blackbirdonline journalSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Urshel: The Beautiful Lost Sheep

Looking back, I realize it was my sister Louise who always reminded me of things I had forgotten. I think she has always seen herself as our family historian, as the keeper of Palmer memories. So it had to have been Louise who greeted me with a lingering hug as I entered the house on Maple Avenue the day before my Dad’s funeral. I came directly from the airport, and was a bit disoriented by being in St. Louis instead of in New Haven registering for my second-year classes at Yale Law School. I kissed Louise on her cheek, untangled myself from her embrace, and put my suitcase in an alcove between the stairway and the wall next to the door in a swift, nearly singular motion. Louise put her hand on my arm to stop me to make sure I listened carefully to what she was about to say.

“Guess who is here?” she asked as I stood still, looking over her head toward the crowd gathered in the kitchen. Not waiting for my answer, she blurted, “Urshel!”

I hadn’t heard my brother Urshel’s name mentioned in years, definitely not since I’d left to attend Exeter on scholarship. It had always been my impression that, over the years, my parents simply lost track of how to get in touch with our itinerant sibling as he moved around the Los Angeles area. And I really had no clear idea how the communication chain between my parents and my other seven siblings was put together at the time of my father’s death. Mom had probably called Al to make Dad’s funeral arrangements. It was probably Al who went to see Lena with the upsetting news, before soliciting her help in calling the rest of my brothers and sisters, our out-of-town relatives, and the members of my parents’ church. I was fairly certain no one had Urshel’s number. My sister Lela had called to tell me that Dad had died of a heart attack while visiting her in Los Angeles. Maybe she had tracked our wayward black sheep down. . . .

Standing there deadlocked with Louise in the hallway, I almost muttered something to the effect that Urshel was the last person I expected (or cared) to see. He hadn’t been home since I was four years old, and I hadn’t thought of him very much, if at all, over the intervening decades. But Louise was grinning and anxious to tell me the story of how Urshel, who ran away from St. Louis so long ago, managed to make it home for our father’s funeral. Out of selfish curiosity more than any desire to act brotherly on that somber occasion, I made myself put on my listening face.

“Boy, it’s a miracle!” Louise exclaimed through a wide smile. “God works in mysterious ways! Al called Kansas City to tell Uncle James about the funeral and Urshel walked into Uncle James’ house at that very moment! Can you believe that?”

“What was Urshel doing in Kansas City?” I asked, ignoring her reference to God and her question about what I believed.

“Okay, get this. Urshel and Uncle James’s son, Junior, have kept in touch. They used to be running buddies when they lived in Arkansas. Lord, all these years wondering where Urshel was and Junior always knew!”

“So, did Junior also come to St. Louis for the funeral?” I again interrupted, trying to get at the facts, and trying hard not to get caught up in her jubilance at Urshel’s unexpected arrival. Being three years older than me, she might have experienced a more visceral sense of loss when Urshel ran away, whereas I only recalled puzzling momentarily over the possible reasons for his sudden disappearance. But her revved-up emotions there in the hallway just made me feel exposed. I’ve gotta get her to calm down. She’s about to start shouting like those women used to do in church when we were kids!

“Nope. Junior didn’t want to come.” she replied more quietly, a bit of disappointment seeping into her voice. “But,” the ebullience returned, “Junior loaned Urshel a black suit, shirt, and tie! So he hitched a ride just like he did when he left for California and showed up here with Uncle James and Aunt Bertha. Praise the Lord!”

“That’s quite a coincidence,” I ventured, eyeing the crowd in the kitchen once more.

“Larry, no. It’s God’s hand in the life of this family.”

I let Louise have this last word. I wanted to avoid any possible inquiries about my own lack of regular church attendance since my graduation from Exeter. I told Louise I guessed I should go on in to let everybody know I made it home before trying to figure out where I would be sleeping and where I should put my suitcase. I left her standing near the front door as if she were the official greeter in some Baptist revival meeting, waiting in the vestibule to welcome all true believers.

