at Odessa. Mary’s eyes kept growing larger.

So I whispered to all of them, “Sing.” But they shuffled instead.

“What’s this?” I whispered. “Did you lose your voices? Do you think she won’t like it?”

“We think she won’t hear,” said Mary.

“No, no, sing the same as you always do,” I said. “Sing for Miz Williams.”

Well, and so they did, that wide-eyed ring of children, though it was a pitiful effort at first, “Away in a Manger,” like nursery kids suspicious of their audience. But by the time the cattle were lowing, the children had found comfort in the sound of their voices and began to relax.Moreover, Odessa had opened her eyes, and there was a light in there, and she had begun to pick out their faces, and I saw that Mary was returning Odessa’s look with a fleeting little smile. So then they harked it with herald angels, and they found in their bosoms a first noel that other angels did say, and then a marvelous thing began to happen: Odessa Williams was frowning – frowning and nodding, frowning with her eyes squeezed shut, frowning, you see, with fierce pleasure, as though she were chewing a delicious piece of meat. So then Mary and all the children were grinning, because they knew instinctively what the frown of an old black woman meant.

Odessa did not have her dentures in.

And the marvelous thing that had begun could only grow more marvelous still.

For I whispered, “Dee Dee,” and the innocent child glanced at me, and I said, “Dee Dee, ‘Silent Night.’”

Dear Dee Dee! That girl, as dark as the shadows around her, stroked the very air as though it were a chime of glass. So high she soared on her crystal voice, so long she held the notes, that the rest of the children hummed and harmonized all unconsciously, and they began to sway together. “Round yon virgin, mother and child. . . .”

Odessa’s eyes flew open to see the thing that was happening around her. She looked, then she raised her long, long arms, and there, lying on her back, the old woman began to direct the music. By strong strokes she lifted Dee Dee Lawrence. She pointed the way, and Dee Dee trusted her, so Dee Dee sang a soprano descant higher and braver the she had ever sung before. Impossible! Stroke for stroke with imperious arms, Odessa Williams gathered her children and urged them to fly and sent them on a celestial flight to glory, oh! These were not children anymore. These were the stars. Their voices ascended on fountains of light to become the very hosts of heaven – so high, so bright and holy and high. Jesus, Lord, at thy birth! So beautiful.

And then that woman brought them down again, by meek degrees to the earth again, and to this room and to her bedside. There they stood, perfectly still, smiling in silence and waiting. How could anyone move immediately after such a wonder?

Nor did Odessa disappoint them. For then she began, in a low and smoky voice, to preach.

“Oh, children – you my choir,” Odessa whispered. “Oh, choir – you my children for sure. An’ listen me,” she whispered intently. She caught them one by one on the barb of her eye. “Ain’ no one stand in front of you for goodness, no! You the bes’, babies. You the absolute best.”

The children gazed at her, and the children believed her completely: They were the best. And my Mary, too, believed what she was hearing, heart and soul.

“Listen me,” Odessa said. “When you sing, wherever you go to sing, look down to the front row of the people who come to hear you sing. There’s alluz an empty seat there. See it?” The children nodded. They saw it. “Know what that empty space is?” The children shook their heads. “It’s me,” she said, and they nodded. “It’s me,” she whispered in the deep orange light. “Cause I alluz been with you, children. An’ whenever you sing, I’m goin’ to be with you still. An’ you know how I can say such a mackulous thing?” They waited to know. She lowered her voice, and she told them. “Why, ‘cause we in Jesus,” she whispered the mystery. “Babies, babies, we be in the hand of Jesus, old ones, young ones, and us and you together. Jesus, He hold us in His hand, and ain’ no one goin’ to snatch us out. Jesus, He don’ never let one of us go. Never. Not ever.”

So spoke Odessa, and the children fell silent. So said the woman with such conviction and such fierce love that the children rolled tears from their open eyes, and they were not ashamed. They reached over and patted the bones of her body beneath the blankets.

Mary’s eyes, too, were glistening. The woman had won my daughter. In that incandescent moment, Mary had come to love Odessa Williams. She slipped a soft hand toward the bed and touched the tips of Odessa’s fingers, and she smiled and cried at once. For this is the power of a wise love wisely expressed: to transfigure a heart, suddenly, forever.

But these are good, contemplative tears. They are not like the tears my Mary cried on Christmas Eve.

Continued in Part 2.

A New Commandment

Imagine being a disciple of Jesus, having walked thus far with Him, seen miracles, seen His care for his friends, his marveling at the faith of a Centurion, his rebuff of a Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter–and His subsequent joyful concession to her fearless faith. You’ve seen him weeping at Lazarus’ tomb, as well as having had a woman wash his feet with her tears, which was maybe dodgy but great in the re-telling. And perhaps you were there just a few days ago watching as he drove out, with whips and imprecations, the banksters in the temple. That was gutsy.

