The Stray Cat

 first place winner in nonfiction  in the Alabama Writers’ Conclave writing contest,  July 2017.

He was not our cat, and so far as I knew he didn’t belong to anyone on our block. My mother warned me not to play with him. “It’s a stray,” she said.” We don’t need it hanging around here.” But she had no idea the impact he would make on me.  Am I the only person in the world whose character was altered by a stray cat?

In my earliest memories, we lived in a white two-story house on 23rd Street, then a dirt road near downtown Birmingham, which faced 11th Avenue North. Whenever I went outside into the yard, the cat would come to me. We became friends, the cat and I, though I don’t recall if I ever gave him a name. Or maybe I don’t recall after all these years, more than seventy of them, the name that I did give him. But I do remember his color.  He was brindled gray, almost black, with streaks of lighter gray. I say “he”, but I had no idea the gender of the cat.  Because I was a boy, I suppose I assigned to him the male category on the theory I would not have been playing with a girl at that stage of my life.

Somehow, in lugging the cat around the yard like a baby, his feet pointed skyward, I dropped him, and watched in puzzlement as he flipped in mid-air, landing on his feet. I thought he had performed an amazing trick and wondered if he could do it again. I lifted him up, thinking of all the times I had fallen in all kinds of awkward moves, yet the cat fell gracefully the second time, just as he had done the first.

The wheels in my little brain began to turn, like perhaps that of a scientist as he begins to formulate a new procedure to test an idea. I knew I was onto something important and wanted to test it, to check it out. They say that curiosity killed the cat, but in this case it was my curiosity and not the cat’s that came close to doing the job.

I carried the cat to the small landing on the rear wooden stairwell that led up to the first and second floors of the house.  My family occupied the first level of the house and another family lived upstairs.  I looked down from the landing perhaps five feet to the ground. Holding the cat at arms’ length upside down, I extended my arms beyond the bannister and dropped him. Amazingly, he twisted in mid-air and landed on his feet. I was spell-bound.  That was not something boys could do. Although I had never heard the term “scientific experiment,” that was the method that quickly went through my mind as I considered the possibilities.

I scrambled down the stairs and out into the back yard. He was a little reluctant to let me pick him up, but after a short time of running around in the yard, I guess he tired of the game and plopped down, which allowed me to scoop him up, and this time I took him up to the porch on the first level, approximately fifteen feet high. He was not happy as I extended my arms over the bannister, holding him out in mid-air, belly high, struggling to prevent his flipping over, but I held tight the wrestling cat as he clawed me, and then I let him go. I watched in fascination as he once again twisted in mid-air and landed on his feet. I was completely mystified that he could do such a thing.  And then I looked up at the porch above, another ten feet higher, wondering if I should try that. Hmm. Yes, I should!

I dashed down the stairs into the fenced yard and, after a few minutes of chasing, it became quite clear I would not take the cat to the higher level.  He would not let me touch him, and each time I got too close to him, he moved away and out of reach. I wondered why he was now so wary of me. He had never acted that way before.  But after a little while of coaxing him and whispering to him, he finally let me come close again but was too wary to allow me to pick him up.   Finally, after a long time of being really nice to him, he relaxed and let me come close again, and when he seemed to trust me, I grabbed him up and trooped up those steps, all the way to the second level which must have been at least twenty-five feet high. As I carried him up the steps, he became testy with me, twisting in my arms and struggling to get loose. But I held on, determined to complete my experiment. When I got into position, I looked down. It was a long way, I could see that, and the cat, who was essentially upside down, could sense it too. Somehow, I was so curious about the cat’s unique ability to land on its feet that I was willing to suffer the pain he was inflicting on me as he scrambled in my arms, clawing me like a demon, as I held him over the void.  And then I dropped him, or attempted to drop him, as he clawed my sleeves struggling to hold on to me before I shook him off and he fell free.

In the same instant he fell, he twisted in mid-air for a landing on his feet as I watched from the porch to see exactly how he did it. He landed hard and crouched on his belly. My curiosity was still not satisfied, but then something happened that overcame my curiosity, and that is probably the reason I have remembered this event so vividly and for so long.

