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Joseph E Bird

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Fiction

watch this, read this

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.

kiss me

Oh, man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiss me.

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.

Kiss me.

Oh, man.

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

Then that gravelly voice was singing again.

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

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

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

Kiss me.

Oh, man.

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

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

Dang.

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

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

I had to do my part.

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

They dragged me out 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.

Kiss me.

Oh, man.


from the short story collection, carnival dreams, available at Amazon.com

copyright 2018, joseph e bird

tomorrow

this is one of the stories in my book, carnival dreams, available at Amazon, and the trunk of my car.


tomorrow will come

tomorrow will come, and i’ll sing an old song
and think of the day, that the words came along
i didn’t know then, that song was my last
i didn’t know then, that time flies so fast

tomorrow will come, and i’ll look toward the sun
and remember the spring, when i went for a run
i didn’t know then, that it was my last
i didn’t know then, that time flies so fast.

so remember the day, of all that was good
when youth was forever, we’d play when we would
remember the day, of life with no fears
tomorrow is coming, and with it the tears

tomorrow will come, and i’ll think of my friend
and read all the words, that he took time to send
i didn’t know then, that they were his last
i didn’t know then, that time flies so fast

tomorrow will come, and i’ll hear her sweet voice
and laugh at her jokes, her spirit rejoice
i didn’t know then, that her smile was her last
i didn’t know then, that time flies so fast

so remember the day, of our one last good time
when I touched your face, and your hand held mine
remember the day, and when we would dance
for tomorrow is coming, leave nothing to chance


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

carnival dreams – the movie

ok, so not quite a movie.

I wrote a song called carnival dreams, and now it’s the title of a collection of short stories and other writings. available now at Amazon.

through a glass darkly

Normally, especially as of late, when she steps in front of a mirror an automatic mental process kicks into gear that prepares her to greet her older self. It buffers her, dulls the shock.  But in the shopwindow, she has caught herself off guard, vulnerable to the reality undistorted by self-delusion.  She sees a middle-aged woman in a drab floppy blouse and a beach skirt that doesn’t conceal quite enough of the saggy folds of skin over her kneecaps.  The sun picks out the gray in her hair.  And despite eyeliner, and the lipstick that defines her lips, she has a face now that a passerby’s gaze will engage and then bounce from, as it would a street sign or a mailbox number.  The moment is brief, barely enough for a flutter of the pulse but long enough for her illusory self to catch up with the reality of the woman gazing back from the shopwindow.  It is a little devastating.  This is what aging is, she thinks as she follows Isabelle into the store, these random unkind moments that catch you when you least expect them.

          Pari, from And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

some assembly required

I learned yesterday that my novel Heather Girl won first place in the West Virginia Writers Competition.

When I first finished Heather Girl two years ago I submitted it in the competition and it received an Honorable Mention. Not bad. But I thought I could do better.

I re-worked the novel. I completely changed the beginning, which caused me to lose some passages I had spent many hours on. And the changes in the beginning rippled throughout the book. I also made a conscious decision to embrace the romance which in the previous version was a secondary theme. I’m telling you this not to say that I’m some kind of literary genius. Far from it. Two of my other entries in this year’s competition – a short story and a poem – didn’t even place.

The lesson here is that hard work is required. Sometimes you have to tear down what you’ve created and rebuild it. It’s not necessarily fun, but in the end, it will be better.

In my first version, the story began with Heather in the coffee shop staring at a photograph of an old man. Then she looked at another photograph. And then another. Near the end of the first chapter was the inciting event: she learned her father was paroled from prison.

In the revision, all of that is gone. Instead, Heather is already on the road to Texas and stops to see her ex-husband. I think it’s a more engaging beginning.

This will be all you hear about Heather Girl until its available commercially. Until then, here are the first chapters of the final version.


1

She had been on the road for three and a half hours when she reached Statesville and took the second exit. She turned right and drove two miles to Hunter Road, where she took another right. The supermarket was there on the right, just where it was supposed to be. To her left, across two lanes of traffic going in the opposite direction, was the home improvements store. Another mile on Hunter Road and the high school should be on the left. It was all so familiar, even though she had never been there. A little further up the road was Lakewood Drive. Another right. It looked different. The street view she had seen so many times online must have been taken in the spring when the sun was bright and the leaves on the trees were green. It had, of course, changed over the few years that she had begun looking at the neighborhood, but it must have always been spring or summer when the car with the top-mounted camera cruised the streets.

