If you’re going to do a book signing, you need Jake Jarmel glasses. So I guess I’m ready.
Tomorrow 10:00-12:00 at Coal River Coffee in beautiful downtown St. Albans.
carnival dreams, of course.
a little bluesy music for the cold, wintry night.
the fiddle player…she’s good.
I’ll be dead afore the ground thaws in spring. So be it and amen.
The house is full of people come to tell me goodbye. And I’m laying in bed, alone in this dark room. Oh, they been here, said their hellos and moved on to the kitchen, I reckon. I smell a roast or something. Doubt that Mom cooked anything. She can still do eggs in the morning and maybe some beans and cornbread of the evenings, but she can’t cook for a whole mess of people like has come here today. She ain’t that much better off than me. She ain’t my mom, you know. She’s my wife, my help meet, as the good book says. All these years.
I can hear them in the back room, too, watching that danged television. Football, football, football. Ever now and again they let out a whoop.
They didn’t have football in my day. Well, maybe they did, but it wasn’t like it is now. Sure fire didn’t have no television. They don’t live like we used to. Now days they watch other people live. We did things. Went out on the river. If I could get out this bed I’d take them down to my museum one last time. Show them that alligator I got down in the bayou. Got that on the second trip down the Mississippi. That was back when you made your own boats. Flat boats. No motors like they got now. Just float down the river with the current. We’d hunt all the way down and when we got to the bayou, we’d sell the boat and send our haul back by rail. Except on that second trip, the Eugene – that was the name of the boat – got caught up in the trees and rocks and such and sank in the shallows. We tried to pull it out but we lost ever thing. Saved just enough to get a train ride home.
Those were good days.
One of them rug rats came in. Red-haired kid. Cute little thing, wearing a girly white dress. She stayed out in the hall at first, peeking in through the doorway. I told her come on in. She stood next to the bed, didn’t say nothing.
What’s your name?
How old are you?
I’m ninety two.
She had nothing to say to that. Kind of tickled me.
Did you get you something to eat?
She looked around the room. The wallpaper had started peeling off the walls. Been that way for a while. Plaster on the ceiling is brown from water stains and ever few weeks a chunk will fall to the maple floor and Blanche or Hubert will come in and pick it up. If they’re feeling special industrious one of them might bring a broom and a dustpan. I think Hubert drinks. I know Blanche does. But they do enough round the house to keep me and Mom from doing harm to ourselves.
The house was built by my daddy. He was fairly well off and kept the place pretty good, but if I’m being honest, my hunting and trapping didn’t bring in enough money to keep up the house proper. I refinished the floors once. Probably fifty year ago. You can’t tell it now. Worn down to bare wood between the bed and the door. Hubert put tape on the cracked window glass. No sense in doing any more than that. My time is short and Mom will be close behind. When she’s gone, the power company will finish the job that time and mother nature started and take the house to the ground. I hate it that it has to end that way, but no one else cares much.
So be it and amen.
Is this your home?
The red-haired girl. Guess I drifted off. Happens like that when your last breath could come any time. Forgot she was in the room. I opened my eyes and took in a deep breath and let it go in a long, slow whistle.
She didn’t mean nothing bout the question, she just wanted to know if I was the one who lived in that shamble of a house. Just a rug rat asking a question. But I pondered on it a spell.
Home? Maybe once. When I could get around. I’d hunt, and Mom would cook up whatever I brought home. Pheasant. Squirrel. Turkey. Deer. We’d have a feast. And family would come in on Sundays. My regular family. Brothers and their kin. And we’d tell stories and plan our next trip. We’d share a bottle or two in those days and my brother Aaron would have too much and start to bragging about his shooting skills and before the day was out we’d be back behind the kitchen shooting bottles off the fence post.
We hadn’t used that cabin in the back as a kitchen for as long as I can remember. I used it to cure pelts. And tobacco, them few years I tried my hand at farming. Hard tell what’s back there now.
Yeah, honey. This is my home. For a spell longer, anyways.
