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Joseph E Bird

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it’s alright, ma

It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.

And it’s running down my arm, dripping onto the dirty concrete, pooling like cherry jello next to the steps where I’m sitting, hoping someone has called for a wagon, but then I realize the closest ambulance sits idle at the hospital twenty miles away. It’s a long, deep cut and it’s all I can do to keep the pressure on.

Apologies to Dylan. He wrote that song, what, fifty years ago? Sixty, maybe?

Ma’s been gone a while.

Nothing good happens after midnight, she used to tell me. It’s 1:37 and all self-respecting people in this godforsaken town are fast asleep. Truth is, there’s not too many of them left.

There’s this photograph, a grainy black and white, probably taken about the same time Dylan wrote that song. I would have been about eight. Ma sitting at table with her sister-in-law, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. Looks like they had been working, or maybe getting ready to work. They all look tired. They’re all at rest now.

It seems to be slowing down a little. Maybe if knot my shirt around the cut. Kind of hard to do with just one arm, but if I can take one end with my teeth and pull tight. It’s cool out here but it was muggy in that closed-up building and I was starting to sweat before I went through the window so taking off my shirt feels pretty good. And there’s nobody around to see my soft, pasty flesh.

Ok. That’s better. But it’s hurting now. Not just stinging from the cut but real pain. The muscle’s been cut. I’m probably going to need surgery. I can’t stay on this stoop.

It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.

Ma and her sister-in-law were young women with their glorious lives ahead of them. Later I would see the color photographs they were proud to show, their hair just right, their smiles beaming. But in this old black-and-white they looked tired. Just beat.

Kennedy was assassinated around that time. Then Martin Luther King. Then the other Kennedy. Death was all around. So when I came home one day after a nasty fall in the creek, blood streaming down my leg, ma looked at me like I was going to die.

It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding, I told her back then.

Dylan had nothing on me. If I could have just come up with the other existential verses and the complex rhythms and rhyming patterns and a hundred other songs I could have been another Dylan.

I’m walking now. Not to the hospital. I couldn’t do that under the best circumstances. And not home.

Just about every storefront I walk by is empty. More than a few with the glass busted out. So when Decker tossed me through the plate glass window of the old hardware store, it was kind of like if tree fell in the forest and nobody was there to hear it, would it still make a noise? If anybody heard, nobody would care. That’s how it is here.

And I can’t blame Decker. He had to do it.

I’ve always been an under-achiever. Ma had more faith in me than I deserved. Maybe it was just hope. My sisters were something else. Intelligent, outgoing. Honor roll. And my cousins, the kids of the sister-in-law in that photograph, they were the best at everything. And then there was me.

I don’t know. I tried. Sometimes. Most of the time I just didn’t care that much. Went to the university after high school but didn’t last a semester. Nothing good happens after midnight. But I had fun.

It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.

He never even sings that line in the song but in my head he does and I’m singing it over and over because that’s the only line I know and the rest of the song is beyond my comprehension.

I haven’t had a drink in ten years. Not since Ma’s funeral. I don’t know if I was ever an alcoholic. I drank a lot, but never on the job. But there was a lot of stress and the drink softened the edges.

Been married twice. Neither marriage lasted long enough to build a family. First one was peer pressure. Everyone was getting married and it seemed like the reasonable thing to do, but we were way too young. Didn’t know who we were. Second marriage I blame to an out-of-control libido. And when the flame died down there was nothing else.

My dad died when I was thirty. Hardly ever see my sisters. They’ve lived out of state most of their lives. They’ve got family. And their families got families.

There’s a safe house about five miles away. Little cabin about a mile off the hard road back in the woods. I’ll stay there and call Decker in a couple of hours. Have him run me over the mountain before dawn.

I shouldn’t be doing this. Not at my age. I should be at a desk. There’s younger guys that could have taken the assignment. It didn’t have to be me. Didn’t have to be good old Joey.

But Joey, he’s got no kids. No grandkids. No wife. Not even a regular girl. Evenings are bad. Weekends worse. I got to find something to fill the time. And so here I am out here after midnight, when nothing good happens. Right, ma?

I had to talk the captain into letting me do it. He didn’t come right out and say what I already knew, that I’m too old to be chasing bad guys and getting thrown threw a window. He’s right.

