Search

Joseph E Bird

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

Tag

Literature

clean the ashes from your hearth

Spring is the death of death and the erasure of memory.

Who can ruminate over what was lost in the ice and snow when the brook runs free and clear? This is new life, again. Stop your brooding and take off your coat and hat. Clean the ashes from your hearth and open the windows and let the accumulated scents of stew and woodsmoke escape into the gold and blue. — Larry Ellis, from Mid-day Post, March 30, 2019.

how to write a novel

If only it were so easy.

On page 83 of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing, I had a moment of realization.

In the years before World War II, young Billy Parham has trapped a wolf and is determined to take it back from where it came, the mountains of Mexico. How the wolf is trapped, how he frees it from the trap, how he manages to transport the wolf while on horseback, is in itself a captivating story. The details provided by McCarthy, the knowledge of the pre-war cowboy, the behavior of wild wolves, his knowledge of geography, his use of language is masterful.

And on page 83, I realized that he couldn’t have accomplished all of this in the first draft. Or the first major revision. As I marvel at his writing, I know, without the need for confirmation, that this part of the story required so much work. I can see a first draft getting down the basics. Then another layer of detail. And another. And another. I can see complete restructuring of scenes when something strikes McCarthy as unrealistic or implausible or maybe not the right tone.

So much work.

Yeah, it’s hard enough to get to 80,000 words. But if you think you’re done after the first draft, you fooling yourself. The first draft is not worth reading.

It will be better after your first round of revisions. But it will take more. Painful edits. Re-writing entire sections. Killing off beloved characters. New beginnings. New endings.

But the truth is, if you want to be good, you have to work hard. It’s true for anything you do.

Can you handle that?

Buck up, friends. Do the work. Don’t expect it to be easy.

as they may believe again

The night was falling down from the east and the darkness that passed over them came in a sudden breath of cold and stillness and passed on. As if the darkness had a soul itself that was the sun’s assassin hurrying to the west as once men did believe, as they may believe again.

Cormac McCarthy, from The Crossing

a bird lights on the ground

we sit
the two of us
at a table outside
on this warm evening

there’s not much to be said
because we’ve spent our words
and must wait for others
to come forth
and they will
because they always do

so we listen
to the birds flitting
in the trees
and the cars driving by
and to the people around us
talking

and we hear words spoken
but not sentences
and not stories
their words are simply
sounds that soften
the edges of our silence

the nothingness
is peace itself
and it holds us still
and a bird lights on the ground
next to our feet
and cocks its head

at the next table
a young girl offers the bird a crumb
and the young man who is with her smiles
and though they talk
we hear nothing
but their easy voices

and we sit
the two of us
at a table outside
on this warm evening


copyright 2018, joseph e bird

I could have been shot dead.

cigarette red glow for web

And that’s no exaggeration.  Bullets flew that night.  Things like that go bad all the time.

People die.

It could have been me.

*   *   *

Seems like every night it’s something else.

A loaf of bread.  A gallon of milk.  Something sweet.  Cookies, probably.  Chips Ahoy.

Not that I really mind.  Gets me away from the craziness of the apartment complex.  And I enjoy the walk.  It’s been cooler than usual for late summer in Houston.

Everybody’s out.  Either in the courtyard or on their balconies.  They’re always out.  Kids running everywhere.

Marvin and Shirley are sitting in their lawn chairs, their feet up on the railing.  I say hello and make my way to the steps at the other end of the balcony.  One of the twins sticks her head through the railing and watches, smiling.  Randy climbs over the rail and slides down the pole, then runs off across the courtyard.  Music is blaring from one of the apartments.  The Beatles, I think.  I never cared much about music.  But everybody’s crazy about the Beatles.

The 7-11’s just down the street.  Another couple of blocks away is the freeway.  I can hear the whine of tires on pavement.  It’s a busy neighborhood, but there’s never been much trouble.  At least not in the two years we’ve been here. I like Houston.  A lot different than the hills of West Virginia where I’m from, and where my family longs to return.  But I like it here.

I leave the apartment complex and walk down the sidewalk, the green and red sign of the store just ahead.  A kid on a motorcycle flies by.  He pops a wheelie.  Impudent snob. A man approaches.  He stops in front of me and I brace myself, not sure what’s about to happen.

“Hey, buddy.”

“Hey,” I say.  I don’t know this guy.  I don’t know why he calls me buddy.  We’ve never met.

“Got any spare change?”

Spare change?  Like change I don’t need?  Change I was just going to throw away when I got home?

He’s acting kind of squirrely.  I reach into my pocket and give him what I had in spare change.  Fifty some-odd cents.

“Thanks, brother.”

Brother?  Not hardly.  He heads on down the sidewalk.  I figure I’ll see him at the 7-11 in a few minutes buying beer.

