Delayed Inspiration

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From where do you receive inspiration? For many of us, it may have been from something that happened many years ago. As a boy, I spent hours reading, much of it during study hall. I suppose reading is as good a way to learn as is studying a lesson in geography. I especially enjoyed adventure stories. I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other stories by Jules Verne. I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. But my favorite stories were written by Mark Twain. I read about Tom and Huck, about the Prince and the Pauper, and about the Connecticut Yankee. He was and still is my favorite author. No one writes like him, then or now. His biting humor and natural storytelling are special.

I recall, sometime during my high school years, my father inviting me to a live show being held at the Municipal Hall, titled “Mark Twain Tonight!” This confused me, as I thought Mr. Twain already dead, so how could he be appearing tonight? Apparently those rumors of his death were indeed greatly exaggerated. I jumped at the chance, much like the frog from Calaveras County.

Upon being seated, to my delight, a white-haired man with flowing white mustache, wearing an all white suit, shuffled onto the stage, bowed, and then sat down in a rocking chair. I was mesmerized. When he spoke, I imagined for a moment that I was really listening to Mark Twain. The homespun humor, the puffing on the pipe, the lazy rocking in the rocking chair. As if it was just me and Mark Twain, sitting on a front porch in Hannibal, MO, on a hot and humid summer day. Outstanding! I later found out that the Twain character was played by actor Hal Holbrook. I didn’t care. My writing hero had come to life. I made sure to reread both Tom and Huck books shortly after the performance.

Fast forward 37 years and I found myself inspired to write. But where had my inspiration come from? Why start so late in life? I credit God for much of my inspiration, but surely some of it came from Jules Verne and Robert Heinlein, and the rest of the hundreds of authors I’ve read over the years. But I especially credit Mr. Twain. And a wonderful performance by Hal Holbrook who made my literary hero come alive.

What inspires you?

 

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Delayed Inspiration

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Image result for mark Twain

From where do you receive inspiration? For many of us, it may have been from something that happened many years ago. As a boy, I spent hours reading, much of it during study hall. I suppose reading is as good a way to learn as is studying a lesson in geography. I especially enjoyed adventure stories. I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other stories by Jules Verne. I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. But my favorite stories were written by Mark Twain. I read about Tom and Huck, about the Prince and the Pauper, and about the Connecticut Yankee. He was and still is my favorite author. No one writes like him, then or now. His biting humor and natural storytelling are special.

I recall, sometime during my high school years, my father inviting me to a live show being held at the Memorial Hall, titled “Mark Twain Tonight!” This confused me, as I thought Mr. Twain already dead, so how could he be appearing tonight? Apparently those rumors of his death were indeed greatly exaggerated. I jumped at the chance, much like the frog from Calaveras County.

Upon being seated, to my delight, a white-haired man with flowing white mustache, wearing an all white suit, shuffled onto the stage, bowed, and then sat down in a rocking chair. I was mesmerized. When he spoke, I imagined for a moment that I was really listening to Mark Twain. The homespun humor, the puffing on the pipe, the lazy rocking in the rocking chair. As if it was just me and Mark Twain, sitting on a front porch in Hannibal, MO, on a hot and humid summer day. Outstanding! I later found out that the Twain character was played by actor Hal Holbrook. I didn’t care. My writing hero had come to life. I made sure to reread both Tom and Huck books shortly after the performance.

Fast forward 37 years and I found myself inspired to write. But where had my inspiration come from? Why start so late in life? I credit God for much of my inspiration, but surely some of it came from Jules Verne and Robert Heinlein, and the rest of the hundreds of authors I’ve read over the years. But I especially credit Mr. Twain. And a wonderful performance by Hal Holbrook who made my literary hero come alive.

What inspires you?

 

Gimme a Drink

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dark Alley

I wasn’t expecting the phone call, but I wasn’t surprised by it either. Over the years I had received many just like it. The person on the other end, not giving me a name, told me I needed to come pick up my son. They said he needed someone to help him. Found sitting in an alley between two dumpsters, drunk, incoherent and belligerent, he wouldn’t allow anyone to get near him. Angry at first, but knowing the history and how much I had influenced it, I changed my attitude.

