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Terry Barr

Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in such journals as South Writ Large, Poetica, Eclectica Magazine, Red Savina Review, Steel Toe Review, and Hippocampus. His essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, is now available from Red Dirt Press. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.


When the Truth Is Found

I am only half Jewish, and I’m the only member of my family who chooses to make that claim. My younger brother, my only sibling, is not worried about such designations, and for whole years at a time, I forget that in his half-ethnicity, he is wholly like me. For decades into my adulthood, I continued to believe that amongst our family members, we were the unique ones: I, who wanted to share our secret, speak our truth, and he, who couldn’t care less. As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones caught or bound by the oddities of genetic code and culturally mixed marriages.

Or by the disturbingly secret proclamations from larger governing bodies.

I am not a religious half-Jew (my father’s side), nor was I ever a religious half-Christian (my mother’s). I wholly do not feel the need to be religious, and so I certainly don’t feel the holy need anymore, as I did twenty years ago, to convert to Judaism. I was raised a Methodist, christened and confirmed in the church, yet I neither asked nor felt the need to be conformed to Methodoxy. Though I attended weekly Wednesday confirmation classes led by poor old sweet and boring Brother Frederick, I’d rather have been reading Batman comics than the Bible back in those days, the days when I was nine years old; the days when my mother actually did buy me a Batman comic before class to whet or soothe or compensate my palate for the Jesus to come.

Biologically, though I am now a formerly nominal Christian, I am still a half-Jew (and half-Gentile). What I think that means is that I have somewhat diluted ancient Jewish blood flowing through all my veins. I also have a clear and inspirational hankering for pastrami, lox and bagels, and smoked sturgeon and eggs (especially from Barney Greengrass). I often eat too much and am just as often more bloated than not. Yet, my dietary problems have nothing to do with keeping kosher. I unapologetically consume hickory-smoked Alabama-style baby back pork ribs whenever I can. I eat shellfish too, especially shrimp and crab, which I love most especially in gumbo.

And cheeseburgers. God I love cheeseburgers.

But food aside, my Jewish half-self does observe the rituals of Chanukah, lighting candles, singing “Baruch-Atai Adonai” for eight nights. I acknowledge Rosh Hashanah with apples and honey. But on Yom Kippur, while I reflect, I never atone, at least not to the one God my father believed in.

What I do, instead, is teach Holocaust Literature to college students. And Southern Jewish Literature (as well as Creative Nonfiction, and Modern Novel, and Southern Film). I discuss with my students pogroms and Kristallnacht and the works of Viktor Frankl and Art Spiegelman. As with my meals, I do so gladly and with gusto.

I do so because when I first took this job, I couldn’t have done so. At least I couldn’t have done so as an openly half-Jewish man. For there were other kinds of laws in place, very unkosher and very strict.

College by-laws that insisted, decreed, ordered that all faculty members be affiliated with a Christian church.

I heard of this decree only after my first, very positive interview with faculty from the college via a phone call, one late fall morning from a woman from the college I hadn’t met. A woman who taught American Literature and who asked me in a high musical voice:

“Terry, they forgot to ask you last week if you are a member of a Christian Church…”

“Well, I was raised a Methodist…”

She cut me off then, exuberant and very much relieved:

“Oh, that’s excellent. Now, I hope we’ll meet soon.”

We did, roughly two months later when I was hired.

That future colleague, I think now, did me a favor. Not only did she alert me to the policy, she also interrupted me before I could go on to say,

“…but I haven’t attended that church in fifteen years and don’t really consider myself a Christian anymore.”

Maybe I would have earned a better job somewhere else if she had let me finish my answer. Maybe I wouldn’t have just started my 29th year at this small, rural, liberal arts college in upstate South Carolina where I have been half ecstatic and half depressed over those years.

But maybe, if she had let me finish, I wouldn’t have become a writer of my own peculiar journey.

I know for a fact, however, that without this job in this place, I would not have wondered so deeply about my status as an unrecognized half-Jew. I would not have been motivated to seek conversion at a Reform congregation in my adopted town. And, I would not have had the opportunity after that initial conversion encounter to turn away from the whole process after the outreach person kept insisting that once I converted, I would then want to bring my “wife and daughter into the temple family.”

I looked at this aging woman who could have been my half-grandmother, and said,

“But my wife doesn’t want to convert. She doesn’t want to be involved in any organized religion, though she supports my choice.”

The recruiter’s face fell, but she didn’t give up.