You’ve listened to His sermons and parables and maybe you’ve understood them, or just enough of them to stick around. You heard him completely own the elite lawyers, and you secretly delighted in every bit of the testy exchange, knowing that you were useful to that crowd only as long as they thought you had an inside line on this guy, Jesus. Damnable power-mongers all. Maybe you, too, chafed a bit at the whole, “before Moses was, I AM” gambit but nevertheless, that kinda thing woulda gone viral on YouTube. And you know what you’re thinking? “This guy, this Jesus guy, everybody’s saying He’s the Messiah and maybe He is, but it’s not sitting well with my power base. I depend on these guys to be there for me, but Jesus is an unknown guy with a fuzzy background from a backwater borough in Nazareth. But the lawyers are pressuring me.  They tell me He doesn’t stand a chance, that the hoi polloi cheering him the other day were just a buncha low info rabble looking for free bread.. I just don’t know what to think, but the truth is, I gotta go with the winning hand.  Gotta stop this before it gets outta hand. Wait and see for now.”

So now you’re there with the others, in an upper room, having a strange interlude before your meal. Jesus, here alone with all of his disciples, seems to be acting out another parable. Only it isn’t. He really is stooping quite low and washing your feet. Like some common slave would. And He’s saying, what, exactly, about cleanliness? “Crap!” you think, “He’s onto me! Who’s set me up and tipped Him off?”

And now, bread and wine He offers you. You take it because your mind was made up before now, so eff it all to Sheol if He’s gonna call you on it in this way. Time to go.

Now, imagine you’re another disciple, sitting there in the awkward silence having watched Judas leave to go get more bread and wine, so you think. So why the big hush? Peter, James and John look pretty pale and agitated. Here we are, on the cusp of hope and change, a new Messiah ready to make Israel great, you think. It’ll be awesome, and you’ll be there to see it. The foot-washing deal means, maybe, that the disciples will all be equals in His kingdom and man, that will be a refreshing change. The little people won’t be as corrupt and tiresome as the ruling class you now have, that’s for sure. And no secrets or word-twisting or hair-splitting. You will all set a good example– as leaders of course– of nobody thinking they’re better than anyone else. And just imagine the things that’ll be set right politically when you and the others bring back the Ten Commandments. Back to basics! The Founding Documents. It’s not the Ten and Ten Thousand commandments! Really. What would Moses do? That’s what you’ll do.

And hey, speaking of Moses, you notice Jesus is talking about the commandments. “Yep. Exactly, Jesus! What? Wait. A new commandment? Don’t we have enough already?” you think. “Probably foot-washing. Makes sense in these filthy towns.”

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

“Huh,” you think, “I wonder what that’s gonna look like?”





Tire Irons and Handcuffs: The Sheik Returns

[The Sheik sent along Part II of his tales regarding his debauched youth. Part One, is here. And yes, you really do want to read about the stabbiness.]

Somewhat humbled, reeking of kerosene, and with a nice Panama Red-induced glow, I returned home. My parents, who had been extremely tolerant of my shenanigans over the past several years, had had enough by this time, and gave me three months to save enough money to move out.

Which was, of course, for the best.

When I was sixteen, my dad and I had built a decent little apartment in our basement, and that was my temporary quarters. But the rules of the house still applied; no smoking anything, no loud music, and no girls. At sixteen, this put a serious crimp in my lifestyle. Now, at twenty, it felt like prison. So I was pretty motivated. I actually checked the classifieds for apartments, and considered which of my loser friends to take as a room-mate, since I couldn’t afford the rents myself.

One friend definitely out of the running was my best friend, Paul. He had recently gone to jail, and wouldn’t be out for at least six months. And it was following a visit to him at the Suffolk County Jail that my story takes place.

After I’d been back home about a month, I got a call from Paul’s girlfriend, Carmen. She was planning on visiting Paul and needed someone to accompany her, as she was scared to go alone. I hadn’t seen Paul since he got locked up, so sure,I’d go . She picked me up from work the next day, and off we went. The visit was uneventful, but it was pretty clear why Carmen hated going alone; it wasn’t sitting in a room with a bunch of inmates – it was waiting in line with the other visitors. Scary, scary bunch.

On the way home Carmen and I stopped for dinner, then hit some bars. After a few hours, we realized we had a lot in common – she was attracted to losers, and I liked chicks with big boobs. So around eleven o’clock or so, we checked into a motel, with a six-pack and a bag of weed. Following a pretty wild three or four hours we realized we were hungry, and headed out for this all-night diner just down the highway. But her car, parked right outside our door, had a flat tire.

Before I got the first lug-nut loose, the socket end of the tire iron cracked, rendering it useless. Figuring the motel would have some tools handy, I walked down the sidewalk to the office entrance. The door, of course, was locked. And the night clerk wasn’t at the desk. I knocked politely for a few minutes, then started pounding on the glass door, which finally brought the clerk out from behind a separating wall behind the desk. I noted that this wasn’t the same guy who’d checked us in, and that he was eying me suspiciously, as he didn’t recognize me. Understandable.

So, helpful soul that I was, I held the tire iron up, pointing to the business end, and mouthed “Do you have any tools?” Without a word, he turned around and disappeared behind the separating wall. To get me some tools, I figured. But just a few seconds later, I heard a car squeal into the motel lot, and, turning to look, saw that it was a cop car – headed straight for me, followed closely by another cruiser, and another.