I watched the cat from the upper porch as he crouched in the place he landed, as if he were stunned. I worried then that he might have been hurt. And then, still in that crouching position, he slowly turned his head and looked up to me with an unblinking gaze. There in his gaze, in his eyes, was a message of reproof, and in that instant both he and I knew I had done wrong, that I had intentionally hurt him.  He slowly rose onto his legs, slowly turned his head away from me and toward the wooden fence, and then with a running jump, he leaped atop the fence and paused, his body turned away from me.  He then looked back over his shoulder and up at me still standing there high on the porch, and he locked his eyes on mine in a gaze that carried silent meaning, that spoke of his disappointment in me for breaching the trust he had given me, that reproached me for hurting him. I felt helpless in that moment, wanted to run down to the fence and hold him in my arms, to make amends, to make him love me again.  And then, just as I was about to scramble down the stairs and run to him, he broke the gaze and looked back to the front. I watched as he leaped from the fence down to the roadway on the other side. I ran down the stairs to the fence and between the slats I saw him slink down the road, down toward the railroad a block to the south.  I waited for him in the yard for days to come back and play with me.  I wondered where he had gone, and after a week it became clear to me that he would never come back.  I never saw my friend again.

I’ve wondered all these years how I could have been so cruel to a small animal. Curiosity I think is the answer, and the inability at my young age to appreciate the consequences of my own acts, yet once I saw the aftermath of what I had done, how he looked at me as if to say I trusted you and you hurt me,  I was heart-sick.

When and how does a child begin to feel pain for someone else when always before he felt pain only for himself?  Was that the event that made me become the kind of person I have become? I believe the lesson I learned that day, that personal encounter with my own cruelty that I  turned on the cat I loved, was more effective in teaching me the importance of feeling empathy for others than years of abstract lessons in church and Sunday School. Not a single word passed between the cat and me, yet the cat managed with a searing gaze, to make me feel the injustice I had done, the injury I had caused, the trust I had breached.  It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Train Town

I was born in the small town of Hodges, Alabama on March 9, 1939, near the end of the Great Depression. It was a Train Town, founded by the Illinois Central Railroad in 1907 and then, years later, the railroad murdered the town it had founded.   Not directly, of course, and with intention to kill the town. No, no, I’m sure no prosecuting attorney would take that case for murder.  But nonetheless the town was first established by the Illinois Central Railroad and then the Railroad killed it.

The Hodges post office originally had been located on Alabama Highway 187 a couple of miles south from the site of the present town. Then, in  1906-7, the Illinois Central Railroad built its railroad through Franklin County for a line from Corinth, Mississippi to Haleyville, Alabama and which was to be a part of the Chicago to Miami route.

In the early days of the train industry, steam engines needed water at intervals along their routes.  The site that is now the Town of Hodges was located at such an interval.  The Illinois Central built a lake that is shown on the 1936 USGS map as “Railroad Pond” and which became known as Hodges Lake.  The ICR also built a water tower which pulled water from the lake and stored it in the water tower for use by the steam engines.  And because the steam engines would stop to take on water, the local citizens could see that the site might become a passenger stop as well.

As a consequence, in 1907, the owners of the land around the site of the railroad stop laid out and subdivided the land into lots, which subdivision plats also reflected the location of the railroad line.  And the town sprang up.  The first train went through on July 17, 1907.  By then a few buildings had been built and the town was taking shape. As the years passed by, the town prospered and grew.  People shopped.   There was a small train depot where passengers would disembark, and a small hotel for overnight guests, and a water tower that towered over the town. The Town of Hodges was a small beehive of activity.   That’s how I remember the place from my childhood and even into my adolescence

Perhaps because I was born across the road from the tracks and my earliest days were filled with the sounds of huffing, puffing, clanging and thundering steam engines and the sharp sounds of their whistles, I’ve always loved trains and love them still. My parents moved their small family comprised of the two of them, me, and my little brother Eddie to Birmingham when I was about four years old.   I grew up in Birmingham on the northside of town and always lived within one block of the railroad tracks.  I played on the tracks, and I learned to walk their rails.  Trains are in my blood. Today, I live within one block of the main rail lines through Birmingham. Sometimes, there are three trains going in different directions as I watch from my balcony. I love it, the screeching, the banging, the rumbling, the thunder they make.

I remember one day in the early fifties when I was a boy, perhaps twelve years old, I was shocked to see on the tracks coming toward me something I’d never seen before. It looked like a sleek space ship coming down the tracks, or some kind of modern machine I’d never before imagined.  I learned it was a diesel engine.  At that time, I had a Brownie Hawkeye camera and I spent much of my days after that waiting at the tracks for another diesel that I might photograph.  Steam engines were then too mundane for my limited film supply.  It seems now as I look back that I never had much vision.  I should have been making photographs of the steam locomotives that would soon be abandoned and left to rust  in train graveyards instead of the new diesel engines that would soon be commonplace.