“Maybe after a little while, she’ll change her mind!”

When she didn’t hear from me again after several weeks, this lady called my home and left a message:

“I hope I didn’t say anything to offend you, Terry. We still want you as part of our congregation, our temple family.”

Actually, I wasn’t offended, but I was put off, permanently. Perhaps owing to my father’s always quiet contemplation of his faith, I expected Jews to act not so much like Christians in this inducement to convert. People are people, though, and some wear stars and prefer rye while others wear crosses and prefer sourdough. And while it’s all manna, still, wherever I looked, the stars were hidden in their suburban alcoves, while the crosses neoned themselves across my peripheral night sky.

Especially at my job.


In my first years at the college, colleagues assured me that I could teach whatever I wanted, and they were right. No one said anything when I taught Joyce and Faulkner, Potok and Roth. Louise Erdrich or Malcolm X.

They also said I could live wherever I wanted, too, but hoped I’d choose the tiny, former mill town where the college is located. I always thought, and in fact dreamed, that I would reside in a college town: the town of Montevallo, home to the primarily liberal arts state university I attended as an undergraduate, was my model. Yet, given Clinton, South Carolina’s size, its increasing poverty and lack of job opportunities for my wife, she and I chose not to live in the depressed hamlet that had birthed the college back in 1880. I could sense my colleagues’ disappointment when I told them our decision, and I wondered if I was also sensing judgment: their judgment of my judgment that this place was insufficient, too provincial, too narrow and uncultured. I was never sure about their wonder, but the truth was that I did reject the town as a place to live, which meant on some level that I was rejecting my colleagues as friends, as people I wanted to spend down time with. As people I wanted to trust.

Because in one crucial area of my life, I didn’t trust them.

You see, by not living amongst them, when asked by these same colleagues if I had found a church to attend, I could say whatever I wanted. I could lie and name Downtown Methodist, Summit Drive Methodist, or even that quaint Anglican church in a crumbling historic district. Or I could say what I actually did say,

“No, I haven’t. I’m still getting to know the community.”

Which was funny, not only because I kept saying it for three years until my colleagues sort of took the hint, but also because my community, the neighborhood where my wife and I lived, was populated by many elderly couples who, when we met, asked secondly—after “Where do you work?”—“What church have you joined?” They assumed something Presbyterian since my college is associated with that denomination. And all I could say was, “No, I was born Methodist,” and then they’d finish my thought by naming the various Methodist churches they knew, or relate in great detail which church they belonged to, along with the reasons why they went there and not some other. Reasons that dealt most often with class and economics, such as “I couldn’t afford to go there. They’re too rich for me,” which is what our neighbor Miss Essie, who later became my daughters’ unofficial grandmother, said about a church across town. A very big church.

So I learned that membership has its privileges and its price, as well as its governing covenants. Covenants that strictly forbade religiously-addled people like me from inclusion.

Though I had flown under the by-lawed radar for several years already, could I really remain a member of a body that would prohibit me if they knew more than a half-truth?

So in year five I began telling some trusted colleagues (who were in departments other than mine) my fears and troubles and truth: that my Dad was a Jew and that I had some issues being a part of something that would exclude him; that I might want to become a fully Jewish man like him. And to my fears, I heard some of the funniest responses:

“We’ve had other colleagues who’ve tried to change that policy. One, who made a motion at every faculty meeting to abolish the policy!”

“What happened?”

“Oh, it was voted down every time! But everyone came to expect his quirky monthly motions.”

Another told me that,

“That policy itself has been changed. We used to call ourselves ‘Evangelical’!”

“What does that mean?”

“We used to exclude Catholics!”


“But, we have several faculty members who are Unitarian, though they don’t tell anybody!”

“Unitarians aren’t Christian?”

“Not according to our By-laws! And, by the way, neither are Mormons!”

And then, after I grew so bold, there was the colleague in my own department who told me this:

“You see, when we hire someone who’s Christian, at least we know the kind of person he is.”

I’d add the exclamation point, but I really don’t think it’s necessary.

A few years later, after that colleague got to know me better and had a half-change of heart, he told me of a candidate for the Library Director’s job that his search committee had just turned down:

“He was Jewish, and when I told him our policy, he started crying and asking why? Why would we do that? I got one of our Jewish students [Now that was even funnier, as if we had many, instead of two] to call him back and explain.”

Explain what? That we’d take a Jewish family’s money, but refuse to pay a Jew any?

