That Day in December

I have never been arrested … never jailed nor interrogated. I don’t break the law—other than driving over the speed limit a little—so I’ve never had any reason to fear, avoid, or even interact much with law enforcement officials.

Except for a day in December.

It was Friday afternoon, a week before Christmas 2020, and I was in downtown Midway. That in itself was a little unusual, as a healthy respect for the coronavirus had kept me pretty much confined to home. But I needed to pick up some presents at the Historic Midway Gift Store, and I also wanted to take a few photos of a Christmasy Railroad Street to make a Facebook post that promoted shopping in my hometown.

That’s what I told the police officer, the one who followed me in his cruiser as I walked in the Darlin’ Jeans parking lot. I was heading toward the red caboose that blares MIDWAY in bold, white letters; it would make a good addition to my FB photo montage. I kept waiting for the vehicle behind me to pass on by, but I saw red and blue lights come on and heard the short blast of a siren. I was being pulled over while walking around Midway.

The officer said he stopped me because a shop owner had reported that a man “who met my description” had been strangely harassing a customer, getting up in that person’s face as if to “start a staring contest.” I laughed and told the officer it certainly wasn’t me; I didn’t even know such a store existed in downtown Midway (which, due to the retail district’s tiny footprint, is saying something).

The policeman didn’t join me in laughing. He asked what exactly was I doing in Midway? I told him about my quest for gifts and photos, and he continued to look me over with serious suspicion. I went on to say that I’m a Midway native, and I told him my name … like “Bob Rouse” would matter. He was not believing I was innocent. He repeated the details of the complaint and said I fit the description of an elderly male in a green coat.

I didn’t quibble with his definition of “elderly,” nor did I point out that, even in the afternoon light of late-late fall, my coat was decidedly brown. I again denied having ever entered that store and assured him that I certainly did not—I do not—harass anybody. He asked me where my car was. I pointed over his shoulder to where I was parked. He didn’t turn around to look.

So there we stood. There was nothing more I could say to convince him I was not the man he was looking for. He was likely deciding what to do with me—arrest me or let me go. Silence … and then subsiding. He was just doing his job and following up, he said. I don’t blame him a bit, I said, except for the elderly part. I laughed again. He didn’t again.

An hour later, after I told this tale to my wife, she asked why I didn’t simply suggest that we go to the store and let me present myself to the person who had called in the complaint. I said I didn’t know, but when I thought about it later, I did know. Being interrogated like that for something I didn’t do was a scene in bizarro world, and I honestly feared that that in the next scene, the shop owner would say, “That’s the guy.”

I delayed my shop-Midway post on Facebook for a few days. Instead, my post that afternoon was about my experience with the police officer. I did it to poke fun at myself, and my friends commented with astonishment or jokes. More than one wrote, “Only you, Bob.”

I thought then that, in reality, that kind of thing didn’t happen only to me. I thought about people of color—Black men and boys, in particular—and how it happens to them. Throughout that year of Black Lives Matter, I had heard or read again and again that seemingly every Black man in America has had a moment of truth with an officer. In their stories, they described how they were stopped and questioned. That they fit the description. That the police officer regarded them with serious suspicion.

Those police officers didn’t laugh, either.

That evening, I drove to town again, this time for a curbside pickup of supper. As I left my driveway, I felt a pang of apprehension. What if I saw that policeman again? Would he think I was returning to the scene of the crime? Would he stop me? Question me again?

I shrugged it off. This is my hometown, I reasoned. That officer didn’t know me, didn’t know better. I’m friends with the mayor, the county judge executive, and the local magistrate. I don’t break the law. Yet I was happy that I had picked up my food and returned home without seeing a police cruiser.

I had that same apprehension for the next two weeks or so: just a tiny bit fearful that I would be seen by that cop, and maybe he’d pull me over again. I wouldn’t say I was constantly looking over my shoulder, but I was definitely checking for police presence whenever I drove or walked in town.

I’m a white man in a red state, and I experienced what it must be like to be Black. For sure, it’s only a tenth—or a hundredth or a millionth—of what Black guys actually go through. I wasn’t arrested, and the officer never laid a hand on me. Much less a knee … to my neck. And two months later, I hardly ever think of that afternoon, unlike the constant anxiety that people of color must have.