Her heart was pounding.

Lakewood Drive was a two-lane asphalt road with a narrow shoulder, but as she had surmised from the street view, there was little traffic. She pulled over to the side, her right tires off the gravel shoulder and onto the grass. Her fingers drummed against the steering wheel.

The houses were modest, mid-century models built close to the road. In another half mile the lake would come into view. His was a 60s brick rancher that sat back off the road.

She looked in her rearview mirror and saw that the road was clear. She could make a wide turn and go back the way she came and leave things between her and Robert as they were. Instead, she let her foot off the brake and kept going forward. She drove slowly, in part to identify the scene she had seen on the internet, and in part because she was unsure about continuing.

The trees along the road opened a little and to her left she saw the sparkle of the water from one of the lake’s narrow fingers that stretched out into the lowlands. It wasn’t until she saw the brick sign that announced Lakeview Estates that she saw the wide body of water as she remembered from the street view. As she drove past the gate, she saw that it was held open with a rope. For sale signs were planted in overgrown vacant lots. Though she didn’t see evidence on the street view, she had nonetheless imagined the neighborhood as posh, with manicured lawns on the water’s edge and the beautiful homes of doctors and lawyers and sales reps living well on their commissions. Across the water were more houses, but like the lake itself, they were smaller than she thought they would be.

She drove on.

One house. Two houses. The third house on the left. The brick rancher. An oversized pickup in the driveway. She slowed, almost coming to a stop.

That was enough. She would just drive by, turn around up the road, and drive by again on the way out.

Instead, she pulled into the driveway.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. He was likely finished with his weekend chores. Maybe he and Karla were just sitting in the living room, watching a movie or a ballgame. Maybe getting ready to go out. But only the pickup in the driveway. Karla probably wasn’t home.

As she got out of her car she saw the curtains in the front window move. Maybe Karla drove the pickup. Maybe Robert wasn’t home. She had never met her. Without Robert, the introduction would be awkward.

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

“I’ll be damned.”

He was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt and looked like he hadn’t shaved for a few days. His once-blonde hair was mostly brown now and even though there was more than a little gray, he still wore it long and unruly. It made her smile. He was aging very well.

“Hi, Robert.”

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

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

“It’s so good to see you.”

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

“You, too.”

He laughed as he stepped back.

She didn’t have the same gift. It was good to see him, but only in the way that it’s good to drive through your childhood neighborhood and see the house you grew up in, the street you played on, the grade school you attended. All but forgotten were the hard times, the teasing taken as a kid, the fights with friends, the pets that were buried in the corner of the back yard, so that all that is remembered are the games in the street, the tree fort, the creek in the hollow, the suppers of skillet lasagna and mac and cheese, and the cool mornings on bicycles and the warm evenings catching fireflies. You can’t stay long in the old neighborhood, you can’t even really love it, but it’s always good to be back.

With Robert it was the same. So much to remember, so much to forget.

“Damn, damn, damn, Heather, you are a sight.” His smile was broad as he spoke, his hands comfortably on his hips.

He wasn’t wearing shoes. Even his bare feet looked good. She wouldn’t tell him that, but Robert had a way of knowing such things.

“What are you doing here? On your way to the beach?”

“Is Karla home?”

The question caught him off guard. He tensed. Not enough that anyone else would have noticed. He shifted slightly on his feet as he looked over Heather’s shoulder and his right hand went from his hip to scratch his head behind his ear. He was about to tell a lie.

“Nah, she’s not here right now.”

Not a lie, but not the truth. Karla had left him. The whys of it all, Heather could guess.

“I’m on my way to Texas.”

“Texas?” Then he remembered. “To see your brother?”

“Not really.”

He crossed his arms and looked at her, his face a question mark.

“Your father?”

“He’s been paroled.”

He stared at her, not moving, looking as though he was searching for the right words. It was one of the things she had loved about Robert, his strong empathy, which he was somehow able to project without speaking, to make you feel his emotions without so much as a touch, to make you feel comfort just by being near him. The wind ruffled his hair. It would have made a good picture for Avery.