HOLY SHIT! I figured out right then what was going on: that guy in the office wasn’t the clerk, after all – he was robbing the place, and had probably killed the clerk and dragged the body behind the wall! So, when the first cruiser skid to a stop parallel with the sidewalk just a few feet away, and the cop jumped out, crouched behind the car door and drew his revolver on me, I of course attempted to explain the situation, yelling tohim, “THE GUY’S IN THE OFFICE!”, gesticulating wildly, waving the tire iron as I advanced toward the cop car.

By now all three cops were similarly positioned, and all were screaming at me, “STOP RIGHT THERE!”…”DROP THE WEAPON!”…”GET DOWN ON YOUR FACE OR I WILL BLOW YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF!”

Weapon? Moi?

Now I was offended. “OK. LET the motherfucker get away…”, I started to say, when I was tackled from behind by a cop who had apparently snuck around the side of the building. As my face was smashed into the pavement and the cuffs were applied, the thief/murderer emerged from the office and identified me as the culprit who had threatened him with the tire iron. It was then that the whole thing finally coalesced in my drug-and-alcohol-addled mind. I started laughing like a fucking idiot. Which pissed off the cop with his knee in my back, and prompted him to cold-cock me in the back of my head.

“Fucking waste case”, he remarked as he lifted me up by the chains of my cuffs.


As I sat in the back of the cruiser watching a cop take the clerk’s statement, Carmen finally came out of our room, where she had gone when I left her to go borrow tools, and walked up to one of the cops to ask what was going on. Upon learning that she was with me, the cop, of course, cuffed her, too. By this time, half the guests on the first floor were out of their rooms, and one guy told a cop that he had seen me trying to change the tire.

From there it was just a matter of questioning Carmen and me separately, checking to see that the tire was indeed flat and the tire iron cracked, and this whole clusterfuck was straightened out. The cops even helped us change the tire, while hitting on Carmen. Great buncha guys.

[Thanks to Larwyn and Bad Blue for the links!]

Valerie and Me: A True Tale of Teenaged Debauchery and Stabbiness [Guest Post by Sheik Yerbouti]

[The Sheik horned in on a convo over at RSM’s blog regarding Dan Riehl’s delicate condition, with the idea to casually mention his own respiratory failure story of getting stabbed in the lung by some chick. That’s all. One sentence just to pique interest and walk away!  To avenge myself I threw down the gauntlet and demanded The Rest Of The Story. Sheik was kind enough to send it to me. And here, I share with you. Because I’m a giver. Plus, my hand is hurting from some malady that is likely not stabby-related but likely RSI-related and typing hurts. Herewith, a story from The Sheik. ]

I met Valerie when I was 13. She was my friend Gordon’s 18 year old sister, and I had a huge crush on her. Valerie was a hard core punker. It was 1972, and she hung out at The Mudd Club and CBGB in New York City. She was beautiful; light-brown hair chopped and bleached, charcoal circles around her eyes, lids painted white, brightly colored cocktail swords through her ear-piercings, and extremely short skirts. She showed Gordon and me photos of herself partying with Iggy Popp, David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, MC-5, Alice Cooper, and many other famous rockers of the time. I didn’t know what a groupie was. But if I had, it wouldn’t have diminished her a bit in my eyes.

One day, while Gordon and I were in his bedroom playing Battleship, Valerie came barging in, announced that she had gotten a tattoo, and asked if we wanted to see it. This was big news in 1972 – girls did NOT get tattoos. OF COURSE we wanted to see it! I was not prepared for what happened next; Valerie grabbed the hem of her tee-shirt and pulled it all the way up to her neck, exposing the first pair of boobs I had seen in person in 12 years! And there on her beautifully-formed, bare left breast was a cartoon skunk. You know Peppe Le Pieu? His girlfriend. (Her boyfriend’s nickname was Stinky. He was a member of the Pagans M.C.). I was dumbfounded, and so possessive of the memory of that magic moment that I would never reveal to anyone what happened that day. I don’t imagine Gordon would, either…though hopefully for different reasons. I was crushed when, a couple of weeks later, Gordon’s family moved to a different school district. I was bummed that I would probably never see Gordon again. And I was heart-sick at the prospect of never seeing Valerie again.

Six years later I was a typical Long Island punk. Nineteen, living at home, working at a chemical plant, and spending too much time in bars. One bar in particular, a biker dive within walking distance of my job, was my second home. I’d had a running tab at this place since I was sixteen, and usually stopped in for an hour or two after my shift ended at 11pm. One night I was there shooting pool when a small group of people popped in, all obviously quite hammered. One was a quite attractive young lady who looked vaguely familiar. And when she saw me she screamed, “OH MOY GAAAHHHD! JOEEEEYYY!”, then ran up to me, threw her arms around my neck, and jammed her tongue down my throat. By then I had figured out who she was, and it truly was like a dream come true. The boobs I had been fantasizing about for six years were now mashed against my chest! I was in heaven, and it was soon to get much, much better. As it often does before the stabbing begins.

