Joseph E Bird

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creative writing

breakfast at the diner

The truck horn reverberated through the car, through her skin, through her bones. Without conscious thought, she knew what it was and knew that the impact was imminent. She squeezed the steering wheel and her body stiffened as she looked in her rearview mirror and saw nothing but the ever-growing front grill of a massive truck. The impact never came and for a moment she thought that he must have already hit and was pushing her down the highway. Then the horn blasted again and the truck backed off.

She looked ahead. All was clear. A car blew by her on the left, the horn blaring. She looked at speedometer. She was only going forty-five. She passed a speed limit sign. Seventy. Another blast from the truck behind her and she pulled onto the shoulder.

Her hands were shaking.

She didn’t remember getting on the interstate. Didn’t remember pulling out of Robert’s driveway. Didn’t remember getting in the car. The last thing she remembered was his hand on hers.

She put the windows down and turned off the engine. She sat for fifteen minutes, the cool air swirling her hair every time a car went by. Her hand shook. She told herself it was just nerves, but she knew that was a lie.

She took the next exit that promised lodging. In the distance she saw MOTEL in white, glowing letters and drove past the national chains to the two-story block building with rooms that opened onto a parking lot that was shared by a waffle house. She had seen worse. She asked for a room on the second floor, even though it meant carrying her bags up the flight of stairs. On her second trip, she noticed a man and a woman sitting in a pickup a few cars down from hers. She was halfway up the stairs when her left leg buckled and had she not been able to steady herself with the bag she was carrying, she would have gone down. She glanced back at the pickup. They were still watching. The woman had those eyes. Too big, too wide, too alert, too something. Too long on meth, more than likely. Haunting eyes. Predator eyes. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t leave the room until the next day.

Inside, she turned on the television for some white noise. She lay on the bed fully clothed, covered only with a blanket from the car. Even so, she fell asleep almost immediately and slept until dawn.

Because it was a Sunday morning she knew traffic would be light in Charlotte and make for a less stressful drive until she got back on a long stretch of interstate. She looked out the window and was relieved to see the pickup truck gone. She checked out and walked across the parking lot to the waffle house. There were only a few people in the restaurant so she took a table by the window and while she waited on her order, she mapped out her day’s travel on her phone.

Breakfast smells. Bacon, coffee, toast, sweet syrups. There was a constant clatter of plates and clinking silverware, muffled conversations. A man and a woman two tables away shared an easy laugh, probably over an inane comment, Heather guessed, that if made four hours later, would be annoying, but because their sensibilities were rested, anything said would benefit from an extra measure of forgiveness. She understood. Morning grace, as it were.

It had been a long time since Heather had shared such a morning. She thought back to her life with Robert and remembered the early days before the boys, where even after a hard night she would fry some eggs and bacon in the closet of a kitchen in their tiny apartment. They drank a lot of tomato juice back then to help ease the headaches. Then her mother died. She changed, and Robert didn’t. So she threw him out and the house immediately became more serene. Breakfast alone can be relaxing, but a peace shared is a gift. So she sat at her table in the waffle house, enjoying the ambiance of a loving home, even if it was a store-bought substitute.

“No, no, no, no, no, no.”

A little boy, maybe up too early. It had been going on for a few minutes, but she hadn’t noticed until the persistence of his cries demanded attention from everyone in the restaurant.

“Jacob.” His mother’s voice, from the table beside her. “Jacob, eat your waffles.”

“No, no, no, no, no, no.”

“Jacob, please.”

She turned without thinking. The boy, maybe five years old, stood across from his mother, fidgeting.

“Sit down.”


She turned to the mother and offered a smile of encouragement, before she saw the eyes. Those same eyes, not quite as baneful as last night, but their essence remained unchanged. She was thin, which served to intensify her eyes, and her hair was pulled back from her face and accentuated her hollow cheeks. Her plate was clean, even the yolk from her eggs had been sopped up.

“Eat, Jacob.” She turned to Heather. “He’s a handful.”

“They can be.”

“You have kids?”

“Two boys.”

“Two? I don’t know how you do it. They’re holy terrors.”