And what became commonplace to me in Birmingham in the fifties also became commonplace in Hodges. Because diesel engines had no need to stop in Hodges to take on water, the passenger trains deleted Hodges as a place to stop. Thereafter, the trains blew straight through the small town.  A number of horrible accidents occurred at the road that crossed the tracks in the town and people were killed.  By the mid-fifties, when the trains no longer stopped in Hodges, and then for years afterward, the train traffic through Hodges declined. Hodges too went into a slow decline as the rail traffic declined, businesses began drying up, and the migration to the major urban areas accelerated.   Ultimately, the Illinois Central Railroad ceased rail service altogether in 1988.  In turn, the railroad company tore down the water tower and pulled up the rails.  Most of the landmarks of Hodges are gone now, the depot, the hotel, the water tower, the railroad tracks, all gone, and not a trace of where they had once stood.  The town survives, but only a shell of what it had been.

I recently read a memoir by Clifton L. Taulbert entitled Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, a warm remembrance of his extended family and his early life in a small town in the Delta of Mississippi, and then I read the follow up memoir entitled The Last Train North, the story of his trip north from the Delta when he graduated high school to St. Louis where he would join distant relatives and find his fortune.  It was on the Illinois Central Railroad that he travelled north as did literally thousands of other African Americans joining the great migration from the Delta, to St. Louis, to Cleveland, to Chicago and to Detroit.

When I read The Last Train North I was struck by the parallel between the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama hill country, and how each was served by the Illinois Central Railroad in transporting the poor African Americans from the Delta and the poor white people from the hills of North Alabama to points north and how that migration of whites and blacks alike split families apart. My father moved his small family to Birmingham, but two of his brothers made their way to Detroit, a small example of the white migration north, and now I have first cousins in Michigan I’ve never met.  I was also struck by the negative impact of the discontinuance of railroad passenger service to the Delta, in the same manner as it had impacted Hodges, Alabama.

Today, Hodges is inhabited by about two hundred people, some of whom are my relatives. The commercial section of town is one block long, comprised of one story, non-descript buildings along either side of a wide street of asphalt. Wide? When I was a boy, it was narrow with cars parked on both sides at 45 degree angles, leaving barely enough room for two cars to maneuver past each other in the middle. But today, why would anyone park a car along the street except perhaps to take a photo, for the town appears to be totally empty and so far as I know not a single tenant remains. A ghost town, biding its time, waiting to be discovered by Hollywood.

All that remains as evidence that Hodges had once been a railroad town is “Depot Street,” the street on which the railroad depot once stood. That and the USGS maps, where the former railroad beds can be seen extending mile after mile along tree lines and fields, looking much like a boundary or a  border.

Hodges was located on the southern border of Franklin County in the northwest Alabama hill country, far to the south of Russellville, the County seat. At the time of my birth, my mother and father lived in a shack on Alabama Highway 187 as it approached Hodges from the south and was only about a half mile from the center of town. Our shack was about a hundred yards from the house of my maternal great grandparents, Myra Bobo and Eddie Downs.  When my mother gave birth, it was my great grandmother, Myra Bobo Downs who was called into service and pulled me into this world.  That fact is supported by family lore and my own birth certificate.

The shack into which I was born has long since been torn down but as a small boy my parents would point it out to me as we passed by on our way to visit Mama and Papa Downs. While I remember Mama Downs with much affection, for she lived a long life, I have almost no recollection of my great grandfather, Eddie Downs, for whom my younger brother Eddie is named.

Their home still remains, though it looks nothing like I remember. It was, in my memory, a neat one story wood frame house with a large front porch.  Today, it is two story house and there is nothing about it to remind me of the house I visited as a child and on into my early adulthood, not even the railroad tracks across the road or the narrow underpass beneath the tracks that would accommodate only one vehicle at a time. All the railroad landmarks within my memory near Mama Downs’ homeplace, the hotel, the depot, the water tower, the underpass, the railroad tracks, all have been torn down, pulled up, graded over, obliterated. There is nothing left to suggest to anyone that the railroad ever passed through Hodges, Alabama, except for “Depot Street” and Hodges Lake, but then the lake is just a lake and only those who know the history would suspect that it was built by a railroad.

While I have never lived in Hodges except for the first few years of my life, I’ve had the opportunity on many occasions to visit and witness the town as it evolved over the course of my seventy plus years from a vibrant little town to a proud community that remembers better days.  And when I do visit and look down the empty street and past  the  empty buildings, something comes over me and I’m filled with some sense of regret or guilt or responsibility or some passion I don’t understand that somehow calls me back to my old homeplace, the town of my birth, Hodges, Alabama.

