Pronghorn, Chapter 14: Still Looking

Continued from the previous chapter, here.

Asa Pemewan, having printed out some copies of his CV and some more copies of his professional–It’s a stretch to call it that, really; I’ve only been teaching for the last few years, and we all know what Shaw says about it–resume, returned to the main bulk of Pronghorn. This time, he parked on the 100 block of North Main, where an older, squat building still housed the city offices and plaques from the local and state historical societies marked specific moments in the town’s past. After putting up a sun shade–I’m not about to make that mistake again today–he walked into the offices and asked at the reception desk if there was a job application he could fill out.

“There is, but we don’t have any openings at the moment. I don’t believe the county does, either.”

Asa nodded and thanked the receptionist for the advice. He then headed across the street, seeing if any of the businesses on the other side of it were looking for workers. A restaurant that clearly meant to be upscale and just as clearly showed it did not know the meaning of the word was the first to be hit; the manager on duty looked at Asa and shook her head. “You’re not the kind who’ll do well here.” Asa thanked her and went next door, to a leather goods store. Asking at the counter about jobs available, he was met with another shaking head. “Ain’t hardly got enough work fer me right now, son. Couldn’t take on ‘nother hand if I wanted t’ do it.” Asa thanked him, in turn, and went to the last business on the block, a printing shop, asking the same question again. This time, at least, he got a “We might have a spot for a press worker. You have any experience?”

“No.”

“Well, we’ll take a look at your resume, and we’ll give you a call if we want you to come in.”

“Alright, then, thanks.” Asa handed over a copy of his resume and left.

Asa proceeded afoot down East First, then, passing the city offices and stopping at another small cafe–“We could use a busser. Would that work for you?” “Yes.” “Alright, then. We’ve got a few other applicants, so we’ll review the applications, and we’ll get back to you.”–before stopping at an antiques dealer’s store. In it, he found an older gentleman, rangy and balding, with a receding jawline. The man stood and shook Asa’s hand. “Rufus Hochstedler. Now, what can I do for you?”

“Asa Pemewan, sir, and I’m looking for work.”

“Now, son, I’m gonna have to stop you there. Now, I’m not really looking for workers; it cuts into my margins, you see. But I might be able to help you; a friend of mine recently died, and his wife will need some errands done and the like. So I’ll pull up her phone number and give her a call and send you over. Now, if I can just find it…”

He trailed off, and Asa sat with him as he hunted-and-pecked his way around his computer, muttering to himself for a while. Then he said “Maybe I’ve got it in the Rolodex,” and he reached into a desk drawer. From it, he produced a pistol, placing it on his desk with the barrel towards Asa. Asa’s eyes followed the weapon, and Rufus saw them. “It’s a Browning 1911-380, and it is locked and loaded.” He then pulled a Rolodex tray out of the drawer and began to thumb through it, the weapon still on the desk with its barrel towards Asa.

Asa said nothing as the muttering continued and until it stopped. “Well it seems I can’t find the number. But when I do, I’ll give her a call and let her know to look for you.” He stood and offered his hand. “Have a good one, son.”

Asa stood and shook the hand. “Thanks,” he said, and he left.

Once outside, Asa looked at the sky, squinting against the Hill Country sunlight. Why did he feel the need to pull that thing out and leave it there, pointed at me? He shook his head. I ought to have said “Thanks for telling me you have a micropenis” or something like that. Another head-shake. He’d’ve shot me. I should go.

He walked on, then, following the street further east, passing a tax office–open only on Wednesdays–and a furniture rental place–“No, we’re not hiring right now. Sorry.” A small mom-and-pop hardware store was next, offering a similar answer, and the air-conditioning service at the end of the block proved the same. Asa crossed to the other side of the street to head back towards his car, but he fared no better. A convenience store turned him down, as did a small novelty shop Asa had not recalled seeing before–“We’re still trying to get established, and we don’t have the business yet to bring anyone else on.” Another law office asked him about paralegal training, and another restaurant, brimming with staff, said “No openings now, sorry.”

Asa slowly made his way back to his car, getting in it and turning it on. It shuddered to life, and cool air from the air conditioner began to wash over him. I figured it’d be like this, he thought, that I’d not get a lot of traction from pounding the pavement. I don’t know why I did it, other than to say that I did. At least I can say that, though, that I am trying, and that I am not turning up my nose at most any work. He smiled. Except the head-shop. But I think I can be forgiven that one.

He took down the sun-shade, folded it, put it away, and put his car in gear. I suppose it’ll be time to try the schools, then, he thought as he began to drive off again.

Did I bring you as much pleasure as a new paperback does? Could you kick in as much for me as you pay for that so I can keep doing what you like? Click here, then, and thanks!

Class Reports: ENGL 1302, Sections 02 and 03–20 January 2017

After briefly addressing concerns from and questions about the previous class meeting, class turned to completion of a diagnostic writing exercise. (An instructor-written response to the exercise, one done in class alongside the students, appears here.)

