Random musings…

Glad you stopped by… take a peek inside for a collection of short stories, social commentary, poetry, rants, and excerpts from current projects. Hope you enjoy your time here, check back often for new material and of course feel free to submit any questions or comments…

Author retains all rights to published / posted material – all posts are solely the work of the author

Joe

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day I am always reminded of our men in uniform and how cavalier we tend to be about the potential sacrifice they face everyday. I think back to the tales my father and grandfather shared with me about their experiences in WWII. I was always fascinated by their differing perspectives: my father joined the Navy at 17 and served aboard a submarine in the Pacific theater and my grandfather was a Colonel in the Air Force stationed in Panama during WWII. As different as their military service was they shared the common bond of having lost men they knew and served with; as a young boy I didn’t really understand the significance of this sacrifice and the impact it had on them.

In the many years since, I have often wondered if we, as not only individuals but also, as a society truly understand the sacrifice we expect of our military and what Memorial Day actually signifies. I know for myself – as a young man still in high school – I had the good fortune to read a speech by Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed to the West Point cadets in 1962. I am still stirred by his words and the impact they had on me and even more how they bring a substance and gravity to the memories of my father and grandfather. I imagine I can hear these words echoing as he spoke: “…It is the story of the American man at arms… His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast… I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips, the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light…”

I find it impossible to read these words and not take a moment to reflect on those who have laid down their lives for this country and the ideals we hold dear. Whether it be 200+ years ago in a war for self determination or yesterday in somewhere far from home – it is incumbent upon us to honor the sacrifice of our fallen. I recently re-read the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, from a speech he gave in 1884 at a Memorial Day dinner, remember this wasn’t shortly after some world wide conflict of good vs evil but a war among ourselves brother against brother… he said “But as surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead…where the ghosts sit at the table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.” I believe he was speaking about more than just their memories he was reminding us that on this day of all days it is their sacrifice we not only honor but remember lest we forget the mighty toll of our conflicts and vast responsibility it creates.

So my friends as you gather together for that afternoon BBQ, the morning round of golf, or whatever activity you may have planned for that “end of spring extra day off from work Monday,” let us take even just a brief moment to honor and remember those who embraced “Duty, Honor, Country” as more than just a slogan.

Maxton Mona Lisa

She was from Maxton or thereabouts anyway, not that it much mattered the names were more a dot on the map then a place to be from. It was hot that day, much like every other day once the spring broke and the heat settled in for a long Carolina summer, swarms of gnats, afternoon thunderstorms, and the fine dust that seemed to inhabit every nook and cranny. There would be things to harvest toward the end of it in the coolness of fall, cotton to pick, ‘bacci to lay out in the long drying barns, and the wagons full of deep red melons with their jet-black seeds – perfect for spittin’. But none of that had come to pass yet, it was just another day in an endless parade of days maybe leadin’ to something but most likely not.

He had seemed so handsome and sophisticated, the car was new, didn’t have no dents or nothin’ not like the ones her Pa was always workin’ on in the back, no this was a big city car and he was a big city man with his polished shoes, and his big city hat. He took pictures of Ma and the little ones sittin’ on the porch, Ma didn’t smile of course, wasn’t nothin’ to smile ‘bout anyway.

She had leaned up against the doorway, as much to hide the empty room behind her as to seem disinterested… she would soon be thirteen after all – well past the time of little girl dreams – lookin’ womanhood right in the eye, she already knew things she shouldn’t, but that’s how it was – wasn’t somethin’ to complain ‘bout. She wants to hide the pin holdin’ her dress closed, didn’t make sense Ma not sewin’ a proper button on it, and she’d tried to brush the dust off her shoes rubbin’ em on the back of her calves but wasn’t no polish made was gonna make em shine again. She doesn’t think about the melancholy smile, just is – another part of being here and gettin’ by.

