Birds on a Wire – Episode 4

After my first encounter with Barbara at the diner, I found myself sitting at the counter there quite a lot drinking a slowly-cooling cup of coffee that I milked for every last penny. I couldn’t afford much, so regular meals at the diner were out of the question, but I wanted to be near the beautiful, young waitress who bounded across the floor delighting the oft-weary customers who trundled through the doors of the diner.

She remembered me right away that first day I re-appeared in the diner after we’d met, and she wasn’t shy about talking to me. I took it to mean she was interested in me, but in truth, she treated everyone that way given her outgoing nature. Nevertheless, I’d drag myself to the diner every morning after my night shift and order my single cup of coffee and bask in the light of her presence.

It didn’t take long for me to ask her out, and to my surprise, she readily accepted my promise of a date. She had to ask for a weekend evening off, so it took a couple of weeks before we could actually go on the date. I remember that those two weeks were the longest of my young life. I’d visit her every day and we’d count down the days left until we could have some time together outside the diner. She seemed as genuinely as excited as I was.

I took her to see The Pink Panther, and I guess I enjoyed the movie, and maybe she did too, but to be honest, I don’t remember much about it. I remember touching her hand at one point during the movie and watching her laugh at the funny parts. In the fuzzy glow of long ago, our relationship seemed preordained yet mysterious. I couldn’t really explain how I felt about her. Maybe she had a sixth sense about where we were headed, but if she did, she never shared it with me. All I knew was that I loved her, and when I eagerly proposed to her six months later in the fall of 1964, she had already decided that she’d say yes.

We married in the glorious spring of 1965 with just our parents and siblings present. My cousin still worked at the mill and couldn’t get off to attend our wedding. We’d lived together until my wedding, but the vigor and frequency of our conversations had faded. He never said anything of the sort, but I felt he was jealous of my relationship with Barbara. I tried to keep in touch with him as much as possible until Barbara and I moved out of the city a year later. After that, I only saw him at family reunions until he died of a heart attack when he was 50 years old.

I had taken a job with a new delivery company as a supervisor in 1966, and that job gave Barbara and me the opportunity to move out of the city and into a small house that greatly improved our living conditions. We still lived paycheck to paycheck at the time, but that house made us feel wealthy. It had a tiny yard with an actual white, picket fence in the front. I loved that house, and I think about it often. Those years we spent alone there represented the best ones of our lives together despite the struggles we had trying to have children.

We had this old metal bench on the stoop out back. Barbara and I would sit out there and watch the world go by on those long summer days. The view wasn’t much thanks to the power line that drooped along the back of the row of houses on our street, but it was our view, and we loved it. We spent many evenings on that bench drinking her homemade lemonade and talking about our plans for our lives. Many tears were shed there as well as Barbara struggled with the possibility that we would never have children. She wanted kids so badly back then. It broke my heart to see her so sad.

There were a lot of trees and bushes beyond the small tract of grass in our backyard since our house was on the edge of the neighborhood. Our house abutted a vast forest back in those days that remained largely undeveloped. As a result we had many birds that fluttered in and out of our yard. We saw hummingbirds and many other types of which I never learned the names. On the other hand, Barbara threw herself into the study of these birds in her spare time as a way to distract herself from her worries of never having a family. She checked out books from the local library and consumed every tidbit of information she could about the birds that inhabited our little neighborhood.

On many evenings, she’d tell me about the birds we saw. I never retained much of what she said because I didn’t have much interest in birds, but I gladly accepted her instruction because a conversation about birds was much better than the alternative. One afternoon, she pulled out a notebook and began writing notes about the birds she saw.

“What is that?” I asked.

“My journal.”

“Why are you keeping a journal?”

“I’m tracking the birds.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to.”

I didn’t argue with her. I knew better. For all her wonderful qualities, determined and headstrong were two that dominated her personality. I’d learned fairly quickly not to get in the way of that train. In any event, I knew she needed something to distract her from some unpleasant realities.

On another evening we sat on our metal bench on a cool early summer evening. A slight breeze enveloped us in the fading light of the day. That day had been particularly good for us. No arguments. No crying. Barbara leaned into my shoulder and sighed contently.

“You see those birds on the power line?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“They’ve been sitting there every night this week.”

I looked at the two birds sitting on the wire. I couldn’t identify what kind they were, and they seemed just like every other bird I’d seen fly across our yard.

“Hmm…how do you know they are the same birds?”

“Look at the markings on their wings.”

I strained to see any visible markings. I slight red mark gleamed on one of the birds.

“Okay,” I said unconvinced.

She let out a long contented sigh and huddled closer to me.

“We’re like those birds.”

“How so?”

“Just sitting next to each other enjoying each other’s presence.”