Students are reminded of the following due dates:

  • PoEss RV (online before class begins on 17 February 2017)
  • PoEss FV (online before class begins on 24 February 2017)
  • DrEss RV (online before class begins on 3 March 2017)

Information about assignments is still in development.

Section 02 met as scheduled, at 1000 in Weir 111. The class roster listed 20 students enrolled, unchanged since the last class meeting. Nineteen attended, verified by the exercise. No students from the class attended office hours since the previous class meeting.

Section 03 met as scheduled, at 1100 in Weir 111. The class roster listed 20 students enrolled, unchanged since the last class meeting. Seventeen attended, verified by the exercise. No students from the class attended office hours since the previous class meeting.

Sample Diagnostic Exercise: Why Such a Class as This?

As noted here, the students in my Spring 2017 sections of ENGL 1302: Literature & Composition at Schreiner University were asked to complete a diagnostic writing exercise during class on 20 January 2017. My usual practice (although I am not always able to follow it) is to do the assignments I give my students, so, as the students wrote their diagnostic exercises, I wrote to the same prompt. That prompt and my response thereto are below.

(Yes, this looks much like a similar exercise in the previous instructional term.)

The Prompt

The University curriculum requires students to take a literature class—and it is not alone in doing so; nearly every four-year undergraduate degree program in the United States asks its students to take one or more literature classes. Why might universities have such a requirement? What do they gain from it? What do the cultures in which the universities exist gain from it?

The Response

Because I am a student and teacher of literature, any answer that I might give about the reasons US universities maintain literature requirements for their students–for most all of their students–will seem somewhat biased. After all, I have a vested interest in such maintenance. But it also means I have some insight into the institutional realities that push forward such requirements, and I can hope I have some understanding of the broader social implications of those requirements.

Such understanding as I have about the matter suggests to me that required literature courses are in place partly as a sop–and, yes, I use the word with full understanding of its unpleasant connotations–to moneyed interests that value such things. There remains a cultural thread in place that asserts that exposure to the arts is “good for you”; a dear and valued friend of many years likens it to bran, something not necessarily to people’s taste but which many take in because of the actual or perceived health benefits. And I do not disagree in point of fact with such a view; I do believe that exposure to and engagement with the arts–literature, to be sure, but also music and visual arts, dance and martial arts, and others whose names do not come to mind at the moment–is good for people. I happen to like the bran, however, and even without dumping scads of sugar onto it.

My understanding of the matter also suggests that the courses are required because institutions of learning, particularly those that receive much or all of their support from the public coffer, have some responsibility to be transmitters of culture. That is, because they are funded by collectives, they have some duty to represent the collectives. Such a view quickly becomes problematic, I admit. I am far from ignorant of the fraught nature of literary canons, for example. I know there are many questions to address with them. (Who decides what is good enough to be canonized? How are such decisions made? Borrowing from an older professor of mine, as well as a January 2012 Speculum article whose title I do not recall, how representative are the works typically included in the canon?) I know also that what vision of the collective is presented is subject to no small discussion. (Who counts as part of the collective? What acts and agencies of that collective are presented? How are the failures of the collective presented? How are its successes? What defines success and failure?) But that such questions and problems, as well as others that are not necessarily evident to me at the moment, do present themselves does not mean the idea is, in itself, a bad one. There is some value to be found in schools presenting visions of what groups are, not just what they do and how they do it–and literature, as with all arts, does much to present that vision.

(Related is the idea that access to the literature allows access to jokes and other kinds of references made. Knowing the material allows for understanding references to the material, and the reverse is also true. That reverse is to be avoided, hence the explicit training in the materials.)

Another part of what I understand to be the rationale for having students of all majors sit for literature classes is that the things typically done with literature–close attention to detail, development of arguments from the literature that are supported by that literature (and, in some schools of thinking with which I tend to agree, the contexts of the literature’s composition and reception)–are useful training for work in any and all intellectual fields. Reading “The Land of Cokaygne” and writing an essay that argues it represents the adolescent longings of a novice priest who must work against the desires of his body offers a low-stakes trial for critical thinking skills; an unsuccessful argument will not result in harm to others or much expenditure of resources. Giving low-stakes practice in key activities and processes is generally good pedagogical practice, and all students are like to benefit therefrom. Hence, the literature class.

A reason I hold as a result of my own direct experience studying literature–and which I have reinforced in teaching it, as I have seen students respond thereto–is that there is a wealth of delight in it. For me, untangling literary meanings is akin to working puzzles of one sort or another, whether the jigsaw puzzles such people as my mother-in-law’s family spends time working or the Sudoku my mother-in-law herself works, or the crossword puzzles that can be something of a byword for intellect, or such video games as those in the Legend of Zelda series. Many people spend many hours working on such things and enjoying the work mightily. For me, working with literature functions similarly, and I try to convey that joy to my students when I teach the classes in it that universities require.

Pronghorn, Chapter 13: Looking for More Work

Continued from the previous chapter, here.