I laughed a little at that, which started me coughing and wheezing and I couldn’t stop. Blanche heard me and came in and pulled me up in the bed. Nearly pulled my shoulder out of its socket. She pulled my pillows up then pushed my head back down and flattened my hair to my head. She yanked the covers up over my shoulders, not even asking me if I was cold. She sure treats an old man rough.
Red stood there watching and Blanche gave her the stink eye, and when Blanche headed for the door, I managed to give Red a wink.
She kindly smiled.
Don’t get old, honey.
I laughed again but seems my coughing spell was over.
I used to keep gumdrops in a glass bowl on my nightstand but the jar was empty. Sugar stuck to the sides of the bowl. On the dresser is a picture of Mom, all young and pretty in her red dress, cepting the picture is black and white. Maybe more brown. But I remember that dress. Beside her picture is one of my daddy. Not as mean as he looks. He was a good man. Died when he was forty-two. Consumption.
She looked at me, not getting my meaning. I reached for my cane. Always keep my cane with me, even in bed. I picked it up, the worn oak so familiar in my hands. Oak maybe as old as me. I told Mom to make sure they put it in the ground with me.
I picked it up, held it up to my eye like I was sighting a rifle, and aimed at the dresser.
She knew what I meant but she wasn’t sure.
She walked to the dresser.
Open it up.
It stuck at first but she gave it a strong pull and it squeaked as it opened.
She looked inside, then back at me.
Look under the handkerchiefs.
She pulled them back.
The wood box. Bring it to me.
I thought she would hesitate but she didn’t. She picked up the box and walked straightway to me. She stood next to the bed and held the box out.
I took it and she stared at my hands, gnarled and bent out of shape by age and ever thing I had done in my life. Can’t remember how many times I broke one of my fingers. Life on the flat boat ain’t for the faint. And when you skin an animal, you’re just as likely to skin yourself. Then there’s my fingernails. Blanche aint’ cut them in a while.
I gave Red a smile and a wink and she smiled back.
I lifted the lid, half expecting the box to be empty. Figured Hubert would have found the box by now. Maybe he had. Wasn’t really worth that much. Ten dollars. Ten silver dollars.
I picked up a few and hefted them in my hand. I love the way silver dollars clink against each other. Kind of heavy and muted. Makes you feel like you have something worthwhile.
I looked through them, trying to find the newest, shiniest dollar. Not that they were new. Like ever thing else in this old house, they were at least fifty years old. But I found one in pretty good shape. I picked it out from the others and held it up, letting the dim light through the cracked window do what it could to show its shine. Not much.
I held it out to Red.
She took it, stared at it.
It’s a silver dollar. It’s only worth a dollar.
I want you to keep it. Something to remember old Sid by. Will you keep it?
She nodded again.
Don’t lose it.
She closed her hand around the coin and put her hand in one of the pockets of her dress. I closed the lid on the box and closed my eyes.
When I woke again it was dark. The house was quiet. I could hear Blanche and Hubert in the kitchen talking to Mom. Couldn’t tell what they were saying. Making plans, I reckon. I’ll be gone soon. It’s only right.
So be it and amen.
There’s no way he knew what he gave me back then. It was just a dollar. They don’t make money like that anymore. It’s different. It’s real. Like Sid.
I didn’t know him. Barely even remember that time in his room, in that old house. But when I see the pictures, like the one with his birthday cake, it all comes back. The fading wallpaper. The crumbling plaster. The smells. The old gas furnace with fumes not quite burned. The mildew coming from the wood just beginning to rot inside the house and far enough along on the front porch that bumble bees and yellow jackets had taken over.
Sometimes I have dreams that I’m back in that house that seems to ramble on forever and I’m lost upstairs or in a room I didn’t know existed or trapped in the kitchen out back. It’s terrifying.
My kids are grown with families of their own but when they were growing up I told them about Sid. Showed them the pictures. I’ve even taken them to what’s left of the museum in Point Pleasnt. The kitchen was restored and moved to wide spot beside the highway. Every fall – football, football, football – they open it to the public and make apple butter. I’m sure Mom made apple butter for Sid.
