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Joseph E Bird

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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 jump on over to check last night’s scores. 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 small 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, wondering why it takes so long to pour a simple cup of coffee. She finally hands it to me, my name illegibly scrawled 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

can you summarize your story in a single, compelling sentence?

I was at a conference last week and ran into a friend who knew I was a writer and he asked what I was working on.  I told him I was putting the final touches on my novel Heather Girl.

“What’s it about?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s about a middle-aged woman who is fighting Huntington’s disease and she just learned that her father has been paroled for the murder of her mother.”  As I was saying those words, I realized that it was not a very compelling summary of my novel.  Yes, that’s what it’s about, but why would anybody want to read such an obvious  bummer ?

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a real feel-good story.”

I failed my elevator speech.  I realized I needed a better way to summarize the story.  How about this?

As her family falls apart and her health begins to fail, Heather Roth searches for answers, but instead finds hope and compassion that give her life meaning.

Ok, so it’s still not going to fly off the shelves like a James Patterson novel, but at least it’s not so ridiculously bleak.

Then, if they want to know more, there’s the cover blurb:

Heather Roth has little to look forward to. Her two sons, who have occupied most of her adult life, have grown and left her alone in the house in which she grew up.  Her ex-husband, for whom she still has feelings despite his abusive nature, lives hundreds of miles away.  And she’s being treated for Huntington’s, a disease that ravaged her mother, and for which she knows there is no cure.

Then the news she wasn’t expecting. Her father is being paroled from prison in Texas where he has been serving a sentence for the murder of his wife, Heather’s mother.

She’ll do anything to keep him out of her life, but when she is forced to take him into her home, she learns that the lives of her family weren’t what they seemed to be.  A story of tragedy and heartbreak, Heather Girl, delivers a whisper of hope and an abundance of compassion, even in the darkest hours.

a birthday

sids birthday for web

“For through wisdom your days will be many,
and years will be added to your life.”


The photo is of A. S. “Sid” Morgan, maybe taken in 1973, maybe his 90th birthday.  I suppose I could try to count the candles.  If it was 1973, he would die less than a month later.

This is the kind of photograph that inspires stories, spurs the imagination of a writer.  But Sid lived the adventures.  He built boats and floated down the Mississippi on hunting expeditions back in the early 1900s.  In 1926, he opened a museum that over the years became legendary.

You’d never guess he lived that kind of life from the picture.  He looks tired.  The house he’s in, once a proud mansion on the bottom land near the Kanawha River, looks tired. I was in the house many times as a child and the memories are still strong.  Unusual memories.  The smell of the soft, slowly decaying wood of the front porch, patches of tin covering the holes.  The feel of the air in the house.  Cool, until you walked into the kitchen and the gas heaters overwhelmed with stuffy warmth and lingering fumes. And the quiet.  Sometimes the house was full of people, full of kids, but I remember the times where it was only Mom and Sid, our family visiting quietly, the stillness of it all unsettling.

It’s gone now.  The house demolished shortly after Sid’s death.  Across from where the house sat is the massive John Amos Power Plant.  No hint of what happened there years ago.

But the stories are still there, just waiting to be written.

missing

empty bench 2

He used to come by every couple of weeks.

My office has a back door to the alley, and every so often I’d hear the thump, thump, thump, and I knew it was Keith because no one else ever knocked on the door.  He lives in a high-rise in Dunbar, a couple of towns over.  He takes the bus to St. Albans, sometimes to Charleston.  You used to see him everywhere.  He’d show up at church on Sunday mornings, but never went inside to hear the sermon.  He’d stay out in the narthex with the ushers.  I sensed he never felt comfortable among the Sunday best.

When he’d show up during the week, I’d go to the back door when I heard his knock and we’d catch up for a couple of minutes.  He’d tell me about his daughter, who like him, battled addiction.  We’d talk about his counselor, Lisa, who seemed to be very good to him.  Helped him get through the everyday tasks of life, like keeping groceries in his apartment and making sure he had a good coat for the winter.

“What are you up to today?” I’d ask.

“I guess I’ll go back to Serenity Club,” was a common answer.  The Serenity Club, I gathered, was a safe place for those battling addiction to go and hang out.  Back near his high-rise.

I’d give him a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee and off he’d go.

Halfway down the alley he’d turn and yell, “Thank you, Joe.”  He was appreciative.

But he’s been missing.

I didn’t seem him through last winter.  Probably just staying in, I told myself.  Then spring became summer and I realized that I hadn’t heard his knock on the door for some time.  I began asking around.  Nobody had seen him.  He has relatives who go to our church but no one knew anything about him.

A few weeks ago I drove to Dunbar.  I knew where the Serenity Club was so I drove around the neighborhood looking for him.  Nothing.