I smiled. Despite all the hardship of trying to start a family, Barbara had managed to capture the essence of our relationship, and I loved her more than ever.

Origins – Chapter 1

For my next project, I’m going to switch genres and dabble with science fiction. This isn’t hardcore science fiction as I will focus more on the characters in the story and much less on the science; although, it will be informed by some research. Think of this as a literary expression with a scientific bent. Here’s the first chapter, which is clearly a draft, but I like to share excerpts here as a way to get feedback and engage the audience in the creation process. As always, feedback is appreciated.

****

The angry, red light flashed in the semi-darkness of the cockpit. Jane, the captain of the crew of hardy astronauts, stared at it hopelessly without saying the obvious words that hung between her and her crew. Exhaustion seeped from their eyes. They had reached the point where all the other missions had failed – the same point where the crews had perished in a hail of fire and an obliterated spacecraft. They held their collective breaths waiting for the punch in the face that was sure to come.

The spaceship rumbled and vibrated as the ominous light flashed in a rhythm that mimicked a doomed countdown. Jane could hear it in her head – ten, nine, eight… She tensed up and her head pounded even harder. She had a headache, one that had settled in the back of her skull and had played havoc with her thoughts since they had broken away from earth’s atmosphere. At times, the dull ache lurked in the background, but at other moments, like the one she faced now, it roared in her brain like an angry beast. Every single thought she had funneled through the ache and lost bits of resolution as it appeared in her mind. She felt muddled and lethargic at best like a beast of burden saddled with too much cargo.

Sanjay, the least experienced of the crew who had volunteered for this last-gasp mission because the alternatives were just as awful as his impending fate, watched his captain for any signs of panic. She gave none. She retained her steely gaze and emotionless demeanor, a trait he found off-putting in a woman, but he cast his biases aside and sought comfort in her reaction to their dire situation. He knew the ship needed Jane’s leadership if they were going to survive the entry into Mars’ atmosphere and the hard landing to come. If they made it that far.

Jane had never led a mission to Mars, but she had led many missions into space including an ill-fated one to the moon that had narrowly averted complete disaster thanks to her quick thinking and impeccable calm in the face of certain death. She had been hailed a hero in the Western States of America. Little girls and boys had posters of her, adorned in her crisp astronaut garb, hanging in their bedrooms. She spoke at schools, graduations, and even conferences where hardened businesspeople were reduced to tears when she told the story of how she lost the only man she had ever loved on that doomed mission. She had received many medals and countless accolades for her heroics, and she continued to travel into space as if it were just another job. She could have retired a hero with her picture in the history books and endless articles written about her, but she wanted to push the frontiers of manned space travel.

“What’s going on?” a panicked voice broke into the silence. The four crew members pivoted toward the back of the cockpit and stared wordlessly at Ava Stuart. Jane scowled before she spoke as the ship rumbled and shook as if some giant had discovered it and was attempting to shake them out of it.

“Get back to your seat and strap in!” Jane yelled after a few seconds of blank stares.

“Are we going to make it?”

Sanjay started to express his doubts, but Jane cut him off, “We’ll be fine, but you cannot be out of your seat! It’s too dangerous! Go back now!” She whipped her arm back toward Ava and pointed to the passenger compartment for emphasis.

Ava flinched and stared Jane down for a brief moment. She thought about arguing but decided against it. She pushed herself back grasping the walls along the rattling spacecraft and disappearing from the crew’s sight. She muttered to herself, angry for letting Jane speak to her so harshly. “Bitch,” she thought.

Ava had fought hard to be part of this historic mission. Initially, she had been beaten out for the two civilian slots on the ship by her arrogant and insufferable colleague Mitchell Deerdorff, but Deerdorff couldn’t handle the training and preparation for the trip, so the slot fell the Ava. She knew she was a better linguist than Deerdorff, but she couldn’t help but feel like she had been slighted professionally. The situation cast her as an underdog and sharpened an edge in her that cut the wrong way with many of her shipmates.

For her part, Jane was dismayed that Ava would even consider questioning her authority or the crew’s competence. She had not liked the idea of including two civilians on this trip, but Ava and Wally were deemed necessary if this mission to Mars was to be successful, assuming they actually made it to the surface alive. Wally proved quiet and reserved, usually doing exactly as he was told out of fear of endangering the mission. Jane liked the control she had over him. Ava challenged her, pushed her, and Jane did not like it one bit.

“Maintain position!” Jane commanded.

“We should pull back, Jane! It’s too risky!” Olivia shouted through the din of the groaning ship.

“No! We can make it!” Jane replied forcefully. She glanced at her co-pilot for a moment before she returned her focus to the controls and the flashing red light. The light mesmerized her. She found an odd comfort in its rhythm despite the warning it conveyed. It was like the flicker of a lighthouse in a dense fog.

