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Joseph E Bird

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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

it’s a west virginia thing

The temperature and humidity were rising as she drove farther south and just outside of Montgomery she stopped for gas at a convenience store, filled her tank, and went inside for a cold drink. When she came back out, she paid no attention to the car parked at the pump behind her.

“West Virginia, almost heaven.”

She turned to look. A black man, about her age, wearing a tattered ball cap. He was smiling,

She gave him a friendly look and unlocked her car.

“Your license plate.” He pointed to the back end of her car. “I’m from there.”

She stopped. She couldn’t resist.

“Where?”

“McDowell County.”

It was a West Virginia thing. If you’re from southern West Virginia, you’re identified with your county, not your town. Mingo County. Boone County. Lincoln County. McDowell was the poorest of the poor. She didn’t have to ask why he left. The decline of the coal industry affected everyone in southern West Virginia. As the jobs left, the drugs came in. Anybody with any hope for the future left. At least that’s the way she saw it.

“I’m from Charleston.”


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

there will be bad times, brother

shutterstock_224292622 for web

“Although the fig tree shall not blossom,
neither shall fruit be in the vines;
the labor of the olive shall fail,
and the fields shall yield no meat;
the flock shall be cut off from the fold,
and there shall be no herd in the stalls.”

Do you hear me? Do you understand? There will be bad times, brother.
In my eighty-one years, you better believe I’ve had them.
Three years ago I lost Nita.
We’re supposed to get wiser as we get older, and I guess I have.
Even so, loss is hard and lonely.

Here’s what I know.
Listen, now.

“Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet,
and he will make me walk upon mine high places.”

I didn’t always know that.
When you’re young, you think the fig will always bloom.
You think there will always be fruit on the tree and cattle in the stalls.
Now don’t be thick-headed. You know what I mean. Even if you’re young, you know what I’m saying.

But this isn’t my story. It’s Trevor’s.
Trevor for sure didn’t know.
To this day, I don’t know if he’s taken hold of the truth.
It’s not profitable for a man to express his faith in these days, and when you’re young like Trevor, you’re not inclined to go against everything the world says is right.
One has to be tried, tested, and hardened by fire.

That boy.
He’s a remarkable boy.

— Maxfield Martin


copyright 2016, joseph e bird, from the novel A Prayer for Rain

Kiss me, you fool.

woman with a clarinet

Kiss me, you fool.

Oh, man.

I know she wasn’t talking to me, but, yeah, she was talking to me. I know she was even though she wasn’t. Sometimes you just know.

I ain’t into music. I mean I like rock and roll but that ain’t music, you know what I mean? It’s just rock and roll. What these guys were playing wasn’t that by a mile. I don’t know what you call it, cause I ain’t into music.

The singer was a complete dork with a guitar bigger than he was. And they had one of them big fiddles and another dork slapping on the strings, p-thub, p-thub, p-thub. Some puny fellow with hair sticking up in ever direction played one of them whiny little guitars. And a fiddle player. Regular fiddle tucked under the chin. I would of thought maybe they was a country band, but then there’s the trumpet player, a tall, lanky drink of water who thought he was all that, but to me he was just a goof. Had one of them mufflers stuck in the end of his horn that made it sound weird. So I don’t guess they was country.

It was Jess’s plan. Me and Hoby went along with it cause we pretty much go along with all of Jess’s plans. Usually turns out ok.

Now the fact that I spent the night in lock-up, and the fact that I’m likely gonna spend some time in the house, don’t mean it wasn’t a good plan. Sometimes that’s just how things work out.

Besides, I’d spend six months in the hole if I knew Charlotte was waiting on me when I got out.

Kiss me, you fool.

Yeah, she was talking to me.

Number one, I’m a fool. Always have been. Been hard for me to live a sensible life. Guys like Jess and Hoby come calling and I’m off. More often than not things end in trouble but that’s ok. What’s the point of living if you can’t get into some trouble now and then?

Number two, I’ve always had a way with the ladies. Maybe it’s the bad boy thing. Maybe it’s cause I’m the quiet one. Jess and Hoby always looking for attention. Me, I just sit back and let the game come to me.

So, yeah, it’s only natural that Charlotte would notice.

She was the clarinet player in the band of weirdos. I didn’t know what a clarinet was at the time, just looked like some kind pipe she was holding. Being the only girl in the group, she was hard not to notice. She wore a red dress that fell down below her knees. Dirty brown hair. I don’t mean her hair was dirty, it just kind of colored that way. A little too skinny for my tastes, but she was a girl, so you noticed, even though overall she was kind of plain. At least I thought so at first.  Not the kind of girl that old Connie would hook up with. Conrad, as my mother calls me. My friends call me Connie, which I like all right. It’s good for starting fights with wannabe tough guys.

