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Joseph E Bird

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

meet cute

In the movies, it’s called a meet cute.

The boy rounds the corner and knocks the books out the girl’s hands. They bend down to pick them up and before they know it, there’s a spark. There’s an awkward, yet endearing conversation. She smiles as he watches her walk away. You know right then where the story is going. It will be – eventually – a happy ending.

That’s the movies. Let me tell you about my real-life meet cute.

It was in the coffee shop. No surprise, right? Almost a cliché in itself. But I like coffee shops. I’ll tell you why, but truthfully, if I have to explain this to you, you might was well stop reading right now and get back on your phone. The other day I overheard a co-worker tell someone that he didn’t like coffee, that he would have no reason to stop by the new coffee shop on the west side. I find it hard not to hold his dislike of coffee against him. You’re really missing the point, man. You don’t like coffee? Fine. There are options.

A couple of years ago my nephew spent the night at our house over Christmas. When he said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, my wife started making oatmeal. We didn’t learn until he was finished eating that he had been lying. He should have said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, as long as it wasn’t oatmeal. Too late. But the oatmeal he ate that morning was unlike any oatmeal he had ever eaten. If you take plain oatmeal, bland as it is, and add a little brown sugar, some raisins, apples and walnuts, topped with a little cream, what you end up with is a big bowl of oatmeal cookie. Who doesn’t like oatmeal cookies? My nephew sure did.

So, co-worker man, if the coffee is a little too bitter for your still-developing child-like palette, they can foo-foo it up (as my wife would say) and give you something sweet and mushy. But then again, going to a coffee shop isn’t really about the coffee. It’s about people. Seeing people, talking to people. Just being among other human beings.

But back to the meet cute.

This coffee shop is a relatively new establishment, just a couple of blocks from my office. I don’t always stop there in the morning because they’re not open when I usually go to work. It’s a quiet and peaceful place. Music is always playing softly. People doodling on their laptops. Quiet conversations.

It’s a Friday morning a week and a half before Christmas. I had skipped my early cup of coffee and I find myself at a good stopping point in my work at the office. The sun is shining and it’s an unusually pleasant day for December so I grab my coat and head out the back door and make my way to Main Street. I’m going to get a cup of coffee, maybe a muffin, and sit at a table by the window and watch people go by. I can just take off from work like that because I’m an important executive and I’m a salaried employee and I come to work early and stay late and if I want to take a few minutes for myself in the middle of the morning I have the moral right to do so. I also have so many weeks of vacation built up that it would be nearly impossible for me to use them all. For those of you who have a propensity for delving into a person’s psyche, this little tidbit about my inability to use my vacation time will tell you something about me, though I don’t think I would care to know what this tells you. Not that it matters. Let me save you the trouble of the analysis: I’m boring.

I get to the shop around 10:30 and stand in line for a few minutes and then it’s my turn and the owner of the shop says hello, calls me by name, and takes my order, a medium black coffee. No nonsense. No cream, no sugar, no flavors, no steamed milk, no holiday blend. Because I’m a man. A grown man. It’s an ego-boosting construct, this notion that drinking plain, black coffee makes me any more of a man than the hipster in front of me who ordered a skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg. Clint Eastwood drinks his coffee black. Maybe. I don’t really know. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, this hipster, and I’m sure not all the world’s problems result from his generation’s socialist leanings, but I’m getting old and my time has passed and it’s the role I must play, the only other option being the teetering, out-of-touch relic from another time. But I don’t teeter (yet) and if I’m going to be an out-of-touch relic, I’m going to be a hard-edged Eastwood-type who the kids actually fear when I tell them to get off my lawn. That’s right. Black coffee. And one of those scones. Cranberry.

I’ve moved down the counter now, standing, waiting for my coffee. And my scone. The hipster stands to my left. He’s wearing a nice-looking jacket and a knit cap. A backpack hangs from his left shoulder. He’s texting on his phone, his fingers flying. He’ll take a table near the window, maybe my table, and pull a laptop from his backpack and begin to do whatever people do when they have a laptop in a coffee house. Facebook? No. He’s young. Instagram. Or maybe some other app that I don’t even know about. A young girl who looks like she’s fifteen but is probably twenty-five – I can’t tell anymore – shakes a can of whipped cream then squirts a mound of foam on the skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg and the contradiction of the skinny latte and the whipped cream is lost on the poor hipster boy. She hands him the drink and he goes straight to my table.