At three in the morning, I was still up watching television but receiving little for the investment. I couldn’t sleep and was too lazy to go anywhere and too proud to call a friend. In fact, I had nearly run out of friends, so I suppose I wasn’t willing to waste a call. I put out my cigarette, screwed the lid back on the bottle, set the empty glass in the sink and went into the bedroom and threw on some clothes. I then jumped into the pickup and drove the few miles into town. Careful to drive below the speed limit, I had no desire to be pulled over and given a ticket for driving under the influence.

A light snow fell as I drove through town. The streets remained empty and the only  light came from my truck and a few dimly lit street lamps. When I arrived at the spot where I was told my son would be, I parked adjacent to a darkened alley and slid out of the truck. Standing at one end of the alleyway, I surveyed the scene. About halfway down, I noticed a single, dim light on the back of a loading dock, with articles of trash scattered on the ground around a number of dumpsters lined up on either side. But I didn’t see him. As I walked I nearly stepped on an old tomcat, sniffing around for scraps dumped out the back door of a nearby restaurant.

I jumped when I heard a glass bottle clink to the pavement, and when it rolled into the alley a few yards in front of me, I knew then where I needed to look. Coming alongside two dumpsters, I stepped out into the center of the alley for a better glimpse. What I saw nearly broke my heart. Sitting on the ground with his back leaning against the brick wall was my son. I’m not sure how I knew it was him. I hadn’t seen him in years and he didn’t look much like the son I remembered. But it was him for sure. He sat with his head hanging down between his legs and with eyes closed he slowly swayed back and forth, humming some unrecognizable tune.

I approached him and said his name, “Nathaniel,” but he didn’t respond. I then knelt down beside him and whispered his name again. Still no response. I repeated his name, only louder. He slowly raised his head, but his face didn’t register recognition. With swollen cheeks and eyes that had closed to slits, snot dripped from his nose and onto his lips. Pus oozed from one of his nearly closed eyes and I noticed that some of the mucous had dried and crusted on his skin. He wore filthy clothes that had been ripped in several places, and the smell of vomit and urine caused me to briefly recoil. In his lap he held between both hands a nearly empty bottle, and I recognized the label; Listerine.

Reaching forward I grabbed his arm, but he immediately jerked it away and cursed incoherently. Trying to stand up, he fell backwards and banged his head on the wall. He spat out more curse words and tried once again to regain his feet, but his condition had left him weak. I reached out to him and said, “You’re gonna need somebody’s hand son.” He remained sitting and stared off into space. I grabbed the bottle out of his hand and threw it down the alley.

That set him off again. He screamed, “Son of a bitch. Give it back.”

I knew better than to argue with him, so I ignored his anger and waited. Before long he forgot about the bottle. While I waited for him to regain some sense of place, I observed his body shiver in the cold. His hands shook and his teeth chattered. I removed an extra layer of clothes and placed my coat on his shoulders. He didn’t acknowledge it and instead remained motionless, staring into nothingness. Sitting next to him, for what seemed a long time, I attempted to help him to his feet. This time he struggled to an upright position. I wrapped one of his arms around my shoulders and bearing most of his weight I led him, one step at a time, out of the alley and into my truck.

As we drove out-of-town, we neither one uttered a word. Soon he sat up straight and with a wild look in his eyes he desperately searched inside the truck. He felt underneath his seat and then opened the glove box. Not finding what he was searching for, he slammed the glove box door and shouted, “Son of a bitch. Where’s the booze?”

“There isn’t any,” I said.

“That’s bullshit, Dad. You always have a bottle. Where is it?”

I remained unruffled. In a calm, measured tone, I said, “I told you, there’s nothing here.”

He banged his fist against the window. “Gimme a drink, old man.” I answered nothing in return. He sat with his back against the door and glared at me. “Drive to your house. I know there’s some there.”

While I drove through the snow, he eventually fell asleep. The cab remained silent and as I drove, my thoughts traveled back to the day when this snowball first began rolling. The boy was only fourteen when his mother left me and took him with her. I don’t blame her for leaving. I wasn’t much of a husband and couldn’t keep a steady job with my alcohol problems. It wasn’t long afterward when she began to tell me about Nathaniel getting into trouble at school and around town and how he had developed a fondness for getting drunk. She blamed me. I blamed me. And now here we were. I was still a drunk, and my son, even more so.

I drove out-of-town, to an old hunting lodge I used to frequent with a couple of old friends of mine. We didn’t really do much hunting, but we did do a lot of drinking. The cabin, remote and primitive, would be the perfect place for Nathaniel to dry out.