Hanging in the bar was part of the plan. So that night we’re in El Poopo’s or whatever the name of the joint was. It was the first one we came to when we were walking down the street. The plan was this: We were going to hang out in the bar for a couple hours. Blend in. Just three dudes in the crowd. We was going to wait until the night started to wind down cause it’d be easier to pull off, plus there’d be more money in the till.

I was sitting up next to the end of the bar by myself, which also put me right up next to the stage. When the time was right, Jess and Hoby was to start something. They was going to go at it pretty quick, cause if it was just a bunch of hollering, the bouncer would throw them out before it got going. They had to throw punches and try to drag a few more into it while they was at it. Then, when all hell broke loose, I’m supposed to slide behind the bar and grab some cash. A little fun, a little green. No big robbery or nothing like that, just a little cash and dash.

Ok, yeah, now that I say it out loud, it sounds like pretty bad plan.

Truth is, I don’t think none of us thought we’d go through with it. I figured we’d end up drinking and having a good time and nothing would come of it. And I’d probably been three sheets to the wind had it been a rock and roll band. Hell, I’d probably been three sheets to the wind if Charlotte hadn’t been in that dopey band of flake bats. But she was. And even though she was the only girl in the band, and the more I studied on her, the better she looked, she still hadn’t hooked me. She looked like she was dressed for Sunday morning church. I like my women with a little more edge.

The band had been playing when we got there, some kind of rockabilly that might been respectful if they had played it like Skynard might have played it. They followed that up with some jazz crap that just wasn’t doing it, but there was a lot of them beatnik types with their fashion model beards and their cute little jeans with the rolled up cuffs and they seemed to like the dorky guitar player. Whatever. I ordered another beer.

Then they played a slow song. A sad song. I ain’t into music but I know blues when I hear it and that’s what they launched into. Ok. I could handle that. Dorko was singing and the big fiddle player quit thumping on that thing and plucked the strings soft and slow. Then Dorko quit singing and turned to Charlotte.

I never heard nothing like it. She made that clarinet cry, playing notes long and sad, then a run of notes together going from low to high and back down again, her fingers dancing over them little holes on that pipe. I don’t know how long she played but it wasn’t long enough. Dorko ruined it with his guitar and whiny voice. But it was too late. She’d hooked me.

So I paced myself. Cause in my mind, in my twisted reality, I knew me and her was meant to be. And when I finally get a chance to talk to her, I wanted my wits to be with me.

I looked over at Jess and Hoby and they was talking to some girls, drinking like there was no tomorrow. I relaxed a little, thinking Jess would just forget about the fight and the stealing and just sit back and have a good time. Suited me just fine. Me and Charlotte had our destiny to fulfill.

So the band goes back to whatever crazy music they play. Thumping on that fiddle, goofball tooting his horn. Even Charlotte was into it, but that’s ok. You got to do what you got to do. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She smiled at me once or twice. Pretty sure. I was hard not to miss sitting so close. I smiled back.

By the time I was on my fourth beer, I was starting to want the night over, hoping the band was winding down and I’d get a chance to work my charms on Charlotte. Jess and Hoby was still going at it, but Hoby looked a little agitated. Dang. Maybe they was going to go through with it after all.

Then the band played something different. Slower. The drummer played a kind of shuffling sound. Made me think of walking by myself on the street, walking up to Charlotte. She’s leaning on the handrail of one of the walk-ups down on Fourteenth Street. Somebody’s singing but it ain’t Dorko. I think maybe it’s the horn player. Got a deep, gravelly voice. And Charlotte sees me from down the street. I’m walking slow, shuffling like the drum. I’m a few feet away. She’s wearing that red dress, but now it don’t look like a church dress, cause she looks too good to be wearing it to church. She’s looking down at her matching red shoes. Then looks up at me, locks eyes with me.

Kiss me, you fool.

Oh, man.

Ok, I know I was just making up the scene in my head, and truth is, maybe I made it up after the fact, but she said those words that night. So smokey, so hot. It was part of that slow song. And when she said it, she was looking right at me. For sure. Right at me. Probably.

Then that gravelly voice was singing again.

I was sweating. Trying to catch my breath. Cause Charlotte does that to me. Every time.

I finished my beer and looked back at Jess and Hoby. They was jawing at each other. Didn’t seem like they was putting on, either.

Please let this be your last song. I’m just about out of time.

