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Joseph E Bird

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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.
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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

The garage.

I recently attended the Design and Equipment Expo in Charleston and met a local photographer, Emily Shafer, who specializes in industrial photography. She has a creative sensibility and transforms ordinary images from the blue collar world in to works of art. Like a set of greasy Craftsman tools.

The next day I walked across the street to the mall and saw signs outside the Sears store announcing its closing. I went in and browsed a little, but there wasn’t much left. Empty shelves where the Craftsman tools used to be. With all of that, I couldn’t help but think of a scene I had written in my novel, Heather Girl.

Heather is traveling to Texas to see her father, who has just been paroled. She stops for gas in Montgomery, Alabama and has car trouble. A man and his son are watching (and eventually offer to help). As she’s trying to figure out what the problem is, she remembers learning about cars in her father’s garage.


She turned the key and the engine turned slowly a couple of times but didn’t start. She turned the key again. Same thing. And again.

She popped the latch on the hood and got out of the car. The boy looked up, then looked away. She opened the hood and looked at the battery.

Always start with the battery.

Her father’s voice. What was it now, thirty years ago?

Easiest thing to check, easiest thing to fix.

The smells of the garage came back to her. Warm, oily smells. There was a gas heater on the back wall and in the winter, there was always a hint of unburned fumes, but most of the time it was tools and parts and greasy rags that made the garage feel heavy and comfortable. The same garage that now is more of a storage locker. Her father’s tools went with him when her parents moved across town, then were sold when they moved south to escape the cold winters of the mountains. She and Robert bought the family home.  Robert took over the garage as his own workshop, complete with a table saw and other carpentry tools. His tools are still there, but are never used. Boxes of boys’ forgotten toys and yard sale finds make it nearly impossible to even see them. She keeps the lawnmower by the door, along with a few garden tools, and every spring makes the same promise that she’ll never keep to throw out the junk and put some order to the mess.

Despite everything, she found it hard not to think back to when the garage was truly a place for parking the family car, and for the weekend project of rebuilding the brakes or cleaning the carburetor or putting in a new radiator. Her dad had a natural genius for such things, part of the reason he was a good engineer. She loved being around him when he was working. It was when he seemed most content. Anything could be fixed.

She learned by watching, and when it became apparent that her brother Wayne had more interest in music than cars, she became her father’s tomboy grease monkey. She never learned enough to really diagnose a car’s problem, but she could change the oil, put in new spark plugs, and even tinker with the timing. She also learned why he enjoyed that kind of work so much, aside from the peace of the garage. Parts that didn’t work properly were thrown out, never to be seen again. Repair manuals didn’t lie. And the tools were always faithful.

If she had one of those old crescent wrenches, maybe the big one that had been used so much that the brand imprinted on the handle had worn away, she could tighten the nuts on the battery terminal. Though she knew that wasn’t the cause of the problem. She looked at the engine and tugged at the battery cables. They seemed tight. Not much corrosion. More than likely the battery was dead.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Writer’s Log – Insomnia

Last night was one of those nights.  Fell awake around 3:00, finally decided to quit fighting it around 3:30.  I made a cup of tea and sat down in front of the computer. My imaginary friend, Heather, has been stuck in a waffle house for a few days now.  I’m sure she wishes I’d get her out of there.

So at 3:30, I was going to make something happen.

But.

4:00, and she was still there.  I had managed to go back and tweak a few things, made a couple of sentences better. But I was still blocked.

Maybe this is the end.  Maybe Heather never gets out of the waffle house. Maybe nobody cares what happens to her.

I’m 10,000 words in.  Not that much, really, in word count. I’ve abandoned novels at 40,000 words. Except that I’ve taken my time with these words, tried to write them better as I go. So it would be disheartening to pull the plug.

There’s a mother and a kid – a screaming kid – in the waffle house, too. At first, the mother was sitting with her back to Heather. I rearranged the furniture. Now they’re sitting beside Heather, facing each other, so that when Heather hears the kid scream and turns to look, she makes eye contact with the mother. It was an uncomfortable moment.

And then.  And then.  And then.