“Do you have coffee?”

“Come on.”

He put his arm around her shoulder as she walked up the steps. At one time he might have pulled her close. At one time her arm would have wrapped around his waist. But now their bodies stayed distant, and while his gesture wasn’t completely unappreciated, his touch felt too familiar for comfort.

They stepped through a small foyer into the living room. Above the fireplace was a television. In front of the fireplace a single leather recliner and accent table. No other furniture.

She didn’t have to say anything.

“Yeah. She’s gone.” He shrugged. “I guess I’m just too much of a jackass.”

She laughed.

“I gave her all the furniture. It was all hers anyway. I never liked it.”

The recliner was new. A tag still hung from the back. The break-up was fairly recent.

“You hungry? Come on in the kitchen and I’ll whip something up.”

She followed him through the dining room to the kitchen, also new with stainless steel appliances and a six-burner stove. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a steak.

“You haven’t turned vegan on me, have you?”

“No, but you don’t need to do this. I can’t stay.”

“Heck, I need to fix me some dinner. Just as easy to cook for two.”

“How’s the business going?”

“It’s picking up again.” He worked as he talked, scrubbing potatoes, shucking a couple of ears of corn. “I’m back up to half a dozen agents. Still not selling much new, but there’s a real demand for existing homes.” He cut the ends off the potatoes and put them in the microwave.

“And your health?”

He laughed. “My health? Are we using euphemisms now?”

“No. I just meant your health in general.”

“Five years coming up in a couple of months.”

“That’s a big milestone.”

“Doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

Well, it did, Heather knew. She also knew that downplaying it was an acknowledgment that he had to go day by day. Anniversaries don’t mean anything when you can throw it all away with one drink.

“That’s good, Robert.”

“I guess. But what’s it got me? Living alone again.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

She knew better than to press it. Besides, it was none of her business and the failures of his relationships had no bearing on her life whatsoever, as long as he was able to help pay for Micah’s education. So what if he ran another woman off? So what if she had left him? If he really had quit drinking, the abuse wasn’t likely to be as bad as she had experienced, not that he had ever actually beaten her, but when he had been drinking his anger was nearly uncontrollable. Over the years they had their share of bad fights, but when they both had been drinking, it was hard to tell who abused whom. There was a lot of shoving and throwing and screaming. Always screaming. Sober, he was likely to be less abusive. Maybe every bit as controlling. Maybe as jealous as ever. But on whole, he had to be a better person.

Or it might have just been his inability to be faithful. There was always that.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean anything.”

“So the old man’s getting out. How do you feel about that?”

“Oh, I think it’s just wonderful. I’m hoping we can get back to being father and daughter again.”

He picked up the steaks with a fork and put them in the hot, cast-iron skillet.  He smiled.

“Reminds me of Westwood.”

“Westwood was a long time ago.”

A long pause.

“He’s staying with Owen.”

“You’re not bringing him home?”

“I don’t even want to see him. There’s no way he would ever live in my house.”

She sat at the table and watched him work. He poked at the corn boiling in a pot of water while the steak sizzled in a cast iron skillet.

“When did you learn to cook?”

“I lived by myself for a while, you know.”

“What, two weeks?”

“More like a year.”

“Liar.”

“Yeah. But not in the way you think. Melissa left not long after I moved down here. I didn’t tell you because I felt like an idiot.”

“You are an idiot.”

He laughed as he turned the steak.

She felt bad for saying it, but only a little. He was an idiot. Probably still is. And what did that make her? She had married him, after all. She had stayed with him through the abuse, through the girlfriends, through the drinking. And here she was, sitting in his kitchen, watching him cook. Watching him. It wasn’t like he was building a deck, or chopping wood, or hauling bags of mulch, shirtless, on a hot summer day. He was cooking. His shoulders slumped a little more than they used to and his arms had lost some of the definition he had been so proud of. He was no longer the man he once was. His hard edges had melted away. Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t stop watching him.

He hadn’t protested when she called him an idiot. That was new, too.

“For you, Heather girl,” he said as he put a plate in front of her. “I’d offer you a glass of wine but, you know. Iced tea ok?”