Does it matter, really, that your librarian is Jewish? Or Baptist? Or a heathen?

I don’t know what those two unsettled Jews said to each other that afternoon, but I do know that on the one occasion when an administrative position at the college opened up that vaguely suited my wife’s educational background, she applied, was interviewed, but didn’t get the job. I was told it was because no one knew whether or not she was a church member. Of course, they didn’t bother to ask.

Of course, she would have told them No anyway.


Once, as we were driving to Biltmore Village on an overnight family trip, my father said to me,

“After all, we all believe in the same God.”

My mother and wife and our daughters were in the car following us, so it was not only a funny thing for my father to say, but so unlike him. So intimate.

“Yes, Dad, we do,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true. Or rather, I believed that he and I believed in the same God, as did my Christian mother: the God who hadn’t created a hell, the God who didn’t impregnate a virgin girl with his spirit. (My mother is half-apostate). Yes, we all agreed about that God.

But I had been teaching in a place that didn’t agree, and I had grown up in a small town in Alabama that would never agree with us even though for a century, that town’s Christian citizens lived side by side with its Jewish citizens, and one of these Alabama Israelites actually won the Christmas lights competition somewhere back in the 40’s or 50’s. There was even a synagogue in our town, though I didn’t learn that fact until long after I had moved away.

I heard my father’s voice that day of our drive, and I kept hearing it at every faculty meeting, which began with a Bible lesson and a prayer to “our one savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

In those moments, which came once a month on the last Thursday at 5:00 pm, it didn’t matter that I liked Jesus and thought he was a loving, wise, and charismatic man. What did matter were the years of pretending to believe what I didn’t believe.

So regarding Jesus, God, and the gulf between them and us, I rose at one faculty meeting, in my seventh year of service, and asked our President if we “couldn’t revisit the faculty membership rule?”

I had been cautioned against doing this. I had been told that it would enrage the President who himself was a minister and was also bound to the Board of Trustees, the chairman of that body being the senior minister of the largest Presbyterian congregation in the state of Georgia, and maybe the entire south, and who, not incidentally, was also an alumnus of the college.

“That policy isn’t going to change, Terry, as long as he is the Board Chair,” my department head told me.

But, as maybe you can see, I am a very stubborn half-Jewish man.

“You never know,“ I said, and strangely, instead of rage or even defensiveness, our President merely said,

“Yes, we can do that. Maybe we ought to examine the policy in one of our faculty forums.”

And then he assigned that very job to poor old Tim Gaines, chair of the forum committee.

Committees take their time and so it was a few months later that the forum date was announced, during the semester when I would be on sabbatical. I was sure that nothing intentional was meant, that the committee did what it could.

I was also sure that nothing would keep me from that forum, scheduled as it was on a late Tuesday afternoon in January.

Our second daughter was just an infant then and our older girl had just turned five. I was parent-in-charge on Tuesdays, as my psychotherapist wife saw late clients. So I took both girls with me to the college; I hired two of my best students, Karen and Meg, to babysit. Karen took Layla, the infant, in her arms, and Meg held Pari’s hand as they said goodbye to me and headed towards the Student Center for ice cream.

“Bye Daddy,” Pari said and waved. I waved back. I entered the building then, the school library, and I had never felt this alone since that time thirty years before when I had been dropped off for my first day of kindergarten.

“Like a lamb to slaughter,” I thought as I descended the stairs to the forum.

Someone, with either great foresight or the most harrowing sense of dramatic irony in the world, had arranged the tables in two facing rows. And true to the rules of armed conflict, the pro-Christian faculty members sat on one row, the renegades on the other. Of course it gratified me to see that I wasn’t alone on my row. Yet, it didn’t exactly shock me to see who my antagonists were.

What I knew, though, was that on this night and at this forum, I was the antagonist. So be it.

In an hour-long forum that now, 20 years past, seems like a tremor of a dream, I remember these moments:

My colleague Jim Peterson, an untenured instructor of Basic Grammar and Creative Writing, talking about his Jewish heritage and how much this policy hurt him. I hadn’t known Jim was half-Jewish, like me.

Our college chaplain, Greg Henley, remarking that keeping non-Christians out of the faculty ranks was the “Unchristian thing to do.”

A professor of “Bible” suggesting that maybe the college “isn’t the place” for me, and maybe I would be better off “moving on.” He said this in such a soft, compassionate voice, a voice that failed to take into account my family, the abysmal job market, and that I had been at the college much longer than he had.

