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Joseph E Bird

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

Month

September 2017

The cabaret was quiet, except for the drilling in the wall.

Remember when you used to sit and listen to music with your headphones on, the 12″ x 12″ album cover in your hands as you went track to track? You’d be mesmerized by the cover art. You’d study the liner notes. You’d follow along if the lyrics were printed on the cover. After a few days, you’d know every song by heart.

No. Most of you don’t remember because that was before your time.

But back to our story.

The festival was over. The boys were planning for a fall.

Something’s up. Then we’re introduced to the ringleader.

He was standing in the doorway, looking like the Jack of Hearts.

Back in the golden age of vinyl, songs didn’t have be under three minutes. And everyone knew that serious music, serious songs, ran at least five minutes. Those were the songs you never wanted to end. American Pie comes to mind.  Chicago’s Ballet for a Girl from Buchannon ran a glorious thirteen minutes.

Backstage the girls were playing five card stud by the stairs.
Lily drew two queens, she was hoping for a third to match her pair.

It was always best if you were alone. Total absorption into the music.

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine.

If you wanted to hear a track again, you’d have to wait. You can’t (or shouldn’t) pick up the tone arm and place the stylus in the same groove that had just played. You’d risk distorting the vinyl and degrading the sound quality. You had to let the grooves cool.

Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town.

You had to let the grooves cool.

You couldn’t wait to play the song again, but you had to. Made you want to hear it that much more.

The hanging judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined.
The drilling in the wall kept up, but no one seemed to pay it any mind.

And those songs would tell a story as good as anything you ever read in a book. No music videos, you had to paint the scene in your head. You were the casting agent, the set and costume designer, the director. It was all yours. You just had to follow along.

The story I’ve been telling is a Bob Dylan classic, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, more than eight minutes long.  It had hidden in my memory until it came up on my Pandora station during a four-hour trip yesterday. It’s a great driving song.

I won’t tell you what happens.  If you want to know, click the link below. But wait until you can listen without distraction.  It’s just better that way.

She was thinking about her father, who she very rarely saw.
She was thinking about Rosemary, she was thinking about the law.
But most of all, she was thinking about the jack of hearts.

 

 

Darnell, aka Booger

From my novel in progress, Heather Girl.  You’ve read part of this before, but I kind of like this guy, Booger.  I hadn’t met him before he showed up at the funeral home. He wasn’t planned; he wasn’t in the story outline. Of course I didn’t really know much about Heather’s father, George.  He had been in prison for ten years for the murder of his wife, Heather’s mother. I’m friends with Heather, but she never went to see her father in prison, so she was just as surprised as I was to see Booger show up at her brother’s funeral. And there he was, this fast-talking, not-so-bright Texan, telling Heather things she didn’t really want to hear. She had already made her mind up about her murderous father. She has no use for the other side of the story.


There was little to talk about. All had been said in the days before, so they sat quietly and waited. Heather closed her eyes.

The double doors to the large room were in the back and had been propped open, so there was no tell-tale squeak that she might have otherwise heard.  The carpet muffled the footsteps that on hardwood or tile would have given notice as his worn cowboy boots clopped down the aisle. But as it was, she had no clue that anyone had entered the room, much less that he had managed to position himself just a few feet away, until she heard her father speak.

“Booger.”

She thought it was just an expression of frustration of some minor annoyance that had caught his attention. Maybe a button was loose on his suit jacket. Maybe one of the lights in the ceiling of the funeral home was burned out. Maybe he was just bored. She didn’t even open her eyes. Then the voice she didn’t know.

“Hey, Pops.”

He spoke in an energetic clip, combining the two words into one. By the time she opened her eyes he had slapped her father on the shoulder and was in the midst of a frenetic monologue that didn’t require any acknowledgement from George to keep going.

“You doing ok? Look at you in a suit. Beats that orange all to hell, don’t it. Me, I’m more country and western. Check this out.” He stuck his thumb in the gap of his shirt where the buttons usually are and pushed it toward George. “See them snaps? Mother of Pearl. Pretty slick, huh. That’s as bout as fancy as I’m going to get. Anyways, I got out a few days after you did and once I got settled down a bit, I wanted to look you up, make sure you was doing ok and all. I got a hold of your PO and she told me you was up here in Virginia and she told me all that happened and I came up here to tell you how sorry I was bout your boy. You was real good to me in lockup, Pops. Helped me keep my head on straight.”

