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Joseph E Bird

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Short Story

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

meet cute

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 the coffee shop. No surprise, right? Almost a cliché in itself. But I like coffee shops. I’ll tell you why, but truthfully, if I have to explain this to you, you might was well stop reading right now and get back on your phone. 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 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 sure did.

So, co-worker man, if the 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.

But back to the meet cute.

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

It’s a Friday morning a week and a half before Christmas. I had skipped my early cup of coffee and I find myself at a good stopping point in my work at the office. 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. Let me save you the trouble of the analysis: I’m boring.

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. It’s an ego-boosting construct, this notion that drinking plain, black coffee makes me any more of a man than the hipster in front of me who ordered a skinny latte with cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg. 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. He’s wearing a nice-looking jacket and a knit cap. A backpack hangs from his left shoulder. He’s texting on his phone, his fingers 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. 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, coffee dripping from her fingers. I start there, wiping her hands, apologizing the whole time, and when her hands show no more signs of hot 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 appropriateness 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 microscopic 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 all of 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 with 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 they 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

I miss you, Darlin’.

clown 2 for web

Halloween’s never been my thing. With all the genuine evil in the world, do we really need to be celebrating the dark side? I’ll pass on the make-believe macabre, the bed-sheet ghosts, and ouija board spirits. Who needs that when you have real hauntings? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. One that I wish I didn’t have to consider. But it’s not my choice.

It’s been five years now. Three since I moved to Arizona.

We lived in Ohio at the time, Carolyn and I. Chillicothe. We’d been married for a couple of years and life was good. You know, the honeymoon that never ends. We were a good match. I’m a practical guy. Sensible. Reasonable. Just this side of boring. Maybe not even this side. Carolyn was anything but. Everyone loved Carolyn. She was a real free spirit. I loved that about her.

It was fall. For me, that meant football. I would have been happy staying home watching games all weekend, but Carolyn was restless and wanted to get out. She needed a change of scenery, away from the unrelenting flat land of Ohio.  The mountains, she said. The leaves would be at their peak and the weather promised to be nearly perfect, with just a slight chance of rain. I never could resist her enthusiasm. We got up early on Saturday morning, threw a change of clothes in a duffel bag and headed across the border to West Virginia.

We drove for hours, stopping now and then at scenic overlooks, taking pictures of everything. We got to one of the state parks around noon and had lunch in the lodge, then walked it off with a hike to the falls.  There was another park about three hours away and we thought that would be a good place to spend the night, so we jumped in the car and headed west, chasing the sunset, as it were.

We never made it to the park.

River Mills. Such a nice sounding town. Carolyn had been reading the tourist flyers while I drove and she thought she remembered reading something about the town. A restaurant, maybe. She flipped through her stack of flyers, looking for the one that mentioned River Mills, but she never found it. Or course she wanted to stop anyway. I wanted to go on. I was beat. A lumpy state park mattress was calling my name. But it was Carolyn. Her persuasion was hard to resist.

We got off the four-lane and as we drove the seven miles on the winding highway toward River Mills, the sun hid behind thickening clouds and after a few minutes, a light rain began to fall. A mist rose from the warm asphalt.

A worn, wooden sign welcomed us to River Mills. We passed a gas station, closed since forever. Not a convenience store, an honest-to-goodness gas station with a two-bay garage and a glassed-in office where the owner would sell tires and ring up the sale on a cash register and the old men of River Mills would gather and gossip worse than the women ever did. The windows were broken. The gas pumps were gone.

Then another dilapidated building. More busted windows. Faded white paint on red brick spelled out River Mills Hardware.  I began to calculate how long it would take us to backtrack and get to the park.

Just a little farther, Carolyn suggested. I didn’t argue.

Up ahead I saw a traffic light. I took that as a good sign. That traffic light is gone now. At least it was the last time I was in River Mills.  That was four years ago.