Looking Past Each Other

Because we look past each other, because we fail to understand the background and history of other peoples who are different than us, the movement referred to as “Black Lives Matter” has created a lot of controversy.  Sure, black lives matter, but from the point of view of many people, all lives matter.  Yes, all lives do matter, but that misses the point.  History is important, and the facts prove that black men have to a large degree been expendable following the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War after which they could no longer be owned as chattel.  Reconstruction following the Civil War brought about a backlash by white people in the South to establish, if not slavery, then at least a white superiority that became known over time as the Jim Crow culture supported by Jim Crow laws.  That very real history of Jim Crow imposed on blacks for almost a century explains why a large number of whites continue to have perceptions drawn from that Jim Crow culture even now, more than fifty years following the successes of the Civil Rights Movement.  Even today, some people of good will fail to see some of the more subtle aspects of this continuing discrimination, often failing  to acknowledge the lingering effects of second-class citizenship on people of color.

Because of this history of violence against blacks, I think it is fitting that there should be a distinction between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”.  The slogan “Black Lives Matter” incorporates [or should do so] that unstated history concerning the ease with which black lives could be expended in the years following Reconstruction and continuing even until today.

We do look past each other and we fail to see those unstated assumptions.  If we could simply restate the slogan like this:  “Because of the history of relationships between blacks and whites in the United States and particularly in the South, there is a perception that black lives do not matter and therefore we want everyone to know that black lives do matter.”

But, as you see, that is not a slogan.  That is not a soundbyte.  Slogans and soundbytes carry unstated assumptions, and because of the fact alone, we continue to look past each other, failing to see the pain and loneliness reflected in each face.

Here is a personal example that I have fictionalized, but it reflects an event that occurred long ago in the Birmingham law firm  Berkowitz, Lefkovits, Vann Patrick & Smith, the firm I joined as a young lawyer in June, 1967. The situation I describe did in fact occur, though all the details but one have been forgotten.. A staff person visited with Jewell [a name I made up because I no longer remember her name] on the street a few weeks after she left our employment. It was the last sentence of Jewell’s account that struck me then and strikes me yet today, and though I’ve forgotten all the details of the event but that one, I have re-constructed the story, juxtaposing the version of two people who share the same event yet fail to understand.  Who would have guessed how far off the mark was Ms. Jenkins?


                                    Looking Past Each Other

                                         Birmingham, 1967


When the partners told me to hire a colored, I knew  it wouldn’t work out.  They’re so idealistic.  Why, it’s only been a few short years since the Voting Rights Act.  Not enough time to get things right.  But the partners wanted to hire a colored − thought it was the right thing to do.  Said they wanted our law firm to be one of the first, said they wanted to do their part.

Of course, I knew it was a mistake.  But I kept that to myself − wouldn’t have breathed a word otherwise.  But inside I knew.  Those people are not like you and me.

But, you know, I’ve never been so surprised in all my life.  Jewell was a joy − so tall and thin and graceful, always a smile on her face.  Why, everybody just fell in love with her, even me.  She would make her rounds with the mail, her smile as bright as a sunbeam.  And so cheerful.

During that six months, I changed my attitude entirely.  I thought, how wrong I’d been.

But now!  I just can’t believe it! After all we done for her, she just up and quits. Walked out on Friday, don’t show on Monday. No warning, no notice. That’s the way they are.

For a couple of days, we all wondered.  Even some of the partners were asking − Where is my morning smile?

So I telephoned her home number − guess it was her home − at least the number she gave us when she came.  They said, she ain’t here − got a better job.

So, it’s just like I always figured.  Can’t trust ’em.  Be nice to ’em, this is how they act.  No loyalty.  Well, I’m putting this in her personnel file.  Hope she don’t ever need a reference from here − she’ll be surprised.

And can you believe it? Now they want me to hire another.  They’re just so idealistic.


I’ll never forget my first real job.  I mean a job at a real business, not just domestic work.

Mr. B had told Pastor Small that his firm would like to hire someone to help out − to deliver mail and do other kinds of work around the office, you know, make copies and stuff like that.  Pastor Small knew I’d finished high school but didn’t have a job, so he asked me to call Mr. B.  Mr. B. told me to come in and meet with Ms. Jenkins, the Office Manager, which I did.

Well, she asked me a million questions. I was real nervous − never been around any white people.  Why, I could hardly talk to Ms. Jenkins I was shaking so.  You know, white people are so strange, so serious.  Even when they laugh, their bodies and heads hardly move.  Stiff as a broom handle.  I thought, there’s no way I’m getting this job.

