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Joseph E Bird

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poetry

solomon plays

I don’t dance
I can’t dance
I don’t know how to dance and never will
But sometimes
Things just happen

I wasn’t there to dance
At this little dinner club
Where through the old sagging glass
I watch the river flow lazy
As it always has and will forever

I’m not from here
Not that it matters
And maybe that’s why this place is special
No one knows me
No one cares

I eat alone, as always
Steak, medium well, baked potato
I don’t drink except for when I’m here
Ice cold beer
From the tap

And here
All is well, peaceful
My other life, mistakes I’ve made, mistakes to come
Is miles upriver, coming for me
But not here yet

Most everyone is coupled up
A group of four or party of six
If I’m the object of pity or curiosity I don’t care
Because the steak is good
And the solitude comforting

In a far corner
A black man named Bob plays jazz on the piano
While a skinny white boy named Solomon blows a saxophone
Lipton’s on guitar
And Jupie lays down the beat

I know their names
But to them
I’m just a guy by the window eating a steak
Maybe not even that
And that’s how it should be

Somewhere in New York
Or Singapore
The same scene is played out with different actors
But no better than
Right here, right now

Yes, another beer
So I don’t have to leave
Because across the room with the party of six
Sits a woman
Alone

She’s in the company of others
A man works to keep her attention
And though she is with him and smiles on cue
She’s not really with him
And she knows I know

And Bob plays slowly
And Jupie taps the high hat
And the couples can’t resist as they move to the center of the room
And embrace politely
And sway as Solomon plays

And Savannah dances too
Though that’s not her name
But it should be because it’s a beautiful name
They dance as two
Who will never be one

She knows I’m watching
And I smile
And she smiles and we both sense the same thing
And we both know
That possibilities are impossible

And the song ends
And most sit
As the tempo changes and dancing is less forgiving
They, like me
Don’t dance

My glass is empty
My time is done
And I look to her table and she’s not there
And as I lay my napkin beside my plate
I look once more

I see her as I walk across the room
Walking toward me
And we meet in the center of the room, the music daring us
And I accept the dare
And reach for her hand

Her right hand in my left
My hand on her waist
And we move slowly to the beat, and she is smiling
And I don’t know what I’m doing
But it feels right

I pull her hand in front of us
And her momentum
Sends her into a soft twirl, her hair flying toward me
And as she comes back, I pull her close
And I kiss her

She blushes
And behind me I hear gasps
From the table of six and I can imagine their looks
Though I’ll never know
Because hers is all that matters

The music plays
But I release her soft hands
And I won’t even turn to look as I walk away
And I know I’ll never go back
As Solomon plays


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

fathers

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

nothing but

everything is unremarkable
the sky is overcast
the air is heavy and damp
a lawnmower hums three yards over
somewhere a child squeals
but the birds are quiet
there will be no spectacular sunset
there is nothing but contentment
and all is grace

no place for a young girl

Every year about this time we go to the cemeteries and clean the graves of those who have gone before. It makes you realize how fast time flies. Has it really been that long? And then there are all those forgotten graves. What was their story? Maybe this.


she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
up the steep gravel road,
through the woods
to the clearing
where the old grey headstones
were covered in moss
and leaned toward the earth
as if they were too tired
to stand up straight,
for so long they had stood in testament to
the forgotten lives
of those whose names were
were worn from the stone
by the unrelenting and unforgiving
passage of time.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
because there were snakes
and yellow jackets
and maybe bears.
and at night
across the hollows
voices and laughter and music
and now and then
a gunshot
would echo
from neighbors unknown,
and though the graveyard
was close
it was no place for
a young girl alone.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
but along with the grey, rough tablets
of ancient men
and their wives
and their children,
were smooth slabs
of curved and polished marble
with praying hands
and crosses
and Bible verses
written in script,
and names her grandmother knew
of this cousin and that uncle,
and her grandmother’s husband,
the grandfather she had never known.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
under the deep shade
cast by towering oaks and maples
where grass wouldn’t grow
and moss and lichens
clung easily to the old stones
and left her grandfather’s headstone
untouched by nature,
save for the pollen in the spring
that she would wipe with her finger
from the smooth marble,
that also promised
that her grandmother would
someday
rest with him.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
but her grandmother worried too much.
she had never seen a snake
and stayed clear of the bees
and the idea of bears
just seemed silly,
and it was peaceful
always peaceful.
and she would talk to God
and ask why other kids
teased her,
though she knew
it was because her clothes
were old and
she was poor.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
and she sat beside the grandfather
she knew only from photographs,
and read Psalms
from his old Bible
and drew wisdom from the words
that would stay with her
all of her days,
and give her
comfort
through her pain,
and strength
through her weakness,
and courage
through her fears.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
and when she saw him
she knew her grandmother
had been right,
and she had been foolish,
and as he came toward her
he took a drink
from a bottle
and wiped his mouth
on his sleeve
and laughed,
and she knew
that he had come
from the valley
of the shadow of death.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
but she would fear no evil
and she always carried a staff,
the old iron pipe
from her grandfather’s workshop,
heavy and cool,
and she stood
and gripped it in both hands
and drew back
and stepped toward him
and swung,
and he screamed as it struck
against his ribs,
and his bottle dropped,
and she ran off the hill.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
she didn’t tell her grandmother
and she didn’t sleep
for days,
and when the kids
teased her because
she had to tape the soles
of her shoes,
and because she lived
in a shack with her grandmother
because her mother had
killed herself with a needle,
she cried into her pillow
softly,
so her grandmother wouldn’t hear.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
and it was weeks before she went back
to find her staff,
her grandfather’s iron pipe,
which had given her comfort,
and to find the peace
that had left her.
but it wasn’t the same.
she couldn’t read
she couldn’t pray
she couldn’t close
her eyes
because he might
be out there
still.

