Lost Highway: An Excerpt

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Willow Grove, MO

Summer 1945

Upon entering his house, it appeared unoccupied. William worked during the day and the younger ones were probably playing at their friends. His family lived in a small, wooden, saltbox style house, with four rooms downstairs and an attic upstairs that had been converted to bedrooms for James and his younger siblings. William slept in the second downstairs bedroom.

Upstairs, three cots served as beds, and homemade quilts kept the children warm during cold winter nights. James, being older than his upstairs siblings, chose the cot next to the window. He loved to hear the train whistle and rumbling of the wheels as it rolled by each night. It helped him fall asleep. The house didn’t have indoor plumbing, and water had to be drawn from the pumphouse near the cellar door. They bathed in shifts, the three youngest at night and the other two in the morning, behind a drawn curtain in the kitchen. An outhouse stood a few yards down the hill. In the center of the front room sat a wood burning stove—the family gathering place on cold winter mornings–that heated the water from the well for bathing.

Before he ascended the stairs, a slight movement in his mother’s room drew James’ attention. Peering into the darkness, he heard a hissing sound, and then recognized the dull red from a burning cigarette glowing in the shadows. Could it be him? He moved slowly to the door and stood silent.

A voice boomed from within. “Switch on the light and come on in, son.”

James flipped the switch on the wall, and the yellow glow from the overhead light revealed his father, shirtless, sitting on the bed and leaning back against the headboard. His dad, a massive man, had a barrel chest, with huge arms and no discernible neck, and most of his upper torso was blanketed in a thick mass of hair. James had always thought of him as a grizzly bear.

A bottle of whiskey, half full, sat on the small table next to the bed, an empty glass resting beside it. His father puffed on a cigarette and eyed James up and down, as if he hadn’t seen him in years. Three years to be exact. James wanted to run and jump into his father’s arms, but he hesitated, not sure what to make of this.

“Are you home now?” James asked, his voice unsteady.

“Come over here and let me get a good look at you,” his father said, while swinging his legs over the side of the bed. James approached his father, hesitantly. “Come on, I’m not going to bite you.”

Drawing close, his father grabbed him by both shoulders, with hands the size of baseball mitts, and squeezed him tight. “I’ll be darned. You’ve grown six inches. Still spindly but getting tall like your mother. Last time I saw you was when you had that kidney disease and missed most of the school year. What was that, second grade?” James nodded his head. His father pulled him close and gave him a hug. “I surely did miss you, boy. And your brothers and sister too. Where are they, anyhow?”

James shrugged. “I don’t know. They’ll be home soon.” A recurring thought irritated him, something he’d been wondering for years. He wanted to ask his father but thought better of it. And then he asked it anyway. “If you missed us so much, how come you stayed gone so long?”

His father gently pushed him away and poured another glass of whiskey. “It’s complicated. I had to find work, so I went looking for it.”

“Are you home for good?”

“When your mother gets here, we have a lot of talking to do. We’ll see.” Tilting back the glass of whiskey, he took a healthy swig, and then he offered the glass to James. “Here, boy, take a drink. It’ll make a man of you.”

James hesitated, but not wanting to appear weak in his father’s eyes, he took the glass and brought it to his lips. The sip he intended turned out to be a gulp, and the burning sensation as the amber liquid slid down his throat caused him to cough and sputter. His father roared in laughter. “Have another. I’ve got plenty more.”

The second drink went down much easier than the first, and before long, a warm sensation washed over him, and a spot on his forehead, just above his eyes, felt numb. He handed the glass back to his father, who poured two more fingers and knocked it back in one swallow.

“I’m tired, Jimmy. Why don’t you switch off that light, so I can take a little nap before your mother gets home?” He reclined on the bed and soon began snoring. James turned out the light as he exited the room.

After changing clothes upstairs, he returned to his mother’s bedroom and stood at the door. The drone of his father’s snoring and the ticking of the clock on the wall made him feel empty. The lack of human activity, conversation, laughter, the closing of cabinet doors in the kitchen, reminded him of a funeral home.

He tiptoed into the bedroom and sat in his mother’s rocking chair. And he watched his father sleep. He wondered why his father acted the way he did. What drove him away? Didn’t he love his children? What would the conversation between his parents lead to? Would he stay with the family or leave again? In thirty minutes, his mother would arrive home from her long day of work. James felt a gnawing ache in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with his earlier sampling of whiskey.

After thirty minutes passed, Nora Autry walked through the front door and called out, “Anybody home?”

James ran to the front room and embraced his mother. Gazing into her eyes, he whispered, “Dad’s home.”

She stiffened. “Where is he?”

“On your bed. Asleep.”

His mother said, “You stay here, son.”

James remained in the front room and watched his mother disappear into her bedroom. Upon the door closing, he sat down on the couch and waited. He heard pieces of a muffled conversation, which went on for a few minutes, and then both his parents emerged. His mother, with tears in her eyes, appeared to be sad. His father said, “Jimmy, here’s a dollar. Run down to the drugstore and buy me a pack of smokes.”

He hesitated, but once his mother gave him a nod, he exited the house and sprinted through an alley, across someone’s back lawn, and down the street to the drugstore on Main. He asked the clerk for a pack of cigarettes, and at first received the evil eye, but after explaining they were for his father, the clerk relented. James ran all the way back home, cigarettes and change in hand.

Upon entering the house, the same punch in the gut feeling James felt earlier, returned. He heard soft sobbing coming from the front room. He knew instantly what had occurred, although still not why, when he observed his Aunt Myrna and mother sitting on the couch, Myrna’s arm draped around his mother’s shoulder while she wept.

He had to ask. “Where’s Dad?”

His mother stopped crying long enough to say, “Go upstairs with your brothers and sister. I’ll come talk with you later.”

James had no intention of obeying his mother and got as far as the first step, where he sat down and listened. From his perch on the stairs, just out of view, he heard his aunt say, “You did the right thing, honey. He can’t expect you and the kids to pick up and go every time he gets the itch.”

Between sobs, his mother said, “I should have gone. Now he may never come back.”

“It’s okay,” Myrna said, stroking her sister’s hair. “He’s been gone more than he’s here and you’ve done just fine. You have all the family around you and you know we’ll do what we need to help out.”

“But I do love him. Why does he stay gone? I don’t understand.”

Myrna pulled her sister close. “Some men, all they can do is ramble. Always chasing something, but never knowing what. He can’t stay tied down to one place, no matter who he hurts.”

His mother cried, “If I’d gone with him, maybe things would be different. Maybe he could settle down.”

Myrna clutched her sister’s shoulders and gazed into her eyes. “You aren’t the problem, Nora. You don’t blame yourself. The fault lies in him. If he loved you and the kids, nothing could keep him away.” By this time, James had heard enough. His dad was gone for good and he knew he would never see him again. It hurt, and his seething anger prevented him from crying.

Upon arriving upstairs, he found all the others stretched out on their cots, not uttering a word. The air felt thick with tension. And loss. With all the drama, supper had been overlooked, and James’ stomach rumbled. The sun dipped below the horizon and twilight had arrived. He lay back on his cot, with thoughts of his father blocking all others, even his desire for food. He struggled to remember the good times, but very few came to mind.

Once, the last time his father came home, he brought a horse to the house, for him and William to ride, and when it bolted and ran away, both boys fell off. Neither of them was hurt, so they all had a good laugh. Another time, a bull escaped from the stockyards, and his father, with several men from the town, chased it down and suffered numerous bruises and abrasions while capturing the beast. He recalled later, his mother tenderly binding up his father’s wounds and them both getting a chuckle out of it. It bothered him that he didn’t have more fond memories.

He lay there, deep in thought, until his head hurt. Then he remembered the cigarettes. Sliding out of bed, he rifled through his pants pockets, but the cigarettes weren’t there. He tried to recall what he had done with them. He must have laid them on the stairs while he eavesdropped on his mother’s private conversation. Silently, he tiptoed past his siblings and back down the stairs. His mother and Aunt Myrna remained in conversation and didn’t notice him retrieve the smokes and return to his room.

Upstairs, James lay back on his cot and debated what to do next. If he lit a cigarette inside, the smoke would give him away. And what if he coughed? So, he crawled out the window, as he had hundreds of times before, and sat on the roof underneath a canopy of stars and lit up a Camel. Being careful, he barely sucked in his first puff, but even then, the smoke in his lungs burned and triggered a coughing fit. And on top of that, his head began spinning and he felt nauseous. Determined to smoke the entire cigarette, he took a few breaths to clear his lungs, waited a moment, and then took another drag. Again, he coughed, but this time, not as much. He continued in this way until he finished, and then he flipped the butt out into the darkness below.

James’ encounter with his father lingered in his mind. While hugging him earlier, he had recognized his father’s unique scent. The smell of sweat and tobacco and whiskey, and the feel of rough whiskers on his cheek, all vivid and distinct. He would recognize his father with his eyes closed. He wanted to love him, but instead, hated him for abandoning the family.

While deep in contemplation, he and the man in the moon engaged in a staring contest. Maybe as a reflection of his own dark mood, the man overhead appeared sad. Soon however, the yellow orb disappeared behind a cloud bank. The resulting darkness concealed the tears falling from his eyes.

“Jimmy, get back in here. Mom’s coming up the stairs.” Startled from his dreaming, he turned to find his little brother Virgil, beckoning from the open window to come inside. He quickly crawled in and resumed his position on the cot. Soon, his mother made the rounds, finally reaching him. Her kisses and reassuring words made it easier for him to fall asleep. Before his mind shut down for the night, a lonely train whistle sounded off in the distance.

Lost Highway

 

 

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Lost Highway: Ten Pages

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Now that Lost Highway has been released, I thought I would give readers a chance to sample the book. Here is a bit about the book’s inspiration, a teaser, and the first ten pages. They say it only takes ten pages and you’re hooked. Enjoy.

Toward the end of my father’s life, as his health deteriorated, a question crossed my mind, “Why is it we seldom take the time to share our deepest thoughts with those we love?” I hungered to know more about my father, and so I asked him to write down stories from his past. Even struggling with neuropathy, he wrote down a number of stories on a yellow legal pad, going as far back as his younger childhood days. After I read those stories, I then wondered what might have transpired, had my father, in the waning days of his life, spent twenty-four uninterrupted hours with his teenage grandson. Amid my wondering, I wrote Lost Highway.

 

A grandfather, nearing the end of life, recalls the troubled days of his youth.

His grandson, struggling with his own troubles, becomes a man.

James Thomas Autry, with the sands of time running out, sees in his wayward grandson, himself sixty years past. In trouble at school, in trouble at home, and with an overall crappy attitude, James wants his grandson to know that his life doesn’t have to remain on the same path. That redemption is possible. And so, he arranges a hunting trip for the two of them, down in the Ozarks, to spend time alone. And in their time together, James opens his heart and tells Jay his story.

Jay loves his grandfather, but doesn’t really know him. When he receives an invitation to join him on a hunting trip, he doesn’t quite know what to expect. During their twenty-four hours together, he not only learns his grandfather’s secret past and what skeletons lie in the Autry closet, but more importantly, he learns about himself.

Lost Highway, is historical fiction and a dual coming-of-age story, written as a non-linear narrative, that will appeal to adult and YA readers. Fans of David James Duncan, The Brothers K, or Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone would enjoy this tale.