The streets were empty.  Not completely empty, but there was a uneasy quiet about the place. Most of the storefronts were vacant. Some of the buildings had been gutted, stripped of walls, floors and even the roof, so that all that was left was the facade and the back wall. We drove past a second-hand shop that might have still been in business, but it was hard to tell for sure. Another store had mannequins clothed in old wedding dresses. There was no sign out front, no name on the glass, nothing to indicate what that was all about.

street for web

We drove on.  Carolyn was sure there was a place to eat. Another two blocks and we came to what looked like an old courthouse. Closed, of course. It was nearing six o’clock, after all, and there was no sign of life anywhere.

And then this.

clown 3 for web

Yeah, Halloween was a couple of weeks away, but this seemed a little over the top for a small town. A little too scary. We both forced a laugh.

They really get into the spirit here, Carolyn said.

Looking back, I think that spirit had always been there. And I know it still is.

The town completely creeped me out. I think Carolyn was feeling the same thing, and just as I was about to suggest that we go on to the park, she saw what she had been looking for. The River Mills Cafe. The lights were on. There were people inside. So Carolyn was right again. Except this time she wasn’t.

We parked out front and went inside. Helen greeted us and showed us to a table. I didn’t know Helen’s name at the time, but I found out later. Helen King. She wore an old-fashioned, yellow shift dress. She smiled as she seated us and then winked at me. She asked us what we’d like to drink. Coffee for me. Carolyn asked if they had hot tea.

Sure thing, honey.

She touched Carolyn’s shoulder. Her hand lingered. Then she left and Carolyn gave me a look that acknowledged the weirdness.

She winked at me.

She winked at you?  What does that mean?

I was going to ask you.

I’ve got to find a bathroom.

She left. Helen brought my coffee.

Where’s Carolyn? she asked.

How do you know her name?

You said, tea for you, Carolyn?

But I hadn’t. At least I didn’t think I had. Maybe I did.

She left and returned with a small porcelain tea pot, a matching cup, and a box of assorted teas. I remember these things distinctly. Ordering hot tea at small diners can be surprising. So I noted the tea pot, the cup, and the box of teas. I remember thinking that Carolyn would be pleased.

Carolyn returned and smiled at the arrangement set at her place. Maybe this would be ok.

I excused myself for my turn to the bathroom.

Hurry back.

I thought nothing of those words at the time. Now I think of them every day.

Hurry back.

After I washed my hands, I looked at myself in the mirror, knowing I was little tired, but thinking I might be able run my fingers through my hair, maybe freshen up a bit for Carolyn’s sake. My reflection was hazy, as if the mist from outside had somehow settled on the glass of the mirror. I pulled a paper towel from the roll on the wall and wiped the glass, but the haze was still there. I tossed the paper in the trash and headed back to the dining room. The haze came with me. I could barely make out Helen standing behind the counter. I stopped and rubbed my eyes and blinked hard. Helen gave me a strange smile. I half expected her to wink again. The haze was slowly clearing from my eyes, but there was soft edge around Helen. A soft, fading edge.

I made my way back to our table. Carolyn wasn’t there.

I looked around. Maybe she went back to the bathroom. Or maybe she saw a gift shop and wanted to check it out. I sat at our table and took a drink of coffee.

The tea was gone. The tea pot, the cup, and the little box of teas. All gone.

Are you ready to order? It was Helen.

Where did Carolyn go?

Who?

Carolyn. My wife.

I’m sorry?

What are you talking about? She was here with me. You brought her hot tea.

Hot tea?

With the tea pot and tea cup.

Helen took a step back. We don’t have hot tea here.

I looked around, knowing that I’d see her. She had to be there. Then I noticed the others were gone, too.

Where’d everybody go?

Everybody?

The other customers. My wife. Where is everybody?

It’s been a little slow today. You’re our only customer this evening.

She must be in the bathroom.

I got up, almost running to the bathroom. I banged on the door and it swung open.

Carolyn?

No answer. I checked the stalls. Nothing. I went back to the dining room.

Where is she? Where is she?

Through the door to the kitchen. An old lady stood over a pot on the stove, stirring. There was no one else. Back to the dining room.

Where is she? My heart was racing.

I went out to the car. There was no sign of her.

Back to the dining room. Helen stood, her arms crossed.

Sir, you came in alone. I would have noticed if someone else was with you.

Why are you doing this? Is there a gift shop close by?

