Right Now: Harris and Hunter

Life is about change, Everything in life changes from birth to death. Change is important … Hmmm … I have a feeling I might use those three sentences again real soon.

I start this off with that first sentence for a reason. Most of you know me as A.J. Brown. That is not a pen name. Those are my initials and that is my real last name. However, when I started writing, I didn’t write under my initials. I wrote under the name given to me at birth, shortened to what most folks call me: Jeff. 

My first thirty-nine publications all came under the name Jeff Brown. It’s not the coolest name and there is even a punk song with my name as the title by Mi6. It’s not very flattering. And, no, the song is not about me. 

Back in 2004, I submitted a story titled, The Woodshed, to a publication called The Butchershop Quartet. It was an anthology of four stories put out by Boyd Harris and Cutting Block Press. I wanted so bad to get into this publication.

I didn’t make it in. I honestly don’t believe I came close to making the cut. However, when Harris sent the rejection notice, he didn’t send the dreaded form reject. He wrote me a little letter. I can’t remember it word for word, but here is the gist of it:

“I think you have good ideas, but you don’t have the skills to pull them off.”

No, that is not an insult. That is just honesty. And it wasn’t worded quite like that. Harris was nicer in his assessment. Looking back now, he was right. But he didn’t just make a critical point about my writing. He invited me to an online writers’ group called Zoetrope Virtual Studios. It was my first foray into social media, but it was in a web forum style. The name of the group was +The Horror Library+.

I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t sure about it. I wanted to become a better writer, but I didn’t know Harris. For all I knew he could have been some psychopathic serial killer. Thankfully, he wasn’t. 

I joined Zoetrope under the name of A. Jefferson Brown. Sounds kind of distinguished, but that wasn’t what I was going for. To this day, I still don’t know why I chose that username, but it wasn’t to sound distinguished. Once I joined THL, I sat in the shadows and read a lot of posts from writers who were way better than me. I was thoroughly intimidated. I was out of my league.

It was eye opening. 

These writers did something I thought was crazy. They posted rough drafts of their stories and had other writers and editors tear them apart. What type of sorcery is this? After a while I was encouraged by a couple of writers to post something I wrote and let them read it. It was then that I realized I wasn’t that good of a writer. I didn’t have the confidence in my words to submit one of my stories for others to criticize. I had thin skin and I only wanted people to praise my stories. 

I had been pretending up to that point. I wasn’t a writer. I wanted to be, but I couldn’t say I was a writer. Not after realizing how little confidence I had in my work. But I made it a point to get better. In making that decision, I chose a story I had written called Black Cancer. They tore that story up so bad it should have been considered a crime scene. 

Over the next couple of years, I submitted more stories, participated in contests, asked these better writers questions about how to do things, and I worked, worked, worked on the craft of writing. From 2005-2008, I wrote nearly 500 short stories and two novels. Over half of those stories were experiments in writing. 

During that time, I became friends with some great people. Boyd Harris was just one of them. There was Fran Friel, who is like a big sister to me. Chris Perridas, who my wife and I hung out with at Waverly Hills Sanitorium in Kentucky. Petra Miller, John Mantooth, Michael Dixon, Erik Smetena, Dameion Becknell, who might be might twin in theological beliefs, Steve Sommerville, Michelle Garren Flye, Jamie Sunshine, C.J. Hurt, John Lovero, Frank Hutton, all of whom pointed me in one direction or other (even if they don’t know it).

Then there is Bailey Hunter. Bailey allowed me to be myself within the group. She was funny and had no problems letting me asks her questions. She’s smart and the owner of Dark Recesses Press, who I always wanted to put a book out with. Maybe one day I will. She was also the web admin for +The Horror Library.Net+. She was a member of the Terrible Twelve. She encouraged me more than everyone except for Fran. 

Bailey is also responsible for A.J. Brown.

In 2006, two of my stories were accepted for publication with THL.Net (A Bone White Hand in March, and Drainers in June). In June, I became a contributor to THL.Net. That meant I got my name on the site. Bailey input the information and after my story had been workshopped with the Terrible Twelve members, it went up. That story was Bone Yard

When Bone Yard went live, I went to the website to check it out. In the place where my name was supposed to be was A.J. Brown. I smiled. I have always wanted to go by my initials. One of my favorite football players when I was a kid was A.J. Duhe, a middle linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. I still don’t know why she put my initials up, but I contacted her and asked her about it. She apologized and said she would change it. I think I yelled, NO! out loud. I didn’t yell it in my message to her. I just said, no, leave it.

From that day on, I have written under the name of A.J. Brown. 

I’ve lost touch with a lot of the writers I learned from in the early 2000’s, but Bailey and I still keep in contact, thanks to social media. As of this writing, she is getting married soon. I wish her a ton of happiness in that marriage. 

Though I haven’t heard from Boyd in a long time, I can point to me submitting to his anthology and his rejection letter as the cornerstone for me being the writer you guys love. Or, at least, I hope you love. I can point to Bone Yard and the name attributed to the story as the beginning of A.J. Brown. It was the thing that gave me confidence in my words. After that, I’ve had no problems showing people my stories. 

Boyd Harris, wherever you are, thank you. You put me on the path I follow to this day. To Bailey Hunter, thank you for mistakenly putting A.J. Brown on that first story. It stuck and that’s a good thing.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Right Now: Grasshopper

So …

Here we are, you and me, me and you. Where do I begin?

Okay, how about from the beginning.

Stick with me a few minutes. I’m not sure how this is going to work out.

Eddie Van Halen died. Most, if not everyone, knows that. Then the best friend of someone I am close to at work passed away. Here it is a little more than a week after that and someone I know passed away. 

Please, don’t leave yet. This is not going to be all doom and gloom. Sure, the first part will be, but I promise I will try to pull it back, try to be positive at the end of this. Okay? Stick with me a little longer?

When Eddie Van Halen died, I saw a lot of comments on websites and blogs where people wished they would have been able to tell him how much of an impact he had on their lives. He had an impact on a ton of musicians, and so many of them wish they could have told him that. Here’s the thing: they could have. In today’s world of social media and websites, it’s so easy to contact sometone through their various pages. Would they see it? Maybe not. Someone else might read these things and Van Halen may have never seen the first ‘hey, thank you for what you did.’ Would he respond? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. However, you said your peace, you sent him the message and that effort is what matters. You could have told him. You could have. Now you can’t. 

Those last few sentences seem harsh, but they are not meant to be. They are meant to show you a way to actually attempt to tell someone what they mean to you. 