 

LOST HIGHWAY

Ron Bay Jr

 

TURN BACK THE YEARS

Chapter I

Needles, CA

1952

 

James Thomas Autry sat on the curb of a deserted street—outside the local post office—and dug through his duffle bag for a pen and paper. The road appeared desolate, except for a lone tumbleweed, plucked from the desert and blown by a warm breeze, that drifted down the middle of Route 66. His body ached from walking, sometimes going for miles between rides, and his head bowed to weariness. The only clothes he owned, tattered and worn, hung loosely from his lean frame.

He felt the need to write to his mother, but struggled with the right words. It had been nearly a year since he left home, and other than a few cryptic letters, he hadn’t communicated with his family. What he had written must have broken his mother’s heart. Was he taunting her by revealing his troubles and strife, or seeking sympathy? And did he not know that his careless words would cause his mother deep anguish and heartache? He couldn’t recall if, in any of the letters, he expressed his love for her. And oh, how much he loved and missed his mother.

With his head hung between his knees, James drew deeply on his last cigarette, and closed his eyes. Memories of his mother flooded his mind. He fondly recalled, not that long ago, coming home late—after a night of drinking and shooting pool—and finding her sitting in her reading chair, with the lamp on low and her Bible in her lap. No matter how late he came straggling in, Mom would still be up, waiting until he returned safely home, not considering sleep until his bedroom light had dimmed for the night. Every morning, whether a school or work day, she rose long before him, a fresh percolator of coffee, eggs, bacon, and biscuits awaiting him when he awoke.

He remembered her brushing away the tears and binding up his little scrapes and bruises as a small boy. She always made the time to be there, sharing her love equally with all four children. And with no help from a husband who spent most of his time on the road. He wondered why it had taken him so long to appreciate her. And he wondered when he would get the chance to tell her.

James lifted his head and observed the long stretch of highway that ran east and out into the empty desert. The road mesmerized him, with waves of heat rising from the hot asphalt. Off on the distant horizon, a wall of dark clouds blanketed the sky, the remains of an unusual thunderstorm that had recently passed.

The events of the past seven months ran through his mind, replaying his aimless ramblings down this highway, and many others like it. A frown furrowed his brow. Those days and events had long since been lost, and he vowed to leave them there. To his right, the same empty road ran off to the west, for as far as he could see. The desert in winter, drab and lifeless, contrasted with a clear blue, cloudless western sky. He picked up his pen and began writing:

 

Dear Mom,                                                               December 24, 1952                                                                                                                                           

I’m writing to you from a little town in California called Needles, just across the border from Arizona, right on the edge of the Mojave Desert. I’m still about 250 miles away from Uncle Jack’s place. I’m down to my last thirty-six cents, so I’ll call you when I arrive there. I’m sorry for leaving you and the family the way I did, and I miss you dearly. I’m growing weary of the road and feel it’s time I came back home. After mailing this letter, I plan on thumbing my way to Los Angeles and finding your brother. I’m going to have to stay for a while and earn enough money to get back home. I miss you, Mom. You’ve always done everything you could for me, and I guess I’ve taken you for granted. This past year has been full of troubles, but it has made me appreciate you and home more than I could have ever imagined. I hope you can forgive me. Will you have snow for Christmas? Did you put up a tree? Is William coming home for the holidays? I guess I will find all these things out when I call you. Tell the family that I miss them too. I love you with all my heart. Talk to you soon.

Your loving son,

James

After placing the envelope in the “out of state” mail slot, James headed up the street, searching for a place to find a warm meal and hoping to find work.

 

Chapter II

Twin Rivers, MO

2012

 

Smart ass.

No doubt about it, and although true, few ever said it to my face. But everyone I encountered surely had the thought run through their minds. Even Dad. Although he had learned to master his tongue, his eyes gave it away.

Plenty of other words had been used to describe me: surly, lazy, troublemaker, disrespectful, argumentative, hateful, ungrateful, and a host of others. At one time or another, each of them described me well.

I don’t know how my parents put up with me, especially my father. I frequently amused myself by seeing how pissed off I could make him. And it didn’t take much. At age fifteen, I presented my father with quite the dilemma; how does a Christian man maintain his composure around a child who does not honor his father and mother? Dad, surprisingly, held up quite well. I would have beaten the hell out of me.

Teachers washed their hands of me. Not because I didn’t make good grades—I was in fact one of the smarter kids in school—but my attitude absolutely sucked. I thought all the teachers lame, and I didn’t hide my disdain. Detention and I became well acquainted.

Very few people liked me, and I returned the favor. What friends I did have, put up with me because I shared their behaviors, most of them frowned upon, some of them illegal. I didn’t care about my family, well, my brother and sister were okay, but I especially didn’t care for myself. And whatever my father believed, or liked, I hated. To spite him. But I think I hated me more.

James Thomas Autry III appears on my birth certificate, but everyone calls me Jay. It makes it easier when Dad, Grandpa, and I share the same room. Everyone refers to Dad as Jimmy, for much the same reason. Grandpa, of course, goes by James. The story I’m about to share, tells of me and Dad and Grandpa.

Grandpa, seventy-eight at the time, once led the Autry clan with a vibrant energy, but his failing health had nearly debilitated him. Surprisingly, he and I got along great together. I hated him growing old.

On most days, he sat in front of his big screen television—the sound cranked up so loud you could hear it out on the street—so close he could reach out and touch it. He liked to watch old movies, classic westerns, with John Wayne being his favorite. How many times can a guy view She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, before he’s bored stiff? He seemed to never tire of his movies though.

With all his pains and ailments—he had heart trouble and diabetes, and had already lost a couple of toes and part of a foot from the disease—he hid his frustrations well, at least around the grandkids. And maybe if he had taken care of himself early on, he might have felt better. He took a lot of naps in those days and was known to disappear to his bedroom in the middle of a conversation. And it didn’t matter who he offended, the nap took priority.

I didn’t really know Grandpa much, other than what most kids know about their grandparents. Occasionally, we heard stories, but for the most part, our busy lives didn’t allow for long conversations. I didn’t know my dad very well either, mostly because I despised him, and everything he represented. Did I mention my attitude sucked? It seems I did everything possible to make his life miserable and our confrontations were numerous, with my subsequent groundings the same.

In retrospect, me being miserable led me to project it onto others. I ran with a rough crowd, I got into trouble in school, I fell into drugs and alcohol; the only time I found happiness was alone in my bedroom listening to music. And that’s where the story begins.

I’m lying on my bed one Saturday night, listening to my tunes, when a knock comes on my bedroom door. But first, the reason I sat in my room listening to music on a Saturday night, was due to my being grounded. A week earlier, while spending the night at a friend’s house, partying hard, someone squealed. The cops busted the party, and I got hauled down to the police station.

 

Chapter III

 

The officer slid around to my side of his desk, half-way sitting, with his arms folded across his chest. The clock over his shoulder read two thirty in the morning. He said, “I need to call your dad, Jay. What’s his number? And what does he go by? And I need your address.”

The handgun tucked snugly into his holster dangled within eighteen inches of my nose. I shifted uncomfortably, and folded my arms across my chest. “What happens if I don’t give you his number?” I asked.

The officer stood upright and bent forward, his tobacco laced breath warm on my face. “You can play smart ass all you want, but I don’t think you want to spend the night in one of those cells back there.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed a dimly lit hallway leading back to who knew where. I must admit, the prospect of spending a quiet night alone didn’t appeal to me. “Do you have to wake him up?” I asked.

“Well, seeing as how you’re only fifteen and don’t have transportation, and being this is not your first rodeo, and since I’m not hauling your sorry ass home, yeah, I think waking him up might be the only option you have. Might piss him off, but you did the crime, you’re about to do the time.” He gave me a derisive smile and returned to his seat on the other side of the desk. Retrieving a notepad from his drawer, he shoved it across the desktop and it landed in my lap.

I glared at him. “I can’t write without a pen.”

He tossed a pen in my direction, and while I wrote down the phone number and address, I said, “Jimmy. He goes by Jimmy.”

The cop returned to his office, leaving me to sit in silence. I recalled him saying something about me taking the time to think about what I’d done. The ticking of the clock on the wall made the time crawl slowly by. I pictured the look on Dad’s face when he walked through the door. I didn’t have to guess, I’d seen it before.

At three o’clock, Dad entered the police station. I sat inside a room surrounded by glass windows, and although I could clearly see him, I avoided eye contact. With his hair still matted and sleep wrinkles on his face, he resembled someone who’d been awakened from sleep at three in the morning. And he was pissed. Not even glancing in my direction, he made a beeline for officer “friendly,” sitting in the back office with his feet propped on his desk.

I watched with interest as the two of them chatted, and the conversation lasted much longer than I anticipated. At one point, the officer pointed his finger at Dad and tempers flared. Soon, they emerged from the office and entered my temporary domicile. Both wore the most serious of expressions, and I remained as I was, resigned to my soon to be fate, awaiting a lecture and future punishment.

“So, what did Barney Fife have to say?” I mustered a half-hearted smile, not lost on Dad.

His jaw muscles clenched tightly, as he battled to maintain his cool. He grabbed my elbow and led me outside. “Get in the car.”

On the drive home, Dad took an unfamiliar route, presumably to allow time for conversation. His plan failed. The car remained silent the entire trip. Once we arrived at our house, rather than park in the driveway where he usually did, he stopped in front of the house and shut off the engine. Still silence.

As we sat there, I gazed at our house. His house. A typical two-story, colonial, in suburban, middle class America. Dad worked a lot of hours for that house. I didn’t see him much. Up at dawn and home after dark, the bank apparently unable to function without him. Mom worked too, as a part time accountant, but made sure she was home once the three of us kids got out of school. She attended all the school functions, teacher’s conferences, PTA meetings, and even served as a volunteer booster club member. Dad attended most of the football, basketball, and baseball games, but missed occasionally due to work. On days off, he often worked with my little brother and me on our games, playing catch, shooting hoops, and throwing the football. He even tried to help with homework, but after I began studying algebra, his tutoring ended.

Unfortunately for him, and maybe part of the reason for my resentment, he also served as the disciplinarian in the family. The times Mom couldn’t handle us, too many in my case, Dad got the job, often after a long day at work. I’d seen how much it took out of him, after strolling through the kitchen door, weary from a twelve-hour day, only to hear, “You need to go talk to your son. He’s in his room.”

Dad broke the silence. “Why do you keep doing this, Jay?”

“Doing what?” I asked, with eyes wide open in feigned ignorance.

He sighed deeply. “Don’t play dumb with me. It’s three o’clock in the morning and you’re down at the police station. And not for the first time. I don’t get it.”

“What’s to get? I was hanging out with friends and the cops showed up.” I made a point to avoid his eyes and stare out the side window.

He said, “Underage kids. Alcohol and drugs. I can see the cops being interested.”

I said, “The drugs and alcohol weren’t mine.”

“That’s not what the police told me,” he said, becoming frustrated.

“They’re full of shit.” By now our voices had risen a notch, not that anyone could hear us with the windows up.

“Jay! Your mother and I don’t talk that way.”

I rolled my eyes and smirked. “Of course not.”

The tension had thickened, so we let it simmer down before round two. The same old conversation. Him asking me why and me never answering. Maybe because I didn’t have one.

Dad, in his most stern voice, said, “I don’t want you over at Kevin’s house again. His parents allow that stuff to go on right under their noses, and your mother and I don’t approve.”

Never one to pass up an argument, I said, “But he’s my friend and they’re nice.”