A professor of Psychology who made this analogy: “You’re a member of Amnesty International, right? Well, Amnesty wouldn’t accept a known terrorist for membership, would it?”

The word “breathtaking” captured my feeling then, as it still does today. I had “broken bread” with this man. But I guess, in the relative degrees that often define our relationships, I was a terrorist, if what he meant was someone who was shocking the current of their world.

Finally, in the only thing I said that I truly remember from that night, I looked at my foes and said,

“To me, this policy is not only wrong and hurtful and unchristian. It is cruel and bigoted.”

“We’re not bigots,” a professor of Christian Education shouted.

“Well, I don’t know what else to call it. To me, you are.”

And at that point, Tim Gaines called the meeting to a close.


Before I knew it, I was walking through the cold night toward the Student Center where I found Karen still cradling Layla and kissing her brow, and Meg in great conversation with Pari about her Sesame Street book, “Elmo Goes to Day Camp.”

“You know she calls Betty Lou ‘Belly Lou,’ don’t you,” Meg said.

“I do.”

“How did the forum go,” Karen asked.

And I just looked at them and shook my head.

“That bad, eh?”

“That bad.”

On the drive home where I was indeed heading to my monthly Amnesty meeting, I thought about my girls. Were they 1/4 or 1/8th Jewish? What world would they find when they became adults, and what would I have done to prepare them, to help them find their own place?

And what, if anything ethnic, would they choose to announce, or be?

Those questions plagued me in the following years as I taught Jewish literature courses, as I got mail addressed to the “Jewish Studies Department.” As some of my daughters’ schoolmates told them that they would pray for them to become “saved.”

 Yet, as I discovered to my immense joy, whatever percentages my daughters claimed or were, we would all have to reassess ourselves when, at that year’s Rosh Hashanah meal, my wife’s sister revealed their deepest family secret: that their mother was the daughter of Jewish parents, back in old Iran.

This is a secret I’m not supposed to tell, so please pretend that you don’t know it. Please make it your own readerly by-law, imposing this stricture as you will on all those near you. For you don’t want to get me kicked out of my life, do you?

Isn’t it pointless, though? One-eighth/ One-quarter. Half and half? Do we really have to count and declare what we are? Who we are?

Yet we do so because we don’t want others to do the math for us? To define us?

And in this case do we add the fractions or multiply them? Would any sum or product be enough to satisfy those who decree or measure the substance of our lives?


Three years ago, the faculty elected a trinity of representatives to work with members of the Board on a by-law change to the membership rule. Elected that day were a lapsed Catholic, a Buddhist, and me. The rules had been increasingly relaxed over the years to allow members of “other faith communities” into our ranks. But after our committee met for a semester, we passed a new by-law, one that stated, simply, that to be a member of our faculty, one need only respect and be sympathetic with the college’s church-related mission.

Some found even this objectionable—either because it said anything at all about religion, or because no one else on the faculty got to weigh in on the final declaration (But what was the vote for representatives for? What did these critics think the nature of those who were elected meant?). I know, however, that the new policy allowed for more room than we’ve ever had at the college. Room to breathe. Room to be individuals.

To be ourselves.

Room to see that God, in whatever conception we might have, is larger than we are. And whether this God is the same one we all believe in, or doesn’t exist at all, or thinks that our many denominations, sects, and forms are ridiculous, or somehow really good and necessary, I believe we’re all better off sitting at our desks, leaning over long tables in libraries, or delis, or riding in the front seat of family cars, being who we are. Openly and truthfully.

Even if we’re only half sure what that “truth” truly is.

Terry Barr

Terry Barr photoTerry Barr’s essays have appeared in Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Tell Us A Story, Construction, Melange Press, Sport Literate, and is forthcoming in Compose. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and two daughters, and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College.




Harvey: “My Burden Gladly Bearing”

I’m standing in the showers of my freshman dorm on registration day. Naked, vulnerable, soapy, and alone. There are twenty spigots mounted in regular intervals along the tiled walls of the rectangular bath. Nowhere to hide. A radio perched on a nearby sink plays a forgotten song as I wash my hair and anticipate a long day of placing myself in the right lines, the correct buildings, the most suitable foreign language class. Latin or Spanish? Such dilemmas, but at least they’re normal, straightforward.

Unlike the sound I hear now.

“All right!” With finger-snapping.

I open one eye. There’s a grown man standing in the shower doorway. I rinse quickly.