But I think about it a little. And I should, because my perspective became broader. I don’t want to ever forget that day in December.

The 2020 Derby already ran

You think this year’s Kentucky Derby is four months late, but I believe the 2020 Derby was run a whole year early. Think about it: The 2019 edition of the world’s greatest event was a catastrophe—a holy horsey debacle.

Derby 145 was a wet one, with rain soaking the Churchill Downs track and crowd, as well as hundreds of backyard parties like mine across the state. We had all seen damp Derbies before, but no one had ever seen an outcome like this one. The betting favorite was Improbable, a name that set the tone for the Derby itself.

Maximum Security ran his usual race and set the pace from the start. As the field converged on him at the turn for home, though, he veered sharply from his path, which was two horse widths from the rail, into the four or five path. He made contact with War of Will, who was mounting a move that made his jockey say later, “I really thought I was going to win the Derby.”   

Me, too, as I had put Will in the top spot of many exacta and trifecta bets.

Instead, the bump from Maximum Security forced a domino of jostles, with several horses losing momentum. Max forged on, though, crossing under the wire in first place.

But the pilot aboard one of the jostled horses called foul and filed an objection with the stewards. After a looooong review, the stewards, for the first time in Derby history, took down the winner because of a foul. The new winner of the Kentucky Derby, with 65-to-1 odds, was Country House. He paid $132.40 for a $2 win ticket; a $2 exacta, with runner-up Code of Honor, paid just over $3,000; and a $2 trifecta paid an unimaginable $22,950.

The 2019 Kentucky Derby—with its awful weather, controversial disqualification, and nutty payout—was over. It was also a year early.

2020 would have gladly welcomed last year’s fiasco into its cluster f*ck collection. Instead, Derby 146 will be run on a perfect day on an ideal track … to an empty infield and grandstand.

We’ll be watching from home, though. Here in 2020, things can always be worse. We’ll be watching to see if the 2019 Derby was time-warp glitch … or a portent of what’s to come.

Wind walkers

“So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”     — John Lewis, civil rights leader and congressman, written shortly before his death on July 17.

We walked with the wind today.

Not that there was an actual breeze on this steamy summer day in Midway, Kentucky, but the fifty or more participants who walked in the Honoring Black Stories in Midway March were powered by wind energy that the late John Lewis spoke of.

WindWalk street

Walkers turned onto Stephens Street to visit the site of the Black school that was ransacked in 1868.

The march, in celebration of the resiliency of Midway’s Black residents, was organized by Milan Bush and other descendants of families whose school was ransacked by a mob of White men on July 31, 1868.

Starting at City Hall, our diverse group walked to the Stephens Street site of the long-gone school that was positioned on the corner of what’s now the Midway University soccer field.

Along the way, we stopped to hear from Joyce Thomas, an octogenarian who told us that while Black Lives Matter represents a worldwide movement, it also speaks for one person at a time.

WindWalk Joyce

Longtime Midway resident Joyce Thomas (at far left in white pants, spoke to participants in the Honoring Black Stories in Midway March.

“When you think about your genes and your family in Midway, think about me, too. This about us. See us for who we are,” she said.

Ms. Thomas said she doesn’t blame today’s White residents for the 1868 incident, nor for the decades that followed, when Black citizens weren’t accorded equal opportunities. Instead she asked us to take advantage of the change that is happening in America … and in Midway.

It helped me to hear that.

My relatives have been in Midway—or on surrounding farms—for something like 200 years, and while I don’t have evidence that they supported the Confederacy or mistreated people of color, neither do I know if my forebears spoke against slavery or the subsequent mistreatment of Black men and women.

I was eager to be there today, but Ms. Thomas told us that we need to do more than walk.

“You can put up a plaque and say the right words, but also … put it in your heart,” she said.

In my 62 years, I have walked for miles on Midway’s streets and sidewalks: on Halloween nights with my family, during growing-up days with my friends, and on moonlit evenings with a sweetheart.

But today I walked with purpose in my heart. I walked in the spirit of peace—as John Lewis implored—with my sisters and brothers.

For today in Midway, we walked with the wind.

Photos: Grayson Vandegrift

True Blue in Midway

Midway won the battle for the Blue Jays.