But when it was all over, she told me I’d work out just fine, that I should come in next Monday morning at 8:30.

I was scared silly all weekend, and on Monday morning I was so nervous, jerking all over.  Felt like if I flapped my arms, I’d just fly away.  Nobody in my whole family ever had a job other than domestic or labor.  I’m the first.

Oh, I was nervous that Monday morning.  But most of them made me feel so welcome, right from the start.  I loved my job and I loved all of them, even the lawyers.

I watched the secretaries from the time I came, watched their cool efficiency, and knew that’s what I wanted to do.  I had learned to type in high school, so I went to night school to learn to type better and faster and to take shorthand.  Now I’m ready.

So I saw this ad in the local colored paper for a secretary at a small law firm.  When the lawyer learned I was working at a white firm, he hired me on the spot to be his secretary.  He asked me if I needed to give a notice.  I said what notice, I didn’t know anything about a notice.  No one ever told me about any notices.

I feel bad ’cause I didn’t go see Ms. Jenkins and tell her goodbye.  I really felt close to her and I think she liked me.  And I feel bad ’cause I didn’t say goodbye to the others, Mr. B and the other lawyers and the secretaries.  They were so good to me and I love them so much.  I already miss them and it hasn’t been a week yet.

But I don’t think I could have ever said goodbye to them in person.  No white person has ever seen me cry.

Chervis Isom

The Right Cross

“Your mother is upset that you’re spending so much time with that Catholic girl. It’s good to have friends, but you shouldn’t get serious with her. She’s Catholic you know, and you can’t change them.”

Those were the words my father said to me that day, though I remember none of the circumstances that led up to our brief discussion.

Maybe he said something more, maybe he pushed me a little too hard, maybe I was feeling my independence at seventeen years of age, maybe one of those reasons, or all of them  together, caused me to bow up.

“By God, I’ll be friends with anybody I choose,” I said, or words to that effect. The only words I specifically recall uttering were “By God….”

We were standing outside the back door in the sparse grass and gravel, very close and face-to-face. We were the same height, he and I, and  we were eye to eye. My father’s eyes were large and round and a vivid blue, level and steady and unblinking in that instant, flashing with rage and certitude, even as he tensed all over, his muscles and ligaments and bone suddenly contracting as a preface to some violent release I could feel coming before it happened.

The thing that fascinated me in that moment so long ago was the red lightning bolts within those deep blue eyes that leaped from nowhere as I uttered those words. I say fascinated, but I think I mean terrified. The instant I said what I said in all my independence, I knew I had overstepped my bounds. Lightning snapped in his eyes, his body tensed, and I flinched. My father  was a man of action.

I was so focused on and paralyzed by his eyes in that moment that I never until the last instant saw it coming, the right cross that hammered the left side of my face. Then his eyes, his face, everything disappeared.

I came to myself a few seconds later, or many seconds later for all I know, on my knees in the gravel where I had sunk. He was standing before me, and all I could see were his legs as he shifted from foot to foot like a boxer, itching to hit me again. Yet I could somehow feel that he was  fighting that larger battle within himself to hold back.

I struggled to my feet and stood there before him, my arms at my side, now declining to look into his eyes. This was no time to consider any further challenge to my father.

At last, he recovered control of himself and said, “Boy, don’t ever sass me again.”

I heard myself say, “Yes sir.”

And that was the end of that conversation, but it was decidedly not the end of my relation with the good Italian Catholic girl, though it did mark the fact that my parents would not willingly approve my romantic relation with the girl from the Roman Catholic Church.

My parents, like so many Protestants from the fundamental wing of Protestantism in which I grew up, thought the Roman Catholic Church was not only some cult and not really Christian, but was also anti-American, and that Catholics would be loyal to the Vatican over our own country. That strange attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church was  virulent in our country from the early Twentieth Century when so many Catholics immigrated to our country from Southern and Eastern Europe, until John Kennedy, our first Catholic president, was assassinated on November 22, 1963. After that, it seems to have gradually faded until it is now a non-issue politically, though it may continue to be a personal issue for some Protestants who fear a mixed marriage with a Catholic for their son or daughter.

This event with my father occurred in late 1956, when prejudice against Catholics was still high. Only a short time later, John Kennedy campaigned for the presidency against a wave of anti-Catholic invective, which continued during his presidency.

Now, more than a half-century has passed. I think back to my days as a teenage boy when a single pretty            Italian Catholic girl changed forever my view of Catholics and the Catholic religion. I am reminded of an event a few years later in November 1963 when I read a letter to the editor of The Birmingham News from Abe Berkowitz,  a brave Jewish lawyer in Birmingham who eloquently defended President Kennedy against the published invective of that time. For several years, the President had suffered vast abuse from letter writers whose published letters saw in his presidency the “end times,” often suggesting the our country was “going to hell in a  handbasket,” and predicting that ultimately the Pope would rule our country.