I didn’t wait for an answer. Up and down the streets I ran, looking for some place she might have gone. When I got back to the cafe, a deputy sheriff was waiting for me.

What seems to be the problem, son?

He didn’t believe my story.

I gave him my I.D. and showed him our duffel bag in the car. The flyers. Told him about our trip. How she insisted on stopping in River Mills. He looked me up in the system and confirmed that I was married. But my wife was missing. Last seen by anyone but me a hundred miles away. And just like that, I was a suspect in my wife’s disappearance.

The deputies looked all over River Mills but they were more interested in retracing where we had gone after we had left the park. I spent the night in a run-down motel just outside of town. The next day was more of the same. More searching, more questions, but no answers.

Another night and another day. Then another. Then another.

The deputies grilled me pretty good, but friends back home vouched for our relationship. I know the sheriff’s office thinks I killed Carolyn, but lacking a body, evidence, or a motive, they had no choice but to rule it a missing persons case. For them, a dead end.

I stayed two more nights.

She was gone.

I went back to Ohio, but called the sheriff’s office every day for two weeks. Not a trace, not a clue. I knew I would never see her again. I knew I would never know what happened.

It was a long, cold winter, the kind that keeps you inside and makes you think about things. I couldn’t just give up on her. After the first of the year, I went back to River Mills. I had to find something, anything, that would give me answers. Up and down the snow-covered roads. The town hadn’t changed a bit. The cafe was still open. I saw Helen through the window serving customers wearing that same yellow shift dress. I parked across the street and watched for a couple of hours. I stayed in River Mills all night, cruising the streets, in and out of town. As dawn broke, I found myself sitting on a bench overlooking the river that runs along the highway. Cold, tired, and utterly alone.

Back in Chillicothe, I tried to go back to living a normal life. Well, not normal. There was no such thing as normal anymore. But Carolyn’s words wouldn’t leave me alone.

Hurry back.

I could hear her voice.

Hurry back.

It was more than just something to say. There was tension in the way she had said it. The more I played her words back in my mind, the more I thought about it, the more I knew that it was fear in her voice.

Hurry back.

Did she know? Was it a premonition?

It was fall when I returned. The Halloween decorations were out again. Another scary clown stood staked in the courthouse lawn. And the stoplight was gone.

I spent all day and all night there. This time I talked to Helen. She stood with her arms crossed. Her answers to my questions were cold and unsympathetic. She wanted me gone. I searched the cafe as I had the year before and again found nothing. The old woman in the kitchen sat on a stool, her hands clasped in her lap, and just stared.

I spent the night in a motel in the next town over and the following day I made the rounds through River Mills again. And again, I found nothing. Heading out of town, I passed the same dilapidated buildings. The old hardware store. The gas station. The ramshackle shed that looked like it would fall with a strong gust of wind. I’d passed it probably dozens of times in the last year. But something was different. Graffiti on the side of the shack. Writing. I had gone by too fast to read it so I turned around and drove by again.

I miss you, Darlin’.

Carolyn.

My heart stopped.

It’s what she called me, sometimes. Darlin’. With the g dropped. Country style. Darlin’.

And the butterflies under the message. Her favorite doodle. Butterflies.

I pulled onto the gravel in front of the shed, almost hitting it with my car.

Carolyn!

I stuck my head in the door. It was dark and all I could see was trash and rotting timbers.

Carolyn!

I ran behind the shack, calling her name as I went.

I found a piece of pipe and went back to the front. I kicked the door open and with pipe in hand, made my way through the shack. A black snake hung from rafters. But that was the only sign of life.

I called the sheriff’s office and told the deputy that Carolyn was alive and that they needed to search the area out by the highway.

Just kids, he said. They paint their little love notes all over town.

But the butterflies.

Yeah. Butterflies. 

I stayed three more days. I came back a month later and the message was gone. Not painted over, just gone.

Hurry back.

But I coudn’t. I just had to let it go. For the sake of my sanity.

No more River Mills. No more mountains. No more fall colors. No more hauntings.

But it hasn’t helped. I still hear her. In the still of the desert air, on the cool nights, with a million stars overhead, I still hear her.