This past Tuesday my wife and I were in Dunbar visiting an old neighbor in the nursing home.  We drove by the Serenity Club.  A man and a woman sat on a bench in the alley.  I parked the car and approached them.

“Is the Serenity Club around here?”  I asked, even though I was pretty sure of its location.

“You’re looking at it,” he answered as he thumbed to the building behind him.

“I’m looking for a friend who used to come here.  Keith.”  I told him his last name.

“Never heard of him.  What’s he look like?”

“In his 70s, I think.  Not too tall.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.  How long ago was he here?”

I didn’t really know.  I told him I thought he had been coming for years.  Keith is not the kind of guy you easily forget.

We drove to the high-rise.  A half dozen people sat outside under the entry canopy.  I asked the same question.  I got puzzled looks in response.  Nobody knew Keith.  As if he had never existed.

I got back in the car and circled the lot.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a man walking down the sidewalk beside the high-rise.

“There he is!”

I stopped.  My wife got out.

“Keith!  Where have you been?” she says.

He stops.  He looks confused.  “Who are you?”

I’m thinking this isn’t a good sign.

“It’s Joe and Gloria.”

“Oh.  Hey.  What are you doing here?”  Turns out it was just the sun in his eyes keeping him from recognizing us.

I tell him the story.  That we’ve been looking for him.  Been missing him.  Told him I stopped by the Serenity Club but nobody knew Keith.

“Nobody knows me as Keith.  They know me as Harry.”

“Harry?”

“Keith is my middle name.  I go by Harry.”

All these years, I’ve called him Keith.  Everyone I know who knows him calls him Keith.  He’s never corrected us.  Even his relatives call him Keith.  And then I realize that those who really know him, those who live with him, those with whom he spends his days, call him Harry.

So we spend a few minutes catching up.  He fell sometime in the last year and busted his knee cap.  He seems to be completely recovered but he doesn’t travel around like he used to.  Just stays around the high-rise and the Serenity Club.

His daughter died.  I didn’t ask how, just assumed she finally lost her battle.  Keith is still winning his.  Twenty-three years coming up in a week or so.  His anniversary date is also his birthday.

He’s had a hard life.  The roller coaster, as he says.  It’s worn on him.  You can see it in his eyes.  But if you look closer, you can see the warmth, too.  There’s a kindness about him.

He introduces us to some of his friends at the high-rise.  Friends from church, he calls us.  We all have a laugh about the Keith-Harry confusion.  It’s clear they like Harry.  He seems happy and content.

We give him a few dollars to celebrate his upcoming anniversary/birthday.  We promise to come back and see him.  As we leave, Keith gives us a wave.  But he’s Harry now, back among those who know him best.

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.

john

He is severely disabled.

It’s obvious just from watching him for a few minutes.

His walk looks painful.  He knees come together in an angle that is not in the least bit natural. He stops, and then one of his knees moves out in the opposite direction, poking sideways through his filthy trousers.

He’s picking up something in the parking lot.  A stray coin, maybe?  A valuable scrap of  something.  He moves on, slowly.  Near a light pole, he stops and puts his collection on top of the concrete base of the light pole.  Some he tosses back onto the parking lot.

I’ve seen him around town before.  One Sunday he just walked out in the middle of traffic to cross the street.  His disability is not only physical, it’s mental.

We’re in line at KFC.  Yes, we eat there a lot.  Good chicken.

This particular KFC is not in the affluent part of town.  Not that there is an affluent part of my town.  But it’s near the homeless shelter.  Near St. Mark’s where lunches are provided to those in need.  Near the bridges, where some choose to make their homes.

Should we buy him something to eat? my wife asks.

I don’t know. 

I didn’t know if he would take it.  Didn’t know if he would just cuss us.  Didn’t even know if he really needed it.

We place our order. Just for us.

At the window, we ask if they know anything about the guy wandering the parking lot.

That’s John, she says.  We give him something to eat every day.

She asks us to pull up while our order is prepared.

John’s off to the side of us now, emptying his pockets on the sidewalk.  Just stuff.  Rocks.  Dirt.  Who knows what.

She brings our food.

John, are you ready to eat?

He nods.  He mills around a bit before they go inside.

One other time I was inside at this store and there was an older gentleman with a cane.  He was not as bad off as John.  Seemed like he had all his faculties, as they say, but life had not been generous to him.  The manager asked what he wanted.  A cola, he answered.  He reached in his pocket for some change.  The manager waved him off.

Don’t worry about it.

The folks working at this KFC are probably making minimum wage, maybe a little more.  They don’t have a lot of money to spare.  And the store itself is probably working on razor-thin margins. Giving away food is not in their best interests.

And yet they do.

Let others fight about borders and immigration and gun control and geopolitics.

Our neighbor is in need.