It was an 1884 Morgan Silver Dollar. S series. Last time I had it appraised it was worth about $200,000. He had no way of knowing how valuable it would become. Just a shiny coin for little girl.
I keep it in a box in the top drawer of my dresser, under my scarves. I know I should put it in the safe deposit box. That would be the prudent thing to do. But I like to take it out and hold it, feel its heft. There’s more to life than money.
Sid knew that. Sid lived it.
The house – his home – is long gone. Hard to even see where it used to be. Doesn’t matter. Because I remember the kindness a gentle man showed to a small child so long ago.
So be it and amen.
copyright 2021, joseph e bird
A couple of weeks ago, Katie, my friend in Virginia, issued a short story challenge for 2021. The theme is Home. So here we go.
This story is a work of fiction, though certain aspects are true. Albert Sidney Morgan lived a life of adventure and did indeed built flatboats, including the Eugene, and floated down the Mississippi on hunting expeditions. He lived across from the John Amos power plant near Winfield and some of you may remember his Morgan’s Museum. In his last years, there was in fact a gathering at his house and Sid was bed-ridden, but I don’t know if he was in his last days, as he is in this story. The guests were watching football, and Sid did utter the immortal words, “football, football, football.” Some of you can relate. I don’t know that there was ever any drinking at the house. Maybe, maybe not. I’m claiming artistic license on that. The red-haired girl in the story is my sister, but the encounter described never happened. She doesn’t have a silver dollar worth hundreds of thousands. Really, she doesn’t. So while some of the characters are real, the story is fiction.
Here are some of my memories of the old home place.
More discoveries in the closet. This from a collection of about 30 t-shirts from races I ran in my running prime. The Charleston Distance Run is 15 miles, including some brutal hills. I loved running it.
So I’ve got shirts from a lot of races. Some of you may remember the Carbide 10k, another really hard race in the hills behind the Tech Center in South Charleston. Then there’s the Poca River 15K along the beautiful Poca River. The 20k from Fayetteville to Oak Hill, again in the rolling hills of West Virginia. The Coonskin Park 10k, maybe the hardest 10k race I’ve ever run. Back then everything was 10k. I went to California one year and ran the Brentwood 10k. That was cool.
But what do I do with all the shirts? Put them back in the box and take them out again in another 30 years? Remember the old days when I was a real runner?
In 1985 (before many of you were born) running was big. There were over 1400 runners in the Charleston Distance Run that year, including the Norwegian legend, Greta Waitz. She won the New York City Marathon nine times, including 1985. And there she was in Charleston. That year I ran the 15 miles in 1:37:50. That’s a little over 6.5 minute miles. Out of over 1400 runners, that was good enough for 160th place. My neighbor across the street, Dave Kline, finished in 1:25:14. Now Dave was a runner. But if I had run that same time in 2019, I would have finished in the top ten. In 2019 there were less than 400 runners.
Times change. Now all the races are 5k. And nobody wants to run hills.
I still do. I may not be as fast as I once was. I’m not interested in the 20-mile training runs it takes to run 15 in a race. I still do a little speed work, because, yeah, I get a kick out of winning the old man’s division.
And the truth is, the longer I can do that, the longer it will take me to get old.
This is what happens when you clean out a closet. I came across this hand-written list from years ago. Not sure when, but most likely from my junior high school days. All the things I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime.
1. Learn to snow ski. I did. Even made my own pair of skis. I used old belts for the binding. Seriously.
2. Visit St. Albans, Vermont. I’m from St. Albans, West Virginia. Haven’t made it to Vermont. I guess there’s still time.
3. Build an underground hut. I don’t know why. Never did it. Never will.
4. Learn to pick padlocks and combination locks. Because that would be so cool. I still want to learn to do this.
5. Perform magic in front of a large audience. I learned a few card tricks in my day, but I’ll be happy to let this goal slide.
