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Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

I could have been shot dead.

cigarette red glow for web

And that’s no exaggeration.  Bullets flew that night.  Things like that go bad all the time.

People die.

It could have been me.

*   *   *

Seems like every night it’s something else.

A loaf of bread.  A gallon of milk.  Something sweet.  Cookies, probably.  Chips Ahoy.

Not that I really mind.  Gets me away from the craziness of the apartment complex.  And I enjoy the walk.  It’s been cooler than usual for late summer in Houston.

Everybody’s out.  Either in the courtyard or on their balconies.  They’re always out.  Kids running everywhere.

Marvin and Shirley are sitting in their lawn chairs, their feet up on the railing.  I say hello and make my way to the steps at the other end of the balcony.  One of the twins sticks her head through the railing and watches, smiling.  Randy climbs over the rail and slides down the pole, then runs off across the courtyard.  Music is blaring from one of the apartments.  The Beatles, I think.  I never cared much about music.  But everybody’s crazy about the Beatles.

The 7-11’s just down the street.  Another couple of blocks away is the freeway.  I can hear the whine of tires on pavement.  It’s a busy neighborhood, but there’s never been much trouble.  At least not in the two years we’ve been here. I like Houston.  A lot different than the hills of West Virginia where I’m from, and where my family longs to return.  But I like it here.

I leave the apartment complex and walk down the sidewalk, the green and red sign of the store just ahead.  A kid on a motorcycle flies by.  He pops a wheelie.  Impudent snob. A man approaches.  He stops in front of me and I brace myself, not sure what’s about to happen.

“Hey, buddy.”

“Hey,” I say.  I don’t know this guy.  I don’t know why he calls me buddy.  We’ve never met.

“Got any spare change?”

Spare change?  Like change I don’t need?  Change I was just going to throw away when I got home?

He’s acting kind of squirrely.  I reach into my pocket and give him what I had in spare change.  Fifty some-odd cents.

“Thanks, brother.”

Brother?  Not hardly.  He heads on down the sidewalk.  I figure I’ll see him at the 7-11 in a few minutes buying beer.

There are a few cars in the parking lot.  Everybody needs something.  Everybody’s got to be somewhere.  At least that’s Duane’s line.

Duane lives down on the ground level of the apartments.  Always has a story to tell.  Like the time he was fooling around with another guy’s wife and the guy comes home unexpectedly.  Duane hides in the closet, but eventually the husband finds him, opens the closet door, and there’s Duane.

“What are you doing in the closet?”

“Everybody’s got to be somewhere.”

And then Duane laughs.  Laughs hard.  The story is made up, just for the punch line.  That’s Duane.

I pull open the door to the 7-11 and go inside.  I turn right, heading for the cooler where the milk is.

And then I see Duane.  Lying on the floor.  Flat out on his stomach.  Like he’s sighting something.  And he’s smoking a cigarette.

I’m just about to ask him what he’s doing when someone yells.

“Get down on the floor!”

I turn and look and see this guy.  He’s scruffy, week-old beard, long, stringy hair, eyes on fire.

He has a gun.  He points it at me.

You think I would have complied with his request, being the rational engineer that I am.  You think I would have immediately understood the situation, processed all of the information available, and joined Duane on the floor.

But, no.

For some reason my brain goes into lockdown.

“What?”

“I said get on the floor!”

He glares at me.

Ok. Yeah. On the floor.

“Hey, Duane.”

I didn’t actually say that. But we make eye contact.  Duane is still smoking his cigarette.

I still don’t know what’s going on.

“Open the safe!”  Same guy, yelling at the clerk.

Now I get it.  It’s a robbery.  A hold-up, as they used to say in the old black-and-white tv shows.  He could have just said that. It would have saved a lot of confusion.

This is a hold-up!

They should make that a rule.  Put it in the Handbook of Convenience Store Robbery: Best Practices for Hold-ups.

I hear the clerk answer.  “I can’t open the safe.”

Hmmm.  Not good.

“Open it!”

Then a ruckus.  I can’t see what’s going on.

Then three shots.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

You have no idea how loud a gun can be until you hear one fired inside a 7-11.
My ears are ringing.  And now I realize how bad this could be.  I picture the clerk bleeding on the floor.

Duane and I are next.

Shot in the back, execution style, the article in the Houston Post would read.

The cigarette falls from Duane’s mouth.  It’s lying on the floor, smoke trailing up in a soft swirl.  Duane’s scared. I can see it.