On July 20, the Toronto Blue Jays were looking for a place to land during the COVID-shortened Major League Baseball season, due to the fact that Canada’s border is closed to U.S. travelers, including visiting teams. Their first home game was slated for July 29.

I invited them to consider playing in Midway, Kentucky. Their answer was a polite no.Rouse hat trio2

Although the Jays won’t play their home games in my old Kentucky hometown, I don’t consider my invitation for them to occupy the new ball field at Midway University to be a failed effort.

If you missed the news that week, I should fill you in.

It’s important to know that I was a Blue Jay before the Toronto team was hatched. I grew up in Midway, a Central Kentucky town with a population of 1,800, and I attended elementary school in a beautiful old building that had, through 1964, been Midway High School. The school’s claim to fame was winning the Kentucky boys basketball championship in 1937.

While I wore the Blue Jays jersey with pride on the basketball court (but without talent—even for a writer, I was a pretty bad athlete), there was always something a little apologetic about being a Blue Jay. In my mind, having a bird as a school mascot—in the midst of lions and tigers and bears—was not exactly a ferocious statement.

But in 1977, along came the expansion MLB team in Toronto that took the field as the Blue Jays. They legitimized the name. Blue Jays were heroic after all!

Ever since, I’ve been a fan. I follow the team every year, and I watch them on TV whenever I’m in Canada or when they make a rare appearance on U.S. television. I have always owned a Blue Jays ball cap (though my original hat is long gone), and during the three zillion baseball games I went to as my two boys progressed through youth, high school, and—one of them—college ball, I often wore a Toronto topper. When questioned, I would always bore the asker with my Blue Jays background.

But then things got exciting this summer. When I read that the Toronto club was looking for a place to play home games in the nutso year of 2020, I emailed several of the Jays’ front-office staff with a simple proposal: Come to my Kentucky hometown and play ball.

It was a lark, of course. Midway has fantastic restaurants and is surrounded by gorgeousMidway -- Railroad Street horse farms and aromatic bourbon distilleries … but we have no hotels. The new ball field on the university’s campus doesn’t have a clubhouse that’s up to major league standards—and by that I mean there’s no clubhouse at all.

I was honest about all of these things when I stepped to the plate and sent my email. Among the additional (and ridiculous) pros and cons I supplied was a strong pro: I promised that my wife would make a big batch of blondies for the team and its execs.

I expected to receive a short email in response, a hardy-har-har note to appease the village idiot. But I got more than that. A few hours after my email took flight, the team’s director of fan services, Christine Robertson, called to tell me that my far-fetched suggestion was a welcome diversion during a stressful time.

I had made it to first base.

Christine said the offer of blondies was especially appealing (although a team VP later blondiesexpressed an interest in checking out the distilleries). She asked if she could share my email with a reporter from Sportsnet (Canada’s ESPN, I guess), and Shi Davidi called the next day to interview me. His story was picked up by a number of Canadian news outlets, plus a few here in Kentucky, and it led to a live appearance on CTV, Canada’s most-watched TV news network, and another live interview on a Toronto-area radio station.

I felt like I had stretched a single into a triple.

By week’s end, though, the Blue Jays landed in Buffalo, its Triple-A minor league affiliate, and my tongue-in-cheek dance with the team was over.

I didn’t succeed in bringing the Blue Jays to Midway, but I did shine a much-deserved spotlight on my hometown. Thousands of people—heck, maybe millions—saw, read, or heard my open invitation to come to Midway, Kentucky. If only a fraction of them remember that we have outstanding restaurants to dine in, and marvelous distilleries and horse farms to tour, then my late-July folly will produce visitors to Midway and Woodford County.

If travelers add a trip to Midway when they come to the Kentucky Derby—or to Lexington or Cincinnati or Nashville—I’m confident that my neighbors will open their arms (and their cash registers) to the curious visitors.

And when that happens, Midway will have won the battle for the Blue Jays … in a game-ending home run.

Take it away

“We cannot escape history,” Abraham Lincoln said.

Even though it gets clouded in memory and mystique, history is forever examined and reexamined. We look at past people and events from all angles, seeking clarity and certainty. To discover history—and to expand our understanding of humanity—we examine books, films, speeches, interviews, and observations. But not statues.