“Nice? They’re not responsible adults. And let me ask you this, when I picked you up at the station, where were your friends? I didn’t see one of them. Seems your friends left you holding the bag. Literally.”

He had me there. But not wanting to give him the satisfaction, I remained quiet, glaring out the window, watching the neighbor’s trash get knocked over by a raccoon. Funny.

After much silence, I sensed he’d made his point. Or he was tired. He said, “We have church in five hours. Let’s go inside and get some sleep.”

“I don’t want to go to church. It sucks.”

If smoke can be generated by anger and plumes spew out of your ears, I saw them coming out of his. “I don’t care if you want to go or not. You’re going. If you want to live in this house, you’ll do what you’re told. And if you don’t like the rules, you’re free to move out.”

I mumbled, “Maybe I will.”

He glared at me, thinking hard about his next comment. “Look, it’s my job to be the parent and I’m going to do it the best that I can. And you’re going to be the teenager and do what teenagers do. But I’m not backing down and not giving in. You may not like my decisions, but that’s tough. Someday, when you have kids, you’ll understand. Oh, and you’re grounded for a month.”

Before I could say sarcastically, “That’s a surprise,” he climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind him. I wondered how many times I had heard, “Someday, when you have your own kids, you’ll understand.” Yeah, right. I followed him into the house and went straight up to my room.

 

Chapter IV

 

Another Saturday night at home. Grounded again. A result of the previous week’s drug bust and brief incarceration. But what Dad failed to realize, it’s not punishment if I have my music. And being alone in my room didn’t bother me a bit.

I haven’t a clue how long he pounded on my door, but with my earbuds in and the music cranked, I’m surprised his banging got through. I yanked out the earbuds and unplugged them from the receiver. I yelled, “What do you want?”

Dad sounded pissed on the other side of the door. Nothing new there. “Open the door, Jay,” he demanded, and hammered on it again.

Purposely taking my time responding, I dragged my butt out of bed and shuffled aimlessly across the room. Eventually, I opened the door and gave Dad my best “who gives a shit” attitude. I said, “What’s up?” and turned my back and plopped down on my bed.

The music blared from my stereo speakers—perfect for me, but not for him—making it difficult to have a conversation. Dad stood right next to my bed and shouted, “Turn it down, Jay, or I’m taking it away.”

“Alright. It’s off,” I yelled back, and slammed the remote down on my dresser.

Lost Highway here.

ANNOUNCEMENT: LOST HIGHWAY NOW AVAILABLE

I am pleased and proud to announce the availability of my new novel, Lost Highway, in the following formats:

Amazon Paperback- Here

Amazon Kindle- Here

Barnes & Noble NOOK- Here

Anyone wishing to obtain a signed copy of the book, please let me know and I’ll make arrangements- ronbayjr@gmail.com

Below is an introduction to the book and the first ten pages for your enjoyment.

 

Toward the end of my father’s life, as his health deteriorated, a question crossed my mind, “Why is it we seldom take the time to share our deepest thoughts with those we love?” I hungered to know more about my father, and so I asked him to write down stories from his past. Even struggling with neuropathy, he wrote down a number of stories on a yellow legal pad, going as far back as his younger childhood days. After I read those stories, I then wondered what might have transpired, had my father, in the waning days of his life, spent twenty-four uninterrupted hours with his teenage grandson. Amid my wondering, I wrote Lost Highway.

A grandfather, nearing the end of life, recalls the troubled days of his youth.

His grandson, struggling with his own troubles, becomes a man.

James Thomas Autry, with the sands of time running out, sees in his wayward grandson, himself sixty years past. In trouble at school, in trouble at home, and with an overall crappy attitude, James wants his grandson to know that his life doesn’t have to remain on the same path. That redemption is possible. And so, he arranges a hunting trip for the two of them, down in the Ozarks, to spend time alone. And in their time together, James opens his heart and tells Jay his story.

Jay loves his grandfather, but doesn’t really know him. When he receives an invitation to join him on a hunting trip, he doesn’t quite know what to think. During their twenty-four hours together, he not only learns his grandfather’s secret past and what skeletons lie in the Autry closet, but more importantly, he learns about himself.

Lost Highway, is historical fiction and a dual coming-of-age story, written as a non-linear narrative, that will appeal to adult and YA readers.

 

LOST HIGHWAY

Ron Bay Jr

TURN BACK THE YEARS

Chapter I

Needles, CA

1952

 

James Thomas Autry sat on the curb of a deserted street—outside the local post office—and dug through his duffle bag for a pen and paper. The road appeared desolate, except for a lone tumbleweed, plucked from the desert and blown by a warm breeze, that drifted down the middle of Route 66. His body ached from walking, sometimes going for miles between rides, and his head bowed to weariness. The only clothes he owned, tattered and worn, hung loosely from his lean frame.

He felt the need to write to his mother, but struggled with the right words. It had been nearly a year since he left home, and other than a few cryptic letters, he hadn’t communicated with his family. What he had written must have broken his mother’s heart. Was he taunting her by revealing his troubles and strife, or seeking sympathy? And did he not know that his careless words would cause his mother deep anguish and heartache? He couldn’t recall if, in any of the letters, he expressed his love for her. And oh, how much he loved and missed his mother.

With his head hung between his knees, James drew deeply on his last cigarette, and closed his eyes. Memories of his mother flooded his mind. He fondly recalled, not that long ago, coming home late—after a night of drinking and shooting pool—and finding her sitting in her reading chair, with the lamp on low and her Bible in her lap. No matter how late he came straggling in, Mom would still be up, waiting until he returned safely home, not considering sleep until his bedroom light had dimmed for the night. Every morning, whether a school or work day, she rose long before him, a fresh percolator of coffee, eggs, bacon, and biscuits awaiting him when he awoke.

He remembered her brushing away the tears and binding up his little scrapes and bruises as a small boy. She always made the time to be there, sharing her love equally with all four children. And with no help from a husband who spent most of his time on the road. He wondered why it had taken him so long to appreciate her. And he wondered when he would get the chance to tell her.

James lifted his head and observed the long stretch of highway that ran east and out into the empty desert. The road mesmerized him, with waves of heat rising from the hot asphalt. Off on the distant horizon, a wall of dark clouds blanketed the sky, the remains of an unusual thunderstorm that had recently passed.

The events of the past seven months ran through his mind, replaying his aimless ramblings down this highway, and many others like it. A frown furrowed his brow. Those days and events had long since been lost, and he vowed to leave them there. To his right, the same empty road ran off to the west, for as far as he could see. The desert in winter, drab and lifeless, contrasted with a clear blue, cloudless western sky. He picked up his pen and began writing:

 

Dear Mom,                                                               December 24, 1952                                                                                                                                           

I’m writing to you from a little town in California called Needles, just across the border from Arizona, right on the edge of the Mojave Desert. I’m still about 250 miles away from Uncle Jack’s place. I’m down to my last thirty-six cents, so I’ll call you when I arrive there. I’m sorry for leaving you and the family the way I did, and I miss you dearly. I’m growing weary of the road and feel it’s time I came back home. After mailing this letter, I plan on thumbing my way to Los Angeles and finding your brother. I’m going to have to stay for a while and earn enough money to get back home. I miss you, Mom. You’ve always done everything you could for me, and I guess I’ve taken you for granted. This past year has been full of troubles, but it has made me appreciate you and home more than I could have ever imagined. I hope you can forgive me. Will you have snow for Christmas? Did you put up a tree? Is William coming home for the holidays? I guess I will find all these things out when I call you. Tell the family that I miss them too. I love you with all my heart. Talk to you soon.

Your loving son,

James

After placing the envelope in the “out of state” mail slot, James headed up the street, searching for a place to find a warm meal and hoping to find work.

 

Chapter II

Twin Rivers, MO

2012

Smart ass.

No doubt about it, and although true, few ever said it to my face. But everyone I encountered surely had the thought run through their minds. Even Dad. Although he had learned to master his tongue, his eyes gave it away.

Plenty of other words had been used to describe me: surly, lazy, troublemaker, disrespectful, argumentative, hateful, ungrateful, and a host of others. At one time or another, each of them described me well.

I don’t know how my parents put up with me, especially my father. I frequently amused myself by seeing how pissed off I could make him. And it didn’t take much. At age fifteen, I presented my father with quite the dilemma; how does a Christian man maintain his composure around a child who does not honor his father and mother? Dad, surprisingly, held up quite well. I would have beaten the hell out of me.

Teachers washed their hands of me. Not because I didn’t make good grades—I was in fact one of the smarter kids in school—but my attitude absolutely sucked. I thought all the teachers lame, and I didn’t hide my disdain. Detention and I became well acquainted.

Very few people liked me, and I returned the favor. What friends I did have, put up with me because I shared their behaviors, most of them frowned upon, some of them illegal. I didn’t care about my family, well, my brother and sister were okay, but I especially didn’t care for myself. And whatever my father believed, or liked, I hated. To spite him. But I think I hated me more.

James Thomas Autry III appears on my birth certificate, but everyone calls me Jay. It makes it easier when Dad, Grandpa, and I share the same room. Everyone refers to Dad as Jimmy, for much the same reason. Grandpa, of course, goes by James. The story I’m about to share, tells of me and Dad and Grandpa.

Grandpa, seventy-eight at the time, once led the Autry clan with a vibrant energy, but his failing health had nearly debilitated him. Surprisingly, he and I got along great together. I hated him growing old.

On most days, he sat in front of his big screen television—the sound cranked up so loud you could hear it out on the street—so close he could reach out and touch it. He liked to watch old movies, classic westerns, with John Wayne being his favorite. How many times can a guy view She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, before he’s bored stiff? He seemed to never tire of his movies though.

With all his pains and ailments—he had heart trouble and diabetes, and had already lost a couple of toes and part of a foot from the disease—he hid his frustrations well, at least around the grandkids. And maybe if he had taken care of himself early on, he might have felt better. He took a lot of naps in those days and was known to disappear to his bedroom in the middle of a conversation. And it didn’t matter who he offended, the nap took priority.

I didn’t really know Grandpa much, other than what most kids know about their grandparents. Occasionally, we heard stories, but for the most part, our busy lives didn’t allow for long conversations. I didn’t know my dad very well either, mostly because I despised him, and everything he represented. Did I mention my attitude sucked? It seems I did everything possible to make his life miserable and our confrontations were numerous, with my subsequent groundings the same.

In retrospect, me being miserable led me to project it onto others. I ran with a rough crowd, I got into trouble in school, I fell into drugs and alcohol; the only time I found happiness was alone in my bedroom listening to music. And that’s where the story begins.

I’m lying on my bed one Saturday night, listening to my tunes, when a knock comes on my bedroom door. But first, the reason I sat in my room listening to music on a Saturday night, was due to my being grounded. A week earlier, while spending the night at a friend’s house, partying hard, someone squealed. The cops busted the party, and I got hauled down to the police station.

 

Chapter III

 

The officer slid around to my side of his desk, half-way sitting, with his arms folded across his chest. The clock over his shoulder read two thirty in the morning. He said, “I need to call your dad, Jay. What’s his number? And what does he go by? And I need your address.”

The handgun tucked snugly into his holster dangled within eighteen inches of my nose. I shifted uncomfortably, and folded my arms across my chest. “What happens if I don’t give you his number?” I asked.

The officer stood upright and bent forward, his tobacco laced breath warm on my face. “You can play smart ass all you want, but I don’t think you want to spend the night in one of those cells back there.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed a dimly lit hallway leading back to who knew where. I must admit, the prospect of spending a quiet night alone didn’t appeal to me. “Do you have to wake him up?” I asked.