That didn’t really tell her anything. He had never been a wine drinker. There could be beer in the refrigerator, or liquor in one of the cabinets. Because he always had been and always would be a liar. He was such a good liar.

“Are you seeing anybody?”

She hadn’t prepared herself for the personal questioning. He was staring at her, a slight smile that might have been mistaken by someone else as flirtatious, or by someone more naive as friendly encouragement, but she knew better. She pretended not to notice the smirk, the dig that said somehow he knew that she was seeing no one, and that she hadn’t even been to dinner with another man since he had left the house. She cut the steak and speared a piece with her fork.

She shrugged and feigned nonchalance. “Well. Nothing serious.”

His smirk went to full-on smile. He didn’t believe her.

“Avery. He’s a photographer.”

He was still smiling, still watching her.

“He went to school at Columbia.”

The smile disappeared. And though it had delivered the effect she thought it would, she regretted saying it. Robert had never been to college.

“He didn’t graduate.” It came across as patronizing.

“You’re trying too hard.”

She felt her face flush. “I shouldn’t have come here. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on hers. She pulled away.

“I need to go.”

“Can’t you stay a little longer?”

There was no guile in his expression. His eyes had turned soft and pleading, his smile gentle and nervous. He was nineteen again, unsure of himself, captivated by the girl with the flaming red hair who could persuade him to do her bidding with her own teasing, alluring smile. He looked at her, a strand of his brown hair in front of his eyes, tempting her to brush it away, to touch his face, to feel his shoulders through his white t-shirt, tempting her to stay, to finish dinner, to find the bottle he had hidden behind the cereal in the cabinet above the refrigerator, to sip and smell the sweet liquor on his breath, and let the evening take them back in time to their wonderful and terrible lives of so many years ago, that would delight the flesh, break the heart, and leave them in ruin.

“I have to go.”

He stayed at the table as she got up and walked out. As she opened the front door, she heard him from the kitchen.

“Heather.”

She closed the door behind her.

.

The blast of 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 her and was pushing her down the highway. Then the horn blasted again and the truck backed off.

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 rolled down her window and turned off the engine, 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 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 suitcase 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. Heather wouldn’t leave the room until the next day.

Inside, she turned on the television for background noise and lay on the bed fully clothed, covered only with her jacket. Even so, she fell asleep almost immediately and slept until dawn.

2

Heather dropped by today.

I make it sound like it’s no big deal, but she drove two hundred miles. She’s on her way to Texas to fetch the old man and I’m in the general direction of heading south, but she had to veer a little east and tack on another couple of hours of driving time, so it’s something, even if it’s not a big deal.

She’s looking a little rough. Tired. She’s wrinkled around the eyes and her hair has lost its fire. But look at me. A little more belly than I ought to have and my whiskers come in with more grey than brown, and who am I to talk about hair? Then again, I’ve got twelve years on her.

She pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon. I’d been to the store that morning and picked up a couple of steaks, among other things, not because I was expecting company, but they sell them by the pair and that would take care of two meals for the week. So here comes Heather and I grab the steaks from the fridge and act like I’m Emeril and douse the steaks in olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and grind a little pepper and I can tell she’s digging this man-at-home-in-the-kitchen act. But it’s no act. I don’t have much of a choice if I don’t want to eat out every night. I scrub a couple of potatoes and wrap them in wax paper and put them in the microwave. I offer her an iced tea.

Tea?

Yeah.

That’s all that needs to be said. In the old days we would have shared a few beers. She’s probably a wine drinker now. I’m sober and aim to stay that way. Maybe if I’d quit ten years ago, things would be different.

I drop the steaks in the skillet and they sizzle and pop and release a faint cloud of steam that fills the room with the primal smell of meat on a fire and as I look at Heather sitting at the counter sipping her tea, I imagine we’re on the roof of that building on Westwood with the sun setting across the bay behind us. Me grilling and Heather reading a book, and I wish I had a beer. Funny how smells can throw you back in time.

Remember Westwood?

She smiles.

And she’s twenty years younger and her eyes look softer and her hair is smoother. I’m still in my thirties. And I really wish I had a beer. I’d give it all up, start over, just to go back in time with Heather.

He’s staying with Owen, she says.