There are a few cars in the parking lot.  Everybody needs something.  Everybody’s got to be somewhere.  At least that’s Duane’s line.

Duane lives down on the ground level of the apartments.  Always has a story to tell.  Like the time he was fooling around with another guy’s wife and the guy comes home unexpectedly.  Duane hides in the closet, but eventually the husband finds him, opens the closet door, and there’s Duane.

“What are you doing in the closet?”

“Everybody’s got to be somewhere.”

And then Duane laughs.  Laughs hard.  The story is made up, just for the punch line.  That’s Duane.

I pull open the door to the 7-11 and go inside.  I turn right, heading for the cooler where the milk is.

And then I see Duane.  Lying on the floor.  Flat out on his stomach.  Like he’s sighting something.  And he’s smoking a cigarette.

I’m just about to ask him what he’s doing when someone yells.

“Get down on the floor!”

I turn and look and see this guy.  He’s scruffy, week-old beard, long, stringy hair, eyes on fire.

He has a gun.  He points it at me.

You think I would have complied with his request, being the rational engineer that I am.  You think I would have immediately understood the situation, processed all of the information available, and joined Duane on the floor.

But, no.

For some reason my brain goes into lockdown.

“What?”

“I said get on the floor!”

He glares at me.

Ok. Yeah. On the floor.

“Hey, Duane.”

I didn’t actually say that. But we make eye contact.  Duane is still smoking his cigarette.

I still don’t know what’s going on.

“Open the safe!”  Same guy, yelling at the clerk.

Now I get it.  It’s a robbery.  A hold-up, as they used to say in the old black-and-white tv shows.  He could have just said that. It would have saved a lot of confusion.

This is a hold-up!

They should make that a rule.  Put it in the Handbook of Convenience Store Robbery: Best Practices for Hold-ups.

I hear the clerk answer.  “I can’t open the safe.”

Hmmm.  Not good.

“Open it!”

Then a ruckus.  I can’t see what’s going on.

Then three shots.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

You have no idea how loud a gun can be until you hear one fired inside a 7-11.
My ears are ringing.  And now I realize how bad this could be.  I picture the clerk bleeding on the floor.

Duane and I are next.

Shot in the back, execution style, the article in the Houston Post would read.

The cigarette falls from Duane’s mouth.  It’s lying on the floor, smoke trailing up in a soft swirl.  Duane’s scared. I can see it.

Another shot.

Did he just shoot someone else?

I hear something mechanical.  Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.

“Dang it!”

For a robber, he sure uses polite expletives.

Then I see feet and legs running to the front of the store.  The robber, I’m guessing.  He bursts through the door, runs across the parking lot, and disappears down the street.

All is quiet.  So quiet.

I look back at Duane.  He’s completely pale.

“Is everybody ok?”

It’s the clerk.  I raise my head and look around.  I look up at the counter.

“He’s gone,” the clerk says.

By the time I get to my feet the clerk is on the phone calling the police.  Duane’s nowhere to be seen, his cigarette still smoking on the floor.  Everybody’s got to be somewhere.  Duane’s somewhere is somewhere else, apparently. Can’t say that I blame him.

The clerk’s off the phone now.

“He was trying to get in the floor safe.”

He points to a small, square steel plate on the floor.  I can see dings where the bullets hit.

“Wow.”  Not much of a comment, but it’s all I had.

“I thought he was going to shoot me,” he says.

“I thought we were all goners.”

He reaches under the counter and produces one of those curved bottles of liquor that fit nicely in the inside pocket of a jacket.  He takes a long swig.

“Want a shot?”

“I don’t drink.” I have to admit, I was kind of wishing I did, right about then.

“Cops are on their way.”

“Yeah.”

The front door opens.  A guy walks up to the counter.  Asks for a pack of Marlboros. The clerk pulls the pack from the rack.

“37 cents,” he tells him.

The guy pays and leaves the store.

Ok. Back to normal.

Loaf of bread.  Gallon of milk.  Almost forgot the cookies.  Chips Ahoy.

*   *   *

I could have been shot dead.

I told the story when I got back to the apartments.  Told it to Marvin and Shirley.  Told it to my family.  But I walked in carrying cookies and milk. How bad could it have been?

Fifty years ago, this happened.  Fifty years.  Where has the time gone?

I can tell the story for fun, now.  Play it up for the laughs.  Duane on the floor.  Me not getting it at first.

My hearing’s bad; my memory’s worse.

But I still remember.  I still hear those shots.  I was never so glad to get back to the craziness of the apartments.


story copyright 2018, joseph e bird
photo copyright 2018, joseph e bird
cigarette courtesy of downtown jeanne brown


Note: The story you have just read is a fictionalized account of a true event.  While living in Houston, my father was witness to the 7-11 robbery.  And Duane (not his real name) was really lying on the floor smoking a cigarette.  Shots were fired.  No one was injured.

life above the common

Mohler1911
Mohler House, St. Albans, WV, 1911

Life above the common.

