2019 Porch Prize Winner in Creative Nonfiction
A damp and heavy dawn thickens around the hackberry tree in my back yard. Without leaves, the limbs reach out like the wiry fingers of crones. March fog hovers above the dewed grass and I wrap myself tighter in the blanket that was once my aunt’s. My hands fold over the rim of my mug to hold in the heat and my palms warm with steam as if the coffee is breathing into them. This is my ritual when I rise before the sun, when I’m haunted and held by the ghosts that visit me. They shake the slumber from my eyes, ask questions for which there are no answers, and whisper worlds past and worlds to come.
This morning, the ghost is Horace.
For the last decade, I have lived my life on the side of Nashville, Tennessee you will never see in tourist guides. I hear roaches scuttle, see bedbug bites on the bellies of children, and smell the stench and rot of untended wounds. As a homeless outreach worker, street chaplain, and housing rights organizer, I go, as one of my friends on the streets put it, “where the devil fears to tread.”
I recently met with the Emergency Department staff at a local hospital to help them better navigate the housing resources and service providers in town. As our meeting was drawing to a close, they began to ask me questions about my experiences. A social worker with a pencil skirt and neatly tucked hair leaned in, keen with interest. “What’s the worst thing that has ever happened to you?” she asked.
The room fell silent. I shifted in my seat. The worst thing? I thought. Really? Recollections of trauma rippled through my body like aftershocks of an earthquake. I managed to mask them with humor. “If you really want to know,” I joked, gripping the seat of my chair to steady myself, “you should ask my therapist.”
I don’t remember how the session ended, only that memories flooded my senses.
Police lights flashing.
My ghost-white knuckles.
The smell of pavement and smoke.
Horace’s tattoos and the last words he said to me.
The first time I met Horace was over the phone. He got my number from Tommy, one of the men I’d helped move into housing. Horace called me because Tommy was desperately sick but refused to go to the hospital. He wanted to see if I could convince him to go. “He’ll listen to you,” said Horace. And he did. Tommy went to the hospital and Horace saved my number.
After meeting Horace in person some time later, I realized that he was the kind of guy you did not seek out. He was 5’8’’ with a small frame that held a wicked temper. His piercing steel eyes rarely warmed, and his grayish-blonde mustache flanked a near-permanent scowl. Tattoos of demons and women ran up his limbs and a grim reaper cast its shadow across his entire back. Everywhere he went, he carried two pocketknives, ready for a fight. The only time he appeared happy was when he put on his headphones and mixed a drink to drown out the voices of the ghosts that haunted him.
When Horace moved into a tent in a patch of woods on the east side of town, he asked if I would help him find housing. At first, I was hesitant. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t see him being able to maintain housing once he got it. How long would it be until he started fights with his neighbors? Failed to pay his rent? How long would it be until he was back on the streets? But there was something desperate about him. Something grave and heavy about the way he asked. It was as if he thought that working together might be his last chance to break free from the living hell of his life on the streets. Somewhat warily, I agreed. “Okay Horace,” I told him, “we’re a team now.” And we went about trying to pick up the broken pieces of his life.
Most days, Horace swam in all that was negative, spewing curses on everything and everyone with his vodka-soaked breath. To try to lighten the mood, I joked with him that his nickname should be “Grumpy.” He was not amused. But then there were days when the scowl disappeared from his face, when the ghosts that haunted him lifted. On these days, he was gentle, thankful, even kind. He watched the deer at Shelby Park and fed the birds and “critters” at his camp. He gave my number out to random people he met on the bus so they could call me and “get help.” He volunteered at a local food pantry and offered to cook for our outreach team. With a grin spread across his face, he even invited me, time and time again, to partake in the cup of his suffering: Hawaiian Punch spiked with Skol vodka.
His good moods, however, never lasted long. Like the hackberry tree in my backyard, Horace was layered, weathered, and deeply wounded by the years. For well over a decade, he had spun through the revolving doors of jails, prisons, and hospitals, always landing back on the streets. His past relationships were brittle, snapping like winter twigs underfoot. He had a double hernia and was in constant pain but had to wait months for surgery because he didn’t qualify for health insurance. He was on the list to get a Section 8 housing voucher subsidized by the government, but that was a waiting game, too. He tried going into detox and rehab, but two weeks in, he blew up at one of the counselors and stormed back to his camp, where he was convinced his campmates were stealing from him.
On a gray frigid morning in early February, Horace called me, begging for help. Some quiver in his voice made me pause, sent a chill down my spine. I scraped a thick coat of ice from my windshield and drove to meet him. Our outreach intern Haley met me in East Nashville and we found Horace huddled on a sidewalk, rocking back and forth. A charcoal beanie was pulled low over his brow and he was visibly dirty, sipping his mixed drink. This time, he was not only suicidal—he was homicidal. “I’m gonna break, I’m gonna snap,” he said. “Help me. Help me please.” As he spoke, pillars of steam issued from his lips, dissipating into the morning like prayer.