She spoke in quick, hurried clips. She was a smoker. At least Heather imagined that she was. She could see her taking puffs in between sentences, dropping the cigarette to the ground before she was through, grinding it with the sole of her shoe. Or maybe carefully snuff out the burning end with a few quick pinches of her fingers to save it for later.

“They can be. Especially at that age.”

Jacob was staring at her, his fidgeting had stopped for the moment.

“Hi, Jacob.”

He was quiet, studying.

“How old are your boys?”

“Mine? They’re grown.”

“Lucky you.”

The woman reached across the table and stabbed Jacob’s waffle with her fork.

“If you’re not going to eat it.”

She gave Heather a shrug, but didn’t bother with a smile. Jacob had moved to the end of the table, standing at the side of Heather’s booth, still staring. His eyes were brown and gentle, and though his blonde hair was uncombed and his shirt stained with food from days past, he had the innocent softness that all children have, despite whatever hell they’re living in.

“It’s your hair. He likes your hair.”

“Do you like my red hair?”

The boy nodded. She patted his head. “I like yours, too.”

He giggled. Then he reached out, took a handful  and pulled it toward him. Heather leaned in his direction.

“Geez, Jacob, don’t pull the woman’s hair out. Get your ass back over here and eat your food.”

Her words, her tone, though familiar, surprised Heather. She had been that way with Robbie, no doubt. For the most part, Micah had had a sober mother.

Jacob didn’t move. He ran his fingers through her hair.

“I give up.” She finished his waffles.

“It will get better.” Heather didn’t know if that was true, but she felt like she had to say it. The odds were greatly against anything getting better. It had taken her own mother’s death to turn things around for her, and even then, it was tenuous for a while. This woman looked to be deep in the abyss, beyond alcohol, probably beyond meth. There were likely needles in the floor of the pickup truck. Jacob’s future wasn’t promising.

“I’ve got to run out to the car. Can you watch him for a minute?”

Before Heather could answer, the woman stood and gulped the last of her coffee. She pulled her sweater up over her shoulders and leaned over and kissed Jacob on top of his head.

“I’ll be right back.”

Heather knew she wouldn’t be. She knew she was leaving.


It happened too quickly for her to respond. She was out the door. Heather watched as she walked across the parking lot toward the motel. She got in a car. She drove away.

“Oh my God.”

“Where’s mommy?”

Her heart raced. She looked around the restaurant. Nothing had changed. People were still eating. A waiter stood beside a table, one hand on his hip, one on the back of a chair as he chatted with another man, a trucker, judging from his appearance. Another poured coffee for an old man and his wife. The sounds were the same, the smells were the same. Nothing had changed.

“Where’s my mommy?”

The boy had wandered back to his table, to his mother’s chair, pulled out from the table.

“She’ll be back in a minute. She had to run out to the car.”

He turned and looked at her. His expression was hard to read. She half expected that he would realize that his mother had driven off, and in a child’s comprehension of reality, know that she was never coming back. Then the uncontrollable crying would start. Any second now. Except that it didn’t. His expression didn’t change. This had happened before. Which gave Heather hope that his mother would indeed return.

The waiter who had been talking to the trucker brought her breakfast and filled her coffee cup. He looked at the table where Jacob stood and then looked around for his mother. Then he smiled at the boy.

“She had to run out for something. She’s coming back.”

He looked out the window to the parking lot, then set the coffee carafe on the table and started gathering their plates.

Heather looked at the boy.

“Do you like donuts, Jacob?”

He nodded.

“Can you bring us a couple of jelly filled donuts?”

“Sure. We have lemon and berry.”

Jacob smiled for the first time. “Lemon.”

“Why don’t you sit over here while we wait for your mother?”

He slid into the booth and looked up at Heather, his hands in his lap. The waiter returned with two donuts, each one on its own plate. Jacob picked it up without waiting and took a big bite. He giggled.

Heather glanced out the window without turning her head, hoping to see the car pull back into the parking lot. She had probably just gone for cigarettes. Rude and irresponsible, but for a mother on drugs, forgivable.

The two ate without talking, their thoughts undoubtedly on different tracks.