My beautiful Valerie, now 25, was a nurse at the mental hospital down the street. And she was telling me that she always thought I was the “cutest” guy she’d ever known, and always fantasized about running into me once I’d grown up. Cute or not, I wasn’t stupid; I knew I was no prize. I figured she had on some big ol’ beer goggles, and I’d better strike while the iron was hot. There was a crappy motel a couple of blocks away, and I suggested maybe we could get a six-pack and go talk about the old times.”No, let’s go to my apartment”, she said, squeezing my butt. No argument from me. But her apartment was a couple of miles away – how would we get there, when neither of us had driven and her friends had all left? “I’ll ask Artie for a ride”, she said. Artie was a big, fat biker. But this being November, he was driving his car. And as it happened, Artie was already giving this old barfly Gracie a ride home, which was on the way to Valerie’s place. Cool.

We all piled into Artie’s old Chrysler, and off we went. On the way, Artie and Valerie, who had many mutual friends, were talking shit back and forth – just typical drunken banter. At one point, Valerie said, “Aw, Artie – you fat fuck…”, when BOOM! – Gracie turned around from the front seat and punched Valerie square in the face. And it was on…hair pulling, face smacking, nail gouging, punching, biting, while I tried to pull them apart and Artie tried to keep the car on the road and get to Gracie’s house. As we pulled into Gracie’s driveway, I finally managed to wedge myself between the two ladies. Just as I got them apart, Valerie – now half-lying across the back seat with her shoulders pinned under my weight, managed to get her leg cocked back and, with her wooden-heeled, six inch platform boot, kicked the old bitch in the face, stunning her and causing her to rethink things.

As she opened the door of the car, she looked at me and said, inexplicably, “Motherfucker, no man hits me and gets away with it. I’m getting my son!” Before Artie could back the car out, Valerie jumped out and took off after Gracie. It was now officially a clusterfuck. Artie managed to corral her about the time Gracie came back out of the house with her son, John (“Goog”, as he was better known). He took one look at me, turned around and went back in the house. I like to tell myself it was out of fear. But more likely, it was embarrassment, as we had gone through junior high and highschool together. Realizing she had no help from Goog, Gracie rushed up to me, fists flailing. Blocking my face, I never even saw the steak knife she was holding, and I barely felt it as she plunged it into my chest and quickly pulled it back out, then tossed it into the adjoining yard. There was hardly any blood, and very little pain. I opened my shirt to see what appeared to be a fairly minor wound. I figured hey, Valerie’s a nurse – she can patch me up. Valerie concurred, so off we went.

But just as we turned the corner of her block, I coughed. And blood came squirting out of that slice like a fountain. Splashed the windshield. And weird noises were emanating from my chest – like air being let out of a balloon. “HOLY SHIT!”, screamed everyone.
Artie turned the car around and started speeding toward the hospital. By now, I was starting to have some trouble breathing. About halfway there, we saw a cop car hiding out in a funeral parlor parking lot. Artie pulled in, ran to the cop and told him, “This fuckin’ kid is DYING!” So off I went with the cop, 100mph the remaining five miles.

The Indian doctor who greeted me in the E.R., a fine and funny gentleman, asked whether I’d been drinking, and I told him I had. “Well, I hope you drank enough”, he said while cutting an X into my lower chest and inserting a drain tube. I hadn’t drunk enough. It was the most painful thing I’d ever experienced. The knife had missed my heart by a few centimeters, going about halfway into my lung, which for some reason remained inflated until that cough.

After two days in ICU, I got a regular room, and could finally have visitors. Which was fantastic, as I was dying for a smoke, and none of the nurses would share. And wouldn’t you know, the first visitor I had (besides my parents, who could come whenever they wanted) was my high school sweetie, Mary, who had dumped me two months earlier. I was still pining, and after a few minutes it was looking like we would patch things up. But then in walked Dorothy, a 29 year old widow who I had just started dating the previous week. Followed immediately by Valerie. Very awkward. Both Mary and Dorothy were deeply offended, and left, leaving Valerie and me in an uncomfortable silence. Which Valerie broke by exclaiming, “Fuck them anyway.”

So, fate, it seemed, had brought Valerie and me together – or, rather, dragged us through hell to be together. When I got released four days later, I moved in with her. It was not the healthiest relationship.

I testified before a grand jury, and Grace was charged and convicted of 1st degree attempted murder. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison and served every day of it.

Eleven months later, I was run over by a car.


Captain Capitalism links with high praise!

The Bear

by Paul Griffin

As he slowly became aware of himself, the boy clutched the blanket closer to him.  He did not open his eyes, because he knew it was there and he knew he would open his eyes and look.  He squeezed his eyes closed and rolled to his left and put his back to the closet door, knowing the futility of this.  He could feel the ursine stare boring into his back, the compulsion to roll over and see its horrible shaggy silhouette building inside him.  His eyes slid open.  The room was dark and warm and he was still facing the wall but he knew it was there standing behind him beckoning his gaze, demanding to be seen.  He rolled slowly onto his back, staring at the bottom of the bunk above him, a comical arrangement for a child without sibling or companion save the one he wished more than anything was not there.  Despite his open eyes and supine position, he took great care not to look at the closet door.  He knew he would look at the closet and he knew what he would see and he knew that he would scream when he saw it.  The terror waited him out, patiently building up to its full roil.