Kiss me, you fool.

Oh, man.

Then that tinny trumpet sound and I could tell the song was winding down.

And behind me, a big crash. It was on.

Dang.

I wanted to let it play out. Just let Jess and Hoby get thrown out of the bar. I could tell them later that me and Charlotte had a thing going on.

I looked back at the band they was all watching, their eyes wide. Charlotte, too. Another crash. Hoby threw some dude across a table. Two more got into it. Jess looked at me and winked just as the bouncer grabbed him around the neck and punched him the face.

I had to do my part.

The bartender was down at the end of the bar helping a couple of girls climb over to get out of the way of fight. I took out the small pry bar out of my jacket, slipped behind the bar, opened the cash drawer, grabbed a hand full and started to make my way out. It took all of seven seconds. I was just about at the door when somebody grabbed me by the collar. I looked around and it was the bartender. He looked back to the stage. Charlotte nodded. She ratted me out.

They dragged me out there before I even knew her name.  Course these days stuff like that’s easy to figure out.

That was two weeks ago.  I go before the judge tomorrow for my sentencing. I’m hoping for probation but if he sends me to the house for a spell, I’m ok with that.

I’m cleaning up my act. No more drinking. Not that I was a fall down drunk, and I when I was in the middle of one of Jess’s plans, it was a total blast. But there was always some kind of mess to clean up the next day. And truth is, I’d never have a chance at someone like Charlotte being the low-life thug that I was.

So, yeah, I’m cleaning up my act. No more Jess or Hoby, either. And no more Connie. I’m Conrad now, just like my momma intended.

Speaking of momma, I went to church with her last Sunday. Not sure if church life is for me, but hey, they talk about forgiveness and starting over and hell, that’s a good place to start. Pardon my language. Got to work on that, too.

And someday Charlotte’s going to say it for real.

Come on over here, Conrad.

Kiss me, you fool.

Oh, man.


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

copyright 2018, joseph e bird
photo credit: iStock

Heather Girl

When my novel Heather Girl is made into a major motion picture starring Amy Adams, this is the song that will play as the opening credits roll and Heather walks down the street to the coffee shop, the wind whipping through her hair. Credit to my cousin, Joe Clatworthy, who wrote the song and recorded it as a member of the group The Muffetts, though they were also known as The Mojos.

lost in a room

An excerpt from my novel, Heather Girl.  If you’re new, here’s the backstory.  Heather’s elderly father has been paroled from prison in Texas where he’s been serving a sentence for the murder of her mother. He’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, and through a series of unexpected events, he’s staying with Heather until she can make other arrangements. Her brother has died and a friend of her father’s from prison, Darnell, aka Booger, has come to visit.  In this scene, about two-thirds through the novel, Heather, who has her own serious health issues, has taken a nasty fall in the garage of her home, where she found one of her mother’s private journals.


She stood, lightheaded at first, but quickly steadied herself. She tried to move her right arm, but again the pain was unbearable. She knew it was broken. She reached behind her head and felt the knot, then traced the trail of blood down her neck and onto her shirt. The bleeding had stopped, but there had been so much. She would likely need stitches.

She picked up the journal, made her way to the garage door and headed back to the house. The kitchen light was still on. Through the window she saw her father and Booger sitting at the kitchen table, Booger talking, always talking, her father listening but not likely hearing a word he was saying, lost in a room of his own imagination, where the past is the present and the present is whatever he wants it to be and the future is not something to be considered. Booger’s cowboy hat sat on the back of his head as he leaned away from the table, lost in a room of his own imagination, where the past is the past and the present is the prelude to a future of grand possibilities. At that moment, with her very real pain of the present and the haunting anguish of the past and a future dark and bleak, she envied the childlike simplicity of their existence and couldn’t quell the contempt that was borne of jealousy and self-pity.

“Idiots.”

She opened the door and went inside.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird, from the novel Heather Girl.

fight

Focus

I didn’t want to hit him.

I had nothing against him. No malice, no hard feelings of any kind. He had done me no harm.

It surprised me when he took that first swing. His eyes wild, hopped up on something, sweat running down his forehead and into his eyes.

I leaned back a little, dipped to the right and easily dodged his looping attempt to take my head off.

It surprised me even more how quickly he took his second swing, this one coming from his left. It caught me in the neck and knocked me back. It didn’t hurt, but I knew right then I’d have to hit him.

He kept coming at me, wailing away as I covered my head, his punches landing on my arms. Then he stopped.

I peaked out between my arms and saw him standing there, his hands by his side, gasping for air. Some of the crazy had left his eyes. Sweating more than ever. I was hoping he’d just quit.

