Search

Joseph E Bird

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

Tag

Short Story

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.

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

i could see it coming.

And then comes Lawrence.

He cruised in on his bicycle, coasting to a stop at the top of the hill, looking down on us.

I had no idea who he was, this older, skinny, scraggly guy with no shirt, riding a bicycle with streamers on the handle bars and a horn on the front. He was older, but I know now that it was by no more than ten years. Still old enough to not be riding around on a pimped-out, beater-bike, old enough to have better things to do than look for company with school kids, old enough to have enough sense to recognize real trouble in the form of Brando and Kevin, who had enough mean in them to put some serious torment onto the meek and the lowly, and all it would take was the sniff of arrogance, the notion that Brando and Kevin, though physically superior to almost all who crossed their paths, were not on the same playing field intellectually, or that over time, righteousness would reign and the meek and the lowly would indeed inherit the earth, and the beast would be cast into the lake of fire. As I would learn much later in life, God’s plans are fulfilled in God’s time where a day is like a thousand years and though justice would eventually prevail, it might not come soon enough for the victims of Brandon and Kevin. The scars of their torment could linger for years.

And so I wondered, what of Lawrence?

But I could see it coming.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

This is an excerpt of a story in progress and is fiction, although it is based on true events. 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.

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.

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

Clint Eastwood and the White Wool Coat

In the movies, it’s called a meet cute.

The boy rounds the corner and knocks the books out the girl’s hands. They bend down to pick them up and before they know it, there’s a spark. There’s an awkward, yet endearing, conversation. She smiles as he watches her walk away. You know right then where the story is going. It will be – eventually – a happy ending.

That’s the movies. Let me tell you about my real-life meet cute.

It was in a coffee shop. No surprise, right? Almost a cliché in itself. But I like coffee shops. I could tell you why, but truthfully, if I have to explain this to you, you might as well stop reading right now. The other day I overheard a co-worker tell someone that he didn’t like coffee, that he would have no reason to stop by the new coffee shop on the west side. I find it hard not to hold his dislike of coffee against him. You’re really missing the point, man. You don’t like coffee? Fine. There are other options.

A couple of years ago my nephew spent the night at our house over Christmas. When he said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, my wife started making oatmeal. We didn’t learn until he was finished eating that he had been lying. He should have said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, as long as it wasn’t oatmeal. Too late. But the oatmeal he ate that morning was unlike any oatmeal he had ever eaten. If you take plain oatmeal, bland as it is, and add a little brown sugar, some raisins, apples and walnuts, topped with a little cream, what you end up with is a big bowl of oatmeal cookie. Who doesn’t like oatmeal cookies? My nephew did.

So, co-worker man, if coffee is a little too bitter for your still-developing child-like palette, they can foo-foo it up (as my wife would say) and give you something sweet and mushy. But then again, going to a coffee shop isn’t really about the coffee. It’s about people. Seeing people, talking to people. Just being among other human beings.

Back to my meet cute.

This coffee shop is just a couple of blocks from my office. I don’t always stop there in the morning because they’re not open when I go to work before seven. It’s a quiet and peaceful place. Soft music is always playing. People doodling on their laptops. Quiet conversations.

So I’m at my office on a Friday morning a week and a half before Christmas and I find myself at a good stopping point in my work. The sun is shining and it’s an unusually pleasant day for December so I grab my coat and head out the back door and make my way to Main Street. I’m going to get a cup of coffee, maybe a muffin, and sit at a table by the window and watch people go by. I can just take off from work like that because I’m an important executive and I’m a salaried employee and I come to work early and stay late and if I want to take a few minutes for myself in the middle of the morning I have the moral right to do so. I also have so many weeks of vacation built up that it would be nearly impossible for me to use them all. For those of you who have a propensity for delving into a person’s psyche, this little tidbit about my inability to use my vacation time will tell you something about me, though I don’t think I would care to know what this tells you. Not that it matters.

I get to the shop around 10:30 and stand in line for a few minutes and then it’s my turn and the owner of the shop says hello, calls me by name, and takes my order – a medium black coffee. No nonsense. No cream, no sugar, no flavors, no steamed milk, no holiday blend. Because I’m a man. A grown man. Clint Eastwood drinks his coffee black. Maybe. I don’t really know. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, this hipster, and I’m sure not all the world’s problems result from his generation’s socialist leanings, but I’m getting old and my time has passed and it’s the role I must play, the only other option being the teetering, out-of-touch relic from another time. But I don’t teeter (yet) and if I’m going to be an out-of-touch relic, I’m going to be a hard-edged Eastwood-type who the kids actually fear when I tell them to get off my lawn. That’s right. Black coffee. And one of those scones. Cranberry.