He studied the cheap metal springs of the bed above his, careful to aviod glancing toward the closet.  He tried to tell himself to pay it no mind but in his core he felt nothing but the terror.  The time was nearly come and he knew he would see it and he knew would scream.

Trembling, slowly, he rolled to his right and darted his eyes quickly past the door of his closet which gaped wide and dark and malevolent and looked at the floor.  The last safe haven for his gaze before he looked.  It was only a matter of time now but that had been the case since the moment he woke up.  His building blocks lay strewn pandemonic across the low pile of the carpet, like the tiny plastic remains of some newly shattered windshield.  The trembling was uncontrollable and the time had come and he looked.  Finally he looked into the closet door and it was there standing horrible and black and massive.

Across the hallway of the second floor of the small apartment, the boy’s father nearly leapt clear out of the old rubber-scented waterbed at the piercing scream that reached his ears.  He quickly reassured his likewise startled wife and rushed out of the room as the screaming continued unabated.  He burst through the door of his son’s room and howled and danced cursing across the room as his bare feet came down on the boy’s building blocks.  Father and son in some malbolgian harmony of terror and pain.  The boy stared at the closet, still screaming.  His father, having the crossed the small ocean of tiny makeshift caltrops, stood staring at his son and grabbed him and shook him gently while calling his name.

Suddenly recognizing his father, the boy finally stopped screaming and tore his eyes away from the closet door and laid them on his father’s face.  The bear skulked off to whatever lair it had made for itself in the lakebed bowels of the metropolis.

Good Lord Almighty, boy!  You like to raise the dead!  What on earth happened?

It… it was a… a… bear…

The boy sobbed, shaking but not on account of his father, who had let him back down to the bed.

A bear?

There was a bear in the closet!  I saw him!

Son, there’s no bear in your closet, how would a bear get into your closet?

I don’t know…  He was there.  I saw him.

The man climbed into the small uncomfortable bed and held him close until the tears no longer flowed and his son finally lay sleeping, snoring softly, head moist in his tearsoaked pillowcase.

The next morning the three of them sat around the table in the tiny dining room downstairs eating their cold cereal.  The man exhausted and yawning for lack of sleep and the boy visibly shaken and looking quartercrazed from the night before.

Son, you gotta get this bear out of your head.  There ain’t no bears in the city.  If you think you see him, just remember that there ain’t no bears here, it’s just your imagination getting you worked up.

I’ll try dad.  I knew he was there before I saw him.  He made me look at him to make me scream.

I… I don’t know what to make of that.  Just remember there ain’t no bears here and you’ll be alright.

Three nights later, it happened again, just as before.  The bear awoke him to be looked at to be screamed at.  He could feel it grinning malevolent, if indeed a bear could grin.  He told himself that there ain’t no bears in the city, but after his eyes had travelled their usual path and when he finally looked at the closet, compelled by this hairy creature, there it stood, all blackness and shag, reveling in his terror and his screams.

His mother came in this time, falling to the ground when her bare feet got their first taste of the boy’s building blocks and struggled over to the bed.  The boy could not be consoled.  He stopped screaming, but could not release his terror or stop staring at the closet until his father came into the room and the skulky bear trundled off as before, unseen by either of his parents.

Over the next few weeks, the boy’s father tried to reason with the boy in the mornings, to convince him that the bear wasn’t there, or to encourage him to pray for God to show him that the bear didn’t exist or at least to clear a path through his building blocks so as to spare his father’s feet.  The boy did his best to follow his father’s advice and even believed himself convinced of the power of his father’s arguments while the sun shone.  Some days he even remembered to pick up his building blocks before going to bed.  However, as soon as it was dark and the bear awoke him and his dark grinning companion began demanding his gaze, all of his father’s words lost their weight and force and substance.  The bear was there.  There was no use telling it that it wasn’t.  The screaming continued, every few nights, and his father’s feet grew sore and red and he walked gingerly and haltingly from the pain of them.

One night just after lying down next to his wife and turning out the light, the man had a premonition that a scream was to be visited upon them.  He told his wife this and they laid side by side, their bodies wobbling along with the surface of their gelatinous waterbed, feet throbbing, and they did not know why they had been given this foretelling or what to do with it.  Neither of them slept.  They could only wait for the inevitable.  Things foretold came to pass not long after, the boy screaming at the top of his lungs.

His child’s screams filling his ears, the man suddenly felt himself no longer wobbly but solid and angry and resolved.

Damn it, if my boy says there’s a bear in his closet, then there’s a by-God bear in his closet, and I intend to do something about it.

He got up from the undulating bed and reached under the side of the wooden boxlike stand that held it off the floor.  There his hand found the old Mossberg 12 gauge pump-action shotgun he had bought from a friend of a coworker years ago with a thought toward defending his home from intruders.  Upon buying the gun, he had attached two large metal hooks to the underside of the wooden bedframe, and the gun was hung there safely out of sight.  It had sat there untouched from that day to this.  He pulled the gun out from under the bed and he held down the action lock with his right index finger and worked the pump partway back with his left hand.  Seeing an old dusty 7 ½ birdshot shell sitting faithfully in the receiver as though it had been divinely placed there years ago to await this very moment, he slid the pump forward and marched toward his son’s room, barrel pointed at the floor lest the floor refuse to hold him up.  His wife stared at him through the open door as though this new angle had afforded her a glimpse at some depth or perhaps some insanity not previously perceived.  She got off the bed and went to the other end of the apartment.