But I’ve seen what the pills do. And if it was just killing the ones who used it, I might be ok with that. But I’ve seen the kids, the ones I never had, and they end up being raised by their grandma. Or maybe their great-grandma. And I think of that photograph. And I’m glad ma lived in simpler times and I’m glad that those ladies in that simple kitchen never had to see what things have come to. And maybe I can save a family. Maybe I can do some good.

So Decker’s the middle man. He sets up the meeting between the docs and pharmacist. That’s me. At least that’s my role. We talk to the docs and convince them that it’s all safe. They can write the scripts and I’ll fill them at the pharmacy, no questions asked. Then we get a some of our younger plain clothes to pose as patients and when the doc rights the scripts, we start building the case. They wear wires and everything. Once things are set up, we move on to the next county. It’s usually low risk with meet-ups in a diner or sometimes at the doc’s house. But his was different. Should have known better.

The docs are usually forty-something. Maybe they realized they’re never going to be the hot-shot surgeon they thought they’d be in med school. Maybe they see they’re not going to have that big house on the hill, or the condo in Florida, so they see the chance for easy money and what they felt was their destiny. Or maybe it’s just simple greed.

But Doc Varney was different. He’s in his seventies. Everyone in the county knows him and there’s a cloud of fear that overcomes folks when you talk about him. He’s been involved in the drug business since before the opiates took over. So he’s a prime target.

He wanted to meet after hours at the hardware building. Bad move by  me and Decker to agree to it. Should have been neutral turf. Supposed to meet at ten, but he called and put it off till midnight. Then one. Nothing good, I told Decker. Nothing good.

Varney shows up and he’s not alone. There’s another guy, body guard or some such thug. Varney’s probably around five-eight and his thumb-breaker, a neanderthal for sure, is maybe six-two and probably weights two-fifty, hair cut close to the scalp, belly puffed out beyond his windbreaker jacket. He looks at me. Eying me.

Decker’s talking to Varney, the usual patter. I hear my name mentioned. Joey will take care of everything he says. Plenty of money for everyone. And best of all, it’s legal. Well, that’s a lie. And if it was legal, it’s completely immoral. I see Varney smiling.

And then neanderthal pulls a gun. He points it at me.

He’s a cop, he says to Varney.

Decker looks surprised. No way, he says. He runs the pharmacy over in Herndon.

He was in the task force that took me and Gilley down, what was it Joey, six years ago?

Yeah, I’m thinking. He’s right. Six years ago.

You’re a cop? It’s Decker. He gives me a backhand across the chops.

We’re done, Varney says.

I’m not, neanderthal says. I’ve got unfinished business.

And both me and Decker know what’s coming.

Varney’s left the building and is sitting in his car. That’s when Decker takes me by the collar and heaves me through the window. I hear a gun shot and see a puff of concrete dust where the bullet hit beside me.

Varney yells something and the goon gets in with Varney and they take off. Decker does, too. He’s staying in character. Too much invested in all of this just to give it up. Besides, I just crashed through the window. How bad could it be?

It’s alright ma. I’m only bleeding.

Another mile and I’ll be off the hard road. Feeling tired and thirsty but there’s food and drink at the cabin. And a real bandage.

I don’t hear the car and it surprises me as it came around the curve. I try to step back into the edge of the woods but I’m too slow. The car throws gravel off the shoulder as the wheels lock up.

I reach for my Glock but I’m too late. He’s leaning out the window, firing. I take a shot in the shoulder, then my stomach, then my chest.

I’m on the ground, looking up at the stars. I can’t move. I hear the car throwing gravel again.

I can’t move. I’m gurgling blood. I know what that means.

It’s alright, ma. I’m only dying.


copyright 2021, joseph e bird


A couple of months ago, Katie, my friend in Virginia, issued a short story challenge for 2021. The theme is Home. This is my February contribution.

the ferris wheel

the image is from the cover of carnival dreams, my collection of stories, available at Amazon and the Coal River Coffee Company.

i wanted an image that suggested a carnival and though i found many others that were maybe more festive, this subdued image worked with the cover layout i had in mind.

any idea where this ferris wheel is located?

Pripyat, Ukraine.

does that mean anything to you?

how about Chernobyl?