I really like that phrase.  I stole it from Larry Ellis.  It’s the theme of his novel-in-progress about Rachel, a young woman, who, upon the death of her husband, faces a choice.  She can either take her life insurance proceeds and live the good life sipping margaritas on the beach, or do something far more risky in the hope of building a life with meaning and purpose, one whose legacy will endure long after she is gone.   For Rachel, there is no choice.

She’ll buy the house – the house that once was a symbol of everything that was right and good about her town – and sink her savings into its restoration.  Not for her own vain pleasure, and not for the sake of an unrealistic nostalgic vision, but for the people of Walhonde, who may see in its restoration as a home, who may see in its revitalization as a community cornerstone, a shining example of what can be achieved when the choice is made to live life above the common.

It’s not the easy choice.  It’s the idea reflected in the West Point Cadet Prayer.

“Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”


Larry’s novel is inspired by the real-life Mohler House, located in our small town of St. Albans, West Virginia.  In the novel, the name of the town is changed to Walhonde.  Though a tale of fiction, Larry weaves historical facts about the house into the narrative which occurs in the present, but is supported by the legacy of the men and women who shaped the town – and the world – in the early 1900s.   You can read excerpts here.

miracles

mountain sun

“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may not be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”

― William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace


photo-art copyright 2016, gloria m bird

check swing

Her father stirred. He raised his head and looked around.

“Pip?”

Wayne and Heather looked at each other.

He father pushed himself up in the chair. “Pip?” His voice was stronger.

It took her back to the garage. Her tomboy, grease-monkey days. The good days. The best days.

It was a nickname Wayne had started and she had always hated. Pip.  Pippi.  As in Pippi Longstocking. Precocious kid from an old movie. Goofy, red pigtails and a gap-toothed smile that seemed frozen in perpetual amazement. She hated the reference. She hated the name. Which only made Wayne use it more.

Sometime after Wayne had begun his new quest to irritate his little sister, she was in the garage with her father. It was a hot summer evening. A fan blowing the greasy air around, making it just cool enough to be tolerable. A Reds game on the radio. He was working, she was watching. Just happy to be away from Wayne. She would go from bench to bench, running her hands over the cool steel of the tools, picking up a hammer or a pipe wrench or anything that looked too big and heavy to handle. She would hold it in both hands, amazed that anyone could make use of something so cumbersome.

The radio announcer droned on. The sleepy one. There were always two doing the game. One was more energetic and then there was the sleepy one. Talking so slow.  So easy.  She could sleep to the sound of his soothing voice.

Two and two the count.

She had no idea what that meant. Meaningless numbers. Just part of the peaceful background.

Check swing, fouled off.

“Did he just say Chuck Swain?”

“What’d you say?”

“The radio announcer. He just said something about Chuck Swain? Why would he be talking about Chuck Swain?” Chuck Swain being her friend who lived two blocks over.

Her father laughed.

“No, not Chuck Swain. Check swing. It’s when the batter almost swings but stops himself. Check swing.”

“Oh.”

Swing and a miss. That’s the third strikeout for Hernandez.

Her father laughed again. “Chuck Swain. That’s a good one.”

It made her feel good to make her father laugh.

“Hey, Pip, can you hand me those channel locks on the bench there?”

Pip. Not Pippi. Just Pip. And there was something in the way he said it that was not demeaning. Not a nickname to be cruel, a pet name. A name that would be special to her for the next several years.

She studied the assortment of wrenches on the bench. She saw one with the words Channel Lock imprinted on the silvery-gray steel.

“This one, Daddy?” It was heavier than she thought it would be and she almost dropped it on her foot.

He looked up from under the hood of the car. “Yeah. That’s it.”

He took the wrench and positioned it around a fitting. Somewhere down in the tangle of greasy parts and rubber hoses, she saw another wrench at the other end of the fitting.

“Here, hold this.” He motioned for her to take the handles of the channel locks. “Both hands. I’m going to turn the other wrench and I want you to try to keep the wrench from turning, ok? Just pull back and don’t let it turn.”

She nodded, completely sure that she wouldn’t be able to do what he had asked. And when he started on his end, the wrench in her hand lurched forward.

“Ok, pull back hard.”

She steeled herself and pulled back, putting as much of her ninety pounds as she could in the effort.

He grunted. She felt the pull on the wrench, but resisted. It moved a little and she pulled even harder. Then it broke loose. The wrench stayed wrapped around the fitting but she fell backwards and ended up on the floor.

“Got it.” Then he saw her sprawled out. “You ok?”

“Did you get it loose?”

“We got it loose. Good job, Pip.”

