Joseph E Bird

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


Trevor Larson

The River of Life

alban fresco for web

HE HAD NO IDEA WHERE HE WAS. He had no idea where he was going. He just walked.

After a few minutes the buzz in his ears had subsided and he began to hear the sounds of the city, the noise of the streets. The taxis revving, the heavy groan of diesel engines moving trucks and buses. From a distance, a siren sang into the night. A horn blared next to him. He turned to look and a cab driver shook his fist and yelled something in an unknown tongue to another cabbie.

He walked on. The rubber soles of his hiking boots made no sound on the concrete. There were other people, but the sidewalk was far from crowded. He walked straightway but there was never a moment when he had to sidestep to avoid an encounter with someone else. They seemed to employ a kind of urban sonar that initiated almost imperceptible course adjustments as they moved toward their destination. No one spoke as they passed. No smiles. No eye contact. It was as if the city, for all its celebration of life and culture, shunned the random discovery of another individual.

Though the stores were closed, restaurants and watering holes teased with a hint of celebration and inclusiveness. But he knew that people like him, those who by either natural tendencies or situations that had been forced upon them, were more comfortable sitting to the side and observing. People like him, were they to expose themselves to the illusion of grand party, would again learn the hurtful truth that no one really cared.

No one really cared.

The night was cooling. He zipped up his jacket.

He had been walking for more than an hour but it wasn’t the time that he noticed. It was the quiet. If the street was the river of life in the city, he had hiked to its headwater. Or maybe a tributary. A slower body of water, more peaceful. When hiking in the forest, he would often find a rock beside the river and let his mind drift with the placid current.

He stopped. Ahead, a small group, men and women, loitered on the stoop of a walk-up. He looked behind. A couple of people walked in the opposite direction. He must have passed them but he couldn’t remember. Across the street, a warm yellow light flooded onto the sidewalk from the neon sign of a pub. Edie’s. No. Eddie’s. One of the ds had lost its glow. Either way.

He was tired. He needed to rest.

copyright: joseph e bird, 2016
photo copyright: joseph e bird, 2014


The Casimir Effect

The story of Trevor and Sheu-lo had started with a conversation about apples. There had been no flash of physical magnetism, no sparks flew, no glint in the eye, no wry smile, no hint of seduction whatsoever. None of the elements that had made his encounters with Dani so gut-wrenchingly wonderful. Yet as their conversation had moved from Fuji apples to Bob Dylan and Eminem, something happened.

“It’s the Casimir effect,” Sheu-lo had said weeks later after they had finally abandoned the pretense that they were colleagues, nothing more. She had made the comment over dinner in a dimly lit restaurant, where music never played, an irony that Trevor found appealing.

“It’s a scientific principle. Casimir was a physicist who experimented with electromagnetic fields. Everyone knows about positive and negative fields.”

“Opposites attract,” Trevor said.

“Right. But Casimir discovered that there is a small attractive force that acts between two uncharged plates.”

“Not opposites?”

“Just two plain, metal plates.”

At first they had maintained their worlds separately, but they soon overlapped. And though they were spending many evenings together at Trevor’s insistence, they had limited their physical involvement. There were lapses in discipline which played on Trevor’s guilt on different levels. The feelings that he had for Sheu-lo were built on a foundation of respect.

There was no dramatic proposal, no elaborate ceremony.

They were married in Max’s church, attended by their families.

Twenty two minutes.

guitar 2-6-16 for web

AT FIFTEEN MINUTES PAST TEN the next morning, the news site flashed a red banner across the top of the screen announcing a plane crash in Texas. He clicked the link and saw that it was a commuter flight from Houston to Dallas. He would not have been shocked if it had been their flight. That’s how life worked, it seemed.

Witnesses reported a giant fireball. He looked at his disfigured left hand and touched the side of his face and felt the scars.  He knew the agony they would have to endure if there were survivors, but that was unlikely.

If you want to know a man, know his pain.

It was one of dozens of quotes he had heard in his freshman literature class at the University of Tennessee, but the only one that stuck with him. For obvious reasons.

At the time, the physical pain he had endured was still fresh and still issuing reminders that his body had been greatly traumatized. During the months of recovery he had put on the brave face and carried a resolute disposition. And then the real pain began. The isolation. The guilt that never quite seemed to leave him.

If you want to know a man, know his pain.

He closed the internet browser.

He was supposed to be compiling demographic data to be used in establishing the housing ratios for the Renaissance project, but his thoughts were elsewhere. Loss. Grief. Dani. His own desolation.