Statues serve a different purpose. They are erectStatuesed to honor, elevate, and celebrate not only a person, but also the ideals that the individual represents. A statue that stands in public reflects the values of the people who surround it. But if the people’s values change, so do their role models. So, also, should their statues.

When we study history, we should consider all sides. But not so with statues of history’s figures that we choose to honor in public. We don’t both-sides our heroes. Where you find a statue of Abraham Lincoln, you won’t see a bronze figure of James Wilkes Booth beside him.

But when we enter the Kentucky state capitol and view the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, we also see Lincoln’s adversary, Jefferson Davis, in the same space. By elevating both men, we have said that we revere them equally. As we admire the man who preserved the union and freed enslaved people, we’re saying we also venerate a man who tried to dissolve the United States of America and fought to perpetuate slavery.

Take Jefferson Davis’ away.

That’s not to say that statues of every flawed individual should come down. Here in Kentucky, we look up to Henry Clay as an accomplished statesman who promoted economic stability and peaceful compromise. Yet he owned slaves. Lincoln himself suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War; he jailed editors.

By the same token, Jefferson Davis undoubtedly had redeeming qualities. While still serving the United States, he was said to be a brave soldier and an innovative administrator. But we measure people from the head down. Heroes are honored for crowning achievements, and scoundrels are disowned for their depravity. A hero’s boots may be muddy, and a traitor’s boots might shine, but if the good a person accomplishes is so grand as to outweigh the flaws, we award them with hero status. Yet if a person’s dreadful actions overpower their attributes, we kick them to the curb.

In Kentucky, history didn’t change. It’s inescapable, right? But our attitudes and values, for the most part and for the most people, have changed. To remove Jefferson Davis’ statue from a place of honor is to step away from the cruelty and treason he stands for.

Take it away. Kick him to the curb.

There is no new normal

What do you mean, new normal?

This two-word phrase seems to come up in every TV report, all opinion pieces, and most conversations. You’ll also see and hear variations, like “new abnormal” and even “abnormal new normal.”

After months of this COVID mess, I’d say the new has definitely worn off.

Researching the phrase “new normal,” I found several claims to its origination: after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, during a 2003 financial boom/bust cycle, and following the 2008 recession. The earliest citation, though, was from an article in December 1918, in the aftermath of World War I.

There’s lots of newness, but not much normality. “Normal,” you know, is what’s typical … routine … expected.

During the shutdown, I’ve been working from home. My team and I have created two issues of our magazine without laying eyes on each other except through computer screens. That’s been new for us, but I don’t call it a new normal. We’ll be back in the office in a month or two, and what became routine this spring might be a “remember when” story next year.

Also at home, my family started a small garden. We eat in every night. I wash a lot of dishes. I dig dandelions as soon as they reveal themselves. It’s new, but it doesn’t seem normal. And it’s not what I expected of 2020.

I didn’t read the 1918 article, but any new normal the world settled into back then didn’t last. It can’t. Technologies emerge, inventions appear, attitudes evolve, and disasters strike.

“Normal” is a rolling standard, an ever-changing acceptance of patterns, activities, and beliefs. It’s only natural that we seek firm ground—and take comfort in a predictable future—but it’s an ongoing search. Firm ground is natural, but then earthquakes happen. Pandemics hit. Jobs and livelihoods go away.

So what’s normal now? How do we regain our footing with work and friends and routines when the ground hasn’t settled?

How? We roll with it. We make do with less money and more stress. We cry or rant or zombie out, and we think about better days ahead, because that’s just our normal for now.

But those better days are coming. We’ll stop counting deaths and start moving forward, recalibrating our lives and, maybe, ourselves.

There will be new days, but there won’t be a new normal because normal never lasts for long. As soon as we get used to life, it changes.

So what’s normal is change. And life … is always new.

SunriseBryce

Each sunrise is new, but not normal. This daybreak at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah was unique, with a never-before-seen interplay of clouds and colors shining light on a day of novel events and interactions.

Stoppable

When I first learned to drive—and for the next, oh, forty years—I was a bit impatient. And while I still get frustrated by slow vehicles in front of me, there’s one place I’ve become a more responsible driver: at the stop sign.Cloudy sign

In particular, I’d get antsy while sitting at an intersection and waiting for a clear spot in traffic so I could make my turn and get where I was going. I mean, after you sit patiently for thirty seconds … a minute … maybe two, it’s only reasonable that you should be able to merge. It’s basically your daggone turn. Am I right?