He waves as he’s leavin’ the little ones trail down the drive half hidden by the cloud of dust ‘fore they come back up and sit some again. She turns to go back inside, but Ma stops her, “they’re be compny tonight so don’t be gettin’ no ideas ya hear.” It don’t mean nothin’ Pa always got somebody over drinkin’ and carryin’ on she’ll keep the little uns quiet and hope no one takes a shine to her… that sure was a nice car though…

*Authors Note:

So about this… there is a novel written by Reynolds Price – “A Long and Happy Life” published in 1962 – it was and is celebrated as the novel that launched Price’s career. Price has said that the picture that is now the cover of his book hung above his desk for many years and inspired him… that picture is my dear mother-in-law Ann…

I don’t the details of that picture or how it came to be, but I do know that Price often said she had a “Mona Lisa” smile… I imagine that hot summer day so long ago may have gone something like this…

In your honor Ann… I humbly submit – “Maxton Mona Lisa”

JC

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Kandi Kane

– A Christmas Story –

The flamingo pink had faded to a shade closer to Pepto and the stucco was cracking and chipping in a dozen places, it didn’t matter though no one frequented the Pink Pony for its curb appeal. Kandi pushes off the wall taking a final drag on the diminishing cigarette she had bummed off Nigel, the stucco leaving a dimple effect on her soft skin. Time to get back inside, Nigel didn’t care if you took a “break” but he would be looking for a cut if you were more than a few minutes. It had been a good month though – December usually was, but any month you didn’t have to spend on your knees to make rent was a good month in her book. The sad string of multi-colored lights tacked around the door and the line-up of Christmas inspired names were the only nods to the holiday. She had chosen first – Kandi Kane – cause her plain jane eastern Iowa looks and “Heidi” didn’t inspire a man to drop twenty on a lap dance.

Like most little girls she had grown up with bigger dreams than her opportunities could fulfill. It had been three years since she had left the little nothing farm town for the big city where those dreams were all going to come true. Why her mother hadn’t stopped her was still a mystery – well maybe not, her mother had a hard-enough time taking care of herself, never-mind a teenage daughter with wants no waitress’ tips were going to quench. Nigel had seen her coming a mile away, fresh off the bus, small town blues, and nothing but a decent set of tits and legs to her name – “Heidi, you know like in The Sound of Music,” she had told him. He had laughed in what had seemed like a cool British accent at the time, that was now just annoying. She had only found out months later that there wasn’t any “Heidi” in The Sound of Music.

She holds the pole and kicks up her heel before losing the red sequined bra – mustering what passes for a smile she struts over to the three drunks sitting stage left, bending over to pick the singles up she gives them a good view of her goods, hoping for another few bucks but not really caring either way. These guys are all regulars and more interested in their beer than her boobs. The place is empty by eleven and Nigel cuts them all loose early with a slap on the ass and a Merry Christmas! Wrapped in a hoodie and carrying her heels in one hand and bag in the other she catches the #3 bus home. She leans her cheek against the cool window and hums along to radio… “jingle bells, jingle bells…” – “Merry Christmas mom,” she whispers to the dark brushing a tear from her cheek.

The 2017 RANT

So, my friends, we have been traveling down memory lane, “RANT” style for about twenty years now – so I decided to use a new font this year to freshen things up a bit… $#%@ you that’s a joke, but seriously it’s a new font.

I wrestle with the same problem every year – how do you recount all happenings and accomplishments without coming off smug and all “look at me, look at me.” I know it always seems to work out with some combination of sarcastic observation about the strange world we live in and what passes for normal combined with a rundown of the family hi-lite reel.

I always go back and read the last three or four years’ worth of Rants before getting started – funny it always kicks up my allergies. This year I decided to start way back in the ‘90s and read forward – oh sweet baby Jesus was that a mistake! It reminded me why I started this mess in the first place – we were a young family, four kids, working our asses off, moving from rental to rental trying to stay ahead of the bill collectors and still buy groceries. Knowing everyday any little ripple could throw it all off the rails, “sorry kids no Happy Meal today, Dad has to pay the electric bill.” You work eighteen hour days, kiss your kids as they lay sleeping, love your wife when she lets you, catch a few hours and back at it – and I’m sure through it all my wife worked harder than I did.