“Well, seeing as how you’re only fifteen and don’t have transportation, and being this is not your first rodeo, and since I’m not hauling your sorry ass home, yeah, I think waking him up might be the only option you have. Might piss him off, but you did the crime, you’re about to do the time.” He gave me a derisive smile and returned to his seat on the other side of the desk. Retrieving a notepad from his drawer, he shoved it across the desktop and it landed in my lap.

I glared at him. “I can’t write without a pen.”

He tossed a pen in my direction, and while I wrote down the phone number and address, I said, “Jimmy. He goes by Jimmy.”

The cop returned to his office, leaving me to sit in silence. I recalled him saying something about me taking the time to think about what I’d done. The ticking of the clock on the wall made the time crawl slowly by. I pictured the look on Dad’s face when he walked through the door. I didn’t have to guess, I’d seen it before.

At three o’clock, Dad entered the police station. I sat inside a room surrounded by glass windows, and although I could clearly see him, I avoided eye contact. With his hair still matted and sleep wrinkles on his face, he resembled someone who’d been awakened from sleep at three in the morning. And he was pissed. Not even glancing in my direction, he made a beeline for officer “friendly,” sitting in the back office with his feet propped on his desk.

I watched with interest as the two of them chatted, and the conversation lasted much longer than I anticipated. At one point, the officer pointed his finger at Dad and tempers flared. Soon, they emerged from the office and entered my temporary domicile. Both wore the most serious of expressions, and I remained as I was, resigned to my soon to be fate, awaiting a lecture and future punishment.

“So, what did Barney Fife have to say?” I mustered a half-hearted smile, not lost on Dad.

His jaw muscles clenched tightly, as he battled to maintain his cool. He grabbed my elbow and led me outside. “Get in the car.”

On the drive home, Dad took an unfamiliar route, presumably to allow time for conversation. His plan failed. The car remained silent the entire trip. Once we arrived at our house, rather than park in the driveway where he usually did, he stopped in front of the house and shut off the engine. Still silence.

As we sat there, I gazed at our house. His house. A typical two-story, colonial, in suburban, middle class America. Dad worked a lot of hours for that house. I didn’t see him much. Up at dawn and home after dark, the bank apparently unable to function without him. Mom worked too, as a part time accountant, but made sure she was home once the three of us kids got out of school. She attended all the school functions, teacher’s conferences, PTA meetings, and even served as a volunteer booster club member. Dad attended most of the football, basketball, and baseball games, but missed occasionally due to work. On days off, he often worked with my little brother and me on our games, playing catch, shooting hoops, and throwing the football. He even tried to help with homework, but after I began studying algebra, his tutoring ended.

Unfortunately for him, and maybe part of the reason for my resentment, he also served as the disciplinarian in the family. The times Mom couldn’t handle us, too many in my case, Dad got the job, often after a long day at work. I’d seen how much it took out of him, after strolling through the kitchen door, weary from a twelve-hour day, only to hear, “You need to go talk to your son. He’s in his room.”

Dad broke the silence. “Why do you keep doing this, Jay?”

“Doing what?” I asked, with eyes wide open in feigned ignorance.

He sighed deeply. “Don’t play dumb with me. It’s three o’clock in the morning and you’re down at the police station. And not for the first time. I don’t get it.”

“What’s to get? I was hanging out with friends and the cops showed up.” I made a point to avoid his eyes and stare out the side window.

He said, “Underage kids. Alcohol and drugs. I can see the cops being interested.”

I said, “The drugs and alcohol weren’t mine.”

“That’s not what the police told me,” he said, becoming frustrated.

“They’re full of shit.” By now our voices had risen a notch, not that anyone could hear us with the windows up.

“Jay! Your mother and I don’t talk that way.”

I rolled my eyes and smirked. “Of course not.”

The tension had thickened, so we let it simmer down before round two. The same old conversation. Him asking me why and me never answering. Maybe because I didn’t have one.

Dad, in his most stern voice, said, “I don’t want you over at Kevin’s house again. His parents allow that stuff to go on right under their noses, and your mother and I don’t approve.”

Never one to pass up an argument, I said, “But he’s my friend and they’re nice.”

“Nice? They’re not responsible adults. And let me ask you this, when I picked you up at the station, where were your friends? I didn’t see one of them. Seems your friends left you holding the bag. Literally.”

He had me there. But not wanting to give him the satisfaction, I remained quiet, glaring out the window, watching the neighbor’s trash get knocked over by a raccoon. Funny.

After much silence, I sensed he’d made his point. Or he was tired. He said, “We have church in five hours. Let’s go inside and get some sleep.”

“I don’t want to go to church. It sucks.”

If smoke can be generated by anger and plumes spew out of your ears, I saw them coming out of his. “I don’t care if you want to go or not. You’re going. If you want to live in this house, you’ll do what you’re told. And if you don’t like the rules, you’re free to move out.”

I mumbled, “Maybe I will.”

He glared at me, thinking hard about his next comment. “Look, it’s my job to be the parent and I’m going to do it the best that I can. And you’re going to be the teenager and do what teenagers do. But I’m not backing down and not giving in. You may not like my decisions, but that’s tough. Someday, when you have kids, you’ll understand. Oh, and you’re grounded for a month.”

Before I could say sarcastically, “That’s a surprise,” he climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind him. I wondered how many times I had heard, “Someday, when you have your own kids, you’ll understand.” Yeah, right. I followed him into the house and went straight up to my room.

 

Chapter IV

 

Another Saturday night at home. Grounded again. A result of the previous week’s drug bust and brief incarceration. But what Dad failed to realize, it’s not punishment if I have my music. And being alone in my room didn’t bother me a bit.

I haven’t a clue how long he pounded on my door, but with my earbuds in and the music cranked, I’m surprised his banging got through. I yanked out the earbuds and unplugged them from the receiver. I yelled, “What do you want?”

Dad sounded pissed on the other side of the door. Nothing new there. “Open the door, Jay,” he demanded, and hammered on it again.

Purposely taking my time responding, I dragged my butt out of bed and shuffled aimlessly across the room. Eventually, I opened the door and gave Dad my best “who gives a shit” attitude. I said, “What’s up?” and turned my back and plopped down on my bed.

The music blared from my stereo speakers—perfect for me, but not for him—making it difficult to have a conversation. Dad stood right next to my bed and shouted, “Turn it down, Jay, or I’m taking it away.”

“Alright. It’s off,” I yelled back, and slammed the remote down on my dresser.

Lost Highway: A Preview

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Now that Lost Highway has been released, I thought I would give readers a chance to sample the book. Here is a bit about the book’s inspiration, a teaser, and the first ten pages. Enjoy.

Toward the end of my father’s life, as his health deteriorated, a question crossed my mind, “Why is it we seldom take the time to share our deepest thoughts with those we love?” I hungered to know more about my father, and so I asked him to write down stories from his past. Even struggling with neuropathy, he wrote down a number of stories on a yellow legal pad, going as far back as his younger childhood days. After I read those stories, I then wondered what might have transpired, had my father, in the waning days of his life, spent twenty-four uninterrupted hours with his teenage grandson. Amid my wondering, I wrote Lost Highway.

 

A grandfather, nearing the end of life, recalls the troubled days of his youth.

His grandson, struggling with his own troubles, becomes a man.

James Thomas Autry, with the sands of time running out, sees in his wayward grandson, himself sixty years past. In trouble at school, in trouble at home, and with an overall crappy attitude, James wants his grandson to know that his life doesn’t have to remain on the same path. That redemption is possible. And so, he arranges a hunting trip for the two of them, down in the Ozarks, to spend time alone. And in their time together, James opens his heart and tells Jay his story.

Jay loves his grandfather, but doesn’t really know him. When he receives an invitation to join him on a hunting trip, he doesn’t quite know what to expect. During their twenty-four hours together, he not only learns his grandfather’s secret past and what skeletons lie in the Autry closet, but more importantly, he learns about himself.

Lost Highway, is historical fiction and a dual coming-of-age story, written as a non-linear narrative, that will appeal to adult and YA readers. Fans of David James Duncan, The Brothers K, or Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone would enjoy this tale.

 

LOST HIGHWAY

Ron Bay Jr

 

TURN BACK THE YEARS

Chapter I

Needles, CA

1952

 

James Thomas Autry sat on the curb of a deserted street—outside the local post office—and dug through his duffle bag for a pen and paper. The road appeared desolate, except for a lone tumbleweed, plucked from the desert and blown by a warm breeze, that drifted down the middle of Route 66. His body ached from walking, sometimes going for miles between rides, and his head bowed to weariness. The only clothes he owned, tattered and worn, hung loosely from his lean frame.

He felt the need to write to his mother, but struggled with the right words. It had been nearly a year since he left home, and other than a few cryptic letters, he hadn’t communicated with his family. What he had written must have broken his mother’s heart. Was he taunting her by revealing his troubles and strife, or seeking sympathy? And did he not know that his careless words would cause his mother deep anguish and heartache? He couldn’t recall if, in any of the letters, he expressed his love for her. And oh, how much he loved and missed his mother.

With his head hung between his knees, James drew deeply on his last cigarette, and closed his eyes. Memories of his mother flooded his mind. He fondly recalled, not that long ago, coming home late—after a night of drinking and shooting pool—and finding her sitting in her reading chair, with the lamp on low and her Bible in her lap. No matter how late he came straggling in, Mom would still be up, waiting until he returned safely home, not considering sleep until his bedroom light had dimmed for the night. Every morning, whether a school or work day, she rose long before him, a fresh percolator of coffee, eggs, bacon, and biscuits awaiting him when he awoke.

He remembered her brushing away the tears and binding up his little scrapes and bruises as a small boy. She always made the time to be there, sharing her love equally with all four children. And with no help from a husband who spent most of his time on the road. He wondered why it had taken him so long to appreciate her. And he wondered when he would get the chance to tell her.

James lifted his head and observed the long stretch of highway that ran east and out into the empty desert. The road mesmerized him, with waves of heat rising from the hot asphalt. Off on the distant horizon, a wall of dark clouds blanketed the sky, the remains of an unusual thunderstorm that had recently passed.

The events of the past seven months ran through his mind, replaying his aimless ramblings down this highway, and many others like it. A frown furrowed his brow. Those days and events had long since been lost, and he vowed to leave them there. To his right, the same empty road ran off to the west, for as far as he could see. The desert in winter, drab and lifeless, contrasted with a clear blue, cloudless western sky. He picked up his pen and began writing:

 

Dear Mom,                                                               December 24, 1952                                                                                                                                           

I’m writing to you from a little town in California called Needles, just across the border from Arizona, right on the edge of the Mojave Desert. I’m still about 250 miles away from Uncle Jack’s place. I’m down to my last thirty-six cents, so I’ll call you when I arrive there. I’m sorry for leaving you and the family the way I did, and I miss you dearly. I’m growing weary of the road and feel it’s time I came back home. After mailing this letter, I plan on thumbing my way to Los Angeles and finding your brother. I’m going to have to stay for a while and earn enough money to get back home. I miss you, Mom. You’ve always done everything you could for me, and I guess I’ve taken you for granted. This past year has been full of troubles, but it has made me appreciate you and home more than I could have ever imagined. I hope you can forgive me. Will you have snow for Christmas? Did you put up a tree? Is William coming home for the holidays? I guess I will find all these things out when I call you. Tell the family that I miss them too. I love you with all my heart. Talk to you soon.