I was wrong.

What took me several decades to learn was that my desire to move forward doesn’t diminish an oncoming car’s ability to crush me. That’s simple physics, and I can’t really argue with science.

Even when my intentions are good and I’ve been waiting for “quite some time, now,” the only time it’s safe to turn is when the coast is clear. I don’t mean clear all the way to the next county, but clear enough that I won’t get T-boned on my way to dinner.

And that’s how I look at this coronavirus mess. I am really eager for everything to open back up so I can enjoy the fruits of our economy: restaurants, stores, movies, haircuts … the works. And Lord knows we all need to get back to work. We’ve waited long enough; it’s time, right?

Maybe.

While it’s possible that I can go back to work and earn money to spend at local restaurants and stores and barbershops without catching or spreading the coronavirus, it’s also possible that I will catch it. Spread it. Get killed by it. Kill others with it.

The trick, I guess, is knowing when the coast is clear. I don’t mean waiting until there’s no trace of the virus, but clear enough that I won’t get T-boned by a disease with no cure … one that’s still getting spread by people breathing.

I’ve gotta wait on the science.

I wish like anything we could end the quarantine, go back to work, and get back to living! But not when that damn virus is still unstoppable. Like waiting to turn into traffic, my desire to move forward right now doesn’t diminish the virus’ ability to crush me.

Until I can be reasonably sure that damn virus can be slowed down or stopped, I’m OK to wait just a little while longer.

 

photo: Bob Rouse

Looking at liriope

I’m looking at the liriope [lih-RYE-oh-pee] we planted a couple of years ago, and I don’t know what will happen.

Also called monkey grass, these clumps of leafy plants make good border vegetation, and the plants are pretty hardy.

For two winters, I have cut back the leaves that died in the cold, and I did it with the loving care of a weed eater—just whacked all the clumps down to the nub. And then in spring, little green leaves just shoot up and grow.

The liriope was greening up nicely this spring, but then we had a couple of hard freezes,LiriopeBig when temps dove into the low 20s. There’s warmth and sunlight now, but those cold nights took a toll on the liriope. Big sections of rich and verdant growth are now quite pale, even white.

So now what, I wonder. Will the pale leaves linger? Die off, even? And will new, green ones grow in their place? Or maybe the entire plant will spiral down to die. Some plants are doing better than others, so maybe some will recover and others won’t.

You probably guessed where this is going. There are other worries on my mind.

In the same way I’m looking at my liriope, I’m wondering about my country, my state, my neighbors, and my family. Will the virus that put our economy in the deep freeze ruin our way of life forever? Or can we recover and resume where we left off? Or maybe new jobs and opportunities will replace the ones that didn’t survive the COVID crisis. And, worse, will the dreaded virus strike a loved one?

I flat-out don’t know.

To learn the liriope’s fate, I could ask a botanist or a horticulturist—or probably even the lady at the lawn and garden shop. They would know, as they’ve seen that situation before.

But diagnosing a nation’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis is not as simple. While there’s no shortage of experts in economics, virology, and public health, there are no sure-fire answers. Unlike a mid-April freeze that cripples plants, a pandemic like this one has never before been faced in the modern world. Those experts can build models and make predictions, but their projections are just educated guesses. And many educated experts have already guessed wrong.

It’s also easier to look at liriope because I don’t have to suffer a stream of uneducated guesses—other than my own—like we’re all enduring through this COVID lockdown. The fear and distrust and hatred that spawn all sorts of corona-crap don’t really play into plant life.

Of course, while doctors and economists can’t forecast with certainty what will happen in six months, they can deliver solid expectations of what can happen in six days to people who don’t heed warnings about catching or spreading the coronavirus. (Hint: They’ll catch it or spread it.) But it’s the sixth months and more that worry me.

Time, I guess, will tell … both for my clumps of monkey grass and for the global economy. There’s a lot more riding on the outcome of the latter, but pondering all the upshots and outcomes of the coronavirus disaster—week after week—can weigh a man down.

I don’t want to close my eyes to further threats, but I can’t think about the whole world just now.

Today I’m going to look a little longer at my liriope. Maybe I’ll see some signs of life.