Okay, one more thing before I continue, one more link to Eddie Van Halen. The song Right Now came out in 1992. I was twenty-one at the time and angry at the world, which was kind of my default setting. The song is about living in the moment, not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. It’s about not being afraid. We only have right now. The past is gone. The future is never obtainable. We have right now. That is it. Right Now.

Fast forward to a post I saw on Facebook. Another author tagged me in it. I read it, smiled and realized, though this was the author’s way of showing how he got to where he is today, it was also his way of saying ‘thanks for what you’ve done for me.’ This was his Right Now moment.

Let me be upfront about something before I continue on: I’m horrible with praise. I’m uncomfortable when I get praised. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. I just don’t know how to take it. It’s such an oxymoron.

The author said I took him under my wing, that I challenged him to be the best he could. I say this: that is true. I did take him under my wing, and I challenged him, but there were times I was an utter jerk about it. There were times where I would fuss at him and point out minor things when he was starting to get the big picture. I was so frickin’ hard on him when it came to his social presence and how he presented himself on social media. The words he said in some of his posts drove me nuts, or some of the argumentative stances he took were bad looks. 

We had a lot of good conversations about writing and life and life and writing. I called him Grasshopper. He didn’t seem to mind.

But I fussed at him so frickin’ much when it came to writing. I was hard on him. 

When I was a kid, my dad taught me about discipline. I got in trouble one time and he didn’t yell at me, he didn’t spank me or smack me around. He didn’t do anything until Saturday morning when I wanted to sit down and watch School House Rock and the Saturday morning cartoons. 

“Boy, come on outside,” he said to me.

“But …”

“Come on outside.”

I went outside and my dad said, “You see those boards and bricks?”

“Yes, Sir.” (It was always yes or no Sir. Always.)

“I want you to move them over to that corner of the yard,” he said and pointed to the opposite corner—the furthest possible spot from where the pile was. “But before you do, you need to clean that corner up so it’s not a mess when you get finished.”

For the next four hours I cleaned the corner of the yard he wanted the boards and bricks, then moved them, and stacked them neatly.

“I’m done,” I told him. By then School House Rock was over and the Saturday morning cartoons had given way to whatever movies played that day. 

My dad looked at the pile, then back where they had been. He shook his head. “I don’t like them there. Move ‘em back, but before you do, clean that corner up.”

I can’t remember what I did, but I’m certain I never did it again.

This was how I was disciplined. This is how I was raised. This is how I treated the young author. My dad wasn’t being a jerk. He was teaching what not to do in life. I didn’t feel like I was being a jerk but teaching this author about things in writing others wouldn’t. 

I saw promise in this young man. I also saw a steady influence of comic books and action hero movies in his writing. That’s great for, I don’t know, comic books and action hero movies, but not necessarily for fiction. 

We did a couple of competitions, which he didn’t win. But I saw effort, and effort is important. Effort shows you want something, and you will work to get it.

Then he challenged me to a one on one competition. The subject was Switchblade monkeys, whatever that is. We both wrote and posted the stories in the online group we were part of. He won. The story was good, and he deserved to win. I didn’t like losing, but his story was better.

I don’t know if he believed he had arrived at that point by beating me—I didn’t lose many competitions back then—but that’s when I saw the effort wane. Or maybe that’s when I realized he could do better than the effort he put into it. 

I rode him harder after that. I didn’t feel like he was giving his best in every story he wrote. I felt he phoned in a couple of the ones I read. I ripped them apart, pointed out issues, things he knew better than to do. 

But what the heck? He kept coming back. He kept asking questions, like the annoying little mouse in the Warner Brothers cartoons. It wasn’t that he was annoying, I just felt like he wasn’t getting it. But he was. That’s the thing, he was. 

I saw improvements, but there was always something that wasn’t right. It’s as if I was a dad saying to his son, “You came in second place, that just means you’re the first loser.” He was a better writer than when I met him, but I still rode him like Bobby Knight in an Indiana basketball practice.

Then we had a falling out. It was part his fault, part mine. We didn’t talk for a while. The details aren’t all that important. 

Out of the blue he sends me a link to an interview he did. I didn’t look at the interview for a couple of weeks. He sent me a message, asking if I read it. I didn’t respond. Then I read it. He mentioned me in glowing terms. In. Glowing. Terms. That’s the first time he said I had helped him, that part of the reason he was the writer he was is because of my help. 

I responded with something that wasn’t a thank you or a thanks for the shout out. It was my normal “You came in second place, that just means you’re the first loser,” type response. I was still angry. He had extended an olive branch and I wanted nothing to do with it.

A year or so later, I went to Amazon and looked him up. He had several books out, some of them good, some of them okay. I contacted him about a couple of the reviews, focusing on the negative ones. “What about these?” I asked him. “Are you good with this?”

Still. Riding. His. Ass.

We may not have talked too often, but I still followed what he was doing, who he was signing with, what books he was putting out and how he acted in social media realms. Some would say that is stalking. My daughter calls it Intensive Research. I call it checking on someone who had so much potential. I realized something by stal … umm … checking in on him. He had listened. All those years of me riding him, he had listened. Something got through and he had listened. He had taken a little bit of this and a little bit of that and mixed it with a little bit of him and created his voice and his style of writing. 

He not only listened, but he learned. 

Not too long ago, I contacted him. We had been on again off again in our friendship/relationship/whateveryouwanttocallitship. It could be the Good Ship Lollipop. I don’t know. I said something to him I never said before: “I’m proud of you.”

And I am proud of him. 

I see writing differently than most. I’m not a traditionalist. I’m not someone who follows all the rules. I believe you should always be learning, and you should always try to improve how you write. I also believe stories should come from a desire to put together something amazing. I believe you should experiment with your words. I don’t believe in action, action, action, swearing, swearing, swearing, sex, sex, sex. I believe a good story doesn’t rely on crutches. And I don’t get bothered by other writers who think I do things wrong. Each person has their own belief on how it is done. And that is the key. 

This author has his own belief on the way to write that fits him. He’s no longer the writer who sees things with a comic book and action hero movie influence. He can put together a story, in his own way, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

Did I ride him hard? Yes. Did I ride him too hard? Sometimes. Was I jerk? On multiple occasions. Do I regret the way I was with how I taught him? Let me see: He’s grown into a fine writer. He’s matured in how he presents himself to the world. And I’m proud of him as if he was my own son. No, I don’t regret it. 

I’ve gone on for a long time here. Lots of words have been spilled on this subject. Except for two, the name of the author. His name is Lucas Pederson. He is a horror author and I’m proud of him.

