Joseph E Bird

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


October 2014

Cold Mountain

Editor’s Notes:  WARNING!  Do not read this if you’re feeling a little down and questioning your self-worth.  This won’t do you any good at all.  I read Cold Mountain a few years ago and always liked this passage, even if it’s a bit of a bummer.


“Like the vast bulk of people, the captives would pass from the earth without hardly making any mark more lasting than plowing a furrow.  You could bury them and knife their names onto an oak plank and stand it up in the dirt, and not one thing — not their acts of meanness or kindness or cowardice or courage, not their fears or hopes, not the features of their faces — would be remembered even as long as it would take the gouged characters in the plank to fade away.  They walked therefore bent, as if bearing the burden of lives lived beyond recognition.”

Charles Frazier, from Cold Mountain


Author’s Notes:  This story is told from the perspective of a young adult and reflects his world and the things he is struggling with as a result of decisions he has made.  There are offensive words but I feel in this story, with these characters, they are warranted.  And the story doesn’t wrap up neatly with a satisfying conclusion – kind of like real life.  This is a story that’s supposed to make you think about things.


Man, that crazy nappyhead could play.

Chill. Those are Jupie’s words, not mine. I’m just an old nappyhead, he would say to me. And then he’d tear off a screaming riff on that old Les Paul. Just crazy.

Then I had to go and kill him.

It makes me sick to think about it. I mean really sick. Not just puking sick but a hurt so bad in my gut that it feels like my stomach has been eaten away.   Bad enough what happened; even worse what happened after. I wonder if I would feel so sick if I was in jail instead of Pinky.

I’m a pretty good guitar player, too, you know. Not like Jupie, but not bad considering how lon­­g I’ve been playing. I just turned nineteen. When all this started, I was underage. Too young to be in bars, but that’s where the music was.

Barrett’s Landing – that’s where I’m from – doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife. Me and Pink tried what was there, Fat A’s, Upstairs, even Jimmy’s, but all they ever had were cover bands and beach music. Which is really jacked considering there’s no beach within five hundred miles of Barrett’s Landing. There is a river, but no beach.

I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was fifteen. A pretty decent Strat knock-off, good action and a sharp tone. I started taking lessons from a guy at church on Sunday nights and I caught on pretty quick. After a few months I was good enough to play with the church band. That really made my daddy happy. He’s the preacher.


I went to see Pinky last week. They just built the state prison a few years ago, so I had in mind that it would be a little like my old high school, which was pretty new, too.

My old high school was a waste. My daddy made me finish my senior year at the Robert F. Kennedy Youth Center in Virginia. RFK was different. Not like Riverside at all. I kind of liked RFK.

I was nervous when I checked in with the guard outside the parking lot and told him I was there to see Pinky. He looked at me like I was a smartass or something, but I caught my own bad and turned it right.   Greg Matusik, I told him. I don’t know how he got the name Pinky. That’s what we called him in junior high. He was always Pinky. Or Pink. I never even thought of it as queer until I said it out loud to the guard.

He gave me a visitor’s pass and waved me through. I looked out over the prison as I walked toward the visitor’s entrance and felt a little better about the whole thing. The buildings looked new and not that different from Riverside, except for the tiny windows. And the two chain-link fences topped with twisted rows of razor wire.

I walked toward the two-story building with the glass front. I really didn’t have a choice. It was the only building you could get to from the parking lot. Inside, I showed my visitor’s pass to a lady behind thick glass and another door opened, leading to a tiny lobby. The lady asked me more questions and had me fill out some forms, and then told me to wait in one of the chairs by the wall until an officer came for me. It wasn’t so bad. Kind of like waiting to see one of the school counselors.

After a few minutes I heard a click and a guard came through one of the doors on the other side of the lobby. He called my name and motioned for me to come with him. He wasn’t even wearing a gun, which made me feel good. After I went through the door I put my keys and cell phone in a plastic bucket and walked through a metal detector – just like high school – and another guard waved a wand around me. Nothing beeped and they took me into another room.