Your loving son,

James

After placing the envelope in the “out of state” mail slot, James headed up the street, searching for a place to find a warm meal and hoping to find work.

 

Chapter II

Twin Rivers, MO

2012

 

Smart ass.

No doubt about it, and although true, few ever said it to my face. But everyone I encountered surely had the thought run through their minds. Even Dad. Although he had learned to master his tongue, his eyes gave it away.

Plenty of other words had been used to describe me: surly, lazy, troublemaker, disrespectful, argumentative, hateful, ungrateful, and a host of others. At one time or another, each of them described me well.

I don’t know how my parents put up with me, especially my father. I frequently amused myself by seeing how pissed off I could make him. And it didn’t take much. At age fifteen, I presented my father with quite the dilemma; how does a Christian man maintain his composure around a child who does not honor his father and mother? Dad, surprisingly, held up quite well. I would have beaten the hell out of me.

Teachers washed their hands of me. Not because I didn’t make good grades—I was in fact one of the smarter kids in school—but my attitude absolutely sucked. I thought all the teachers lame, and I didn’t hide my disdain. Detention and I became well acquainted.

Very few people liked me, and I returned the favor. What friends I did have, put up with me because I shared their behaviors, most of them frowned upon, some of them illegal. I didn’t care about my family, well, my brother and sister were okay, but I especially didn’t care for myself. And whatever my father believed, or liked, I hated. To spite him. But I think I hated me more.

James Thomas Autry III appears on my birth certificate, but everyone calls me Jay. It makes it easier when Dad, Grandpa, and I share the same room. Everyone refers to Dad as Jimmy, for much the same reason. Grandpa, of course, goes by James. The story I’m about to share, tells of me and Dad and Grandpa.

Grandpa, seventy-eight at the time, once led the Autry clan with a vibrant energy, but his failing health had nearly debilitated him. Surprisingly, he and I got along great together. I hated him growing old.

On most days, he sat in front of his big screen television—the sound cranked up so loud you could hear it out on the street—so close he could reach out and touch it. He liked to watch old movies, classic westerns, with John Wayne being his favorite. How many times can a guy view She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, before he’s bored stiff? He seemed to never tire of his movies though.

With all his pains and ailments—he had heart trouble and diabetes, and had already lost a couple of toes and part of a foot from the disease—he hid his frustrations well, at least around the grandkids. And maybe if he had taken care of himself early on, he might have felt better. He took a lot of naps in those days and was known to disappear to his bedroom in the middle of a conversation. And it didn’t matter who he offended, the nap took priority.

I didn’t really know Grandpa much, other than what most kids know about their grandparents. Occasionally, we heard stories, but for the most part, our busy lives didn’t allow for long conversations. I didn’t know my dad very well either, mostly because I despised him, and everything he represented. Did I mention my attitude sucked? It seems I did everything possible to make his life miserable and our confrontations were numerous, with my subsequent groundings the same.

In retrospect, me being miserable led me to project it onto others. I ran with a rough crowd, I got into trouble in school, I fell into drugs and alcohol; the only time I found happiness was alone in my bedroom listening to music. And that’s where the story begins.

I’m lying on my bed one Saturday night, listening to my tunes, when a knock comes on my bedroom door. But first, the reason I sat in my room listening to music on a Saturday night, was due to my being grounded. A week earlier, while spending the night at a friend’s house, partying hard, someone squealed. The cops busted the party, and I got hauled down to the police station.

 

Chapter III

 

The officer slid around to my side of his desk, half-way sitting, with his arms folded across his chest. The clock over his shoulder read two thirty in the morning. He said, “I need to call your dad, Jay. What’s his number? And what does he go by? And I need your address.”

The handgun tucked snugly into his holster dangled within eighteen inches of my nose. I shifted uncomfortably, and folded my arms across my chest. “What happens if I don’t give you his number?” I asked.

The officer stood upright and bent forward, his tobacco laced breath warm on my face. “You can play smart ass all you want, but I don’t think you want to spend the night in one of those cells back there.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed a dimly lit hallway leading back to who knew where. I must admit, the prospect of spending a quiet night alone didn’t appeal to me. “Do you have to wake him up?” I asked.

“Well, seeing as how you’re only fifteen and don’t have transportation, and being this is not your first rodeo, and since I’m not hauling your sorry ass home, yeah, I think waking him up might be the only option you have. Might piss him off, but you did the crime, you’re about to do the time.” He gave me a derisive smile and returned to his seat on the other side of the desk. Retrieving a notepad from his drawer, he shoved it across the desktop and it landed in my lap.

I glared at him. “I can’t write without a pen.”

He tossed a pen in my direction, and while I wrote down the phone number and address, I said, “Jimmy. He goes by Jimmy.”

The cop returned to his office, leaving me to sit in silence. I recalled him saying something about me taking the time to think about what I’d done. The ticking of the clock on the wall made the time crawl slowly by. I pictured the look on Dad’s face when he walked through the door. I didn’t have to guess, I’d seen it before.

At three o’clock, Dad entered the police station. I sat inside a room surrounded by glass windows, and although I could clearly see him, I avoided eye contact. With his hair still matted and sleep wrinkles on his face, he resembled someone who’d been awakened from sleep at three in the morning. And he was pissed. Not even glancing in my direction, he made a beeline for officer “friendly,” sitting in the back office with his feet propped on his desk.

I watched with interest as the two of them chatted, and the conversation lasted much longer than I anticipated. At one point, the officer pointed his finger at Dad and tempers flared. Soon, they emerged from the office and entered my temporary domicile. Both wore the most serious of expressions, and I remained as I was, resigned to my soon to be fate, awaiting a lecture and future punishment.

“So, what did Barney Fife have to say?” I mustered a half-hearted smile, not lost on Dad.

His jaw muscles clenched tightly, as he battled to maintain his cool. He grabbed my elbow and led me outside. “Get in the car.”

On the drive home, Dad took an unfamiliar route, presumably to allow time for conversation. His plan failed. The car remained silent the entire trip. Once we arrived at our house, rather than park in the driveway where he usually did, he stopped in front of the house and shut off the engine. Still silence.

As we sat there, I gazed at our house. His house. A typical two-story, colonial, in suburban, middle class America. Dad worked a lot of hours for that house. I didn’t see him much. Up at dawn and home after dark, the bank apparently unable to function without him. Mom worked too, as a part time accountant, but made sure she was home once the three of us kids got out of school. She attended all the school functions, teacher’s conferences, PTA meetings, and even served as a volunteer booster club member. Dad attended most of the football, basketball, and baseball games, but missed occasionally due to work. On days off, he often worked with my little brother and me on our games, playing catch, shooting hoops, and throwing the football. He even tried to help with homework, but after I began studying algebra, his tutoring ended.

Unfortunately for him, and maybe part of the reason for my resentment, he also served as the disciplinarian in the family. The times Mom couldn’t handle us, too many in my case, Dad got the job, often after a long day at work. I’d seen how much it took out of him, after strolling through the kitchen door, weary from a twelve-hour day, only to hear, “You need to go talk to your son. He’s in his room.”

Dad broke the silence. “Why do you keep doing this, Jay?”

“Doing what?” I asked, with eyes wide open in feigned ignorance.

He sighed deeply. “Don’t play dumb with me. It’s three o’clock in the morning and you’re down at the police station. And not for the first time. I don’t get it.”

“What’s to get? I was hanging out with friends and the cops showed up.” I made a point to avoid his eyes and stare out the side window.

He said, “Underage kids. Alcohol and drugs. I can see the cops being interested.”

I said, “The drugs and alcohol weren’t mine.”

“That’s not what the police told me,” he said, becoming frustrated.

“They’re full of shit.” By now our voices had risen a notch, not that anyone could hear us with the windows up.

“Jay! Your mother and I don’t talk that way.”

I rolled my eyes and smirked. “Of course not.”

The tension had thickened, so we let it simmer down before round two. The same old conversation. Him asking me why and me never answering. Maybe because I didn’t have one.

Dad, in his most stern voice, said, “I don’t want you over at Kevin’s house again. His parents allow that stuff to go on right under their noses, and your mother and I don’t approve.”

Never one to pass up an argument, I said, “But he’s my friend and they’re nice.”

“Nice? They’re not responsible adults. And let me ask you this, when I picked you up at the station, where were your friends? I didn’t see one of them. Seems your friends left you holding the bag. Literally.”

He had me there. But not wanting to give him the satisfaction, I remained quiet, glaring out the window, watching the neighbor’s trash get knocked over by a raccoon. Funny.

After much silence, I sensed he’d made his point. Or he was tired. He said, “We have church in five hours. Let’s go inside and get some sleep.”

“I don’t want to go to church. It sucks.”

If smoke can be generated by anger and plumes spew out of your ears, I saw them coming out of his. “I don’t care if you want to go or not. You’re going. If you want to live in this house, you’ll do what you’re told. And if you don’t like the rules, you’re free to move out.”

I mumbled, “Maybe I will.”

He glared at me, thinking hard about his next comment. “Look, it’s my job to be the parent and I’m going to do it the best that I can. And you’re going to be the teenager and do what teenagers do. But I’m not backing down and not giving in. You may not like my decisions, but that’s tough. Someday, when you have kids, you’ll understand. Oh, and you’re grounded for a month.”

Before I could say sarcastically, “That’s a surprise,” he climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind him. I wondered how many times I had heard, “Someday, when you have your own kids, you’ll understand.” Yeah, right. I followed him into the house and went straight up to my room.

 

Chapter IV

 

Another Saturday night at home. Grounded again. A result of the previous week’s drug bust and brief incarceration. But what Dad failed to realize, it’s not punishment if I have my music. And being alone in my room didn’t bother me a bit.

I haven’t a clue how long he pounded on my door, but with my earbuds in and the music cranked, I’m surprised his banging got through. I yanked out the earbuds and unplugged them from the receiver. I yelled, “What do you want?”

Dad sounded pissed on the other side of the door. Nothing new there. “Open the door, Jay,” he demanded, and hammered on it again.

Purposely taking my time responding, I dragged my butt out of bed and shuffled aimlessly across the room. Eventually, I opened the door and gave Dad my best “who gives a shit” attitude. I said, “What’s up?” and turned my back and plopped down on my bed.

The music blared from my stereo speakers—perfect for me, but not for him—making it difficult to have a conversation. Dad stood right next to my bed and shouted, “Turn it down, Jay, or I’m taking it away.”

“Alright. It’s off,” I yelled back, and slammed the remote down on my dresser.

The Fur Coat Lady

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December 10, 2017                                                                                                  3:30 PM

Margaret “Maggie” Atwood, after recently experiencing her regular afternoon High Tea at The Lobby on Superior Street, walks west on Chicago Avenue. The thirty-degree temperatures, even with a stiff breeze out of the north, don’t bother her; wearing a $25,000 mink fur coat she remains toasty. But why is she walking west on Chicago Avenue? She lives in a penthouse condo on N. Michigan Avenue, at the 535 Residences, just north of the Tribune Tower. She should be walking south.

Alone now, her husband Herbert having died last year, Maggie lives the best life old money can afford. Her children and grandchildren visit often and one of the delights of her life is taking her grandkids shopping on the Magnificent Mile and buying them whatever their little heart’s desire. With Herbert alive, she lived a nice life, but with him gone, the money he left behind allows her to live however she chooses. And she chooses well.