Get away from there. I shout this across the room. In my head.

The girl hands me my scone in a paper bag and I’m waiting for my coffee, anxious to find another table and set about the business of relaxing, and then she hands me the cup, my name printed neatly on the side of the cup.

There’s a stack of napkins to my left. Had they been to my right, I probably wouldn’t be telling you this story. But they were to my left. I’m holding the scone in my right hand, the coffee in my left. I need my left hand free to grab a napkin, so I transfer the coffee to my right hand, holding it just with my thumb and index finger, the scone in the bag below the cup. Not a good grip at all.

And this is when it happens. My meet cute.

I didn’t see her come in. I didn’t know she had been behind me when I ordered. I didn’t know she had moved down the counter to wait for her order. I didn’t know she was standing so close to my right.

And I turn to go toward the front of the coffee shop, and before it even registers in my mind that she is there, I bump into her and my coffee falls from its high perch, tumbles toward her, hits the front of her coat – her beautiful white wool coat – and the lid pops off and the coffee flies everywhere and I watch as the cup empties itself completely, and a horribly beautiful, artistic, brown stain flows downward to the hem of her coat and drips onto her brown leather boots and finally puddles on the floor.

I hear gasps from the people nearby. Then the entire shop goes quiet, except for me, mumbling an apology, grabbing the pile of napkins on the counter.

She hasn’t moved, this young woman, save to hold out her hands, coffee dripping from her fingers. I start there, wiping her hands, apologizing the whole time, and when her hands show no more signs of hot coffee, I start on her coat, trying to soak up the brown stain, and I realize that I have to stop because my actions are highly inappropriate, even if my intent is plainly obvious.

By now the shop owner has made his way from the other side of the counter with a handful of paper towels and he faces the same dilemma I faced but he thinks more clearly and asks her to take off her coat which she does and he lays the coat on the counter and begins sponging up as much coffee as he can. It’s a losing battle.

She hasn’t moved.

I’ll see if I can rinse it out, he says, and without asking, he takes the coat to a back room.

She still hasn’t moved, but she turns to look at me.

She’s a lovely woman, much younger than I, though not so young that I shouldn’t notice her loveliness. She appears to be of Asian descent. And her eyes are filling with tears.

I’m so sorry, I tell her. I don’t know what to do.

The young girl on the other side of the counter hands me more paper towels and I kneel down and start to sop up the puddle on the floor. She takes a step back, allowing me to get to the puddles that have pooled behind her and I see the coffee in drips and runs on her boots and without thinking and without asking I start to wipe off her boots, first the tops of her feet, but they’re boots and they rise over her calves and again I cross that boundary of appropriateness without thinking and without any intention other than trying to right the wrong and clean up the mess and I’m on the floor where shoes have trod and spills throughout the day have dried into dark circles and crumbs from scones and muffins and cookies are scattered like microscopic boulders and my hands are getting dirty and the knees of my executive slacks are wet and gathering grime and I no longer feel like Clint Eastwood but more like Willy Loman and I feel the blood rushing to my face and now I want to stay down among the other shoes that I see gathered around because to stand will reveal my reddened face and expose my shame and confirm my humiliation.

But I rise to my feet and again tell her I’m sorry and she’s not quite crying but there are tears and she is sad. I take off my coat and put it on her shoulders because everyone else has a coat except her and she looks cold and lonely and though she probably isn’t, I don’t know what else to do. I tell her I’ll go check on her coat and I walk to the back of the shop where I imagine a food preparation area but there are only bathrooms. The door is open and the shop owner is trying to dry the coat with paper towels. It looks like the coffee has washed out but I look closer and see the stain, lighter, but still there. The shop owner has done all he can. I thank him and take the coat.

The young woman is sitting at table by herself, her own coffee drink in front of her. She moves it away from me as I approach, carrying her coat draped across my arm, holding it out from my body as if it’s a blemished lamb, because that’s exactly what it is. I shake my head. I lay it on the table and sit at the table across from her.