Another shot.

Did he just shoot someone else?

I hear something mechanical.  Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.

“Dang it!”

For a robber, he sure uses polite expletives.

Then I see feet and legs running to the front of the store.  The robber, I’m guessing.  He bursts through the door, runs across the parking lot, and disappears down the street.

All is quiet.  So quiet.

I look back at Duane.  He’s completely pale.

“Is everybody ok?”

It’s the clerk.  I raise my head and look around.  I look up at the counter.

“He’s gone,” the clerk says.

By the time I get to my feet the clerk is on the phone calling the police.  Duane’s nowhere to be seen, his cigarette still smoking on the floor.  Everybody’s got to be somewhere.  Duane’s somewhere is somewhere else, apparently. Can’t say that I blame him.

The clerk’s off the phone now.

“He was trying to get in the floor safe.”

He points to a small, square steel plate on the floor.  I can see dings where the bullets hit.

“Wow.”  Not much of a comment, but it’s all I had.

“I thought he was going to shoot me,” he says.

“I thought we were all goners.”

He reaches under the counter and produces one of those curved bottles of liquor that fit nicely in the inside pocket of a jacket.  He takes a long swig.

“Want a shot?”

“I don’t drink.” I have to admit, I was kind of wishing I did, right about then.

“Cops are on their way.”

“Yeah.”

The front door opens.  A guy walks up to the counter.  Asks for a pack of Marlboros. The clerk pulls the pack from the rack.

“37 cents,” he tells him.

The guy pays and leaves the store.

Ok. Back to normal.

Loaf of bread.  Gallon of milk.  Almost forgot the cookies.  Chips Ahoy.

*   *   *

I could have been shot dead.

I told the story when I got back to the apartments.  Told it to Marvin and Shirley.  Told it to my family.  But I walked in carrying cookies and milk. How bad could it have been?

Fifty years ago, this happened.  Fifty years.  Where has the time gone?

I can tell the story for fun, now.  Play it up for the laughs.  Duane on the floor.  Me not getting it at first.

My hearing’s bad; my memory’s worse.

But I still remember.  I still hear those shots.  I was never so glad to get back to the craziness of the apartments.


story copyright 2018, joseph e bird
photo copyright 2018, joseph e bird
cigarette courtesy of downtown jeanne brown


Note: The story you have just read is a fictionalized account of a true event.  While living in Houston, my father was witness to the 7-11 robbery.  And Duane (not his real name) was really lying on the floor smoking a cigarette.  Shots were fired.  No one was injured.

the genius of Andrew Spradling

Harper Stowe.

Exhibit A in the case for the genius of Andrew Spradling.  The name of the female protagonist in his novel-in-progress.  She’s a detective.  Even now, you’re painting the picture of Harper Stowe.  That’s what a good name can do.  Genius.

Hilton Head.

Exhibit B.  The setting.  The vacation destination of choice for the moneyed crowd.  The beautiful people.  The extravagant homes.  The attitude of privilege.  Rich in possibilities.  Genius.

The Killer.

Yeah, it’s that kind of story.  Why else would you need Harper Stowe?  But Andy takes us inside the killer’s head with first-person vignettes that are chilling.  Exhibit C.  Genius.

The Obituary.

Obituaries used to be written by a professional at the newspaper.  Now they’re written by a family member.  Some are good, most are soon forgotten.  There is one such forgettable obituary in Andy’s story.  As I was reading it as part of the Shelton College Review, I was wondering why it was included in the novel.  It was written by the killer.  About his wife.  And in the obituary, dripping with the usual sentiment and over-stated tribute to the lost loved-one, are subtle glimpses into the the killer’s psyche.  I wonder if Harper Stowe will notice.  Yeah.  Cause she’s Harper Stowe.  Genius.

This is going to be a good one.  Probably be finished in time for next summer’s beach trip.  Just don’t take a copy to Hilton Head.

 

life above the common

Mohler1911
Mohler House, St. Albans, WV, 1911

Life above the common.

I really like that phrase.  I stole it from Larry Ellis.  It’s the theme of his novel-in-progress about Rachel, a young woman, who, upon the death of her husband, faces a choice.  She can either take her life insurance proceeds and live the good life sipping margaritas on the beach, or do something far more risky in the hope of building a life with meaning and purpose, one whose legacy will endure long after she is gone.   For Rachel, there is no choice.