At first it reminded me of our Resource Room – the library – except that instead of computers at each work station there was more of that thick glass. There were maybe a dozen stations, but only two people in the room. On the other side of the glass were prisoners. One was a kid who didn’t look that much older than me. He looked scared. And sad. The other was a black dude, an older guy, probably forty or fifty.

The guard told me to sit at one of the stations and after a few minutes, a door on the other side of the glass opened and a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit sat down across from me. It took me that long to recognize him.

It had only been a month since I saw him but that had been on television. My lawyer didn’t think I should go to his trial, even after my acquittal. So the last time I saw him had been on the news after his conviction. He didn’t look so good then, but at least he looked like Pink.

A month later, his long blond hair was gone, shaved to the scalp. His eyes looked tired and heavy with dark rings that seemed to pull down on his skin. Under the short sleeve of his orange jumpsuit was a patch of red swollen skin. He slouched in his chair like the punks in high school used to do. Except Pinky was never a punk.

“How you doing, Pink?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Yeah. Sorry.” The awkwardness of those first few words made me realize that I hadn’t even talked to Pink since that night. “What’s wrong with your arm?”

He glanced at the wound and rubbed his hand over it. “What do you want, David?”

He looked at me. Right in the eyes. He never used to do that. He has dark brown eyes. I had to look away.

“I’m sorry it all ended up like this,” I said. “I never thought you and I would do any time. I thought it would all fall on Ansil.”

“Well you were half right.”

“I’m sorry, Pink.”

“Don’t be sorry, David. You can’t help it. Guys like me and Ansil were born to take the fall. At least we’re doing our time now.   I hope you burn in hell. Maybe you should talk to your old man about that. See what he thinks.”

“Pink, I’m sorry.”

But he was already walking away.

About a half mile outside the prison, I pulled off the side of the road and threw up.


Jupie must have had a dozen guitars, most of them pretty good. That night, as I waited for the cops, I played his Les Paul. It’s unbelievable. An early 50’s model. I haven’t touched a guitar since.


I’ve got an apartment out on the highway. It’s small and noisy but nobody bothers me. My folks said I could stay with them as long as I wanted, but I don’t think they meant it. It was best for everyone for me to leave. I got a job at Wal-Mart, which is ok for now, but I’m going to look for something better. Long-term, who knows. I always thought I’d play music. But every time I think about playing, all I can hear is Jupie. And then I see him dead.


I’m the one that actually pulled the trigger. I killed Jupie. But Ansil is the one doing life. Pink got ten years for accessory. And I walked. How jacked is that? Daddy used to tell me life wasn’t fair.


You know what’s funny? After what happened, after the mess I got into and how I screwed up, I shouldn’t have any friends. But I got plenty. Always have. People like me. I wonder if they really knew, would they still like me.

I went to church last night for the first time in a few years. Not my daddy’s church, but one of those little churches you see tucked away in the trees up on a hill. My daddy started out in a little church like that. Everybody says he’s a really good preacher. I guess he is. People come from all over to join his church. He’s on television and radio, too.

I gave up church because it just seems so jacked. I’ve got a lot of friends with different beliefs and they all say they’re the ones who are right, the others are going to hell. I was born in a Christian family. Kanti’s family is Hindu. I don’t have any Jewish friends. A couple of guys I know at RFK are into Islam.   Who am I to say that because they’re not Christian they’re going to hell? I’m glad I’m not God. Let him sort it all out.

The preacher last night was an old dude, I mean really old. When it came time to preach he looked like he could barely walk to the pulpit and when he started preaching he was mumbling so low I could hardly hear him. He looked out over the congregation as he spoke and I think he noticed me. I don’t know if he recognized me from the news or just saw an unfamiliar face, but I know he saw me.

He preached about King David. Was that a coincidence? I doubt it. And that old man really got wound up. Ten minutes into it he was banging his fist on the pulpit and that voice was booming all over that little church.   No, he was preaching at me. Preaching forgiveness.