This is my Right Now for today. I just wanted to take this time to say, “You’re not the first loser, Grasshopper.”

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Learning, Training, Practicing–Say What?

I talk about writing a LOT. I talk to anyone who will listen. However, I usually don’t talk about my work, my stories, what I am working on unless I am asked. Most people don’t want to hear about it, so no need to bore them with the things I find exciting in my work. Unless you are my wife, my editor or my publisher, you won’t hear me start a conversation about my writing.

Writing has brought me a lot of joy over the years. It’s been therapeutic. I’ve been able to express my sadness, anger, jealousy and resentment in stories. I’ve also been able to express my happiness, love and humor. I’ve been able to creep people out, make them cry, make them smile, make them feel. Having someone feel something after reading one of my stories is one of those things that drives me to get better, to learn how to write better with each story I tell.

Learning. That’s the ticket, as my old friend, Chris, would say. 

The entire sentence is important, but that one word … that one word makes the sentence and, for lack of a better term, the story. 

Learning is one of the most important aspects of life, and not just as a child, but as an adult as well. 

As a child, you learn how to roll over and get onto your stomach. Then you learn how to crawl. Eventually, you learn how to pull yourself up to a standing position. This is followed by many attempts to walk the way you see your parents or older siblings or anybody else in the world who, well, walks. You learn the most important word of your childhood by hearing your mother repeat, “Say Mommy.” Interestingly enough, saying Mommy or Da-da is like a competition for the parents, with each one hoping their child will say their moniker for parent first.

You learn by watching what others do, by listening to what they say. I find it interesting that as children under the age of two, we are/were at our most attentive, listening, seeing and learning selves. Little ones soak up everything you say, everything you do. Then they try these things, like walking and talking. It’s amazing. Don’t believe me? Cuss one time in front of your child and see what happens. At such a young age, we train ourselves to do things we see others do. Yes, I said train. I’ll come back to this in a second, so stick with me for the next couple to few paragraphs.

At some point, most children want to learn how to ride a bike. Most first bikes come with training wheels. They’re called training wheels for a reason: they help you stay upright on a bike as you learn to peddle and steer, as you train. You get on the bike and Mom or Dad gives you a gentle push, maybe even walking right alongside you as you first put foot to peddle and make the bike go. By doing this, you, the bike rider, are both learning and training yourself on how to do something. The learning is mental. The training is physical. Your brain tells you, push down on the peddle with this foot, then push down on the peddle with the other foot. With conscious effort, you put your foot on the peddle and push down. The peddle turns the gears with the bike chain wrapped around them. The bike goes forward. 

The effort is the training. When you actually physically do what your brain tells you to do, you are training your body how to do it and your brain how to remember it. In this case, your brain tells you how to peddle and you physically attempt it. You’ve seen someone do it, so you are already learning what you are supposed to do. The first few times are usually awkward and difficult, but eventually, the muscles in your legs and feet and hips all work together and you begin to ride the bike with less difficulty.

Then the training wheels come off and you get that push or that parent running alongside you and the front wheel wobbles as you try to steer while looking down at your feet, at the peddles that don’t want to do what you want them to do. You probably crashed a few times as you trained your legs to peddle and your body to balance and your hands to steer the handlebar straight so you don’t tip over or crash into something. 

Eventually, though … eventually, what you learned in your mind, you trained your body to do and you rode that bike. You got excited and probably screamed at the top of your lungs in happiness and exhilaration because, by God, you rode the bike. And you probably crashed. But for a moment, you rode that bike and you were the king of the world as Jack said in Titanic. 

You learned, mentally, what to do. You trained, physically, to be able to do what you learned. 

So far: learning is mental and intellectual, and training is the continued attempts to do what you learned. 

Life isn’t only about learning things and training is not just physical. It’s also about training your mind and your body to do things. 

Early in life, I was not all that great at math. Two plus two equaled four like it is supposed to, but multiplication and division and algebra were struggles to learn. Being told four multiplied by four is sixteen is great but being shown was better. Being shown was great but given problems to solve was better. I also hated it. The higher the numbers got, the more difficult it was for me to learn their totals. You want me to multiply eight by nine? Are you serious? Are you some sort of math psycho who relishes the struggles of us non-mathites? 


I also found math boring. 

Then I started watching sports. Sports is all about math. The scores are done in numbers. The statistics are all numbers. The records are numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. 

In order to understand statistics, I sat down in my room with a pencil and paper and wrote out the multiplication table, starting with one and going to twelve. I struggled with it until I realized that each number was simply added by the number of its multiplier (something the teacher could have explained and I probably would have understood a lot quicker). For example: six multiplied by seven is six added up seven times. 6+6+6+6+6+6+6= 42. I then wrote out every problem as I did in that example in the last sentence. I added them as if they were simple addition problems. 

By doing it that way, I trained my brain to add quickly. So, if someone said, ‘Hey, add this up for me,’ then tossed out a few numbers, I was/am able to tell them the answer fairly quickly. 

Learning the multiplication table wasn’t difficult, but it took training my brain to process those numbers for me to learn math. Now, math is second nature to me, and I can usually spout the answers off without much thought. 

Training is mental as well as physical. 

As we get older, learning and training become more difficult, not because it is, but because we make it difficult. I’m too old to learn new things. We make excuses as to why we can’t do something. For most of us the truth is we don’t want to learn something new, we don’t want to train our brains or our bodies to do something new. And that’s where we fail, not just in learning, but in becoming better at something … anything. It’s arrogance. It’s ignorance. It’s laziness. 

Are you still with me? I hope so.

I have a friend. Yes, just one. His name is Dameion. We both write and we both have our own viewpoints about writing and storytelling. (For the record, Dameion is one of those writers I am envious of. His words just spill off the paper.) He’s like a brother to me, one I never see, but talk to when we are both available. We were talking recently about writing. You learn how to write in school—or at least you used to. You learn basic sentence structure and punctuation but that’s pretty much it. Most of this stuff you forget. Why? Because you are told about it, not shown how to do it. When you are shown, you’re only given a handful of assignments or opportunities to actually practice it. You take a test, pass or fail, then move on to something else, so it doesn’t stick. 

What sticks is when you physically do something. By physically doing something repeatedly, you train your brain and your body to remember how to do those things. It becomes muscle memory and you do it without thinking once you’ve practiced it. For example: they say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. You might get rusty, but if you learned how to ride a bike at six and you stopped riding a bike at sixteen, at fifty-three you will be able to get on a bike and ride it. Muscle memory.