“All right!!!” He’s louder this time, and now that I can look at him clearly, I see he’s middle-aged in that way eighteen-year-olds have of perceiving anyone from thirty to sixty as middle-aged.

“All right!” His right finger is in the air, and he’s smiling broadly. I wish to God that I knew what to do, and I don’t want to think about what I might have to do.

But then my survival instinct kicks in.

“All right?” My voice is hesitant and shy.

And with that, he grins even more widely and exits the shower room, exposing me to my first taste of college life. 

At lunch, I ask the guys at my table if I should report the pervert in my shower, and if so, to whom? The Dean of Men? Campus Police? The Bursar?

“I mean, other than staring at me for a while, he didn’t really do anything,” I say, my words belying all my shaken feelings.

“Wait a minute,” a seasoned sophomore named Rick says. “Don’t you know about Harvey?”


Do all institutions have their Harveys?

In my childhood, they were called “Buford” or “Elijah,” or maybe even “Harry Smith.” They cleaned up messes, were present from sunrise to sundown every day the doors of the school, church, or grocery store opened. In some cases, they wandered through nicer neighborhoods pushing popsicle or hot tamale carts.

In the worst cases, they just went walking. Holding a steering wheel taken from some rusted-out vehicle, they made puttering sounds and walked past your house on late July afternoons heading for distant highways that only they could see.

I never knew that particular “driver’s” name, where he stayed, who made him put down that steering wheel, or who calmed his motor at night.

“He’s just simple,” my grandmother would say. “But don’t go near him!”

Of course I didn’t; I wouldn’t. Soon he vanished from the streets of my childhood, only to reappear during my high school years when my friends and I gathered at Pasquale’s, our local pizza joint. One Friday night, he came driving up in one of those mail carts, the single-occupant kind with both sides open so the carrier could hit right and left as he traversed the streets and country roads. On this night, though, we watched through Pasquale’s windows as there emerged from the zippy cart, not a mail-carrier, but the same “simple” man I had seen all those years before, only now he had donned what his tortured mind considered an official uniform: police-style cap; off-kilter tie, gun holster, and some kind of cardboard badge affixed to his formerly white trench coat. He looked sort of like me, actually, in those days when I pretended to be a “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” On his cardboard badge someone had written in crayon-drawn script: “Protect of people. Doonot dissturb.” He carried a pipe as he wandered into Pasquale’s and took his seat at a front booth without ordering anything at the service counter.

After he had completed whatever business he had in this cheap Italian bistro, he exited as if he had another pressing assignment elsewhere, another locale to stake out. My group of friends and I didn’t hesitate. To a guy, we followed him outside, but much too closely. He heard us, saw us, and turned toward us. We got a good look at his eyes then: yellow, swollen, unsimple, and so very mad. And his teeth: ugly, misshapen, and few. He replaced his pipe in his front coat pocket.

“Under ‘rest.”

He was looking at all of us.

“Arrest,” my friend Donnie asked. “For what?”


“Spicion” was right, for even an insane man can detect the sadistic nature of high school boys. Donnie started laughing then, as we all did.

And then, he pulled his gun on us.

Not since my days of playing Secret Agent had anyone pulled a gun on me. And no stranger ever had, especially not a stranger with swollen, yellow eyes.

Strangely, in that moment, I wondered again just who had outfitted this former steering wheel driver? His getup was part school crossing-guard, part garbage man, part military. Was one of us about to die at the hands of a man who had at best only a cloudy notion of who he was?

Our laughter evaporated into the night air, and all grew still as we fully absorbed this gun. We accepted that it was swiveling from heart to heart, and it seemed for a few seconds that although this wasn’t High Noon, one of us would have to move.

And then, one of us did. For after the surprise of that first, gun-drawn moment, we saw the gun for what it was. Not even a cap pistol, it was one of those toys that you might find packaged on the novelty aisle at the local Rexall. Donnie started running in widening circles, and while the rest of us laughed even louder, the “officer” pursued his quarry in similar circles around the parking lot of the pizza joint.

I left our ensemble then because I could, and while this evening made a good story to tell my parents on the following morning, I figured that was all it would ever be: a story, a laughing moment from my high school adventures. I never imagined then that I would continue seeing this simple man – that he and others like him would play a recurring role in my reflective life.

So when I really saw Harvey – saw him for what he was – I began wondering at my own circles: how I moved in them, in what order, and according to what time.

What are we supposed to do with life’s “simple” men?

What will it take, Harvey, to really make things all right?