I dropped my hands. He picked his up and came at me again.

I was ready this time and started to move around the ring, slipping and dodging punches. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be able to hit me anymore. There was no way he was going to hurt me. But I also knew that because I hadn’t even thrown a punch, he was ahead on points.

I tossed out a gentle jab, tapped him on the forehead. He threw a wild right. Another jab, square in his face. And another.

Then he charged me. No pretense of boxing, just an all-out street fight. I tried to fend him off, but he ran right through my gloves and into my chest. He grabbed me in a bear hug and tried to wrestle me to the canvas, and in the process, he head-butted me and busted my lip.

So much for a fair fight.

I stepped to my left and swung my torso while I pushed him in the same direction. He stumbled away and almost fell out of the ring. My eyes were watering from the head-butt but I could see clearly enough. He got to his feet and glared at me, readying himself for another charge.

Before he could take a step, I stung him with a jab. A real jab this time, not just a friendly tap on the noggin. It stopped him dead in his tracks. Another one and he wobbled a bit. One more, with feeling.

And he was down.

.

I already knew what I was going to tell Kari. In fact, the lie had already been started.

I told her they needed me to work the second shift, which actually happens now and then. Of course I wasn’t working the second shift, or the first shift, or the hoot owl, for that matter. I wasn’t working any shift. Demand was down, so production slowed and they had to let some of us go. And not just at Maysel No. 2. All the mines were down. So it wasn’t like I could just go somewhere else.

But I was doing what I could. I managed to get a few hours at the prep plant down in Boomer. Even filled in for workers on a road crew in Mingo. But work’s hard to come by right now.

I was hoping I might come out of the fight unscathed, but I had a lie ready for that, too. It’s dark in the mine and it’s not at all unusual to get a few bumps and bruises. A busted lip is a little different, but I could sell it. To Kari, anyway. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to lie to the kids.

She bought it. I think. She didn’t ask any questions when I told her I was off to work the next evening. She even packed my lunch pail.
.

That first night had been like a wild carnival, but those first round fights eliminate most of the drug-crazed loonies. But it was Saturday night and like the old song says, Saturday night’s all right for fighting and there was still enough crazy to go around.

Back in the locker room the handler slipped my gloves on and started to lace them up. The card said I was up against a guy from McDowell County. I asked the handler if he knew him and he nodded toward the guy at the other end of the room. He was already laced up and shadowboxing in front of the mirror.

I knew then that there was a real possibility that I might not make it to the money round.

Not that I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned from my grandfather. Learned about footwork. Learned how to use leverage to throw a punch. Timing with combinations. Defense. And reading an opponent. But that was a long time ago. Gramps had been dead four years now, but it had been even longer – fifteen years, maybe – since I used the skills he taught me.

Gramps fought until he was in his late thirties, just a little older than I am now. He was good. Black Dynamite, they called him. Never made much money. Never could fight his way out of the hollers.

He taught me because he knew I’d need to know how to fight. I wasn’t quite black, which would have brought it’s own challenges, but I wasn’t white either. Got just enough of my mother’s fair skin and my daddy’s brown to put me in my own class of outcast. Half-breed, they called me.

Gramps started training me early and when I turned sixteen, he signed me up for Golden Gloves in Charleston. I did ok, but more importantly, word got out that I was a fighter. Once I survived a couple of challenges by rednecks who just had to see for themselves, everybody left me alone.

.

Turns out the guy from McDowell is more style than substance. We both start out deliberately, because we both think we’re boxers. Proper stance and footwork, moving around the ring in slow circles. He throws a soft jab, not really meaning to hit me, just trying to get things started. He throws another one and his right hand is already dropping. He’s an easy target. He tosses another soft jab. I can see he’s scared. In over his head.

I sting him with a jab and his eyes water up. Another jab and he rocks backward and covers up. I give him a chance to get his head together. Then he tries another jab, this one with a little more velocity, but not nearly enough. I come in over his his right hand with a left hook and it’s all over.

I hear the crowd. A collective ooh. I walk back to my corner, my head down.

I’m in the money round.

.

Gramps killed a man in the ring.

He told me about it after I had quit fighting. Boxing’s supposed to be a sport, but it can get you killed. All it takes is one punch.

I don’t want to have to live with that.

I want this night over. Never again.

.

My next fight was an hour later. If I win, it’s worth $500. That’s why I’m here.

This time I don’t ask about my opponent. I know he’ll be tough. You don’t get to the third round without knowing what you’re doing. I see him for the first time when I step into the ring. He’s at least two inches taller than I am.