Mr. Berkowitz’s letter was published on November 14, 1963, and I took great comfort in that letter, although for only a few days, for on November 22, 1963, only eight days later, President  Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

Mr. Berkowitz’s letter  so inspired  me that  eighteen  months later, in the spring of 1965, as a first year law student, I sat  in Mr. Berkowitz’s law office in an interview for a job as a summer law clerk, a job I did not get, although  ultimately two years later he hired me as a lawyer and became my mentor, and my life was changed forever.

I wrote about that interview in my memoir, The Newspaper Boy, but I failed in my memoir to write about this incident with my father.  It is a painful memory and one that I wish I had written about in my book. I think that I simply chose not to place my father in a poor light. Loyalty. It is a particularly strong bond between father and son regardless of the natural strains such a relation bears, for, after all, a young man must establish his own independence. Though I’m sure I received some spankings as a young boy, that singular event was the only time my father ever  struck me.

We never spoke of that event again, my father and I.  I never apologized for sassing my Dad and he never apologized for striking me with his fist. I wonder sometimes if that event played itself out before his eyes over the years as it played itself out before mine, and I wonder if an apology dropped between us somewhere down the line might have shaded the sharpness of the image. While it was I who received the blow, my dad was a man of conscience and I wonder if his memory of the event did not cause him more  pain and regret than did mine.

Isn’t it strange – and wonderful – that our lives can change and seek new directions because of an encounter with someone who at first seems so different from us. In my own case, I was a kid whose parents came to Birmingham from Northwest Alabama bringing little more with them than their xenophobia, and I, their son, carried seeds of those same fears of people different than us.  And then an Italian Catholic girl opened  a gate for me to a world of ethnicity, proving to me that those who may seem so different are not in fact that different at all−and to the extent they are different, those differences are interesting and charming and matters to be respected and  honored.  That view into an ethnic world of my Catholic friend proved to me that the anti-Catholic propaganda of the day was not only misplaced, it was ignorant and evil. And that experience with her opened for me a larger world and thus the opportunity and the way  a few years later to seek a job with a Jewish lawyer whom I did not know but who, through that letter he bravely published,  had become a hero to me.


Chervis Isom,  2016

The Fickle Nature of Memory

I am at a retirement age and no longer bound up in the daily struggle to make a living. I think back over my life and wonder why my memories are so sparse. I know people who can open their trunks of memories and it’s like opening a pressure cooker– things boil out in great detail.

When I open my dusty trunk of memories, I must get a flashlight to find a thread here and there in the deepest corners. Where did my memories go? Did I ever have any memories? Where did I put them?

Mark Twain said, “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” If that were true, my bad memory should afford me a clear conscience, but I can assure you my conscience is not clear.  I seem to recall with great regret those multiple events in my life for which my conscience  berates me from time to time.  I suppose one might say I remember the bad but forget the good. Kind of like a wife, some might joke.

This has become a matter of great concern for me, and I think about it far too much. I wonder, do I have Alzheimer’s disease? Am I in some initial stage of dementia? Why do I so often need to search for a word or a  name? Why do others need to provide that information I search for?

Perhaps I should see a doctor, but in truth I’m afraid of what a doctor might say to me. So I lumber from one search to the next, substituting a word that isn’t quite right for the word that I cannot remember, and that’s wrong of course. It was Mark Twain who said:

“The difference between the almost right word – and the right word is….the difference     between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I remember yesterday I was writing something and I hit a wall – couldn’t remember the word I needed – finally wrote around it by using the phrase  “what if ” instead of. . . but  now, suddenly I remember. . . The word is “hypothetical”.

Here’s my theory about all this, which is so much more satisfactory than the possibility of dementia:

The memory is just another muscle within our grand human design. Like my biceps, my memory muscle will wither if not routinely exercised. It will atrophy and become as useless as the appendix.

Historically, men [meaning the generic human race] lived in rural settings.  They gathered at night, their extended family groups, around a campfire or the fireplace.  There was no entertainment to speak of, so they told stories, and all those stories were based in memory.  Some of the stories arose from epic events that occurred generations before, and became the glue that held a clan or tribe together, that created an incipient national spirit.

Even after stories were written and printed, the oral tradition continued, generation after generation, until recent times, and it was memory that drove the story-telling.

