Doxology: Brian Holers’s Debut Novel

Doxology, the debut novel from author Brian Holers, is available in both paperback and digital format now! Fathers, sons and brothers reconnect over tragedy in this blue-collar Southern tale of love, loss and the healing power of community and family. Doxology examines an impossibly difficult...

Brian Holers

Dinner party

          Sometimes in my work I have time to think.  Particularly good for this are the jobs that are entirely physical, a lot of my work as an arborist is physical, and often I can do alone; as much as I enjoy interacting with people, I generally prefer to work alone, if at all possible.  This way I get done the fastest, and back to all the other things I enjoy.  The added benefit, or lagniappe  as some say in Louisiana, is all the quiet time.

I enjoy these days most when stories course through in my head, up and down and out on tangents at dizzying speeds.   In the midst of a particularly challenging job several weeks ago, I got to thinking about how long I had been working for a living.  This got me lamenting, squatting all day on my knees, that I’m not a professional with an office job and a plaque on my door, instead I’m a guy who spends too much time alone working himself silly and talking to himself as he does.  But as these fugues always do, before long everything in my mind straightened out and once again left me grateful for a job with time to think.  Somehow I came to remember the first summer I spent away from home.  The names of course have been changed to protect the innocent.

After my freshman year of college, my father helped me into a summer job with his company, which involved working in the stifling woods of north Louisiana in June and July.  As the following summer approached, I determined to find something, anything, that would let me work inside.  Somehow I found a job with a division of the university that made educational videos (I was only hired because I could type, this was 1987 and not everyone could then) and arranged to spend the summer in an office on campus.

A professor friend informed me one of his colleagues needed someone to take care of his house for the summer.  We called him in Italy—an expensive proposition then—and he told us he had already promised the house to another student, but that there was room for both of us.  The other student was named John Kelly.

“Do you know John Kelly?”  the Italian professor asked, across a line crackling with static.

“I don’t think so,” I answered.  He laughed.

“I bet you do.  Here’s his number in Baton Rouge.  You should call him.  Make arrangements to meet.  Tell him I sent you.  You’ll like John.”

When we met the next day in the student union at the pre-arranged time, I remember a blossoming feeling, as if watching something grow right in front of me.  I knew him.  As soon as I saw him, I knew him.  Everyone at LSU knew him.  Or certainly, a lot of people did.  John was what was sometimes called a returning student; he was 38 years old, and had returned to college after many years away.  Also, he was huge, and claimed he had played SEC football at another school for 3 seasons in the early 70s.  He had arms the size of most men’s legs.  I had seen him often on campus.  John was a regular participant in a forum that in 1980s LSU was called Free Speech Alley.  I have no idea if this tradition goes on today, if its name has changed, if it’s held in a different place.  On Wednesday afternoons at 3:30, the student moderator would call the Alley to order, students would sign up to speak, and were given free reign to speak on whatever subject they chose.

For my first two years of college, John was a fixture at Free Speech Alley, and sometimes took other opportunities to stand on a concrete bench in front of the student union and pontificate for the hapless ears of students half his age.  The majority of the speakers who took that stage—this was the bible belt– preached one form or another of the gospel, including a pair of blond haired twins who called themselves the tag-team evangelists.   Many more spoke on politics, dreadlocked kids with tales of woe and privation all over the world, brought on by waste and disinterest in fat, happy America.  John was an anomaly.  John hurled insults back at the preachers, mocked the story of Jesus, told the hippie girls in hemp clothing to grow up.  John had one and only one passion.  John spoke on Ayn Rand and spouted the virtue of the individual.   Up close, he had a beautiful smile and a winning way about him.  I knew he was trouble.  But the house, for the summer, was free.  And John came with it.

I was nineteen then, and that friendship, short as it was, became a portent to a number of themes that have shown up in my life over and over again.