I’d heard the story before. King David hooks up with Bathsheba, who’s married, and gets pregnant by David. Eventually she has the kid, and David, not wanting to spoil his sweet gig, has her husband killed. In the end, David walks. The old man preacher says David repented and God forgave him. That’s it? He stays King? He doesn’t do any time? And everybody says David is the greatest king ever? That’s jacked.


If it hadn’t been for me, Pink would have never even been in the Corner Lounge. Like I said, Barrett’s Landing had no music, so I started checking out places in Wheeling, just up the river. First time I heard Jupie at the Corner I was blown away. The place was packed. We had sat through a couple of blues sets and I was ready to leave when Jupie took the stage. I didn’t expect much. Jupie was a little dude, kind of old and bent over. He sat on a stool and plugged his guitar into a little amp beside him. He had a drummer and that was it. But what Jupie did totally rocked the house.

The drummer laid down a back-beat and Jupie followed along, his feet tapping up and down. Then the screech of his guitar. Then the killer riff. Then the slap-stroke-bend-hammer on-slap-slap-slap with his right hand while the left hand jazzed up and down the fret board. Unbelievable. I don’t even know what you call it. That’s why the place was packed. They knew. Me and Pink went back every time Jupie played. Each time was like getting struck by lightning.

After sets, Jupie would hang out in the Corner and talk to people. The dude should have been a superstar and here he was hanging in a club in Wheeling. Once, after I had talked to him a couple of times, I asked him why he was still in West Virginia. That’s when he told me he was just an old nappyhead. He spent some time in Los Angeles but the record companies had no use for him. Didn’t know what to do with his music, he said. Well, yeah. That’s probably legit, even if it is jacked. Jupie deserved better.

The Corner’s where we met Ansil. Ansil played bass guitar and was into Jupie’s music like I was. I heard Ansil play once. He wasn’t very good, but he was fun to hang with.

Me and Pink drank our share of beers at the Corner, but Ansil always wanted to do more. We smoked weed outside the club sometimes, and then we started trying other stuff. We’d give Ansil the cash and he’d disappear for a while and come back with the dope of the night. We did some meth, a little crank. Whatever.

Nobody ever knew I was doping. I got this way about me, I guess, that helps me get away with stuff. People like me and don’t want to think bad things about me. Pinky was always having trouble, though. He probably did less than I did but he was always getting jazzed by his folks and the kids at school. Nobody could figure out why I was hanging with a doper. Guess they thought I was trying to save him, me being a preacher’s kid and all. Yeah.


Ansil’s in the same prison as Pink, but from what my lawyer told me, he’s in maximum security. He’s probably ok with Pink, anyway. Me – I’m a different story. I wouldn’t blame him if he tried to kill me if he ever saw me again. I can’t imagine there’s anybody that doesn’t deserve it more than me.


Once at Riverside, I was supposed to do a written and oral report on A Separate Peace. I was usually a decent student but for some reason, I kept putting off reading the book until it was too late. So I sugared up Karen Richards until she let me copy her notes, which got me by the written part. For the oral presentation, I practically read Karen’s notes and smiled a lot and told a couple of jokes. It helped that the teacher liked me. All the teachers did. I got an A. Karen got a B.


It was a rainy, wet, cold miserable night. Jupie was supposed to play at the Corner but had cancelled because he was sick. Me, Pink and Ansil had a few beers while we slogged through two sets of really lame blues by a fat white guy. Then Ansil says to meet him in the john. We pop some meth and then Ansil tells us he made it himself. I wish he had told us that before.

The other times we had done meth, it made us a little hyped, but nothing like Ansil’s home brew. Oh, man. I felt like someone was in my head. I told Pink the devil had got in me. I meant it. I might have been right.

We left the Corner. We had to. We were too jazzed to stay in one place. We needed to burn. We drove to the park and got chased out by the security guard. Ansil cussed him and I sped away, throwing gravel in the guard’s direction. Then Ansil pulled a gun from his jacket. I never knew he had a gun. He wanted me to go back to the guard shack so he could fire off a couple of rounds. Just to scare him, he said. I grabbed the gun from him and put it in my pocket. No way I wanted that kind of trouble. I may have been crazy high, but I wasn’t that far gone. Ansil cussed me and then laughed and popped some more meth.


