Finer Words…”Tense Present”


I received Bryan A. Garner’s new book, Nino and Me: My Unusual Friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia today.  As I have examined this book as I do most books I receive, I read the inside cover, the table of contents, the dedication, and the acknowledgements.  In this brief perusal, I have learned of the friendship Bryan Garner, David Foster Wallace and Justice Antonin Scalia.  Also, in this glance I learned of a beautiful essay written by David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present”, published in the Harper’s Magazine in 2001.  I hope you enjoy reading the essay for the first time or rereading it.  I hope Garner’s memoir is as fulfilling as the first ten minutes.



That Song Comes on the Radio

That song comes on the radio, the one you remember hearing, when she was driving and singing along, the brook of her voice bubbling about filling the car and lapping lightly upon the banks of your consciousness.

You turn up the volume, passing beneath the red light, sailing along Jefferson Highway,the shadows deepening from the autumn twilight. And in that moment, life seems deferential toward the two of you, the trees and streetlights casting their darkened images down before you, to adorn your way in a dappled thatch of light and shade. 
Twenty years later, you now listen to that song and  hear your children talking in the back of the car, they being the embodiment of your love and life together . But you find yourself, you know not why, considering the passing of your allotted years together, and you quietly weep for that couple who once sailed along the brindled highway, when all things seemed to exist only for the two of you.

An Arrival for Roy Harper

03b6c647259ba0e47ab4efa346f8839cTonight, at sundown, will commence the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar.  This season is a time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord or what is commonly called Christmas.  Most of what we take for preparing for Christmas began even not long after finishing our Thanksgiving dinners as we rushed breathlessly to malls and other commercial venues to find the best deals.  This has its place but unfortunately, we have commercialized Christmas to the point of absurdity.

I wrote and posted story this over a year ago.  I figured that I would post it again as it may provide some enjoyment and maybe something to reflect upon.  You see all of us are waiting.  We are waiting for something or someone  to happen in our lives.  And though many of us have convinced others and, more importantly, ourselves that we are getting along well enough,  the truth is that our lives are often just this side of desperation.

What happens to Roy Harper in this story happened to a man my father knew many years ago.  He was a man who had it all but was at the end of his rope or maybe heading toward an end of a rope.  He, like us, was waiting and from a seemingly small and insignificant action, he saw that for which we was waiting.

May you have a Blessed Advent and may this season end in true Christmas joy for you, whoever you maybe.


He stood beneath the gnarled live oak just out of reach of the street lamp’s luminous glow.  Shadowed by the great canopy, not living soul would’ve been suspected there, save for the single glowing point alternating intensity, as it would periodically rise and fall like a fire fly.  Taking another deep draw from the cigarette, Roy Harper’s solitary consolation for the moment was the smoky warmth that filled his chest before exhaling edgily before the little church that stood before him.   He had come to the First United Methodist Church that evening with his wife, Adele, and their two teenage children for the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.  The church was one that his wife had attended from birth.  They were married there, had their children baptized there and faithfully attended every Sunday.  Adele was quite devoted to her faith.  Roy, not so much.  His lack of devotion stemmed less from hostility than from unfamiliarity.  He grew up in a family that was not religious.  As a child, his mother would respond to his inquires as to why this was so, by saying, in seemingly casual manner, “It’s just not something that we do” before quickly moving conversation elsewhere.  His father, on the other hand, was a tad more specific as to the reason for their non-attendance.  “Why in the hell, on my only day off, would I want to associate with a bunch like that?” he would say dismissively, a cigar clenched between his teeth.  And then, as if inspired by some gift of prophecy that would have been the envy of any evangelist, he’d continue dogmatically,  “The three of ‘em who actually believe that nonsense are too good to be of any use and as to the rest of ‘em, they’re a bunch of hypocrites and backstabbers.    Backstabbers!  The whole lot of ‘em, like a bunch of Judas’s in search of their thirty pieces of silver!”

Cars continued to pull into the gravel parking lot.  The popping and grinding sound of tires upon the stones agitated Roy and furthered his disquiet.  Lighting another cigarette, he watched the people bundled up against the cold greeting each other happily, walking briskly to enter the church.  The door would open and the warm glow inside illuminating the windows of stained glass, would pour forth, bathing the congregants in its inviting radiance.  Roy, however, stayed out of sight, moving more toward the inside of the tree, hiding the lit cigarette in the cup of his hand until the door was safely shut and he could take another drag without being seen.  You see Roy and Adele had had an argument on the way to the service.  Actually, this argument was just another episode in a series of arguments that had taken place over the better part of the year.  But tonight she had had enough and told had told him so in so many words. Roy had just learned wife’s forbearance with her husband extended to the point of her maternity, after that something had better change for Roy’s attitude had begun to affect their children.

In that more forbearing time, Adele asked plaintively one morning at the breakfast table “What’s gotten into you, Roy?” He’d respond with curt defensiveness, “Why do you keep saying that.  I’m fine.”  Yet they both knew that was not the case.
She’d continue concerned, “It’s like you’re walled up inside yourself or something.  We’re doing fine, hun.  And what’s not fine will be okay because we’ve got each other.”