She’ll buy the house – the house that once was a symbol of everything that was right and good about her town – and sink her savings into its restoration.  Not for her own vain pleasure, and not for the sake of an unrealistic nostalgic vision, but for the people of Walhonde, who may see in its restoration as a home, who may see in its revitalization as a community cornerstone, a shining example of what can be achieved when the choice is made to live life above the common.

It’s not the easy choice.  It’s the idea reflected in the West Point Cadet Prayer.

“Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”


Larry’s novel is inspired by the real-life Mohler House, located in our small town of St. Albans, West Virginia.  In the novel, the name of the town is changed to Walhonde.  Though a tale of fiction, Larry weaves historical facts about the house into the narrative which occurs in the present, but is supported by the legacy of the men and women who shaped the town – and the world – in the early 1900s.   You can read excerpts here.

margaritaville is not for everyone

nibbling on sponge cake
watching the sun bake

Sure, that’s one way to go.

His plan was to resign as Vice President of the largest engineering firm in the state and start his own company.

Then came the unexpected diagnosis: cancer.  The prognosis was not good.

He could have stayed put.  He had good insurance, made good money.  He would have the support of the entire company as he started his fight for life.  It would have been the easier path.  But Harvey Chapman seldom chose the easier path.

He left anyway.  He started the company from a spare bedroom in his house.

He landed a couple of projects and quickly hired some help.  It was hard, grueling work with long hours.  Add chemotherapy to the mix.

One evening he was going to an interview for another project, his young employee driving as he sat in the passenger seat going over his presentation notes.

“Pull over,” he said.

On the shoulder of the road, he opened his door and vomited.  After a couple of minutes, he put himself back in order and closed the door.

“Let’s go.”

They got the project.

It would go on like that for twelve years.  More treatments.  Bone marrow transplants.  Experimental procedures.  The company grew.  He bought a historic building and renovated it to house his thirty-some employees.  He ran 15-mile road races.  He got married.  At times he would feel great; other times he was kicking death away.   But he was always looking for the next challenge.

He pushed his employees hard.  Starting a company from the ground floor is no easy thing and he needed people to be committed.  But there was more to it than that.  He saw their potential.  He saw that they could do great things if they made the right choices.  As he had.

Not that he never made mistakes.  But the one choice he made over and over again that was always the right choice, was to live life above the common.  To choose, not necessarily the easy path, but the right path.  To sacrifice the moment’s pleasure, for the promise of a future with meaning.  He went through the Air Force flight training.  He didn’t have to.  He flew C-130s for the Air National Guard, even while he was running his company.  He didn’t have to.  He gave his employees generous bonuses and cared for their families.  He didn’t have to.

Cancer eventually won.  That was 22 years ago.  The company he started still bears his name.

I don’t know what his last thoughts were, but I know he had to be content.  It sounds cliche to say he fought to the end, but he did.  And not so he could go sip margaritas on a beach somewhere.  No, if he would have rebounded again, he would have been back at work, ready for the next challenge.

Ready to again live life above the common.

 

 

 

 

80,099

words.

words arranged in sentences.

sentences into paragraphs.

paragraphs into chapters.

chapters into a novel.

first sentence:

The lines in his face looked like furrows in the dirt, deep and irregular, grey and dusty, as if someone had made a half-hearted attempt to start a garden in a barren corner of the earth, and then just given up.

last sentence:

She pushed the joy stick and her chair turned and she looked at Lucas, smiling as best she could, and knowing that he wouldn’t be able to understand her, told him she loved him, knowing that he understood her perfectly.

the space in between:

well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

 

Lucas

If she were being truthful – and she wasn’t – she would have acknowledged that she was calling just to hear his crazy Cajun-Jersey accent, his easy and relaxed way of talking, to imagine his comfortable, confident masculinity, his close-cut hair, his stubbled beard, his crooked smile, his worn t-shirt and his muscled arms weathered from years on the rig, his jeans hanging loosely on his hips, his sneakers, white at one time, but now a dirty gray from days on the pier and the beach and the sidewalks of Galveston. If she were being truthful, she would have told him that she just needed an excuse, any excuse, to call, because her days were few and her opportunities to smile were fewer, and it had been so long since she even had a reason to smile and that simply hearing his voice had accomplished that and more, and she knew right then that she wanted to see him, to be in his company, and that she would, even if she had to steal a car and drive to Galveston.


copyright 2018, joseph e bird, from the novel Heather Girl.

miracles

mountain sun

“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may not be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”

― William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace


photo-art copyright 2016, gloria m bird

john

He is severely disabled.