I’m so sorry, I say again for what seems like the tenth time and she manages a smile and tells me it’s ok.

I’m really sorry. Eleven.

I’ll pay to have it cleaned. And I’m already thinking that I’m going to buy her a new coat because the stain is likely there forever.

She puts her hand on the coat and strokes it lightly. It was my mother’s coat.

The phrasing of the statement is not lost on me. It was her mother’s coat. Her mother has died.

I’m so sorry. Seventy times seven will not be enough.

I don’t actually remember her wearing the coat. Or her, for that matter. She died when I was a child.

I stop myself from saying I’m sorry again.

Old photographs my father had. The three of us. Mother, Father, me. Mother wearing the coat. I thought it looked so sophisticated on her. After she died, my father held on to all of her things. He died two years ago and it was all left to me. I found the coat in a trunk.

So, I’ve not just ruined a coat, I’ve ruined an irreplaceable keepsake. I’ve ruined the one connection this poor woman has with her mother.

I had it cleaned. Sewed some seams that were coming apart, and then just hung it in the closet. And this winter I thought it would be nice to wear it, to think of her, to let her live a little through me.

I’m trying to think of something to say, something other than I’m sorry, thinking there must be a phrase or an expression of remorse that goes beyond mere sorrow, one that puts me on my knees, not to beg forgiveness, because what’s the point in that, because it’s not about me feeling better, it’s about somehow finding words or actions that can make up for what I’ve done. But it’s done and can’t be undone.

I just shake my head. I tell her again I’ll pay to have it cleaned. I’ll buy her a new coat, I tell her, and I feel stupid as soon as I say it, as if a new coat would have the same connection to her mother. But what else can I do?

It doesn’t quite fit. She was a little smaller than me, apparently.

I’m silent, because there are no words.

It’s only a coat. It was my mother’s coat, not mine. I’ll have it cleaned as best they can. Then I’ll keep it in the closet. I’ll bring it out now and then, and think of her, but really, I have no memory of her to recall. Just a mother and father and a little girl in a photograph. That’s all.

She’s smiling now. A sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. She reaches for her coffee and I move her coat away from the table and lay it across the back of a chair. She laughs a little. We talk.

Her name is Janine. She lives in New York. She’s an accountant in town performing an audit of the local bank. She travels a lot and likes to explore the towns she visits. She’s traveled to Japan twice to visit the families of her mother and father, but there are fewer of them now, and in Japan she is a stranger in a strange land. And here she is, in a small town coffee shop, with a coffee stain on her mother’s coat.

She needs to get back to the bank.

I apologize again and I’ve lost count of how many times, and she assures me again that it’s ok, that I don’t have to pay for dry cleaning or buy her a new coat or in any way try to make things right. Because we both understand that I can’t.

How can you be so gracious after what I’ve done?

She offers no answer. She stands and realizes my coat is still around her shoulders.

I believe this is yours.

She hands me my coat.

And this is yours.

I help her into her mother’s coat. The front is still damp and she looks at the stain and sighs. It’s all I can do to keep from apologizing again. Instead, I thank her, and in the moment, I’m not sure what I’m thanking her for except that the kindness and understanding she showed to me was so undeserved.

We walk out of the coffee shop together, our conversation now just the usual chatter that people who really don’t know each other make as they’re about to leave each other’s company. The ordinary, the forgettable. Nothing witty, nothing charming.

It wasn’t that kind of meet cute. Meet truth is maybe a better description. She’ll go back to the bank, back to New York with a story to tell.

And me? I’m still here. Still drinking my coffee black. Still imagining I’m Clint Eastwood. Still working too much.

But this Christmas is a little different. I understand a little better. I’ve experienced grace.


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

The First Day of Winter

On the first day of winter he awoke and stood at his window and looked out on his fields wet with rain. It had taken him longer this year to clean the banks and hillsides. He no longer went at tasks to finish them in one day. Now he worked as time and strength allowed […]

via The First Day of Winter — Home Economics

Huntington’s Disease

It’s been described as having ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s simultaneously.  There is no cure and the disease is fatal.

According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, there are currently 30,000 symptomatic Americans.  That’s less than 0.01 percent of the population.  But if you or a loved-one has Huntington’s, that’s a meaningless statistic.