I remember as a child my family would go back to the country, to Franklin County where I was born, to visit with grandparents and extended family. It would be the dead of winter and the larger family would sit in cane  bottom chairs in a semicircle before the great blast furnace inside the rock fireplace. I would stand within that semicircle, my coat on, and would turn, burning on one side, freezing on the other, and turn again,  trying to stay warm, and half listening to one after the other begin a story−”Do you remember when. . . .?”

I was thirteen when I got my first newspaper route, and after that I delivered newspapers seven days a week and never went back to the country except for funerals. I grew up in Birmingham isolated from my larger family group and from that oral tradition.

And of course my father bought our first television, a small black and white model, when I was about twelve years old, shortly before I became a newspaper boy.  That, I believe, to be one of the   real culprits in my failure to make and keep memories.

We, as a society, watch television instead of interacting as a family or as a community. Books have been written on loss of community.  See for  example Bowling Alone by Robert D.Putnam.

So does this failure of the oral tradition, this trend toward isolation of the individual from community interaction, this sense of realizing that each of us is “lost in the cosmos,” as Walker Percy put it –does that somehow lead to a loss of individual memory?

And if that is not reason enough for our loss of memory, then look at the way we live today with an I-phone in our hands and anything we need to know we can learn from Mr. Google in an instant. There is simply no reason to remember when a world of information lies at our fingertips. If I need just the right word, the mot juste, [how in hell did I remember that one?], I may simply consult a synonym in the Thesaurus app on my I -phone.  No need to remember all those similar words. The question, of course, is whether this ability to instantly find information will obviate our need to memorize, to remember, and perhaps even the need to think, to reason, and if there is a connection, a cause and effect, how will this ultimately change the nature and character of the human species?  Will this loss of reason lead to more conflict or less?  Will we as a race become more loving, more affectionate. Or more remote, more anti-social?  Will society break down? Will we bring down our own houses, as we have recently witnessed in Syria, so that at the end nothing will be left but homeless people standing in the ruins, hiding from each other because of ideological differences and loyalties we neither understand nor can bridge, reminiscent of Walker Percy’s dystopic novel, Love in the Ruins?

We are working harder than ever, each of us caught up in our own search for a better life, always looking forward to what a better life is awaiting us at retirement, though I’m beginning to see that a life with a truncated memory may not be much of a life at all.  How can we put our lives in perspective if we don’t have a sense of where we’ve come from and those people who have been so important in our lives.

I think back to my father and mother, my brother and sister, to all those people who made me who I am and gave me my values. I have forgotten or half remember  important events in my life, while I  remember some events that mean little or nothing.    How sparse are my memories, how atrophied that memory muscle has become.  How very fickle is this thing called memory. Now more than ever, before I’ve come to view memory as an illusive, elusive thief, who has taken my past and hidden it, distorting it,  dribbling it out to suit itself.

And now, as  I grieve for my lost memories, a small insignificant remembrance comes floating by to taunt me, to make me feel like an idiot.


The Small Black Cricket

The fog rises this morning,
a thin diaphanous veil
floating among the high rise buildings,
then quietly drifting away.

I watch in profound silence,
reminded of the thin, sparse
quality of my remembrances
and how they too have drifted away.

So strange how the mind works—
all those many memories lost; the good
advice my Dad gave me, time and
time again—all plunged into the abyss.

The things my brother did and said,
my roommate for all those years we lived at home
walking the railroad tracks, delivering newspapers,
tinkering on motorcycles—so little I recall.

And my sister, seven years younger and
more or less housebound, obviously was a keen observer
of life; for she recalls
more of my adolescence than I;

and my mother, beautiful woman,
with dark, dark hair and
piercing green eyes—so little left of what she said beyond
her desperate yearnings for me and her church.

And my first girlfriend—
the girl on the Boulevard—I remember
her shining black hair, her luminous hazel eyes,
holding her hand in my uncertain grip, her warm kiss,

The memory of my hopeless longing,
I remember so well—yet what
in God’s name did we speak of,
she and I?

Why, then, having forgotten
such matters of substance,
does that single insignificant moment
stand out so vivid to me?

I was a small boy then, maybe eight or nine years old,
and I was told to cut the grass out front,
a small lawn falling into a sidewalk,
grass between there and the street.

It was a push mower, the kind with two wheels
that rotate the curving blades between.
The handle was as high as my head
and I couldn’t get my body weight behind my push.

I amused myself by pushing the mower on the
sidewalk where the blade whirred
enthusiastically, as if I were making progress,
Though in fact I was making none.

