The branch on the tree in the small park

On a clear December night, when all the trees stand with their colorful past at their feet, you can see a certain tree. It’s not especially tall or stout or memorable at all really. But it has a ghostly aura around it – particularly a branch that looks as though it could carry a great weight. One of literal and figurative proportions.

It’s in a very small park, on the west side of Cincinnati, this tree, with its significant branch, the one I’m now bringing to your attention. The park, like the tree, is easily forgotten and does not get many visitors – perhaps that’s why I picked it.

If you happen upon this place, you may not immediately know or think anything of it. But if you stay long enough, I’m sure you will find – or feel (more accurately) – something unmistakable. The branch, hanging from the tree in the small, forgettable park, is where I hung my former self. He gave quite a fight and I’ll spare you the un-niceties, but he’s dead now. What was left of him clung to the nearest living thing – the tree.

Sometimes, I go visit the tree, bringing with me things it will need to grow tall, but it may be a losing battle – the tree is becoming sickly. You might think traveling there scares me a great deal, but it doesn’t. I can’t fully explain why, but suffice it to say that I feel happier now.

He was always very good at bringing me down and ensuring that I didn’t accomplish my goals. He often thwarted my dreams and called them “unattainable” and “impractical.” He’s much better at being a ghostly aura then he ever was at being a man.

Maybe, I go back occasionally to confront him and look at what he’s become, but mostly, I think I go to remember.

This last time, we parted amicably. “Onward and upward, ole’ chap,” I said tipping my hat at him. As I turned away I said quietly, “well, at least for one of us.”

From the man himself

Dear highmost member of the Salvation Army (or otherwise known as “Salvationist Supreme”)

My clothes are second-hand. Gathered and passed on to kids like me from kids like them.
I am a member of the run-down Boy’s Club. Been goin’ since I was five. They went to the Country Club with somethin’ like gold or silver in the title. Now that don mean nothin’ to me. They can have their country club. They can have their tea-time and ice cream socials, but don’t give me their tattered and threadbare polo shirts. I’ve already got some of my own. I come by the wear naturally. You can see my scraped up, bloody knees if you need ‘em for proof. I’m happy to show ya. But if another pair of frayed Khaki pants shows up at my doorstep (ok my ma and pa’s doorstep) there’s no telling what I might do. I’m liable to fly off the handle a bit. I might just get a little rowdy and lose some of my much needed privileges. An eight year old can only get so far in this world before somebody starts asking questions. I take you, reciever of this letter, to be a reasonable man. You, like me, have probably found yourself in hard times now and then. I am no different. But I don’t need your “charity,” if that’s what you like to call it. I’m trying to be the man of the house. I don’t need no more packages showing up. I’m asking for a cease and desist and I won’t ask again.

Bud, a member of this small community who is on his last leg

10 Books

Books that inspire me.

1. Sum – David Eagleman


You will read this book in one sitting. A look into 40 possible afterlives that are not meant to be taken literally and instead allow us to reflect on what makes this life valuable and magical. Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor studying the brain’s many secrets. It’s the most fun I’ve had reading and I laughed at the end of each chapter in amazement and disbelief. I keep giving this book away only to realize that I always need it on hand … so I’ve bought it many times. 

2. No More Prisons – William Upski Wimsatt


Hip hop. Urban life. Self education. Hitchhiking. The Cool Rich Kids movement and philanthropy as the greatest art form. Wimsatt, a graffiti writer and grass roots organizer, talks his slick style through many social and economic problems, but this book is more about solutions. 

3. In persuasion nation – George Saunders


A collection of short stories from the Syracuse Creative Writing instructor, now known for one of the greatest commencement speeches on kindness and regret. The stories are dreadful and hilarious at the same time. Sympathetic and satirical, Saunders will display his genius within a few lines. 

4. My name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok


“As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it.” This is what Asher Lev is told as he walks through the challenge of being a painter and a Jew. Potok himself was a writer and a rabbi, and the tension between faith and art for him, was lifelong. 


5. Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson


There is a short story in this collection that changed the way I think about writing. I feel like Denis Johnson is part of my family. He’s my Vietnam-vet uncle who taught me how to shoot skeet and pick up girls. With a cigarette hanging from his lips, he saunters in to any pool hall and dares meathead, frat boys to mess with him. 