Telling a story, orally, is easy. If you’ve ever told a good joke, then you have told a story. Why did the chicken cross the road doesn’t count. Okay, fine, we’ll let it count, but only if you told it to someone who had never heard the joke. Good luck with that.

When you verbally tell a story, you get into it. You add little things to show the person (or people) listening something about where you were or what was going on. You can become animated with hand gestures and tone of voice and facial expressions. By doing all of this, you show your listener(s) the story. If you are really good at it, you can be a comedian. 

You learned how to tell a story by listening to others tell stories. If they were good at it (as my grandfather was), then you will pick up some good pointers by watching them. If they were bad at it, then the lessons you pick up will not be the ones that help you tell a good story. When you’ve seen someone who can speak, either in public or private, it doesn’t mean you can become a great speaker. It just means you have seen someone else do it right. It is up to you to gleam what you can from it and practice what you learned. The practice aspect is part of the training. It’s where you train your mind to think, your voice to have tone, your facial expressions and hand gestures to be coordinated with your words.

Writing is the same. A lot of your learning comes from reading. You learn neat turns of phrases, styles, descriptors, pacing, dialogue, and plenty more from reading. The trick is to not just learn these things, but to practice them. 

When I wanted to become a better writer, I picked the brains of other writers. I asked questions and read stories that were suggested to me. If I wanted to know about dialogue, I asked questions about it, then I wrote stories that were dialogue heavy to see if I could move the story along using conversations. If I wanted to learn descriptions, I asked questions about it, then wrote stories heavy on descriptions, then flipped the script and wrote stories light on descriptions in order to try and find the sweet spot for descriptions. The talking to writers and gathering information was the learning part. The putting words to paper and writing was the training part. 

Then came the practicing.

Are you still with me? Hang on a little longer. We’re nearing an end to this (probably) confusing topic.

Practice is honing what you have learned and trained yourself to do. 

I was a good basketball player. When I was a kid I loved Len Bias, who played for the University of Maryland. He was smooth and fascinating to watch. He was, in my opinion, the greatest basketball player to never play in the NBA (he died of a drug overdose the day after being drafted by the Boston Celtics—I cried). Though I wasn’t a fan of the University of Maryland, I watched their games when they came on television just so I could see Bias play. I paid close attention to the way he shot the ball, the way he played defense, the way he moved up and down the court. Then I would go outside and try to teach myself what I saw him do. After a while, I moved on to other players who did things that interested me. Jeff Lebo played for the University of North Carolina and was a great outside shooter. Michael Jordan (come on, do I need to say who he played for?) was a phenomenal defender and a better passer than most people give him credit for. 

I watched them to learn what they did. I trained myself by trying different ways of doing what they did. I practiced daily.

Practicing something you have learned and trained on will only make you better. 

All of this points to one thing in particular: training your brain. When you train your brain, it becomes muscle memory after your body is trained to do it. All of us have something we are good at, but we didn’t get good at just by saying we were going to be good at it. We became good at it after we learned, trained,  and practiced. All of that starts with your brain, with a thought your brain has, with you putting forth the effort to learn, then applying what you learned. 

The bottom line to the previous 2300 words is this: if you ever want to be good at something (you know, like writing), you need to learn it, train yourself to do it, then practice at it. Hmm … I probably could have just said that to start with …

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.


A.J.

19

Mike sits in the dark. He always does on this day. It doesn’t matter hlong its been or how long it will continue to be. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed—19 as of today—the pain is still there, like a fresh wound, always open and no amount of bandages or medication can help it heal. He knows. He’s tried several remedies since that Tuesday morning 19 years ago. Alcohol didn’t work. Neither did cocaine. All those did was cause him to lose his job for a brief period of time, at least until he got out of rehab clean and sober.

On the television a plane crashes into the South Tower in lower Manhattan. He’s seen this image a thousand—no, a million—times. It’s 9:02 by his watch. He pauses the video, wipes his nose with the back of one hand. In his lap is an old cell phone, one he can’t bare to let go of. 

Mike closes his eyes to the still image of glass shattering and a fireball erupting in that once tall building. He takes several deep breaths as he stares into the darkness behind his eyelids. 

So often people say, I remember where I was when the towers were struck by planes, or I remember where I was when the towers collapsed. Like everyone else, he remembers in clear detail where he was, but not when the towers collapsed. He knew exactly where he was when he received the voicemail on his phone, though he didn’t have his phone on him. It was sitting in his car, accidentally left behind on the passenger’s seat. He, however, was underneath a car in the shop he worked at, having just got off vacation the day before. 

He slid out from under an old Buick with a leaky transmission and looked around. The garage, though full of cars that needed work done, was empty of mechanics. Earlier, the place was full of men chattering about the game the previous night. He even hard Hal McDaniels mention to Jim Brookings that one of “those Broncos receivers broke his leg.”

Where’s everyone? he wondered as he grabbed a rag from his shop rack and wiped his hands of transmission fluid. He had found the problem and the owner wasn’t going to be too thrilled. He was certain of this. He reached into his back pocket for his cell phone and frowned. It wasn’t there. Mike looked around his bay and on the floor and didn’t find it. 

“I must have left it in the car.”

Mike headed for the office, a little unnerved by the silence of the usually busy, loud shop. He rounded the corner and left the garage. It was 9:49 when he entered the shop’s office. Where’s everyone turned out to be in the office around a flat screen television mounted on the wall. 

The room was a silence so loud it was deafening.

“What’s going on?” he asked Jim.

“A couple planes crashed.”

“What?”

“Yup.”

“Shhh …” Brock Charmine gave the universal get quiet gesture of his finger to his lips. 

“I’m going to get my cell phone out of my car, okay?”

Jim nodded but didn’t look back. It was 9:51.

From the office to his car and back took him seven minutes. Seven ho hum minutes that he—and no one—would ever get back. He didn’t know why the phone was off when he plucked it from the seat. He pressed the button on the side and walked back to the office as the phone booted up. 

He clicked on the voice message icon and pressed play. As Kimberly’s voice came through the phone, he looked at the television. 

“Is that the World Trade Towers?” he asked aloud, not meaning to.

“Yeah,” Jim said without turning around. 

Over the phone, the message played Kimberly’s calm voice.

Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.

By the end of the call she was crying and the South Tower collapsed on the television screen. 