He opened a new document and closed his eyes as he let his emotions speak to him.

He felt the rhythm first. A slow, three-four time. His body swayed slightly, his eyes still closed. Then music. The chords. On the down beat.

He opened his eyes, his fingers on the computer keyboard.

At first, random words: Pain. Loneliness. Her smile. Her eyes.

Then they began to find order.

Bring me back
from the dark of night,

Let me feel
love in your light.

He wished he had his guitar. He wrote a chord progression, not sure if it was really what he wanted. A melody started to form in his head and he wrote to it.

More random thoughts filled the page. He wrote quickly, trying to capture the mood without losing the music. A chorus. More words altered the mood and he heard the change in the tune that would comprise the bridge. There were typos all over the page but he didn’t dare interrupt the flow. More words. The last verse. And the chorus again.

He read from beginning to end. He closed his eyes and let it sink in.

Then again from the beginning, this time singing softly.

Then he scrolled back to the top of the page and wrote: Bring Me Back, by Trevor Larson.

It had taken him twenty-two minutes.

Knowing when to end the story.

I said recently, “I just found out how the story of Trevor Larson ends.”

I was referring to the novel I’ve been working on for the past year.  Faithful reader Lee Anne asked, “Do you not begin with an ending in mind? I thought writers had a whole outline of the story complete before starting the words. How do you know when you’re finished?”

Many of you won’t be interested in this discussion, but some of my internet friends are writers or are contemplating writing a novel, so I offer this as a case study.

I’ve heard it said that novel writers are either “pansters” or “plotters”.  The panster being one who writes by the seat of the pants with little or no thought to plot or where the story is going.  The plotter, of course, plots out the story from beginning to end.  I have a hard time understanding how you could be a panster and create a coherent novel that meets the expectations of the mainstream reader.  Many writers succesfuly take this approach, but it would be hard for me to do without wandering down every side street available.  So I guess I’m a plotter.

In fact, here’s what I did with the Trevor Larson story.  I had an idea.  A “what if” scenario.  That’s the seed.  So I think about the scenario and and whether or not there’s enough meat in the concept around which to build a novel.

If the answer is yes, then I think about character arc.  In the case of Trevor, he encounters challenges early in the story.  And the challenges keep coming. The arc is completed when he learns how to handle the challenges. When the novel ends, he has to be a changed person, for better or worse. Again, this is early in the concept stage.

Then I think in terms of three acts and the arc becomes more defined. My target word count is 80,000 words and for me, I average around 4,000 words a chapter.  That would be 20 chapters, more or less. But if I’m thinking three acts, that would be roughly 7 chapters per act. Then I think in even more detail about the story and and will try to write a few sentences about what will happen in each chapter.

For me, that’s pretty serious plotting.


Things happen along the way. Characters that I thought would be minor rise up into a major role. Dani, for example. Characters that I thought would be significant fall away or even die. In Trevor’s story, it’s Jackson Little. And the characters go off and do something that wasn’t foreseen.  I didn’t know Trevor was going to be such a gifted songwriter when the story began, but that ends up being a key plot device.

That’s the fun mess of writing. The characters come alive and tell me what’s going on.

Yes, Lee Anne, I had an idea of how the story was going to end, but the last couple of chapters were agonizing. My novels are low-key so there’s no final heoric scene or anything like that.  I have to see how relationships develop and how and where to stop the story that gives the reader a sense of satisfaction. It’s pretty much where I thought it would be, just not exactly. But all along, it was entirely possible that Trevor could have gone off script. He has a habit of doing that. That’s what makes him interesting.





I just found out how the story of Trevor Larson ends.

It took 91,000 words and 12 months.

Some of the things Trevor told me, though, are inconsistent.  I’ll have to talk to him more and sort those things out.

For now, it’s satisfying to close the loop.

A Prayer for Rain

He didn’t know her name.  They never exchanged words, though they sat side by side on a three-hour flight.  He would never see her again.

He saw her pain.  The source of her pain?  No, he didn’t know.  But he felt it in his own heart.

Trevor Larson wrote this for her.

Hear me, Lord.

Give me gentle rain.

Heal me, Lord.

Take away the pain.

Love me, Lord,

I just need a friend.

Hear me, Lord,

and be there till the end.

Wheel Hoss

Another excerpt from my novel in progress.

Trevor looked around and saw that all the seats in The Empty Glass were taken. Quite a few were tables were singles, mostly young men, a few women, all unable to keep their eyes off their electronics for more than a few seconds. Producers, maybe. Or executives scouting for the next big thing. There were also a few couples and small groups, obviously out for dinner, but no wide-eyed tourists.