Hurry back. I miss you Darlin’.

darlin for web


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 2017, joseph e bird

The cabaret was quiet, except for the drilling in the wall.

Remember when you used to sit and listen to music with your headphones on, the 12″ x 12″ album cover in your hands as you went track to track? You’d be mesmerized by the cover art. You’d study the liner notes. You’d follow along if the lyrics were printed on the cover. After a few days, you’d know every song by heart.

No. Most of you don’t remember because that was before your time.

But back to our story.

The festival was over. The boys were planning for a fall.

Something’s up. Then we’re introduced to the ringleader.

He was standing in the doorway, looking like the Jack of Hearts.

Back in the golden age of vinyl, songs didn’t have be under three minutes. And everyone knew that serious music, serious songs, ran at least five minutes. Those were the songs you never wanted to end. American Pie comes to mind.  Chicago’s Ballet for a Girl from Buchannon ran a glorious thirteen minutes.

Backstage the girls were playing five card stud by the stairs.
Lily drew two queens, she was hoping for a third to match her pair.

It was always best if you were alone. Total absorption into the music.

Big Jim was no one’s fool, he owned the town’s only diamond mine.

If you wanted to hear a track again, you’d have to wait. You can’t (or shouldn’t) pick up the tone arm and place the stylus in the same groove that had just played. You’d risk distorting the vinyl and degrading the sound quality. You had to let the grooves cool.

Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town.

You had to let the grooves cool.

You couldn’t wait to play the song again, but you had to. Made you want to hear it that much more.

The hanging judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined.
The drilling in the wall kept up, but no one seemed to pay it any mind.

And those songs would tell a story as good as anything you ever read in a book. No music videos, you had to paint the scene in your head. You were the casting agent, the set and costume designer, the director. It was all yours. You just had to follow along.

The story I’ve been telling is a Bob Dylan classic, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, more than eight minutes long.  It had hidden in my memory until it came up on my Pandora station during a four-hour trip yesterday. It’s a great driving song.

I won’t tell you what happens.  If you want to know, click the link below. But wait until you can listen without distraction.  It’s just better that way.

She was thinking about her father, who she very rarely saw.
She was thinking about Rosemary, she was thinking about the law.
But most of all, she was thinking about the Jack of Hearts.

 

 

When Clara met Harry.

My old school.  No, not my class.  I’m old, but not that old.

I spent half of my first grade year at the old Central School, which was an elementary school by then. In the photo above, it was the high school in my little town of St. Albans, West Virginia.

Freshmen Nuts, the banner says. Kids being kids, trying to be outrageous for their class photo. Front and center is Sarah Wilson, dressed like a baby with her baby bottle.  The others I can’t really figure out. Behind Sarah is someone in what used to be called a “dunce” hat, which was sometimes used to humiliate misbehaving students. Oh, the psychological carnage inflicted in those days.  To left of the dunce, a student is very proud of whatever he (she?) is holding. Wish I could see it. I’ll bet it’s good.

Then there’s the fiddle player. Kind of looks like a girl to me. She’s holding the fiddle comfortably, knowingly, as if it’s more than just a prop. Like she’d be tearing into Turkey in the Straw at the square dance on Saturday night with her guitar playing father and banjo picking brother.  Her friends would think she’s odd and make fun of her.  Then, in her senior year, a new family from Huntington would move to town to help build the railroad. The oldest son, Harry, is Clara’s age. (Yes, her name is Clara. How do I know that? I’m a writer. I think Clara suits her.) The other kids don’t want much to do with Harry because he’s new and he comes from money. And then there’s Harry’s good looks. He’s just intimidating. Except Clara doesn’t care. He’s the new outsider. She’s been an outsider as long as she can remember.

There’s something about Clara. You can see it in the photo. Harry sees it. She’s no-nonsense. Straightforward. Not afraid to speak her mind.

“You play the violin very well,” he says.

“It’s a fiddle.”

“Yes, of course. I took piano lessons when I was young. Learned a little Brahms. Some Liszt.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you ever play any classical music?”

“I’m a fiddle player. I don’t care much about those guys.”

“Uh-huh.”

On the platform behind her, her father plays the first three chords of the next song.