He had returned to college after an oilfield injury, for which he was being paid workers’ compensation.  John constantly talked about his coming settlement, allowed his blown out knee, and the money he hoped would go along with it, to manage his life.  (My wife and companion of the last sixteen years is a workers’ comp attorney, and I have seen John’s story played out at times in her clients; a life changing injury, complications from treatment and pain management, personality changes in a worker who can no longer work, hope for a financial remedy to make everything right that never really comes.)

His passion for issues of politics and philosophy came to him in middle age, as has my own, and at times was overbearing, inimical to stated goals of reasoned discussion, just plain too much.

But the biggest theme I saw in him for the first time, and have seen so often in others since then, is the long term habit of managing excess energy with short term means, namely, narcotics to dull the pain, speed to keep him going, and casual affairs to try and wipe away the loneliness that just won’t go away.

When we moved into the house together, John had just returned from his 20 year high school reunion in Pennsylvania.  At this event, he said he had fallen in love with the date of one of his classmates.  According to John, he and Patricia had met on a Friday night and by Sunday morning were working on plans for their future.  John had another year of school to complete in Louisiana, and they intended to carry on a long distance affair through the summer, fall and winter, then he would return to his home state the following spring.

But he couldn’t take any chances, he told me. What if it didn’t work out?  John was a handsome, muscular, charismatic man with a gorgeous smile, and seemed well aware his second chance for a reckless youth was escaping fast.  So he had a limp as well as a pill and speed habit—so what?  Think of the opportunities he would miss, he told me almost daily, if he refused the legions of women drawn to him like droplets of water, everywhere he went.  Once we went to the supermarket.  John took the cart and said, watch this.  He filled the fold out basket with bananas, apples, heads of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes.  This is how you meet ladies.  Make yourself look healthy.  Then he asked me to find some toilet paper—powder blue was the only color he’d use—and when I returned he was talking with a woman.  As I approached, she commented on his healthy choice in foods.  Later, left the store with her.   A different time I came home on a Saturday.  He introduced me to someone named Sherry.  She was in her forties, yet sported a body like a woman half her age and smoky, sloe-colored eyes that chilled even me.

”She goes to Jimmy Swaggart’s church, he told me the next day as he slapped on cologne.  “I’m going with her tonight.”

“I thought you said Christians were fools,” I answered.

“She said I had to go if I wanted a chance with her.  Did you get a look at that rack?”

Nearly every night I heard them leave at one, two, three o’clock in the morning.  There must have been a dozen that summer.  Yet by daylight, there he’d sit at his desk, popping speed and writing papers for his classes.  A couple times he asked me for help.  Not with the papers.  With letters.  He sent cover letters to schools in Pennsylvania to go with his resumes; by the spring he would have his teaching certificate.  No matter how many times I reworked them, the first line of the letters was always the same.  I know they say you can’t go home again.

Each day I’d go to work at the college, where I’d sit in a freezing room typing credits (the editing machine we used to make videos filled a small room, and had to be kept at about sixty degrees), then at lunch I’d head to the student union to listen as John stood on the bench reading passages from Atlas Shrugged or just shouted at whoever happened to pass by.

The first of several exams for his teaching certificate took place in July.  John informed me he’d be taking the exam on a Saturday, and that he was planning a dinner party for that evening to celebrate.

“A dinner party?” I asked.  “What is that?”

“It’s when you have people over and eat dinner, knucklehead.”

“Oh.  Well, I have dinner every night, and I like parties.  Sounds fun.  What do I need to do?”

“Betty will help me do all the cooking.  Just make sure we have enough blue toilet paper.”

Betty was a fellow returning student.  She was over thirty too, claimed to have a boyfriend in another town, and wasn’t John’s normal beauty. She was often around, but never at night.  Betty knew better.

She showed up early that afternoon and began to cook.  The two of them seemed to have fun—for old people anyway—drinking wine, tossing flour at one another, making jokes.  Finally about six, the guests began to arrive.