Her health has been good, her most recent checkup indicating the heart of a much younger woman, but regulating her blood pressure medicines has been a bother of late. And sometimes she forgets to take them. Or she takes too many. She gets confused. And now she isn’t sure if she took too many today, or if she took them at all. She feels lightheaded and disoriented.

Coming upon a group of five men standing in front of the McDonald’s on Chicago Avenue, she overhears them mention Michigan Avenue and she interjects, “Are you looking for Michigan Avenue?” Not awaiting a response, she turns and points east, “Michigan Avenue is just a few blocks that way.”

One of the men interrupts her and says, “Well, actually, we are looking for homeless people. We have hats and gloves and socks to give them.”

Maggie, with a sneer on her face, says, “The homeless? Why, it’s terrible. They congregate in front of Water Tower Place and it’s almost impossible to get around them. And when I tried to shop at Tiffany’s this morning, it was all I could do to shoo them away. It’s pathetic. Something should be done about it.”

The men, ranging in age from fourteen to sixty, stand with mouths hung open. Their spokesperson, Chad, says, “Well, thank you. I think we can find our way to Michigan Avenue.”

Maggie spins on her heel and crosses Chicago Avenue, and then heads south on N. Wabash avenue. Her lightheadedness has returned. Now, where am I going? What street is this? She begins to stagger and weave down the sidewalk.

***

December 10, 2017                                                                                                  3:30 p.m.

Heading East on Chicago Avenue, Chad and his four companions stop in front of McDonald’s to assess their next move. For the past three hours, they, and a group of others, have traveled up and down Michigan Avenue, State Street, and Dearborn Avenue, seeking out the homeless. Armed with backpacks full of stocking caps, gloves, socks, hand warmers, and McDonald gift cards, they have experienced another successful Hats and Gloves. Between the two groups, they have encountered forty homeless people, and of their nine years doing it, this ranks as one of the better. One year, a particularly cold one, they met and served over sixty homeless folks, meeting their immediate needs to the best of their ability.

As they stand on the sidewalk, one of the five says, “Should we go on over to Michigan and work our way down?”

An elderly woman, overhearing part of their conversation, says to Chad, “Are you looking for Michigan Avenue?” Before he can answer, she turns and points to the east, “It’s just a few blocks that way.”

Chad smiles and says, “Well, actually, we’re looking for the homeless. We have hats and gloves and socks we’re giving away.”

Maggie, wearing a sneer, says, ““The homeless? Why, it’s terrible. They congregate in front of Water Tower Place and it’s almost impossible to get around them. And when I tried to shop at Tiffany’s this morning, it was all I could do to shoo them away. It’s pathetic. Something should be done about it.”

Chad frowns and says, “Well, thank you for your help. We can find Michigan avenue.”

As the elderly woman walks away, the fourteen-year-old turns to his father and says, “That lady was rude. Does she really see the homeless that way?”

His father, in his best teachable moment tone, says, “I took her comments differently. I think she may have been saying that the number of homeless is a shame. And maybe something could be done to solve the problem.”

His son shook his head. “I thought so too, but when she called them pathetic, that did it for me. Did you see that fur coat she had on? And those sunglasses? The cost of them alone could feed the homeless for a year.”

As the lady in the fur coat steps away from them, Chad watches her go, and wonders if at one time, Raymond or Raven or Tyrone, or Wawa or Florica (and Kitty Poo) or Mercy, or any of the rest of those he met today, who live on the street and count on the kindness of others, were ever in the position of the fur coat lady. He wonders from where it is they’ve all come. And he wonders if the fur coat lady will ever understand.

***

December 10, 2017                                                                                                  3:45 p.m.

Alexander leans against a lamppost on N. Wabash and watches the Christmas shoppers stroll up and down the avenue, oblivious to him. He struggles to stand upright, understandably so after finishing a Slurpee cup full of vodka and cherry slush. He celebrates his fortieth birthday alone. Earlier a group of men stopped by and greeted him, offering him hats, gloves, socks, and a McDonald’s gift card. He isn’t hungry right now, but will keep the card for when the booze wears off and the aching in his stomach begins.

Alexander lives with his girl, down in the homeless village on Lower Wacker Drive. He has no affection for Franny, she yells at him most days, but she helps him keep warm underneath his cardboard blankets on a cold winter’s night. She said she was going to work the bridge on State street today, to see if she couldn’t score some cash. Alexander’s mind runs immediately to another bottle of Skol.

With his head relatively clear, he spots an elderly lady coming down Wabash, weaving from side to side, in and out of the street. Cars honk as the old lady veers out into traffic. With the dinner hour approaching, the foot traffic has begun to thin. Alexander, his senses on high alert, sees an opportunity. With the sun now dipping behind the tall buildings, the street lights have flickered on, offsetting the early onset of twilight.

Passing by her as an early test, he finds her disoriented, as she stumbles forward and stops repeatedly to stare up at the tall buildings towering over either side of the street. He also notices and salivates at her perceived wealth. Her fur coat, sunglasses, jewelry, watch, thigh high black boots, and the rock on her ring finger—all of it worth more than Alexander will see in a lifetime—all beckon him. If I bring this stuff home to Franny, maybe she won’t yell at me no more.

Standing at the mouth of an alley adjacent to Wabash, across from Holy Cathedral, Alexander waits. The old lady approaches from the south. As she nears, he calls out to her, “Hello, ma’am. You look lost. Can I help you find your way?”

The old lady, a confused look on her face, looks up at him. “Where is Michigan Avenue? I need to find my way home.”

Alexander, hiding a smile, slips his hand into the crook of the old lady’s arm and leads her into the alley. “Come with me, ma’am. I’ll take you home.”

Placing his arm around her shoulder, he steers the old lady deep into the dank and dirty alley. When he reaches a spot between two large metal dumpsters, Alexander looks first one way and then the other, and convinced no one is around, he shoves the lady, hard, in the back, and she falls forward and cracks her head against a weld at the bottom of the metal container.

Alexander makes quick work of it. Dumping the contents of a black plastic trash bag into the dumpster, he removes her handbag, fur coat, sun glasses, diamond ring, cameo broach, earrings, and winter gloves. Shoving them into the plastic trash bag, he stands over her. My Franny would look good in that top and leather pants and boots. He removes her blouse and boots, leaving her in only a camisole and panties, shoves them into his bag, and then pulls her over between the dumpster and the wall, leaving her face down in a pool of urine and vomit.

As Alexander slings his bag of goodies over his shoulder and steps out onto Wabash, the snow begins to fall.

***

December 10, 2017                                                                                                  6:15 p.m.

Officer Thomas “Tom” Clancy, has walked this beat for thirty years and in that time, he swears he’s seen it all. He strolls north on N. Wabash and the accumulating snowfall almost causes him to miss the bare legs protruding from behind a dumpster down a side alley. Over the years, he’s discovered dead bums, drunk bums, drugged out bums, in alleys just like this one, but still he hurries to investigate.

Reaching the dumpster, he finds the body of a woman, nude, save for a thin camisole and a layer of white snow. Kneeling by her side, he checks for a pulse, and after indicating one, he gently shakes her awake. After getting her to a sitting position, he places his coat around her shoulders. “Ma’am, we need to get you out of the cold. Can you tell me where you live?”

Her face, muddied from the ground, her hair a wet mess, the lipstick on her lips nearly washed away and smeared onto her cheek, and reeking of vomit and urine, Maggie looks up at him. “Is it time for tea?” she asks.

Knowing what he has on his hands, Officer Clancy asks her name. Her eyes dart from side to side and she won’t look him in the face. Shaking, she says, “I think I’m going home.”

“But, what’s your name? Do you have a name?”

Still confused, she knits her brow, trying to think. “Maggie. I’m Maggie.”

Knowing of a homeless shelter a few blocks north on Dearborn, he says, “Well, Maggie, we need to get you to a warm place and into some dry clothes.” He radios for a squad car and when it arrives, he accompanies Maggie on her ride to The Covenant House. Once there, Officer Clancy finds an administrator and explains the situation.

Meanwhile, Maggie becomes agitated and points at a group of men with backpacks standing across the room. “I know them. I know them.”

Officer Clancy approaches the five men and speaks to the group. “I’m sorry men, but this homeless lady thinks she knows you.”

One of the men reaches out his hand to shake. “Hello, officer. My name’s Chad and the five of us have been handing out hats and gloves to the homeless all day.” Peering at the nearly nude older woman, Chad says, “And I’m sure I would have remembered seeing her.” The two briefly chuckle at the humor, but before the officer turns away, Chad says, “Here, please give her these.” He hands the officer a stocking hat, a pair of gloves and socks, hand warmers, and a McDonald’s gift card inscribed—FROM: JESUS—TO: YOU—$10

 

Are You Good For Nothing?

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Today’s sermon had a particular idea that struck a chord with me. I write this as a challenge for my brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as myself. Please don’t be offended.

Imagine, if you will, Sunday morning. Your family, finally ready for church, loads up in the SUV. You open the garage door from inside, back out onto the driveway, click the garage door shut and off you go to church. After a nice lunch in a local restaurant, you return home, pull into the driveway, click the door open, pile out of your SUV, walk into the house and click the garage door shut. And for the next eighteen hours, the door remains shut. Until the next morning, when the ritual repeats itself for work and school, and then once everyone returns home for the evening, the garage door shuts once again, and your family remains cloistered inside your comfortable cocoon, safe from the world. Day in and day out, you living a comfortable life inside your comfortable home. 

Around you are houses, across the street, next door, behind you, filled with people. They’re called neighbors. Do you know any of them? Can you know them if you live the above routine, hiding inside your safe and comfortable home.  I’ve heard people say, “I pray for my neighbors,” and that’s good, but how can you pray, other than a generic prayer, “God, please bless that family who lives in that house over there,” for people you don’t know? And how can you make a difference in the lives of people whom you’ve never met?

As Christians, isn’t that supposed to be our mission? When asked by the Pharisees what is the greatest commandment, Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ I’ll ask again, how can you love those whom you don’t know?

But what if you knew your neighbors, by name? And you knew that Andy and Jen, across the street, just had a new baby named Eleanor (Nora) June, born at five o’clock this morning. Calvin now has a little sister. And then you found out what kind of food they like to eat, so you can take them a meal. Or what if you knew Tom, across the street? Tom, a Viet Nam vet who is scheduled for another surgery, his fourth or fifth, and who has to get around with a cane. And Crystal his wife, who ministers in a small, local church. You might pray for Tom’s surgery and offer to help in other ways. Or maybe you know Dave next door. Dave is a widower in his 80’s, a military vet, who lives alone with his dog Wally. He likes to read, mainly military history. You make a point to strike up a conversation with him each time you see him. He might be lonely. And then there are Bob and Mary parents of Chris, who lives next door with husband John and their two kids, Morgan and Nicholas. And next to them are Betty and Klaus, in their nineties, but Betty still loves to come out and do yard work. How might you make a difference in Betty’s life? And next door to them, George and Barb. George drives a school bus and he and Barb spend a lot of time in their beautiful flower garden. Barb’s mother lives with them. And the new neighbor, who just moved in next door, someone you will soon make a point to meet. What if you knew all or many of your neighbors? What difference could you make in their lives? And for Christ?

Jesus also said, You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. Your are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lamp-stand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. 