Jacob poked the jelly filling with his finger, then stuck it in his mouth. She would have admonished Robbie or Micah, but she let it go. Anything to keep his mind off his mother.

“Do you go to school?”

He shook his head.

She thought of other things to ask, but she was sure she would get the same response. No brothers or sisters. No pets. No friends. Left for hours in front of the television. Just as she had done with Robbie.

“What’s your favorite show?”

He shrugged. He seemed tired.

“Are you sleepy?”

He yawned.

She glanced out the window again. Nothing.

“What’s your mommy’s name?”

It was a risk, but she had judged correctly that his sleepiness would overrule any worry about his mother.


“No, I mean what does your daddy call her?”

“I don’t have a daddy.”

“It’s ok. My boys didn’t have a daddy, either.” Not exactly the truth, but close enough to serve the purpose.

“What do your mommy’s friends call her?”


“What’s her last name?”


“Is that your last name, too?”

“Yes. I’m sleepy.”

He yawned, and then lay down on the bench of the booth.

Heather looked out at the parking lot again, and then back at the restaurant. The elderly couple had left. Her waiter was standing by the cashier counter, his arms crossed, a towel slung over his shoulder.

Ten minutes passed.

Heather walked to the cashier, an older woman with gray, wiry hair. She wore no makeup. Her waiter met her there.

“I’ll pay for both.”

“Do you know her?”

She looked back at the booth, Jacob still asleep on the bench.

“I know her name, that’s all. She asked me to watch him while she ran out to the car.”

“What if she doesn’t come back?”

“Let’s give her until ten o’clock.” Another twenty five minutes.

She went back to the booth. The waiter followed, refilled her coffee cup and gave her a look and a shake of his head that said this whole thing wasn’t going to end well. He was probably right. She was already thinking of what her next move would be. She could call the police, who would probably take Jacob, then call CPS. She could do an internet search for Amanda Brown. She looked over at the motel. Maybe they stayed there last night. She was about to get up and explain to the waiter what she was going to do when her phone rang. It was her brother.

“Well, he’s here.”  Her father.  Their father.  Finally out of prison.

“In your apartment?”

“Still asleep in the back room.”

“What would they have done if you hadn’t agreed to take him?”

“He’d still be in there.”

“It’s where he should be.”

“He’s not well. He’s not who he was when he went in.”

“Having second thoughts?”

“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to take care of him.”

“Send him back.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I’m not taking him, Wayne. I don’t know why you agreed to it in the first place, but there’s no way I’m taking him.”

“It was the right thing to do. He’s our father.”

“He murdered our mother.”

There was a long pause.

“It wasn’t like that. She wouldn’t have wanted the life that was ahead of her.”

“Not his call. He’s a murderer and he should have stayed locked up until he died.”

Another long pause.

“I just wanted you to know.” His voice softened to a whisper. “He’s not well and I don’t know how long he’s got. A year, maybe a couple.”

“Can’t be soon enough.”

“Come on, Pip.”

Jacob rolled a little on the bench and for a second she thought he was going to roll off onto the floor, but he settled against the back rest.

She didn’t want to tell her brother that she was on her way down. That might give him some relief and she needed him to figure things out on his own. She didn’t want him thinking that she was going to be any part of their father’s post-prison life. It was his problem, not hers. It was his father, not hers.

“We’ll talk about it later. I’m kind of in the middle of something here. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

She looked out at the parking lot again and saw more cars, none of them Amanda’s.

The waiter was talking to the cashier. They glanced toward her between words. Where before they had looked at her with sympathetic smiles, their looks had changed, their eyes danced nervously as they tried not to look her way, but they couldn’t help themselves. The cashier shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.

He must have overheard her conversation. What had she said?

The word murder came to mind. Yeah, that might trigger suspicion.

She walked toward them and they stood straight and stiffened as she did.

“That was my brother I was talking to. My father’s been paroled in Texas. That’s where I’m going. It’s a bad situation.”

They relaxed a little, but only a little. In their eyes, she was no longer the good Samaritan. Maybe closer to the woman at the well. But they weren’t Jesus. More like Pharisees. A woman with a murderous father couldn’t have much good in her.