Now I’m the one who’s scared.

This fight starts like the last one. Circling, jabbing, but when he throws a jab, he’s not tentative. He’s meaning to hurt me. I slip the first two but the third catches me on the side of the face. I throw a couple of my own but they don’t connect. He throws two more then follows with a right, which I barely duck. I felt the leather skin across the top of my head and I know I’m going to have a burn.

He peppers me with more jabs, each one coming closer to a square hit. He tries the combination again but I’m ready for it this time and have no problem avoiding it. But I can’t get through his gloves. My jabs just meet leather. I try a right cross with the same result.

He flicks another jab. This one on the mouth. He breaks open the cut from last night. I had told Kari that John Boy had poked me with the wrong end of a shovel. I could tell she didn’t believe me. She sure won’t believe John Boy poked me again.

This is not going to end well.

I didn’t see him load up his right hand and it catches me square on the side of my face. The next thing I know I’m looking up at the ref, who’s looking down at me counting. He reaches six and I start to get up and I hear the bell.

I make it to the corner and reach for a towel. Not to wipe my sweat, but to throw it to the ref. I’m outmatched and I could get hurt, really hurt. And if I get hurt, I can’t work.

The second hands me a water bottle.

Go to the body, he says. His hands are so high, you can pound his body all night.

How did I not see that? I wipe my face with the towel.

The bell rings and he thinks he has me. More jabs, which I knew were coming. And the right. This time I go under and step forward. A right to his gut. Then a left and another right. I hear him grunting, trying to push me away. I step back, throw a couple of jabs, then here he comes again.

I step inside and start pounding. He cusses and I know I’m hurting him. I get maybe five or six really good punches before he pushes me away again. Now he’s mad.

Before I can get set he catches me again with another right and down I go. But I don’t feel it like I felt the first one. I’m back on me feet at three. The ref dusts my gloves and I wait for the barrage.

Here it comes. Jab. Jab. Right.

Again I duck under and go to work. His elbows drop to his side and I move toward the center of his stomach. His sweat is dripping all over me, but I keep hitting before he finally clinches and holds my arms.

The ref breaks us up and I step back. His arms are down. He doesn’t want me to hit him in the gut anymore. And I know he can’t throw his jab with his arms down.

I fake a punch to his stomach and he covers up. I launch a left hook. Then a right cross. He’s reeling and I follow up with a perfectly leveraged left hook to the head. The best punch I’ve ever thrown in my life.

And he’s down. He’s not moving. Out cold.

I’m caught up in the sport of boxing, enjoying the moment of victory, the successful strategy, the physical triumph. The crowd is roaring. It feels good. No, it feels great.

He still hasn’t moved.

The referee is kneeling beside him. The ring doctor is there, too. Someone is fanning him.

He still hasn’t moved.

I start to pray. I didn’t even know it at the time, but when I replay the scene in my mind, I was praying.

He still hasn’t moved.

How was I going to tell Kari? How was I ever going to be able to face my kids?

Then I see his eyes flicker, then open slowly. He looks around and they pull him up to a seated position. A couple of minutes later, he’s on his feet.

But that’s it. Five hundred is enough for Christmas presents. I forfeited the championship match.

.

I got home after midnight. Kari was waiting on the couch, the television on, the tree in corner, no presents underneath.

Junior called, she said.

Junior’s my boss.

Said to come back to the mine on Monday night if you want to work the hoot owl.

She knew all along. I could tell. She looked at my bruised face.

Did you win?

I pulled the envelope from my back pocket and handed it to her.

For you and the kids.

We got to do something else, Jimmy. We can’t live like this.

I nodded. There weren’t a lot of options. It wouldn’t be easy. But she was right.

I sat on the couch beside her and she leaned her head on my shoulder.

Somehow we’d figure it out.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird
Photo Credit: iStock

I miss you, Darlin’.

clown 2 for web

Halloween’s never been my thing. With all the genuine evil in the world, do we really need to be celebrating the dark side? I’ll pass on the make-believe macabre, the bed-sheet ghosts, and ouija board spirits. Who needs that when you have real hauntings? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. One that I wish I didn’t have to consider. But it’s not my choice.

It’s been five years now. Three since I moved to Arizona.

We lived in Ohio at the time, Carolyn and I. Chillicothe. We’d been married for a couple of years and life was good. You know, the honeymoon that never ends. We were a good match. I’m a practical guy. Sensible. Reasonable. Just this side of boring. Maybe not even this side. Carolyn was anything but. Everyone loved Carolyn. She was a real free spirit. I loved that about her.