He wasn’t a large man, maybe 5’6” tall, 180 pounds. But he was solid, even chunky. Rectangular. That’s the word I think of most when I see Harvey. Rectangular, thick-lensed glasses that seemed to distort his eyes into long, slitted openings. But instead of madness, Harvey’s eyes showed an innocence that gave him, I believe, a completely undistorted view of his world.

He cuffed his blue jeans in rectangles as neatly as I’ve ever seen. His pants size must have been 38 x 26, for his legs, sturdy and thick, looked like dwarf-legs, with his feet splayed out against the ground so that when he walked, he kind of bounced or hopped in a steady, rectangular rhythm. It’s as if his people danced polkas or Cossack high-steps somewhere in their glorious past. Or maybe they were all simple Appalachian buck dancers. 

Harvey wore baggy flannel shirts in all seasons, well-tucked, and again, rectangularly folded at the elbows, showing off his massive forearms, though I’m sure Harvey never knew that showing off was an option. Each shirt, too, was checked, but sometimes when it turned too warm, he’d hang that shirt on a doorknob and finish mopping in his clean and tidy t-shirt. Then you’d see his biceps, rectangular muscles that came not from dumbbells, but from Harvey’s life.

In fact, the only part of him not rectangular was Harvey’s domed pate: a spectacularly bald top-head with gray-black stubbles around the lower sides. As I see it now, his head wasn’t so much shiny as it was glazed. But maybe it’s only my memory that’s glazed, searching for what it really shouldn’t remember.

Harvey wasn’t shy, so you’d hear him coming. His baritone voice would echo through the halls, singing the church hymns he loved. His voice, as I hear it now, reminds me of Andy Griffith’s – especially in that episode when Andy and Barney are sitting on the front porch in Mayberry early one Sunday evening, singing “The Church in the Wildwood”: “O come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wildwood, O come to the church in the dale. No place is as dear to my childhood, as the little brown church in the vale.” For Harvey’s voice, after you got used to it, was Mayberry-soothing. So soothing that you might go with him to his little brown church. If he ever asked.

He did his job well. Like the “white tornado,” the halls, bathrooms, and foyers, would be “Spic n’ Span” once Harvey finished. But even while he worked, he always made time to talk to the guys, his boys of Napier dorm. He never said “Hello,” or “How’s it goin’?” His greeting was the same, winter, spring, summer, or fall: “All Right!” Never a question, and never a statement of his own well-being, though you might presume that he was claiming to be “all right.” Not exactly a statement of environmental conditions either, because if it were going to rain or turn cold, Harvey would report on that after his greeting: “Rain coming later. Yep. Bring umbrella!” I don’t know if he kept up with the world via a farmer’s almanac on his bedside table, or if he listened to the morning reports on a kitchen radio. Maybe he posted a school calendar near his front door, or maybe he could tell the days and conditions just by the look of the world when he’d exit whatever front or side door contained him during the hours when he simply didn’t exist for the rest of us.

But whenever he was with us, Harvey was our internal register of all things external.

On Wednesdays, ubiquitously and forever, after “All Right,” came this: “Hump Day!” What did Hump Day mean to him? Did he long for Friday as we students did? How did he spend his off hours on those two weekend days, and were they as precious to him as they were to us?

Also, any day of the term, you could approach Harvey and ask, “Hey Harv, how many more days to winter break?” Without pause, Harvey would turn to you and announce, “53 more days,” or “22 more days,” or “7 more days.” And then he’d smile that rectangular grin as if he knew just what it was like for us to face research papers, 8 a.m. Algebra classes, or Thursday afternoon labs. Or final exams. Sometimes I’d see him as I was carrying my suitcases out to whatever ride I was getting home. “All right,” Harvey would shout, “Christmas is coming. Two more weeks!” And I’d shout back, “All right, Harv! Merry Christmas!” And that’s the last I’d think of him until after I returned to the dorm, weeks later, to see him sweeping the halls as usual. Like he had never left.

In those Alabama winters, Harvey would don a tweed sports jacket, one he’d surely worn for decades, and a houndstooth hat with a feather sticking out of its right-side band. I’d see him occasionally on his way to the cafeteria for lunch. When my friends and I first spotted that hat, bouncing along with Harvey up the main cobblestone street leading to the cafeteria, my friend Dan pointed at it and laughed: “Look at that!” We all laughed then, out of range of Harvey’s hearing. Or so I like to believe.

