Abel

I was excited. That excitement and joy was short-lived when we found out that most of his friends were in another league and he ended up on a team where he knew exactly none of the kids.

We were an hour into our first practice of our first t-ball season. My son wanted to give baseball a go. After all, his friends were playing, and he was five and what kid at that age didn’t want to do the same thing as all of his buddies. We signed him up in a league close to home—one with a pretty good reputation for grooming young boys into good ball players. 

The coach was a big man with a mainstay five o’clock shadow along his chin. He had two assistant coaches I would later find out worked with him. One of those coaches was the son of the man who built the ballpark. I sat on the hill watching as the three men tried to corral the group of young boys, Cate beside me, my daughter playing on the play set across from the field. Then the behemoth of a coach walked up the hill. 

“We’re a coach short and could use the help.”

“Me?” I asked. I looked around, thinking he really was talking to someone else.

“You played baseball, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then we could use your help.”

That was the beginning of my days as a coach in little league baseball. It was also the day I noticed Able, a shy boy with brown hair, and almond shaped eyes that didn’t seem to focus on any one thing. He looked at the ground, his shoes, his momma’s leg, back at the ground, his eyes and head never staying still too long. He looked as if he wanted to crawl inside himself and never come out. I could see him physically trying to blend in with the air around him, his elbows hugging his sides, his knees slightly bent in. He leaned into his mother’s legs. If he couldn’t disappear into the air, why not vanish into the black denim of her jeans?

I didn’t say anything at first, but I would later, at the season’s Opening Ceremonies, which other than having all the teams on the field at the same time and announcing the coaches, it was pretty much a waste of time. I hate to say that, but it is what it is.

During those ceremonies, the team mom, a lady named Patricia, held Abel’s hand as we walked onto the field to join the other teams, our hats in our hands. We waved at the crowd of onlookers when our team was announced. Like with his mother, Abel tried to fade into Patricia’s leg, the cheering and clapping from the crowd making him shake as if tiny earthquakes rumbled within his seemingly frail body.

Before the end of the ceremony his mom was on the field with him, and he clutched her leg and cried. I shook my head. I’m not going to lie when I say I thought the mother was being cruel for making him do something he clearly did not wish to do. I’m also not going to lie and say I didn’t think he was a bit on the spoiled side. I would soon learn I was wrong on both accounts, but not on that day. No, on that day, I looked down at my son, the eagerness on his youthful face, the dazzle in his blue eyes—there was excitement there, just like in the rest of the faces of the boys on our team. All except Abel’s.

The following Tuesday we had practice—the first of three that week before the season opener on Saturday. The coaches broke the team up into two groups, one dedicated to fielding and learning the bases, the other dedicated to learning the nuances of holding a bat and hitting, as well as learning how to stand in the batter’s box and keeping their eyes on the ball.  

I didn’t see Abel at the beginning of practice, and I let out a sigh of relief. Maybe his mother had come to her senses and decided not to force him to play. That relief fled as I saw her coming down the sidewalk, Abel melded to her leg. She stopped near Coach Jim, spoke a few words.

“Abel,” he said loud enough for all of us to hear. “Let’s get your helmet on and take a few cuts.”

From where I stood between Jeromy and Jamille, a troubled child with divorced parents, I could hear Abel crying and mumbling words I couldn’t understand. He finally let go of his mother. While Coach Jim slipped a helmet over his head, she ran to her car. Yes, she ran. A minute later, Abel held a bat in front of the tee, his shoulders hunched, legs bent in. He was still trying to disappear. The bat seemed too heavy for him and he held it near his stomach, the barrel pointing down. Coach helped him, putting his arms around his shoulders and easing him to the tee. He showed him the sweet spot of the bat, pointed to it and told him to swing.  

It was agonizing watching him barely get the bat to the ball, striking the tee or whiffing altogether. Then, he did it—he swung hard, struck the ball with good force. He jumped up and down, excitement ringing from his voice in unintelligible words. He swung several more times, hit the ball and squealed happily.  

When it was time for him to come into the field with me, he closed up again, his excitement having faded.

“Come with me, Abel,” I said and knelt beside him, trying the teacher approach of welcoming a new kid to class. “I’m going to be right beside you the whole time, okay?”

He looked up at me, his brown eyes slightly rolled up, his lips a twisted frown. My heart sunk. Not because of the realization that Abel was a child with special needs, but because of how I had felt about his mother, angered by her forcing him to play baseball. She wasn’t forcing him, but helping him, a mother hoping her son can adjust in some way or other into a world where he didn’t seem to fit in.

It was the single most eye-opening moment of my life.

Having friends with autistic children, I realized right then I needed something to relate to with Abel. I needed something he related to, something that could get his interest. That’s when I noticed he wore an Atlanta Braves jersey. Number 10. Chipper Jones.

“Abel, do you like Chipper Jones?” I asked.

His head jerked up; his eyes brightened. He smiled his crooked smile. “Chipper Jones? Chipper Jones? Chipper Jones?”

“Yeah, Chipper Jones,” I said. I glanced up at his mother. His grip had loosened, and I had a feeling I found the relatable content I needed. “Abel, do you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones?”

“Chipper Jones? Hit? Chipper Jones?”

“Yeah. Do you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones?”

He repeated his questions of Chipper Jones and hit. Yeah, that was the ticket I needed to get him to pick up what I was putting down.