“Is that him?” Dani asked, nodding toward the stage.


“They look very country.”

“Well, it is Nashville, baby.”

On stage, they continued to tune their instruments, but Maxfield Martin finally seemed satisfied and sat behind his instrument, his arms crossed as he looked out across the restaurant and smiled. The guitar player also stopped, leaving only the bass player plucking on the heavy strings. He played a note, then another, lower note. He played them again. And again, increasing the tempo each time, until he it was obvious he was playing in an up-tempo four-four time, like a train moving over railroad tracks. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Then came the train whistle from Maxfield Martin’s slide guitar. Waaaaa-waaaa. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Faster. Waaaaa-waaa.

Trevor looked at Dani. She was smiling. He was smiling. Everyone in the place was smiling, their eyes glued to the musicians.

Then the guitar player with the embroidered jacket began playing an even faster rhythm, the sound muted by his hand.

Clackety-clackety-clackety-clackety. Waaaaa-waaa. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. You could almost see the train.

And then they stopped without warning.

“One, two, three, four,” the guitar player counted in perfect time.

They started up again, keeping the same rhythm, but now the guitar was in full voice and after a few measures of introduction, he went off on a bluegrass, rag-like solo that showed his amazing guitar skills. There were whoops and hollers from the audience. As his solo wound down, a fiddle could be heard taking the lead. And from behind a curtain came Janelle Hylton, all of five-foot two, her long black hair pulled back as if to highlight her dark brown skin. She moved slowly in black jeans and a red oxford shirt until she hit center stage, and as her solo reached its apex, she moved in time with the bow as it screamed across the strings of her fiddle. The room filled with applause as she finished and stood tapping her foot and nodding her head in time with the music as she turned toward Maxfield Martin.

He started with the train whistle but after the third blow, he moved the slide toward the left of the guitar and slowly slid it to the right, creating a steadily rising pitch as his right hand plucked the strings until it reached the crescendo. Then it was as if all restraint was tossed from the window of the engineer’s cab. His left hand flew up and down the fretboard, at times bouncing on the strings creating percussions that accentuated the pulsing rhythms.

When he finished, everyone jumped into a perfectly executed instrumental union, driving the song to its conclusion. The applause was loud and long. Trevor glanced at Dani. He had never seen her so animated.

“Thank you so much,” Janelle said from the stage. “That was our take on the Bill Monroe classic, Wheel Hoss.” She introduced the musicians, each of whom garnered their own well-deserved applause. “And the gentleman on the steel guitar, the legendary Maxfield Martin.” He stood and waved to the crowd, then joined in the applause before he sat back down.

copyright joseph e bird, 2015

Texas Flood

This is an excerpt from my novel in progress. Trevor was a singer-songwriter until an accident forced him to give up his dreams of music. Now living in Nashville and working as an architect, he is with a group touring a part of the city they hope to redevelop when he happens upon a music store. The group moves on, but Trevor looks inside.

They moved on without Trevor, who was watching through the window as an old man sat playing a horizontal steel guitar. Another man sat behind the counter reading a magazine. He could hear the guitar through the glass windows. It was what he would have expected from a steel guitar, the kind of muisc he had heard before on an old country music show that he would see on television every now and then back in West Virginia. The man playing must have sensed Trevor watching and he looked up, waved, and kept on playing.

The group was a block away. Trevor opened the door and went inside.

There were about a dozen acoustic guitars hanging from the walls, another dozen electrics, a few dobros, and on the floor, maybe half a dozen steel guitars. He took one of the dobros off the wall and strummed it, more or less out of habit.

The man playing the steel looked up and said howdy, without missing a note. He was slight of frame and sat a little hunched over. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt open at the collar, and on his wrist was a drug-store watch. He wore glasses with simple frames, and though his hair was thoroughly gray, he had a lively air about him that contradicted his elderly physical appearance. He could be anybody’s grandfather but most grandfathers would be sitting in front of the television watching afternoon game shows. This one was going from one song to another, his head bobbing to the beat as his mottled hands plucked the strings and slid up and down the fretboard. He ended a song that Trevor didn’t know with a long slide up, followed by a quick slide up and down that sounded more like an old whistle than a guitar.

“Yes, sir!” the man said. He looked up a Trevor and laughed, obviously enjoying his own music. Trevor smiled back. “How you doing, son?” the man said.

“Me? I’m fine.”