Horace agreed to “get help.” He needed to go to a hospital where he could detox safely and receive psychiatric care. We climbed in my car and turned the radio to classic rock—Horace’s favorite. My Honda CR-V wove through the shadows of a rapidly developing Nashville. We passed the shiny new police precinct and countless cranes stretching cold steel into luxury condos and expensive hotels. It was clear what class of people the new Nashville was being built to serve. And it wasn’t Horace.
Haley and I tried to keep Horace calm by talking about music and assuring him that he wasn’t alone. The song “Come Sail Away” by Styx started playing, its other-worldly piano melody dancing around us, ascending toward an invitation. As we neared the hospital, something in Horace shifted, and he began to sob uncontrollably. Was it the song? Something we said? He rocked back and forth in his seat, burying his head in his hands. “I want to go home,” he cried with unnerving conviction. “Get me out of here! I want to go home.” The misery in his voice chilled me. After his sobs subsided, I managed to ask, “What is home to you, Horace?” But he couldn’t answer. He only kept rocking back and forth, uttering the same words over and over again—“I want to go home. Get me out of here! I want to go home.”
Where was he so desperate to go? I tried putting pieces together from our past conversations to see what kind of picture they formed. Was “home” Kentucky, where he was born? Was it Knoxville or Dickson, where he lived before coming to Nashville? Was it his tent in the woods? Was it the apartment we had just filled out the application for—the one that was set to have an opening in a matter of weeks? Or was it somewhere else altogether?
When Horace was young, home was a place of abuse and loss. I sometimes wonder if we underestimate the power of past traumas, the way they ripple through our present lives. I sometimes wonder how deep in our bones our demons can bury. Horace was no stranger to trauma, to demons. When he was four or five years old, a family member slipped alcohol into his juice to calm him down. By the time he was in elementary school, he knew how to come home and mix his own drinks to calm himself, to lessen the sting of his abuse.
Four decades later, he was still mixing drinks. When he told me how bad things were, I tried to affirm his struggles by responding, “I know.” “No!” he responded sharply. “You really don’t know. You really don’t.” And he was right. I couldn’t grasp the depths of his trauma. I could never know how much he had lost. He was a man who had been hurt and had done his share of hurting others. So he withdrew. He self-medicated. He isolated in feeble attempts to lessen the damage. If he was alone in the woods, no one could hurt him and he couldn’t hurt anyone else. Right?
That gray February morning, Horace was admitted to the hospital. In less than 24 hours, however, he left AMA—against medical advice. How had he not been involuntarily committed? Had he spun lies to say he felt better, that he no longer wanted to hurt himself or someone else? When Horace returned to his camp, tensions ignited, and more arguments and fighting followed.
A couple days later, on my 31st birthday, I took him to another hospital after he begged for help. He assured me that this time, he would stay, but a few hours later, before they could get him a bed, he left. He hated being confined, poked, and prodded. “It’s like being in jail again,” he said of the hospital. Something in him felt caged when the walls closed in. Despite his hatred of walls, however, I’ve never seen someone long for his own apartment the way Horace did.
Two days later, on Transfiguration Sunday, my phone rang. It was late, but I recognized the number. The call was from Jack, a fellow outreach volunteer. “Something happened,” he said, his voice unraveling. “Can you meet me at Horace’s camp?” I left the house in a matter of minutes, my heart beating against my ribs like the wings of a trapped bird. My hands trembled as I drove, as darkness gathered overhead.
Transfiguration Sunday invites us into the story where Jesus is said to have undergone a strange transformation. In the Gospel of Luke, this story comes after Jesus sends the disciples from village to village to drive out demons and heal the sick, after he miraculously feeds the five thousand and begins hinting that his own death looms on the horizon. As the story unfolds, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up to a mountain to pray. While they are praying, Jesus’s body begins radiating. His face and clothes become blinding, “as bright as a flash of lightning,” says Luke. He is changed. Transfigured. Light pours through him. The ghosts of Elijah and Moses appear, and the disciples are astounded. They stumble over their words, saying that perhaps they could set up some tents for the unexpected guests. Then, a thick cloud wraps around them and a voice issues from the shifting haze. After the voice speaks, the cloud dissipates, the ghosts lift, and the disciples are stunned into silence as they descend down the mountain.