Such words would sting him leaving him to feel like a sulking fool.  But Roy would respond with only a mutter and walk out the room feeling a prisoner of his own brooding.  Adele was right, though.  By all accounts they were doing fine.  They had a good marriage.  Their children would be a source of admiration for any parent.  And they were doing well financially.  After the War, Roy, like many of his generation, attended college on the GI Bill.  He got a degree in finance and promptly took a position in the business of office of a lumber company.  After twenty years, he had worked his way up to Chief Financial Officer of the company.  He was the youngest executive and in a few years could be poised to move even further.  By all accounts, life was good.  And that is why he found his restlessness was so disconcerting.

About a week ago his childhood friend, J.T. Spears came by for a visit.   Almost at once J.T. said  “Roy, what in the hell’s wrong with you?” as they were having a bourbon in Roy’s study.  Roy considered him perplexedly for a moment before slumping down in the leather chair.  Roy’s loosened tie and its slightly rotation to the side, gave him a look of dishevelment.  Roy turned his head silently and stared into the fireplace.  J.T., sitting opposite of Roy, waited, while watching the firelight dance upon Roy’s detached looking face. The question hung in the air and the occasional popping of embers lended the atmosphere an increasing awkwardness.

J.T. went on eagerly, “You get to golf some of the finest links in the state!  And what about that hunting camp that your company has up near Smithville?  That’s something isn’t it?”

It was true Roy had the benefit of some of the finest golf and hunting that a man could want.  When he was younger and working his way up in the company, how often he envied the higher ups who had almost limitless opportunities for such activities.  Now he was one of them.  He hadn’t missed out on golf or hunting since he knew not when.  Increasingly, however, these outings were not the occasions of leisure that they had once been.  Now they all had the leisureliness of paying income taxes. So, yes, it would seem like it ought to be something.  But what J.T. only too well himself, nothing is worse that freezing your balls off in a duck blind talking quarterly reports with some asshole you’d not spare a word to otherwise.”

Roy now figured Adele was the reason J.T.’s present visit. Roy knew this not from any discovery of their collusion but simply from knowing J.T.  What was Adele thinking?  Of all the people Roy new J.T. Spears was last person he’d employ for a task of this nature.  This task required less a nuanced understanding of the human psyche than a simple awareness of people.  And J.T. Spears had the personal awareness of a sack of mud.  This comparison could be justified by the fact that on the day J.T.’s mother-in-law passed, he purchased his wife a new vacuum and washer and dryer because, as J.T. defended himself afterward, “You always say that working around the house is the best way to relieve stress!”

Roy continued to sit silently staring into the fire as if he were searching for some beacon whereby to orient himself.  Roy’s silence occasioned J.T. to lean forward and try a new line of attack.

“Well, why don’t you go see Reverend Harpole?  He could probably help you out.  Talking to a man of God is sometimes the best medicine.”   This statement was enough to pull Roy’s contemplation from fire to cut J.T. glance that could be translated verbally as “Oh, really?”  J.T. looked down into his glass and sat back in his chair.  You see, J.T. had resorted to throwing mud on the wall hoping some of it would stick.  Most, if not all, Sundays, when J.T.’s family was devotedly attending the First Baptist Church in town, J.T. was out on the golf course.  And even when J.T.’s wife would occasionally cajole her husband into going, he’d volunteer to take up the offering so he could hang out in the back of church until the service was over.

But finally, taking some pity on his friend, Roy said, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. But there’s not anything that Rev. Harpole can help me with that I can’t do myself.  Look, I like those folks at church.  Nice people, all of them.  But you got to make your way, you can’t go around looking for help that is best done on your own.

This idea of having to work out things on your own had been driven down deep into him by his father.  He remembered as a child passing by one of the county soup kitchens and his father telling him, “The only time I went to church I remember the preacher going on and on about Hebrew children wandering around in the desert and receiving bread from Heaven.  He spoke like it was the greatest thing since sliced bread but all I could think about is here’s all these able bodied folk being put on the dole, pickin’ up bread that they ain’t earn.  And this is the truth, there’s no such thing as charity. Ain’t nothin’ comin’ to you that you ain’t worked for. If you ain’t worked for it then it ain’t worth havin’ ”.

That had stuck with Roy.  As with most men of his generation he had drunk deeply, maybe a little too deeply, from the well of popular wisdom and imbibed sayings like, “God helps those who help themselves”, “You got to pull yourself up by your own boot straps”, “If you want something done right you got to do it yourself”, and “No rest for the weary.”

But Roy was weary.  Roy was restless.  His restlessness was like that of a man whose ship had come in but continued to search the horizon for the arrival of some yet unnamed boon.   Standing in solitude beneath the live oak, Roy could hear soft chorused voices coming from inside the church.  The presence emanating from those voices had the effect of tidal water beating upon stone.  He felt a rising and relentless struggle of opposed forces swirling inside himself, each trying to take claim upon him.  A feeling of being on the verge, of being on the verge of drowning.  He lit another cigarette and leaned against the tree to steady himself, at complete loss of how to account for his present circumstances because if there were some things that can’t be worked through then… .