Asa emerged from the stars back onto the sidewalk on North Main, folder in hand and still full of resumes. Might as well see about other work, since I’m here in town, anyway, he thought, and he ducked into the bank that took up most of the building where he had interviewed with Smitherson.

He was greeted at the door by a smiling young woman in a smartly pressed suit. “Good morning, sir! How can we help you today?”

Asa could not help but smile in return. “I was wondering if the bank is hiring for any positions at this point. Who would I need to talk to to find out and apply?”

The woman’s smile faded a bit. “I don’t believe we’re looking for anyone at this point, but I can take you back to see our manager, if you’d like.”

Asa’s smile fell, as well. “If you would, I’d be obliged.” The woman moved off, and Asa followed past the few tellers still working the counter, the few customers still standing in line, desks where one couple spoke with a sweating hulk of a man about opening new accounts, and to an office with its door standing open. The woman knocked lightly, and a “Come in” came through the door.

Asa recognized the voice. Oh, no.

The woman said “Mr. Delgadillo, this gentleman was asking about employment opportunities.”

“Thank y’, Vana.” The woman nodded and returned to the front as the man behind the desk–Was it Chris? I still can’t remember–stood and came around. “Come on in, sir, have a seat. I’m Christián Delgadillo.” He extended his hand, and as Asa took it, Delgadillo asked “And you are?”

“Asa Pemewan.”

“Asa…Asa Pemewan…” Delgadillo looked him up and down. “You seem awful familiar. Did you go t’ school here?”

“I did. We graduated from high school in the same year, in fact.”

Did we, now? Well, that’s nice!” The last word came out rhyming with “mass,” and he circled back to his seat behind his desk, motioning Asa towards a chair in front of it. “So, you’re looking f’r work?”

Asa nodded. “I am.”

“Well,” Delgadillo said, “I don’t have any openings at th’ moment, y’ see, but if you’ got a resume, we c’n keep it on file. When something opens up, we c’n give y’ a call, see if y’ still wanna work here.”

Asa nodded less enthusiastically. “That’ll be fine.” He handed his resume across the desk and stood. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Delgadillo.”

Delgadillo stood. “It’s no pro’lem.”

Asa made his exit, telling the woman at the front door “Thanks, Vana,” as he passed by her and stepped once again onto the sidewalk beside North Main. Figured it’d be like that. I suppose I ought to press on, then.

He walked further up North Main, looking for other businesses where he might apply. Next to the bank was a restaurant, but its doors were closed and its lights off; Asa passed it by, coming next to a pharmacy that had several customers lined up, waiting. He popped inside and waited in line, and when he finally got to the pharmacy counter and asked if they were hiring, he was met with a brusque “No.”

The next door was a coffee shop, similarly busy. Asa bought a cup of coffee–“An Americano, thanks”–and asked if they were hiring. “Not at the moment, no, but you can leave a resume.” He did, and he pressed on. The next door was a bar, still closed, and the one after was a tobacconist–and a head shop, if things haven’t changed; best to pass that one by–and an old gas station at the corner. There, he got much the same answer as he’d gotten from the pharmacy; it was an old Hochstedler family business, not one likely to take anyone not kin. So Asa crossed the street and began to come back down.

A law office–“No paralegal training? I’m sorry, then.”–a tax office–closed most days, given the end of tax season–a Mexican bakery–“¿No hablas Español? No puedo usarte. Lo siento.”–a dry-cleaner–“We’re not hiring.”–all turned him down. The last business on the block, an independent bookstore, was slightly better, the shopkeeper saying “No, I’m not hiring at the moment, and I doubt I will be anytime soon; it’s kind of a two-person operation, and the Mrs. is already on the payroll. But I have heard that the schools will be looking for someone. Maybe you can put in there?”

Asa replied “I’ll look into that. Thanks.” And he walked out the door, crossing the street again to retrieve his car. The sun smote down heavily upon him as he did so, and broiling heat greeted him when he opened the door of the car. Asa recoiled at the hot air, thinking I’d forgotten about that. Should’ve put up the sun shade.

Getting into the car, he winced as he put his hands on the steering wheel. The Hill Country sun has such an effect on cars, which is why almost all carry sun shades and park, when they can, near trees. Any shade helps, and its lack soon starts to hurt.

Asa loosened his tie against the heat. I really have been gone too long, if I forget the heat and what all it does. “And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about the bad results. But it’s only one morning, and only one ad was up. Maybe I’ll do better a bit later.”

He put the car into gear, backed out of the parking space he had claimed, and drove off towards his parents’ home again. I’ll need to look at the schools–both the public schools and the junior college. I might get lucky with one of them or the other, but I’ll need to print out some copies of my CV before I can try either one.

Did I bring you as much pleasure as a breakfast sandwich does? Could you kick in as much for me as you pay for that so I can keep doing what you like? Click here, then, and thanks!

Pronghorn, Chapter 12: Going to an Interview

Continued from the previous chapter, here.