Our neighbor needs something to eat.

give the world a nudge

“Playwright Tom Stoppard once said the reason he writes is because every once in a while you put a few words together in the right order and you’re able to give the world a nudge. And sometimes I’m able to do that.”

— Charles Krauthammer

check swing

Her father stirred. He raised his head and looked around.

“Pip?”

Wayne and Heather looked at each other.

He father pushed himself up in the chair. “Pip?” His voice was stronger.

It took her back to the garage. Her tomboy, grease-monkey days. The good days. The best days.

It was a nickname Wayne had started and she had always hated. Pip.  Pippi.  As in Pippi Longstocking. Precocious kid from an old movie. Goofy, red pigtails and a gap-toothed smile that seemed frozen in perpetual amazement. She hated the reference. She hated the name. Which only made Wayne use it more.

Sometime after Wayne had begun his new quest to irritate his little sister, she was in the garage with her father. It was a hot summer evening. A fan blowing the greasy air around, making it just cool enough to be tolerable. A Reds game on the radio. He was working, she was watching. Just happy to be away from Wayne. She would go from bench to bench, running her hands over the cool steel of the tools, picking up a hammer or a pipe wrench or anything that looked too big and heavy to handle. She would hold it in both hands, amazed that anyone could make use of something so cumbersome.

The radio announcer droned on. The sleepy one. There were always two doing the game. One was more energetic and then there was the sleepy one. Talking so slow.  So easy.  She could sleep to the sound of his soothing voice.

Two and two the count.

She had no idea what that meant. Meaningless numbers. Just part of the peaceful background.

Check swing, fouled off.

“Did he just say Chuck Swain?”

“What’d you say?”

“The radio announcer. He just said something about Chuck Swain? Why would he be talking about Chuck Swain?” Chuck Swain being her friend who lived two blocks over.

Her father laughed.

“No, not Chuck Swain. Check swing. It’s when the batter almost swings but stops himself. Check swing.”

“Oh.”

Swing and a miss. That’s the third strikeout for Hernandez.

Her father laughed again. “Chuck Swain. That’s a good one.”

It made her feel good to make her father laugh.

“Hey, Pip, can you hand me those channel locks on the bench there?”

Pip. Not Pippi. Just Pip. And there was something in the way he said it that was not demeaning. Not a nickname to be cruel, a pet name. A name that would be special to her for the next several years.

She studied the assortment of wrenches on the bench. She saw one with the words Channel Lock imprinted on the silvery-gray steel.

“This one, Daddy?” It was heavier than she thought it would be and she almost dropped it on her foot.

He looked up from under the hood of the car. “Yeah. That’s it.”

He took the wrench and positioned it around a fitting. Somewhere down in the tangle of greasy parts and rubber hoses, she saw another wrench at the other end of the fitting.

“Here, hold this.” He motioned for her to take the handles of the channel locks. “Both hands. I’m going to turn the other wrench and I want you to try to keep the wrench from turning, ok? Just pull back and don’t let it turn.”

She nodded, completely sure that she wouldn’t be able to do what he had asked. And when he started on his end, the wrench in her hand lurched forward.

“Ok, pull back hard.”

She steeled herself and pulled back, putting as much of her ninety pounds as she could in the effort.

He grunted. She felt the pull on the wrench, but resisted. It moved a little and she pulled even harder. Then it broke loose. The wrench stayed wrapped around the fitting but she fell backwards and ended up on the floor.

“Got it.” Then he saw her sprawled out. “You ok?”

“Did you get it loose?”

“We got it loose. Good job, Pip.”

He helped her up and he went back to work. But everything had changed.

 

And now, in Wayne’s spartan living room in Texas, this old man spoke and she responded.

She walked over to the sofa and sat down as he followed her with his eyes.

“Hi, Daddy.”


copyright 2018, joseph e bird, from the novel Heather Girl

coincidence and cats

cat-1st-place

The other day I wrote a piece about coincidence (and how to resolve the unbelievable coincidences that hinder good story telling).

A couple of days later I tossed up a kind of random post about running hills.  I was just feeling good about still being able to challenge myself as I hobble into old man territory.  I directed the post to my New York friend, Cat Bradley, who is also a runner.  Little did I know that Cat was also doing hill repeats, and that even as I posted the photo of the hill I had just run, Cat was writing a post about her experience in forcing herself to run the hills.

Simply a coincidence of two people with similar interests having a similar experience at the same time?

Yeah, probably.

But while Cat’s story is ostensibly about running, you’ll see that it’s much more than that. It’s about what it takes to move forward in life. Click here.


Footnote:  The kitty in the photo is actually the First Place Prize I won in the Old Man Division of the Itty Bitty Kitty Committee 2 Miler a couple of years ago.  As you can imagine, the competition in the Old Man Division was very light that day.  Still, it took everything I had to get past the guy with the walker.

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