“Olivia’s right! It’s too dangerous!” Sanjay interjected. “What do you think Frederick?” Sanjay looked to his left at his always-somber colleague. Frederick blinked and stared back as if he had been awakened from a dream only to be plunged into a nightmare.

“We do as Jane says!” he yelled just as the ship throttled forward and shifted violently toward one side like the bottom had fallen out. Olivia yelped and grasped at the wall next to her even though she was securely strapped into her seat.

“Damn it, Jane, we’re not going to make it!” she yelled fueled by the anger of feeling helpless.

Jane turned to Olivia and sucked in air before she steadied herself. “Lieutenant Warner, calm down and focus! We can do this! Remember all the training we went through! Focus on your training! We can do this!”

The rattle and roar of the spaceship became louder and more pronounced as the ship hurtled toward Mars’ atmosphere. Sanjay glanced out the window of the craft and gulped. He had a sinking feeling that he had found his end either in the space above Mars or on its inhospitable surface. He had been prepared to die, but now that he was staring death in the face, he felt less sure. His resolve began to crumble, and he wanted to cry. He looked at Jane, her face placid yet pained. He wouldn’t cry in front of a woman.

“Frederick, give us some more thrust!” Jane commanded. Frederick looked at her as if he was translating her words into his own language, he was European, but English was his first of many languages. He blinked twice before he reached out to the controls and pushed a lever away from him. The ship shook and the entire crew could feel the momentum propel them forward with blunt force like a dull ax striking a firm young tree.

The darkness gave way to a glare outside the ship like a distant fire on the horizon. The colors both fascinated and horrified the astronauts as they looked on with great trepidation. Olivia’s hands shook noticeably as she monitored her bank of controls. Her voice began to waver when she spoke, so she kept her words clipped and efficient when she responded to Jane or the others as they prepared to cut through Mars’ atmosphere. She felt little hope that they would survive. The ship heaved under the stress like a hulking, beached whale taking its last few breaths. The warning light had been flashing since they reached the farthest edge of the red planet. Olivia felt her constricted heart beat in step with the pulse of the light. She feared she couldn’t breathe as panic rose from the darkness to pull her under.

Accepting her imminent death wasn’t something Olivia had thought much about when she had taken on this mission. She had wanted to be on one of Jane’s crews since the beginning of her career as an astronaut. Jane was her hero, someone she looked up to and admired, but she had only met the woman once in her entire time in the Western States space program. Her assignments were always small ones into the outer atmosphere of earth to collect samples and observe the tumultuous weather patterns that had erupted on the planet since the climate began shifting dramatically at the beginning of the century. She had only been to the moon once despite spending more than a decade in the space program. She had been a rookie astronaut when Jane led the doomed mission back from the moon. In Jane she saw the strong woman she wanted to be, and now she was the second in command on what was sure to be the last attempt at a manned mission to Mars.

Frederick looked out the window to his left. The glare from the atmosphere almost blinded him. He blinked repeatedly and thought of his wife and children left behind on earth. He had taken this assignment for them, to ensure his kids would have a future even if it was on a distant planet that seemed harsh and unkind. Earth had once been hospitable, but the changing climate had torn it apart in ways he could have never imagined when he himself was a child. Now his kids, like all other people on the planet, faced almost certain extinction as the havoc wrought by climate change had taken its toll on their home. He breathed in deeply and sighed to himself almost resigned to his fate. The spacecraft shook violently and he braced himself against his seat despite being strapped in tightly.

“Frederick, are the thrusters at full power?” Jane asked.

“Yes. They’re maxed out!” he yelled over the rising noise.

“Brace yourselves! We’re entering the atmosphere in ten, nine, eight…” Jane counted calmly.

The spacecraft shifted violently and for a brief moment Jane thought it had been broken in half. The glaring light that had been on the horizon engulfed the ship and blinded its occupants. The astronauts shielded their eyes with their arms in unison as if they were performing some morbid dance. Jane could hear Ava crying into the internal microphone that linked them all together.

“Hang on! We will make it!” Jane yelled in her bravest voice. She didn’t believe it herself, but she had trained herself to stay outwardly positive no matter the situation. Her demeanor had saved her and most of her crew on that ill-fated trip to the moon. She had been hailed a hero after that mission, but she counted it as one of her greatest failures despite the fact that five of the six people on that disabled craft had miraculously made it back to the surface of the earth safely. Of course, the one who didn’t make it, Lieutenant Bradley Bell, had mattered most to her. She had never forgiven herself for not bringing Brad home. The look on his daughter’s face when she saw her at the hospital afterward would forever be seared in her memory. She had failed the ones she loved most, and to her that was unforgivable.