Sometimes I wonder how I got to be me. Why am I like me, and not like Richard Franklin? Rich and I practically grew up together. He’s student council president at Riverside. Went on the mission trip to the Dominican last year at church. Gives really good talks about Jesus. Why isn’t that me? I don’t know why, but I know for a fact it isn’t me.

Here’s the thing. I’m not stupid. Really. I got good grades in school and I didn’t even try that hard. And when I was still going to my dad’s church, it seemed like I was the only one thinking about things, the only one with questions. Everybody else just ignored all the hard stuff or told me to pray about it. Why can’t we ever talk about it? I was always getting jacked around, so I quit.

And here I am, living in a dumpy apartment by myself. I’ve ditched my folks and all my old friends. My best friend is in jail. I feel like crap all the time. I killed Jupie and I’ll never do time. Except that I am. I’m not stupid.


Jupie lived in a second floor apartment on B Street. Somehow Ansil knew this. He said we should go see him, see how he’s feeling. We were mad hopped up. I’d have gone to see the governor that night if Ansil had suggested it, but the possibility of talking to Jupie in his apartment was way jammin’.   Maybe even get to hear him play.


I had no idea how late it was. Never really knew until the trial. Cops said it was around two. The door at the street was open and we climbed the steps to the apartments. Ansil knocked but didn’t wait for Jupie to answer. He lowered his shoulder and barreled into the door and it crashed open. I know now that Ansil was meaning to rob Jupie all along, but at the time, I don’t really know what I thought. I remember me and Pink laughing. Then Ansil took a mean turn.

“Give me the gun,” he said, his voice deeper and more gruff than I’d ever heard. He scared me.

“What?” I forgot that I even had it. He reached in my jacket pocket but was in the wrong one. Then he pushed me and as I fell onto the couch I reached into my other pocket and wrapped my fingers around the cold steel. Ansil pulled me by the arm and reached for the gun.

I’d never heard a gun fire inside before, and probably neither had Pinky. It scared the hell out of all of us and we turned to see Jupie standing in the doorway of his bedroom wearing baggy boxers and holding a gun that looked too big for his skinny little body. He yelled and cussed and it was obvious that he didn’t recognize us. I started to call his name, but before I could, Jupie fired another shot.

I remember hearing the bullet whiz by my ear and then heard the thud as it exploded in the plaster wall behind me. I don’t remember squeezing the trigger, but I guess I just reacted. Jupie dropped to the floor.

Ansil grabbed the gun from me. I remember that, because he grabbed it by the barrel and burned himself. Then he started going through Jupie’s stuff. I don’t know what all he took. Pink took stuff, too. They took off, but I stayed. It didn’t seem real.

My daddy’s got a lot of money and he hired a lawyer from Charleston to handle my case. I didn’t even have to testify. I just sat there through the whole trial while the lawyer told everybody that Ansil killed Jupie. Because I didn’t take anything and because I stayed and watched Jupie die, I got off with probation. That’s jacked.


I’ve got no taste for dope now. Or even beer. Don’t care about music, either. Just don’t care.

I keep thinking about that old man preacher. No BS about him. Laid it out straight about King David. But David was God’s man. I quit God a long time ago. That’s jacked.


Copyright 2014

Murder in the City

Yeah, I’m on an Avett Brothers kick right now.

I’m pondering my next fiction post.  I have two choices in front of me.

One is an excerpt from the James and Katherine novel in progress which introduces another character, Warren Carter, aka, Jar.  But I’m wondering whether it’s worthwhile to throw the reader into the middle of a novel with little context just for the sake of a snippet of the larger story.

The other possibility is a short-story.  Unlike the Shelly Wallingford saga, this one is more somber and has the potential to be misunderstood.  It’s about a young man’s struggle with guilt and the concept of forgiveness.  So I don’t know.

Any thoughts?

I’ll make up my mind tomorrow.  Today, I’m on my way to Lexington.  For now, enjoy this tune from the Avett Brothers.  It’s not as dark as the title suggests.  And the lyrics are very poetic.