The next day, Asa Pemewan found himself in slacks and a pressed shirt cinched by a tie despite the already-building heat as he drove into town to apply for a job. A folder with several copies of a resume sat in the passenger seat next to him. I hope this goes well, he thought to himself as he crossed onto North Main and pulled into the first open parking space of the 200 block. I really need to find some work soon.

A glance at the clock on his cell phone told him it was 9:03 in the morning. This counts as “9 to 5,” right? Asa straightened his slacks and his tie, grabbed his folder, and proceeded across the street to 200 North Main, where a three-story building loomed over the intersection. Signs advertising the Pronghorn First National Bank and no few financial products faced out from the lower stories; the third seemed to be shuttered, but when Asa arrived at the door leading up to it from the street, he found it open. No lettering was on it, outside or in, but the stairs were clean and well lit, and Asa proceeded up them.

I really need to get into better shape, he thought as he ascended and his thighs began to protest. And at the top, at the entrance to the third floor, he paused to catch his breath. I need to not look desperate. He ran a hand through his hair and pushed through the door, triggering a bell; he found a reception desk–tall and with a lower-set cut-out–with no occupant on the other side of the door.

Is this the position, or is the desk-worker out at the moment? But it’s a little early for that, isn’t it?

A door behind the reception desk opened and an older man emerged. Asa recognized him from the day before as Bartholomew Smitherson as the older man asked “May I help you?” in his hoary voice.

Asa stepped forward, extending his hand. “I hope so, Mr. Smitherson. My name’s–”

“Asa Pemewan. Yes. I recall you from the service yesterday.”

Asa nodded. “Yes, sir, and I’m here because I saw the advertisement for an office assistant position at this address–the one in the newspaper, I mean.”

“Hm. Well. Perhaps you ought to come into my office, then, Mr. Pemewan.”

It should be “Dr.,” dammit. “That’d be great, sir!” I have to look like I can work well and happily.

Smitherson motioned Asa through the door, closing it behind them. A hallway stretched down a way, making a turn to the right after several doors on both sides; Smitherson led Asa past them all, going around the corner and into a larger office of wood paneling. An imposing desk faced into the center of the room; a bank of shuttered windows stood behind it and an old leather chair into which Smitherson lowered himself before gesturing at a much less impressive seat. Asa took it, sitting forward.

“Well, Mr. Pemewan, do you know what an office assistant will need to do?”

Asa nodded. “In general terms, certainly. I expect specific duties vary by office, but they typically involve preparing correspondence, accepting incoming correspondence and packages, running telephone operations, and doing light maintenance on the office and its equipment.”

“Good. Have you a resume with you, Mr. Pemewan?”

“I do, sir.” Asa withdrew one from the folder and handed it across the desk. Smitherson took it and glanced over it briefly, nodding. “So, postgraduate education, several collegiate teaching jobs. Why, then, would you want to work here as an office assistant?”

I should’ve known I’d get asked that. Clearing his throat, Asa answered “I’ve been away from Pronghorn for long enough, sir, and thought it was time to come home. That meant that I need to find a job, and this one was advertised on the very day I came home.” Here’s the stretch. “It’s the kind of thing that might be called providential.”

“Hm.” The older man’s dubiousness emerged in his tone, hoary as his voice was. “There were other jobs advertised that day, as well, yet you’ve not applied for them.”

“This also seemed a better opportunity than those jobs, given my skill set.”

“Hm.” The grunt was less dubious in tone. “Well.” Smitherson cleared his own throat with a rheumy cough. “I’m keeping the position open for a few more days; I paid for the advertisement in the paper for two weeks, and I mean to get my money’s worth. After that, though, I’ll review such applications as come in, and I’ll be sure to get back to you about yours.”

He sat back. “Now, do you have any questions for me, Mr. Pemewan?”

You jackass, you know it should be “Dr.” “I did have one, sir. Having been away from Pronghorn for some time and only recently returned, I’m not sure what all you do here. I’d heard something about legal practice, but I’m not about to proceed on rumor alone.”

“As well you should not, for I am no attorney. No, Mr. Pemewan, this is something of a complicated business. You, given your studies, might have the right word to describe it as it deserves; I have not had the luxury of such studies, so I do not have such a word. You might say, however, that I coordinate a number of things from this location, much as it might seem that I am less than ideally equipped to do so.”

“I’d not presume, sir.”

The older man smiled. “Good.” He stood, then, and extended his hand across the desk. “It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Pemewan. I’ll be in touch, as I said.”

Asa shook the offered hand. “Thank you for the opportunity, sir,” he said, and he followed Smitherson’s gesture towards the door, leaving quietly whence he had come.

Did I bring you as much pleasure as a package of pens does? Could you kick in as much for me as you pay for that so I can keep doing what you like? Click here, then, and thanks!

Class Reports: ENGL 1302, Sections 02 and 03–18 January 2017

After offering initial introductions (referencing information available here), discussion turned to the syllabus and course calendar. Students, please note that concerns of instructor office relocation noted on the syllabus have been resolved. The instructor’s office is AC Schreiner, Room 207; the office phone is 830-792-7416; and the office email remains as listed in the course packet.

