- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

It happens every Dec. 21.The date sneaks up on me, its significance unanticipated till a glance at the calendar rings a bell. It is always an interruption just four days before Christmas, when the season has us all by the throat. There is so much to do, so many schedules to meet, people to greet.

It was on a day just like today that he came into my life, but his arrival was unbidden, unintended, unnoticed.

They found him out by the railroad tracks in Pine Bluff, Ark., that Dec. 21. At the time, he was just another bum down on his luck, riding the rails, and it was our luck that he'd wound up in town four days before Christmas.

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

Yeah, just our luck. He was nameless then, and not sick enough for the hospital to take him in, or so they said. But he was too sick for the Salvation Army to take responsibility for him. There was no room for the likes of him at either place.

And so, through the short, waning hours of that day, the shortest day and longest night of the year, he was trundled from one station of his cross to the next. Until by nightfall there was no place for him but the county jail. Not because he'd done anything wrong, but because he didn't seem to belong anywhere else.

The county jail would be the last place he would know in this life. Because, next morning, they would find him dead. Some time during the night, they didn't know just when, he had died. Unattended.

Faulkner could have written a novel about it, and he did. It's called "Light in August." He knew Pine Bluff without ever having been there. Every small Southern community is another version of his Yoknapatawpha County.

Faulkner would have known the futility of trying to put this single, solitary death in a jail cell into words. A death alone, a death without friends or family or ritual, without final words or even the gestures of care we make at the end for those we love. To try to write of such things is to know the limits of language and rebel against them.

It was not in "Light in August" but in "Absalom, Absalom" that Faulkner cries out against the limits of language and at the same time overcomes them. That's the book in which he describes language as "that meager and fragile thread by which the little surface corners and edges of men's secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant now and then before sinking back into the darkness where the spirit cried for the first time and was not heard and will cry for the last time and will not be heard then either."

And yet Joe Telles' cry still echoes, every Dec. 21. For those of us who remember, he floats through the Christmas story like an unrecognized messenger, bearing the Good News, and the other kind.

That is how a secret, solitary death joined itself to our lives in Pine Bluff, unbidden, unintended, unnoticed. And is still joined to mine by a meager, fragile thread every Dec. 21, when I am moved to write this kaddish for Joe Telles a prayer not really for the dead but for the living. For myself, my ignorant self. How does that old Negro spiritual go? Lord, we didn't know who you was.

He left little enough behind when he died. Just a few rumors about a man dying in the jail, and his body being shipped out before an autopsy could be performed. It took days for the newspaper just to find out his name, which turned out to be Joe Telles, as in Tell Us.

His death would be more carefully chronicled than his life. There was little to report about the latter but the usual, incomplete annals of the poor and troubled. It was an unimportant life by the world's spotty reckoning, punctuated here and there by a brush with the law, the traces of a family, an illness only vaguely described. It was as if the only important mission and message of Joe Telles' life had been saved for that last, mercifully shortest day.

Joe Telles had passed through our lives fleetingly, like a message unheeded, and one that would be around for years. Like an unrecognized, even rejected and resented gift. "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you," He said.

There are so many Joe Telleses still being shuffled from place to place, belonging nowhere and everywhere. But every year, on Dec. 21, mine comes through town again unbidden, unanticipated, unforgettable.

Faulkner had his Joe, too, and named him Joe Christmas. And he wrote of those who were there when Joe Christmas died in another Southern town on another unforgettable day: "The man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever. They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate."

Flannery O'Connor said it in an essay about why a certain kind of writer a Faulkner, a Walker Percy would find the South not just amenable but absolutely necessary:

"He lives in the Bible Belt, where belief can be made believable. He has also here a good view of the modern world. A half-hour's ride in this region will take him from places where the life has a distinctly Old Testament flavor to a place where the life might be considered post-Christian. Yet all these varied situations can be seen in one glance and heard in one conversation."

And discerned in one story like Joe Telles'.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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