“West Virginia.” She had been watching him, this ex-con, who was holding a new, stiff cowboy hat in his right hand and waving it as he spoke, as if he were trying to swat a fly. He seemed a little daft, this long-haired middle-aged man who hadn’t bothered to shave in at least a week, and she quickly surmised that he was very likely to return to lockup for getting in a bar fight or smoking weed on a street corner. Just didn’t seem all that bright. She looked back at the coffin in front of her.

“Beg pardon, ma’am?

“West Virginia, not Virginia.’

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. I never was very good with geography.”

“Hey, Booger, you going to preaching today?”

Booger turned back to her father.

“No, Pops. Ain’t no preaching today. It’s Tuesday.” Then to Heather, “He never could keep his days straight. Course that ain’t unusual in lockup. You tend to lose perspective, you know.”

“I suppose.”

“I’m Darnell, ma’am.” She had no choice but to shake his hand and was surprised by his delicate, almost feminine touch. Prison tattoos, letters that looked like they were scrawled with a felt-tip pen spelled GOD on the first three fingers on his right hand, followed by an exclamation mark on his little finger. She tried to steal a look at his other hand but couldn’t see what she was sure would be the first half of the message.

“Heather.”

“You his daughter?”

She nodded.

“Never knowed Pops had a daughter. Course he couldn’t much remember his boy, either. Pops was real good to me. You have a fine father, ma’am.”

“How?”

“How what?”

“How was he good to you?”

He studied on the question and she could tell she wasn’t going to get much of an answer.

“It’s a bit of a story, ma’am.”

“We have time.”

“Ok. Well let’s see, then.”

There was a chair between Heather and Micah, and Darnell sat in it without asking.  He reeked of cologne.

“These must be your boys.” He turned and shook their hands. “Call me Booger. I been called that since I was a kid. You can probably figure out why. Bad nickname but it stuck.”

The boys forced a smile but didn’t offer anything to the conversation besides their names. Booger leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.

“Anyways, let me tell you about Pops.  I got into a little bit of trouble.”  He stopped and laughed.  “I guess that’s how all prison stories start, don’t they.”

Booger was the only one who found that amusing.

“So yeah.  I ain’t never been in trouble like that before, but I got into some drugs and got busted a few times but I kept going back for more. And them drugs, Lordy, they get hold of you and won’t let go. You do anything to keep that feeling going. That’s where I was, just staying high all the time. Course them drugs, they ain’t free and even if I could have held down a job it wouldn’t had paid enough for what I needed, so I took to stealing. I just took stuff that people didn’t need anyways, least that’s what I told myself. Leaf blowers and trimmers and things like that. I was out one night, just coming down off a high and running around a neighborhood seeing what I might could take, and this feller comes up on me. Scared me. I had a shovel in my hands. Never could remember why I had a shovel. I couldn’t sell a shovel for nothing. Just never made no sense. But he scared me so bad I swung around and whacked him in the head. I didn’t ever want to hurt nobody and had he not snuck up on me I probably would have just run off. I wish I had.”

He stopped talking and Heather looked at him, then her father, who had fallen asleep with his chin on his chest. Darnell closed his eyes and bit his lip, and sniffed a little before he opened his eyes and continued.

“I didn’t kill him. Might have been better if I had. Messed up his brain real bad. That poor man ain’t worth nothing no more. If I’d killed him, maybe his family could get some insurance, and maybe they’d just put me on death row and I’d be dead by now, living with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, praise God.”

He looked toward her father and saw that he was asleep.

“He does that a lot. Anyways, they sent me up and I knowed I was going to have a tough time. I mean I was scared like I never been scared before.  I ain’t no criminal and don’t know how to fight so I figured I’d just be somebody’s girlfriend, if you know what I mean. I don’t think I could of took that. So when I get there, I see old Pops, sitting by himself in the mess and I went over and sat with him. Best thing I ever done.”

“Why is that?”

“I didn’t know it at the time, but Pops was protected.”

“Protected?”

“Yes, ma’am. Both ways. He paid the hacks and they passed some down to the cons and rounders. Pops was the gravy train, yes, ma’am, he was. Only I didn’t know it. I just sat down with Pops cause I didn’t think he would shank me right off.”

“Hacks?”

“The guards, ma’am.”

“He paid the guards money?”

“Well, yes ma’am, in a indirect way, I guess you could say. It was arranged on the outside.”