Roy squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

Having temporarily regained his composure, Roy was taking another draw from his cigarette when a car’s headlights moved across the church yard in a sweeping arc like that of a searchlight.  The headlights caused the oak tree to reveal its shadow and of consequence Roy’s, who was not fully hidden behind the tree.  For a fleeting moment Roy could see his and the tree’s shadow distinctly but the further out he looked it they narrowed and merged together.  The commingled shadows stretched out further upon the ground as if eagerly elongating toward the darkness beyond.  The vision was over in an instant, the car having pulled into the parking lot.  Roy looked around the tree to see someone emerging slowly and not without some effort out from the driver’s side door.  He could recognize that it was Mr. Holworth, the oldest congregant of the church.  He shuffled around the back of the car to the passenger side door to retrieve First Methodist’s next oldest congregant, Mrs. Holworth.  He helped her out of the car and then overly bundled pair, arm-in-arm, made their way with a slow but purposeful shuffle toward the church.  Roy continued to watch them having moved out a bit from behind the tree.  The Holworth’s were what could be rightly called decent people.  As long as anybody could remember a bad word never known to have passed from their lips.  If they had a bad day you would never know it.  Had they complained many would have understood for they had lost both their children.  Their son died in the Great War and shortly afterward the Great Influenza Epidemic claimed their daughter.  For a better portion their married life they lived what most parents dread.  Roy was considering this as the Holworths were about to enter the church, when suddenly, Mrs. Holworth stopped.  With an ease surprising for a woman of her age she moved ahead of her husband and turned to face him.  Then in a manner as free and unburdened as the flowing of light from the full moon shining above, Mrs. Holworth reached up and straightened her husband’s tie.

That did it.

As the Holworths entered the church, Roy Harper flicked his cigarette down, ground it out with his heel, straightened his jacket and made his way directly to the church.  He made his way beneath a vaulted sky of the blackest satin, punctured with innumerable pinholes light, of such dancing brilliance it seemed the source of that light was, at last, ready to burst forth and consummate the world in illuminating glory.

The End.

Mary Magdalene

Georges_de_La_Tour_009 The Penitent Magdalene

 The Penitent Magdalene by Georges de La Tour ca. 1640


I was once a foolish girl with curled hair, a dusting of freckles across my nose and cheeks.  It was curiosity- isn’t it always- that first led me away.  The world awaited me to savor its beauty, to uncover its mystery through enchantment.  It did not take long.  How quickly it changed.  The world soured and curdled in my mouth.  My flesh, devoured to the bone by the look of insatiable eyes, my body a den for unseen savages.  Then, one day, he passed by.  He saw me.  He came and spoke a word to me. At that moment, he gave me back to myself.  And coming back, my only desire was to give myself wholly to him.  With him, I could be noble and grow strong as the cedars of Lebanon that Papa once spoke of.  That day, I followed him.  How many evenings I sat at his feet, listening to him speak of many things.  In his presence I would lose all sense of time and often forgot my chores.  My sister complained about that once.  I miss my sister.  I miss my brother, too.

I am now old woman, so many years piled as stones upon my bent shoulders.  From this cave, on this Gallic mount, I spend my day, as I have spent them for thirty years, in prayer to him.  Sometimes, the villagers visit me.  They ask what it was like seeing him, that morning in the garden.  For years I tried to describe it.  I have long since given up.  I usually say he was a radiant as the sun or his eyes shone as the morning star or something like that. What Life and Beauty really look like!  To try to speak of it is to mire them in the pitch of our words. What he is and what we shall be, through him, is beyond all telling.  In the end there is no speaking.  Only the seeing, at last.

My life in this place, so far from the land I once knew, is a penance.  Some days I watch the clouds float in their courses from the sea.  It reminds me of the cloud that shrouded him as he returned to the Father.  I sometimes see an expansive and large one rolling toward me and find myself hoping the day, at last, has come.  It will come, though not in a way that I or anyone expects.

Until then, I will wait for him, my prayers deepening as violet at dusk.


 Mary Magdalene in Mediation by Antoine Le Nain ca. 17th















Gifts for a Father

Fives gift ideas that any father would smile upon receiving:

1.  A nice fountain pen and a bottle of ink.

Three places to begin your search: Levenger,, Dromgoole’s.

2.  A reliable fly-fishing pole.

Take a gander at these sites to find such a rod: Orvis, L.L. Bean,

3. A rugged manly journal for writing in the evening or to jot notes throughout the day.

Dig one up at Rogue Journals, Colsen Keane, Robert Mason.

4. The latest poetry collection by Wendell Berry.

5.  A good pipe and tobacco.

Procure such gifts at Pipes and Cigars, Smoking Pipes, the Briar Shoppe.