In order to avoid the boisterous mob at the kitchen end of the hallway, I went through the living room and entered the kitchen through the dining room door, searching for a spot where I could observe the crowd of my relatives, many of whom I did not really know, and where I could eavesdrop on the adult conversations just as I had been wont to do as a child. I squeezed past several relatives standing between the door to the back porch and the kitchen table, then maneuvered behind several others clumped in front of the refrigerator to perch myself in the well of the window between them and the kitchen sink. This placed me directly across from the clogged hallway entrance I’d just avoided using, so I had a clear view of my sister Lela who was standing in front of the stove with all eyes focused upon her.

She was describing for the assemblage of relatives her efforts to revive Dad after he suffered a heart attack in her house in Los Angeles. She painted the scene for me in a relatively calm manner when she’d called me on the phone with the news of Dad’s passing. But her dramatic retelling of the story here, the way she described our father lying on the floor, and how she pounded on his chest and grabbed his face, pulling open his mouth to receive her own crying breaths, elicited a palpable hush as if we’d been gathered by her voice into the immediate aftermath of my father’s dying gasps. Lela paused to wipe away a tear, not perceiving that Urshel had entered the crowded kitchen from the hallway behind her. All eyes moved from Lela’s tears to his figure looming in the doorway, and several audible gasps pierced the quiet. I noticed from my perch that Urshel, an open beer bottle in his right hand, seemed to suck more and more of the oxygen from the crowded room with each forward step.

I was so totally taken with Urshel’s charismatic entrance that my mouth involuntarily dropped open. He is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen! Every woman in the kitchen seemed to flash momentary, weak smiles in his direction. His penetrating eyes seem to freeze anyone they land on. His high cheekbones and Romanesque nose float softly above those easy-going lips. Urshel wandered slowly into Lela’s tale of grief, gathering up our fascination. All broad shoulders and chest, sipping beer from a bottle. It’s obvious he works out. I was struck immediately by how easy he was on the eyes. He looks like he’s about my age, but I know he’s thirty-five.

Suddenly, Urshel’s eyes and nostrils flared with anger as he shouted, “Man, what the fuck are you looking at me that way for?” at Harvey, a cousin from Chicago who happened to be standing in Urshel’s line of sight, in a corner diagonal to the hallway door. Rumblings rippled through the embarrassed crowd of Urshel-gawkers. Everyone in the kitchen knew Cousin Harvey had been randomly selected as the object of Urshel’s epithet-laced question. Harvey (and the rest of us) stood suspended in the silence that reasserted itself in the wake of Urshel’s outburst. I clung to my perch wondering  . . . Who’s going to stop him from fighting with poor old Cousin Harvey?

“That’s the sixth beer he has had today,” my brother Al’s calm voice proposed from somewhere across the room. Part accusation, part explanation regarding the disturbance Urshel was in the process of creating, this voice grew more forceful as it offered a solution: “Willie, get Urshel out of here!” My brother Willie moved from behind Lela and grabbed Urshel’s arm, apparently intent on escorting him back through the hallway door, but Urshel, still gripping the neck of his brown glass beer bottle, resisted and refused to move. Willie’s eyes circled the room, searching for reinforcements. He shot a glance at me and ordered, “Larry, help me take Urshel to my house!”

I felt the crowd’s eyes following me as I made my way in a straight line from my hiding place in the corner to where Willie stood holding Urshel’s right elbow. Standing in front of both of them I realized, for the first time, I was in fact taller than at least two of my older brothers. I suspected Willie chose me as his assistant for this very reason. As I slipped my right hand gently under Urshel’s left forearm, he smiled at me, his face relaxing into a wistful stare. The tension in the room dissipated as if someone had punctured a balloon with a pin. We turned around to leave the kitchen and made our way back through the hallway, Willie on one side of Urshel and I on the other. Urshel babbled nonsensically at first, like a happy drunk being escorted home by two friendly neighborhood cops, but gradually his muttering organized itself into the sound of my own name, repeated over and over again. “Larry . . . Larry . . . Larry.”

Once we were on the front porch, I loosened my grip in response to cooperative signals from Urshel’s body. He eased into the passenger side of Willie’s car as if we were just three brothers on an outing. As the youngest Palmer, I knew I was expected to take the back seat.