It’s obvious just from watching him for a few minutes.

His walk looks painful.  He knees come together in an angle that is not in the least bit natural. He stops, and then one of his knees moves out in the opposite direction, poking sideways through his filthy trousers.

He’s picking up something in the parking lot.  A stray coin, maybe?  A valuable scrap of  something.  He moves on, slowly.  Near a light pole, he stops and puts his collection on top of the concrete base of the light pole.  Some he tosses back onto the parking lot.

I’ve seen him around town before.  One Sunday he just walked out in the middle of traffic to cross the street.  His disability is not only physical, it’s mental.

We’re in line at KFC.  Yes, we eat there a lot.  Good chicken.

This particular KFC is not in the affluent part of town.  Not that there is an affluent part of my town.  But it’s near the homeless shelter.  Near St. Mark’s where lunches are provided to those in need.  Near the bridges, where some choose to make their homes.

Should we buy him something to eat? my wife asks.

I don’t know. 

I didn’t know if he would take it.  Didn’t know if he would just cuss us.  Didn’t even know if he really needed it.

We place our order. Just for us.

At the window, we ask if they know anything about the guy wandering the parking lot.

That’s John, she says.  We give him something to eat every day.

She asks us to pull up while our order is prepared.

John’s off to the side of us now, emptying his pockets on the sidewalk.  Just stuff.  Rocks.  Dirt.  Who knows what.

She brings our food.

John, are you ready to eat?

He nods.  He mills around a bit before they go inside.

One other time I was inside at this store and there was an older gentleman with a cane.  He was not as bad off as John.  Seemed like he had all his faculties, as they say, but life had not been generous to him.  The manager asked what he wanted.  A cola, he answered.  He reached in his pocket for some change.  The manager waved him off.

Don’t worry about it.

The folks working at this KFC are probably making minimum wage, maybe a little more.  They don’t have a lot of money to spare.  And the store itself is probably working on razor-thin margins. Giving away food is not in their best interests.

And yet they do.

Let others fight about borders and immigration and gun control and geopolitics.

Our neighbor is in need.

Our neighbor needs something to eat.

An Iraqi, an Iranian, an Italian, and two Americans.

Not the beginning of a joke.

Not the beginning of a tragic story.

Not the beginning of a world-changing summit.

Just strangers meeting in an Italian coffee shop in West Virginia, of all places.

Joe and Gloria, the Americans, trying gelato for the first time. They take their little dessert cups to the sunroom and wait for their coffee. It’s a cozy little room with seating that’s just right to encourage conversation, even with people you don’t know.

Enter Nadia and Ester. Young ladies in their twenties. We exchange hellos and other pleasantries.

Ester is outgoing; Nadia a little more quiet.

Gloria is outgoing; Joe a little more quiet.

So Ester and Gloria talk. Ester says she will soon begin working at the Italian coffee shop we are now in. Gloria inquires about her accent. Persian, she says, but everyone thinks she’s Italian because she currently works at a local pizzeria. She is from Iran. Nadia is from Iraq. They’ve been in the United States a few years, each coming under different circumstances. They met here and became friends.

Gradually, Joe and Nadia enter the conversation. They all talk about language (Farsi, Arabic, English, and Mandarin), they talk about work, they talk about coffee. They don’t talk about politics.

Until Roberto walks into the room. He can’t help himself. He owns this coffee shop and has worked hard to make it a success. He’s a successful business person. He’s a nice guy and is very, very outgoing. And he has a heart for the less fortunate. He expresses his heart in terms of worldwide political and economic philosophies.

The others listen, the others being the Iranian, the Iraqi, and the two Americans. Geopolitics is beyond their realm of understanding, really. What countries do is beyond their control. They speak of respect for individuals and love and taking care of your neighbor in need. That’s all.

Ester says she is blessed to be in America. Joe says America is blessed to have her.

Roberto would have gone on all night, spirited man that he is. But it’s time to go. Roberto is very pleased with the international exchange that has just occurred. Everyone seems pleased. There are smiles all around. Nadia gives Gloria a hug.

We’re different. We’re the same. We have different perspectives, but we all want the same thing.

Just to live a life with meaning.

This is what the world should be.


Editor’s Note:  This is a true story.  The names have been changed to respect privacy.

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