He was still screaming when his father came in the room.  His father did not look at him, but stepped into the room directly on the vicious building blocks, not flinching or giving the least indication that he was even aware of them as they dug into the sore flesh of his feet.  The boy stopped screaming and his eyes fixed on his father and he watched the man turn to face the open closet door, still standing on the innumerable plastic shards.  The gun came awkwardly up to his father’s shoulder. There was a click as he thumbed the safety forward.

Cover your ears boy, it’s gonna be loud.

The boy squeezed his hands hard to his ears until he heard nothing but the blood coursing through them and stared transfixed at his father and the gun and the bear no longer grinning.

The room flashed whitehot for an instant, suddenly too bright to see as the shotgun jerked and belched fire and roared forth all of his father’s anger at this bear, this invader that would extort screams from his onlyborn and rob him and his wife of their sleep and torture his own feet.  For all the boy could tell, the world ended in that moment.  He could not see, his ears refused to hear anything beyond a high-pitched whine, and he could smell only gunpowder, a scent strange and unfamiliar to him.

The first indication that the apocalypse had not yet arrived was the creaking movement of his bed as the man sat down on the edge and bumped the back of his head against the top bunk, still blind and twice as deaf as his boy on account of his ears being uncovered in all the riot.  He set the gun on the floor and sat waiting on the bed for some semblance of order to return to the world.  The boy, stunned but no longer shaking or even afraid, felt around in the white blindness for his father’s arm and drew himself up until he was sitting next to him in a similar manner.  Two weary men sitting on the edge of the world, one of them picking plastic building blocks out of the pads of his feet and casting them out into the strange white abyss before them.

A few minutes later, as his sight returned, the man stared through the hazy room at the last wisps of smoke trailing up out of closet and despite the ringing in his still-offended ears, he spoke, wondering what exactly he had accomplished.

That damn bear still alive?

No – no dad, I don’t see how it could have survived.  I can’t hardly believe that we did.

We did though.  And he didn’t.  So.  Alright.  I can’t hear a damn thing and I’m sure your mother is terrified.   I can only wonder what the neighbors think.

The following day was occupied with cleaning up the mess and placating the neighbors with hastily contrived stories of fireworks accidentally ignited.  No one believed the man and he did not expect to be believed, but they were content to accept his explanation as he was known and generally liked and had no reputation for being a troublemaker.

While his father mended the ragged hole in the back wall of his closet, the boy sorted through the toys that had been stowed there, throwing away those that had been shot beyond repair.  One of them rattled when he shook it, a hollow rubber dinosaur poorly rendered as an ungainly and pot-bellied lizard reared upon its hind legs.  Some of the birdshot had been content to travel through only one side of the already extinct creature and had become trapped inside, rolling and rattling as the figure was moved.  This toy the boy placed next to the pillow on his bed.

One single pellet of birdshot, appointed to its own peculiar mission, had managed to travel through two walls in a crazed ricocheting path with enough remaining force to puncture the old waterbed.  The giant grey bladder had leaked slowly out, but the stand, despite being wooden, managed to hold most of the water while the man and his wife scooped it out with plastic food containers and dumped these contents into the shower drain where it swirled away, stinking of plastic and rubber for all its time trapped in the bed.  Once the gray, formless rubber had lost enough water to be manageable, the man and his wife hauled it out of the stand and dried the stand out with old towels and laid their bedding in it for lack of another place to sleep in the small apartment.

That night, with the twin scents of gunpowder, now familiar, and ursine blood still lingering in the air of his bedroom and mingling in his nostrils and in his mind, the boy dreamt himself a giant, striding across a wooded and untamed land in long, slow steps, a small, straight pine tree for his staff.  He rumbled down a worn but dangerous path towards a higher ground, unseen despite his height but which he knew to be somewhere beyond the horizon.  Here and there a branch had been cleared or a stone removed from the path, but on both sides the wilderness and wildness that pressed against it threatened to overflow it and swallow it up.  Still he strode onward, his wide giant’s feet trampling down any thorny overgrowth unfortunate enough to find itself under his heel.

[ “The Bear” Copyright 2012 by Paul Griffin. Published with the author’s permission.]

Jungle Journey

We were visiting friends we had met in a small church in the inner city of Jacksonville. Chuck H. had been a tail-gunner in ‘Nam, and his wife was the sweetest Valdosta peach in Georgia. Both had Jawja accents thick enough to grill for 10 minutes and still leave the insides of their words all soft and warm. Chuck and MaryNell and their five children regaled and reeled us into their world of the Huastecan jungle. We couldn’t help but follow. All the way to Tamazunchale, Mexico.