The sun peeked over the horizon as we arrived at our destination. When we pulled up to the cabin, he peered out the truck window, wearing a confused look. “Where are we?”

“I figured this would be a good place to sober you up.”

He scowled. “I don’t need to sober up dammit. I need a drink.”

I stood outside the truck, waiting. “Help me haul this stuff inside.”

We carried the supplies inside the musty cabin, and I left him inside while I gathered up some firewood. Once I had a fire roaring, I scrambled up some breakfast. Nathaniel, not hungry, slept on the couch while I ate alone.

As the evening sun disappeared, he awoke for the first time. When he emerged from beneath the blankets I noticed he had lost a lot of weight. His arms appeared as two  toothpicks, and I could easily count his ribs as he stood surveying the cabin. I knew what he wanted. “There isn’t any.”

His eyes revealed anger. Almost hatred. “Then I’ll go find some in town.”

“You’re not going anywhere, unless you walk. I’ve got the keys to the truck and we’re miles away from town. Besides, you wouldn’t last long out there in your condition.” He had a desperate look on his face and his hands trembled.

“I can’t take it, Dad. I’d rather be dead.” He paused, shook his head and said, “Nobody would give a damn if I was.”

I looked at him with pity and saw myself a few years back. I had bottomed out once, but with the help of a good friend I made it through to the other side. I wasn’t sure he would. “Son, this is going to be hard, but you have to get clean. You’ve been drinking hard for seventeen years and you won’t make another seventeen if you don’t quit now. Look at you. You look like hell.”

With a shivering frame and trembling lips, he muttered, “If she hadn’t broken my, heart I’d be fine.”

“But you’re not fine, Nathaniel. You’re drinking your life away.”

I reached into the cooler and offered him a bottle of water, but he declined, and after using the toilet he crawled back under the covers and soon, I heard loud snoring. Sitting across the room in an old wooden rocking chair, I watched him as he slept. It was hard for me to believe, but at one time he was my little boy. Where had things gone so wrong? It wasn’t long before I too fell off to sleep.

The next morning, a hideous sound coming from his bed woke me. A moaning, wailing sound came from beneath the covers. “Whoa, oh, oh, oh.” Amid rustling blankets, I heard the wailing again. “Whoa, oh, oh, oh.” Strolling across the room, I pulled back the covers. Nathaniel writhed from side to side and his body shook violently. Both hands gripped his head and clumps of hair fell from between his fingers. When he noticed me standing nearby, he screamed, “Son of a bitch. Gimme a drink.”

I tenderly gazed at him and shook my head. He then scratched himself with both hands, violently, while repeating over and over, “Bugs are crawling all over me.” His fingernails tore at his skin, and he bled from his arms and neck. Tears flowed down his cheeks and he repeated that bugs were crawling all over him. I begged him to stop scratching, that there weren’t any bugs, but he couldn’t hear me and continued writhing and scratching and wailing.

I sat next to him on the bed and gripped him with both hands, pinning his arms to his sides. I held him tight while he fought to get away, but I was much stronger than him and the more he fought, the tighter I held. Soon, he sobbed. Tears welled up in my eyes and it wasn’t long before I wept along with him. His wailing eventually stopped, which led to a soft whimper, “No one cares.”

I held him tenderly in my arms. “I care, son.” His body shook as we held one another.  This went on for a time, but eventually he fell back asleep, and so I fixed some breakfast and sat once again in the rocking chair, watching him while I ate. And while I thought.

I hated for my son to suffer, and I refused to sit back and watch him drink his life away. I also concluded that this wouldn’t end unless I made it end. Even if he survived the next few days, his life wasn’t going to change for the better and his suffering would continue. And that I couldn’t take. I made a decision that morning. I would end my son’s suffering.

While he slept on the couch, I strolled to a backroom closet and dug around for a bottle I had hidden there a few years earlier. It was a gallon of cheap whiskey. I moved around the cabin and poured the whiskey onto the chair, onto the blankets on the bed, onto Nathaniel as he slept. I saturated as much of the cabin as I could, until I had emptied the bottle. I then sat back down in the rocking chair and lit up a cigarette. Once I had the cigarette lit, I tossed the still burning match across the room. When the fire touched the blankets enveloping my son, flames shot up and quickly traveled around the cabin. I peered across the room as the blaze roared around me and with tears running down my cheeks, I said to my son, “I’m going to cover myself with the ashes of you.”