she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself.
and though she was afraid,
she still went there by herself,
because it was there
she had learned of
peace and strength and courage.
and she would grow
and live far away
from the hollows,
and the kids who teased her,
and she would become a woman
strong in her will and
strong in her faith
and though she was never alone
she went there by herself.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird
photo copyright 2017, joseph e bird

still they come

we are the land of the oppressed

and still they come

we are the land of the unfair, the unjust, and the selfish

and still they come

we are the land of the destitute, the marginalized, the ignored

and still they come

we are the land of prejudice, and bigotry, and hatred

and still they come

we are the land of assault, and theft, and murder

and still they come

we are the land of toxic waste, and foul air, and undrinkable water

and still they come

we are the land of filthy cities, the homeless, and needles in the playground

and still they come

we are the land of division, and tribalism, and democracy in decline

and still they come

we are the land of despair, and shattered dreams, and lost hope

and still they come

we are the great Satan, the imperialist nation, the evil America

and still they come

.

we are the land of friendships, and neighbors, and welcoming strangers

and still they come

we are the land of charity, of goodwill, and acts of kindness

and still they come

we are the land of giving, and helping, and sacrifice

and still they come

we are the land of your faith, of my faith, or no faith

and still they come

we are the land of mountain majesty, of fruited plains, and sparkling rivers

and still they come

we are the land of small towns, and family farms, and shining cities on the hill

and still they come

we are the land of hard work, and opportunities, and reward

and still they come

we are the land of dreaming, of possibilities, of anything can happen

and still they come

we are the land of the underdog, and second chances, and comebacks

and still they come

we are the land of the brash, the home of the brave, and defender of rights

and still they come

we are the inspiration of yesterday, the bread for the day, and the hope for tomorrow

and still they come

.

we are the land of hopelessness and hope

we are the land of the poor and the rich

we are the land of the atheist and the faithful

we are the land of oppression and liberty

we are America

and still they come


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

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.

whitey on the moon

I just got around to seeing First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong, first man on the man. It’s the 60s. You remember the 60s. Maybe you don’t. Young’uns. Crazy times, the 60s, culminating in 1969, of course, a year crammed full of historic events.

The movie sets the scene and doesn’t gloss over the turbulence of the day. There’s a snippet of a song, a poem, really, by Gil Scott-Heron that plays for a few moments, to illustrate that not everyone was thrilled with the space race. We should be spending money on other things, they said.

Whitey on the Moon.

Yeah, it’s easy to get riled up by the words, whether you agree or disagree. It’s easy to be offended. It’s easy to scream, right on.

That’s the power of the piece.

And it’s powerful because it’s poetry. Urban poetry set to music.

It’s hip and cool. The forerunner of rap.

Set aside the message for a moment. Listen to it as art. Appreciate the rhythms and the cadence and the genius of the form.

Dig it.

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

city mud

The cold bites and the wind blows hard and he pulls his gray wool coat together at the front and his eyes water and the sidewalk is a moving blur and the city is alive, as it always is, with people, now just huddling masses, their faces down and wrapped in scarves, silently pulsing along on the wet concrete, and the only sound he hears is rush of air past his ears.

Two more blocks.

Snow is pushed up against the buildings and mounded at the curbs making the path he shares narrow, and though no one in the city walks slowly, on days without snow there are those with the energy of youth, and dreams unsullied and they walk with intent and dart and dodge and walk the curb for a few steps like a walker on a tightrope with no fear or hesitation because they can and tomorrow is for losers. But on this day, it isn’t so.

He’s on the wrong side, next to the street, and he begins to angle toward the buildings, stutter-stepping behind a man in a dark coat, though he’s not really sure if it’s a man. Another moving bundle sidesteps around him and he imagines it is a woman with no real reason to think that other than instinct. Not that it matters. The sidewalk is anonymous.

There are three steps up to the door, a grandfathered anachronism in a world where all are equal and everything is for everybody. One day the owners of Brewsters will be sued and because there is no practical means of providing a ramp, they’ll go out of business and move to Jersey and start all over again. He grabs the wet rail with his gloved hand, thinking for a moment that he’s wearing his dress gloves, and pulls himself up to the first step, then the second, before pushing open the door at the top.