My family has no first-hand experience with Huntington’s.  The wife of a former associate pastor at our church was my introduction to the illness.  When they came to our church, she was in the middle-to-late stages of the disease.  She was still able to walk and engage in conversation, though it was sometimes difficult to understand what she was saying.  Her symptoms at the time included chorea – involuntary and unpredictable body movements that affected her upper body, arms, and face.  Over the course of a few short years, her symptoms worsened.  Soon she was unable to walk and required a wheelchair.  Then a nursing home.  After a year or so there, she passed away peacefully.

She was fortunate in that she had a husband who loved her unconditionally and was by her side until the end.  I don’t really know what his life was like as the primary caregiver, but I have no doubt that it was unimaginably challenging on so many levels.  He leaned on his faith, as did she, with the knowledge that though in this life she was broken, in the next she would be made whole.

In my novel Heather Girl, Heather Roth has Huntington’s Disease.  I didn’t start out to write a novel about someone with Huntington’s.  My intent was to tell the story of a young woman with challenges, one of which was how she was dealing with a serious health issue.  As the story unfolded, I learned that Heather’s mother had Huntington’s.  It’s hereditary.  If one of your parent’s had Huntington’s, there’s a 50-50 chance that you will have it. As my story begins, Heather is becoming symptomatic.  And she knows where it leads.  There are other complications in her life and because her family is fractured, she doesn’t have the best support system.  She doesn’t always act reasonably and her decisions are not always the best.  But this story is fiction.

In real life, the effects of Huntington’s, like the disease itself, are varied.  Some, like the wife of our pastor, have love and support all the way.  For others, it’s a long, lonely journey.  If you know a family living with Huntington’s, you can be a friend.  Little things can help.  A Frosty from Wendy’s is always a treat and good for those with difficulty swallowing.  A bowl of soup for caregivers on a cold, winter’s day will mean more than you realize.  And a sympathetic ear is always appreciated.

Even if you have perfect health – and nobody I know has perfect health – life can be hard.  Be a friend, lend a hand, and help someone find hope in the compassion that we can all offer.

 

The Falling Man

New York, September 11, 2001.

It was journalistic instinct that pulled Richard Drew to the Twin Towers when everyone else was running away.   The veteran photographer did what he always did – take pictures.  And from the scores of photographs he took that day came the iconic image that would become known as The Falling Man.

It’s a disturbing image that is seldom published.  I know of it because of an article I came across in Esquire Magazine by Tom Junod.  Journalism at its best, even when capturing the most horrific scene you would never want to imagine.

The photograph is an anomaly, one frame of many in a sequence that shows the true horror suffered by dozens of victims forced to choose how they were to die on that sunny September morning.  The person in this particular photograph appears calm, accepting his fate.  An anomaly of a single click of the shutter.

The photograph is also an accident in symmetry.  The Falling Man is vertical, in line with the architectural lines of the Towers.  To his left, the North Tower, to his right, the South Tower.

It’s a controversial image, the discussion of which can quickly devolve into a bitter geopolitical debate.  Some think the photograph should never be published.  I understand that.  Some will say that Tom Junod’s article doesn’t tell the whole story.  Of course it doesn’t.  How you feel about the photograph, how you feel about the story, is your business.

But you will feel something.  You will feel something very strongly.

It’s the power of photographs.  It’s the power of words.

https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a48031/the-falling-man-tom-junod/

 

Kimo

In my novel Heather Girl, there is a photographer, Avery Graham, who specializes in capturing the true essence of a person through real-life, gritty portraits.

Meet Kimo Williams, an accomplished musician, photographer, and Vietnam vet.  We like to say everyone has a story to tell, but in the case of Kimo Williams, I’m sure it’s true.  Probably many stories to tell.

Though his background is different than Avery Graham’s, their photography work is similar.  (Yes, I know Avery Graham’s photographs exist only in my imagination, but they’re very vivid to me.)

Despite being part of a brutal and horrific war, Kimo Williams was able to find beauty in Vietnam.  It’s what drew him back many years after the war had ended.  His photographs of the people of Vietnam, from his original tour of duty and his return trips, are featured in an exhibit he calls Faces of Vietnam at his studio in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  There are lots of smiling people – kids and adults – but I’m drawn to those who aren’t smiling, those who seem to have something on their minds.  Like they know something.  Like they have a story to tell.