The ten-minute ride to Willie’s house provided him ample opportunity to lecture Urshel on the evils of too much alcohol. But Willie would occasionally turn off his public-school-teacher diction and revert to his excited, stunned, big-brother mode to glance at Urshel and exclaim, “Boy . . . you sure look good!”

I wanted to interject that Urshel, muscles bulging in his Lacoste polo shirt, didn’t look like someone who lived on the edge, but I refrained. Willie, who seemed as dumbfounded by Urshel’s presence as I was, and perhaps trying to sweep past the barriers that long distance and passing time had created between them, asked Urshel as casually as he might have asked me: “Who cut your hair?”

Urshel didn’t respond, instead falling into his refrain from before, in the kitchen: “Larry, Larry . . . Larry.” He twisted his body around to stare at me in the back seat. There was no flash of anger in his eyes, which reflected instead his soft smile. He seemed as amazed to see me as I was to see him. I tried to keep my face neutral. But there was something about those easygoing lips that made me smile in return. Urshel turned back around and looked out the window. Willie, ever the wise schoolteacher, abandoned his lecture for the remainder of the ride.


“Nice house,” Urshel remarked as we entered Willie’s living room. Willie waved his arm around the room, motioning for us to take seats in the overstuffed chairs around the coffee table, or on the ample couch. I waited until Urshel had chosen his spot in the middle of the sofa and Willie plopped into the chair opposite him to slump myself into another chair on Willie’s left, perpendicular to the two of them. Willie’s wife, Irma, also a schoolteacher, was not at home. We sat staring at one another across that small table, wondering who would break the deep silence of the otherwise empty house.

“Do you have any scotch?” Urshel finally asked.

“You’ve had enough to drink,” Willie barked, glancing at me as if to cue the beginning of a new litany.

“Larry, how is school?” he queried, eyebrows arching.

“Fine. Classes start tomorrow, but a friend is taking notes for me.”

Turning to look directly at Urshel, Willie pontificated, “Did you know Larry is at Yale Law School?”

“Wow, that’s really great, man,” Urshel slurred, shooting me a squint. Willie expanded his interrogation to include my post–law school plans. The series of questions and answers allowed Urshel to hear that I worked as an intern in the Mayor’s Office in New York City the previous summer, and that I planned to interview for summer jobs with law firms at the end of my second year. Before Willie could ask me, I volunteered that I was going to sign up for interviews with the St. Louis firms that came to campus as well as firms from a variety of cities (including New York).

Urshel rolled his eyes and shook his head from side to side, repeating, “Larry, Larry . . . Larry” after each of my responses. At first, I thought Urshel’s refrain was mocking the way folks in the Baptist church we’d attended when I was much younger shouted, “Amen, Amen . . . Amen.” But it dawned on me, after Urshel had chained together the brief syllables of my name this way several times, that there was a kind of dreamy affection in his voice, perhaps even some pleasant remembrance of me. Despite Urshel’s drunken state, he seemed to understand that the dialogue between Willie and me was just his older brother’s way of proselytizing him with a sermon on our “family values,” and of chastising him for his long absence from that family.

If Willie thought Urshel was ready to offer an apology to either him or me—“I am sorry, Larry, for missing your growing up”—Willie had totally misjudged the impact of his sermon. Urshel offered no explanation of what he had been doing for the previous eighteen years, and, rather than apologizing for not always letting the family even know where he was, simply ignored Willie’s rebuke and began to reminisce about their boyhood together in Arkansas.

I felt the altered tone but could not grasp the meaningful substance of the conversation that followed, because everything my older brothers were discussing at that point happened long before I was born. Urshel’s story started with an accusation. He claimed Willie wronged him somehow, back in their past. I could feel that Urshel’s story was going to end with him demanding an apology from Willie, even though I didn’t understand what the original disagreement was all about.

