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Joseph E Bird

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You Beneath Your Skin

“It’s a dark, smog-choked New Delhi winter.”

It’s a world and culture unfamiliar to me. Damyanti Biswas’s novel, You Beneath Your Skin, is steeped in cultural references and customs that are lost on me and at times left me confused. So what? Her story and her characters transcended the cultural divide and drew me in. Her heroes are flawed, her villains are sympathetic (except maybe one in particular) and their individual stories are compelling. People talk about how a novel needs a strong beginning, but it’s the end that either leaves you disappointed, or glad you read the book. Biswas nails the ending. So satisfying in every way.

“I’ve known for a while,” he said, breaking into Hindi, running a finger over a discolured patch on her forearm. “I’ve got them, too. Can’t show you because they are on the inside.”

What really counts is the you beneath your skin.

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

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

Kimo

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

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

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

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

See for yourself.

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

Here’s the link to his website, KimoPics.

Writing Tip – Slow Down

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s it about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

black as night and twice as scary

He took another drink of coffee.

“I think a lot about that guy I hit upside the head with the shovel. Think about how I ruined his life. Destroyed his family. I feel bad. And you don’t know the depth of how bad. Cause there’s nothing I can do. I did it. It’s done.”

“Look, Darnell.”

He ignored her.

“When they sent me to prison, I just wanted to survive, like I told you before. That’s why I was lucky to find Pops. Do my time under his wing. Yes, ma’am, I was real lucky.”

She didn’t even try to stop him.

“But prison turns you into yourself. By that I mean, you have so much time to yourself, you can’t help but to think about things. Now the old guys, guys like Pops, they just live moment to moment. They know their time has come and gone and all they care about is their next cup of joe. But everyone else thinks about themselves. Why they did what they did. Whether they meant to or not. And how bad they think themselves is. They look inside and see that dark speck on their soul. And generally, it goes one of two ways. A lot of guys see that dark speck and think that’s who they really are. And they accept it. And that dark speck grows until it eventually just takes over. Black, Miss Heather. Black as night and twice as scary.”

“And you went the other way.”

“I know I did wrong and I can’t do nothing to change it.”

“What am I supposed to do, just pretend none of this ever happened? Forgive and forget? I’ll forget when he’s gone.”

“No you won’t.”

“It’ll be a step in the right direction.”

“There’s two kinds of forgiveness. The one where you suck it up and forgive the one that done you wrong.  That can’t happen unless he comes to you and tells you he’s sorry.  Even then, it’s a hard thing to do.  But your daddy can’t do that.  I mean, he can’t even remember what he did.  Before he went all loose in the head, he had that dark speck, and it was growing.  It was slow, but it was getting worse. By and by it gave way to mindlessness. But that ain’t what I’m talking about, anyways.”

“Good.  Because that’s not going to happen.”

“See, that first kind of forgiveness is for the benefit of the one that done the wrong.  So that he can move on.  The other kind is for the one that was done wrong to. God says to let it go and let him be the judge.”

“Really? You’re preaching to me now, Booger?”

“I ain’t preaching. Just telling you truth.”

“Well, thank you for that. I’ll take it under advisement.”

“You’ll be dead soon, too.”

“What the hell, Darnell?”

He shrugged. “We all will be. You have Huntington. I might drop dead of a heart attack sitting here at this table. Then again, we might have twenty years ahead of us. Maybe more. That’s a lot of time for that dark speck to grow. Best to let that bitterness go.”

“You think I’m bitter?”

“Best to let it go.”

“That’s easy to say when you have a future.”

He didn’t have an answer for that. As much as he screwed up his life, and in spite of his dire predictions of death at the kitchen table, it was very likely that Booger had another thirty or forty years to do something with his life. So, yeah, choosing a positive outlook made sense.

But his sermon had nothing to do with her situation. She was dying. In so many ways.


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

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