He helped her up and he went back to work. But everything had changed.

 

And now, in Wayne’s spartan living room in Texas, this old man spoke and she responded.

She walked over to the sofa and sat down as he followed her with his eyes.

“Hi, Daddy.”


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

church

Just a closer walk with Thee.
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea.

Darnell downstairs, singing. The clang of the skillet on the stove. Breakfast on a Sunday morning.

Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

She closed her eyes, tried to find more sleep, but the sun was lighting the room and Darnell wouldn’t stop singing, though he just kept repeating the same refrain, and the banging pots were like an alarm set to repeat every two minutes. So she got up and put on her clothes from the day before and made her way downstairs to the kitchen.

I come to the garden alone.

At least he had changed songs.

Her father sat at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in front of him. She went straight to the counter and poured herself a cup.

Darnell still hadn’t noticed her.

While the dew is still on the roses.

She went back to the table and pulled out a chair and sat with her father.

“You boys are up early.”

Darnell turned around.

“This is the day that the Lord hath made. I will be rejoice and be glad in it.”

“Sure.”

“Scrambled eggs?”

“Sure.”

He pulled three plates from the cabinet and dished out eggs on each one, then two strips of bacon, then toast.

“You’re going to make someone a happy wife someday, Darnell.”

He laughed and took his place at the table.

“Bow your head, Pops.”

And he did, as did Heather, but she didn’t close her eyes.

“Dear Lord, thank you for another day of life, another Lord’s day, and for this wonderful food you have provided. Be with our family, Lord, and bless us and draw us closer to you. Amen.”

She looked up. Her father’s head was still bowed. Maybe he was praying.

“Ok, Pops. You can eat now.”

He looked up, first at Darnell, then at Heather.

“Pip.”

“Good morning, Daddy.”

And they ate.

Her right arm felt funny. Under the table, her right leg twitched. She switched to her left hand.

“You prayed for your family. Back in Texas?”

Darnell was about to take a bite of his toast, but stopped and put it back on his plate.

“No, ma’am. I don’t have family in Texas. I mean I have relatives, but no family.” He held his hands out over the table. “This family. Us.” He picked up his toast and took a bite.

There’s different kinds of family.

So said the roughneck-turned-tackle shop owner.. The full-time philosopher and quiz show aficionado. Lucas.

Well, this one was different, for sure.

“What constitutes a family, Darnell?”

He took another bite of toast and studied on an answer.

“I don’t know if I can proper answer that. It’s not like I been studying on the situation and come to a conscious conclusion. It just feels like family. You’re like a sister. Maybe a little like a Mom. And Pops is Pops.” He shrugged. “Family.”

Part of her wanted to argue. This was no family, despite the fact that there was a biological link sitting right across the table, staring at his eggs, chewing on a strip of bacon, completely unaware of the conversation going on right in front of him. Her father? No. At best an empty shell. Worse, a selfish, uncaring man who took away her mother. Her father was just a dusty memory. And Darnell a brother? Just because he takes care of her father and helps around the house and runs errands for her and cooks breakfast, doesn’t mean he’s family. She could get the same service from a temp agency. And besides, it was all temporary. They’d both be going back to Texas before too long. House guests was more like it. And guests was being generous.

Still, the eggs were good, and the morning was peaceful. And if she were being truthful, it beat having a bowl of cold cereal by herself.

Darnell was humming Just a Closer Walk with Thee.

“Wish I could remember the words. All I know is the chorus.”

“Can’t help you there.”

She knew the hymn. At least it was familiar. Maybe from the times she went to church with her mother as a child. Maybe from the radio or television or a scene in a movie. The tune was easy and soothing and the kind of melody that would find a home in the mind and drift to the heart and grow into the soul and become a part of the collective memory that would come forth unexpectedly and bring with it a wash of sentimentality.

The smell of bacon would linger as the eggs disappeared and the coffee cooled. The last bite of toast with strawberry jam. The quiet clinking of silverware on the plates ceased and all was quiet. Soon the day would begin in earnest. Even if this were Darnell’s contrived family, it was nice.

Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

“Thanks, Darnell.”

“You’re welcome. Me and Pops are going to church this morning. You should come with us.”

And there was the other aspect of her unknown father she hadn’t taken the time or made the effort to reconcile. He had never been a church-going man. He was, at first, her good father, always there for her, always including her and making her feel special. He just didn’t go to church. That was her mother’s thing. And their family had been just fine without church. Although looking back she wasn’t sure how true that was. Then he murdered her mother, went to prison, and found religion. It was a cliché that hardly warranted consideration. And it wasn’t like she could have a conversation about it even if she wanted to. His mind was gone, and with it, all memories, logic, reason, and explanations of anything that would make sense of his life, or his life with her mother, or his role as a father. If it was all incomprehensible to him, how could she ever understand?


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

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