*Inspired by Nathaniel Rateliff’s song S.O.B

Altered Time

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Harry Jameson sat in his chair, reading his favorite book, Tom Sawyer. It made him feel young again to read about Tom and Becky, but it also filled his mind with thoughts of his wife. He missed her sorely, and the quiet, empty house added to his loneliness. In an hour the nurse would arrive, just like clockwork; coming around at eight in the morning, one in the afternoon, and six o’clock in the evening. It gave him someone to talk to, although even talking these days took much of his effort and strength. He sat, idly staring at the large clock on the wall and watched the second-hand jump from number to number, slowly but steadily around its face. The consistent tick-tock emanating from the clock comforted him and reminded Harry of his own mortality and that he, unlike his wife, still lived. The big hand indicated five o’clock and he figured he had plenty of time for a nap before his visitor arrived. Switching off his reading lamp, he kicked out the foot rest on his lounge chair and drifted off to sleep.

A noise disturbed Harry and he awakened with a start. With eyes like silver dollars, he sat up straight and gripped both armrests tightly. What was that? He turned on the lamp but couldn’t pinpoint the sound. Alarmed, he felt his pulse quicken and breathing escalate, and he struggled to calm himself. After what seemed like an hour but was probably only thirty seconds, Harry finally relaxed. He glanced at the clock. Five o’clock? It was five o’clock when I turned off my lamp. That’s strange. Feeling the urge to urinate, he raised himself out of the chair and shuffled off to the bathroom, dragging his oxygen tank behind him.

Upon returning to his chair, he glanced at the clock again: three fifty-five. Bloody hell! What’s going on here? Harry pinched his readers onto his nose and leaned forward to gain a better view of the wall clock. What he saw not only dumbfounded him but panicked him, and he found breathing difficult. The second-hand on the clock spun like a pin wheel and the minute hand moved at a speed normally associated with the second-hand. But stranger still, both hands rotated counterclockwise. The more he stared, the faster the hands moved. He squinted his eyes tightly and then opened them, but the chilling anomaly remained. The hands continued spinning, counterclockwise, faster and faster. What the hell is going on? He glanced around the room and found the clocks on the stove and microwave acting in the same fashion.

Harry grasped his face in both hands, hoping to clear his head, but when he pulled them away, he noticed something odd about the back of his hands. He no longer had those ugly brown spots. And the wrinkles had also disappeared. On the floor to his left, where the oxygen tank used to sit, was now open space. He jumped out of his chair and ran to the bathroom mirror. While he stood in front of the mirror, slack-jawed, and studied his new body, he realized that a fantastic transformation had occurred—his hair was much darker and most of the gray was gone, his upper body was firm and muscular again, and he no longer had bags under his eyes—but someone entering the house through the garage interrupted his examination. The next thing he heard caused his knees to buckle.

“Honey, I’m home.” His wife’s voice. But she’s dead.

He stepped out of the bathroom and peered at his wife, who returned his hypnotic gaze. “What’s wrong. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Harry ran across the room and grabbed his wife by the shoulders and then hugged her like he’d never let her go.

She gently pushed him away. “Honey, come on. I must put the groceries away. I was only gone a couple of hours. You act like you haven’t seen me in years. Not that I’m complaining. It’s nice to be loved on.”

Harry hardly believed what had happened, it was too far-fetched, but decided not to mention it to Sarah. She’ll think I’m nuts! After helping her put away the groceries, Harry returned to his lounge chair. While he opened Tom Sawyer, he cast furtive glances at the clock on the wall. The phenomenon he noticed earlier continued, with both hands spinning counterclockwise, around and around. He looked at Sarah to see if she had noticed anything, but she just smiled at him and so he tried to put it out of his mind. This is fantastic. I’m forty years younger. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Although Harry loved the new him, he was apprehensive about going to bed and sleeping through the night—what if I wake up as a baby? —so he stayed in the chair and read his book, keeping one eye on the pages and one on the spinning clock. But, unable to remain awake, he eventually dozed off.

The next morning, Harry awoke to the beautiful melody of song. It’s Sarah. When she entered the room, his eyes widened and his mouth fell open. She looks forty years younger. Then I must be forty years younger, too. After kissing him good morning, Sarah said, “It’s Saturday. Are you going golfing with your buddies?”

Her question surprised Harry. “No. I would rather be with you all day.”

“I don’t know what’s come over you, but I like it. Let’s go shopping and grab some lunch.”