The roar around the spacecraft increased and the shaking intensified. Besides Ava’s wailing, the others remained quiet – at least on the comm system. Jane turned away from the light to glance at her crew. Olivia tilted her head down with her eyes closed as if in prayer. Frederick blinked into the light before them mesmerized by the glare and the imminent fate that awaited them. Sanjay stared back at her in his foreboding way. She had never liked Sanjay, but her commanders insisted that he be on the mission. He had received very high marks from all that had worked with him. He was considered one of the best by all the men he worked with, but Jane felt he had an issue with women. She sensed it in the way he took orders from her and the way every single request was taken as an affront to his manhood.

Sanjay acknowledged her with a slight nod. Tears puddled in his eyes. Jane was shocked by his display of emotion, something he’d shown no signs of in the years that she’d known and worked with him. He could be charming and engaging, but he was also arrogant and chauvinistic. She felt a perplexing kindred connection with him at that moment in spite of the things she knew he had said about her.

Nothing he had said was really new to her. She’d always been accused of being like a man. “Plain Jane” was the moniker that others, especially men, used behind her back. She knew this because she heard it in the whispers back at the base. Throughout her career, even after the heroic moon mission, many of her colleagues referred to her as Plain Jane as if it were a phrase that completely defined her. None of her male colleagues had to deal with such a dismissive attitude.

When she had first heard this encapsulation of who she was, she became enraged, but there was nothing she could do to stop it. She was who she was. She felt as feminine as any other woman, but she refused to kowtow to outdated expectations for her gender. It was 2099 for goodness’ sake. Hadn’t enough time passed to toss out preconceived notions about women? Hadn’t her gender achieved the pinnacle of success without having to apologize for their differences, without being compared to men?

Despite all the progress, her life was still defined by how others’ perceived her. She resented the Plain Jane nickname. She really hated it, but she resigned herself to ignore it and go about her business in the best way she knew how. Her father had always told her that doing would quiet her detractors more quickly than talking, and she had taken that to heart. “Doing” pervaded her entire career. Her approach, thanks to her beloved father, had driven her success, but the detractors still encircled her like a pack of hungry wolves. All of these thoughts throttled the dull ache in her head and she grimaced.

Sanjay turned away from her as if he was fed up with the battle that raged in the subconscious space between them or maybe he thought she had grimaced because of him. She stared at him for a brief moment before she turned her attention back to the flashing red light. She tried to focus on it hoping that it would distract her from her headache. She braced herself in her seat. The ship jarred left and she heard Wally cry out. The moment of truth had arrived. Either they would perish in the volatile atmosphere above Mars or they would plummet to the surface in a last-gasp effort to preserve the human race. There was no middle ground. The ship rocked and the roar of entry consumed them. Everything went black in a violent whiplash. The angry beast had swallowed them whole.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 3

My daughter looks exactly like her mother. She’s practically a carbon copy down to her mannerisms and the things she says. She says “Really?” in a way that conveys skepticism without really calling you a liar, just like her mother does. She even flips her hair to the side just like her mother did back when she was younger and had long hair. In the days after Barbara left, I would often find myself staring at my daughter dumbfounded as if my wife had come back as her younger self to look after me. I suspected that Barbara had left instructions for Carla to take care of me, not that I needed it, but you know how wives are; they think their husbands are helpless without them.

One morning, Carla stood before me as I sat in my usual chair by the big window in my living room. The sun bore down the window, but the closed dark blinds blocked most of its exasperating light. Dust floated in the air around us glistening in the light that managed to peek through the slats of the blinds. I inhaled and sucked in the dust. I imagined I could feel the dust trickle down my windpipe and cling to the darkened walls of my lungs. I almost choked and panicked, so I took another deep breath, a heaving, wheezy kind that only an old man can do.

“Are you okay, daddy?” Carla asked. Concern riddled her beautiful face. Barbara spoke to me.

I said nothing at first. I adjusted the cannulas clipped to my nose and breathed in heavily again. Carla looked at me expectantly and reached out to touch my arm. “I’m fine,” I replied. I tried to sound strong, but my breath failed to propel the words very far. Carla rubbed my arm.

“The nurse will be here in about an hour,” she said. She still looked pained much like her mother looked when one of her children was sick. Carla was rarely sick, but her brother was a constant source of worry when he was young. He had ear aches, sore throats, and high fevers with a regularity that sent us to scurrying to the doctor looking for answers. Barbara spent many a night lying next to our son consoling him to sleep. He was fretful and agitated much of the time clawing at his ears like he could dig out the source of the evil that hurt him. When he was eight, he had his tonsils removed, and after that his problems went away. I had never seen Barbara so relieved as she was when his illnesses finally stopped.

“Have you talked to your mother?” I asked.