Abrupt change of subject. She’s not interested in the way we were. Smart woman.

She’s talking about the old man. He’s been paroled. Going to stay with her brother, apparently.

How’s Owen feel about that?

They wouldn’t be letting him out if he hadn’t agreed to it. He’s an idiot.

I decide not to argue with her.

The boys have moved out of her house. Robbie’s got a family of his own. Micah’s finishing up school. I think, anyway. Don’t hear much from him. Don’t hear much from any of them.

Which is why Heather dropping by was as big a surprise as they come.  Good surprise, though.

The old man killed her mother. Mercy killing, though the judge didn’t see it that way, or if he did, he didn’t give a crap. She was suffering bad. Huntington’s disease. Now they’re letting him go.

Like I said, I’m older than Heather. She was a kid when we met. We ran off to San Francisco doing dope and drinking all the time. Then here comes Robbie. So we got married and tried to act like family, but we were still partying. When Micah was born we left California and moved back to West Virginia. Heather straightened up and I tried, but my roots were deeper than hers. It took me a while. She ditched me and I moved to Charlotte. And there you go.

I think Heather has Huntington’s. She’s never come out and told me but I can put the pieces together. Her hand was all trembly. Her right hand. Or maybe it was her left. And she looked so tired. I reached across the table and touched her. She drew back. I guess she thought I was making a move. She doesn’t know how much I still care about her. She told me she was seeing a photographer, but I don’t believe her. She’s driving to Texas. Alone. That’s why I touched her hand. She’s alone. I’m alone. I needed to feel her skin, feel her warmth. She needed the same thing. I know her better than she knows herself, even though we’ve been apart for so long. And I know we’ll never be together again. But she’s still my Heather girl.


copyright 2020, joseph e bird

altered reality

I’ve got a restraining order against me.

Ain’t that a hoot.

So I can’t go home.  But it’s not bad here.

There’s a bird feeder outside my window.  I’ve got a television that sets on my dresser.  I’ve got cable, so that’s good.  Not that there’s much to watch during the day.

There’s a little refrigerator in my room so I don’t have to walk down to the dining room room when I need a drink.  Non-alcoholic, of course.  It’s been years since I had that kind of drink.

It’s just the one room. Not counting the bathroom, complete with all the grab bars.  Like I’m set up to do gymnastics or something.  Not at my age.  And the cord to pull in case I can’t get off the can.  I don’t need that, but they have this place set up for old people who can’t get around.

I’ve been here a couple of weeks.  I think.  Maybe longer.  I have it written down in a notebook I keep.  Let me look.

No.  That can’t be right.  That would be almost a year.  I must have written the date down wrong.  Couple of weeks.  Three, at the most.

My wife never comes around.  She’s the one who got the restraining order.  Says I came home a couple of weeks ago and tore up the house.  Maybe I did.  After I caught her running around, you wouldn’t blame me, would you?  She’s been doing that for years.  Even before she got sick.  Then she was laid up in the hospital and she started in with one of the doctors.  I tried not to say anything until she got better.

The food’s pretty good here.  Sometimes I sleep in past breakfast.  They don’t like you to eat in your room unless you’re bad off.  If you do that too much, they’ll move you over to the other building, so I get out as much as I can.

I used to carry on myself, if I’m being honest.  I was in sales.  I’d go to these out-of-town conventions and there wasn’t much to do when the day was over so we’d go down to the honky-tonks. Well, you know what happens there.  Everybody did it.  Doesn’t make it right, but everybody did it.

But I felt bad about it.  I tried to keep it from Bea, but after a while the guilt just felt like an anchor pulling me under water, deeper and deeper.  So I told her all about it. I figured she’d throw me out and I know she thought about it, but I started going to church with her and after a while, things just kind of smoothed out.  Truth is, I don’t think she ever got over it.

Everything’s upside down now. Out anniversary is next week. Fifty some years. Not that it matters.  She won’t care.  I want to try to talk some sense into her.  We’re both wrong,  All kinds of wrong.  Wish we could get it worked out.

She hasn’t been here in a few weeks.  I’ve got it here written down.  Somewhere.  Can’t find it right off.  It’s somewhere.

No.  Wait.  Yeah.  That’s right.  She’s never been here.  Never will be.