Murder in the City

Ramon’s Fortune

Author’s Notes:  My fiction tends to be a little somber, but every now and then I’ll get crazy and write something just for the fun of it.  Such is the story below.  It’s total whimsy and comes complete with annoying sentence structure and shallow character development.  It will never win any awards, but I don’t care.  It’s one of my favorites.


Ramon’s Fortune
by Joseph E Bird
copyright 2104


Shelly Wallingford was sitting by herself at a small table for two in the shade of the eucalyptus tree on the patio of Bel Cibo’s when she heard the muffled thud of the collision of the waitress and the customer, followed by the sound of lead crystal wine glasses breaking on the terra cotta tile, and the soft clink, clink, clink of coins bouncing and spinning, finally stopping to lay flat, glistening in the mid-day sun. Shelly Wallingford turned her head just in time to see the waitress with the white blonde hair apologize to the man in the Armani suit, who, at that precise moment was throwing his hands in the air in exasperation, when a busboy appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and began picking up pieces of Cabernet-stained glass.

Shelly Wallingford felt a tap on the side of her foot. She looked down to see a shiny penny spiraling to rest one inch beside her black, Salvatore Ferragamo pump. She reached down and picked it up, holding it between her thumb and index finger, while her other three fingers formed graceful, crescent-shaped arcs, as if in polite salute to her actual working digits. She looked for the man in the Armani suit, holding the penny in the air as if it were a treasure from Tutankhamun’s tomb, forgetting that it was, in fact, only a penny, and of so little value that its existence was likely meaningless to the man in the Armani suit – a reality that fell upon her like the gentle breeze wafting through the eucalyptus leaves –as she saw him hurry from Bel Cibo’s with a final wave of his hand.

Shelly Wallingford smiled in self-amusement, her hand still raised, as if returning the farewell gesture of the man in the Armani suit. She dropped her hand to the table and looked for the waitress with the white blonde hair, but she too, had disappeared. Of the three participants in the drama of human conflict, only the busboy remained. He stood, blue plastic tub under one arm, and stuffed the clinking coins in the pocket of his blue jeans.

Shelly Wallingford dropped the penny in the side pocket of her Prada handbag.

* * *

Shelly Wallingford walked through the lobby toward the elevators of the Stafford Centre.


Shelly Wallingford stopped and turned to see Harold McCormick walking toward her.

“Shelly, do me a favor,” he said. “I was going across the street to get a bagel. I thought I had a dollar on me, but all I’ve got is fifty-seven cents. Can you spot me forty cents so I don’t have to go back upstairs?”

Shelly Wallingford reached in the side pocket of her Prada handbag and scooped out all of her change and gave it Harold McCormick.

Harold McCormick loved bagels. And he loved cappuccinos. But Harold McCormick had put on fifteen pounds since Christmas and his cholesterol was up to 245 by February and both his wife and his doctor were getting a little concerned, so Harold McCormick gave up his post-lunch cappuccino and only allowed himself the indulgence of a plain toasted bagel.

Harold McCormick stood at the corner, waiting for the traffic light to tell him he could walk with reasonable assurance that he would not become an accident victim.

“Excuse me, sir,” the voice to his left said. “I really hate to ask, but is there any way you could spare some change? I need to catch a bus uptown and I’m just a little short.”

Harold McCormick sighed. He knew he was a soft touch. Somehow, they all knew it. Harold McCormick was sure that the homeless and indigent held morning briefings with photographs and dossiers of likely panhandle targets and that one Harold McCormick was on their most-wanted list.

He looked at twenty-seven year old Joshua Riggins, his dirty brown hair falling past his shoulders, and reached in his pocket and gave him all his change.

“I didn’t need that bagel anyway,” he said as he turned and walked back toward the Stafford Centre.

* * *

Joshua Riggins took the change he had collected in ten minutes and counted it as he waited for the two o’clock bus.

“Two dollars exactly,” he said to himself. “Now I don’t have to break the ten.”