“Can you watch Jacob? I think they stayed at the motel last night and I thought I’d check to see if they had any contact information on her.”

The waiter didn’t speak, deferring judgment to the cashier. Heather looked at her, waiting for a response.

“Do you know the woman’s name?”

“Amanda Brown.”

“I’ll call.” She picked up the phone and found the number in a spiral notebook beside the register. It was a quick conversation.

“The manager wasn’t working last night. He checked the records from yesterday and the only woman registered was a Heather Roth.”

“That’s me. No Browns registered?”

She shook her head.

“I guess we need to call the police.”

The cashier picked up the phone and dialed.

When the cruiser pulled into the parking lot twenty minutes later, Amanda had been gone for nearly an hour and a half. Heather met the two officers outside the waffle house. One was older and had to be near retirement, the other was a young African-American so fresh-faced that he looked like a boy playing cops. The younger officer stood with his arms crossed while his partner spoke with Heather in even tones, showing no shock or surprise at the situation, as if he had encountered child abandonment before, as if he were numb or calloused or simply resigned to the heartless condition of some people. She found his manner comforting.

They ran Amanda Brown through the system. Shoplifting. Petit larceny. Possession. Marital Status: Single.

They said they could put out a BOLO, but she wouldn’t be a high priority. They would take Jacob back to the precinct and call in Child Protective Services. Even if they found his mother, he would likely end up in a group home for a while. She would have a hard time getting him back after abandonment. Eventually, Jacob would end up in a foster home, if he was lucky.

“Can I ride down with him?”

They looked at each other. She sensed she had asked for something that was a breach of protocol.

“Sure. He’s inside, I guess.”

“He’s asleep. Let me go wake him and I’ll bring him out.”

“Get in the car, Wilson.” He gave his cap to the young cop.

Heather went inside.

“Jacob.” She shook his leg. He opened his eyes, looked at her, and sat up. He looked over her shoulder, then back at her.

“Your mother’s not back yet.”

His expression didn’t change.

“We’re going to go down to the police station to wait on her, ok?”

“Is she in jail?”

She took him by the hand and started walking toward the door.

“Where do you live?”

He shrugged and kept walking. “Different places.”

At the station, the officer suggested using the front door so they wouldn’t have to walk past the holding cells. They went through the lobby to another room with a sofa and two upholstered chairs. A television sat on a table across from the sofa.

“You two can wait here. CPS should be here before too long.”

The clock on the wall said 11:55. She was way behind schedule, not that she had a real schedule. Still, she would just as soon get the business with her father over with and get back home. They were in the room ten minutes when the young officer opened the door.

“May I see you, ma’am?”

She followed him down a corridor to a large room full of cubicles where the older officer sat at a desk.

“Ms. Roth.” He wasn’t smiling.

She’d seen that look before. A cop with bad news.

“The boy’s mother is dead. Found her in her car about a mile from the waffle house.” There wasn’t much more to say.

“What’s going to happen to him?”

“It’s still a CPS matter. They’ll try to locate a father. A relative. Maybe his grandparents are around, but in cases like this, it’s not unusual for them to be as messed up as his mother. More than likely, he’ll be put in the foster care system.”

“Can I stay with him until CPS gets here?”

It was another hour before they arrived. She had tried to talk to Jacob, but he was more interested in the cartoon he was watching than talking to her.

“Your mother isn’t coming back.” She hadn’t even thought about saying that, it just came out, and when she said it, she knew she had probably made a mistake. But Jacob didn’t react. Didn’t turn to her. Didn’t cry. Didn’t do anything.

“Did you hear me?”

“Is she dead?”

His eyes were still on the anime characters bouncing around in an unrealistic television world. Then she saw his eyes weren’t moving, weren’t following the action. He was just staring.

She moved close to him and wrapped her arms around him. They sat like that, with her rocking slowly while tears ran down the boy’s face. Soon he was asleep. She held him until CPS arrived and took him away.

The two officers were gone by then. She asked the dispatcher if someone could take her back to the waffle house. She sat alone in the back of the squad car.