He blinks, clearing the tears from his eyes, and he inhales deeply, relieved to have escaped the outdoors. He takes off his gloves and stuffs them in the pocket of his coat. He runs his fingers over his hair, tamping down the strands that he knows are wandering, as they have started to do as of late, even after he has adopted a more conservative style more suited to a man his age. Not that he is old. Far from it. But his rakish twenties are far behind him and middle age is on a distant horizon because it’s not really a function of life span divided by two, but closer to a traditional retirement age, which is at least twenty years off.

The line is short. In fact, there is only one person in front of him, hidden under a polyester parka, and as he/she moves to the left, the barista confirms his order without even asking and two minutes later he is putting on his gloves and pulling open the door. The wind again assaults him and he is walking, trying to keep his coat closed as coffee sloshes out of the drinking slot and onto his calfskin gloves. He takes the coffee in his other hand and slings the coffee from his glove and then wipes it on his coat.

He turns left at the next block and crosses the street and the buildings block the wind, at least most of it, and it’s no longer strafing his face but now seems to come from random directions as it’s buffeted in the man-made canyons of office towers and condominiums. Another block and he reaches his building.

He takes off his gloves while juggling his coffee, which he has yet to even sip. Gloves in the pocket, he reaches inside his coat for his proximity card. Inside the elevator, he touches the reader with his card and pushes the button for the fortieth floor. The elevator is crowded, shoulder to shoulder, but it might as well be empty.

The meeting will start in twenty minutes, just enough time to hang his coat in his closet and check his emails, then on to the conference room. He’s the first one there.

“Good morning, Breece.”

Anthony, his assistant. He returns the greeting. Anthony places a copy of the summary documents at every place at the table.

Anthony stops, points to Breece’s feet.

“You’ve got a little mud on your shoes.” Anthony goes to the sink at the bar and wets a paper napkin and hands it to Breece.

It’s not much, just a dark brown smear, but it stands out against the burgundy leather of his Edward Greens.

Mud.

Where would he have tracked through mud?

Not really mud, of course. City mud. Just ordinary grime. Dirt. Grit washed down from the buildings. Decomposed crumbs from the food carts. Spilled coffee. Pigeon droppings. Rat feces. A disgusting layer of dregs that wash away with every heavy rain, but when it snows, there is no cleansing, and then a sprinkling of salt, and the dirt turns to a chocolate batter and sticks to everything it touches, even a thousand dollar pair of shoes.

Boots. That’s what he ought to be wearing. Not polished leather with brass eyelets and buckles. Boots like his grandfather’s. Scratched and worn, mismatched laces. They were always covered with a thin dusting of light brown soil, but in the spring, when his grandfather would walk behind the Gravely and till the garden for the first time, moist earth would gather in clumps on the soles. Young Breece would follow behind, breathing in the rich aroma of life in the ground that had been buried under the long, cold winter months. Earthworms wiggled and squirmed, not at all pleased that their slumber had been disturbed. Breece would look for the biggest ones, pull them from the newly formed clods and drop them into the soil-filled coffee can where they would later be sacrificed to the small-mouth in the Coal River.

He wore sneakers back then and didn’t care about dirt or mud or anything else on his shoes or under his fingernails or the ever-present dark stain on the knees of his jeans. He was always digging through the earth or building a dam across the creek at the bottom of the holler and breaking apart the claystone in search of fossils or playing games of full-contact tackle football in the vacant lot behind the junior high school.

It was best when it was muddy, as it usually was in late October, just after the leaves had changed. And it was cool but not cold and they had played on the field so much that the grass was worn and the least little bit of rain made puddles, and a good tackle was when you brought down the kid with the ball and you slid another five yards after hitting the ground. You weren’t really playing tackle football if you were clean, and it was understood that you had to let the mud dry in thick cakes and then knock it off only after your parents yelled at you and then sprayed you off in the back yard with a garden hose.

Mud. Beautiful, glorious, thick, West Virginia mud.

And then the explosion at the plant. Five men were killed, including his father.

Shortly after, he and his mother moved to Connecticut. She remarried. He went to prep school. His grandfather died of cancer. They went back for the funeral, but didn’t even spend the night. There was no family left.

After prep school, it was on to Princeton for his undergraduate degree, then Harvard Business School. Then New York City.

He wipes the smear from his shoe and looks at the brown stain on the napkin. Anthony has left the room. He raises the napkin to his nose and breathes in, hoping to get a sniff, a hint, of what he has forgotten, what he remembers, what his sterile, well-kept life has sheltered him from all these years.

Nothing.

He looks at his manicured hands, the clean, crisp fingernails so short that he couldn’t get mud underneath if he tried.

Anthony has re-entered the room, along with a gaggle of similar well-bred elites ready to negotiate the deal that will ultimately enable them to buy expensive shoes and live in upscale apartments and summer on the island and hire a gardener to mow the lawn and trim the trees and dig the soil and plant the shrubs and let the gardener’s fingernails be the ones marred by years of honest toil and the richness of all that is basic and good and pure.

Breece looks out the window. Glass towers as far as he can see. Somewhere beyond are mountains and valleys and rich, fertile soil. Real dirt. Real mud. Real life.

He folds the napkin and puts it in the inside pocket of his suit.


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

copyright 2019, joseph e bird

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