At 5:00, Heather was still in the waffle house. But things had changed dramatically. I was unstuck.  I went to bed.  I still couldn’t sleep, but it was a more restful insomnia.

Lesson 1: Maybe insomnia has a reason.

Lesson 2: Sometimes you just need to rearrange the furniture.

Lesson 3: Sometimes being uncomfortable is good.

 

Writer’s Log – You think you know your characters?

I’ve been writing about Heather for a couple of months now.  You remember Heather, the woman with the two boys, living alone now that they’re out of the house. She studied Avery’s photographs in the coffee shop until she learned that her father was being let out of prison.  I thought I knew her, too.

But when she leaves for Texas to get her father settled in with her brother, she takes a detour to stop and see her ex-husband three states away.  I didn’t know she was going to do that until she started driving. And on the way there, she reveals a little something about herself that I didn’t know. Something a little disturbing.

How can I not know these things?  She’s an invention of my imagination.

There are fiction writing gurus who will tell you to plan your characters meticulously, to know their history, their families, their personalities, their moral standings, even which toothpaste they prefer. I can see the advantage to writing that way. There is less likelihood that your character will do something, well, out of character. These same gurus will also advise you to allow for the possibility that your character might surprise you along the way.

In my previous work, I’ve tried to outline my characters as much as possible. With Heather, as well as the other characters in my story, I’m completely winging it. It’s kind of like I’m along for the ride. What better way to get to know Heather than to spend three days in the car with her?  So, yeah, I was surprised at what I learned.

Then there’s her ex-husband.  I had some thoughts about what he might be like.  Some thoughts about why they weren’t together anymore.  But Heather hasn’t really told me anything about all of that yet, not even in the four hours it took to get to Charlotte.

It wasn’t until they were face to face that I started to see some things.

The front door opened when she was halfway up the sidewalk.

“I’ll be damned.”

He was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt and looked like he hadn’t shaved for a few days. His once-blonde hair was mostly dark brown now with just a little gray around the temples. It was long and unruly and made her smile. He was aging very well.

“Hi, Robert.”

“And out of sky she fell, like an autumn leaf floating on a cool October breeze, my beautiful Heather Girl.”

He was off the porch and had wrapped his arms around her before she made it to the steps.

“It’s so good to see you.”

His voice was almost a whisper, but not quite. A true whisper would have been out of place, maybe a little threatening, a normal voice would have lost the sincerity. It was the perfect intonation, the kind of thing that came natural to Robert Scott. She had no choice but to believe his words.

And so on.

Robert is as much of a surprise as Heather.  I’m glad I didn’t plan these guys out. I really think it would have stifled the creativity.  All of this may be a complete train wreck before it’s through, but I sure am having fun writing it.  Which for me, is the whole point.

Joe Durango

I’ve never been big on New Year resolutions, but I think I’m going to try the George Costanza thing and do the opposite. So instead of ignoring the resolution tradition, I’m going all in, baby!

I’m going to change my writing style completely, and while I’m at it, I’m going to introduce a new character that will drive my writing from here on out. Joe Durango.

I realize that’s not so much a resolution as it is just a change, but heck, let’s not quibble. This is a big deal.

Now the name Joe Durango evokes kind of a rugged image. You don’t want to mess with Joe Durango. So with my character, I need to figure out what kind of story to write.  Here are some options.

Joe Durango.  A tough, gritty cop.  Misunderstood, with a lot of personal baggage. Solves cases his way. Women are drawn to him, but don’t understand him.

“You are one damaged cop, Joe Durango,” Damonica said. Then she walked away.  

Joe Durango, the lonely hero.

Or.

Joe Durango.  A drifter, just looking for a steady paycheck and a bunk. No one knows much about his past, but he has a way with horses. The other cowhands are afraid to ask him about the scar on his face. Women are drawn to him, but don’t understand him.

“So, Joe Durango, are you ever going to talk about what happened in Carson City?” Annabel asked. She waited.  “No. I didn’t think so.”

Joe Durango, alone on the range.

Or.