There on the sidewalk perched a small
black cricket, harmless and minding its own business.
I whirred on, thinking surely the lawnmower would pass harmlessly overhead,
As it had not yet cut a single weed.

And then—to my horror− a thousand small remnants burst from the whirring blade,
a black cloud hovering a moment before my startled eyes,
and then settling on the sidewalk before my planted feet.
My heart sank . . . ; and I grieve the poor cricket

as if it had been a family pet.

Chervis Isom


“The Saddest Note, New Orleans 2004.”

The book I published, The Newspaper Boy, was a memoir. I have written very little fiction, and the only short story of mine that has been published can be found in The Louisville Review, Volume 75, Spring 2014.

The title is “The Saddest Note, New Orleans 2004.” The editorial staff at The Louisville Review nominated the story for a Pushcart Prize for the year 2014.  The heroic character in the story is Martha.  Though my own wife is Martha, this is a work of fiction, and no event such as this actually occurred for us.   I do hope you enjoy this story.




                   NEW ORLEANS, 2004

By Chervis Isom

The streetcar screeched to a halt on the slick tracks, windows all afog.  The doors swung open and we leaped aboard, relieved to get out of the rain.  I dropped coins in the slot and, as the car jolted into motion, we lurched down the aisle.

Exhausted, my wife, Martha, dropped onto the bench seat, rivulets from her raincoat soaking into the tweedy fabric, scummy from dozens of wet riders through the day. A long walk in the rain on Magazine Street had worn us down as we visited shop after shop, even though we had stopped once for coffee and pastries and again for lunch. We had made our way over to St. Charles and caught the trolley toward downtown and our hotel. It was only the second day of our short vacation and already the rain had dampened not only our clothes but our spirits as well.

It was then that we heard the sound, a protracted, mournful note, rising in intensity, then falling, sad and lonely as Taps when lights go out, but this was not Taps and though we were tired the day was not yet done.

A few seats behind us, a thin, young, black man sat, trumpet to his lips, head bowed, eyes closed against the world.

The note hung in the air, slowly intensified, then, dropping into a lower register, it withered into a ragged, lifeless plea, flickering weakly like a candle as it gutters out….then after a breath, began again a similar litany – a never ending cry of pain.

It was the sound an inarticulate child might have made if separated from its mother, the sound of despair as deep as a moonless night.

Was he stoned?  Was he going home after having been fired from his job?  Had his wife told him he was worthless and thrown him out?  Did he have hungry children at home, and the banker had turned him down for a loan?  It had been years before, but I too had felt that kind of despair.

As the note hovered around me, drawing me into myself, reminding me of the despair I too had felt, Miles Davis and his “Sketches of Spain” came to mind, the saddest sound I thought I’d ever heard drawn from a musical instrument.

The hair on my neck sprang up and a shiver vibrated down my spine. I hunched my shoulders, drawing my elbows into my ribs, against the autumn chill and the wilting note.

“Knock if off, you weirdo!”

The words snapped me to attention. A beefy middle aged man from the back of the car bolted to his feet, his face red and enraged.

One hand gripping the pole, the other clenched into a fist, crouching, legs spread, spoiling for a fight, he towered over the trumpeter.

“I said, knock it off. You got no right to blow that horn in here, disturbing the peace like this!!”

The trumpet never wavered, though the wailing ceased for only a moment. The trumpeter lifted his eyes, but they were fearless and flat and far away, lifeless and opaque. Then his eyelids slowly sank against the assailant as he resumed in a lower range his anguished moan.

I have never been one to leap into action. My nature has always been to think it through.  I think humanity is made up of two kinds of folks –the Thinkers and the Doers.  Whenever on those occasions I’ve decided that action was justified, the need had usually by then been met by someone else. So in that moment, as I dithered, my Martha leaped from her seat, brandishing her dripping umbrella like a sword.

“Get back to your seat, you idiot!”

She nailed him menacingly with her eyes, her umbrella cocked for action.

He glared as he retreated, but could not meet the unwavering gaze of the resolute school teacher.

Muttering, the beefy man dissolved into his seat, and pulled his hat low over his eyes in embarrassment.

She abandoned the attacker to his own humiliation, then planted herself beside the young man, the personification of primitive maternal instinct.  I took my position beside her, to show my full support. The lightning coruscating from her golden warrior eyes challenged everyone…even me…as I dug deeper and deeper within myself.

I said nothing as we lurched along, our stop having long passed by.

Unperturbed, the trumpeteer’s single note wailed and bent and broke and wailed again in unceasing pain…

In tandem with the screeching of the trolley on the tracks…

In tandem with the screeching in my heart.