It was as if the two had become newlyweds again. By the end of their outing, they returned home exhausted. They decided to take a little afternoon nap, which lasted more than two hours. Upon awakening they prepared a meal, for just the two of them. While they sat at the kitchen bar eating, a strange feeling overwhelmed Harry. It was an ominous feeling, but he couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong. After dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, Harry and Sarah retired to the family room and began reading unfinished books.

Sarah said, “Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall tonight?”

Harry was bewildered. “What are you talking about?”

“At the prom. Wouldn’t you love to see your son dancing with his girlfriend?”

Harry’s heart stopped beating for a split second and his face turned white. Forty years earlier, that same night, their son William was on the way to the prom with a carload of friends and the car ran off the road and down a steep culvert, killing all the boys upon impact. I can’t go through this again. This can’t be happening. The phone rang amid his daydreaming and Harry froze. Dreading what he knew he would hear, he let the phone ring. But not wanting Sarah to suffer, he crossed the room and picked up the phone. “Hello. Jameson residence.”

“Yes, Mr. Jameson. This is Officer Wilson with the highway patrol. There’s been an accident…”

The blood drained from Harry’s face and he dropped the phone. He heard someone talking but couldn’t comprehend their words. Gathering himself, he retrieved the phone and placed it against his ear. The officer said, “…and the boys are all okay. The car’s pretty beat up, but no one is seriously hurt.”

Harry thanked the officer, hung up the phone and then jumped and shouted for joy. “Our boy’s okay!” He then turned his face upward and said, “Thank you, God.”

After he explained everything to Sarah, they readied themselves to go pick up their son. Before leaving the house, Harry noticed the clock on the wall. The second-hand now turned clockwise, moving at the normal speed. He smiled a big smile and walked his wife out the door.

***

The nurse entered the front door and checked her watch; it read six o’clock on the dot. She detected a faint light coming from the family room and barely recognized her favorite patient sitting in his favorite chair. After turning on a few more lights, she called out, “Mr. Jameson, it’s me. Nurse Nancy.” She heard no response. After setting down her bag, she approached the chair. Normally she would hear his raspy breathing, but tonight only silence greeted her. Leaning forward, she gently placed her hand on his. His skin felt cold to the touch. She slid her index and middle finger to the inside of his wrist. No pulse. Stepping back, she observed an unusual peace and calm about Harry and detected a slight smile formed at the corners of his mouth. She muttered, “I haven’t seen the old man smile in years. Well, at least he died peacefully.” Looking up at the clock, she started to write down the time, but realized something wasn’t quite right. The clock seemed to have stopped. Five o’clock it read.

It’s been said that you can’t change time, but as is the case with Harry Jameson, time can change you.

Who’s Dead?

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The day after Thanksgiving had arrived and Reynolds could hardly contain his excitement. The annual trip downtown to deliver hats and gloves to the homeless was finally here. He knew that the greater the foot traffic on Michigan Avenue and State Street, the more opportunity he would have to help those who needed it. The sidewalks would be teeming with shoppers and the homeless were sure to be out in droves. If he were homeless, that’s where he would go. He’d stuffed his backpack with stocking caps, warm winter gloves, bags of socks, hand-warmers, and his favorite, $10 McDonald’s gift cards for those who were hungry. It was unfortunate, but this year he would go alone. All his usual partners had bowed out, citing family parties and shopping duties. No matter, he would go it alone, despite his wife’s insistence he stay home.

“You don’t have to go. No one else is,” she whined.

“No, I don’t have to. But I am,” Reynolds said, as he stuffed a final bag of socks into his bag.

“But it’s freezing out there. And it’s not safe.”

“Safety’s my middle name. And I’m dressed warm. See?” he said and held out his gloves, heavy coat and stocking cap. “I’ll be fine. I’ve done this for ten years. Nothing’s ever happened before. Besides, I have a cell phone.”

“Well, I think it’s dumb,” his wife said as she left the garage and slammed the door behind her.

After a forty-minute drive, in surprisingly light traffic, Reynolds found a parking garage, grabbed a ticket and parked in the basement, two levels down. He took the elevator and surfaced in the atrium of a department store facing State Street. Shoppers jammed the floor as he elbowed his way to the street. Moving against the tide of people, like a lone salmon swimming upstream, he noticed once again, as he had every year, that no one looked him in the eyes as they passed.