Joe Durango. Baseball prodigy, came out of nowhere. Throws a fastball like no one has seen before.  He plays one game in the majors, then walks away from it all. A living legend in baseball, but the rest of his life is a complete mystery.  Woman are drawn to  him, but don’t understand him.

“Take me with you, Joe Durango,” Willow said. “I just want to be with you, wherever that may be.”
“Where I’m going is no place for a lady,” he answered.

Joe Durango, man of mystery.

No, not really.

 

American Pastoral

“I have to go write my review,” I said.

“Why do you have to write a review?” she asked.

“I don’t have to write a review.”

And then I realized that, yes, I have to. Not that anybody really cares what I, an overfed, long-haired leaping gnome, thinks about a book that’s almost 20 years old. Still, I need to get this out of my system. Let’s call it writer’s therapy.

As I said before, I can’t think of anybody in my circle of friends and family to whom I would recommend this book.  It’s just too much…of everything. And yet, I’m glad I read it. It was good exercise.

“The Swede.”

As if to answer who the book is about, the first sentence leaves no doubt.

It’s about Seymour Levov, aka The Swede, and his seemingly ideal American family set in the time of the Vietnam War. The pivotal event: his daughter blows up a post office as a protest to the war and a man is killed. The daughter goes on the run.

This plot line is slowly dripped (more slowly than my father’s decrepit coffee maker) as the author tells us everything about everybody that dares make an appearance in the novel.

Warning: Never volunteer to be a character in a Philip Roth story. He knows all and tells all.

And this is why I’m glad I read the book. It was one heckuva an exercise in character development. Layer after layer after layer.  After layer, after layer, after layer.  After layer, after layer, after layer, with enough hints at a story to keep you interested. Like the daughter has been missing for five years. And then, three-quarters into the book, he finds her.  Ok, we know the characters pretty well, so now the story is going to pick up.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Everytime something is about to happen, we get more dense paragraphs of exposition. Layer, after layer, after layer.

Then there’s the character Marcia Umanoff, a militant non-conformist whose duty in life is to make people uncomfortable. She’s a thinker and disdains simpletons. She’ll do anything to get under your skin. An elitist. Her actions in the novel are irritating, yet the perfect foil to the perfect world of the perfect Seymour Levov. I’m not giving away much to tell you that his world is not as perfect as it seems. Marcia Umanoff represents reality.

So here comes Joe Bird, a simple man (with a simple name) taking on a highly-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Because he concludes that the book will not be in his top ten of all time, an elitist might conclude that the allegory and symbolism and sheer depth of the narrative might be too much for such a simple man. The elitist may be right.

Page 413: “These deep thinkers were the only people he could not stand to be around for long, these people who’d never manufactured anything or seen anything manufactured, who did not know what things were made of or how a company worked, who, aside from a house or a car, had never sold anything and didn’t know how to sell anything, who’d never hired a worker, fired a worker, trained a worker, been fleeced by a worker – people who knew nothing of the intricacies or the risks of building a business or running a factory but who nonetheless imagined that they knew everything worth knowing.”

Yeah. It’s like that.

 

 

A Dangerous Place

She sat in front of me off to the side, this woman. Her years were twenty-something, maybe thirty, and so she was not yet tainted by the disappointments in life and like all of us at that age, she was the embodiment of optimism and hope. At least that’s the way I read it. But I tend to be overly philosophical and maybe find too much meaning in such things. This is true: she was youthfully and innocently pretty. Not that her appearance has anything to do with what happened. It’s just that I noticed.

And I wouldn’t have noticed had she not turned her head slightly to the right and away from the singer on stage. Something had her attention. My natural reaction was to look in that direction. I didn’t have to turn much, but from my perspective, there was nothing to see. Just more people, listening and watching the young man on stage. None of my business, I thought, and got back into the music.

Still, she stared. Almost unblinking. It was more than a curiosity. She had slipped into a state of para-consciousness, aware of what she was seeing, but unaware that she had become so transfixed. It’s a dangerous place to be. There’s no physical threat of course, but there is a distinct possibility that whoever has created this vortex of cognition will sense that they’re being watched and well, you know what happens. At the very least, it’s awkward, and sometimes threatening. The longer it goes, the more dangerous it gets.