I’ve moved down the counter now, standing, waiting for my coffee. And my scone. The hipster stands to my left, looking trim and fit, skinny, really, his jeans rolled neatly up to his ankles. He’s wearing a slim-cut suede jacket and a knit cap. A backpack hangs from his left shoulder. He’s texting on his phone, his thumbs flying. He’ll take a table near the window, maybe my table, and pull a laptop from his backpack and begin to do whatever people do when they have a laptop in a coffee house. Facebook? No. He’s young. Instagram. Or maybe some other app that I don’t even know about. A young girl who looks like she’s fifteen but is probably twenty-five – I can’t tell anymore – shakes a can of whipped cream then squirts a mound of foam on the skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg and the contradiction of the skinny latte and the whipped cream is lost on the poor hipster boy. Or maybe it’s not, because what does he care about calories? She hands him the drink and he goes straight to my table.

Get away from there. I shout this across the room. In my head.

The girl hands me my scone in a paper bag and I’m waiting for my coffee, anxious to find another table and set about the business of relaxing, and then she hands me the cup, my name printed neatly on the side of the cup.

There’s a stack of napkins to my left. Had they been to my right, I probably wouldn’t be telling you this story. But they were to my left. I’m holding the scone in my right hand, the coffee in my left. I need my left hand free to grab a napkin, so I transfer the coffee to my right hand, holding it just with my thumb and index finger, the scone in the bag below the cup. Not a good grip at all.

And this is when it happens. My meet cute.

I didn’t see her come in. I didn’t know she had been behind me when I ordered. I didn’t know she had moved down the counter to wait for her order. I didn’t know she was standing so close to my right.

And I turn to go toward the front of the coffee shop, and before it even registers in my mind that she is there, I bump into her and my coffee falls from its high perch, tumbles toward her, hits the front of her coat – her beautiful white wool coat – and the lid pops off and the coffee flies everywhere and I watch as the cup empties itself completely, and a horribly beautiful, artistic, brown stain flows downward to the hem of her coat and drips onto her brown leather boots and finally puddles on the floor.

I hear gasps from the people nearby. Then the entire shop goes quiet, except for me, mumbling an apology, grabbing the pile of napkins on the counter.

She hasn’t moved, this young woman, save to hold out her hands, hot coffee dripping from her fingers. I start there, wiping her hands, apologizing the whole time, and when her hands show no more signs of coffee, I start on her coat, trying to soak up the brown stain, and I realize that I have to stop because my actions are highly inappropriate, even if my intent is plainly obvious.

By now the shop owner has made his way from the other side of the counter with a handful of paper towels and he faces the same dilemma I faced but he thinks more clearly and asks her to take off her coat which she does and he lays the coat on the counter and begins sponging up as much coffee as he can. It’s a losing battle.

She hasn’t moved.

I’ll see if I can rinse it out, he says, and without asking, he takes the coat to a back room.

She still hasn’t moved, but she turns to look at me.

She’s a lovely woman, much younger than I, though not so young that I shouldn’t notice her loveliness. She appears to be of Asian descent. And her eyes are filling with tears.

I’m so sorry, I tell her. I don’t know what to do.

The young girl on the other side of the counter hands me more paper towels and I kneel down and start to sop up the puddle on the floor. She takes a step back, allowing me to get to the puddles that have pooled behind her and I see the coffee in drips and runs on her boots and without thinking and without asking I start to wipe off her boots, first the tops of her feet, but they’re boots and they rise over her calves and again I cross that boundary of propriety without thinking and without any intention other than trying to right the wrong and clean up the mess and I’m on the floor where shoes have trod and spills throughout the day have dried into dark circles and crumbs from scones and muffins and cookies are scattered like tiny boulders and my hands are getting dirty and the knees of my executive slacks are wet and gathering grime and I no longer feel like Clint Eastwood but more like Willy Loman and I feel the blood rushing to my face and now I want to stay down among the other shoes that I see gathered around because to stand will reveal my reddened face and expose my shame and confirm my humiliation.

But I rise to my feet and again tell her I’m sorry and she’s not quite crying but there are tears and she is sad. I take off my coat and put it on her shoulders because everyone else has a coat except her and she looks cold and lonely and though she probably isn’t, I don’t know what else to do. I tell her I’ll go check on her coat and I walk to the back of the shop where I imagine a food preparation area but there are only bathrooms. The door is open and the shop owner is trying to dry the coat with paper towels. It looks like the coffee has washed out but I look closer and see the stain, lighter, but still there. The shop owner has done all he can. I thank him and take the coat.