6. Master escape tricks as Houdini did. I once made my own wooden stocks to escape from, but I never became a great escape artist. I’ll let this one go, too.
7. Learn to scuba dive. I actually considered this a couple of years ago. May still do it.
8. Explore the Atlantic Ocean in a submarine. That’s a big step from scuba diving. I’m surprised I didn’t say I wanted to build my own submarine.
9. Learn to fly an airplane. The company I work for used to have an airplane. I flew in the co-pilot’s seat many times. I learned enough about flying that I was confident I could crash the plane within sight of the airport.
10. Learn to fly a glider. It’s just an airplane without an engine. Piece of cake.
11. Build a hovercraft. This is classic Joe. I figured I could do it with an old lawnmower.
12. Build a man-powered glider and/or a regular glider. What’s a man-powered glider? Yeah, I can build anything.
13. Go into space and/or visit the moon. It was the middle of the space race. Every kid wanted to go to the moon.
14. Learn to play the banjo. I can play the guitar. And I’m still thinking about the banjo.
15. Find out all possible about the Lost City of Atlantis. I know nothing more today than I did back then. Must have been a passing interest.
16. Live to the year 2000. Seemed so far into the future. Now it seems so far in the past. Time, it swallows everything. From the Amos Lee song, What’s Been Going On.
17. Get patents an at least three inventions. That’s just too much like work.
18. Write a book. Yes! I’ve written five! Six, if you count carnival dreams, my collection of stories, now available on Amazon (shameless plug).
That’s it. Guess I’ve always been a dreamer. Still am. And I think that’s a good thing.
i wanted an image that suggested a carnival and though i found many others that were maybe more festive, this subdued image worked with the cover layout i had in mind.
any idea where this ferris wheel is located?
does that mean anything to you?
how about Chernobyl?
Pripyat was a city founded to serve the doomed power plant that failed in 1986. the amusement park was never opened. it remains a ghostly reminder of what happened.
the song below, carnival dreams, has nothing to do with Chernobyl. it’s just a story of two people sharing a moment in time.
you said you’d be pleased
to walk by my side
to breathe the night air
maybe go for a ride
so we walk down the shore
toward the music and light
with your hand in mine
feeling good, feeling right
then we stop for a drink
sipping cola on ice
and watch the wheel roll
and a toss of the dice
the carousel goes ’round
with the kids holding tight
never wanting to fall
but knowing they might.
and we’re walking the midway
the music is playing
and I’m wishing tomorrow
that you would be staying
my time here with you
is not what it seems
everything that I hope for
is a carnival dream
the smell of food fills the air
and it’s prodding my hunger
and your laugh fills my ear
makes me wish I was younger
i’d ask you to stay
to let go of tomorrow
let’s chart our own course
we’ll beg, steal, or borrow.
but our time is just this
cotton candy this eve
a quick kiss goodnight
and then you will leave
i’ll awake all alone
in the morning’s first light
and remember our time
in the carnival night
and we’re walking the midway
the music is playing
and I’m wishing tomorrow
that you would be staying
but my time here with you
is not what it seems
everything that I hope for
is a carnival dream
copyright 2018, joseph e bird
image from iStock Photo
I first started listening to Wilco in 2009 when my mother was at the Cleveland Clinic being treated for a brain tumor. She would be gone less than two weeks later. Wilco’s music can be fun, but can also cause introspection, which is what I needed at the time.
This clip is almost an hour long. I’m listening to it at work this morning. The first song they play is really cool, so at least listen to that. Right in the middle of the song they break into cacophony, then just as quickly switch back to the music. I love the audience reaction.
Enjoy and have a good day.
where does fiction come from?
as you know, i listen to a lot of different music. one day i stumbled onto Pokey Lafarge. kind of reminded me of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks from back in the day. and then my imagination drifted.
so watch this, then read the story.
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.
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 was 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.
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.
Then that tinny trumpet sound and I could tell the song was winding down.
And behind me, a big crash. It was on.
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 of 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.
from the short story collection, carnival dreams, available at Amazon.com
copyright 2018, joseph e bird