Pripyat was a city founded to serve the doomed power plant that failed in 1986. the amusement park was never opened. it remains a ghostly reminder of what happened.

the song below, carnival dreams, has nothing to do with Chernobyl. it’s just a story of two people sharing a moment in time.


you said you’d be pleased
to walk by my side
to breathe the night air
maybe go for a ride

so we walk down the shore
toward the music and light
with your hand in mine
feeling good, feeling right

then we stop for a drink
sipping cola on ice
and watch the wheel roll
and a toss of the dice

the carousel goes ’round
with the kids holding tight
never wanting to fall
but knowing they might.

*

and we’re walking the midway
the music is playing
and I’m wishing tomorrow
that you would be staying

my time here with you
is not what it seems
everything that I hope for
is a carnival dream

*

the smell of food fills the air
and it’s prodding my hunger
and your laugh fills my ear
makes me wish I was younger

i’d ask you to stay
to let go of tomorrow
let’s chart our own course
we’ll beg, steal, or borrow.

but our time is just this
cotton candy this eve
a quick kiss goodnight
and then you will leave

i’ll awake all alone
in the morning’s first light
and remember our time
in the carnival night

*

and we’re walking the midway
the music is playing
and I’m wishing tomorrow
that you would be staying

but my time here with you
is not what it seems
everything that I hope for
is a carnival dream


copyright 2018, joseph e bird
image from iStock Photo

hows bout some woody guthrie?

via the Avett Brothers.

Written by folk legend Woody Guthrie, the counter-culture revolutionary. The bros do it true to the original version, but the black and white portraiture is a bonus.

I didn’t know this, but Woody died of Huntington’s disease, which was passed down from his mother and then passed on to his daughters.

i killed sally’s lover

So here we have a provocative headline. And also a dramatic photo that has nothing to do with the headline. Except it does.

I haven’t killed anyone. Don’t even know a Sally.

It’s an Avett Brothers song. Yes, I do listen to other music but the Avetts just keep drawing me in. This song is a cautionary tale about getting caught up in a crime of passion.

Now all you ramblin' fellas
You listen close to me
That woman gonna bring you pain
Your heart is gonna bleed
But it ain't worth the trouble
The sufferin' or the grief
A bleeding heart is better than the penitentiary

So, yeah, don’t do it.

But it’s a heck of a fun song. Just watch this live version.

Ok, so maybe this is just backwoods hillbilly music. But it looks like so much fun, especially when played at the frenetic pace of their live version. Naturally I want to learn to play it like that.

I’ve been playing guitar for most of my life but it’s only been in the last six months or so that I’ve really begun to learn songs from beginning to end. I’ve even learned to sing while I play. That may not sound like a big deal, but try patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. That’s playing and singing. It doesn’t come easy.

I’ll never be a star. But there’s a great deal of personal satisfaction in trying and learning and getting better and reaching your goal. I’ve got a play list of 12 songs now.

Sally’s Lover will be one of the harder songs I’ve learned. The chords are easy – G-C-D – but there’s some fast picking I have to learn that’s really going to be difficult. But I’ll get there.

The photograph?

A relatively simply structure I built on the back of my deck. It’s a result of my experience over the years with even simpler projects.

I’ll never be a contractor. But there’s a great deal of personal satisfaction in trying and learning and getting better and reaching your goal.

Now all you ramblin’ fellas
You listen close to me
This life is gonna bring you pain
Your heart is gonna bleed.
But it’s surely worth the trouble
The sufferin’ and the grief
To do that thing you want to do, don’t quit till you succeed.

give me leave to do my utmost

“I am going away forever – and I shall never, never see you again. For I have learned here that life is hard and cruel and that in this world there are things that are – impossible.” — Lt. Lorens Lowenhielm, from the short story and film, Babbette’s Feast, by Isak Dinesen.

“And, I shall be with you every day that is left to me. Every evening I shall sit down, if not in flesh, which means nothing, in spirit, which is all, to dine with you, just like tonight. For tonight I have learned that in this world anything is possible.” — General Lorens Lowenhielm Dinesen, from the short story and film, Babette’s Feast, by Isak Dinesen.

I’m not a fan of subtitled movies. I have a hard enough time following stories without trying to read the subtitles instead of watching the scene. Babette’s Feast is a 1987 Danish film (and a short story by Isak Dinesen) about two sisters who live in a small village in Denmark. It’s without dramatic action, crazy plot twists, or wildly eccentric characters. It’s subtitled for English speakers.

And it’s terrific.

The quotes above are from the same character, the first when he was young and impetuous. The second when he was older and wiser.

And then there’s Babette, a secondary character without whom there would be no story. Her motives are pure.