6. Blue Like Jazz – Donald Miller


Donald Miller is a man after my own heart. The things he struggles with. The doubts he has about God. His history with women are all very familiar to me. It feels like my own subconscious is penning the pages. This book seems to reach the hands of young men and women who are having a coming-of-age crisis. Just like all struggling with mental illness find underground hip hop, so do church burnouts find Donald Miller. 


7. The girl in the flammable skirt – Aimee Bender


“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.” 

8. and still I rise – Maya Angelou


I love poetry. I write poetry almost every day. I will say I love to write it more than I love to read it. But not when it comes to Maya. Her poetry rings in my mind for days after. In fact, if I am quiet, I can still hear it now. Her work is like a big “Fuck You” to anyone who practices oppression in all its various forms. But this “Fuck You” is so eloquent and elegant that it stings even harder. Kill them with kindness yes, but I would also add: she kills them with hope. 

9. The things they carried – Tim O’Brien


You don’t know war until you are a soldier, but this book is as close as a civilian will get.  Honest, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking, deeply sad, deeply brave all at once. I read this book in high school and the imagery is just as real 10 years later. I was totally heartbroken by a scene, but I am a better, more compassionate man for having read it. 

10. The prophet – Kahlil Gibran


Almustafa is set to leave town and knows the ships that come to take him away are close to shore. Before he leaves, the townspeople gather by the docks to bid him farewell and ask him one last time to speak to them about love, marriage, friendship, money, work, death and many other topics. Almustafa answers each of their questions, all the while lamenting that he must leave them. The book is almost like a collection of speech transcripts. With such beauty, Almustafa speaks in poetic language that allows the people (and the reader) to understand complex topics and relate to them with such ease and depth. A book you will finish in 2 hours. 

Orange Whip

Androids sip orange whips, poolside. They overlook the space station with electronic jazz beats pulsing in the background. “I think we’ve really made it,” one says to the other. “Too early to tell,” the second responds, putting his arms behind his head after taking another drink. “With the human problem solved, what do we have to worry about?” The first asks. “Space worms,” the second says matter of factly. “They’re huge.” The first considers this thought and shrugs, continuing his carefree lounging. After 30 minutes of bathing in the florescent light, they take a dip in the pool. Indoor swimming at the space station. “If humans programmed us, aren’t we, on some level, just like them?” “Don’t worry yourself with thoughts like that. It’s what destroyed them.”

Short Story – Save me


We open at the pier. The light on the horizon is holding on to the day and the water ripples in the wake of small boats heading to shore. Henry puts another quarter in the viewfinder, which starts buzzing, signifying that he’s got a few minutes to look around at the open water. He spots gulls swooping low, trying to catch fish and sailboats racing to get in before dark. Henry stops at the pier every night on his walk home. The walk helps him clear his mind before the next day and the pier is his favorite part.

Much closer to cross beams of the pier, Henry notices something. He squints in the viewfinder to make out what appears to be a man in the surf. Funny, Henry thinks, it’s mighty cold to be swimming. He sees that the man is struggling and then, he disappears.

Henry runs. Sprints up the boardwalk for what feels like ages and stops where he thinks the man went under. Henry is not a strong swimmer. He wishes in that moment that he would have taken the lessons that his mother was always pestering him about. He takes a deep breath and his feet leave the dock. He does a pencil dive off the pier.

Nothing. The sun has now sunk into the night, making it very difficult for Henry to see anything, much less the man he hopes to save. His mind is ticking like the last seconds of the viewfinder and he gasps and dives down into the choppy water. Nothing again. Henry calls for help, but no one seems to hear him at the boat dock hundreds of yards away.

Henry is frantic, hoping for some sign when all of a sudden, the back of a large man breaks the surface by the cross beams under the pier. The tide picks the man’s body up and crashes it into a splintering beam.

All out swimming on Henry’s part; he is swallowing a lot of salt water. His eyes burn as he grabs the man’s body by the midsection and throws a limp arm over his shoulder.

Then comes the real struggle. Henry tries to stay afloat while swimming with the man’s lifeless body at his side. Treading water, Henry trudges through the waves and finally, with his lungs exploding, he makes it to the sandy shore under the pier.

Henry pumps the man’s chest fervently and breathes into his mouth after compressions. The man does not sputter or stir, he simply lies on the beach in common work clothes; motionless.

After 30 minutes of spastic attempts to restart the man’s heart, Henry takes a break and for the first time, looks into the face of the man he has dragged from the water.

His gut wrenches.

It’s impossible, Henry says aloud. He brushes the man’s hair to one side and cleans off the blood from the man’s cheek.