It was fall. For me, that meant football. I would have been happy staying home watching games all weekend, but Carolyn was restless and wanted to get out. She needed a change of scenery, away from the unrelenting flat land of Ohio.  The mountains, she said. The leaves would be at their peak and the weather promised to be nearly perfect, with just a slight chance of rain. I never could resist her enthusiasm. We got up early on Saturday morning, threw a change of clothes in a duffel bag and headed across the border to West Virginia.

We drove for hours, stopping now and then at scenic overlooks, taking pictures of everything. We got to one of the state parks around noon and had lunch in the lodge, then walked it off with a hike to the falls.  There was another park about three hours away and we thought that would be a good place to spend the night, so we jumped in the car and headed west, chasing the sunset, as it were.

We never made it to the park.

River Mills. Such a nice sounding town. Carolyn had been reading the tourist flyers while I drove and she thought she remembered reading something about the town. A restaurant, maybe. She flipped through her stack of flyers, looking for the one that mentioned River Mills, but she never found it. Or course she wanted to stop anyway. I wanted to go on. I was beat. A lumpy state park mattress was calling my name. But it was Carolyn. Her persuasion was hard to resist.

We got off the four-lane and as we drove the seven miles on the winding highway toward River Mills, the sun hid behind thickening clouds and after a few minutes, a light rain began to fall. A mist rose from the warm asphalt.

A worn, wooden sign welcomed us to River Mills. We passed a gas station, closed since forever. Not a convenience store, an honest-to-goodness gas station with a two-bay garage and a glassed-in office where the owner would sell tires and ring up the sale on a cash register and the old men of River Mills would gather and gossip worse than the women ever did. The windows were broken. The gas pumps were gone.

Then another dilapidated building. More busted windows. Faded white paint on red brick spelled out River Mills Hardware.  I began to calculate how long it would take us to backtrack and get to the park.

Just a little farther, Carolyn suggested. I didn’t argue.

Up ahead I saw a traffic light. I took that as a good sign. That traffic light is gone now. At least it was the last time I was in River Mills.  That was four years ago.

The streets were empty.  Not completely empty, but there was a uneasy quiet about the place. Most of the storefronts were vacant. Some of the buildings had been gutted, stripped of walls, floors and even the roof, so that all that was left was the facade and the back wall. We drove past a second-hand shop that might have still been in business, but it was hard to tell for sure. Another store had mannequins clothed in old wedding dresses. There was no sign out front, no name on the glass, nothing to indicate what that was all about.

street for web

We drove on.  Carolyn was sure there was a place to eat. Another two blocks and we came to what looked like an old courthouse. Closed, of course. It was nearing six o’clock, after all, and there was no sign of life anywhere.

And then this.

clown 3 for web

Yeah, Halloween was a couple of weeks away, but this seemed a little over the top for a small town. A little too scary. We both forced a laugh.

They really get into the spirit here, Carolyn said.

Looking back, I think that spirit had always been there. And I know it still is.

The town completely creeped me out. I think Carolyn was feeling the same thing, and just as I was about to suggest that we go on to the park, she saw what she had been looking for. The River Mills Cafe. The lights were on. There were people inside. So Carolyn was right again. Except this time she wasn’t.

We parked out front and went inside. Helen greeted us and showed us to a table. I didn’t know Helen’s name at the time, but I found out later. Helen King. She wore an old-fashioned, yellow shift dress. She smiled as she seated us and then winked at me. She asked us what we’d like to drink. Coffee for me. Carolyn asked if they had hot tea.

Sure thing, honey.

She touched Carolyn’s shoulder. Her hand lingered. Then she left and Carolyn gave me a look that acknowledged the weirdness.

She winked at me.

She winked at you?  What does that mean?

I was going to ask you.

I’ve got to find a bathroom.

She left. Helen brought my coffee.

Where’s Carolyn? she asked.

How do you know her name?

You said, tea for you, Carolyn?

But I hadn’t. At least I didn’t think I had. Maybe I did.

She left and returned with a small porcelain tea pot, a matching cup, and a box of assorted teas. I remember these things distinctly. Ordering hot tea at small diners can be surprising. So I noted the tea pot, the cup, and the box of teas. I remember thinking that Carolyn would be pleased.

Carolyn returned and smiled at the arrangement set at her place. Maybe this would be ok.

I excused myself for my turn to the bathroom.

Hurry back.

I thought nothing of those words at the time. Now I think of them every day.

Hurry back.