“Got to go.”

She turns to take her place, fiddle under her chin.  She looks back.

“Can you dance?”

Before he can answer, she’s ripping off the intro to the next song, smiling at Harry.

.

Then again, it’s entirely possible that the person in the photo is a guy. But that’s another story.

 

Not so tough guy.

to The Gang

That’s me. Back row in the middle. Me and the boys. The gang.
Real tough guys, we was, although you might think differently after you hear this story. One more trip in the way-back machine.  This time, it’s my freshman year in college. Let’s set the scene.

I had just turned 18 and I’m off to school to set the course for the rest of my life.  At least that’s the theory. To illustrate how far off base that concept can be, the major I chose was Agronomy, the study soil and crop science, with the idea that I was going to be a farmer. About halfway through my freshman year it dawned on me that I didn’t come from a farming family, had no prospects of ever owning a farm, and I was afraid of cows.

I didn’t quite have my act together at that point.

Fortunately, the administrators of higher education understand that 18 year-olds can’t be left completely on their own. It would be better to let them get acclimated to this new semi-adult world by living in a dorm under the supervision of 20 year-old Resident Advisor.

The dorm.  Fifty guys on one floor, sharing one common area with one television, and two giant shower and toilet rooms. That took some getting used to. We were supposed to be students, but it was more like one, long endless party. It’s not as fun as it sounds, especially if you not a big partier. I wasn’t. I loosened up a little in my later years in school, but as a freshman, I was pretty much intimidated by everything.  Which probably explains my Lord of the Flies moment.  Except that it was much more than a moment.

I kept to myself as much as I could, but I had a tormentor.  He wasn’t the biggest guy on the floor. He wasn’t the meanest.  He wasn’t the funniest.  He was just a guy with a permanent smirk. I never would have even noticed him if he hadn’t started calling me names.

Now some guys I know would have taken a stand right there. Smacked him down and put an end to the insults. But besides a few harmless tussles with friends when I was growing up, I’ve never really been a fighting guy.  So sticks and stones.  I did my best to ignore him.

Which, of course, meant that he never let up.  Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.  I acted like it didn’t bother me, but it bothered me a lot.

Then one weekend, a friend came up to see me.  This friend, being as immature as I was, brought with him a rubber monster mask. Why?  Who knows. We went out with our other friends, one of us wearing the mask, just to see if anybody noticed. As college hijinks goes, it was pretty lame.

Later that evening we were back at the dorm. I was wearing the mask and roaming the halls, just for kicks. He sees me, and even with the mask on, he knows its me.

“Hey, that’s a big improvement on your looks,” he said.  Then the names.

At this point, I need to explain a guy thing. When guys get together, they will sometimes play fight. Kind of shadow box, throwing fake punches that are not intended to land. It’s all just posturing and it’s always done in fun.

So I’m wearing the mask and he’s calling me names.

I start to shadow box.  Slow motion punches in the air.  He does the same.  Nothing’s going to come of this.

But he keeps calling me names. Mean names. Hurtful names. Really bad names.

And that’s it.

I flick a jab and hit him in the face. Then another one. He’s stunned. I hit him again before he hits back. He lands a punch to the side of my head. Then he clinches so I can’t hit him again.  We wrestle around a little, and then both of us decide we don’t want it to go any further. We separate, breathing hard. His lip is bleeding.

He is still stunned. He’s angry. Partly because I hit him, but I think more because I refused to play his game by his rules. He was a bully and I’d had enough.

It’s an embarrassing story, though. I shouldn’t have let it get to the point that I lost my cool and started throwing punches. I should have found a better way to defuse the situation earlier.

I still encounter bullies. We all do. The person who is so insecure that they think they build themselves up by tearing other people down. Or are too scared to let someone else do something their own way. We just need to figure out how to deal with them in a civilized way.

After my freshman year, things settled down. I found a bit more confidence and some really good friends.  The tough guys in the photo?  Yeah, we’re all posers, as if you couldn’t tell.

I think about my tormentor from time to time. Wonder if he ever felt bad for being a bully. Wonder if he ever changed. People change. I’ve changed. I hope he has, too.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird

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