Out on State, his backpack firmly in place, he glanced north and then south, searching for his first homeless person. A light snow had begun to fall, adding to the tinkling bells and twinkling lights of this festive season. A chill ran through him, but he figured he would warm as he walked the streets. He remembered teaching his grandson that if he wanted to spot animals in the thick woods, he needed to look for things that seemed out-of-place. That dark shape on a tree limb that doesn’t look like the rest of the limbs turns out to be a hawk, or the gray-brown of a deer that looks slightly different from the leaves and the tree trunks and the ground cover. You can train your eyes to spot them he had taught him. Finding the homeless is much the same. Among the thriving mass of people moving up and down the street, the homeless, for Reynolds, had become easy to spot.

He found his first target on a side street, sitting in front of Garrett’s Popcorn, leaning up against a lamp-post. He hurried toward them and noticed several people walk by, not even noticing the person sitting on the cold concrete with a cardboard sign held in front of them: HUNGRY. PLEASE HELP. Reynolds knelt to speak to, in this instance, a woman. Wrapped in a heavy coat, a plastic trash bag next to her filled with her meager belongings, he reached out to touch her hands. Cold as ice. Perfect. “Here, would you like some gloves? Are you hungry?”

Reynolds reached into his backpack and retrieved a pair of gloves and a gift card. Oddly, the woman didn’t answer. He leaned in closer, oblivious to the many people scurrying past. As he gazed into the woman’s eyes, he received a blank stare in return. Her eyes were frozen in place, as he assumed, she had been. He jumped up, searching the streets for a Chicago cop, but in the mass of humanity, he didn’t see one. Realizing he couldn’t help this poor woman—he promised himself he would point her out when he spotted a man or woman in blue—he moved down the street, hoping to find another. Was he the only one who had noticed her?

As Reynolds moved North on State, he came across many more homeless and, in each instance, he found them the same. Cold and lifeless. Men, women, young, old, black, white, they came in all colors, sizes and ages. Some sat next to shopping carts filled with soiled blankets and greasy food bags and tattered clothing; one was in a wheelchair, with one of his legs lost from diabetes; many didn’t have most of their teeth. They wore shabby clothes and worn out shoes, and the many hands he held had gnarled, swollen and cracked fingers from the cold. He found them in alleys, on street corners, beneath bridges and down the subway stairs. He came across them in little cardboard hovels down on Lower Wacker Drive. He moved to Michigan Avenue, with a million people parading up and down the sidewalks, all of them staring straight ahead as they moved like zombies from store to store, with eyes that didn’t acknowledge, carrying packages from Macy’s and Nordstrom’s and The Gap, and Niemann Marcus. Everywhere he looked, the homeless were there. But in every encounter he found them lifeless, some with eyes open and others as if they had fallen asleep, curled up, knees to their chests to keep warm. They’re all dead. Could no one help them?

Dejected and not knowing what to do, Reynolds decided to go back to his car and drive to a police station. Maybe they would be able to help. He reached into his pocket, but his car keys weren’t there. Removing his backpack, he knelt on the sidewalk to search, but someone bumped him, and another knocked him over and when he got back to his feet, the backpack was gone. Along with his cell phone. His stomach growled, he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and he reached for his wallet. It wasn’t there. He ran up the street, looking for someone to help, but in all these people, he found no one. No one he knew. Alone in a city full of people. Desperate, he asked for help, but the people avoided him like the plague. Like he had once avoided the panhandlers and beggars. Until his attitude changed when someone close to him had taught him a lesson. Ten years ago.

Hungry, tired and cold, Reynolds got an idea. Returning to one of the homeless he had passed from earlier in the day, he borrowed their cardboard sign—he figured they wouldn’t need it—and walked to the bridge on Michigan Avenue that spanned the Chicago River. Finding a spot out of the stiff, bitter north wind, he sat down and held the sign out in front of him. PLEASE HELP it read. He pulled his coat up tight around his neck with his stocking cap over his eyes, shivering as boots marched lockstep up and down the street in front of him. The snow, now falling heavy, piled around him. His body tensed as he fought the cold, and he found himself falling in and out of sleep. The paper cup he held, one he’d found in a trash can, upon examination was empty. Glancing up at the hundreds of bodies that passed him by, bodies with emotionless faces and vacant eyes, eyes that failed to notice him, a thought came to mind. They’re all dead.

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

 

 

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.

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.”