After I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror, knowing I was little tired, but thinking I might be able run my fingers through my hair, maybe freshen up a bit for Carolyn’s sake. My reflection was hazy, as if the mist from outside had somehow settled on the glass of the mirror. I pulled a paper towel from the roll on the wall and wiped the glass, but the haze was still there. I tossed the paper in the trash and headed back to the dining room. The haze came with me. I could barely make out Helen standing behind the counter. I stopped and rubbed my eyes and blinked hard. Helen gave me a strange smile. I half expected her to wink again. The haze was slowly clearing from my eyes, but there was soft edge around Helen. A soft, fading edge.

I made my way back to our table. Carolyn wasn’t there.

I looked around. Maybe she went back to the bathroom. Or maybe she saw a gift shop and wanted to check it out. I sat at our table and took a drink of coffee.

The tea was gone. The tea pot, the cup, and the little box of teas. All gone.

Are you ready to order? It was Helen.

Where did Carolyn go?

Who?

Carolyn. My wife.

I’m sorry?

What are you talking about? She was here with me. You brought her hot tea.

Hot tea?

With the tea pot and tea cup.

Helen took a step back. We don’t have hot tea here.

I looked around, knowing that I’d see her. She had to be there. Then I noticed the others were gone, too.

Where’d everybody go?

Everybody?

The other customers. My wife. Where is everybody?

It’s been a little slow today. You’re our only customer this evening.

She must be in the bathroom.

I got up, almost running to the bathroom. I banged on the door and it swung open.

Carolyn?

No answer. I checked the stalls. Nothing. I went back to the dining room.

Where is she? Where is she?

Through the door to the kitchen. An old lady stood over a pot on the stove, stirring. There was no one else. Back to the dining room.

Where is she? My heart was racing.

I went out to the car. There was no sign of her.

Back to the dining room. Helen stood, her arms crossed.

Sir, you came in alone. I would have noticed if someone else was with you.

Why are you doing this? Is there a gift shop close by?

I didn’t wait for an answer. Up and down the streets I ran, looking for some place she might have gone. When I got back to the cafe, a deputy sheriff was waiting for me.

What seems to be the problem, son?

He didn’t believe my story.

I gave him my I.D. and showed him our duffel bag in the car. The flyers. Told him about our trip. How she insisted on stopping in River Mills. He looked me up in the system and confirmed that I was married. But my wife was missing. Last seen by anyone but me a hundred miles away. And just like that, I was a suspect in my wife’s disappearance.

The deputies looked all over River Mills but they were more interested in retracing where we had gone after we had left the park. I spent the night in a run-down motel just outside of town. The next day was more of the same. More searching, more questions, but no answers.

Another night and another day. Then another. Then another.

The deputies grilled me pretty good, but friends back home vouched for our relationship. I know the sheriff’s office thinks I killed Carolyn, but lacking a body, evidence, or a motive, they had no choice but to rule it a missing persons case. For them, a dead end.

I stayed two more nights.

She was gone.

I went back to Ohio, but called the sheriff’s office every day for two weeks. Not a trace, not a clue. I knew I would never see her again. I knew I would never know what happened.

It was a long, cold winter, the kind that keeps you inside and makes you think about things. I couldn’t just give up on her. After the first of the year, I went back to River Mills. I had to find something, anything, that would give me answers. Up and down the snow-covered roads. The town hadn’t changed a bit. The cafe was still open. I saw Helen through the window serving customers wearing that same yellow shift dress. I parked across the street and watched for a couple of hours. I stayed in River Mills all night, cruising the streets, in and out of town. As dawn broke, I found myself sitting on a bench overlooking the river that runs along the highway. Cold, tired, and utterly alone.

Back in Chillicothe, I tried to go back to living a normal life. Well, not normal. There was no such thing as normal anymore. But Carolyn’s words wouldn’t leave me alone.

Hurry back.

I could hear her voice.

Hurry back.

It was more than just something to say. There was tension in the way she had said it. The more I played her words back in my mind, the more I thought about it, the more I knew that it was fear in her voice.

Hurry back.

Did she know? Was it a premonition?

It was fall when I returned. The Halloween decorations were out again. Another scary clown stood staked in the courthouse lawn. And the stoplight was gone.

I spent all day and all night there. This time I talked to Helen. She stood with her arms crossed. Her answers to my questions were cold and unsympathetic. She wanted me gone. I searched the cafe as I had the year before and again found nothing. The old woman in the kitchen sat on a stool, her hands clasped in her lap, and just stared.