The young woman is sitting at table by herself, her own coffee drink in front of her. She moves it away from me as I approach, carrying her coat draped across my arm, holding it out from my body as if it’s a blemished lamb, because that’s exactly what it is. I shake my head. I lay it on the table and sit at the table across from her.

I’m so sorry, I say again for what seems like the tenth time and she manages a smile and tells me it’s ok.

I’m really sorry. Eleven.

I’ll pay to have it cleaned. And I’m already thinking that I’m going to buy her a new coat because the stain is likely there forever.

She puts her hand on the coat and strokes it lightly. It was my mother’s coat.

The phrasing of the statement is not lost on me. It was her mother’s coat. Her mother has died.

I’m so sorry. Seventy times seven will not be enough.

I don’t actually remember her wearing the coat. Or her, for that matter. She died when I was a child.

I stop myself from saying I’m sorry again.

Old photographs my father had. The three of us. Mother, Father, me. Mother wearing the coat. I thought it looked so sophisticated on her. After she died, my father held on to her things. He died two years ago and it was all left to me. I found the coat in a trunk.

So, I’ve not just ruined a coat, I’ve ruined an irreplaceable keepsake. I’ve ruined the one connection this poor woman has to her mother.

I had it cleaned. Sewed some seams that were coming apart, and then just hung it in the closet. And this winter I thought it would be nice to wear it, to think of her, to let her live a little through me.

I’m trying to think of something to say, something other than I’m sorry, thinking there must be a phrase or an expression of remorse that goes beyond mere sorrow, one that puts me on my knees, not to beg forgiveness, because what’s the point in that, because it’s not about me feeling better, it’s about somehow finding words or actions that can make up for what I’ve done. But it’s done and can’t be undone.

I just shake my head. I tell her again I’ll pay to have it cleaned. I’ll buy her a new coat, I tell her, and I feel stupid as soon as I say it, as if a new coat would have the same connection to her mother. But what else can I do?

It doesn’t quite fit. She was a little smaller than me, apparently.

I’m silent, because there are no words.

It’s only a coat. It was my mother’s coat, not mine. I’ll have it cleaned as best I can. Then I’ll keep it in the closet. I’ll bring it out now and then, and think of her, but really, I have no memory of her to recall. Just a mother and father and a little girl in a photograph. That’s all.

She’s smiling now. A sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. She reaches for her coffee and I move her coat away from the table and lay it across the back of a chair. She laughs a little. We talk.

Her name is Janine. She lives in New York. She’s an accountant in town performing an audit of the local bank. She travels a lot and likes to explore the towns she visits. She’s traveled to Japan twice to visit the families of her mother and father, but there are fewer of them now, and in Japan she is a stranger in a strange land. And here she is, in a small town coffee shop, with a coffee stain on her mother’s coat.

She needs to get back to the bank.

I apologize again and I’ve lost count of how many times, and she assures me again that it’s ok, that I don’t have to pay for dry cleaning or buy her a new coat or in any way try to make things right. Because we both understand that I can’t.

How can you be so gracious after what I’ve done?

She offers no answer. She stands and realizes my coat is still around her shoulders.

I believe this is yours.

She hands me my coat.

And this is yours.

I help her into her mother’s coat. The front is still damp and she looks at the stain and sighs. It’s all I can do to keep from apologizing again. Instead, I thank her, and in the moment, I’m not sure what I’m thanking her for except that the kindness and understanding she showed to me was so undeserved.

We walk out of the coffee shop together, our conversation now just the usual chatter that people who really don’t know each other make as they’re about to leave each other’s company. The ordinary, the forgettable. Nothing witty, nothing charming.

It wasn’t that kind of meet cute. Meet truth is maybe a better description. She’ll go back to the bank, back to New York with a story to tell.

And me? I’m still here. Still drinking my coffee black. Still imagining I’m Clint Eastwood. Still working too much.

But this Christmas is a little different. I understand a little better. I’ve experienced grace.


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 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.

Pokey LaFarge

I want to be in this band.

The harp player is crazy.  They’re all crazy.

The clarinet player is Chloe.

Garbage Man Blues.

And if that’s not enough, here’s Mama Don’t Allow.
Mama don’t know what she was missing.

Kiss me, you fool.

woman with a clarinet

Kiss me, you fool.

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, you fool.

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 had been 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, you fool.

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, you fool.

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 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, you fool.

Oh, man.


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 2018, joseph e bird
photo credit: iStock

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