One Solitary Life

Paul Greenberg

12/21/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

He slept at the sawmill,
in a pile of shavings,
my father said.
He'd had a hard life.
and some of his relatives
were, perhaps, a bit ashamed.

Early one morning,
my father got a call.
When he returned, he said that
C.P. had died during the night,
in his pile of shavings.

I remember my father
making a point about
how clean C.P. was
-his body; his underwear."
So clean," he said, and,
"He was a good man,
who had some troubles."

Now, more than fifty years later,
I think of this, and add:
As are we all.As do we all;
which is exactly
what my father had in mind.

- Mary Waters,
"C.P. Remembered"

Maybe everybody has his own solitary figure he can't forget this time ofyear. No matter how many years have passed. Mine was named Joe - Joe Telles,as in Tell Us. He arrived 40 years ago. Forty years ago today. It's hard tobelieve it's been that long. What happened to him has stayed so vivid.

Not that anybody much noticed him when he came to town. His travelingaccommodations weren't exactly deluxe. He'd hopped a freight God knows whereand, for him, Pine Bluff, Ark., was the end of the line.

Maybe he'd been heading home - somewhere out West - but he couldn't make itany farther. They found him in a heap out by the railroad tracks thatfreezing morning, and didn't know what to do with him. He was too sick forthe Salvation Army to take responsibility for him, and the hospital said hewasn't sick enough to be admitted.

So he wound up being shuttled back and forth, till night came and there wasno room for him. Except at the county jail. Not that he belonged there, buthe didn't seem to belong anywhere else.

The date was December 21st, 1967, four days before Christmas. The festivelights glittered along Main Street. Folks were rushing to get their shoppingfinished. There was anticipation in the brisk air. Who had time for somebodylike Joe Telles? When they checked on him next morning, they found he'd diedduring the night.

Maybe he'd made it home after all.

His body was shipped out promptly, before anybody got around to askingquestions, or an autopsy could be conducted.

It was months before the newspaper was able to piece together the wholestory. It took the longest time just to find out his name. But the reporterdigging into the story was assured it had all been "taken care of."

Maybe it wouldn't have been a news story if it had happened someplace else,say in a big city where such things are common. Or if it hadn't happenedjust four days before Christendom rejoices in the birth of Him who said:

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these mybrethren, ye have done it unto me.

Maybe nobody would remember his name 40 years later if it hadn't been such astruggle to find it. When the local paper started digging into hisbackground, it found only the usual annals of the poor and obscure. Nothingnewsworthy ever seems to have happened to Joe Telles in his life - exceptthe way it ended.

His turned out to be a common enough story: Bum Dies in Strange Town.

Various people who were asked about him wondered why the newspaper wasinterested. Couldn't it find something more "positive" to report? Why gonosing around? What was so important about this one guy? And why should hisstory linger so long, Christmas after Christmas, and grow more vivid everyyear?

Flannery O'Connor may have explained it in an aside about why a certain kindof writer, a writer like her, would find living in the South indispensable.She put it this way:

"He lives in a region which is struggling, in both good ways and bad, topreserve its identity under stress. He lives in the Bible Belt, where beliefcan be made believable. He has also here a good view of the modern world. Ahalf-hour's ride in this region will take him from places where the life hasa distinctly Old Testament flavor to places where the life might beconsidered post-Christian. Yet all these varied situations can be seen inone glance and heard in one conversation."

Or glimpsed in one story - like Joe Telles'.

Joe Telles' story may have a biblical irony but it deals with the slipperystuff of modernity: the rusty gears of bureaucracy, the moralincomprehension, the honest puzzlement over why anyone would be interestedin someone like ... what was his name again?

There are so many Joe Telleses being shuffled from place to place, belongingnowhere. But every year on the 21st of December, this one comes alive for anewspaperman who vowed to remember his single, solitary life. And death.

Joe Telles may have been just passing through, like all of us.

And yet he tarries.