Still, she stared.

I looked again to my right. Again, I saw nothing unusual.

And then I saw it.

A person. A young girl. Six, seven, maybe eight years old, hair in a pony tail. She was moving slightly to the music, but instead of watching the singer and smiling, as a young girl might do, she was looking down to her left, almost pensive. She was hearing the music, but she was also thinking. About the song? Maybe, though it was just a Christmas carol. About something else? More likely. School work? Family? Who knows.

I looked back to the young woman.

Still, she stared.

The young girl contemplated, glancing up every now and then, but lost in her thoughts. It was unusual.

Maybe the young woman saw herself in the little girl. Maybe she too, was a thinker, a sensitive soul who had also wrestled with the mysteries at a young age. Maybe she was worried about her.

Still, she stared.

You know what happened. We all have that sixth sense. Maybe it’s a subconscious observation that’s rooted in the first five senses, but it’s so much easier to claim the sixth sense. That intuition that tells us something’s not right. Or that feeling that someone is watching. The little girl looked over her left shoulder and made eye contact with the young woman.

Hers was a reflex that could have been measured in milliseconds. She immediately turned away, as did the young girl.

I felt bad for both of them. Embarrassed for the young woman and sympathetic for the girl.

But almost as soon as they had turned away, they both, instinctively it seemed, turned to back toward each other. The young woman smiled. The little girl smiled back.

Two smiles that said so much.

I understand. You have a friend.

Thank you.

At least that’s what it seemed to me. But then again, I tend to see too much in such things.


copyright 2016, joseph e bird

Monday

It was a Monday, the only truthful day of the week. All other days were liars. Only Monday told you how bad your life really was. It had been a long, gray winter, but that morning in March the sun filtered through the trees on the east bank of the Seneca River and tried to convince her that this Monday would be different. It was the twenty-ninth spring for Savannah Joyce and she would be nobody’s fool. Especially not Monday’s.


copyright 2004, joseph e bird


This is the opening of my first novel, Counsel of the Ungodly.

No Good Tree (4)

Lex sat on the sofa and drank his tea in three long gulps. He took small bites of his sandwich and picked at the potatoes as he watched the reports from astronomers and scientists from around the world. Their predictions varied a little, but the consensus still seemed to be that The Asteroid was on a collision course with Earth. No one could say for sure if it would be a direct hit or a glancing blow, but there was little detectable optimism coming from the scientific community. He could tell that most were trying to restrain themselves from declaring doomsday.

The report switched to Washington, where President Espinosa had orchestrated a teleconference with President Jianming of China and Russian President Medvedev, all of whom had promised an unprecedented cooperative effort to work together to solve the crisis.

“Rest assured,” President Espinosa offered, “the world’s superpowers will do whatever it takes to come up with a plan to divert The Asteroid. Time is on our side, but we can’t delay. That is why the best scientific minds, and the best military leaders, will convene next week at the United Nations in New York. President Jianming, President Medvedev, and I will be there to assure that no option is left on the table and that every possibility is explored. We will find an answer. We will solve this crisis. And as we set aside our differences and come together for the most important common cause in history, we will no doubt usher in a new era of cooperation and peace.”

He put his sandwich down. The gravity of the situation couldn’t have been more dramatically illustrated. If the President sought to reassure, he did just the opposite. As far as Alexander Knight was concerned, the situation was grave. By most accounts, he had ten years to live.

The news anchor continued. “Around the world the reaction to The Asteroid has been surprisingly calm. The predictions of chaos have been, for the most part, wrong. In some of the larger cities in the United States, there were brief moments of looting, but order was quickly restored, not only by the police, but by the general populace. There was a sense of pulling together, as shop owners and neighbors helped one another defend their properties. The same was true, more or less, in all of the world’s major cities. Jim Arula in Los Angeles has more.”

Becky pushed her father into the family room and then sat down next to Lex. She put her arm around his shoulders, then caressed his back as he leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

“Anything new?” she asked.