She shook her head. “McGhee.”

“Beg pardon?”

“George’s attorney. His trustee. McGhee. He’s the one on the outside that sent the money.”


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

When Clara met Harry.

My old school.  No, not my class.  I’m old, but not that old.

I spent half of my first grade year at the old Central School, which was an elementary school by then. In the photo above, it was the high school in my little town of St. Albans, West Virginia.

Freshmen Nuts, the banner says. Kids being kids, trying to be outrageous for their class photo. Front and center is Sarah Wilson, dressed like a baby with her baby bottle.  The others I can’t really figure out. Behind Sarah is someone in what used to be called a “dunce” hat, which was sometimes used to humiliate misbehaving students. Oh, the psychological carnage inflicted in those days.  To left of the dunce, a student is very proud of whatever he (she?) is holding. Wish I could see it. I’ll bet it’s good.

Then there’s the fiddle player. Kind of looks like a girl to me. She’s holding the fiddle comfortably, knowingly, as if it’s more than just a prop. Like she’d be tearing into Turkey in the Straw at the square dance on Saturday night with her guitar playing father and banjo picking brother.  Her friends would think she’s odd and make fun of her.  Then, in her senior year, a new family from Huntington would move to town to help build the railroad. The oldest son, Harry, is Clara’s age. (Yes, her name is Clara. How do I know that? I’m a writer. I think Clara suits her.) The other kids don’t want much to do with Harry because he’s new and he comes from money. And then there’s Harry’s good looks. He’s just intimidating. Except Clara doesn’t care. He’s the new outsider. She’s been an outsider as long as she can remember.

There’s something about Clara. You can see it in the photo. Harry sees it. She’s no-nonsense. Straightforward. Not afraid to speak her mind.

“You play the violin very well,” he says.

“It’s a fiddle.”

“Yes, of course. I took piano lessons when I was young. Learned a little Brahms. Some Liszt.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you ever play any classical music?”

“I’m a fiddle player. I don’t care much about those guys.”

“Uh-huh.”

On the platform behind her, her father plays the first three chords of the next song.

“Got to go.”

She turns to take her place, fiddle under her chin.  She looks back.

“Can you dance?”

Before he can answer, she’s ripping off the intro to the next song, smiling at Harry.

.

Then again, it’s entirely possible that the person in the photo is a guy. But that’s another story.

 

Savannah

new york

you want to be
where the lights are so bright

where life lives on
through the night

and songs fill your heart
with delight

oh Savananh
is that where you’ve gone
my Savannah
i’ll see you at dawn

carolina

i know the sand
and the beaches call for you

the warm sunshine
and soft breezes, too

a time to reflect
and renew

oh Savananh
is that where you’ve gone
my Savannah
i’ll see you at dawn

i’ll pack my bags and be on my way
drive all night and into the day
grab some coffee, put gas in the car
if i could find out where you are

california

where dreamers go to find
what might be

and watch the sun set
by the sea

leave their troubles behind
and be free

oh Savananh
is that where you’ve gone
my Savannah
i’ll see you at dawn

i’ll pack my bags and be on my way
drive all night and into the day
grab some coffee, put gas in the car
if i could find out where you are


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

NPR – Station of Doom

Dear NPR:

A few years ago, you became my radio station of choice. I listen to all the great story-telling shows on Saturday. On Sunday afternoons, the cooking and travel shows fill the time as I drive through the mountains of West Virginia. I even dig most of the classical music shows. We have a local DJ, Matt Jackfert, who is always playing something interesting in the genre.

My job requires a lot of time in the car, and in the mornings, I usually tune to NPR to get news and commentary. I like the seriousness with which the news is presented and the absence of hyperbole from local radio personalities.

But here’s the thing: You’ve become sooo negative.

Nobody can do anything right. It seems like all your stories are about how somebody doesn’t get it, is incompetent, or just plain mean. If only everyone were as enlightened as the good, caring souls at NPR, what a better world we would live in. Yes, we need journalists to fact check and tell us the truth and I appreciate the work you do, but I can’t take it anymore.

I’ve found myself tuning in to the local commercial stations and enduring the screaming car dealers and the bad jokes and the shallow reporting just to get a break from the prophecy of doom that NPR is becoming.

Yeah, the world is a crazy place and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. But I need a break. So NPR, can you lighten up a bit? Please?