Carla froze in her spot and stared at me as if I had spoken to her in a foreign tongue. She looked shocked or pained like I had mentioned some taboo subject. I tried to discern what she knew and what she was hiding, but my senses failed me. I could only stare at the malevolent dust that floated in the sunlight between us.

“No, daddy, I haven’t. Why are you asking that?” she replied. She became visibly agitated and trembled just a little as she took my hand in hers. I continued to search her face for answers but none came.

“I need to talk to your mother,” I insisted.

Carla looked away and batted back tears. I could see them glistening in the sunlight. She pursed her lips and let out a sigh that parted the dust around her. “You can’t talk to her, daddy. You know that.”

She looked directly at me in that caring way her mother often used when she encountered a little child. A tear trickled down her cheek, and she wiped it away without taking her eyes off me. I wondered why she was protecting her mother and why she wouldn’t tell me where her mother was. I knew that if I could just talk to Barbara everything would be right again. I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong or why she had stopped loving me, but I knew that I had to talk to her.

I coughed and the cannulas slid off my nose. Carla bent over and adjusted them on my face as I took another scratchy breath. She gave me a sad smile and kissed my forehead, and for a moment, I thought it was Barbara standing before me. I had a hard time telling the difference between those two. They were that much alike.

“Do you want something to drink?” she asked as she sat back down across from me.

I shook my head weakly indicating that I did want something.

“Tea?” she asked.

I nodded yes.

My daughter stood up and disappeared into my kitchen leaving me alone in the dim room. I shuffled my feet trying to get more comfortable in my chair. My bottom ached from sitting so long, but there was no position that made me feel truly comfortable. I looked at my walker beside the chair and briefly considered standing to join my daughter in the kitchen, but I was simply too tired. Such was my life.

In what seemed like an eternity, Carla returned with a glass of ice tea. She helped me take a few sips from a straw before she sat it down on the table beside my chair. “Let me know when you want some more and I’ll help you,” she said as she sat back down across from me.

I thought for a moment in the silence that drifted between us. “Why can’t you tell me where your mother is?” I asked after a few moments.

“Daddy…,” she began. She looked at me and then looked away. Her trembling hand touched her face. He lips quivered. “Daddy, can we talk about something else?”

She fell silent. She leaned over, grabbed the glass of tea, and offered it to me. I refused and she sat it back on the table next to me. I wasn’t going to cooperate with her if she didn’t cooperate with me. I had to see Barbara. I had to talk to her. My daughter always protected her mother. They had a bond that was stronger than anything I’d ever had with either of my kids. For most of my life, I admired that bond. Now, I resented it.

The doorbell rang, and my daughter stood up tidying herself before she walked to the door. I heard the nurse say hello, and they talked in a hushed tone that I could not quite hear or understand. I didn’t bother to look back to the door. I was too tired and my neck ached anyway. I heard footsteps across the floor, and then, the nurse’s big round face, full of a smile, appeared before me.

“How are you today, Jim?” she asked. She was so cheerful, it was hard for me not to feel better on some level.

“Fine,” I replied somewhat sullenly.

“Great!” She set her bag at my feet and checked my oxygen tank. “Any problems overnight?”

“I need to talk to Barbara,” I replied. The nurse turned to Carla and something passed between them. That’s when I knew they were working together. They were both protecting Barbara. I didn’t understand why. I had done nothing wrong. I still loved my wife. I just wanted to know why she didn’t love me anymore. I had to know. After all these years, I had to know.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 2

I don’t believe in luck. Maybe it’s because I believe you have to work hard for everything, and only then do you get the things you truly deserve, but if I had to point to one event in my life where luck may have played a significant role, it would be the moment I met Barbara. I can’t explain it any other way. It was 1964. I was 18 and had just graduated from high school, and like a lot of young men at the time, I was looking for a job. Back then, college wasn’t a forgone conclusion like it was for my kids and my grandkids. We went to work – real work.

I had grown up in a small town that had few options beyond farming or livestock, but my cousin lived closer to the city near a thriving textile mill, and he encouraged me to move in with him and take one of the jobs at the mill. With few other decent choices, I took a chance and moved into his small apartment in the middle of a row of dilapidated old buildings. Looking back on it now, the living conditions were deplorable. The ramshackle apartment reeked of smoke and mold, but for two young men just starting out, it smelled of opportunity. Despite the backdrop, I still count that year I lived with my cousin to be one of the best of my life. I wish he were still alive today to reminisce about our time together.

For a while after I started working at the mill, my cousin and I worked the same night shift, but the mill was growing and he was soon promoted to a supervisor and moved to the second shift so our schedules no longer aligned. One Friday morning shortly after he changed shifts, I found myself clocking out with nothing to do and no one to do it with since my cousin was working six days, so I walked around the streets near the mill until I decided to have breakfast at a dinky little diner near the factory.