Henry is staring down into his own face.

The man has 20 years on him, but Henry is sure that he is looking down at an older version of himself. There is no way to describe the bewilderment that Henry feels.

Off in the distance, the men from the boat dock appear to be sprinting to Henry’s position with flashlights in their hands. The beams of light are angling in all directions as the men scurry to see what’s the matter under the pier.

Henry panics. He cannot make sense of what has happened. He looks down at the man, knowing that he is dead, and decides to run.

In the Mines – Short Story

My grandfather was a coal miner. I have always been fascinated by that profession. This is a story I wrote a few years ago on what I thought a day in the mines would look like. Enjoy!

coal miner photo by Earl Dotter

Western Pennsylvania – Everything is bluish-gray; all the rocks, a mountain side of rocks. There is a row of kerosene lamps flickering. I stop and look for a moment. Just blue-gray and the soft yellow lights mixed with the shadow of men going to the elevator. The smaller rocks shift under the weight of my soot-covered boots. My axe is resting over my shoulder and my calloused hands slide up and down, up and down the varnished handle.

I take my name plate from my chest pocket and hang it on the board. I kiss it once and think of Ma and Kitty’s eyes and then kiss it again just before I slip it on the hook. My lips taste metallic. The pulleys groan over the great weight and we just stand there thinking of ball games beside the church and the ice cream stand at the top of the hill in summer. We think of crawfishin’ with our hands in the crick and jumpin’ off that big rock up ‘ere by the lake.

The doors open up and we step inside. One by one we turn on our head lamps and I start prayin’. Prayin’ my kids made it safe to school and little Lia remembered her math and Kenny took a jacket. And Ma’ wasn’t too worried lookin’ out her window in that plastic covered arm chair and that Kitty would forgive me.

Our lamps reflect off the back of the door and temporarily blind the guys in the front; so all they see now when they close their eyes is the green and red and blue half circle burned on the back of their eyelids. I know, that’s how’s come I stand in the back.

The elevator hits the bottoms and dust kicks up and stings our eyes, ‘cause nobody wears the glasses, not nobody. It’s not so much some misguided brave thing. It’s more that you can’t see your hands in front of you while your glasses fog up, ‘Cause no matter how bitter cold it is outside, it’s always hot in these mines.  And the accidents that happen because you can’t see in front of ya are far worse than some rock spec gettin’ in your eye.

We file out and go to our respected areas. Mine is the back left in a little pocket next to the main vain. It’s just me and Lange back here. Lange don’t talk an awful lot, which is fine by me cause I can work on my scripture memory. “When I look at all my hands had made, everything I had toiled to achieve. I consider it all meaningless a chasing after the wind. Nothing was gained under the sun.” Boy, for being the wisest man, Solomon tried a whole lot of things out. I could have told him that wealth and wisdom are meaningless without God. Even love and friendship are meaningless without God.

But when Lange does talk, he talks about his sweetheart and how he gunna leave his pop’s house after this next month and buy her something special. I respect Lange and his few words, so much that I consider him my friend. I have a great many people close to me, but only a few I consider friends. One of them sure ain’t that new Pastor up at the Church of God. Basically wants to build an extension just to say he’s done it. So they can put his name on a plaque and in the paper. He can build a shrine on someone else’s dollar.

It’s noon and Lange and me haven’t said nothin’. So I say finally ‘I’m gunna grab lunch you wanna come with me?’ and he says all polite ‘thanks Red but Ima keep pluggin’ away,’ and he turns and smiles at me with the ‘you go on ahead smile.’ So I make for the doors and ride the elevator up the shaft. It is like nothing else coming out of the mines. It’s resurrection. It’s like bein’ born. It’s like layin’ with your girl in a big rolling field and counting the soft yellow glitters of fireflies against that blue-gray sky.

I put my lunch pail up on the table and don’t even get to take one bite.

All of a sudden, the mine shouts and grumbles angrily and smoke explodes through the metal mesh at the top of the elevator. It’s loud like you are throwing a firecracker and it went off too soon by your ear. My hearing’s all distorted. I make out that the back lefts’ collapsed.

Then I think of how I gotta be the one. The one to tell some honey-eyed baby doll that dinner ain’t gunna be the same for a while. And what knocking on that big oak door is gunna feel like. And how the words are gunna sound when I look Lange’s pop in the face and say, ‘your boy’s moving out after all, just like he said.’