Joseph E Bird

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

Heather (5)

The fifth installment in the story of Heather. Scroll down to (5) if you want to pick up where you left off.

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. He wore a tattered shirt, open at the collar, and long, white hairs sprouted out like ghostly tumbleweed. His ears had grown large with age and the pores on his swollen nose looked like tiny craters. His hair hadn’t been cut in years, maybe, and wispy strands floated lightly away from his dark and mottled head.

He stared at her intently, unblinking.

His eyebrows grew long in every direction and his eyelids drooped and sagged. Even the jagged red lines running across their sallow background looked tired.

And yet there was something in the way he looked at her.

He knew.

He knew something. Maybe not anything about her specifically. How could he? But he knew.

He knew because he had earned the lines on his face, the pock marks, the thinning, brittle hair. He had lived. He had loved. He had fought and lost. He had fought and won. And he knew.

He wasn’t smiling, not quite, but she knew that it would only take a word or a smile of her own to bring him from the shadows into the warm light of day where he had lived most of his life.

So she smiled. Not that she expected the photograph to come to life. But this man, this stranger who had probably long-since passed, had been that kind of person. The one who stood out in the crowd, not because of his good looks or special station in life, but because he was born with the gift of presence. She was certain that even in his old age, this man had been special and much-loved by those around him.

Of course she didn’t know that, but she believed it. She had to.

Two steps to her right.

A football, its leather worn from years of passes and kicks and fumbles and tackles, ground into the earth so many times that all was left was a downy soft covering that looked like dingy cotton. The strong morning sun highlighted every little tuft. Or maybe it was the evening sun. She had no way of knowing.

Skinny, grubby fingers gripped the ball, dirt under the nails, a fresh scrape across the hand. Eyes – mischievous green eyes – peered over the leather. A burst of vivid red hair on top. Like her own from thirty years ago.

In the background was a small building. A shed, she thought. Then she saw another figure. Someone sitting in a chair. Arms crossed. Though out of focus, she could tell by the way the person sat, her right hand holding her left arm, pensive and uncertain, that it was the boys mother.

Because she had boys, too.

He looked happy, or at least delighted in the moment. Maybe it was the football. Or maybe he was enjoying the attention of the photographer. She couldn’t see the grin on his face but she knew it was there.

Between the boy and his mother she saw the horizontal lines that marked the edge of the asphalt pavement, then a little patch of dirt that was the front yard. A bicycle lay on the ground in front of two car tires. A piece of cardboard leaned against the tires. The words were fuzzy but clear enough to read. For Sale.

He was too young to know he was poor. Maybe he would grow up to be one of those people who didn’t care.

“Here you go, Heather.”

She took the cup, and as she did her hand trembled. Coffee splashed over the sides of the cup, over her fingers, and onto the floor. She took the cup in her other hand, the good hand, the one that had yet to experience the tremors.

“I’m sorry.

Phillip was already on one knee mopping the floor with the towel that he always had over his shoulder.

“My fault. I should have put a lid on it.”

Heather took a napkin from the counter and wiped her hands and then pressed a plastic lid down on the cup. She turned back to the array of prints on the wall.

“Who’s the photographer?”

Phillip looked back at the art deco clock behind the coffee bar. Three thirty. The hospital was one block away. It wasn’t unusual for people to stop by after an appointment. Heather’s visits had become more frequent. But for now, she was the only customer.

“Friend of mine from Columbia. The school, not the country.”

“The school.”

“New York.”

“I know Columbia.”

“Avery Graham.”

“Avery. Sounds Ivy League.”

“We were both political science majors.”

“Of course you were.”

“Neither one of us finished. Avery went to a photography school in North Carolina.”

“He’s really good. So much depth to his work.”

“I’m having a reception for him tonight. You should come by.”

“What about you?”


“After Columbia. The school, not the country.”

He laughed. “A little of this, a little of that.”

“How did you end up here?”

“My ex-wife is from here.”

Heather nodded. “That happens.”

The front door opened and three kids from the Catholic school across the street came in. He started toward the coffee bar.

“What time?”

He looked back as he walked.

“You mean Avery. Seven. Wouldn’t hurt to be a little early.”

Two more students in uniform brushed by as she was leaving.

She’d never been there after dark. She had long ago lost the habit of going out at night.

Not counting, of course, driving to get tacos for the boys on the days she had worked late. Or the trips to the dollar store to get poster paper for Robbie’s forgotten social studies project. Or picking up Micah from his after-school job at the bookstore. Their lives, not hers. Except their lives were hers.

Micah had graduated, married, and moved to Ohio. Robbie was halfway through his first semester at college. At home, not much had really changed. The three had been a quiet family. Micah reading, always reading. Robbie picking out a song on his guitar. She would wash the dishes, maybe spend some time with a word puzzle. There were only a few shows they would watch together. Even when they got older and started to go out, they were still there even when they weren’t.

The night before, she had baked a pan of lasagna that she would never be able to finish. She had read a few pages of the novel she had been trying to read. She had even stayed up and watched the late news, then the first late-night talk show. Because she couldn’t sleep. One of the side effects of her new medication.