“No,” he whispers. “No.” Tears form in his eyes. He swallows a lump in his throat and stares at the television. Other mechanics speak or cry out in horror and sadness, but he doesn’t see them or hear them or feel anything in the world but the certainty his wife just died and he wasn’t there for her. He wasn’t even there when she called him and … and she died alone without him with her or without hearing his voice. 

Mike Johnson sits in the dark. From the bedroom comes the sound of his alarm clock. It is 9:58. He picks up the old cell phone and clicks the voicemail icon. He puts the phone to his ear and listens to his wife of nine days, the woman he had just come home from a honeymoon with, the woman he kissed goodbye that morning and whispered I love you in her ear before heading in. 

“Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

On the television is the still image of the South Tower right after the plane struck it. 

Mike feels his heart break all over again. In the dark, he weeps. 

AJB

9/11/2020

At The Top of the Hill

Getting older is a process. We all experience it every day of our lives. We either get older or we stop aging. 

I turned 50 last week. It was just like any other day, any other birthday. But it wasn’t. It was a big deal. In sports the number 50 is a big deal. You hit that many home runs or throw that many touchdown passes or score that many points in a basketball game or score that many goals in a season and you have had a monster year. It is celebrated and often rewarded. In sales, 50 is a big deal. You reach 50 in a given time period and you’ve done well for yourself.

When I turned 50 there were a lot of jokes made about being old or over the hill. A couple of ‘Hey, you qualify for AARP now,’ comments were made. It was in good fun, but it is also telling of how we see that number in relation to age. I joked with someone when they said I was over the hill that “I’m not over the hill. I just reached the top of it and now I’m holding on to the tree up there to keep from tumbling down it.”

Go ahead. Picture that. I’ll wait.

Are you done laughing?

Here’s the thing about 50 as an age: it should be celebrated (and mine certainly was), but not for ‘getting old,’ but for the possibilities that are ahead of you when you turn that age. If you make it to 50, then you have lived and experienced things. You have, hopefully, become wiser and smarter and learned from your mistakes. You’ve also had the opportunity to earn a living and possibly been successful at a few things. 

Life doesn’t end at 50. It is a chapter—just like the other 49 you went through—and it should be experienced with the same wonder and excitement as ages 7, 13, 16 and 21. Don’t buy into the belief that you are over the hill. Buy into something more important: that great things were achieved by people over the age of 50. Here are some examples:

Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing the Little House books at age 65. Harland Sanders (better known as Colonel) had developed his fried chicken recipe and sold his Kentucky Fried Chicken around the country at the age of 65. Grandma Moses started painting at age 77. Jack Cover created the taser after he turned 50. Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t published until after he turned 50, and let’s be honest here: how many people know of him beyond Dracula?

Here I am at that age where folks believe you are over the hill, that you should begin your ride off into the sunset. I’ve climbed the hill and I’ve had a rocky go at it over the years. But I’m not done. And neither should you be. Life doesn’t end at this age. For some, it is just the beginning. 

I’ve tried making my way in the writing world. I’ve garnered a handful of fans along the way. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Maybe I’ve not found my stride. Maybe I should focus on doing something different. Whatever I choose to do, it will be done after having lived five decades. I don’t know what will happen, but I know I’ve got a lot of miles left on me, and I’m not holding onto a tree at the top of the hill. I don’t need to, and I think I will enjoy the view up here for a while. 

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to on another.

A.J.

What Is Love? Hmmm …

True love is an amazing thing. 

My wife is an amazing woman. I can go on for hours and days about how amazing she is. I, honestly, do not deserve a woman like her. We’ve been together 25 years and she constantly shows me what true love is. 

I can’t say that I have always shown her the same. However, I can go back to one time in particular where I showed my wife how much I loved her … and then some.

We were still young newlyweds with no kids at the time. It was a Sunday morning and we were getting ready for church. She came out of the bedroom with a frustrated look on her face. If you don’t know what that is, don’t clean up after yourself for a day or two and you will see it from your significant other. 

“Can you do me a favor?” she asked.

“What kind of favor?” I’ve learned when someone ask you to do them a favor, you should always find out what it is before committing. Some favors are loaded dynamite waiting to explode.

“I’m out of tampons,” she said without smiling. “Can you run to the store and get them for me?”

I’m sure I stared at her for a few seconds in disbelief. She wanted me to go to a store by myself to purchase feminine hygiene products. “Ummm …”

“Please?”

First of all, she should not have had to say please. I had already failed. 

I nodded and said, “Okay, but what am I getting?”

Even though we had only been married a short time, she already knew the most important thing she could do was write exactly what she wanted down. A minute later she handed me a piece of paper with the names of the products she needed. I took the paper, read it and looked back at her. 

She smiled big and gave me a cute, “I love you.” It was one of those ‘I’ll love you forever if you do this for me’ I love yous.

“I love you, too,” I said and left the house. 


Back then, when the dinosaurs were merely dead and not quite fossils, there was still a drugstore chain named Eckard’s, and there just happen to be one five minutes from the house.

I drove to Eckard’s, got out of the car and went inside. I strolled around, not really searching for the aisle I needed, putting off the inevitable for as long as possible. Eventually, I found the feminine hygiene aisle and stared blankly at all of the products. I stood there wondering ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ There were so many different packages with their pinks and purples and blues and greens, and most of them had similar names. 

I pulled out the piece of paper, which had been crumpled and shoved into my front pocket. I read the first of the two items and began The Search For That Which Terrifies Me. This was an easy find. It wasn’t quite eye level but close enough to where i didn’t have to bend over or squat to find it. The second one took a little longer to find. I looked at the paper, then at the shelves, then back to the paper. I did this several times. I even picked up what I thought was the right pack, but it didn’t feel right. I looked at her list again. There was one word that was different, so I put it back and the search continued. 

“A-ha,” I all but yelled when I found the right package with the exact wording as her note. I cringed—physically, to the point of my shoulders scrunching up and me ducking slightly, then looking around as if I had committed a crime and someone had seen it. I picked the package up and looked at it as if it was a newborn child. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I did have somewhat of a triumphant, ‘ha, I found you,’ feeling going on. It’s almost like I killed the wabbit, and in the next scene I would be wondering what have I done?

I thought that would be the difficult part. I was wrong.

This was a drug store and it was Sunday morning. There shouldn’t have been as many people in it as there were. More importantly, there shouldn’t have been as many attractive women in there as there were. Yeah, yeah, I know, why did I notice the attractive women and blah, blah, blah … It’s definitely not what you think, unless you think, ‘hey, he only noticed they were women because, well, they were women and not men, and if they would have been men, then he would have noticed that, too.’ Bottom line: I’m a writer. I notice things. Stick with the story, people!