In the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey feels as if he’s a failure, as if his life doesn’t matter. And Old Man Potter, after finding out George’s life insurance policy exceeds his net worth, tells him, “George, you’re worth more dead than alive!” George concludes he and his family would be better off if “he’d never been born.” And so Clarence, his guardian angel, arranges it. But you know how the story ends. The question for you and for me; if you died today, would your neighbors notice? Without you in the neighborhood, what would it be like?

Here’s my challenge to you as Christians; open your garage door and get to know your neighbors, as many as possible. If you choose to isolate yourself, as in the garage door example above, you may as well become Amish and go live on a farm somewhere. Or become a monk and live on the side of a tall mountain. Jesus prayed this in John 17: “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” From this prayer we came up with the phrase, “We’re to be in the world, but not of the world.” In the world making a difference. A difference that the world desperately needs.

Knowing your neighbors can be messy, and yes, you’ll be sticking your neck out by getting involved. But what you’ll find is, by knowing your neighbors you learn to love your neighbors and by loving your neighbors you can make a difference in their lives. And if you make a difference in people’s lives, you’ve become salt and light, and when your life is finished, you may hear the phrase, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

 

Cool Jesus

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*This article was originally posted on 5/22/15.

Note: I have intentionally overused the word “cool” in this piece as a reflection of its overuse in today’s culture and to make a point.

Cool Jesus is a myth. As much as secular America, and sadly, too many mainline churches want him to exist, he doesn’t. In an effort to make Christianity more palatable and less offensive, Cool Jesus was created. This is the Jesus that is full of love and forgiveness, but that’s it. This is the Jesus that “hangs with sinners.” Cool Jesus has long hair, a scraggly beard, and wears Birkenstocks. He may even have a few tattoos.

The idea that Jesus came to “hang out with sinners”—and who wasn’t a sinner?—because they were somehow better than the Pharisees and religious leaders is nonsense. All of them were sinners. The main reason Jesus singled out the Pharisees is they didn’t think they had any sin in their lives; everyone else knew they were sinners—“God be merciful to me, the sinner!”—and it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to pile on. Cool Jesus not only doesn’t address your sin, he completely ignores or accepts it. So, the mantra of the churches has become, “come as you are, Jesus loves you.” Cool Jesus would never offend anyone or, God forbid, hurt their feelings and self-esteem. Yes Jesus loves you—most people not understanding the full meaning of love—but does he love your sin?  Does he accept your sin? Didn’t he come to die for your sin? That seems to be a very serious price to pay for something that is insignificant and doesn’t really matter. So where did this Cool Jesus come from?

It all started with the societal upheaval and revolution that occurred in the 1960’s. The era was certainly about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but it was much deeper than that.  The 1960’s revolution was really about rebellion, rebelling against any authority figure; police, teachers, government, politicians, parents, church leaders, and even God. And against any constraints on behavior associated with any of these aforementioned groups. All of these authority figures began to be mocked in the popular culture and labeled as un-cool or as was the jargon of the times, “square.” Whereas movies used to portray these groups as positive role models, they began to be portrayed as mean, angry, intolerant, not hip, not with it, dullsville. And who wants to be labeled as that type of individual? Ultimately, if you weren’t considered cool, you were ostracized and ridiculed by those who were—and who determined who was cool is a mystery for sure—but the term came to mean so many things as to lose its original meaning altogether.

So the revolution created a Jesus who didn’t quite fit the traditional model. He became the subject of a musical play and movie, Jesus Christ Superstar. He was sung about by the Doobie Brothers, Jesus is Just Alright. And he was even associated with pot smoking by Brewer and Shipley in, One Toke over the Line (Sweet Jesus). “Hey Jesus, come on and hang out with us sinners. Somebody pass that joint over here.” Jesus was being transformed into Cool Jesus, even back then. But before the Cool Jesus was fully created, the un-cool authority figures had to become cool too.

Whereas teachers and professors were previously portrayed as eggheads, they soon began to wear a different persona and create a new, cool image. They grew their hair long, grew beards, switched from Ben Franklin to John Lennon style spectacles, and smoked an occasional joint. Instead of Mozart, Procol Harum was the new cool.

The clergy, pastors and priests, began to change their image as well, all in an effort to counter a perceived stereotype. In the movie The Poseidon Adventure, Gene Hackman’s character was a man of the cloth, but he wasn’t your typical version. He was relaxed, dressed down—no white collar, but instead a turtleneck—and he even cursed. He was strong, tough, and wore his passion on his sleeve. He was cool.

Parents too, wanted in on the act. Instead of being the authority figure in the house and playing the traditional role of parent, they wanted to be their child’s best friend. In order to accomplish this they had to forgo discipline and instead “understand” their child. Child psychologists were in, corporal punishment was out. Parents decided that since their children would “have sex anyway” they would set up a spare bedroom for the occasion, under adult supervision of course, rather than have the teen do it in the back seat of the family station wagon. The same for drinking and drugs; why wonder what your kid is doing at a party down the street, when you can host your own and supply the booze and drugs yourself. These parents may have turned into lousy parents, but they were now cool and their kids liked them.

Politicians, the most stodgy of all the groups, began to change over time as well. Instead of being men and women of character, integrity, and accomplishment, they soon cared more about how they could relate to and fit in with the pop culture. Clinton went on The Arsenio Hall Show and played his version of Heartbreak Hotel on the saxophone. But it wasn’t until he had “sex with that woman” in the White House that he earned his cool bona fides. Our current president, Obama, is known more for being a member of a “choom gang” than for any important papers or legislation. He too appears on the late night talk show circuit, yukking it up with the comedians. But hey, he’s cool. Lousy president, but cool.

In today’s churches, it’s all the rage to be cool; anything to get away from the old stereotypes. You want people to feel comfortable, so you do everything with that in mind. The preachers dress down on stage with designer jeans and the most hip outfits money can buy, even wearing their shirts fashionably tucked outside their trousers. They wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress shirt or khakis. The praise bands rival any rock band and their members are made up of hipsters sporting the most fad conscious tattoos and body piercings. The music is rock and roll, accompanied by a laser light show that would be welcome at any rock concert. And the announcements are made to be as inoffensive as possible.

“We are so, so, so, super happy that you are here with us today. We think you’ll find us to be the coolest church and most fun people around. All we ever do is smile and have fun. See? And don’t forget the coffee bar. And don’t forget to stop by the Next Steps Booth on your way out; we have a super, super, super, cool gift for you.”

I have news for these churches; you will never out-cool the world, nor should you want to. You can do all you want to make the sinner feel comfortable, but the minute you mention sin…Oh yeah, you don’t mention sin. And then there’s Cool Jesus.

But was Jesus really cool? Maybe I’m missing it, but somehow I don’t see him portrayed that way anywhere in scripture. He was actually pretty harsh and demanding, measured by today’s standards. And I find him to be an equal opportunity offender. Jesus made and makes everyone feel uncomfortable. How can you be in the presence of the Holy God of the universe and remain comfortable?  John the Baptist forewarned the religious leaders that the Messiah was coming, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” We know they were bad guys–and of course deserved condemnation–but what about when Jesus addressed the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” He actually told the poor rich guy he would have to forsake his current lifestyle in order to follow him. Are you kidding? Forsake my lifestyle? So not cool Jesus. And how about when he addressed his own disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.” What do you mean give up my life? That’s not cool. Or when he said, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Aren’t you a little too demanding Jesus? That isn’t cool. And here’s another indication that he expects us to repent from our old way of life when he said, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” There’s a reason John the Baptist and Jesus were preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And did you notice what happened to Zaccheus when Jesus came to visit him? He spent less than a day with Jesus and without being prompted, he publicly confessed all his wicked behavior and wanted to make things right. Just being in Jesus presence led Zaccheus to forsake his former way of life and repent.

Here’s the truth: Jesus didn’t come to be our therapist and enhance our self-esteem. He didn’t come to be our buddy and hang out. He came to be our Savior and Lord. He isn’t one of us. He’s not a peer; as if he was one of the guys from work that we run to the corner pub and have a couple of beers with. We’re sinners and he’s holy. Each week we sing songs of redemption, but what are we redeemed from? Cool Jesus never addresses the elephant in the room. If the Church refuses to talk about sin, then it should also shut up about the Savior, because without sin, there isn’t a need for a savior. Yes Jesus loves us, all of us. And yes Jesus hates our sin, all of our sin. The good news is, Jesus doesn’t expect you to clean up your life prior to coming to him. You can’t do it. What he does expect is that you recognize your sin. That you repent of your sin. That you forsake your former way of life, and when you seek out the Savior, bring your sins with you. And lay them at Jesus feet. He will accept you as you are and will forgive your sins. Now, that is cool indeed.

The Boat: When Robbie Gets Shot

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For the next thirty minutes, the four of them “play” their way down the trail—swinging on grape vines, pushing one another into pools of water while crossing the creek, throwing acorns at each other—until they finally reach a deserted road. The road runs east and west, dividing the woods in half, with grass and weeds growing up between two dirt lanes. The road rarely, if ever gets used.

“Should we follow the road?” Robbie asks.

Alec puts both hands on his hips and glares at Robbie. “Why would we want to do that? We’re heading north so we follow the trail. And we need to hurry up; the sun will be down in an hour.”

A few minutes later Robbie makes an announcement. “I need to take a leak.”

“Well, there are plenty of trees around, so go ahead. We won’t watch.” The other three converse while Robbie runs off into the woods. He’s known to have a nervous bladder, so he moves deep into the trees, away from prying eyes.

Dougie shouts after him, “Hurry up Robbie. And watch out for rattlers.”

When a good amount of time has gone by, and Robbie hasn’t rejoined the group, Dougie yells for him. “Robbie, hurry up. What’s takin’ you so long? All you had to do was piss.”

“Yeah, hurry up dumb ass. We don’t have all day.” Alec picks up a rock and throws it in the direction they last saw Robbie.

Jason, now concerned, says, “Let’s go find him. He better not be horsing around or he’s dead meat.”

Fifty yards off the trail Jason stumbles upon Robbie on the opposite side of a large oak tree. “Hey guys. Come over here. I’ve found him, but something’s wrong.”

They all run to the slumped figure beneath the tree and as they gather around, they notice his eyes closed. They also observe a flow of blood oozing from his right temple and down his cheek.

“Is he dead?” Alec asks.

Dougie bends over the body. “No, he’s still breathin’.”

Jason gently shakes Robbie.

Robbie’s eyes open slowly and Alec says, “What happened? Why is your head bleeding?”

Not fully cognizant, he mutters, “I don’t know. I was standing there taking a leak and I heard a crack and then a sharp pain on the side of my head. That’s all I remember.”

Jason lifts the hair covering Robbie’s temple and finds a huge welt, with a small hole in the center. There appears to be an object under the skin, and Jason attempts to squeeze the unknown item back out of the hole.

Robbie jerks his head away. “Damn. That hurts.” He reaches up and gingerly runs his fingers along the side of his head. “There’s something in there all right.”

“I know it hurts, but we’ve got to get it out. You don’t want to go to the hospital do you?”

A sharp crack immediately follows an explosion of bark from the tree above their heads. At first, not sure what just happened, the boys are frozen in place, but then Alec says, “Somebody’s shooting at us. Get down on the ground… get behind a tree.” They all four dive to safety behind the trunk of a massive oak. Huddled together behind the tree, the boys, breathing heavily, try to calm their racing hearts.

Jason motions for quiet. “Sit still and listen.”

A squirrel running through a pile of fallen leaves creates the only sound.

“Who do you think it is?” whispers Robbie.