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

gentle assault

sunday afternoon
at the home on top of the hill,
the first of two.
trying to make small talk
with the neighbor we never really knew.
but he can’t speak
and the effort is unrewarding
for any of us.

down the hall
we smile at the new faces,
say hello to the old.
the old man who used to
believe he owned the home
and offered help to visitors
now sits and mumbles to himself
and stares ahead.

our friend is awake
but looks so frail.
she remembers and talks
though all is not clear.
we offer snacks and she says
put them in the drawer
which is now full of unopened
packages and soft drinks.
thanks for coming,
and we leave.

we drive two hours
to the top of a mountain
where these homes always seem to be.
an alarm whistles and never stops.
down the hall a man screams
and screams
and screams
ignored by all because
nothing can be done.

my brother asks for a cola
which we have brought,
and applesauce and pudding.
on the other side of the curtain
a football game is in double overtime.
a man in bed watches,
his son sits in his wheelchair.
a lady also sits in a wheelchair
not knowing if she belongs there.
and down the hall the man screams.

it’s an hour before supper
and meds are being distributed
and laundry dropped off
and cleaning, always cleaning
of the spills on the floor.
we leave the room and pass doorways
where sounds and smells and sights
we don’t want to experience
gently assault.

through the over-sized door
and into the courtyard
that is seldom used
because in this courtyard
you can’t light a cigarette.
there are plants and flowers
and hummingbirds and sculptures
and the quiet hum of the air conditioners.
there are no smells no desperate souls no screams.
a breeze blows in from the mountains
and there is peace and
we pray and give thanks
for all that is good.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird


the secret hidden

close your eyes
so you don’t see
the browning leaves
or the yellow ones
that have fallen


cover your ears
so you don’t hear
the dry grass
or the leaves crunch
beneath your feet


ignore the scents
of the pumpkins
and spice
that sing of
the last days of harvest


feel the warmth
of another summer day
that burns the skin
and brings forth sweat
so late in its glory


dream again
of all that is possible
and what you can do
and who you can love
in this gift of a day


think little
of the secret
hidden in the breeze
from the mountains
which portends the future


worry not
of the chill that will be
or the winds that will howl
for today it is warm
and that is enough


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

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

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

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

But back to our story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town.

You had to let the grooves cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Darnell, aka Booger

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

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

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


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

“Hey, Pops.”

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

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

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

“Beg pardon, ma’am?

“West Virginia, not Virginia.’

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

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

Booger turned back to her father.

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

“I suppose.”

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


“You his daughter?”

She nodded.

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


“How what?”

“How was he good to you?”

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

“It’s a bit of a story, ma’am.”

“We have time.”

“Ok. Well let’s see, then.”

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

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

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

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

Booger was the only one who found that amusing.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is that?”

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


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


“The guards, ma’am.”

“He paid the guards money?”

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

She shook her head. “McGhee.”

“Beg pardon?”

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

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

tough guy

tough guy

A couple of weeks ago my father, who is 87, called me on a Sunday morning around 7:00. He asked if I could run him up to the emergency room. If I wasn’t busy. I told him I could be there in ten minutes. Make it thirty, he said.

His left arm was hurting. Had been for a few days. He had mowed his grass on Tuesday and sometime after that his arm started hurting. At the time he took pain pills, it felt better, so that was that.  Through the week it seemed to be getting better, so Saturday night he skipped the pain pills. But the pain was back and woke him up around 3:00. He waited another four hours before deciding that maybe he should have it checked out. You know, just in case it was that heart-attack thing.

So I drove him up to the ER.  He walked in while I parked. They took him right away and he got to exchange funny quips with the cute triage nurse. Then they took him back and ran more tests and blood work. More quips with another cute nurse.  All ER visits should go like his.

After four hours no one had rushed in declaring his need for bypass surgery so he was starting to get the idea he was ok. But he was bored. I didn’t notice when he held his breath to see what that would do to his oxygen reading.  Beep, beep, beep. Then he tried rapid breathing. Beep, beep, beep.  Then he wanted to know how that thing on his finger read his oxygen level.  So I looked it up.

A little while later a young Physician’s Assistant said they were going to send him home.  The nurse would come in and disconnect him from the monitors.  When she was slow to arrive he started to take out the IV port. I said that probably wasn’t a good idea. So he waited.

