An interruption

Posted: Dec 21, 2006 12:01 AM

December 21st sneaks up on me every year unnoticed - till a glance at the calendar brings it all back, rings a bell, stops me cold.

It's an interruption, just as he was. It comes just four days before Christmas, when the holiday is bearing down on everybody like a freight train. There are still so many things to do, errands to run, deadlines to meet, plans to make, people to greet.

It was a day pretty much like this one when he showed up - not that we much noticed him. Not then.

They found him out by the railroad tracks in Pine Bluff, Ark., where I wrote editorials for the local daily. He was just passing through. Like the rest of us.

At the time he was only another bum down on his luck, riding the rails, and that's where he'd got off. The end of the line.

It was four days before all Christendom is to rejoice in the birth of Him who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me."

He was sick but not sick enough for the hospital to take him in, or so they said. But he was too sick for the Salvation Army to take responsibility for him. It's an old story: No room at the inn.

And so, through the short, waning hours of that day, the shortest day and longest night of the year, this wayfarer was trundled from one station of his cross to the next.

Until by nightfall there was no place for him but the county jail. Not because he'd done anything wrong, but because he didn't seem to belong anywhere else.

The jail would be the last place he would know in this life. Because some time during the night, they didn't know just when, he died. It took days, weeks even, for the newspaper just to find out his name. It was Joe Telles, as in Tell Us.

Faulkner could have written a novel about it, and did. He called it "Light in August." And he called his wanderer Joe, too - Joe Christmas.

How do you put such a death into words? A death unattended. A death alone, without friends or family or ritual. A death without final words or even the presence of a fellow mortal to hold his hand, say a comforting word, make even a futile gesture.

To try to write of such things is to know the limits of language - and, in Faulkner's case, defy them. Joe Christmas still lives in his words.

Joe Telles' story didn't end that night, either. He comes back every December 21st to those of us who remember. He comes back just before Christmas - like some unrecognized herald bearing the Good News, and the other kind, too.

That is how a secret, solitary death joined itself to our lives in Pine Bluff.

And why it is still joined to mine by the meager, fragile thread of memory every December 21st.

Joe Telles left little enough behind when he died. Just a few rumors about a man dying in the jail, and his body being shipped out before an autopsy could be performed.

His death would be more carefully chronicled than his life. There was little enough to report about the latter - just the usual, incomplete annals of the poor and troubled. It was an unimportant life by the world's spotty reckoning, punctuated here and there by a brush with the law, the traces of a family, an illness only vaguely describedŠ.

It was as if the only noteworthy thing Joe Telles ever did had been saved for his last 24 hours. As if he had lived his whole, uneventful life only to pass through our lives at the end. Like a gift we didn't even recognize. "Not as the world giveth," He said, "give I unto you."

Four days before Christmas, I get my gift. It is the gift of sight. I suddenly see the shadowy figures on the street, really see them, and recognize that they have faces. There used to be an old friend among them, someone who was always too proud to ask for help. Where is he now? When did I stop looking for him?

How many Joe Telleses do you know? How many are still shuffling from place to place unseen?

Every year, on December 21st, mine comes through town again - unbidden, unanticipated, unforgettable. Right in the middle of the whole, hectic holiday season. Strange how we confuse the essence of it with an interruption.