Students are reminded of the following due dates:

  • Diagnostic Writing Exercise (in class on 20 January 2017)
  • PoEss RV (online before class begins on 17 February 2017)
  • PoEss FV (online before class begins on 24 February 2017)

Information about assignments is still in development.

Section 02 met as scheduled, at 1000 in Weir 111. The class roster listed 20 students enrolled. All attended, verified by sign-in sheet. Student participation was as expected for a first class-day.

Section 03 met as scheduled, at 1100 in Weir 111. The class roster listed 20 students enrolled. Eighteen attended, verified by sign-in sheet. Student participation was as expected for a first class-day.

Pronghorn, Chapter 11: Local History (II)

Continued from the previous chapter, here.

The major business of Pronghorn has been honey production since the Smithersons established themselves in the area, and Pronghorn Honey has been perhaps the major employer in town throughout the town’s existence. But the Smithersons, having been apiarists for generations, were well attuned to the secondary industries that could arise from their primary vocation. Wax was the first of them, and early in Pronghorn’s development, the Smithersons made themselves useful to the already-placed Zapatas and Hochstedlers through providing it alongside the honey. A chandlery soon emerged as another business in the burgeoning town, and its history in the town serves as something of a bellwether for the economy of Pronghorn as a whole.

Early in town history, candles were the primary indoor light source for homes in the area, as shipping lanterns and their oil into town was deemed too expensive–and the glass kept breaking, in any event, owing to the ruggedness of the Hill Country terrain–but both wax from the Smitherson hives and tallow from the local beef were available fairly readily, and cotton for wicking could be gotten without too much trouble. As the town grew, then, the Smitherson chandlery–operated at one point by Chandler Smitherson; there is still a somewhat perverse sense of humor at work among the family–grew, perhaps even faster than the honey production in town, and the Smithersons as a whole came to control more and more of the town’s financial output.

The increasing control did cause some strain in the relationships the Smithersons had with the Zapatas and the Hochstedlers, of course, both of which families saw their relative influence diminish against it (although, with more and more kin among the Smithersons, they were not wholly displeased). It is perhaps traceable to that strain that the Smitherson Chandlery was burned one night in the early 1900s. A bucket brigade was formed in short order, of course, and enough people were nearby that they could draw water straight up from Pronghorn Creek. But there is only so quickly a bucket brigade can work, and the Chandlery was lost. It was not the only building affected, either; typically dry Hill Country weather and the stiff wind of an incoming front conspired to send sparks over to the Hochstedler Saloon, which burned rapidly–as would be expected of a place filled with alcohol. It was fortunate, then, that the front drove rain with it, and the ensuing sudden thunderstorm drenched the flames still live and soaked the town such that no others could catch.

The Chandlery was rebuilt reasonably quickly; the Smithersons had been thrifty folks and had saved much of their money in the town bank. (They also helped underwrite the reconstruction of the Hochstedler Saloon, with obvious consequences.) The second construction made more use of the local limestone than had the first, and the building soon resumed its earlier level of production. Production improved when water services began to be installed, and it changed focus when the Great War broke out and many of the town’s young men shipped out to fight in Europe. When they returned and began to call for the kinds of improvements they had seen–albeit in damaged form–overseas, the Chandlery helped to underwrite many of them–again, with obvious consequences.

In the wake of the Great Depression, however, and the beginning of the work of the Rural Electrification Administration, the Chandlery experienced a marked downturn. The Depression itself affected almost all businesses and industries, although the agricultural production of the town itself and the wisdom of the preeminent families ensured that few if any of Pronghorn’s residents went hungry; too, ranches almost always can use more hands to tend the herds–and the goats raised in the area benefited from additional attention, as well. Electrification, however, in offering a safer source of light than open flames, did much to reduce the call for candles–and so for the Chandlery’s services. (Federal authorities prevented the outright assumption of power over the power supply by the Smithersons, and when they–along with the Zapatas and Hochstedlers–attempted to establish themselves as the controllers of the public utility board, one federal agent interdicted the attempt. Courts supported the interdiction, and it was long before the Pronghorn utility commission was free from direct federal oversight.)

Production increased again during World War II, with some candles being sent overseas to support the war effort, and others being used to ease burdens on the electrical grid so that other areas, more vital to the production of materiel and the training of troops–San Antonio is not too far away–could be more fully powered. But it fell off once again after the war ended, and Pronghorn did not experience as much of the post-war prosperity that much of the rest of the country did. Indeed, for a time in the 1960s, the Chandlery looked as if it would close utterly; the Smithersons used it as a way to ensure that some of the less convetionally desirable cousins could find something with which to occupy themselves, which is hardly the best way to ensure the endurance of a business. The town followed suit, with many of the youth leaving for other places and not returning except for holidays and in extreme distress.