I took a seat at the edge of the restaurant near a big plate glass window that looked out into the sad street that rolled out from the main entrance to the mill. There was no view to speak of, but I still found myself watching the passers-by and gawking at the cars that puttered down the street. Litter danced across the road among the pedestrians who hurried by and the homeless men who huddled in the nooks of the buildings. At any other point in my life, I would have declared the scene depressing, but at that moment, I felt alive and free despite the shackles of a low-paying job in a run-down mill town. Youth breeds an endless optimism that only time can squelch.

I remained mesmerized by the active scene on the other side of the window until a comely feminine voice pulled my attention away.

“Good morning! What can I get you today?” she asked.

My head swiveled in the direction of the inviting voice and my eyes met what I have often described as the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I must have looked like a total dunce sitting there with my eyes wide and my mouth half open at a loss for words. Suddenly, I couldn’t form sentences like a reasonably competent adult could. All I could do was stare at the striking young woman before me.

She was dressed from head to toe in that ridiculous red and white diner uniform with the silly cap. I didn’t think any of it was humorous then because Barbara was a stunning young woman. Her smiled gleamed from behind the small pad she held in her hand with her pen poised above it ready to write down my urgent order. She looked at me expectantly and her smile slowly deflated as the uneasy silence wore on.

“Are you going to order something?” she asked after a few moments too many.

I stuttered and shuffled in my seat until I realized that I held the menu in my hand. I tightened my grip on its sides and focused my eyes on it. In a panic I ordered the first thing I saw – some eggs and toast. I shook my head yes to coffee and juice before I knew what had happened, and as she walked away with my hasty order, I worried that I didn’t have enough money to pay for it.

I didn’t realize what had come over me. For much of my time in the mill town, I had pretty much kept to myself. I knew no one other than my cousin and the few people who actually talked to me at work. My downtime was spent primarily back at our old apartment or at a similarly run-down, illicit bar across the street from the mill. My cousin and I would spend our time listening to Cubs games on the radio or smoking and reading the newspaper on the stoop out back of our apartment. While we were obviously interested in women, we had little money and little time with the mill running at full capacity, so our love lives were nonexistent.

That all changed when I met Barbara. She eventually returned to my table with a cup of coffee, and by then, I had regained my ability to think and speak concurrently. She asked me if I worked in the mill and if I liked it. I appreciated her interest and asked about her job and when she normally worked at the diner. We had a nice conversation, if not entirely predictable. Years later, I realized she was just having a normal chat with a customer, while I had thought we had some sort of connection that ultimately led to our dating and marriage. Funny how that worked. I’m glad I didn’t know she was going to through the motions at the time, but I’m not sure it would have changed the outcome because I fell in love with her that day, and nothing could have changed that.

It’s All Relative

I recently started and stopped two books that were well-reviewed on Amazon. Both had at least a four-star rating on the bookseller’s site, and I had read the first few pages, as I always do before I buy a book, to determine if I would like them. I can usually tell if I’m going to like a book by its voice in the first few pages. If the author captures my interest and holds it with an intriguing voice, then I’m likely to buy the book. I tend to like books that explore the deep, inner workings of characters. While I enjoy the occasional thriller or sci-fi novel, my heart lies in the throes of the literary genre. I write what I read, too.

The two books in question both passed my initial tests. They seemed to have unique voices and I rather enjoyed the first few pages, so I bought them and downloaded them to my Kindle. I began to read in earnest, and that’s when the wheels fell off like a lemon that fooled me on the test drive and in the first few miles from the dealership.

The first novel, and both of these novels shall remain nameless, began to feel like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. It droned on repetitively with none of the characters going anywhere. The author had made an impression on me with his quirky novel about working in a nameless company prone to relentless downsizing and corporate-speak, but he failed to get past the cliche himself and I quickly became bored. I abandoned the novel before I reached the halfway point and promptly gave the book a one-star rating on Goodreads.

The second novel had the promise of Khalid Hosseini’s epic style behind it. The first few pages read like Hosseini himself had written them, and I had visions of the lovely A Thousand Splendid Suns, but such visions were crushed the moment I moved beyond the first chapter. The pacing of the novel was tedious and became unbearable. The author was mired in the mundane without any obvious momentum to the novel. I suddenly didn’t care about the mystery presented at the beginning of the book. I was more concerned about wasting my time with a boring and fruitless read.

In both cases, I’m positive that each author set out to write the best book possible, and they succeeded for fans that like the styles they use. This much is evident in the glowing reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere. My not liking these novels means nothing about the authors. It’s all relative. My response doesn’t mean they are poor writers or storytellers. It just means the stories didn’t work for me for whatever intrinsic force that drives my innate response to the written word. If a thousand people read the same novel and predominantly agree that it’s a great book, you’ll ALWAYS find a handful of people who didn’t like it for whatever reason. That’s life. Even Mother Theresa had her detractors.