LiriopeSmall

Let it be

What’s your quarantine theme song? As all Facebook and Twitter devotees know, it’s the title of the single that was the No. 1 song on your twelfth birthday.

I am no stranger to social media silliness. I rarely pass up the chance to complete a Facebook survey—but only if it sets up my signature smartassery. And I always respond to copied-and-pasted posts that beseech friends to answer—with one word—“how we first met.” I invariably reply “prison.”

The process of determining your quarantine theme song, though, isn’t the type of Facebook game I usually play. That’s because it offers no room for creativity; you simply report the fact. I do like music, though, especially—and I make no apologies—Top 40 tunes, so I Googled April 16, 1970.

I was lucky. “Let It Be,” the beautiful Beatles song, checks all the boxes for this exercise. The phrase sets an appropriate attitude for these weird and daunting days. And the song has enduring appeal and popularity. Two years ago, Paul McCartney explained the originCarpool of the song to James Corden during an emotional episode of Carpool Karaoke. The former Beatle had written the song following a dream in which his deceased mother came to him and said everything was going to be OK. “Just let it be.”

Plus, like the millions of music-lovers who made it No. 1, I really like the song.

But to truly earn the role of my personal quarantine theme song, the tune has to do more. So on a day leading up to my sixty-second birthday (a frickin’ half-century after I turned 12), I looked to the lyrics to see how “Let It Be” measures up as a leitmotif for a time when we huddle at home to diminish the spread of Covid-19.

“For though they may be parted …”   This viral scourge has wrecked our world. People have had to say goodbye to loved ones, to their jobs, to the milestones of life, and so much more. And to make it worse, parting words can only be said through windows or on Zoom and other electronic connecting points. Some of what we’ve collectively lost can be regained, but so many lives and events are gone forever.

“Speaking words of wisdom …”   If we have learned nothing else during the pandemic, we should all take home the lesson that scientists offer solutions. Some politicians—and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear is a shining example—have heeded the words of epidemiologists and public health professionals and insisted that their constituents take safe and sane precautions, But other officials have delayed such measures or have taken political posturing to absurd lows.

“I wake up to the sound of music …”   I’m forever seeking solace and inspiration in music: I constantly listen to songs from the decades of my life; ideas and phrases frequently come to my mind in rhythm and rhyme; and I often do a deep dive on particular songs, artists, or musical experiences. Just this week, I have zeroed in on the early music of Chicago (watching a concert video) and on the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (viewing a modern-day version of the musical on YouTube). Notably, both the concert video and the original Superstar were created in 1970.

“And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me.”   I’m afraid of catching Covid-19; my asthmatic lungs might not fare well against the virus. I fear the loss of my job and for the livelihoods of millions of Americans and scores of neighbors, as I also grieve for those who have already lost their jobs. I’m angry that our leaders won’t learn from this catastrophe and create a more affordable health care system—or that foolish citizens will again be fooled by con artists in power. There is much about this crisis that makes me think we won’t emerge from our dark days with any semblance of a functioning, decent society. And yet I believe we will. I’m not a religious man, but I believe in the light.

“Let it be.”   Perhaps the only phrase of this song that doesn’t ring totally true with me is the title itself. Paul McCartney interpreted his mother’s words in that dream to mean “don’t worry about it.” And it’s true that much of the damage done by the novel coronavirus is out of our control. But what happens next—in our lives, our communities, and in our nation—is up to us. We can show compassion, we can offer help, and we can vote. Believe what you will about a scripted future, but do what you can to make it better.

I want to listen to words of wisdom. I want to believe there will come an answer. And I want that light to shine on until tomorrow.

So yes … Let It Be.

The View from Pew Three

Oh, holy night indeed.

The Christmas Eve midnight service at Midway Community Church was the best possible night for a date. Lighted with candles set on the sill of each stained-glass window, the sanctuary was full of people, yet remarkably silent.

And those candles didn’t merely glow, for the towering windows didn’t seal completely, and each wisp of cold December air that snuck inside invited the flames of the candles to dance. And they accepted. The light, then, was alive. And its flickers made the night even more magical.

For thirty delicious minutes, a guy could sit with his girl in close quarters on a wooden pew smoothed by generations of worshippers. Decades of derrieres. Thighs comfortably conjoined. Hands perfectly positioned to be inched … over … and clasped.