I left the famine hygiene aisle, head held high, listening to my internal soundtrack playing We Are the Champions. Of course, the lyrics were slightly different:

I am the champion, my friends.

I found the tampons in the end.

I am a champion

Found the pads and tampons

‘Cause I am the champion … for my girl.

Along with the Weird Al-esque singing in my head, I probably had my Bee Gees Staying Alive strut working. My short hair was probably not blowing in a nonexistent breeze, and I didn’t have a beard but a goatee, and I certainly didn’t wear bell bottoms. But I still thought I was The Fonz when I walked into a room. If you don’t know the reference, Google is your friend. I was young and dumb and didn’t think people noticed. I’m probably right. 

As I approached the checkout counter I noticed the pretty young lady behind the counter, and the two pretty young ladies waiting to be checked out. I get in line holding a box of tampons in one hand and a pack of pads in the other. Two more young ladies get in line behind me. See what I mean about too many people in a small drug store on a Sunday morning?

So, here are these five attractive women … and me. The one lady directly behind me glanced at the feminine gifts for my wife and smiled. I don’t know if that was a ‘that is awesome of you,’ smile or a ‘you won’t be getting any anytime soon,’ smile. It was probably a little bit of both. I will be honest and say I was a little uncomfortable. 

The first lady in line checked out, and we all moved up a couple of steps. The young lady behind the counter glanced at me and gave me the same smile the one behind me did, but I could see the smile was in her eyes, too. It was as if everyone was in on the joke, except for me. 

The second lady paid for her items and walked off. I stepped up, placed my two products on the counter. By then I felt naked and alone and as if I were being laughed at behind my back. The lady behind the counter picked up the tampons and looked at them, then at me. She didn’t smile when she asked, “Are these for you?”

I venture to say a lot of folks would have frozen with that question. Is she serious? is she sarcastic? Not me. I’m usually pretty quick witted.

Without smiling and in my best stoner’s shakiest voice I said, “I have a really bad bleeding problem.”

Her mouth dropped open and her cheeks flushed red, and that is how I showed my wife what true love is. 

Y’all, have a good day, stay safe and until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Imagine She Was …

Some mornings I go to the post office for my job. Today was one such morning. I arrived there a little after eight and Mrs. Cathy stood at the call door, plastic sheet covering the entrance. Mrs. Cathy is probably in her mid-fifties, sweet and helpful. Whenever I go to the post office, we talk for about a minute, sometimes two. Standing on the outside of the call door were two men. One was an older gentleman, maybe mid-seventies or early eighties. He’s bald and thin and always wears tan or blue or gray slacks and a button-down shirt. He’s got a strong voice, great smile and he reminds me a lot of my grandfather. The other man was maybe forty, wearing a blue mask over his mouth and nose. I’ve seen him there a few times. We don’t really talk but we do exchange a ‘Good morning,’ and a ‘Have a nice day.’ It’s small talk, but we both acknowledge the other, respectfully. 

The old man was giving Mrs. Cathy a hard time and laughing about it in his grandfatherly way. 

“Are you harassing Mrs. Cathy again?” I asked.

“It’s the only reason I come here,” he said with that same warm smile on his face. 

The four of us standing there gave a good laugh, even the gentleman I speak to in passing. 

I got my mail and said, “I hope y’all have a great day.”

They returned the sentiment, then the older gentleman says to me, “You be safe out there.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Y’all do the same.”

Given the current climate of the world, especially here in the United States, those words are spoken with real meaning. In case you missed it, there has been a dangerous virus making the rounds, leadership issues, joblessness has skyrocketed, the economy has plummeted, police brutality and racism have been hot button topics. Peaceful protests have turned into riots and we’re seeing all sorts of bad things happening, mostly because, to be honest, something that should no longer be, still is, and people are fed up—rightfully so. (Do I agree with the riots and looting? No. Do I agree with the protests and the reasons for it? Yes. Do I think this country’s justice system needs a complete overhaul from top to bottom? Yes. Do I believe the leadership in this country is lacking? Yes. Do I believe we can do something about this? Yes, absolutely.)

In 1996, the movie A Time to Kill came out. It had a great cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Ashley Judd, Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland and Charles Dutton, to name a few. It’s based on the novel of the same name by John Grisham. I will admit I have never read the book. I’ve seen the movie multiple times and I’m sure the book might be better. I will probably never know because the movie was so good I would hate to be disappointed that the book was, indeed, better. 

The premise of the book is simple: A young black girl is kidnapped by two white men, who rape, beat and try to hang her (unsuccessfully), then toss her body into a river, leaving her to die. They are arrested and the girl’s father kills them in revenge. The girl’s father is arrested and most of the movie from that point on is about the legal system and the girl’s father’s trial. 

The movie is intense at some parts, disheartening at others and shocking in the end. It is one of the best films I have ever seen. It also has what is, in my opinion, the greatest closing argument to any legal show or movie. Matthew McConaughey, who portrayed the young, white attorney who agreed to defend the distraught, black father, gives a moving speech.

Before he gives his closing argument he asks:

“What is it in us that seeks the truth? Is it our minds? Or is it our hearts?”

Those are some powerful questions. He goes on to state:

“I set out to prove a black man could receive a fair trial in the south. That we are all equal in the eyes of the law. That’s not the truth. Because the eyes of the law are human eyes. Yours and mine and until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be even handed. It will remain nothing more than a reflection of our own prejudices. So, until that day we have a duty, under God, to seek the truth, not with our eyes, not with our minds, where fear and hate turn commonality into prejudice, but with our hearts …”

Holy wow. 

He then goes on to ask the jury and anyone in the courtroom to close their eyes. He tells of the brutal rape, beating, hanging and dumping of the little girl’s body. He tells of how they destroyed her womb, then tried to kill her. At one point, McConaughey’s character struggles to hold it together. 

After relaying a story that the people of the town and the all white jury, already knew, he says, quite simply, with most folks’ eyes still closed, “now imagine she’s white.”

It’s the mic drop to end all mic drops. It’s also the very truth of what is going on in the world today, with racism, with the anger felt because of years of systematic discrimination and abuse inflicted by one color of people onto another. 

Skin color is just that: color. It’s not what should set us apart. Everyone has dreams, hopes and ambitions. Everyone is a son or a daughter. Many people are brothers or sisters, moms or dads, Everyone has feelings. Everyone bleeds red.  

Until humanity sees all people as equals there will be no peace, there will be no real justice.