With our 6 year old son in tow, we loaded up the old Corolla and made the 1,700 mile journey to visit our friends and learn to love what they loved. Arriving there, we were greeted by Virginia, their maid, who was, if possible, the very, very southern version of a Georgia peach. So demure and in charge and wonderful was she! So Aztec were her origins that to make her stoic heart laugh became an obsession with Chuck and MaryNell. In the safety of their home, Virginia learned to laugh much and tell wry jokes. As far as we knew…

My “See It and Say It in Spanish” book saw me through that wonderful week. I already had a proclivity for language and the connections of thought and sound, so it was that by the end of the week, I could listen to simple conversations and not miss too much.

We marveled at the large “little town” on the side of tropical mountains dotted with orange trees and banked by a good-sized river. The temperature was easily 110 degrees on a summer day, with humidity to match. The local tianguis, or market day, was not to be missed. My first taste of Canteloupe-Ade on that hot afternoon was a slaking sensation never to be forgotten!

Later, we accompanied Chuck on an evening excursion out into the jungle, to visit with friends in a small village. They wanted to hear him preach to their little congregation. After driving for almost 90 minutes over treacherous roads disguised as goat paths, we crossed a stream and parked the Bronco. From there, it was another hour long hike on the side of the mountain, through pastures of cows and Brahma bulls, past banana trees and naranjos, into the almost invisible village that consisted of thatch-roof huts, serious men, silent women, grinning little kids, and small animals.

We were welcomed, all along our hike, by one traveler or another, with the strangest touching of the hands… a fingertip handshake. It seemed so strange and uninvolved to greet another this way, and yet it was the stoic way of the ancient indigenous DNA there. So by the time we arrived in the village, we were almost “old hands” at this new greeting. We were ushered into one of the low, dark huts of earthen floor and neat appointments of rough-hewn stools.

The closeness of the hut’s air, and the heaving lungs of the hikers all made for a sauna atmosphere of painful heat and sweat. From somewhere, a rather elegant offering of sweet, hot coffee in a plain cup was produced. I would have killed for an ice cold Coke at that moment and thought for sure the coffee would do me in, but within five minutes I felt refreshed and cool as a cucumber. I made a quick mental note of that heat-stroke cure for later.

We stayed for the church service and heard our friend, his rich Southern drawl not lost within his Spanish, speak plainly to these lovely folks whose native tongue was actually Nauhautl. He had a smile that was as genuine as a puppy, and a love that could not be feigned or faked in front of so honest a group of human flesh. I try to remember sometimes, that moment of completely human, and yet transcendent connection that I felt with both the man whom we admired and the people he would move heaven and earth for. A Real reality exists, not just because we think so, but because we can love so.

If any redemption is available for those who can at least appreciate such a moment, I hope that that salvation will extend to my penury of spirit when I need it most.

We said our goodbyes at midnight and ventured out into the massive, non-electric darkness of primeval night. Moonless, marvelous–lit only by stars–our path regressed through the orange-tree pastures. I was slipping along the rain-soaked path in my flip-flops now laden with clay globs, struggling with a long skirt and breathing out fearful blessings on the various Brahma beasts that greeted us out of the darkness with their shiny noses and great, horned heads. A more imposing and unsettling sight you can’t imagine! Especially within the shock of your immense vulnerability. It was better to not think too much as I walked along.

A bumpy return to Tamazunchale, a sleepy tumble into humid sheets, the deadened sleep of exhaustion seemed an insufficient respite from the day’s grueling journey. Too soon we were awakened by the clanging of the ice factory next door, the crowing of every rooster in town, the joy of children scrambling about. They bothered Virginia for tortillas and scrambled eggs and canteloupe and made her laugh at their American exuberance.

Our week quickly evaporated into the mysterious jungle atmosphere, and we three headed home with bright eyes and excited chatter. But the memories and friendships made there would take us much further, and we knew it even then. We had, after all, already picked out a place to live in that peaceful valley just off Carreterra 57…

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

The sleepy town of Mexico City and 20 million of our closest friends awaited us.

Take Three . . . and call me in the morning.

I’m on the Bus, not under it! Leslie asked me to participate in Take Three, a little writing exercise wherein you are given three sentences and must use them in a short story of 1,000 words. It’s worth noting that it is a true experience from just the other day, and I arrived home on said day to find my 1,000 word assignment. I couldn’t believe the convergence!

The random three sentences are in boldface:

I hate nature… and WalMart. Maybe not necessarily in that order, but both seem predisposed to favor the better survival instincts that I have so far managed to avoid. Today I experienced both nemeses in rapid succession as I hurried through the checkout line while the sounds of very near and numerous lightning strikes were thundering through the building. They were so close you could almost feel the hair standing up on your skin and that’s never good. But, it’s north Florida and we all know that you just have to tough it out. Nobody really carries umbrellas since they are a tell-tale sign that You’re Not From Around Here, Are Ya, Lighting Rod?

Survival is key in the jungles of WalMart. Like some prehistoric computer game, one must carefully avoid certain demographics of people and place if one is to achieve the highest skill level reward: actually finding what’s needed, on sale, and getting through the checkout lane first in line — before the rain hits, not buying anything you didn’t plan to. Yeah, I’m hard-core for this today. I am maneuvering for the hat trick, racing with the approaching storm because I know I am going to have to drive right into it to get home.