I spent the night in a motel in the next town over and the following day I made the rounds through River Mills again. And again, I found nothing. Heading out of town, I passed the same dilapidated buildings. The old hardware store. The gas station. The ramshackle shed that looked like it would fall with a strong gust of wind. I’d passed it probably dozens of times in the last year. But something was different. Graffiti on the side of the shack. Writing. I had gone by too fast to read it so I turned around and drove by again.

I miss you, Darlin’.

Carolyn.

My heart stopped.

It’s what she called me, sometimes. Darlin’. With the g dropped. Country style. Darlin’.

And the butterflies under the message. Her favorite doodle. Butterflies.

I pulled onto the gravel in front of the shed, almost hitting it with my car.

Carolyn!

I stuck my head in the door. It was dark and all I could see was trash and rotting timbers.

Carolyn!

I ran behind the shack, calling her name as I went.

I found a piece of pipe and went back to the front. I kicked the door open and with pipe in hand, made my way through the shack. A black snake hung from rafters. But that was the only sign of life.

I called the sheriff’s office and told the deputy that Carolyn was alive and that they needed to search the area out by the highway.

Just kids, he said. They paint their little love notes all over town.

But the butterflies.

Yeah. Butterflies. 

I stayed three more days. I came back a month later and the message was gone. Not painted over, just gone.

Hurry back.

But I coudn’t. I just had to let it go. For the sake of my sanity.

No more River Mills. No more mountains. No more fall colors. No more hauntings.

But it hasn’t helped. I still hear her. In the still of the desert air, on the cool nights, with a million stars overhead, I still hear her.

Hurry back. I miss you Darlin’.

darlin for web


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Appalachian Spring

Larry Ellis posted this over at Home Economics. It’s a great description of where we live, in the heart of Appalachia.

At the end a character is introduced and then left standing there. The story of Jack Sampson is told in Larry’s award-winning novel, In the Forest of the Night.
_________________________________________________________

His ancestors settled in the central Appalachians without a thought for aesthetics. They came not for the beauty or value of this place, but only to escape from servitude and second-class citizenship in those cities to the north where their own forebears had landed as indentured servants. This new land to the south was steep, overgrown and not particularly amenable to the plow, but it was away from those engines of commerce and social institutions that had benefitted those to whom they were beholden and had just as certainly kept them a class away from full participation in the new nation’s economy.

The weather here was no more inviting than the soil. The winters were long and damp and made of days and weeks of snow so deep that travel was nearly impossible and in the summers the heat and humidity and insects were relentless. No one who had the luxury of considering the comforts a location might afford would have chosen to live here. There were no beautiful waterfronts and no rolling, thousand-acre spreads of black soil. All of life was closed in to narrow valleys and closed off to the flow of goods and information common to the new cities on the coast.

Those who came to escape the cities paid no heed to the hardships the land and the weather imposed, but lived their short lives together on subsistence farms, learning how to hunt and what to gather in the vast forests that surrounded their villages.

The generations brought change, of course. When those in the north learned that this land was rich in coal, oil and gas, industry came to Appalachia and the tiny villages became small towns and small cities and some made enough money to move themselves back into the mainstreams of commerce and society in the cities of the eastern plain..

It was, and is, an unromantic place. There are no ancient gardens or master artworks on display. There are no homes of famous artists or statesmen and no classic myth to fill the air with mystery.

But in the spring, something happens that no one who settled here saw coming and no one who has not lived here knows of or could even imagine. There are days in April when the scent of the blossoms all over the forests – the tulip poplar flowers, the lilac buds, the honeysuckle, the white blooms of the apple and plum trees, the new buds of the sycamore and the birch – all are lifted from the mountainsides in the softest breezes and the new warmth of the spring sun dries the stones on the edges of the creeks and branches and sends into the air cleansing mineral aromas and the trees on every hillside unfold in new green and soft rains fall and the forest floor thaws and releases the essence of the earth into the air. There are a thousand varieties of tiny plants that sprout under the canopy of the forest in these days. Only the Shawnee knew them. Only the Shawnee had given them names. They are tender and live only for days and in those days they release their own perfume, each a different, subtle taste. The clouds part and the grey of winter disappears and the sky is clear and high above the hawks soar and wheel on the gentle, warm thermals. The sun glistens on the rivers and those rivers run for those few days green and blue like the purest emeralds and sapphires. It is a season all its own, hidden from those who give names to such things, and in those few days the romance of this rugged place is enough to fill the longings of men’s souls and to ignite in their hearts even deeper longings.

It was in this time, in the middle of these days, that Jack Sampson fell in love.


Copyright 2017, Larry Ellis

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