So why not go out? Why not go to a coffee shop in the city where she would know no one and probably feel out of place as she sat at table alone? Where the kids whose time is now spoke easily to one another about their jobs and their coffee and their apartments. Where they would lament their hardships of poor pay and Saturdays lost to rain and a meal at the new bistro that wasn’t quite up to their standards.

So why not?

It was a cool evening and from the sidewalk, the glow from inside was warm. As expected, the shop was brimming with youth. She saw a young girl, not Phillip, behind the coffee bar taking an order.

She stepped slowly as she approached. If nothing else, a coffee to go. As she pulled open the door, she heard the music first, then the chatter and clatter of a place alive. At the other end of the room a man stood alone looking completely out of place, yet very much at home. She knew it was Avery.



It was the young girl behind the counter. Smiling a pretty, young-girl smile, her hair too black to be natural, heavy eyeliner, and piercings through her flawless skin. “What can I get you?”

She hadn’t realized she had stopped just in front of the counter, as if ready to order.

The smile never left the young girl’s face. Had it been anyone else behind the counter, even Phillip, she might have declined, but the innocent allure of this gothic cherub was disarming, even comforting, as she stood, hands folded and resting on the counter, projecting both confidence and empathy that came across as a familiar warmth, as someone you might have known for a lifetime.

When Heather returned the smile, the young girl’s face relaxed ever so slightly, as if the greeting of an old friend was about to be replaced by earnest conversation, the girl asking about the boys, or her health, or if she was seeing anyone. Heather would inquire about her classes, her mother, and then ask about the intricate tattoo following the contours of her shoulder.

But none of that happened.

“Just a small coffee.”

“Sure.” One precise, smiling nod. “Dark roast?”

“No. Make it a latte.”


There were no empty tables. No familiar faces. Even Avery had disappeared.

She made her way through the chairs and tables and elbows and legs, holding the latte in her good hand, moving closer to the wall where the pictures – no, not pictures, photographs – were hung in a precise line, a fact she hadn’t appreciated earlier that day but was now made evident as a contrast to the current chaos and disorder of the coffee shop.

The old man in the first frame stared at her as he had earlier. She almost laughed. To her right the boy with the red hair was still smiling behind the football.

She was surprised by the image to its right. A man in a tuxedo standing military straight, his arms crossed, a thin conductor’s baton in his right hand, peaking out from underneath his left arm. He was outside. Downtown, somewhere. To his left, a dog curled up at his feet, oblivious to everything going on around it. But the image was clearly about the conductor’s face, unshaven, a stain of tobacco coloring his greying beard. His hair was brushed back in an attempt to feign a look of distinction, but the smirk on the conductor’s face let the viewer in on the ruse.


She turned to see Avery standing by her side. Taller than she thought when she had first seen him. Thinner, too. The sport coat had given him a few extra pounds from a distance but now she could see the slenderness of his frame, the lean lines of his neck., the smooth olive skin of his face roughened by a salt and pepper stubble.

He didn’t give her a chance to respond.

“His street name. His real name is Charlie or Joe or something like that, but everybody calls him Beethoven. Always playing classical music. He studied at a conservatory up north somewhere. He says he plays the violin and piano, but he went to school to learn composition. He had dreams of conducting his own music.”

“He’s homeless?”

Avery nodded.

“What happened?”

“Drinking. Drugs. Back to drinking.”

“This photo. How? Why?”

“You see this guy on the street. Or someone like him. He’s not a person, just a body. But he is a person. See this kid behind the football?” He points to his left. “Charlie was like him once. We all were.”

“How do you know him?”

“When I was shooting this series, I sought out people like Charlie. Life in the Shadows.”

“Was that his tux?”

Avery laughed. “I rented it for the shoot.

“Did he see the picture?”

“Yeah. He loved it.”

copyright 2016, joseph e bird



sunset darkened 11-2-15 for web

i could write

or watch a ballgame

or work on a project

but it’s October

and every evening

my backyard is lit

in brilliant yellows

and reds

and colors that defy description

another sunset

and another tomorrow

except that’s not true


take it in

because it’s a gift

and it’s ephemeral

copyright 2016, joseph e bird

Sunday Morning



copyright 2016, joseph e bird

the great white north


Actually, no, it’s not Canada. This is the Cranberry Glades in West Virginia. They say that eons ago a glacier created a geographic and climactic anomaly in the high mountains of Pocahontas County. As a result, plant and animal species are found farther south than conventional wisdom would suggest. There are, in fact, cranberries growing in the bog, but if you’re expecting those two guys in hip waders surrounded by thousands of red berries, you’re going to be disappointed. Still, the scenery in this area is spectacular.