Christmas time would roll around and we would scrape a few dollars together for gifts – those kids never missed Christmas and we did everything in our power to insulate them from the everyday hardships – it was our burden not theirs – we weren’t heroes just parents. Inevitably we would get that holiday letter from our slightly older and much better off friends trumpeting all their blessing and big deeds for the year – how do you not feel like your failing reading that? Most people tape it to the fridge and celebrate their friends good fortune – F’ that I decided to write a RANT instead and so here we are!

Those first Rants probably weren’t very good, and in fact I’m slightly embarrassed by how angry some of it sounds, but it was real and that’s what mattered… They are more circumspect and polished now – I guess I’ve grown up a bit and truth be told passed through that “slightly older better off” phase myself, now I’m just old, grumpy, and probably too acerbic – so almost full circle, but with better writing!

Normally I just plow through the kids one by one extolling their virtues, poking fun at them, and generally irritating them in a fairly good-natured way. But honestly, I just can’t bring myself to do it this year so I’m just going to go with some hi-lites and observations instead.

Two major events this year really have to take the headline though:

  • Granddaughter #2 – Joined the family in July of this year – cute kid, bright blue eyes, big head, drools incessantly! I think big sis is still deciding if she wants to hug her or hit her… Great name on this one and super sweet.
  • So, this second one is a bit more traumatic – my daughter called me about four months ago clearly upset – not something you ever want to have happen. I have to remind you she just had her first anniversary this December so this whole marriage thing is pretty fresh – anyway she breathlessly tells me that Jon has come home and announced that he is “VEGAN” – I have to admit that my first reaction was “well okay, it could have been worse…” but I refrained and counseled her that just because he had lost his mind didn’t mean that she couldn’t continue to eat steak, meatballs, chicken tenders, and all manners of meat. She is doing better – Jon looks a bit withered but that’s just me.

Of course, there’s more to talk about than drool and vegetables, there’s politics, Starbucks, texting & driving, stupid angry people, air travel, and all the rest of the crazy that makes up every day. I’m going to pare it down for you though cause most of it just makes me insane – so hang on this is the sarcastic acerbic section in case you were missing it.

  • Politics – simply put all of it makes me nauseous on both sides and I’m sure however you feel you’re already arguing about it enough and FYI none of the people in DC are listening to you. They don’t care about you, the environment, your kid’s education, healthcare or pretty much anything beyond their own power and comfort – yeah, I know cynical but have you listened to any of these people?
  • Admittedly Starbucks is a pretty consistent theme for me – I have a problem, I know I have a problem, fact is I don’t even order anymore I just drive up to the window and my stuff is ready. However, I just have to say the stupid angry people that can’t place a simple coffee order should stay the hell out of my drive thru.
  • Texting and driving is another favorite of mine but I’m not going to talk about it anymore – what’s the point everyone is doing it – doesn’t matter that it’s like playing dodgeball with cars at 80MPH – have a good time – just don’t hit me.
  • Air Travel – hmmm what’s left to say that hasn’t already been exhausted. It would be nice if they actually tried to wipe the biohazardous material from the last passenger off the seat and tray before shoehorning the rest of us in there – but what the hell I’ve grown used to being sick six months out of the year – popping antibiotics like #$%@#$ Tic Tacs and drinking cough syrup like it’s water.
  • Stupid angry people – where do you even start with this one – they are among us! Let me just say this is Florida and most of us serene older guys are way over armed and we practice – you young angry stupid guys need to chill out and stay out of my yard… Please. All kidding aside there seems to be some kind of mental lapse taking place in a whole generation of very angry young people because they clearly don’t understand how good they have it and seem to have an incredible amount of free time to protest just about everything from every angle.