It had something to do with Willie claiming that Urshel, long before, had misused some piece of farm equipment. Back when they were kids. Back when Mom and Dad still had the farm that Grandpa Palmer left them, and when the older Palmer children were still expected to spend their summers helping out the tenant farmers or sharecroppers my parents hired to work it.The gist of the matter seemed to be that Urshel believed Willie had reported the broken tool to Mom and Dad, bringing down a beating with Dad’s leather strap upon Urshel’s back. As a familiar, mutual anger flared between them, Willie denied any wrongdoing. Eventually Urshel paused, gazed at me, and said, “Larry, you have the power.”

I had no idea what he meant. Either I had not been paying close enough attention to their dialogue, or they’d been speaking in a coded language I could not decipher. I didn’t ask Urshel to explain. I just attributed his attempts to involve me in this intrigue as further evidence of how drunk he was.

Urshel soon shifted his focus back to Willie, this time hitting him up for money. I tuned in to the drift of the conversation with my ears, but mostly just watched the conversation with my eyes. Urshel made his request for cash as if it would be compensation for past wrongs. He reasoned that Willie could easily afford whatever the requested amount was because Willie and his wife both had good paying jobs as teachers. Willie became somewhat defensive and denied (again) that he owed Urshel any money. Urshel (again) turned to me and repeated, “Larry, you have the power.”

This time I had a better inkling of what Urshel wanted me to do: to referee, to judge the validity of his new claim against Willie. I was accustomed to role-playing a hypothetical judge from my first year law school classes: “Mr. Palmer,” a professor would ask, “if you were the judge in this case, how would you decide?” But this was a matter of real life—my life—and my connections to two of my brothers. If it came down to Urshel’s version of what happened or Willie’s, there was no way I would side with the black sheep of the family.

On the other hand, actually taking Willie’s side could really anger Urshel. I thought he’d seemed eager for a fight with Cousin Harvey back on Maple Avenue. It occurred to me at that moment that my admittedly dim memories of Urshel were all laced with images of violence. I looked first at Urshel, then Willie. Then Urshel repeated his new refrain, “Larry, you have the power.”

I didn’t want to admit I had not really been paying close attention to their conversation, and so retreated once more into my own silence. After another half hour of slurring babble, Urshel fell asleep on the couch. He was still laid out there when Irma came home. Willie told his wife that he would be right back and drove me home to Maple Avenue. We rode in silence. He didn’t seem interested in drawing me out of my silent reveries, which were filled with musings about Urshel’s volatility. I sighed as I walked up the front stairs, emotionally exhausted, glad that keeping Urshel in line for the funeral the next day would be Willie’s job and not mine.


The last time I could remember having seen Urshel, he and Al had been fighting in the kitchen. From my usual spot by the window I watched fists fly until Al grabbed Urshel and wrestled him to the floor in front of the icebox. As Al straddled Urshel’s stomach and punched him in his face and chest, I moved closer to the stove so I could see the muscles in Al’s shoulders through his white tank undershirt, see the arteries in his neck bulge with each blow he delivered. “Don’t you ever wear any of my clothes,” Al screamed at Urshel between punches, “without asking me first!”

Urshel didn’t fight back or speak. He did cry. So Al eventually let him up. Urshel took off the white tank undershirt he was wearing and gave it to Al, then stood there for a moment wearing just his bluejeans. Suddenly, Urshel grabbed a plaid flannel shirt (presumably his own; perhaps a hand-me-down) hanging from the back of one of the kitchen chairs, and slipped into it without buttoning it up. Al just turned and stalked out of the kitchen without another word to either of us.

As soon as Al was out of sight, Urshel opened the back door, squinted at me through his tear-reddened eyes, and leaped down the porch steps two at a time. I rushed to the door to see him sprinting down the cement sidewalk, the tail of that plaid shirt flying above his jeans. He turned quickly to his left at the corner of our garage, and then turned on a dime to his right onto the brick path towards the covered ash pit and our garden patch. Without breaking his stride, he leaped onto the wooden cover of the pit then jumped down into the back gravel alley.


Looking back, I realize I had become skittish around Urshel before he ran away. One day I overheard Mom talking to someone on the phone in the hallway. She called up the stairs for Al to come down, not seeming to notice me as I stood there in the entrance of the kitchen. She ordered Al to call Lena, adding that she wanted both of them to go get Urshel out of jail. I wondered what happened, but did not want to speak up, to ask. Mom seemed more perturbed than upset, as if Urshel having trouble with the police was simply part of a familiar pattern. I figured if I waited, Al and Lena would soon be back and I could eavesdrop on whatever they reported to Mom. This was the pattern I followed to find out whatever I wanted to know.