In his book, Chronicles, Bob Dylan was looking back at the 60s and all the analysis that went with the events that were changing the world.  He said this:

“All the news was bad. It was good that it didn’t have to be in your face all day.  Twenty-four-hour news coverage would have been a living hell.”

I can relate.

 

Run slow to run fast.

Runner athlete running on forest trail.

If you’re a runner, and you want to shave a few minutes off your 5k time, slow down. I know this is counterintuitive, but if you want to run fast on race day, slow down on your training runs. Take it easy. And those long runs you’ve been putting in on Sunday mornings don’t do you any good either. Sleep in. Save your energy. Then on race day, you’ll be fresh and run faster than you ever have before.

Train smart, not hard.

No, not really. I’m lying.

If you want to run fast, you have to train fast. Not everyday, but you’re going to have to run fartleks or intervals or speedwork at the track. And yes, you still have to get up early on weekends and put in the extra miles. That’s the truth, kiddos. It’s hard work to run fast. It’s no walk in the park. More like torture in 90 degree heat, lungs about to burst. Or slogging through the rain or fighting the wind. Aching legs that keep you up at night. Is it worth it all just to run fast?  That’s for you decide.

But if you want to be good at something, you have to train hard. There ain’t no shortcuts. And you have to want it pretty bad.


Photo credit: iStock Photography

How to win a Nobel Prize for Literature

In the early 1960s Bob Dylan heard Robert Johnson for the first time.

“From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.”

In his book, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan comes across not as a musical genius, but as a man who was always doubting, always searching, always trying, always learning. When the music of Robert Johnson shook his soul, he needed to know why. Dylan had this to say:

“I started meditating on the construction of the verses, seeing how different they were from Woody’s [folksinger Woody Guthrie]. Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires.”

Of course there is some measure of genius in Dylan, but it wouldn’t have come forth had he just sat back and waited for inspiration. But he didn’t have to be told that creativity involves hard work, because part of the reward of being creative, is in the toil it takes to create.

“I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction – themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease.”

And this:

“I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them.”

And look where it took him.

 

Booger

There was little to talk about. All had been said in the days before, so they sat quietly and waited. Heather closed her eyes.

The double doors to the large room were in the back and had been propped open, so there was no tell-tale squeak that she might have otherwise heard.  The carpet muffled the footsteps that on hardwood or tile would have given notice as his worn cowboy boots clopped down the aisle. But as it was, she had no clue that anyone had entered the room, much less that he had managed to position himself just a few feet away, until she heard her father speak.

“Booger.”

She thought it was just an expression of frustration of some minor annoyance that had caught his attention. Maybe a button was loose on his suit jacket. Maybe one of the lights in the ceiling of the funeral home was burned out. Maybe he was just bored. She didn’t even open her eyes. Then the voice she didn’t know.

“Hey, Pops.”

He spoke in an energetic clip, combining the two words into one. By the time she opened her eyes he had slapped her father on the shoulder and was in the midst of a frenetic monologue that didn’t require any acknowledgement from George to keep going.

“You doing ok? Look at you in a suit. Beats that orange all to hell, don’t it. Me, I’m more country and western. Check this out.” He stuck his thumb in the gap of his shirt where the buttons usually are and pushed it toward George. “See them snaps? Mother of Pearl. Pretty slick, huh. That’s as bout as fancy as I’m going to get. Anyways, I got out a few days after you did and once I got settled down a bit, I wanted to look you up, make sure you was doing ok and all. I got a hold of your PO and she told me you was up here in Virginia and she told me all that happened and I came up here to tell you how sorry I was bout your boy. You was real good to me in lockup, Pops. Helped me keep my head on straight.”

“West Virginia.” She had been watching him, this ex-con, who was holding a new, stiff cowboy hat in his right hand and waving it as he spoke, as if he were trying to swat a fly. He seemed a little daft, this long-haired middle-aged man who hadn’t bothered to shave in at least a week, and she quickly surmised that he was very likely to return to lockup for getting in a bar fight or smoking weed on a street corner. Just didn’t seem all that bright. She looked back at the coffin in front of her.

“Beg pardon, ma’am?

“West Virginia, not Virginia.’

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. I never was very good with geography.”

“Hey, Booger, you going to preaching today?”

Booger turned back to her father.

“No, Pops. Ain’t no preaching today. It’s Tuesday.” Then to Heather, “He never could keep his days straight. Course that ain’t unusual in lockup. You tend to lose perspective, you know.”

“I suppose.”

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