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Joseph E Bird

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Johnny B. Goode

We’re a little late,
but still there before
most everyone else.

They’re setting up,
these two guitar players,
these two singers.

One of their microphones
isn’t working,
so I run home and get one of mine.

.

Can you play Wipeout?
Standard question
back in the 60s.

And we played it.
At least a ragged version.
We were just kids.

Hey there Little Red Riding Hood
You sure are looking good
You’re everything that a big bad wolf could want.

.

I plug the mic in.
More people are here now.
They play some classic folk-rock

These two friends
are good by themselves,
even better together.

One of the boys joins in,
then a drummer
with a cajon.

.

There is a house
in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun

Same chords,
same progression
as Little Red Riding Hood.

We only knew a few songs.
Never got any good,
never played a coffee house.

.

The place is packed now.
I can’t even see the guys
for all the people.

Their sound is getting lost
in the conversations
and laughter.

They’re having a blast.
Their tip jar has a few bucks
and they’re still going strong.

.

Busted flat in Baton Rouge.
Waiting for a train,
and feeling near as faded as my jeans.

I can almost get it.
But not quite.
Not quite.

Salina, I’m as nowhere as I can be.
I play along as Scott and Seth
sing through the tinny speaker on my phone.

.

But these guys tonight are
playing real music,
in real time, and they’re really good.

The rhythms are right,
the chords are strong,
and the songs are great.

But it’s time to leave,
and as the glass door closes behind us,
we hear Johnny B. Goode tonight.

 

heather – final edit

I’ve finished editing my novel, Heather Girl.  I eliminated all of the adverbs, all of the cliches, all of the unrealistic dialogue, all of the exposition, all of the backstory narrative, the non-engaging beginning, all of the parts where the author intrudes on the story, all of the parts that don’t develop the character or move the story forward, all of the simply boring parts, and the inconclusive ending.  In its place is a new, happy ending.  Here is the novel in its entirety.


Heather Girl

Heather is sick and is mad at her father.   Her father has Alzheimer’s.  So nothing really gets resolved.

And then she found five dollars.

The End.


Thank you all for playing along.  Unfortunately, there are no parting gifts.

joe

black as night and twice as scary

He took another drink of coffee.

“I think a lot about that guy I hit upside the head with the shovel. Think about how I ruined his life. Destroyed his family. I feel bad. And you don’t know the depth of how bad. Cause there’s nothing I can do. I did it. It’s done.”

“Look, Darnell.”

He ignored her.

“When they sent me to prison, I just wanted to survive, like I told you before. That’s why I was lucky to find Pops. Do my time under his wing. Yes, ma’am, I was real lucky.”

She didn’t even try to stop him.

“But prison turns you into yourself. By that I mean, you have so much time to yourself, you can’t help but to think about things. Now the old guys, guys like Pops, they just live moment to moment. They know their time has come and gone and all they care about is their next cup of joe. But everyone else thinks about themselves. Why they did what they did. Whether they meant to or not. And how bad they think themselves is. They look inside and see that dark speck on their soul. And generally, it goes one of two ways. A lot of guys see that dark speck and think that’s who they really are. And they accept it. And that dark speck grows until it eventually just takes over. Black, Miss Heather. Black as night and twice as scary.”

“And you went the other way.”

“I know I did wrong and I can’t do nothing to change it.”

“What am I supposed to do, just pretend none of this ever happened? Forgive and forget? I’ll forget when he’s gone.”

“No you won’t.”

“It’ll be a step in the right direction.”

“There’s two kinds of forgiveness. The one where you suck it up and forgive the one that done you wrong.  That can’t happen unless he comes to you and tells you he’s sorry.  Even then, it’s a hard thing to do.  But your daddy can’t do that.  I mean, he can’t even remember what he did.  Before he went all loose in the head, he had that dark speck, and it was growing.  It was slow, but it was getting worse. By and by it gave way to mindlessness. But that ain’t what I’m talking about, anyways.”

“Good.  Because that’s not going to happen.”

“See, that first kind of forgiveness is for the benefit of the one that done the wrong.  So that he can move on.  The other kind is for the one that was done wrong to. God says to let it go and let him be the judge.”

“Really? You’re preaching to me now, Booger?”

“I ain’t preaching. Just telling you truth.”

“Well, thank you for that. I’ll take it under advisement.”

“You’ll be dead soon, too.”

“What the hell, Darnell?”

He shrugged. “We all will be. You have Huntington. I might drop dead of a heart attack sitting here at this table. Then again, we might have twenty years ahead of us. Maybe more. That’s a lot of time for that dark speck to grow. Best to let that bitterness go.”

“You think I’m bitter?”

“Best to let it go.”

“That’s easy to say when you have a future.”

He didn’t have an answer for that. As much as he screwed up his life, and in spite of his dire predictions of death at the kitchen table, it was very likely that Booger had another thirty or forty years to do something with his life. So, yeah, choosing a positive outlook made sense.

But his sermon had nothing to do with her situation. She was dying. In so many ways.