Okay what’s that leave – right normal crazy and all the regular stuff – that’s cool plenty to talk about. The wife and I have settled fully into the whole grandparent thing. She even traded my truck for a minivan so she has transitioned to full GIGI mode and loves those little ones. I have to be a bit more circumspect about it, wouldn’t want anyone thinking I had gone soft or anything. However, I do spend a lot of time with the granddaughter on the front porch eating popsicles (sugar free) and watching the world go by – its good stuff, believe me and as a bonus I’ve recently started letting the new one drool on me. I also might have indulged in a number of Christmas inflatables on the front lawn this year – what the girls love Minions, blue hippos and pink pigs!

The other unfortunate situation this year has been the evolution of this group of Cruffin loving misfits that camp out every Saturday morning at God awful early to sample the incomparable creations of Jennifer and the girls at Born & Bread Bakery. Why unfortunate you ask, other than the before dawn wake-up call – despite my best and repetitive efforts these folks are becoming friends, I know a chink in the old armor.

Can you believe we are at fifteen hundred words already and you’re still reading this? I know crazy, right? I haven’t talked about all the kids, their jobs, trials and tribulations, relationships, exploits, blah, blah, blah… but this isn’t going to be that kind of RANT sorry. Everyone is doing life, there is some really cool stuff going on in their lives, and there are some struggles – these are really wonderful people and I love them a lot. You should get to know them if you don’t already, maybe see what they are up to – my guess is they have some cool things to talk about and some pretty interesting thoughts and opinions they would love to share… well except Jon he just talks about vegetables and the melting properties of non-dairy cheese.

So, my friends I hope this year has treated you well, and if it hasn’t let’s endeavor to make the next one better together.

———

Final thoughts for your consideration:

This year I published my second and third novels – if you have read them you have my very sincere appreciation – if you haven’t why not?

My first book “Jake” and its sequel “Peakeville” are intended to create a dialogue on systemic racism and oppression. It’s impossible to ignore the egregious every day demonstrations of intolerance around us – we can do better and if you aren’t experiencing it don’t pretend like it’s not real – be vigilant – there is so much more to say on this, but at the very least just stop acting like it’s not everywhere and folks should somehow miraculously just get over it. It’s not okay to devalue people simply because they are different than you.

My other novel is “Traffic” and is more in the style of an international thriller – but I based this book on the very real problem of human trafficking. If you are on Facebook or any other social media platform you know a week doesn’t go by without us seeing a flyer for the disappearance of a young person – predominantly teenage girls. What you rarely see is any resolution or happy ending to these disappearances. The statistics are truly staggering:

  • The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally.
    • 68% of them are trapped in forced labor.
    • 26% of them are children.
    • 55% are women and girls.
  • The International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.
  • In 2016, an estimated 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.
    • Of those, 86% were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran.

There is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the U.S. The Polaris Project estimates that the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated. More information is available at www.polarisproject.org

Stay tuned the follow-up to “Traffic” should be out sometime next spring and I am contemplating doing a third “Jake” book – those take a lot of energy so we shall see.

As always, my very best and remember the journey is long but worth the trip.

Joe

The Order

The steam rises in soft plumes out of the chipped ceramic coffee mug while the thin napkin, folded just so, absorbs the first drops of condensation beginning to journey down the side of the hard-plastic water cup where the square cubes of ice seem to joust for position.

Johnny studies the sturdy plastic menu with an intensity usually reserved for things of much greater comport than the overwhelming selection of egg and hash-brown combinations pictured. Melissa twirls her pen over the yellow pad, “Melissa” isn’t really her name but the faded tag had been carelessly left behind attached to the uniform shirt her manager had tossed her way that first day seven months ago and she had never bothered to change it. She had long settled on answering to hey girl, you, or just about anything else – Melissa would do.