The important lesson here for me as an author is that not everyone is going to like what I write. It doesn’t mean I should stop writing or that I should be fearful of putting my work out there for the world to see. If every writer stopped the moment someone didn’t like their work, there would be no great written works to read. None. Think about all of the great books out there. Can you imagine a world without them? Neither can I. Experience has proven both as a reader and a writer that you have to keep going. Everyone eventually finds their audience no matter how small. It’s all relative.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 1

It was spring, I believe, the moment this all began. I can’t be sure, but I do remember the distinct song of the warbler waking me one morning. The jittery bird sat on a limb outside my window as if it were peering in at me and singing with all its might. Barbara, my wife, always loved warblers. She had a thing for birds. I hardly noticed them unless she pointed them out to me. Of course, I heard their songs, especially in the spring, Barbara’s favorite season, but I couldn’t be bothered to identify them or categorize them as Barbara often did. I didn’t have the patience or meticulous love of all things living like she did. It was one of the many things I loved about her.

I tried to sit up, but the weight of the world sat on my chest, a lifetime of cumulative aches and pains reverberated through my old body. Sixty-eight years will do that to a man. I looked around and Barbara was nowhere to be seen in the glistening light that streamed through the open blinds. Dust so large that even my aging eyes could see it floated in the bright sunlight. I rubbed my eyes and perked up my ears to listen for Barbara. Nothing.

I looked at the clock by my bed, but I couldn’t make the time appear. My vision had declined to the point where I needed my glasses to read even the most basic of things, but like Barbara, my glasses had disappeared, and a felt a sudden panic. Had I lost them again? I didn’t have an extra pair at the moment since I had lost the other two a while ago. I groped around my night stand hoping that I had simply not seen them, but nothing greeted my thick, arthritic fingers.

I fell back into my pillow and sighed. An early spring chill filled the air and I shuddered a little. The same ceiling I had stared at for over 30 years stood above me looking down, all-knowing. The white plaster had faded and dulled over time stained by smoke and the heat from the moist radiators that warmed our room in the winter. I hadn’t smoked in over ten years, but that stuff never goes away. I winced at the thought of what my lungs looked like. As if on cue, I coughed a phlegm-filled hack that pulled me up from my pillow.

I sat up on my elbows and wavered a bit as I looked around the sun-filled room. Barbara’s chair sat empty on the other side of our bed. She often sat there knitting long after I went to bed, and on some mornings, I’d find her there knitting while she enjoyed her second or third cup of coffee. I held my breath and listened for her movements, but again my ears were met with silence.

I inhaled and exhaled heavily. I’d once been good at holding my breath. I could swim forever under water without a worry in the world, but time had taken that joy away from me. Now, I was lucky to dive under the surface for more than a few seconds before I heaved upward to catch my breath. I used to have so much fun swimming with the kids when they were young, and even when my grandchildren were little I was still adept at swimming. We had so much fun then.

I scanned the floor next to my bed for my slippers and spotted them a few feet from the end of the bed next to my glasses. How did they get over there? I always put my glasses on my nightstand. I couldn’t remember what had happened, which wasn’t much of a surprise for me. Like everything else, my memory had faded in the last few years.

My joints screamed at me as I sat up and marched over to my slippers. I grabbed my glasses and put them on my face somewhat clumsily. I almost poked my own eye, but I finally got them on my face and the view of the room improved remarkably. I glanced back at Barbara’s chair to confirm she wasn’t there. It was unlikely I’d miss her even without my glasses, but I could never be too sure. I slid my feet into my slippers and took one step toward the door when the pain struck.

It shot down my spine like an electric current and settled with a thud in my lower back. I gasped and immediately threw my hand onto my lower back bending toward the floor. I thought for a moment that I’d surely fall down, but I somehow retained my balance and made it back to my bed.

I sat down and then lay down breathing as if I had just run around the room at full speed. The pain took my breath away and I battled it with all my might. A long, silent moment passed with only the sound of my ragged breathing and that damn warbler filling the room. I wanted to throw my slippers at the bird because I blamed it for the searing pain I felt.

The pain pressed its knee to my chest and pinned me to the bed like an angry wrestler. I could do nothing but stare up at the ceiling. A prism of colors danced across my field of vision. I wanted to yell out Barbara’s name but I couldn’t garner the strength to do so. I moaned instead.

I must have fallen asleep because in the next instant when I looked around the room the light had shifted noticeably. The sunlight wasn’t as bright and the shadows cast by the blinds were dark and ominous. My east-facing bedroom windows had always been receptive to the sun’s morning greeting, something that Barbara enjoyed immensely. I, on the other hand, often complained about how it woke me too early in the spring and summer. I’ve never been a morning person, preferring instead to sleep as late as possible on days I didn’t have to go to work.