She’s been gone four years now.

I wish we could have got things straight.


copyright 2020, joseph e bird

rejections from agents

If you’re an author trying to get published, rejection is part of the process. I have no problem with that. As part of my day job as an architect, we submit our qualifications for projects and are rejected 90% of the time. It’s not that we’re not qualified; most of the time it just means we’re not a good fit for that particular project. It’s the same with writing. And though I’m accustomed to rejection in general, I’d like to see a little more success with my writing.

Authors seeking to be published by a traditional publisher generally seek agent representation first. Thus, agents are the first to offer rejection. Here’s a typical rejection letter (email) from an agent.

Dear Mr. Bird:

Thank you for your recent submission.  We enjoyed reviewing your work. Unfortunately, at this time, we do not feel we have a good place for you on our client list. We wish you all the best success in the future.

Just a form letter. No real feedback. Nothing to tell you if your writing is truly bad or if it’s just a wrong fit for that particular agent. And this judgement is based typically on no more than the first 50 pages of your novel, and more often, the first 10 pages. I can also imagine than an agent can make the assessment after the first few paragraphs.

Here’s another I recieved.

Dear Mr. Bird,

Thank you very much for your query below.   I liked the premise of this story, but I am sorry to say that I did not connect with the writing in the way I had hoped.  For this reason, and with regret, I cannot offer you representation.  However, I wish you every success and hope you will find the perfect home for this material. 

Hey! Positive feedback. This was for Heather Girl and apparently she liked the premise of my story! So that tells my I’m not completely off base with the overall story idea. This is good. Great, actually. Now the bad news.

I did not connect with the writing.

In other words, my writing sucks.

This is what authors tend to do. One minute you’re receiving the Pulitzer, the next your pages are not worth lining the bottom of a bird cage. We’re an insecure bunch. Reality is somewhere in the middle.

After a few days of self-loathing, I decided to try to figure out why the agent might not have connected with my writing. Working under the assumption that she started at the beginning, that’s where I start. And one of the first rules of novel writing is to have a good opening hook. So I spent a few days trying to craft a hook. That was more or less a useless excercise.

Did the agent really not connect with my writing because I didn’t have a clever hook? I doubt it. It’s more than that.

What did I do?

I scrapped the first three chapters altogether. I’ve moved one of my favorite scenes to the beginning of the book. I think it’s more engaging and my hope is that readers will be caught up in the story right from the beginning and be completely unconcerned about the words I use to tell the story. It’s the story, after all, stupid. That stupid is for me.

Yes, it’s taken a lot of work to rearrange the pieces and I’ve lost some of my favorite passages in those first three chapters, but wasn’t it William Faulkner who advised authors to “kill your darlings”?

I’m almost ready to begin another round of agent submittals. We’ll see if any of this has helped.

lonely for a while

Mercy sakes. That woman scares me. She sure don’t smile much.  Not that she should be smiling at her brother’s funeral, but she can hardly muster even a polite smile.

She got a little bit of her daddy in her. At least what I seen of him when I first got locked up at Estelle. He was always kind of quiet and respectful, but George had a side to him, mainly if the guards tried to give him any grief. They was bought and paid for and he let them know. Sometimes with just a look. I can see that in her.

Didn’t even know he had a daughter. It’s a curious thing he never mentioned her to me. Course, looking back, I can see that he only talked about his boy cause he came to visit now and then. But she was her daddy’s girl. I can see that, in spite of how she feels about him now.  Reckon I can understand her feelings.

There’s a little something that’s not quite right. She’s ailing in some way. I can see it in her eyes. And she’s a little twitchy. But that ain’t the worst of it.

She got that dark speck growing in her. It’s the way she talked to me. I’m a aggravation to her. She’s bitter at George and I’m part of that. Fair enough. But I can tell she’s lonely, too. Been lonely for a while, if I’m guessing right. No man with her, not even at her brother’s funeral. That’ll put you in a bad way. Not that she couldn’t have a man if she wanted. Maybe she don’t want it. Maybe she had enough of men. Bad husband, maybe. Bad father. Don’t know much about the brother, but I’m guessing there was something there, too.