As with many small towns in Texas, it was tourism that saved Pronghorn–and that saved the Chandlery. A resurgence of interest in Western life and Texana began to drive people to the Hill Country for visits, and retirement beckoned to many, as well, and Pronghorn benefited from both. The Chandlery, where candles were still made by hand in a way passed down for centuries, found itself similarly returned to prominence as people started seeking out “more authentic experiences” and the goods that undergirded them. Honey production still remained the primary focus of the Smithersons, but the Chandlery did much to support the family coffers, as well, and proceeds from it began again to underwrite other businesses and public works projects. Its success became Pronghorn’s once again.

Did I bring you as much pleasure as a nice candle does? Could you kick in as much for me as you pay for that so I can keep doing what you like? Click here, then, and thanks!

Pronghorn, Chapter 10: The Service Concludes

Continued from the previous chapter, here.

Reverend Kerr continued. “If, as the ushers will come forward, you’ll think about what you can do to follow truth, I’ll awkwardly ask you for money so that we can keep the lights on and I can get a bit to eat every now and again.” Some laughter percolated through the congregation as four people wearing suits and dresses approached the altar, plates in hand. “Let us pray.”

Over a sea of bowed heads–and Asa’s watching eyes–Kerr stretched out her arms. “God Almighty, You are the bread of life, and we ask that You bless the offerings made so that they will go forth and become the bread for others. We ask it in Jesus’s name. Amen.”

The congregation responded, and the organ played a soft, contemplative tune as the ushers walked back down the aisles, passing collection plates back and forth. At length, they assembled as one, and the organ struck a different chord. The congregation stood, its members lifting their voices up in song, proclaiming their thanks for what had been given them. Asa stood with them, but he did not sing. I don’t know this piece, and why would I be singing to a god I don’t believe in?

Reverend Kerr accepted the collection plates from the ushers, offering them up and placing them on the altar. As the song concluded, she turned again to the congregation and called for another hymn. Asa stayed standing as many voices rose up in song around him again, and he continued to hold his peace, recalling, too, the wincing of those around him earlier. It is not the kind of impression I wanted to convey. And he found his gaze repeatedly returning to Reverend Kerr and the drape of her tartan stole. I wonder what she would look like in nothing else–dammit! Stop it, Asa!

The hymn concluded, and Reverend Kerr called out “May you go in peace, and may your peace be a beacon to the world! Be well, be safe, and be in service to Christ!”

The congregation  responded “And you,” and the two boys from before advanced up the aisle, lit tapers from the altar and stifled the flames from the candles upon it. They retreated, Kerr following as the organ played a triumphant recessional. The congregants remained seated for the most part, save for a few who advanced up the sides of the church and knelt before the altar in private prayer.

At length, as the organ ceased its song, Asa’s parents stood to leave, and he joined them as they merged into the stream of people leaving the church. Ahead of him, he noticed many people stopping to shake Reverend Kerr’s hand and exchange a few words with her. From her smile–It is a nice smile, Asa thought–they seemed to be pleasant ones, and Asa overheard more than a few as he and his parents approached her.

“Al, Matilda, I’m glad to see you!” Kerr stretched her hand out to Asa’s parents in turn.

Al took her hand in his, shaking it briskly. “Good sermon today, Rev’nd.”

She smiled–It’s a really nice smile, Asa thought, and he could feel himself redden a bit–and replied, “It’s easy with good congregants.”

She then turned to Asa, hand extended again. “Asa, was it? It’s a pleasure to meet you more personally.”

Asa shook the extended hand. “And you, Ma’am.”

She laughed. “I never do get used to the ‘Ma’am’ here. But I gather you’re Al and Matilda’s son? You’ve got good folks, you know.”

Asa smiled tightly. “I am, and I know it well.”

“I’ll be happy to talk with you again later, Asa, if you’d like.” She looked more closely at him. “I’d guess you could use someone to listen.”

Asa reddened a bit more, and Kerr laughed again, winking. “Just a guess. Go in peace!” And she turned to the next congregant in line. Asa hurried out of the church, finding his parents waiting in front of it for him.

“Told you she was somethin’, didn’t I?” Asa’s father smiled at him, almost laughing.

Asa nodded. His face reddened again.

“Honey, don’t harangue him.” Asa’s mother came up and slipped her arm around her son’s, guiding him along. “Come on, Asa, let’s go get some lunch.”

Asa nodded again, mutely. Food would be good right now, he thought. And figuring out what the hell just happened would, too. I’d’ve sworn she was talking straight to me a few times during that sermon, but that can’t be right. Unless…

“Mom, Dad,” Asa said as they proceeded towards the car, “did either of you tell Reverend Kerr I was coming with you to church?”

Asa’s father shook his head. His mother said “No. Why do you ask?”

“Eh, I’m not sure. The thought just occurred to me that you might’ve, is all.”

As they reached the car, Asa’s mother looked at him, an eyebrow raised. “What, you think I’m some kind of gossip?”