Jason shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s an accident.”

Alec waves both hands and frowns. “An accident? Come on Jason. No way.”

“Maybe they’re hunting and don’t even know we’re here.” Jason doesn’t believe his own speculation, but he prefers not to jump to conclusions and to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Dougie yells out, “Hey, you better stop shootin’ at us or we’re goin’ to the cops.” At first silence, then faint laughter echoes from deep in the darkened woods.

Alec says, “All right, we have two choices. We can run or go on the offensive.” He surveys the surrounding woods and points to a spot on the other side of a ravine. “Over there are a bunch of hedge apples scattered on the ground. Let’s all grab an armful and start throwing them in their direction. We might scare them out.”

Robbie says, “Hedge apples? Yeah right. What good will they do? They’ll just shoot at us again.”

“They’re going to shoot at us no matter what we do. I would just as soon see one of these hedge apples smashing their faces. That might even things up.” Alec crawls to the tree and gathers ammunition. Dougie and Jason move on hands and knees toward the hedge apples, while Robbie stays behind the tree, not altogether with it at this point.

Once they’ve supplied themselves with ammunition, all four boys spread out in a line and sprint in the direction from where they heard the shot. Shouting like warriors, they hurl the large, green apples, until their supply dwindles to only a few pieces. A lone figure bolts from behind a tree and runs in the opposite direction. Robbie winds up, as if he stands on the pitching mound, and hurls one of the remaining apples at the fleeing figure. Bam, he nails him square in the back. The man drops to his knees with a loud moan.

Robbie’s face and neck have turned a scarlet red and his voice trembles. “It’s Stubby Winston. Shit!”

Stepping out from behind a second tree, Stubby’s brother Lightning fires his weapon. The sound of projectiles ricocheting off the ground and surrounding foliage causes the four boys to drop their ammo and flee. They dive for cover behind the same oak tree.

Jason says, “It’s the Winston brothers and they’re not messing around. We need to get out of here fast.” More blood has seeped from Robbie’s wound. “How’s your head?”

“It’s throbbing, but it won’t slow me down.”

With darkness now becoming their ally, the boys help Robbie to his feet and scamper back to the trail. They run north and eventually arrive at the wood’s edge. They then sprint the remaining fifty yards across the open field and arrive at the intersection of Hickory and Jefferson.

Bent over and catching their breaths at the street corner, a loud plink on the metal STOP sign above their heads startles them. Jason falls to the ground, followed by Robbie and Alec.

Alec says, “Come on guys. Let’s ditch it across the street and hide next to the house over there.” Alec takes off and Robbie and Jason follow.

Huddled next to the house, they peek around the corner and glance across the street. Instead of following them to safety, Dougie walks back toward the woods. With his hunting knife brandished in front of him, he taunts the unseen assailants hidden somewhere back in the stand of trees.

“Why don’t you come on out and show your faces? I’ll kick your asses. I’ll cut you ‘til you bleed like stuck pigs, you damn pussies.”

Jason mutters, “Whoa, Dougie.” But rather than leave him out there humiliated, he calls him back. “Dougie, get over here. You’re target practice standing out there.” All three frantically wave their arms to get his attention.

Dougie finally turns back to them, but before taking a step, he drops to one knee, reaches for his back and grimaces in pain. With shots ricocheting on the ground around him, he quickly gathers himself, regains his feet, and stumbles to safety.

When he joins the others, he drops down on all fours, moaning in pain.

“Where’d you get hit?” Jason kneels down and offers assistance.

Dougie points to his lower back. A spot of blood the size of a silver dollar stains his shirt. Jason raises the shirt to Dougie’s shoulders and the boys gather in close to survey the damage.

Alec says, “Damn, that’s gross.”

A large red and purple welt has formed on Dougie’s back, with a small amount of blood trickling from the wound. The “bullet” or whatever they fired from the gun remains a mystery.

Happy Anniversary, Baby, Got You on My Mind. Again.

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On a warm summer evening, forty-three years ago, good friend Andy Thomas and I met on foot, at the Mark Twain grade school, with nothing more on our minds than to stroll up and down the streets and share in conversation. We always could while away the hours talking. Both of us at the time were unattached when it came to the fairer sex, and since each of us had a driver’s license, why we were on foot must have been a result of a lack of available transportation. But no bother, we liked to walk.

After a brief conversation at the school, we made our way south on Maple street, past Mac Jensen’s place, and down the hill in the direction of Grigg’s Park. Prior to reaching the bottom of the hill, we noticed that the tennis courts were under lights and spotted two people swatting the ball back and forth. Two girls. From that distance, it was hard to identify the players, but Andy recognized one as Angie Rogers. I knew Angie from school. But the other player remained a mystery.

After we crossed Centennial, I asked Andy if he knew the other girl. For some reason, I had become fixated on her. He identified her as the sister of a classmate, Debbie McClendon. I knew Debbie, but not her younger sister, Julie. That reality was about to change.

We enthusiastically approached the tennis court, like moths to a flame, or in my case, like an ox being led to the slaughter, and the two ceased playing long enough to talk with us. Nervous around girls, I’m sure my conversation was limited to a few one word answers and grunts, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the new girl, especially her eyes. The butterflies hovering in my stomach furiously beat their wings, and my knees became weak. I believe I was smitten.

We finally left the two of them to continue their game of tennis, but as we walked away, I’m surprised I didn’t run into a telephone pole or parked car, it being hard to navigate down the sidewalk with your head looking behind you. Our conversation the rest of the night had only one theme, Julie.

A few weeks later, now cruising up and down the streets of Carthage in my royal blue, 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne, I inexplicably ended up driving south on Maple Street, in the vicinity of Julie’s house. How did that happen? Truth be told, I was hoping to catch a glimpse. Lo and behold, who did I see walking down the sidewalk, but Julie McClendon with her good friend Laura Coombs. I pulled alongside them and stopped to say hello. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but they both ended up in my car.

The bench seat was wide enough to accommodate an entire baseball team, but somehow Julie ended up sitting right next to me, with Laura manning shotgun. With her sitting beside me, the sweet smell of perfume, the occasional brushing together of our skin, I found it difficult to concentrate on the road (today I have different distractions causing me not to concentrate on the road while driving, but that’s a different story). She must have batted her eyes at me, because when she asked to drive my car, being under age and thus breaking the law, I immediately pulled over and exchanged places. She always has been able to get me to do whatever she asks.

Keenly aware of what girls prefer, nearing seventeen and never having dated a girl being beside the point, I figured that Julie might not enjoy my loudly playing version of American Woman, so I switched the 8-track to the other side and found These Eyes. How romantic. I would find out years later that impressing her with my music would never happen, but at this point I was grossly unaware.

The remainder of the summer I sought glimpses of her whenever and wherever I could. I did spend an awful lot of time at the Municipal Park swimming pool that summer, her being a lifeguard there not having anything to do with it mind you. You might say I was obsessed, not that I’ve ever been obsessed with anything. But her being only fifteen, we could not officially date. Once the school year commenced, Julie turned sixteen and her parents, probably to this day still shaking their heads in wonder, allowed her to date me.

We became an item around school:

Kissed a few times:

And enjoyed the recognition of our peers on Prom night:

 

Four years, and many adventures later, Julie McClendon became my wife on July 22, 1978. Being inept with the spoken word, I wonder if I’ve ever expressed to her how much she means to me. Still today, when I gaze into her beautiful blue eyes, the butterflies flutter, just as they did on that tennis court forty-three years ago. She is my special gift from God, wholly undeserved. And I am forever grateful. She’s given me two wonderful sons and two special grandchildren.

She’s Julie, Jul, Gigi, Julia Kay, and a host of other pet names. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

Happy Anniversary, sweetheart.

Outsmarting the Neighbor’s Dog or How to Successfully Terrorize Your Little Sister

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The wall became a problem for us when we played any game involving a ball (the ball tended to leave our yard and land in the neighbor’s). What to do? It was obvious we had to get the ball, but how?

In addition to the wall, there was a bigger problem with retrieving our ball; each of our neighbors on all three sides had dogs! The neighbor to our right had three Chihuahua dogs. These were not your normal Chihuahua dogs; they were huge, vicious, long-toothed, some type of hybrid breed of Chihuahua dog. Timmy and I were scared to go over there and get our ball (it never occurred to us to walk around to the front of the house, ring the doorbell, and ask for our ball).

Simultaneously, we came up with the same plan; we agreed, prior to asking, to send Kathy over the wall. But how to convince her?

Initially I tried to bribe her and said, “Kathy, I have some candy I’ll give you (I don’t mess around), if you’ll go get our ball next door.”

Timmy chimed in and begged her, “Pwease, pwease, pwease Kathy, would you go get ow bawh?”

Kathy wouldn’t fall for either ploy and responded, “No. I don’t want to. Besides, ahn’t theh dogs next doah?”

I’ve been known to lie, and said, “Kathy, those are little Chihuahua dogs that couldn’t hurt a flea. I’ll give you all my candy. Please?”

“Okay,” was her response and I had to assume it was that final bribe that put her over the edge.

I know what you’re thinking; what a cruel thing to do to your little sister. I never felt guilty about it until the event was over. Besides, we didn’t have a choice.

Timmy and I got Kathy up on the wall, and we spotted our ball across the neighbor’s yard. No dogs in sight. As we slowly lifted Kathy down, we told her to hurry up before the dogs were the wiser.

As she grabbed the ball and headed back to the wall, out of nowhere, the three amigos, I mean Chihuahuas, bolted toward her. As Kathy tried to climb up on the wall, the dogs jumped all over her, biting her bottom and pulling down her pants.

Meanwhile, safely sitting on the wall, Timmy and I were very helpful.

“Kathy, thwow the bawh ovah the fence,” Timmy offered.

I followed up with this encouragement, “Kathy, don’t worry, those dogs aren’t hurting you. Timmy and I will pull you up, but you have to throw the ball over the fence first.”

The only words out of Kathy at this point were, “Waaahhh!”

We finally convinced Kathy to throw the ball back into our yard, lifted her over the fence, pulled her pants up, told her not to tell Mom, and then went to the tree in the front yard to pull a switch for the discipline that surely would come. In all future endeavors involving balls in neighbor’s yards, Kathy was not involved.

The neighbor behind us had a dog too. This dog was a bit larger than the Chihuahuas and much more aggressive and faster. He was black and white (a cocker spaniel), had very thick fur, and his bite was worse than his bark.

When the ball went over the wall into this dog’s yard, we had to work on our strategy. You couldn’t just climb down the wall into the backyard, because before your foot hit the ground, this dog was all over you, tearing you to pieces. He was a smart dog (adept at undercover work and counterespionage), always hiding behind bushes, beside the house, or wherever he could conduct his surveillance. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, you could not get a foot down and that dog was right there, no bark, just wooosh! He was there.

We weren’t about to let any dog outsmart us however. Our strategic battle plan was brilliant. If the ball was on the east end of the yard for example, one of us would go to the west end of the yard and begin the climb down. This time we had him fooled. While the decoy was on the west end, the other kid was on the east end, where the ball was located. The decoy never intended to set foot in the yard, but the strategy was effective.

The dog ran over to the kid on the west end, and in the meantime, the other kid quickly jumped down, grabbed the ball, and was safely up on the wall before the dog knew what hit him. Then we sat on the wall, stuck out our tongues, and made fun of the hapless dog. If nothing else could be said about us, we were smarter than a dog, at least on this occasion.

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