At the beginning, I mentioned three folks at the post office. All three of them are tremendously nice and friendly. The old man reminds me of my grandfather. Remember that? All three are black. Does that change how you viewed those three people and the interaction?

I’m going to end here with this: we all know the stories of white people doing crappy things to black people. We’ve seen the videos on social media and in the news. Some of us have witnessed some of these things first hand. Now, I ask you: “Imagine they were white.” How would you feel? How would you feel if this happened to you on an every day basis? How would you feel if someone called the police on you because of the color of your skin? How would you feel if you had to live with this on an everyday basis? Would your opinion change about black lives matter if the shoe were on the other foot? 

Imagine they were white. Now make a change.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

When I Was A Kid 1.0

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a great athlete, a baseball player or basketball player, maybe a famous quarterback for an NFL team. Though I knew I would never be any of those, I still had dreams.

One day I had an idea. I placed two cinder blocks (one of them big and thick, the other thin and long), one on top of another, by the brick wall of the house. The big one went on the bottom and became the base for which the thin one sat on in a somewhat leaning manner. This was my ‘strike zone.’ The upper block was what I considered between the knees and chest—the strike zone of the major leagues when I was a kid.

Back then there was a store on State Street in Triangle Plaza called Dodds. It was a dime store (though, trust me, everything was NOT a DIME). They had great things for kids, like a bag of marbles for a buck and slingshots—yeah, you could purchase a slingshot at what amounts to a Dollar General by today’s standards. They also had red rubber balls that were about the size of a baseball. 

My brother and I spent our summers at my grandparents’ house on the Mill Hill near the river. Occasionally, my grandmother would give us a quarter or two and we would go down to Brown’s Grocery (no relation, folks, but if you’ve read any of my work, then you probably recognize the name—I like to pay homage to the mill hill every chance I get) or to the Gamecock Theater (after saving up three quarters, man those flicks were expensive), or to Dodds. Whenever we went to Dodds I would pick up a couple of red rubber balls for less than a quarter. I had to buy two at a time, not because they came in packs of two, but because, after a while of smashing the ball against a wall or the block ‘strike zone,’ the rubber would crack and the ball would split in half. There’s nothing more disappointing than pitching a no-hitter against the Yankees only to have the game end in a rain delay because the ball split in half. 

On days where we stayed home instead of going to my grandparents’ house, I would get one of my dad’s tape measures and mark off sixty feet, six inches from wall to where the pitcher’s mound would be in a baseball game. I would take a thin board and put it at the end of that measurement. This would be my pitcher’s rubber, where my foot would go before each pitch.

I spent hours on end, glove in hand, looking in at invisible batters (usually the hated Yankees or Dodgers), shaking off a nonexistent catcher until I got the pitch I wanted to throw. I had a curve ball, knuckle ball, a not-so-fast fast ball, a two seam fastball, a slider that wasn’t very good, and a straight fastball. Yeah, I had a bunch of so-so pitches. I even had a Dan Quisenberry-esque sidearm pitch that rose on the invisible batters, causing them to flail uselessly at it. 

The way it worked was simple: If the ball hit the upper block, then it was a strike. If it nipped the side of the top block, it was a foul ball. If the ball hit the wall and not the blocks, it was a ball. If the ball hit the bottom block, I would consider that a ball in play and field it. I’d have to glove the ball and make the throw to first (which was nothing more than the same two blocks by the house) before the runner got there. If I bobbled the ball, it was an error. If i didn’t hit the blocks with the throw, it was an error. 

Though I did this for hours and hours, I never became a great pitcher. You see, the imagination is an amazing thing, and though I struck out a lot of nonexistent batters and took my team to a World Series championship (beating the hated Yankees in the process), facing live batters was completely different. 

Now, I will say this, I learned how to throw and throw hard by doing that. I could play a mean third base and ended up playing fifteen or sixteen years of third base in softball. Sadly, I was not a great hitter in either baseball or softball.

My dreams of being a big leaguer ended truly before they got started. I left baseball behind for basketball, a sport I was extremely good at. But for a couple of summers, I was a big league pitcher, and a good one, at least in my imagination. 

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

Our Once Upon A Time (Free Fiction)

Our Once Upon A Time

By A.J. Brown

Once upon a time …

That’s a funny little phrase, but I guess it could be used for everyone, couldn’t it?

Once upon a time she loved me. It was all she knew, all I knew. Our love for one another … But that was so long ago, back when we were young; back during a time where life had already become overwhelming and the only thing that mattered was love.  Real, unadulterated, honest love.  

There used to be wind chimes on the old house in the woods where we escaped to when her Papa was drunk and ornery and in want of a young body to warm himself with. It’s pipe-like bars used to clang together when the breeze blew in off the lake. It made an awful racket, but it was her favorite thing about the shack I still call home. It comforted her while she slept, far away from the worries of her Papa and his ways; far away from the cries of her Mother that could be heard in their house years after her passing.  

Once upon a time, I didn’t know her very well, my little Rose, with her auburn hair and brilliant green eyes. I had seen her in school, her face downcasts and a distant, sad look in her eyes. All I knew is I loved her, from the very first time I saw her walk into Miss Griemold’s class when were in second grade. There was an air about her that lit my heart’s flames and scared me all at once. For weeks and months, I watched her, hoping to get up enough nerve to talk to her. Instead, I kept my distance, far enough so she couldn’t see my heart break each time I saw her.

Once upon a time she cried while sitting on a bench near the playground. Behind her were swings with plastic seats and metal chains, and a metal slide that burned your legs in the summer time if you wore shorts. Her shoulders were slouched, and her hands were in her lap, one of them clutching to a piece of tissue that looked soaked through. 

I approached her, tentatively. I leaned down a little and spoke, “Are you okay, Rose?”

She looked up at me, her eyelids puffy and pink, a bead of snot beneath her nose. She wiped at it with the wet tissue and gave me the best smile she could right then. She nodded but didn’t speak. Deep down inside, I didn’t believe her. I also couldn’t believe myself. I finally managed to talk to her and I couldn’t think of anything better to say other than ‘are you okay’ and it was killing me.  

I turned to leave. That’s when she took my hand and told me to sit with her. My heart skipped several beats and I sat, suddenly feeling like I was in a dream.  

The dream became a nightmare as she told me of her Papa and the things he had done to her. My Rose, my little flower, the center of my universe, had been crushed by one of her own parents. 

I found myself in tears, heart aching and breathless. 

“Don’t go home,” I said, practically begged.

“I have to.”

“No. No, you don’t. If you go home, he’s just going to … to … do those things again.”