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

a bird lights on the ground

we sit
the two of us
at a table outside
on this warm evening

there’s not much to be said
because we’ve spent our words
and must wait for others
to come forth
and they will
because they always do

so we listen
to the birds flitting
in the trees
and the cars driving by
and to the people around us
talking

and we hear words spoken
but not sentences
and not stories
their words are simply
sounds that soften
the edges of our silence

the nothingness
is peace itself
and it holds us still
and a bird lights on the ground
next to our feet
and cocks its head

at the next table
a young girl offers the bird a crumb
and the young man who is with her smiles
and though they talk
we hear nothing
but their easy voices

and we sit
the two of us
at a table outside
on this warm evening


copyright 2018, joseph e bird

missing

empty bench 2

He used to come by every couple of weeks.

My office has a back door to the alley, and every so often I’d hear the thump, thump, thump, and I knew it was Keith because no one else ever knocked on the door.  He lives in a high-rise in Dunbar, a couple of towns over.  He takes the bus to St. Albans, sometimes to Charleston.  You used to see him everywhere.  He’d show up at church on Sunday mornings, but never went inside to hear the sermon.  He’d stay out in the narthex with the ushers.  I sensed he never felt comfortable among the Sunday best.

When he’d show up during the week, I’d go to the back door when I heard his knock and we’d catch up for a couple of minutes.  He’d tell me about his daughter, who like him, battled addiction.  We’d talk about his counselor, Lisa, who seemed to be very good to him.  Helped him get through the everyday tasks of life, like keeping groceries in his apartment and making sure he had a good coat for the winter.

“What are you up to today?” I’d ask.

“I guess I’ll go back to Serenity Club,” was a common answer.  The Serenity Club, I gathered, was a safe place for those battling addiction to go and hang out.  Back near his high-rise.

I’d give him a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee and off he’d go.

Halfway down the alley he’d turn and yell, “Thank you, Joe.”  He was appreciative.

But he’s been missing.

I didn’t seem him through last winter.  Probably just staying in, I told myself.  Then spring became summer and I realized that I hadn’t heard his knock on the door for some time.  I began asking around.  Nobody had seen him.  He has relatives who go to our church but no one knew anything about him.

A few weeks ago I drove to Dunbar.  I knew where the Serenity Club was so I drove around the neighborhood looking for him.  Nothing.

This past Tuesday my wife and I were in Dunbar visiting an old neighbor in the nursing home.  We drove by the Serenity Club.  A man and a woman sat on a bench in the alley.  I parked the car and approached them.

“Is the Serenity Club around here?”  I asked, even though I was pretty sure of its location.

“You’re looking at it,” he answered as he thumbed to the building behind him.

“I’m looking for a friend who used to come here.  Keith.”  I told him his last name.

“Never heard of him.  What’s he look like?”

“In his 70s, I think.  Not too tall.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.  How long ago was he here?”

I didn’t really know.  I told him I thought he had been coming for years.  Keith is not the kind of guy you easily forget.

We drove to the high-rise.  A half dozen people sat outside under the entry canopy.  I asked the same question.  I got puzzled looks in response.  Nobody knew Keith.  As if he had never existed.

I got back in the car and circled the lot.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a man walking down the sidewalk beside the high-rise.

“There he is!”

I stopped.  My wife got out.

“Keith!  Where have you been?” she says.

He stops.  He looks confused.  “Who are you?”

I’m thinking this isn’t a good sign.

“It’s Joe and Gloria.”

“Oh.  Hey.  What are you doing here?”  Turns out it was just the sun in his eyes keeping him from recognizing us.

I tell him the story.  That we’ve been looking for him.  Been missing him.  Told him I stopped by the Serenity Club but nobody knew Keith.

“Nobody knows me as Keith.  They know me as Harry.”

“Harry?”

“Keith is my middle name.  I go by Harry.”

All these years, I’ve called him Keith.  Everyone I know who knows him calls him Keith.  He’s never corrected us.  Even his relatives call him Keith.  And then I realize that those who really know him, those who live with him, those with whom he spends his days, call him Harry.

So we spend a few minutes catching up.  He fell sometime in the last year and busted his knee cap.  He seems to be completely recovered but he doesn’t travel around like he used to.  Just stays around the high-rise and the Serenity Club.

His daughter died.  I didn’t ask how, just assumed she finally lost her battle.  Keith is still winning his.  Twenty-three years coming up in a week or so.  His anniversary date is also his birthday.

He’s had a hard life.  The roller coaster, as he says.  It’s worn on him.  You can see it in his eyes.  But if you look closer, you can see the warmth, too.  There’s a kindness about him.

He introduces us to some of his friends at the high-rise.  Friends from church, he calls us.  We all have a laugh about the Keith-Harry confusion.  It’s clear they like Harry.  He seems happy and content.

We give him a few dollars to celebrate his upcoming anniversary/birthday.  We promise to come back and see him.  As we leave, Keith gives us a wave.  But he’s Harry now, back among those who know him best.

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.

 

 

 

 

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