It ain’t too late, though. Maybe she’ll soften on George. Maybe soften on life a little. I can tell she was a looker in her day. Still got enough to attract a man.  The right kind of man. I been without for a long time now and I know that cloud of lonely. But that woman’s not for me. She scares me. I need a woman that can give me some gentleness. A woman that I can sit with on a porch swing and listen to the crickets. A woman that can take hold of today, live in the moment and not be ate up with the past or fretting about the future.

That Heather, I’ll pray for her. Pray that she finds some relief from her demons. Maybe she can forgive old George. Maybe she can find her smile again.


from the novel Heather Girl
Darnell, also known as Booger, has just met Heather

copyright 2020, joseph e bird

i touched her hand

Heather dropped by today.

I make it sound like it’s no big deal, but she drove two hundred miles. She’s on her way to Texas to fetch the old man and I’m in the general direction of heading south, but she had to veer a little east and tack on another couple of hours of driving time, so it’s something, even if it’s not a big deal.

She’s looking a little rough. Tired. She’s wrinkled around the eyes and her hair has lost its fire. But look at me. A little more belly than I ought to have and my whiskers come in with more grey than brown, and who am I to talk about hair? Then again, I’ve got twelve years on her.

She pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon. I’d been to the store that morning and picked up a couple of steaks, among other things, not because I was expecting company, but they sell them by the pair and that would take care of two meals for the week. So here comes Heather and I grab the steaks from the fridge and act like I’m Emeril and douse the steaks in olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and grind a little pepper and I can tell she’s digging this man-at-home-in-the-kitchen act. But it’s no act. I don’t have much of a choice if I don’t want to eat out every night. I scrub a couple of potatoes and wrap them in wax paper and put them in the microwave. I offer her an iced tea.

Tea?

Yeah.

That’s all that needs to be said. In the old days we would have shared a few beers. She’s probably a wine drinker now. I’m sober and aim to stay that way. Maybe if I’d quit ten years ago, things would be different.

I drop the steaks in the skillet and they sizzle and pop and release a faint cloud of steam that fills the room with the primal smell of meat on a fire and as I look at Heather sitting at the counter sipping her tea, I imagine we’re on the roof of that building on Westwood with the sun setting across the bay behind us. Me grilling and Heather reading a book, and I wish I had a beer. Funny how smells can throw you back in time.

Remember Westwood?

She smiles.

And she’s twenty years younger and her eyes look softer and her hair is smoother. I’m still in my thirties. And I really wish I had a beer. I’d give it all up, start over, just to go back in time with Heather.

He’s staying with Owen, she says.

Abrupt change of subject. She’s not interested in the way we were. Smart woman.

She’s talking about the old man. He’s been paroled. Going to stay with her brother, apparently.

How’s Owen feel about that?

They wouldn’t be letting him out if he hadn’t agreed to it. He’s an idiot.

I decide not to argue with her.

The boys have moved out of her house. Robbie’s got a family of his own. Micah’s finishing up school. I think, anyway. Don’t hear much from him. Don’t hear much from any of them.

Which is why Heather dropping by was as big a surprise as they come.  Good surprise, though.

The old man killed her mother. Mercy killing, though the judge didn’t see it that way, or if he did, he didn’t give a crap. She was suffering bad. Huntington’s disease. Now they’re letting him go.

Like I said, I’m older than Heather. She was a kid when we met. We ran off to San Francisco doing dope and drinking all the time. Then here comes Robbie. So we got married and tried to act like family, but we were still partying. When Micah was born we left California and moved back to West Virginia. Heather straightened up and I tried, but my roots were deeper than hers. It took me a while. She ditched me and I moved to Charlotte. And there you go.

I think Heather has Huntington’s. She’s never come out and told me but I can put the pieces together. Her hand was all trembly. Her right hand. Or maybe it was her left. And she looked so tired. I reached across the table and touched her. She drew back. I guess she thought I was making a move. She doesn’t know how much I still care about her. She told me she was seeing a photographer, but I don’t believe her. She’s driving to Texas. Alone. That’s why I touched her hand. She’s alone. I’m alone. I needed to feel her skin, feel her warmth. She needed the same thing. I know her better than she knows herself, even though we’ve been apart for so long. And I know we’ll never be together again. But she’s still my Heather girl.


copyright 2020, joseph e bird

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