“He’ll come looking for me.”

I stared at her. Both of us had tears in her eyes. I think she knew right then that I loved her. 

“Then run away. I’ll go with you.”

“No. No. He’ll kill you.”

“I know a place. It’s a cabin near the lake. We can go there and you’ll never have to see him again.”

people-2562102_1920Once upon a time I hung a wind chime on the eave of the house and Rose smiled—a genuinely happy expression—for the first time since I had seen her walk into class when we were little. It had been less than a month after I spoke to her the first time.  My heart fluttered with excitement and joy.  We both quit school and went to the old shack that my father used to live in before he died.  My mother owned it and said when I was older I could have it.  I was older then, or so I thought, and that shack became our home; Rose’s home.  

Once upon a time a man came to the house. He was big and burly and hair covered his arms and face. His eyes were muddy brown, and he had a thick nose. He was searching for his daughter and had managed to track her to our shack. With shotgun in hand he broke down the door. I tried to stop him by pressing my back to the door, but he got it open, knocking me to the ground as he did. I barely got to my feet before he struck me in the face with the barrel of the shotgun. There was alcohol on his breath and murder in his eyes. He dropped the gun and beat me like the young man I was. At some point during the beating, I passed out. I remember reaching up, trying to grab his leg before darkness took hold and everything was gone.

When I woke, Rose sat on the bed we still had not shared, a damp cloth in her hand, rubbing my battered face. Tears were in her green eyes. I tried to talk but she placed one of her perfect fingers on my lips and she shook her head.

“Rest, my knight,” she said. “He’s gone, and he won’t be back.”

She was right. He was gone, but his shotgun remained and there was only one shell in it. There was a dark stain on the wooden floor of the cabin not too far from where I had fallen and taken the beating her father put on me.

Once upon a time we fell in love, a beautiful flower and her knight. 

Once upon a time seems so long ago.  

Once upon a time I stood next to an old Weeping Willow, thinking about our fairy tale came true. I knelt and kissed the wooden cross I made for her grave. Death came and claimed my Rose after all these years together, plucking her from the garden of life. In my hand I held her favorite wind chime, the one that always comforted her and helped her sleep; the one I hung on the eave of our old house when we moved in. I hung it on a nail I had hammered into one of the limbs of the Weeping Willow.

As I walked away the wind picked up and I heard the hollow racket of the wind chime. A smile crossed my face as I thought, again, of our once upon a time and our happily ever after.

__________

Some stories are sad. Some stories have those moments that make you weep inside. I feel this one has a couple of those moments. But this story wasn’t meant to be sad. It was meant to be happy. The main character in this piece—his name is Robert, though he never mentions it—fell in love when he was in the second grade, at eight or maybe nine years of age. He loved one woman his entire life, and he spent that life with her. That’s a happy thing. That’s a joyous thing. 

The wind chimes at the end, though sad in one respect, is a happy thing for Robert. He hung it in the tree above Rose’s grave, and as he walked away after hanging it, he heard the wind rattle the pipes together. It made him smile. It made him think about how they triumphed, how she had saved his life after he tried to save hers.

This story is another of those prompt based pieces. The prompt was simply: Once upon a time … and go. So, I went and I wrote, and this story is the result.

I hope you enjoyed Our Once Upon A Time. I also hope you will take a minute to like this post, share it to your social media sites and comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

A.J.

 

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A Moment In Life

It’s just a scene in life.

He sits on what they call the top step. It’s really the porch, and like the two steps that lead up to it, it is made of concrete. His feet are on that first step at the bottom. Well, that’s not quite accurate. The right foot is on the step while the left one is planted on the ground beside it where a blueberry bush was once planted but never bloomed. Now it’s just weeds and grass. There are two pillars, one on either side of him, that hold up the roof and ceiling of the covered up section of porch. They, like most of the house, are made of cinder blocks, only these are painted white, while the rest of the house is an odd gray color that was supposed to be blue. 

He wears a pair of ratty black jeans, the left leg with a tear that runs from knee to a couple of inches above the cuff. His shoes are beat up and dirty, having seen better days years ago, but he still wears them when doing odd jobs (or big ones, for that matter) around the house. His shirt is an old white tee with words on the front that are so faded they are no longer legible. If you were to ask him what the shirt said, he will say he honestly can’t remember. Spattered and smeared on his shirt, jeans and arms is white paint. 

He had a hard day. Nothing went according to plan. As he sits there, he realizes the painting of the bathroom had been the easy part of his day, even if his right hand tingled a couple of times—he believes that is from a pinched nerve in his neck. He leans slightly to his right, his head almost on Her shoulder. 

She sits to his right, both her feet firmly placed on the second step—or the middle one if you count the porch landing they both sit on as a step. She is looking at her phone and giggling. Every couple of minutes, she shows him a funny video. Sometimes he laughs. Other times he doesn’t. Her pants are light blue and fit her mostly the way she likes it. She thinks she is overweight. He thinks she is perfect the way she is. There are holes in both knees of her jeans and she wears a pair of sandals that are clearly not flip flops, if you know the difference. He, apparently, does not know the difference. Her shirt is gray and white and not as worn out as his, but it is one of her old shirts so wearing it to do yard work doesn’t bother her. 

Couple SittingHe closes his eyes and knows he can’t keep them that way. If he does, he will fall asleep on her shoulder. Not that she will mind—at least, he hopes she won’t. Yes, he is tired. Yes, the last two days have been difficult and busy, the night before going to almost eleven to finish one necessary project. His body aches and places hurt that he didn’t know could be sore. 

He lifts one paint stained hand and places it on her knee. It’s a movement that takes a lot more effort today than it should. As they sit there, neither one really talking much, he thinks of an old song by John Cougar Mellencamp (just John Cougar when the song came out, though). It is ‘Jack and Diane,’ a little ditty about two American kids growing up in the heart land. He thinks of the last lyric, how Jack and Diane did the best they could. At this moment, as the cool breeze chills their skin and the sun is starting to set off in the distance, he thinks of that song, on those two American kids. And he wonders if Jack ever worked so hard at something, put every ounce of energy into something and still not knew if things were better or worse for his efforts. 

He opens his eyes, lifts his head and stretches his neck. In a minute, he will ask her if she is ready to go inside. She will stand and offer to help him and he will accept. With a little effort, he will stand and they will go inside and the evening will go on like all evenings do for the living. But for right then, he looks at her and knows he is her Jack and she is his Diane, and, yes, they’ve done the best they can.

AJB

3/15/2020