Though he was being discharged, they advised against any strenuous activity until he had a follow-up stress test, just to make sure. In the meantime, I mowed his grass a couple of times. I’m in pretty good shape, but his yard is no picnic. It’s strenuous for sure. I used the opportunity to suggest that maybe, at 87, it was time to start hiring it done. No. He wanted to do it himself.

So last week, after getting the green light from his Primary Care Physician, or PCP as he likes to say, he was back to mowing in the heat of the summer.

No big deal.

Yeah. One tough guy.

the free spirit.

GCB-sailor edited

This hip chick is my mother.

The photo was taken around the time she began her career as a stay-at-home mom.

If my father was a left-brain analytical, my mother personified the right-brain free spirit.

My mother had artistic ambitions. She was good with sketches, and I think I remember her working with pastels. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

She was also a musician. She played the clarinet in the high school band (or faked it, as she would say, a skill I managed to master when I was in the band), and she was an excellent piano player. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

She loved to write and was a master of the funny story. She wanted to be the next Erma Bombeck (a popular humorist of her day) and probably had the skills to pull it off. But she was raising a family and it was hard to stick with it.

Did I mention poetry? No, not the soul-searching free verse that is popular today, but poems that actually rhymed. And again, many were humorous. But she was raising a family it was hard to stick with it.

She also sewed and made clothes for the family. I consider sewing an art form, but for my mother, it was a necessary skill, one that she was able to stick with, because she was raising a family.

Like most right-brain thinkers, my mother had dreams of making it big, but they never panned out. Even so, at every stage of her life she was able to find contentment in the work that she did. Yes, she found happiness in her art, her music, her writing, her poetry. But she knew what was really important. It wasn’t a sacrifice for her to let her dreams take a back seat, it was her act of love for her family. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Times have changed. With more options available, many mothers are able to work outside the home, fulfill their obligations as a mother, and still find time to pursue other interests. Roles are changing, too. Stay-at-home dads are much more common and give women even more choices.

But my mother’s world was different. Still, one truth remains.

Our time is short and our work is ephemeral.

Know what really matters and make the most of it.

Do your thing.

Eugene Bird at work

This young man is my father.
The photo was taken in the early days of his career as an electrical engineer.

In many ways, he is the stereotypical engineer.  He’s analytical.  He’s a logical problem solver.  He pays attention to detail.  He would be considered a left-brain thinker.  Creative types – your artists, musicians, actors, dancers – are generally considered right-brian thinkers.  If you think with the left side of your brain, you’d make a good engineer.  If you think with the right side, you might be a good writer.  And for much of what I remember about my father, this would seem to hold true.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember him doing anything very creative.  He was very much an engineer, and was a great (if sometimes intimidating) teacher of math and science to me and my sisters.

Most of his career he worked for Union Carbide and when they began to build new production facilities in Texas, he was transferred to Houston.  My family moved to Texas twice, and when he was sent to Houston for a third time, he opted to go it alone and not put the family through another move. So what does an engineer living by himself do in his spare time?

Golf?  Maybe jigsaw puzzles?  No.  He took up painting.  When he returned home we were astounded by what he had done. Among other things, he painted this scene of the old Morgan homestead near Winfield (WV), across from what is now the John Amos power plant.

eugene painting for web

As far as I know, he had never painted anything before.  There were other paintings, including a very lifelike portrait of Pittsburgh Steeler great, Mean Joe Green.

But when he came back home, he was done with painting.

In the 4o-some years since, he’s completed home improvement projects and done some woodworking, but not much that would label him as a creative type.

Then last year, my sister suggested to our then 86-year-old father that he should do pencil sketches of his great-grandchildren. He agreed.  Here’s one of the twins, Bear.

bear for web

For most of his life, my father has played the role of engineer.  He is still very practical and analytical, and his fondness for logic would make Mr. Spock proud. And then he’ll surprise us with those sparks of creativity that seem to come forth every forty years or so.

Lessons in all of this?

Don’t sell yourself short. You may not even realize the potential within.  Do your thing.

Too old? Nope. That just doesn’t cut it. Do your thing.

It will make your life better.





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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