Asa’s father suppressed a laugh, and Asa answered in a deliberately, ostentatiously flat tone “Yes. Yes, I do. Because you are, Mom.”

“Don’t insult me!” She smiled as she started to climb into the car. “I’m the gossip! Credit where it’s due!”

Asa laughed as he joined his mother in the vehicle. His father climbed in and started it, and they joined the parade of cars leaving the church parking lot. “I feel like some Chinese,” he said. “That okay with you two?”

Asa’s mother said “Yes,” and Asa shrugged. “Is the Chiu place still open?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Good. I always did like their hot and sour soup.”

“Bit warm for that, isn’t it?”

“Probably, but the food’s still good.”

And they drove off that way.

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Pronghorn, Chapter 9: The Sermon Continues

Continued from the previous chapter, here.

Reverend Kerr continued to preach her sermon, her voice carrying through the sanctuary, measured and even.

“Think about the saying ‘Hi.’ Seems like it should be a no-brainer, right? Greetings are good, full stop. Except that the person you talk to may need not to be noticed–and not because of some nefarious purpose, but because someone is trying to hurt that person, or because that person needs to be somewhere else in a hurry but, being greeted, has to stop or be rude.

“Or, to use another example, do you raise your voice at someone who makes an interesting comment about having torn a page in a Bible.” The congregation laughed again, and Kerr winked before she went on. “It’s probably something that should have something said about it, sure, but would yelling have helped? And, really, it may not have helped that I said anything about it–or it might have, since it shows that I’m paying attention to y’all, which is one of the things a pastor is supposed to do, right? Or maybe I shouldn’t have said anything to Asa about minding my words.”

Hearing himself named, Asa flushed again and shrank down a bit in the pew–so far as its old oak would allow him to do.

“But I’m getting a bit afield of my topic, aren’t I?” Kerr pressed on. “The idea is that we are called to follow the true and avoid the false, and that we are poorly equipped to know the difference between the two. And I know that some might say that we need only trust to God’s Word for the difference, and that those who trust enough won’t have that problem. But there’re problems there, too. Who among us trusts enough? I don’t. I don’t think anyone else here does, either–or none of this” and she gestured around the church “would be needed. We’re all of us here because we don’t, so there’s something more to be found.”

Asa found himself nodding again. If I’d had preachers like this earlier…

Kerr continued. “And, again, even those who have had God’s Word directly–I’m thinking Adam and Eve, as well as Moses and, later, Thomas–have gotten things wrong. So it’s not even an issue, as some might argue, that we don’t have God’s Word as it ought to be. Scripture tells us that Adam and Eve spoke with God directly, and that Moses did. Thomas had to stick his finger in Jesus to be convinced, and he knew the man. So what are we, who are further away from direct revelation and who face things that the writers of Scripture and those who have had hands in it after–because we must not forget that others have altered the text we now have–” Asa nodded more deeply, thinking Yes! “–to do? How are we to know what is true and what is false, what to follow and what to flee, is we are not able to trust God’s Word enough to rely upon it alone?

“It is the kind of question that can lead to despair, yes, and to people talking themselves out of faith.” Again, Asa found himself nodding in agreement. “But it doesn’t have to be. Because we are made to be more than reflections only; we are made to be more than just repetitions of what has been, more than passively accepting what is given to us. We are made to make more, to make things better, to try to bring about the perfect world that is foretold to us in Scripture. And that means we will need to try new things, to be sure, and in trying, sometimes we will fail.

“God knows this, that we will fail. It is why Jesus was incarnated to begin with, and it is why we return here, week after week–or some of us after longer spans, true.” A few chuckles sang out, and Asa reddened again. I’d swear she’s talking straight to me.

Kerr continued. “What we have to do, whether we are trying to separate true from false, right from wrong, or doing anything else, is to keep working to improve, to keep working to get better. When we err, when we falter and fail–and we will–we can only resume our efforts, look at what caused the failures, and strive to avoid them. But it is not a one-and-done thing; it is a constant effort, a constant struggle, and it is easy to get tired. It is easy to get down; we all do, sometimes. And when we do, we ought to lift up our cares to the Almighty–but we also ought to lift each other up. We ought to be here for each other.

“Each of us has needed others. Many of us, most of us, have found others when we’ve needed them–sometimes the wrong ones, maybe. And those of us who’ve had the right folks should be glad of it, and we should be glad to be the right folks for others. And those of us who haven’t should remember how it felt not to have them, and we should work to be the right folks for others. And those of us who haven’t had anyone–” and here, Kerr paused.

The pause stretched out. The comments that always go on in a sermon slowly stopped until all eyes were on Reverend Kerr. Seeing it, she smiled a small smile and quietly added “For those of us who haven’t had anyone, at least not where we could see them, we should know that we’ve got them now, here, because everyone here knows he or she is called to be the right person.

“Somebody’s going to need you, if somebody doesn’t already. Jesus knew he was needed, and he answered the need. We’re called to be like Jesus. God strengthen us in that being. Amen.”