“Not really.”

“Is Wheel on yet?” Harley asked.

“It might not be on tonight,” Becky said. “Might be special coverage.”

“Damn meteor.”

“Asteroid,” Lex corrected.

“It’s not like the world’s going to end tomorrow,” Harley said.

Lex held up a hand to Harley. “Financial report. I want to hear this.”

“As you might expect,” the anchor said, “Wall Street didn’t like today’s news. The Dow closed down almost ten percent, the largest single day loss in the history of the Dow. Raul Gupta in New York has more.”

“Dan,” Raul began, “everyone knows that if there’s one thing investors don’t like, it’s uncertainty. The news today created the biggest cloud of uncertainty that mankind has ever known. Given that, it’s no wonder that stocks around the world plunged.”

“There goes our 401k,” said Lex.

“You’re not going to need it anyway,” Harley said.

Gupta continued. “Most investors I talked to today acknowledged the uncertainty and were not surprised by the record-setting sell-off. At the same time, they stress that in the investment world, ten years is what most analysts consider mid to long-term. A lot can happen between now and then, and the smart money will stay in the market, even buying bargains once the market hits bottom. As one broker told me, it’s really a no-brainer. If The Asteroid hits, it’s not going to make any difference whether you were in the market or not. But if it misses, and you’re out of the market, you will have lost out on what he predicts will be the biggest bull market ever.”

“Thanks, Raul,” the anchor said. “In an extraordinary move, all of the major stock markets of the world announced today that they would suspend trading for the rest of the week to provide a cooling off period for investors to gain perspective.”

“What do you think, Dr. Knight?” Lex asked Becky.

“By the time we’d be in a position to make any trades our portfolio will have taken a huge hit. When the markets open again, I’ll shift some things around, but that broker’s right. If we take it out, the losses become real and permanent. If we hang in there, we’ll enjoy the ride back up.”

“Provided there’s good news.”

“I’m not sure we necessarily need good news. I mean ten years is a long time. Most people can’t just quit their jobs. The ninety-nine percent will need some income and will probably keep investing. I think in the short-term, maybe for a couple of years, the market’s going to be down. But there are opportunities in down markets.”

Lex thought for a moment. “You know when you start back up this fall, you won’t be able to teach the same investment theory you’ve always taught. The thirty-year plan will be out the window.”

Harley laughed.

“I’ll have to think about that,” Becky said. “For sure, the emphasis is likely to change. But then again, you can’t rule out the possibility that the rock misses us.”

“Asteroid,” Harley said. “Oh, good. Wheel’s on.”

“Might be the thing that finally gets that show off the air,” Lex said. He picked up his plate and headed back to the kitchen. “I’m going to call J.J. Have you talked to him today?”

“No, I thought I’d wait on you this evening,” Becky said.

He put the phone on speaker and dialed J.J.’s number. He answered on the third ring.

“Hey, J.J. Your mom and I just wanted to check on you and see how you’re doing.
Things crazy down there?”

“It’s always crazy in Houston, Dad.”

“Any looting?”

“Oh, you know how it is. Some people will try to take advantage of a crisis situation. We had some of that in parts of the city. Downtown was fine, though. I mean, there was a lot of talk and people are on edge, but so far, nothing too bad.”

“What’s your read on the oil sector?” Becky asked.

“You’re on summer break, Mom. You’re supposed to be working in your garden.”

“Seriously, J.J.”

“Are you kidding? Nothing boosts the price of oil more than the world coming to an end. Boom times, Momma.”

“For now.”

“Yeah,” J.J. said. “We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

“How’s Aisha?” Lex asked.

“She’s a rock. Nothing phases her. Surviving Hurricane Anders made her strong.”

“How’s her family doing?”

“Generally, ok. Haven’t talked to them in a week so I don’t know how their handling this news. Odds are, they’re still focused on rebuilding.”

“They’re going to stay in New Orleans?”

“Oh, yeah. That’s home. How’s Grandpa?” J.J. asked.

“Watching Wheel of Fotune,” Lex answered.

“Of course.”


copyright 2016, joseph e bird

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