I raised my head up from the pillow on the aching stem of my neck. The pain in my back had subsided, but I felt stiff and muted. A darkened figure sat in the chair on the other side of the room.

“Barbara?” I asked.

A silence greeted me and I squinted into the shadows. I pawed face to adjust my glasses, but they were gone. I patted the bed around me thinking that they’d fallen off in my slumber, but I could not feel them anywhere. Instead, I squinted harder at the figure sitting in Barbara’s chair.

“Barbara. Is that you?”

Silence at first and then, “Good morning, Jim.”

“Barbara, why didn’t you say anything?”

“I thought you were asleep.”

Her hearing had failed her of late. She, too, felt the unkind hand of time. She still retained the beauty of her younger years, and in my mind, she glowed just as brightly as she had over 50 years ago when I met her, but little things had begun to slip. I mostly ignored them, but her hearing was getting harder to ignore. I feared that when I needed her most she wouldn’t be able to hear me call her name.

“How long have you been there?”

“I’ve been here all morning dear.”

“You have? Did you see me have an episode?”

“What episode?”

“My back. I had another spasm.”

“I’m sorry dear. I didn’t see it. Are you sure it wasn’t a dream?”

“I’m very sure. It still hurts a little.”

She fell silent again. I couldn’t see her face in the shadows without my glasses, but her silence concerned me. Barbara had always been the loquacious one. Her chatty nature offset my gruff and brooding tendencies.

“Is something wrong?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because you’re so quiet.”

My statement was met with a sigh and some movement in the chair. I couldn’t tell what she was doing. The shadows obscured my view.

Another sigh.

“I don’t love you anymore, Jim.”

“What?”

“I don’t love you.”

I was befuddled, unsure of what I had heard, but she said it a few more times and her words jabbed into my heart like a sharp knife, and the pain exceeded even the fit of spasms I had had earlier. I struggled to respond, but words eluded me. She stood up, and I think she watched me for a moment before she turned and left the room. The pain in my back returned and I moaned loudly to no one in particular.

To Write Is Human, To Edit, Divine

Recently, at the Seattle Writing Workshop, I met an agent during a pitch session and pitched a novel that I had written over a year ago. When I was finished with my pitch, which went okay but not as beautifully as I had imagined in my head, we still had some time left, so he asked me what else I was working on. I talked about the novel that I had finished after the one I had pitched, and he perked up. He seemed more interested in that one than my original pitch idea. He asked to see that one, too, and I readily agreed.

While both manuscripts were technically “done,” (no book is truly done until it hits bookstores) and had gone through a few revisions, I had wanted to read through the second one at least one more time before I sent any part of it out. Nevertheless, I was determined to get both manuscripts to the agent. Agents rarely request full manuscripts on the first meeting (at least that’s been my experience). They typically want a synopsis and the first ten or so pages. If they like what they see, then they request the full manuscript. I knew I had to deliver these manuscripts as soon as possible while my meeting was still fresh in the agent’s mind.

The day after the workshop, I began re-reading and editing the second manuscript in earnest – all 400 pages of it. It had been at least six months since I had read the book, and my eyes were fresh to the material despite living and breathing every word on the page for so long, I found things I didn’t like, small errors that drove me mad, and opportunities to clean up the dialogue. Fresh eyes really helped. I bet I could go through it again in six months and find more things. Maybe manuscripts are like wine; they get better with age because you have fresh eyes on the material. In the end, I was able to get the manuscripts out to the agent in a few days (huge sigh of relief).

Editing is not my favorite writing activity, but it’s a skill that is required. I typically write a first draft and do an immediate reading and editing session with the material before I hand it over to my beta readers. Then, I let the manuscript sit for a few months and work on something else. Working on something else takes my mind off of the material and refreshes my perspective on it. The more I edit my own material, the more I realize how I’d like to have a professional editor helping me. Such a person would have a cold-blooded instinct that would really make my work shine.

In my nonfiction work, I have had the opportunity to work with a wonderful editor who is sharp-eyed and very skillful. I love working with her when I submit articles to this trade magazine. She can take good work and make it great just through her suggestions and edits. I’ve compared my articles side-by-side, and her edits have clearly improved the material. I only wish she was available to edit my fiction work. I believe we’d make a great tandem because her editing skills are beyond reproach.

While I haven’t made it through the entire publishing process yet, I know the value of a good editor, but not just any editor will do. I need one who understands my style and approach and does not attempt to overwhelm that with over-editing. A bad match could change the whole tenor of the work and kill the project in its infancy, but a great match would take the project to a whole new level and increase the chances of success. That would be heaven indeed.