As I drove to the camp, thoughts of Horace and the transfiguration swam through my mind. My hands were shaking, my knuckles white from gripping the wheel. A dizzying number of blue police lights burned my eyes as I pulled up to the camp’s entrance. The road ahead was blocked and officers were taping off the area. My stomach dropped. Emptiness filled me. I was a balloon, lifting, anchored only by a fraying string. I floated out of my body and looked down at the scene.
Do you know if Horace had any tattoos on his legs? the voice of an investigator asked.
The me below answered, yes, and described the woodland man tattooed on his left leg. The body they found at the camp had been burned beyond recognition with fire as bright as lightning. The neighbors had noticed the smoke and called the police. The tattoos I described matched the body they found. It was Horace.
My string frayed even more and I began to drift away. What happened? Where were his campmates? I knew all the men well. I hovered further outside myself, felt the world blur and darken like a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake.
Gradually, the investigators filled in the details. There had been a fight between Horace and one of his campmates, Jordan. It escalated beyond control. Scuffle marks and the blood of both men splayed on winter soil throughout the camp and around the fire pit. Only one survived. Jordan was younger, stronger. He had his own ghosts, his own way of numbing their voices. Before Jordan fled, he tried to cover his tracks by setting his own camp on fire and frantically burning the evidence that cried out against him. What had he done? Perhaps Horace didn’t feel the flames, the investigators said. Perhaps he was already unconscious, knocked out by the large rock that was found beside his body.
Well after midnight and still in shock, Jack and I drove around the east side with Julie, another outreach worker, looking for Jordan. We knew many of his hiding spots. Perhaps if we found him, we could convince him to turn himself in. Perhaps we could make sure there were no more casualties. As we drove, the streets and homes around Shelby Park were eerily quiet, unaware of the horrors that had taken place. Horace was killed while everyone ate their dinners, while children prayed their nighttime prayers and fell asleep in their parents’ arms.
The air thickened as we neared the Cumberland River. A late-night mist settled along the riverbank, spilling low over the grass of the park. We got out of the car and left the headlights on to walk to an old camping spot. Two beams burned through the fog, and as it drifted, the light fell on half a dozen deer grazing in a field. Their necks bent low, but when they heard our steps, their sleek heads lifted, turning toward us in unison. Among the deer was a wounded buck with only one set of antlers. My breath caught in my chest when I saw him. He held his head high, the single ashen branch stretching toward the moonless sky. Our eyes locked. I felt his heart quicken. An instant later, the buck bolted. I held my breath as he raced through the fog, as his phantom hooves kicked up evening mist from the grass.
“What we’re holding now,” said theologian Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, speaking to a group of students and ministers, “is the curiosity of what to do with brokenness. When Jesus ascended into heaven,” she continued, “he took his wounds with him. Why? What is it that comes from brokenness?” Dr. Conde-Frazier’s words poured back through the recesses of my mind as I thought of Horace and the deer. She talked about how a broken bone that is not set correctly “heals falsely.” It heals, but is not whole. In order for it to be made whole, it must be re-broken, reset. Just as healing oil is released when olives are crushed and pressed, we sometimes find our own healing through our wounds. So what are we to do with brokenness?
The hackberry tree in my backyard is an unsightly tree. Scars climb the length of its trunk and many of its branches have snapped off, leaving disfigured nubs. Some branches reach spindly twigs toward the sky, while others bow low over our lawn, laden with their own deadening weight. When my husband and I moved into this house, several people told us we should cut the tree down, have it removed. Perhaps they were right. What if one of the larger limbs fell on our porch, our fence, our roof? But something in that tree calls to me. I know the different holes and hollows where starlings roost, where cardinals build their nests and raise their young. I see life in its scars and love the summer shade it brings. Perhaps we’ll find someone who can help us prune away what is dead. But until then, the dead and living branches will continue to sway together, singing songs of brokenness and praying God knows what.
From time to time, beneath the hackberry tree or near the Cumberland River when the morning haze hovers above the water, Horace visits me. It is mostly his unwavering steel eyes that I see. Some days they seek answers, on the prowl like a hawk flying low in ever-narrowing circles. Some days, the frantic words he said in the car that day—“I want to go home”—replay over and over in my mind, skipping like a record on repeat. “What is home to you?” I whisper into the fog. Other days, his eyes soften. He tells me everything is okay and offers to make breakfast for our outreach team. We sit around his campfire beneath a fraying blue tarp. Pots and pans hang from nails on a nearby tree. A mockingbird sings over us, her notes crisp and piercing, edged in sorrow and strength. Horace is wearing his favorite camo shirt, blending into the woods around him. He smirks as he holds out the spiked Hawaiian Punch to me again. An offering. Here is my body, broken. Here is my blood, poured out. This time, I take a drink. Welcome home.