“You a picker or a slider?”

Trevor laughed. “Never really thought about it in those terms. I used to be a picker. Guess I’m a slider now. Or trying to be. I really just started.”


“Yeah. I bought one a couple of months ago.”

“What kind of music do you play?”

Trevor shook his head. “I’m still trying to figure what I can play on this thing.”

“Country? Blues?”

“Blues,” Trevor said. “At least that’s what I’m starting out with. Blues are kind of natural for a slide guitar.”

“Yeah, I know a little blues. Let me think. Yeah, how about this.” He started picking and sliding what sounded to Trevor like a standard blues opening.

“I know that one,” he said.

“A little Stevie Ray,” the man said.

“Yeah. I’ve heard that.”

“Texas Flood.”

He broke into the hard run just before the verse. Trevor couldn’t take his eyes off the guitar. Until the man started to sing. He could play, but he couldn’t sing. He sang the entire first verse and then started laughing.

“Now you know why I’m a guitar player,” he said. “I leave the singing to someone else.”

The man behind the counter shook his head and laughed without looking up.

“Let me hear you hit that a lick,” he said, looking at the guitar Trevor was holding.

“No, I can’t, really. I’m just learning.”

“Come on. Humor an old man.” He looked up with a smile that Trevor couldn’t resist. His enthusiasm reminded him of Jackson Little.

“Sure,” Trevor said. “I’ve been practicing playing old hymns. Do you know any hymns?”

“Goodness sakes, young man, I’ve forgotten more hymns than you’ll ever know. Lay one on me, now.”

“Ok. How about this one.” He started playing Softly and Tenderly. He was shaky at first, but midway through the first verse he found his rhythm and started to play with more confidence. By the time he reached the refrain, the man was playing along on the steel. He played the verse and the steel guitar faded to the background, but when they hit the refrain again, he was playing answer to Trevor’s call. It was haunting. Even the man behind the counter put his magazine down on his lap and listened.

By the third time through, they had found each other’s style and both were instinctively playing to the crescendo to end the song, until the last two lines of the refrain. The man stopped, and Trevor slowly picked the last line. The final note faded into the silence of the store.

The man behind he counter applauded.

“Oh, son, that was beautiful,” the guitar man said.

“Thanks,” Trevor said. “I just….I don’t know.”

The man behind the counter spoke. His voice was deep and carried resonance. “Coming from him, that’s one hell of a compliment, boy.”

“What’s your name, son?” the guitar player asked.

“Trevor. Trevor Larson. I’m an architect.” He felt silly for stating his occupation. The man laughed.

“Maybe you are,” he said, “but you’re a musician.” He stood as he reached his hand to Trevor. “I’m Maxfield Martin.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Martin. But no, I’m not a musician. I just mess around a little.”

“Mess around a little, huh. How long you been playing?”

“Dobro? Not that long. A couple of months, maybe.”

Martin studied on Trevor, looking him up and down. “You were in a fire, I reckon.”

“I reckon.”

“How long you been in Nashville?”

“A couple of weeks,” Trevor said. “How about you?”

“Me? I guess it’s been sixty years or so.”

Trevor was surprised by the answer and didn’t know how to respond.

“Let me help you out,” Martin said. “I’m eighty-five. I came here from
Abilene when I was twenty-four.”

“Are you in the industry?”

Martin laughed as he sat back down behind his guitar. He plucked the strings and moved the slide, making a sound that was as close to real laughter as an instrument could get. “Don’t you reckon I’m old enough to retire?”

“I reckon.”

“You talk like you’re from Texas, son.”

“West Virginia.”

“I’m not completely retired. I play some with Hank Willard’s band. He’s from Ashland, Kentucky, right across the river from West Virginia. We play a lot of the small places. Wheeling, Milton. Played in Charleston a few times.”

“That’s where I’m from. Well, down the river a bit.”

“And you didn’t move to Nashville to play music?”

“No. I gave up on music.”

Martin stroked the strings of his steel guitar, then whipped the slide up and down the fretboard, creating a wailing, howling song, then broke into the intro of Hot Rod Lincoln, his head nodding again as his fingers moved in a blur. Then he bounced his slide up and down on the strings, alternating with his finger picking, and created a machine gun staccato effect. He finished with another dramatic slide.

“That’s pretty good,” Trevor said.

“Aw, shucks. I’m just messing around,” Martin said with a smile, echoing Trevor’s words to him.
Trevor put the dobro back on the rack. “I guess I’d better catch up with my group.”