“Through all the world there goes on long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”

If you can find it, give it a chance. You won’t be sorry.

the good father

A couple of years ago Larry Ellis made a comment about his father and my father, two men of the same generation, quiet heroes, who without fanfare or drama worked to provide for their families. Larry’s father has since passed; I’m fortunate that my father will join us for a father’s day pizza later today. There will be the Father’s Day card and yes, yet another shirt (sorry to spoil the surprise, but after 90 years, I think the chance of surprise is pretty slim). I wrote the following tribute shortly after Larry’s comment. I’ve published it before, and probably will again.


Most are not leaders of nations.
Most are not creators of wealth.
Most are not icons of sports or entertainment.
Their names will not be written in the annals of history.

But without them, we would be nothing.

Their fathers worked with pride as pipe-fitters and welders and electricians.
Their fathers mined coal and dug ditches and toiled with dignity.
They did what was necessary to provide food and shelter and clothes.
They did what was necessary to provide hope for a better tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, and it was better,
and the sons and daughters of the fathers went to school
and became teachers and writers and lawyers and engineers.
They became fathers and mothers themselves
and likewise provided for their families.

They did all of this
without the need for attention,
without the need for adulation,
without the need for self-aggrandizement.

Fathers persevere and sacrifice.
They do what needs to be done.
They are good and honorable.

No, not all fathers.
Some abandon.
Some abuse.
Some give up.

It’s not about gender roles.
Sometimes the mother is the father.
Sometimes she is both.

It’s not about being the breadwinner.
It’s about being strong for the family.
It’s about providing direction to those who wander
and encouragement to those who strive.

Now they rest,
their work less strenuous,
their lives less demanding,
and they sit quietly,
content to let others lead.

They have lived simply.
They have lived nobly.
They have given their all.
They are fathers.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

dreams of the past

The photo is a basement shoebox relic.  It’s old.  It’s bent and cracked. No Photoshop effects, here. Just a snapshot.

The subjects are familiar faces, but the photo was taken probably more than sixty years ago, before I really knew them. Maybe before I was born. Even in the older women there is youth I never saw in later years. From left to right, my Aunt Shirley; my grandmother Bettie Pearl, who I knew as Mom; my great-grandmother Tida, who we called Tidy; and my mother, Gloria, who looks to be with child.

The place, I believe, is my great-grandmother’s kitchen. If I had to guess, I would say it was breakfast.  There’s the coffee pot and toaster.  But I can’t imagine them gathering so early just for breakfast. Maybe lunch, which they called dinner.  Dinner would have included fried potatoes and tomatoes from the garden. Supper was the evening meal.  There would have been men in the picture by then.

There’s tension evident in the photograph.  Not a one could manage a smile, which is very unusual for my mother and Aunt Shirley, especially in front of a camera.  There’s a weariness, too.  Maybe they had been working.  Maybe canning tomatoes or beans.

They were all different.

My mother was the free spirit, enjoying every moment.

My aunt was sophistication personified, full of grace and elegance.

My grandmother, hardworking and kind, ready to share with everyone.

My great-grandmother, the strong, independent woman living by herself.

Maybe that was the source of the tension. Around the table love and respect, yet each one not quite understanding the other.  One dreams of this, another of that. And dreams, what are they for, anyway? another may think.  And Tidy, who has already seen enough heartbreak for all of them, keeps it to herself.

I’ll never know. They’re all gone now.  Not that any of them would give me a straight answer anyway.

I think that’ s the wonder of old photographs.  They tell a story, but never the entire story. A moment frozen in time that forces us to think about those who have gone on, to see if we can fill in the blanks. It forces us to remember them as they were, beyond the smiles and laughter. It forces us to remember who they really were.

56 Miles in Andes, NY

I’d like to share a story one of my New York running friends wrote. Sadly, it’s all too true, but Ari tells it with strength and grace and a perspective that is shaped by those long, lonely miles on the road.

The photo above is mine from the West Virginia highlands, which is not that different from upstate New York. Click on the link below and you’ll see what I mean.

https://ariruns.wordpress.com/2020/05/05/56-miles-in-andes-ny/

ever been to myanmar?

Neither have I.

But after another visit to Lignum Draco’s travel blog, I feel like I have.

Draco beautifully captures the everyday life of the places he visits. Like NatGeo in the old days when it was a thick magazine delivered to your home.

Let’s go to Myanmar.

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