I went back in the kitchen to my favorite spot for listening in on adult conversation (especially those not intended for my ears): the well under the window. I pretended to be looking out at the back yard as I waited for the doorbell to ring. When it did, I turned and saw Al and Lena escorting Urshel, who wore a long tan raincoat and a grey Homburg hat like Dad’s, into the silent kitchen. I watched as Urshel rolled up his right pant leg to show Mom his bandage. He unwrapped the dark red spot of his wound, explaining all the while to Mom and Al and Lena that a small bullet from a policeman’s gun had penetrated his calf without shattering the bone.

A policeman shot Urshel!

I strained but could not hear anything that Al or Lena said as Mom roared questions at them all. What was Urshel doing with that gang of boys? Where did the police say this happened? Why didn’t that fool of a boy stop when the policeman told him to? Was he charged with anything? Does he have to go back to juvenile court?

I could make out Urshel’s loud pleading: “I didn’t do anything wrong enough for that fucking cop to shoot me in the leg!” But Mom and Al and Lena seemed to ignore the pain in Urshel’s voice as they discussed the next steps he’d have to take to deal with this situation. I never did find out why Urshel was shot. And, to this day, I’m struck by how the adults in that kitchen paid no attention to his protestations of innocence. I wonder if it made Urshel feel like somehow he deserved that bullet?


My parents’ (and Al’s) immediate reaction to Urshel’s sudden departure from Maple Avenue was that certainly he would be back soon. He had taken nothing from his room, not even a jacket to protect him from the cool fall air. I suspect Al was assigned the task of investigating Urshel’s usual hangouts—his job, his high school, whatever friends he had—to see if anyone had seen or heard from him. Al or Lena probably checked with the jail to make sure he wasn’t back there. Without anyone actually saying it, I realized Urshel had vanished.

Several weeks passed before I heard someone, probably Dad, give Urshel the label “runaway.” Some months later (perhaps as long as a year), we received news of his whereabouts. Mom announced one evening at supper that a long-distance truck driver, apparently at Urshel’s request, had stopped by the house. This white man told her that he gave Urshel a ride from Oklahoma to California some months before.

During grade school, I got the sense that Urshel sent infrequent letters to Mom, and that sometimes years passed between these messages. Mom never let me read this correspondence, but occasionally, at the supper table, she would report that she’d received a new letter and would provide us with her edited summary of its contents. One letter that came before I went off to Exeter reported that Urshel was living in Venice Beach and working as an extra in Hollywood movies.

I’d hear tidbits about Urshel during my Exeter vacations. He lived in many different parts of Los Angeles, preferring its beach communities. But, as far as I knew, no one in our family, not even our sister Lela, who also lived in Los Angeles, had laid eyes on Urshel since that day he leaped over the ash pit. Not until the very moment he strode back into our kitchen on Maple Avenue in the middle of Lela’s grief tale.


The morning of Dad’s funeral, Urshel was sober. He was dressed in his black mourning attire like the rest of us, able to perform his duties as pallbearer without offending Mom’s sense of propriety. Later, at the repast on Maple Avenue, I nonetheless kept my distance from him; there was something both mysterious and disturbing about his refrain from the previous afternoon. Larry, you have the power.

I exchanged pleasantries with neighbors, distant relatives, and members of the church who had prepared the meal. I politely acknowledged their sympathies. But my mind was already in New Haven, on the classes I had missed, and the return flight I would take later that evening. Before the buffet began, someone noted the “historic moment” of all ten of Mom and Dad’s adult children being together and suggested a family picture.

Willie took charge of arranging where each family member sat or stood. Cousin Archie, a local relative, took the picture. Willie placed me on the right end of the row of brothers next to Urshel, who made a joke about his “job” as a movie extra that made both Louise and me turn toward him and laugh nervously, caught up inside his dark humor at the precise moment Cousin Archie snapped our picture. “I usually get paid to have my picture taken,” he’d quipped, but it made me wonder: Did he get paid to be in those porn shots I’d found in his room before he ran away?