See for yourself.

Here’s the link to an article in the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

Here’s the link to his website, KimoPics.

Writing Tip – Slow Down

At a recent gathering of the Shelton College Review, three colleagues happened to be writing the pivotal scenes in their novels at the same time.  When submitted to the Review for critique, each scene fell short of the author’s desired emotional affect.

In each case, the advice was the same:  Take your time.  Let the scene develop.  Give the reader the nuances of what’s happening, both in the external environment, but more importantly, in what the characters are thinking and feeling.  The subsequent revisions proved the advice correct.

As the author, you’ve been building up to this moment for the entire book.  You feel it before you even write the scene. The temptation is to get right to the pivotal moment.  But the reader is probably not quite there yet and probably needs a little more time to catch up.  Slow down and embellish.  Let the reader steep in the moment and soak in the importance of what’s happening.  If you do, you’ll have a stronger emotional connection.

Ronceverte uncovered.

church 01An unusual church, perched high on a hill overlooking the small town Ronceverte, West Virginia.

IMG_0218The potential: Ronceverte’s version of New York’s High Line Park.

IMG_8198

A hundred steps to nowhere.

can you summarize your story in a single, compelling sentence?

I was at a conference last week and ran into a friend who knew I was a writer and he asked what I was working on.  I told him I was putting the final touches on my novel Heather Girl.

“What’s it about?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s about a middle-aged woman who is fighting Huntington’s disease and she just learned that her father has been paroled for the murder of her mother.”  As I was saying those words, I realized that it was not a very compelling summary of my novel.  Yes, that’s what it’s about, but why would anybody want to read such an obvious  bummer ?

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a real feel-good story.”

I failed my elevator speech.  I realized I needed a better way to summarize the story.  How about this?

As her family falls apart and her health begins to fail, Heather Roth searches for answers, but instead finds hope and compassion that give her life meaning.

Ok, so it’s still not going to fly off the shelves like a James Patterson novel, but at least it’s not so ridiculously bleak.

Then, if they want to know more, there’s the cover blurb:

Heather Roth has little to look forward to. Her two sons, who have occupied most of her adult life, have grown and left her alone in the house in which she grew up.  Her ex-husband, for whom she still has feelings despite his abusive nature, lives hundreds of miles away.  And she’s being treated for Huntington’s, a disease that ravaged her mother, and for which she knows there is no cure.

Then the news she wasn’t expecting. Her father is being paroled from prison in Texas where he has been serving a sentence for the murder of his wife, Heather’s mother.

She’ll do anything to keep him out of her life, but when she is forced to take him into her home, she learns that the lives of her family weren’t what they seemed to be.  A story of tragedy and heartbreak, Heather Girl, delivers a whisper of hope and an abundance of compassion, even in the darkest hours.

a birthday

sids birthday for web

“For through wisdom your days will be many,
and years will be added to your life.”


The photo is of A. S. “Sid” Morgan, maybe taken in 1973, maybe his 90th birthday.  I suppose I could try to count the candles.  If it was 1973, he would die less than a month later.

This is the kind of photograph that inspires stories, spurs the imagination of a writer.  But Sid lived the adventures.  He built boats and floated down the Mississippi on hunting expeditions back in the early 1900s.  In 1926, he opened a museum that over the years became legendary.

You’d never guess he lived that kind of life from the picture.  He looks tired.  The house he’s in, once a proud mansion on the bottom land near the Kanawha River, looks tired. I was in the house many times as a child and the memories are still strong.  Unusual memories.  The smell of the soft, slowly decaying wood of the front porch, patches of tin covering the holes.  The feel of the air in the house.  Cool, until you walked into the kitchen and the gas heaters overwhelmed with stuffy warmth and lingering fumes. And the quiet.  Sometimes the house was full of people, full of kids, but I remember the times where it was only Mom and Sid, our family visiting quietly, the stillness of it all unsettling.

It’s gone now.  The house demolished shortly after Sid’s death.  Across from where the house sat is the massive John Amos Power Plant.  No hint of what happened there years ago.

But the stories are still there, just waiting to be written.

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