He’d make his way into the cafeteria and sit at one of the square tables in the center of us all. His tray would be full of chicken and mashed potatoes and Crowder peas and coleslaw and at least three rolls and four glasses of sweet milk. A piece of chocolate cake or cherry cobbler for dessert. He ate well for his $1.50, but he always ate alone.

I wonder now what Harvey thought about while he ate – what he observed about us, if he observed anything at all. I know he didn’t judge who we were, what we did, how much we left on our trays. I know he didn’t have such powers of discernment. But at least he never needed a steering wheel or makeshift badge to get on with his life. Above everything else, he just seemed happy: happy to eat; happy to hear us; happy to get back to work when his half-hour break was up.

In fact, I’m trying to remember now if I ever saw him unhappy. Did he grumble at the trash pile left for him at the end of hallways on Monday mornings? Did he groan at the state of the urinals, paper towels occasionally stuck in them? At the commodes which boys left slopped and stopped with their private business? Did he mind that the garbage dispenser in the bathroom doorway might contain anything? And I mean ANYTHING.

Lurking in the back of my mind is a scene in which Harvey is sweeping our hall. He’s angry, not smiling at all. In fact, there’s a sort of scowl on his face. What could be bothering him? Spoiled food containers? Puke in a urinal? Something scratched on the bathroom wall?

Or maybe he’s not feeling well. Maybe he has that horrible stomach bug I caught in the winter of my sophomore year. Guys were always marching off to the infirmary, leaving Harvey to disinfect whatever bacteria remained in their wake. He never wore a mask or gloves. And to my knowledge, he never missed a day of work.

But that’s the problem: my knowledge. So maybe I’m seeing an anger that wasn’t really there, just as after I moved out of Napier Hall in the middle of my junior year, Harvey quit being “there” for me, too. Oh, I’d see him in the cafeteria from time to time, especially when I made it for Sunday lunch. There he’d be in his Sunday coat and tie and matching slacks, houndstooth hat perched in its accustomed place. As usual, Harvey would be eating alone, and I could be wrong or wishful here, but his face seemed just a bit different on these Sundays. Just a bit beatific, which makes more sense now, given what I’ve learned about him.

But after lunch on those Sundays, practically right after I noticed him, my mind and body would move into a different rhythm, a higher circle, and one that never had space or calling for Harvey. I forgot him as quickly as I dumped my tray in its proper receptacle.

We assume so much about the people on the periphery of our lives. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe we don’t assume anything at all. Did I really never wonder back then, back in my liberal college days, what his home life was like? If he lived alone or with his people? With any people? Was his place an old family home, an apartment in a duplex south of town? A room over a hardware store?

Did he “go home” for Christmas like I did?

Unlike that steering-wheel man from my hometown, Harvey didn’t live entirely in his own fantasies. He carried with him, was guided by, the weight of his responsibilities for cleaning our dorm. Of course, he could guide himself only so far. I wonder who got him the job at the college? Who paid his bills? Did he foresee the day when he’d have to retire? Did he daydream, and what were his night dreams like? Did he ever wake up in a panic? Did he know what to do for a fever? Did he think about sex? Did he even know what it was?

Who took care of him when everything wasn’t all right?

Not that these questions plagued me in the immediate years after I graduated. I’m sure I saw other “Harveys” roaming the streets of my grad school campus and in the towns I moved to after that. But I never lived in a dorm after college, and in my pursuit of a doctorate and then a teaching position, I was much too focused on Faulkner seminars and detailed resumes to worry about the hallways and bathrooms of my institutional life.

After all, I was a well-adjusted, normally self-absorbed young man.

Sometimes on TV, a Harvey-figure would steer himself into my periphery. One of the best was “Benny,” the mildly retarded errand clerk in the hospital of “St. Elsewhere,” back in the 1990’s. Benny’s troubles sometimes seemed almost normal. And he was always endearing. But Benny couldn’t do Harvey justice. Harvey wasn’t an invention. Nor was he a stock character, a cliché. For Harvey wouldn’t have known what a cliché was, though in reality, he saw plenty of us walking, and showering, around him every weekday. Plenty of us who’ve forgotten, or maybe never even noticed this man and what he did for us every weekday. What he bore, and what we didn’t.

Harvey died on January 31, 2005. I don’t know if he died alone, in a hospital, or where, because the obituaries don’t say. He was survived by his sister, his nephew, and by “a host of friends.” That makes me feel a bit better, but I keep wondering: were they there when he died? Or before? Did anyone explain to him what was happening? Did he understand that his body was wearing out?  Did he ever wake up in the morning or in the middle of the night wondering why he felt the way he did: not as strong, not as able?