First on the scene was Jimmy Schoen, also known as the Abby Hoffman of LSU. Another well known student from free speech alley.  Jimmy was a sloppy looking kid and a sloppy dresser with a sloppy mouth.  His antics often got him press in the student paper.  He, too, liked to make a show of himself in front of the student union with his guitar and the adult-themed songs he claimed that he wrote.  He showed up for the party with an unusual date, a statuesque girl named Melissa who served as student liaison for all Greek life at LSU.  I hadn’t seen him since May, and he had grown a patchy beard.  Now he was not only slovenly, he was filthy as well.  I asked him if there was a reason.

“I’m studying for the rabbinical exam,” he answered.

“When is the exam?” I asked.

“In about five years.”  Typical Jimmy.

Next to arrive were another couple, the girl was named Carly and she too worked in student government (and later, I am told, served as pretty sidekick for a white supremacist who made a serious run for both governor of Louisiana and, later, U.S. Senate).  Her boyfriend spoke with an accent and must have sensed the way I was looking at her and spent much of the hour before we ate trying to insult me.

Eventually Carly’s boyfriend must have figured out he couldn’t insult me, and joined in the heated conversation.  I’m not sure what it was about, because I was having quite a nice time talking to Carly, presumably telling myself she couldn’t possibly be with that guy.  But of course I couldn’t help but overhear bits of it all, what with John shouting out the virtues of pure reason and Jimmy Schoen swearing and calling John a blanking fascist and the unnamed foreign boyfriend telling them both they and all Americans were fools.  Betty and Melissa drank wine and chatted in the kitchen while Carly and I exchanged pleasantries and she continually looked over my shoulder at the dude’s heated glances.

John, meanwhile, grew more and more animated as the night went on.  I have wondered many times if he really believed or meant any of the things he said, or if he was just getting a kick from being a college student again and more than just a one-time football player who had spent fifteen years working labor, stuck in the life of a tough guy who fought with addictions and a real need to create havoc in his life.  It was John’s party.  And for the night, if only for the night, everyone there looked up to him.

Eventually the chicken came out of the oven, the salad was prepared and all the places were set at the table.  We all took our seats and John whispered something sweet to Betty in the kitchen, then moved over to his chair at the head of the table, his face aglow with wine and his pills and the reflected admiration of all the guests in the room.

Suddenly his eyes opened wide and he ran to the door.  We all watched as John bolted outside and slammed the door behind him.  In a minute he returned with two young men in black pants and white shirts.

“Everyone, everyone, look who I found outside riding by on their bicycles.  This is Elder Smith and Elder Walton.  They’re going to join us for dinner.”  Then two young Mormons, no older than I was, grinned and took empty seats at the table.  Betty didn’t ask a question, simply retrieved more plates and silver for them.  The two sat smiling at John as everyone began to eat.

“You fellows having any luck winning souls tonight?”  John asked.  I was uncomfortable, figured he was only playing with them.  He finished a glass of wine as he awaited an answer.  The boys were shy, and laughed nervously.

“Not so good,” one finally said.

“I passed my teachers’ exam today, so I’m just celebrating here with some of my friends.”  Both elders simply nodded, turned red in the face and grinned.  They had plates of food in front of them but neither was eating.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” John stuffed food in his mouth.  They continued to grin nervously as conversations billowed around the table.

John must have caught their intention and placed his knife and fork on his plate.  In a clear and present voice he asked everyone else to do the same.  He turned back to the Mormons.

“Thanks for coming to eat with us tonight, elders.  Would you fellows kindly say grace?”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  • Receive E-mail Updates

    Enter your email address to stay updated with my news:

  • Doxology is out!

    Pick up your Print or Kindle copy from Amazon:


  • Nook/ iPad news!

    "Doxology" is available for the Barnes & Noble Nook. It will be available on Apple's iBooks for the iPad, or iPhone, soon!
  • View my writing on

Back My Book Theme Author: Writer Website Themes © 2019