“I think I’ll have the ham and cheese omelet, grits, and raisin toast dark,” Johnny finally intones carefully replacing the menu in the metal brackets next to the napkins, bottle of Texas Pete and stacks of foil jelly containers. It was a serious decision he thinks to himself, everyone knew breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

Melissa nods with equal seriousness, “Yes sir coming right up,” she answers not bothering to write it down, Johnny has ordered exactly the same meal every morning since she started, and who knows for how long before that. “Ham and Cheese plate, grits on the side, raisin well,” she hollers at the cook…

Memories from a Georgia Cotton Field…

The bracken and small trees have overgrown the banks and begun to cover the top of the berm if you look closely you can still see the glint of steel tracks embedded in the coarse grass, the creosote ties have splintered and rotted no longer holding the rails in tight straight lines. The cotton fields extend on either side for hundreds of acres the red Georgia dirt baking in the late September sun – the bolls now dry and brown have split, their sharp claws clinging to the silky puffs loathe to give them up. The memories of a lonesome steam whistle mingle with the sharp cracks of the whips and the soft moans that linger in the quiet stillness of a fading afternoon.

Adelaide wipes her brow with the back of a hand, her mahogany skin’s a crisscross pattern of scars and creases never quite healed from the hundred sharp cuts the bolls inflict – the shadow of the overseer approaches and she bends back to her task hurrying forward hoping to avoid sharp sting of the leather through her thin cotton dress. She steals a glance over, Billy still lay where he had fallen, no amount of whipping was going to raise him up and they’d left him as an example to the rest of them, the men would bury him later but not now no now was for pickin’ 200 pounds didn’t come easy the second time through a field.

The green machines lumber along voraciously scavenging the white puffs in front of them, small strays play across the ground in their wake as they march forward. Along the tree line long bales wrapped tight in plastic keep the cotton from escaping, large enough to fill a tractor trailer they wait patiently for the long bed trucks to carry them onward. Gone are the picking bags, the cotton baskets at field’s end, the crack of the overseer’s whip – but the cotton remains and the soft glint of a steel track – and the memories of another day…

Author’s Note: I was traveling through Georgia this past weekend, past many a cotton field and old train bed… they spoke to me of times long past, but not forgotten.

Wonderin’

I sit here wonderin if the worlds gone to hell
Got Tom Petty playin’ the stories we could tell

I cant find the words to splain the way I’m feeling
And I don’t know how to stop starin at the ceiling

So the tears fall and the memories keep flowin’
And there aint nothing for it but to keep goin’

Cause I sit here wonderin if the worlds gone to hell
While Tom Petty’s playin’ the stories we could tell

Reflection on impermanence…

It can be hard to see from inside ourselves, but your life is your masterpiece and yes we are only fleeting and embody the very essence of impermanence, but in that short time we create, oh do we create and those creations have the power of permanence, they influence, they are love, hate, joy, sorrow and each one leaves a mark on those around us… that small ripple multiplies, its passed on and becomes part of the collective consciousness of those we interact with… so don’t focus too much on the moment for it is only that – a moment, but take solace in the masterpiece that you are…

Thoughts on Irma – The Aftermath

*This is a five part piece – I encourage you to start with “Thoughts on Irma #1” and read forward… JC 

It’s been three days since Irma turned North and hit our little town dead center, about half of us have our power restored, a few stores and restaurants are opening back up, but normal still seems a fair bit off. There are long lines at the few gas stations that have fuel and those that fled early are unable to return for fear of running out before making it home. On every street the steady whir of chainsaws fills the air from dawn till dusk and the scent of fresh cut wood is inescapable. The piles of limbs and brush line the avenues and side streets, growing in stature as the once mighty oaks fall to the blade, some as much five or six feet across having seen hundreds of years – now lie dead in the unblinking sun. Leaves cover the ground and streets like fall in New England – an unexpected blanket of green.

As evening approaches folks start to return to their homes, grills are fired up, candles lit, and the rhythmic chatter of a generator punctuates the still air. It’s hot and humid, the air lies heavy and still – not even a hint of breeze as if the wind had exhausted itself earlier and now is slumbering somewhere far from here. It’s not quiet but the sounds are all different, no TVs, no music, even the traffic has disappeared – they have been replaced with the hoot of a hunting owl, laughter from a few doors down, the tireless chirp of the lake frogs, and the stray bark of a lonely hound.  News is exchanged on the sidewalk and the interaction of neighbors harkens back to an earlier and simpler time.