“I’m playing with Janelle next week at the Empty Glass,” Martin said. “You should come by.”

“Who’s Janelle?”

“I think you’d like her. She sings a bluesy, Bakersfield kind of country.”

Trevor shrugged. “I’ve never really been a fan of country. No offense.”

“You ain’t heard Janelle.”

“Fair enough.”

Trevor walked to the door, then stopped and looked back. He asked the question that popped into his mind when Martin told him how old he was. “You ever hear of guy named Jackson Little?”

Martin looked up from his guitar. “Little?” He looked down and to his right, thinking. “Little. Jackson Little.” He sat for a few more seconds, then looked up, his expression questioning. “Black feller?”


“Played guitar, mostly, I think. Maybe a little fiddle.”

“I don’t know about the fiddle, but he said he played here years ago.”

“Yeah,” Martin said. “Jacksie. Tall guy. He did a lot of session work. That was back when Nashville was country. It was hard for a black man to get work in a band, but Jacksie was good. He was primarily a studio man.”

“Did you ever play with him?”

Martin shook his head. “Have you heard of Percy Rivers?”

Trevor had heard the name. Maybe on the late-night infomercials selling boxed sets of old artists. “Sure,” he said with more confidence than his answer deserved.

“I played with him almost exclusively for twenty years. That’s when old Jacksie was in his prime. But, no, I never played with him. You know him?”

“I did. He lived in Charleston in his later years.”

“Oh. He died, I reckon.”

“I reckon.”

He didn’t tell him the story.

First Lesson

He sat in the break room, feet up on the table, guitar across his lap, and played the same riff over and over.  It was a tricky combination of finger-picking and a shuffle strum that would take him a while to learn.  He could make it easier: slow the rhythm, alter the chord progression, or change the tune altogether.  It was his own composition, after all.

He played it three more times, each time, a little faster and a little smoother.  There was no rush.  It wasn’t on his playlist for that evening; most of those songs he could play in his sleep.   But he knew when it was ready, when he was ready, it would be worth all the work.

The speaker on the wall of the break room crackled.

Customer needs assistance in electrical.

“That’s you, Chet,” Doyle said from his chair on the other side of the room.

He stopped playing and looked at Doyle.  “Chet?”

“You’re too young,” Doyle said. “Chet Atkins.  He was the guitar player when I was a kid.”

“They had guitars on the Mayflower?”

“Let me see that thing.”

Trevor dropped his feet to the floor and walked across the room to Doyle.

“Can you play?”


Doyle held the guitar and ran his left hand up and down the neck, his fingers buzzing on the strings while his palm slid along the varnished maple.  With his right thumb, he strummed the strings, muted by his left hand.  He lifted his fingers and strummed again.  Even though he played no chord and there was no tune and no music whatsoever, Doyle couldn’t help but smile.

“I can teach you.”

Doyle looked up and down the guitar, admiring the curves and shine and worn strings and that distinctive aroma that all musical instruments possess.  Then the smile disappeared.  “I’m too old.”  He held the guitar by the neck and pushed it back to Trevor.

“You’re never too old.” Trevor put the guitar back on Doyle’s lap and arranged his arms and hands in the proper position.

“What are you doing?”

Trevor twisted Doyle’s left hand so that his fingers hovered over the fret board.

“Take this finger and put it here.”  He positioned his ring finger on the second fret of the fourth string.  Doyle’s fingers were thin and bony.  Had they been more plump, Trevor’s experiment might have failed, a realization that came upon him a bit too late.  He placed his middle finger on the second fret of the fifth string, and his index finger on the first fret of the third string.

Customer needs assistance in electrical.

“Now press,” he said.

“You better go,” Doyle said.

“See how your fingers are flat against the strings?”

Doyle nodded.

“Straighten them up.  More vertical.”

“It hurts.”

“Yeah.”  Trevor moved Doyle’s fingers slightly, making sure they weren’t touching any other strings.  “Now hold that.”  He stepped back.

Doyle looked hard at his fingers, willing them to stay in position.

“Now strum.”

He did.  Doyle played his first chord.  He strummed again.  And again.

“Got to go,” Trevor said.

Doyle strummed again.

“That’s an E chord, by the way.  You wouldn’t believe how many songs start out with that chord.”  He wasn’t sure if Doyle had heard him. He plucked the srings one by one.  His first arpeggio.

copyright 2015, joseph e bird

The preceding is the opening of my current unnamed work in progress.  It will likely change as the writing progresses and the inevitable editing occurs. More to follow.

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