That’s not the question I would ask Urshel if he were still alive. What I want to know from him has more to do with what it was about our family back then, when I was about four years old, that made him take off, literally, with just the shirt on his back. It wasn’t the fight with Al. After all, brothers have fights. Did it have something to do with events that took place back in Arkansas, before I was born? Some instinct coded in the emotional DNA of our family that I had yet to figure out completely, but that survived the journey to St. Louis? I intuited somehow that this invisible force continued to shape the new version of our family in this new place, and it often made me feel uncomfortable, unwanted, and alone.

Urshel’s answers might have helped me understand why, some years after he disappeared, when I was maybe nine or ten, I tried to run away myself. I don’t remember what set me off, but something happened inside me one day as I was sitting on the front stoop. Something that made me want to flee. I didn’t get very far. I wandered around the neighborhood for nearly an hour before I returned home, prepared for a good whipping for my unsanctioned absence. I was shocked when I walked in the front door and realized that nobody had even noticed I’d gone AWOL. I never even got a verbal thrashing for my attempted escape. I wondered how long it would have taken Mom or Dad to realize I had either run away or been stolen by some passerby desperate for a child.

Experiences like this made me feel like our parents neglected me or, at the very least, saw fit to simply put my older siblings in charge of my care. Did Mom and Dad have too many mouths to feed, too many hearts to nurture, too many bodies in need of hugging, too many questions they had already answered thousands of times? Did this lead to the suppressed anger that always floated in the atmosphere on Maple Avenue, a resentment that could, at any moment, flare up in beatings like the one that Al gave Urshel? Did the fear of becoming a perpetrator of that kind of violence frighten Urshel away?

I don’t know how Urshel managed to go for nearly twenty years without seeing anyone in our immediate family. I realized, once I was an adult, that all of my siblings are too much a part of the person I am to leave them behind. I can understand how Urshel’s experiences growing up might have left him with very different feelings about each of us. But wasn’t there anyone he’d missed and longed to see?

I never saw Urshel again after that trip home for Dad’s funeral. I heard though, through the Palmer grapevine, that, some years after my father’s death, he came back to St. Louis and stayed with Mom for a few months. But she eventually asked him to leave Maple Avenue and he complied, never to be seen again by anyone in the family.

On one of my trips back to St. Louis for a family reunion, Louise took me aside and told me that she had dreamed Urshel was dead. Brother, how could you be dead without a single other Palmer being there as your body was lowered into the ground or your ashes scattered? There was no announcement of my brother’s death, only Louise’s premonition that he must be dead. For years I didn’t believe her, stubbornly holding on to the notion that Urshel might meander back into our lives again like he did at Dad’s funeral.

I was nearly seventy when I searched the death records in California and found some proof (there I go being the lawyer) that Urshel died in 1994, at age sixty-three. Childless as far as I know. So I was finally able to accept in my mind that he was never coming back into my life. But the fact that none of us were there for him haunts me. That is perhaps why sometimes I still feel he is with us. The unknown circumstances of his death, that unsolvable mystery, is a constant reminder to me of how the random patterning of our blood and our genes inform and fail to inform our lives. That is perhaps also why sometimes I feel Urshel is still with us.

Nowadays, I take some comfort in the realization that I am likely to be around to help memorialize and bury Lena, Al, Lela, Harold, and Louise. The likelihood that any of them will be alive or, if alive, that they’ll be able to attend my funeral or memorial service is small. Yet I suspect my own children and grandchildren will be there. Some strand of the Palmer DNA will declare me gone. I also live with the hope that, when I die, there will be friends I’ve not met yet to mourn my dying and remember my footsteps on the earth.

I also hope that when Urshel, the first runaway from our chaotic but loving family, died, there was at least one friend with him. One with whom he might have shared the story of that day he jumped over the ash pit in our backyard. One who shed a tear for him in that precise moment. Because he had lost Urshel. Because he knew right away that Urshel was gone.  

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