And watch out for bears.

copyright 2016, joseph e bird

Our Exotic World

Many of you who stop by here for a word or two are from this area (West Virginia) or near enough to be familiar with the locale. Some of you visit from lands far away. This occurred to my friend, fellow writer, and neighbor a few doors down, Larry Ellis, and he has written a nice little essay about our neck of the woods. You might enjoy getting to know this area through his words and photos.  If so, click here and jump on over to his site.




the road glistens from last night’s rain
trees still dripping
the deck boards soft and brown

she looks out across the fields
let’s go to town
might as well, he says
it’s too wet to plow
steady patters in the gutter
birds talk across the yards
leaves lie resting, brown and shiny

he slides the eggs on the plate
today we should rest
she sips her tea and nods
the work can wait
the rain light and steady
as the pan in the corner catches
the occasional drop through the roof

he nibbles on flatbread and drinks warm water
a crow stands at the open door
he tosses a crumb
the bird plucks it from the ground
and flies away

copyright 2016, joseph e bird

fly on the cornbread

I just returned from a trip with my family to the mountains, and yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the reunion of my wife’s family.  The following was inspired by those two events.

Point of clarification: the cornbread, as well as all of the food, was outstanding.

there’s a fly on the cornbread
and bees in the tea
the chicken’s getting cold

but it don’t matter

the wind has a chill
the sun ain’t been shining
it’s looking like rain

but it don’t matter


photographs on paper
memories that are leaving
we talk about what we knew
and laugh with little grieving

we share a cup of coffee
make plans for our tomorrow
we bring our families with us
and know that love will follow


weary from the journey
too tired to do the hike
we just want to sit a spell

but it don’t matter

we tell the same old stories
and add some new ones, too
the conversation is light

but it don’t matter


photographs on paper
memories that are leaving
we talk about what we knew
and laugh with little grieving

we share a cup of coffee
make plans for our tomorrow
we bring our families with us
and know that love will follow


a brother or an uncle
a sister or an aunt
it’s hard to keep them straight

but it don’t matter

be it birth or be it marriage
they bring us in the fold
to share the food and time together

cause that’s what really matters


photographs on paper
memories that are leaving
we talk about what we knew
and laugh with little grieving

we share a cup of coffee
make plans for our tomorrow
we bring our families with us
and know that love will follow

copyright 2016, joseph e bird

They once lived here.


It’s morning, one hundred years ago.

The men are in the mine. Or working the tipple. Or loading the rail cars.

The women are at home with the children. Or teaching school. Or at the company store.

Deep in the New River gorge, coal mining began in 1873 in the remote town that bears the name of its founder, John Nuttall. For more than 80 years, families lived, worked, and died in Nuttallburg. By 1958, it was all over.

All that remains are the ruins. You can still go there, but the trip itself is a harrowing descent down the steep hills that will burn the brakes of your car. And once there, the isolation is eerie. You can see the coal tipple and almost hear its noisy operation echoing through the valley. There’s nothing of the company store other than its foundation. Likewise with the houses that once grew from the hillside. Try to imagine the mothers and kids playing on the dusty paths as they scraped together a life that was as hard as the sandstone their husbands used to build the town. There was probably a doctor to tend to the illness and injuries, and a preacher to tend to those who didn’t recover.

Listen. Hear their voices. They once lived here.

From the tipple, the conveyor disappears into the forest, where the men of Nuttallburg loaded coal that would help power the country.
The natural process will not be stopped.


company store.jpg
All that’s left of the company store.
And the sun still rises where children once played.

Over at True North Nomad, Lily Burgess writes about her adventures through wild and wonderful Canada. The other day she published a story about a ghost town in Ontario which reminded me of my visits to Nuttallburg.  Check out her work.

the band


My music career started early.

When I was 11, my family was living in Houston and I got together with the guys in photo and formed my first band. Ok, my only band. We had a name but I don’t remember what it was. The guys, however, I think about all the time.

From left to right:

Ricky Pinton, guitar player, I think, in addition to maracas. His nickname was Pinto Beans.

Randy Crabb, singer, bongo player. I think those were my bongos that I got on a trip to Mexico. I liked his older sister, Cheryl.

Lance Berg. He’s holding a drumstick and a snare drum, so yeah, he’s the drummer.

In center front is Scott Bert, singer. Older brother of Lance. The Bergs were talented. Scott wrote our first original song, Made a Mistake. More on that in a minute.

In the second photo, the kid holding the Polaroid Swinger camera was me. The picture was taken on my birthday and the camera was probably a gift. I’m guessing my older sister, Adele, took the picture.

I was a guitar player.

The kid in the doorway with the cat-eye glasses is my younger sister, Sarah. She’s always been on the cutting edge of fashion. Not sure if she was a fan.

We played two songs, Little Red Riding Hood (which is the same chord progression as House of the Rising Sun, so if you know one, you know the other) and Wipeout. And then there was Made a Mistake, which consisted of counting by five until Scott purposely made a mistake in the sequence. Then the hook, made a mistake, made a mistake, made a mistake. About as bad a song as one could write.

And yet, this was the peak of my musical career. That tells you all you need to know about my level of talent. I still play Little Red Riding Hood and Wipeout occassionally, and since then and I’ve learned a few more chords. But I’m just a pretender, a hack wannabe living in the glow of those glory days in Houston. We played one gig, the big going away party for our family just before we moved back to West Virginia. It was a short set.

And I never saw the guys again. That’s the way it is in the entertainment biz. Fame is fleeting. Everything is fleeting.

Carpe diem.


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