WalMart seems to attract grandparents who are raising their grandkids, and on any given day you have Nana, harried and weary, busting chops and riding herd on children who have no physical or cultural resemblance to her. Ungrateful and confused whelps that are by turns neglected and indulged by their working parents when they get home. These are just the sorts of game-ending Death Stars of the Golden Check Out Lane that you don’t want to find yourself standing behind in line.

But I was happily smug and inattentive, proud of my WalMart run so far. I’d avoided the siren call of so many shiny things made by happy, grateful children in some mud-caked backwoods country, I’d kept to my plan, I stayed away from the cheap snacks aisle, I was home free with only the worry of the raucous thunder disturbing my winning edge.

A checkout lane with only one granny and her kidlet, and they’re almost done. I position myself, lay out the items on the conveyor for maximum efficiency, have my debit card unholstered and my pin number at the ready, like an itchy trigger finger. It’s all perfect. And then Nana starts asking questions of kidlet: “Where did you get that? Is that yours? Stop bouncing that. Did you bring that from home?”

My debit card begins to pivot downward in my now slackening grip, like some sad flower of hope wilted before fully opened. My breath has abated down to the instinctual quiet of watchfulness, since there is a razor-thin opening of time wherein one must decide to flee to another lane with all of its unknowns or stick out the growing uncertainty of success in your present circumstances. What to do?

The cashier is staring off into the distance, not even attempting interference or offering help. Good for her. Kidlet is now getting in Nana’s grill; he’s all of 10 years old but channeling his inner gangsta and bewildering a typical white woman who only expects respect for her person and others’ property. And then kidlet attempts to play above his skill level and an insouiciant, “Chill, Nana, it’s none of your business,” phrase actually escapes his stupid brain pan and tumbles out of his mouth.

And that’s when Nana went commando. She called up the generations of grandmothers before her, and like some towering Fate came thundering down upon the ears of that dullard child with invectives and inarticulate, animal-like predications of his future and his chances of attaining one. Her arthritic hands snatched up the offending toy like a pebble out of the master’s hand and slammed it down on the conveyor belt. “How much is that?” she demanded. The unhurried cashier looked it up and charged her accordingly. They retrieved their several bags from the carousel and headed out, Nana still nattering away and kidlet slouching behind her, loathe to even touch the cherished orb of his temptations: a super ball. Just as well. Nana pitched the hated thing into the nearest trash can on the way out.

I finally exhaled,. I’m back on track, thankful that the Death Star command wasn’t given: “I need a manager on Register 11!”

The electricity in the air was getting thicker. I was worried, looking at the black sky, little birds being whirled around. The lighting was coming three flashes a second, clouds were boiling and all of a sudden, horns were honking. I looked up to see the formation of a funnel cloud a few miles from the parking lot. I scurried to the car, popped the trunk, tossed in my hard-won prizes and shivered as lightning kept dancing crazily nearby. No time to count seconds between flashes, it was a unified assault. “Sweet Jesus, don’t let me die at WalMart,” I pray.

Into the car, south onto the Interstate where the winds and water create a white-out effect. Moments like this make me very, very nervous. The weather station reports two tornadoes, one almost on top of me, and a waterspout following the north-flowing St. Johns River on its way out to sea. Reports are that the front hasn‘t moved.. “One of us is going to move,” I think to myself and press on past idiots in moving cars with their flashers on. Illegal and stupid!! Other moving cars have no idea if you are stopped in the middle lane or just advertising your nervousness. I mock and curse them, damn Yankees.

Twenty minutes later and the traffic is moving sub-speed, tip-toeing past a pick-up truck that went into the woods, either by hydroplaning or winds, who can say? Prayers offered up by fellow-travelers are assailing the brassy ether above us as we move south, toward sunlight.

I beat nature. . . And WalMart!

Another Bedtime Story

Because life is too serious not to dream:

Another Bedtime Story

We outgrow our bedtime stories
trading monsters and fair maidens
for the hard-won moment’s glories
of an evening’s relaxation

Now we numb our thoughts and passion
give ourselves to faint blue light
let the subtler monsters rush in
selfish ogres, aging plights

Yet awaits a land to dream in
good and rightness there prevail
gentle lull of moonlight beams in
as she arcs the sky full sail

Take the hand of your moon maiden
dream of dragons, deeds and fame
you’re a ship with treasures laden
a barbarian without shame

Cutlass-garbed and burden free
say goodbye to lesser mortals
venture into that bright sea
dream of lands with shining portals

bedtime stories never leave us
we just give them diff’rent frock
time for bed now, oh my darling
let us dream away the clock

-Joan Varga

Haiku the Blue Sea

Sparrow’s hosting this week’s Haiku contest, and as ever, the winner gets a lovely care package sent off to some lucky soldier. Go vote for your favorite! [link updated.]

Here’s mine:

a borderless blue
siren songs of willing wind
crisp canvas, long keel


Internet problems have been pretty frustrating these last 10 days so if it seems like I’m phoning it in, I practically am. The local cigar bar provides free wi-fi, which means I’m achieving bar-fly status as I blog from the comfy club chairs.

Oh, did I mention that I drank my first beer back in March?