He boarded the bus, and listened to the clink, clink, clink of the change dropping in the box as the bus eased into traffic. Joshua Riggins, pulled the ten dollar bill from his jacket pocket, looked at it briefly, making sure that it was Alexander Hamilton and not George Washington grimly looking back, then stuffed the bill back in his pocket, and did not realize that when he once again pulled his hand from his pocket, the ten dollar bill came with it and fluttered like a eucalyptus leaf as it fell to the floor before disappearing under the folding doors of the bus.

* * *

Antonio Marcelli looked up and down the street searching for a pay phone, which had become increasingly hard to find with the advent of wireless telephone technology.  Antonio Marcelli had a cellular phone in his backpack when he arrived in the city at noon for his two-thirty interview at Ramón’s, but his backpack had been stolen as he was buying a cup of coffee from the newsstand on 48th Street. There was no way Antonio Marcelli was going to be able to walk the ten blocks to Ramón’s and get to the interview on time so he had to call – and then he saw a ten dollar bill in the gutter next to an empty Coca-Cola can.   He picked up the ten, hailed a cab and made it to the interview with Ramón Oliverio. Antonio Marcelli was hired as the head chef of the first Ramón’s restaurant.

* * *

Ramón Oliverio’s restaurants were greatly successful and four more restaurants opened in the city the following year, and the year after that, ten restaurants were franchised in the state and the year after that thirty-three restaurants were franchised along the east coast. Ramón Oliverio became a very wealthy man.

* * *

Ramón Oliverio leaned back in the plush leather chair as he sat across the table from the Mergers and Acquisitions lawyer of Taft and Oppenheimer.

The Mergers and Acquisitions lawyer said, “Our accountants and appraisers have completed the valuation of your fifty-six restaurants, twelve coffee shops, three hotels, and your numerous property holdings in Florida and the Carolinas and have determined that their total estimated value is one hundred thirty seven million, four hundred eighty three thousand, five hundred seventeen dollars and one cent.”

Ramón Oliverio laughed heartily, as only a man is his position could.

“That’s the estimated value?” he asked as he leaned toward the table, resting his meaty forearms on the glass top.

He paused, and then reached into the pocket of his faded jeans, pulled out a coin and tossed it on the table. “I’ll give you the penny,” he said with an even bigger laugh, as the coin clinked twice on the table, before rolling in the direction of the Mergers and Acquisitions lawyer. “But I’m not going below two hundred million.”

Shelly Wallingford watched as the dull, dirty penny rolled down the glass table-top one inch from her black leather Gucci briefcase, where it spiraled flat, Lincoln side up. She picked up the penny and placed on top of the stack of accountants’ and appraisers’ valuation forms.

Shelly Wallingford smiled at Ramón Oliverio.

“It’s a start,” she said.

True North

This is from Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow.  Make of it what you will.

“Since his arrival in the city on his first leave, he had used a compass, which enabled him to avoid the illusory paths worn by others.  You might walk west along a street or road that after gradually bending would point you north or east.  Things often did not run as they promised, go where they announced, or stay constant as one believed.”

She flies.

Who knew James Brown was a poet?  Not that James Brown, this James Brown.  He’s turned into quite the sensitive guy.  After watching a special on the evolution of modern dance, he writes this:


She flies.

All grace, flowing and free.
For a moment she is splendor.
She will always be

a dancer.


She flies.

Into his arms, sure and strong.
Together they are elegance.
She will always be

a dancer.

She flies.

Strength, beauty, trust.
One voice, one spirit.
She will always be

a dancer.

She flies.


copyright 2014

First lines.

“If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head. As formative events go, nothing else comes close.”

— Edgar Mint, from Brady Udall’s novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

A toast.


These characters in my book, they just keep spouting poetry.  I mean, what’s up with all the rhymes?  I think it’s Larry’s fault.

Now Katherine, the chick lost in the woods with her new BFF, James, apparently knows a little poetry.  She recites this little prayer of thanksgiving as a toast.


“Through shadow and light I bear my quest.

In forest deep I find my rest.

Till day is done and sun’s set west

and then I know I’m truly blessed.”



Copyright 2014


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