Did he ever stop saying “All Right?”

I hate to imagine his eyes roaming the walls of his room, unable to comprehend what he was seeing or wasn’t seeing. I hate to think of him crying out in the night for comfort, for calming, for the pain to go away. For someone to hold him.

I hate to imagine all of these scenes, but I do. I can’t help it. Because Harvey cleaned up after me for several years, and he never said an unkind word to me. And he saw me naked. There aren’t many, or even any, others whom I can say this about.

Sometimes what seems so simple is the most complex and troubling thing in the world. I don’t pretend to have the answers, or the right questions regarding my own doubts about this world and what, if anything, comes after. Of course, many people have told me that believing in God or not is a simple choice. In fact, one day in my college cafeteria, maybe even near where Harvey was sitting, a guy I knew from our Social Work classes together casually approached me:

“Terry, you know your eternal fate lies in whether you’ll be going to Heaven or Hell,” he advised.

“You know Mike, I just don’t believe that a loving God would consign anyone, especially not well-intentioned doubters, to a fiery hell. Or any place like that.”

“But Terry, where’s your faith?”

“My faith in hell?”

“In God’s plan!”

“I guess when it comes to believing in hell, I just don’t have that kind of faith.”

“Well. GOODBYE!” He didn’t mean “See you later” either.

But it’s a strange thing to me, and even more troubling, that neither he nor I, none of us – believers, non-believers, doubters – took any time to see Harvey when we had the chance. To find out about his life. To help him if we could, or even to make life just a bit easier for him. But here I am assuming again that somehow, his life wasn’t all right.

Just like I’ve always assumed that mine is.

But here is something that gives me comfort on the nights when I lay in bed thinking about Harvey: in a 2009 article in the Shelby County Reporter – home county and paper of my college – a gathering of the Montevallo High School class of 1945 remembered their fallen friends. Friends like Harvey Lee Riffe, who “read the devotional almost every morning” and whose strong voice captured the essence of that great hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” for which he “sang his soul” on Sundays.

Harvey was born on January 5, 1923, and is buried in Shady Grove cemetery, in Bibb County, which, I assume, is his home county. That sounds like such a peaceful ending.

And one more thing. From what I’ve read and from what I remember, I am sure that whatever else Harvey did or did not understand about life or the intricacies of Scripture, he believed in God, in Jesus Christ. 

While I myself understand so little.

“How Great Thou Art” was my grandmother’s favorite hymn. She was a devoted Christian woman, too. But I didn’t follow her religious path. I attended her church for many years; however, I never accepted Jesus as my savior. And even today, if I believe in God, it’s not the one that governs my Christian or my Jewish family.

Like my Christian grandmother, toward the end of her life my Jewish grandmother began praying to her God, and then urging my father to go back to synagogue, which he did. Now, I believe that when I envisioned Harvey lying alone in bed, sick, dying, and unable to comprehend himself and maybe not even his Maker, I was thinking of my Dad in the last year of his life, when he was becoming more and more incontinent, saying his nightly prayers; being helped into bed by my Mom and me, tremors in his arm and leg from Parkinson’s palsy. I felt glad in those moments that he was safely in bed – that my mother could still tend to him. That maybe he could forget about, or relax from, his own dementia for that night at least.

Did God watch over him? Did God allow him to suffer? I don’t know, but from down the hallway, I could hear his murmuring prayers. Did he believe in God despite what was happening to him – the God that had allowed or even caused it to happen to him? And if God was truly taking care of my father, I wonder where that leaves me? What will God do with me in the failing light of whatever last space I’m in?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, and I still don’t share my father’s faith. Yet, I’m happy that he had it during his last days if it gave him comfort. I say “if” because I saw my father’s eyes before he lost consciousness for good. They were restless and wild. Some might even have called them “mad.” But then I can’t really know what my father was seeing as he lay in his hospice bed. When his eyes did close in his last hours, he looked at peace. When I whispered to him that he could go now, that everything would be all right, I believe that my words gave him comfort. And for that, I am deeply happy.

Just as I am deeply happy that throughout his life, including, I hope, his end, Harvey thought his God was great. That he believed in Jesus. And that his body and mind are at rest.


All right Harvey, while I’ll always remember you, I can set you down now, gladly, and leave both you, and me, in the quiet and peace of our fathers.