Life is already moving on, the inescapable pace of today’s society can’t and won’t wait for our emotions, anxiety, understanding to catch up. It’s going to take time to fully process this experience, we talk about it – sharing the memory, the feelings, coming to grips with this brush against our mostly ignored mortality.  Today we hung the pictures back up and moved the porch furniture back into position – symbols of normalcy. The electric is back on – something we celebrate with embarrassed restraint as there are so many still waiting. Tomorrow will bring a trip to the grocery store to replace the provisions that have spoiled in the unforgiving heat and life’s mundane routines will begin reasserting themselves.

I imagine it will take weeks to fully restore all power, services, and cleanse the landscape of wreckage and in that time we will exchange our stories of that night and come to grip with our personal lists of would have, should have, could have – but the reality is our psyche will only allow a tepid remembrance lest we live on trapped by the understanding of our insignificance.

Thoughts on IRMA #4

Dawn is finally breaking – grey streaks begin to penetrate the darkness. The wind is still present, but reminds me of the summer thunderstorms of my childhood, not the incessant fury of last night. I am sure analogies will abound today – our 24 hour news media trying to convey the experience and those mavens of disaster over at The Weather Channel with their hundreds of campaigns under their belts explaining to us just how it was. I understand, but the reality is so much different than their LL Bean protected forays into the “heart of the storm”.

It would take pages and pages to capture what last night was like – I honestly can’t imagine what a CAT 3, 4, or 5 might be like. The wind and rain had picked up its intensity around midnight, I hadn’t contemplated it being able to get much worse than it was – I lacked context, but that’s no longer the case. We lost power around 1AM about the time the eye wall was approaching our town, our neighborhood, our house.  You see on the TV it’s just a dot on a map, but the reality is it’s the four walls and the person next to you – and the fury and ferocity isn’t directed anywhere else – its personal.

The battering gusts of wind had been coming in waves for what seemed like hours, each subsequent rotation with increasing intensity – until it all blended together into a singular focused battering ram, which is when the power went out creating all consuming inky black. I understand with much greater clarity now the destructive power of wind like this – it’s an unstoppable force – there is a constancy that is maddening in its consistency. I think that may be the most difficult part to deal with emotionally – the simple fact that at the height of things there simply is no break, no where you can escape to, no way to stop it – and it is everywhere for hours…

We lay in bed in the dark holding hands, I’m not ashamed to say it was terrifying – if the power of nature doesn’t intimidate you – well you simply haven’t been paying attention and the arrogance of humanity has penetrated your being. The winds song is the background beat, the bass track if you will it sets the tone for everything else. Now layer in the creaks and groans of the house – you truly have to experience it to understand, but it seems like it is going to come apart around you – the percussion of blowing transformers, falling trees and debris clattering off the windows round out this symphony of destruction that has no intermission. We exchange fitful attempts at sleep finally settling into a semi-conscious state that seems almost dreamlike.

I must have drifted off at some point, because the winds had died down and the windows were no longer rattling, greeted by the soft grey of the coming dawn I began to fill the coolers with whatever food could be salvaged from the fridge and freezer hoping the ice would hold us long enough for the power to come back. Its already getting warm and the day promises no escape from the heat and the unblinking sun that is Florida in the summer. I’m already missing my morning coffee and the prospect for a cold glass of ice tea is pretty bleak. Soon the calls and text messages will come in earnest from those scattered all over the country waiting to hear that all are safe, the check-in with local family, friends and neighbors will follow shortly after. It may take days or even weeks for some to return to normal – air conditioning, carefully manicured yards, the erasure of impending anxiety – but the experience can’t be expunged – the greater understanding of how truly insignificant and powerless we are as mother nature decides our fate with no concern for our opinion or preparation…