This service on the holiest of Christian nights was not meant to be romantic, but Lord, a guy might pray every day not for salvation, but for these thirty … delicious … minutes. With her.

But he wasn’t with her. Glenn was seated in close quarters, but not with the prettiest girl in high school—the girl of his dreams … the girls of his prayers—but with the guys he’d grown up with.

The two pews down front were the domain of the church’s youth group. Required to attend Sunday services in order to take part in bowling or a movie or whatever the group did Sunday evenings, the teen-agers showed up, and they sat with each other in the second and third pews.

Throughout the year, the front pew was left empty for two reasons. One, it was where the deacons sat temporarily when they gathered at the altar to divvy up the offering plates. But also, anybody sitting on the front pew would be completely exposed, so that choir members—and Preacher Ted—would be able to see any note-passing or knee-poking.

But on Christmas Eve, even the very front pews were filled. Family members from out of town blended with backsliders, who came to church just once a year, to increase attendance tenfold. And for the most part, the out-of-town crowd was not given to knee-poking.

Yet for Glenn, surrounded by hundreds of worshippers, it was a crowd of two: himself and her. She was in the second pew, and he was in the third. And it was driving him mad.

It’s the curl of her hair, he decided.

Seated directly behind her, Glenn had a fantastic view of her hair. Brown and lush—lush hairclipwas a good word for it, he thought—it cascaded in front of him …  almost for him. She had pulled wide strands from near her face and gathered them in the back with a silver clip.

He tried to remember the word for the clip. He didn’t think it was a barrette, but a clip had more of a squeezy action, and he couldn’t tell if the silver thing was squeezed to open and gather up her hair. It wasn’t a pin; he was sure. Maybe it was a clip.

But the effect was marvelous. The two strands that Kasey pulled away from her face were a little bit lighter brown than the hair it joined in the back—the hair that cascaded in front of him. And those strands, as well as the rest of her lush brown hair, had soft, perfect curls.

Her hair completely hid the back of her neck, it was so thick. And it was long enough that it flowed past her shoulder blades and over the back of the pew in which she sat. Technically, Glenn decided, her hair was in his row, in his pew. He wasn’t sitting with her, but kind of, he was sitting with her hair.

Glenn had hoped for a different seating arrangement, especially tonight. For most of the fall, when both of them began their junior year at Midway High, Glenn had worked the angles.

  • He followed her into Algebra II on the first day so he could sit in the desk beside hers.
  • He always timed his departure from Chemistry third hour so their arrival at the lunch room might coincide. (He knew he wouldn’t sit at her table—that was for cheerleaders and boyfriends only—but he might be able to fall into the lunch line behind her.)
  • He never missed a Sunday night youth group meeting, knowing she’d probably be there and hoping he could possibly sit near her—even next to her—in the van, at the movie, or at the pizza place.

He played all the angles and, for the most part, was successful. He spent quality time near her. And several times that fall, they had talked. Sometimes just a greeting, but often—well, at least five times—they had exchanged full sentences: opinions about a TV show or agreements about homework being hard.

One time in early November, Glenn almost mustered the courage to ask her out, like, on a real date to a restaurant in Lexington … or to a movie—just the two of them.

But it wasn’t just the two of them. Kasey was with Abner, and he was with the gods. Ab was muscular and handsome, athletic and artistic, intelligent and authentic. Ab was friendly, popular, and talented. He was adored as much by teachers as he was by his classmates—even the stoners loved Ab. He was perfect.

And Glenn was not.

At least he could sing, though. And when the congregation stood and joined their voices—without the organ—to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Glenn unleashed his brilliant bass, sweetly singing (as it were) o’er the plain voices of his buddies beside him. And when he belted the bass line of the chorus—the extended “Gloria” prior to “in excelsis Deo”—it flowed like a counter melody … a solo performance of sorts.

And she turned and smiled. And raised her eyebrows a bit. At him.

The look and the lift lasted only a second. Literally, one second. But it was glorious. It was frickin’ in excelsis.

And it was Christmas Eve and it was his church and his night. And it was his girlfriend … or … his friend who was a girl.

It was completely Christmas Eve.

Oh, holy night. Indeed.