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Pronghorn, Chapter 8: Still in Service

Continued from the previous chapter, here.

A member of the congregation, an older man introduced as Bartholomew Smitherson, walked up to the lectern. In his hoary voice, he said “Today’s reading from the Old Testament begins with 1 Kings 18:20 through 39” into the microphone that had been set up. I don’t recall that being there thought Asa as from throughout the congregation came the sounds of pages turning rapidly, thin paper flapping under fingers. Soon, Asa found his attention drifting as the old man read dryly and slowly of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. His eyes returned again and again to Kerr, where she stood in seemingly rapt attention to Smitherson and his reading, nodding along at points in his reading.

He, at least, needs the microphone. And probably a breath mint.

Asa reddened a bit in embarrassment at the thought. I’ve got no reason to be so petty. And his eyes returned to the tartan stole draped over Kerr’s robe.

“We next read from the Ninety-sixth Psalm” came Bartholomew’s voice. The flurry of pages turning followed shortly, and Asa continued to consider Kerr more than the text as the old man droned on. I really need to stop. He forced his eyes to Smitherson as he concluded reading the psalm and said “We turn now to the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, the first chapter, verses one through twelve.” Another flurry of page turning followed, and Asa made an effort to focus on Bartholomew as he read the salutation of Paul to his fellows and his exhortation to attend to the one gospel of Christ. Canon wars go back farther than most people think, don’t they?

“Please rise for the reading of the Gospel.” Asa stood along with the rest of the congregation, and Bartholomew continued. “Today, we hear from the Gospel of Luke, the seventh chapter, verses one through ten.” Another chorus of flipping pages–and one hushed “Damn, I tore the pages!” followed by a sharp whisper indistinct to Asa–filled the room, and the old man read of the healing of a centurion’s servant. He concluded with “This is the Word of the Lord,” and the congregation replied “Thanks be to God” before sitting. Smitherson withdrew from the lectern, going slowly to a pew near the front of the sanctuary, and Kerr leaned forward in the pulpit.

“Thank you, Mr. Smitherson, for helping us to hear the words given to us. And thank you, friends, for offering the chance to reflect on them with you. Because there is a fair bit to reflect on, isn’t there? If there is, in fact, a common thread among the lectionary readings–and there may not be; when I asked about it in seminary, I was told that the lectionary readings are usually chosen so that they don’t have a common thread–then it seems to me it is in turning away from the false and towards the true. We have it in both 1 Kings and Galatians, after all, and the other texts can be said to frame them; Psalm 96 exhorts us to attend to what is Lordly, and the Gospel reading bespeaks the rewards of faith even among those who might be thought not to have it.”

Is she looking at me? Asa thought.

Kerr continued. “So that’s easy enough an idea, right? ‘Avoid the false, follow the true.’ It shouldn’t be a problem. But it is, as is obvious. We look around and see other people saying things that we know aren’t true, and still other people go along with them–whether through ignorance or due to greed matters less than the fact that they do say things that’re wrong and that they go along with them. And it would be easy for each of us to sit and talk about those who do such things, to look on them and think ‘Well, isn’t that just nice? Isn’t that person on the wrong path?’ Or, as is likely the case, less kind things in less kind words.

“I do so often enough, to be sure. I look at people who do things I’d rather not see happen and think bad thoughts about them. And some of mine are in bad words, to be sure–the kind of thing that Asa might mark me down for, if he were on the clock and I were his student.” The congregation laughed a bit, and Asa felt himself redden a bit as his father leaned forward and smirked at him. “So I understand the impulse.

“But I also know that it’s the wrong one to follow. For not only are we told by Scripture–it’s Matthew, chapter seven, verses three through five, for those of you playing at home–not to worry about the motes in others’ eyes when we have beams or planks in ours, and not only are we told–this one’s in Luke, chapter four, verse twenty-three–that physicians ought to heal themselves–and it’s good advice, even if those who would offer it would do so wrongly–and not only are we told not to judge unless we expect to be judged–Matthew comes to mind again–we know that we don’t know, or we ought to know it. We’re all wrong; we’ve all been wrong; and we’re all going to be wrong again. We don’t do the good we should, we don’t resist the evil we should, and we don’t because we don’t always–or even necessarily often–know what good and evil are.

“Sometimes, of course, it’s easy to know. But more often, it isn’t. More often, there’s only one step, one foot, one inch, one hair’s breadth between them. It’s more often an issue of, say, ‘Do I say “hi” to this person or not?’ than it is ‘Do I jump in front of the bullet?’ And that’s probably good, since I’m not sure I want so many bullets flying around as all that, but it’s also a danger because there are so many chances to get things wrong, to make things worse, and it’s far from always clear what will do which.”

Asa found himself nodding along. She’s got some damned good points.

He smiled, his attention returning to the drape of Kerr’s stole. I might like to see some of them.

Then he shook his head, slightly but suddenly. Damn! Shouldn’t think like that!

Fortunately, nobody seemed to notice.

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