“If you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones, you need to let me teach you hot to field like Chipper Jones, and how to catch the ball like Chipper Jones. Can you do that?”

Again, he said Chipper Jones several times. 

I stuck out my hand, “Come on, Abel, let’s go learn how to catch the ball like Chipper Jones.”

As Lady Luck would smile on a gambler from time to time, she smiled on me and Abel that day. He took my hand and walked with me out onto the field at some little elementary school I had never been to until we started having practices there. I helped him with his glove. I showed him how to stand and how to cup the ball in the glove using the alligator method. Chomp your bare hand down onto your glove hand when the ball gets to it. I pointed to the batter.  

“If the ball comes your way, you run and get it. Okay?”

He cringed a little but nodded. He could hear me; he could understand me. Then Coach D stepped up to pitch. He tossed the first ball, which was hit sharply by Cole, the boy at bat. The ball rolled toward Abel.  

“Abel,” I yelled, my heart lifting, “Get the ball!”

Without hesitation, he ran. The ball hit his foot, bounced off his shin. He picked it up and cheered himself for his efforts. I cheered, as well. Abel danced as the coaches clapped and yelled their “way to be’s.”

His mother stood from her car, clapping. Later, I saw her crying as she hugged him tight to her chest. I went up to her, tussled Abel’s hair and knelt beside him. “Abel, will I see you at the next practice?”

He smiled, gave a hearty nod.

“Give me five, buddy,” I said and stuck out my open hand. He slapped it hard and laughed. To his mother, I said, “Thank you for being a good mother.”

She smiled as another trail of tears slid down her face.

After practice, I went to my son and hugged him tight.

“Did I do good, Daddy?” he asked.

“Yes, buddy. You did great.” 

That’s not where this story ends. Where would the lesson be if I ended it here? I would love to say that Abel was the easiest kid to coach. He wasn’t. He tried, but his mind wandered a lot and so did he. But he stuck with it. His mother stuck with it. I stuck with it.

Coach Jim had a way about him that both scared the kids and enthralled them, so they listened, and our kids advanced far further than the tee ball level. By midseason our kids were hitting live pitching, whereas a lot of the kids on other teams were still hitting directly off the tee. Well, I need to correct that last statement. Except for Abel, the rest of the kids on our team were hitting live pitching. Don’t get me wrong, we pitched to Abel. He just couldn’t hit the ball. His hand/eye coordination and timing never seemed to flow together.

We had played nine games and Abel had not gotten a hit all season. I spent a lot of time with him, teaching him how to swing, teaching him how to hold his bat, teaching him how to stand, and no hits. I had not taught him to hit like Chipper Jones. Still, he tried. He swung as hard as he could, missing and usually hitting me with the follow through. I carried away many bruises that year. 

The season came to an end one hot June Saturday. Abel had been up to bat twice and had no luck hitting pitches thrown by Coach D. Then came his last at bat. I’m sure you can figure out where this is going, but I want to tell the story anyway. 

Abel came up to the plate, his orange- barreled bat in his hands, his dark blue helmet on his head. 

By this point in the season, I played catcher and caught the pitches Coach D threw that the kids didn’t hit. I had caught every one of them thrown to Abel. 

“Are you ready, Abel?” I asked as I knelt beside him at home plate. 

Abel nodded, but it wasn’t very confident. He looked like he did that first day I saw him, like he wanted to crawl into his own skin and hide away from the world.

“Look at me, Abel,” I said.

He fidgeted but didn’t look up.

“Abel, look at me.”

Finally, he lifted his head and held his gaze on me long enough for me to tell that somewhere in his mind he absolutely knew he couldn’t hit the baseball. I could almost feel his pain. Though he was special needs and I wasn’t, at one time I couldn’t hit a baseball, either. When I played the game, I got lucky to get a couple of hits every ten at bats. I just wasn’t that good of a hitter. I would get frustrated and down about it. I couldn’t imagine how he felt. My heart almost broke right then.

“Abel, you’re going to hit that ball, do you hear me?”

At first, he only stared at me. I repeated my statement, then he nodded. Again, it wasn’t a confident gesture.

I settled him into his stance and did the robotic diatribe I did with all the kids. “Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin, Abel. Watch the ball. Watch it all the way to the plate.”

Coach D tossed the ball. Abel swung, missed and spun like a top trying to dig its way into the ground. I caught the ball, tossed it back and looked at Abel. He shook his head but didn’t look at me.

“Get your bat up, Abel. Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin. Watch the ball, Abel. Watch it all the way until the bat hits it.”

Again, Coach D tossed the ball. It was just an underhanded lob to the plate. Abel swung with the ball still fifteen feet away. We did this two more times. The league had a five-pitch rule. If a kid hasn’t hit the ball after five pitches, then he has to hit it off the tee.

“Settle down, Abel,” I said. At this point I was sitting on my butt, legs criss-cross Indian style, the way they taught us in school when I was a kid. “Abel, listen to me. You’re going to hit this ball, and when you do, I want you to run all the way around the bases. Don’t stop, you hear me?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do, Abel?”

“Hit.”

“That’s right. Then what?”

“Run.”

“Don’t stop.”

“Don’t stop,” he repeated.

“Get in the box,” I said.

He stepped into the batter’s box. He was slouched over, the barrel of the bat touching the ground.

“Abel, bat up. Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin. Abel, watch the ball, hit the ball, and then run.” Then I added, “Hit the ball like Chipper Jones.” 

I tapped him on the back of his helmet, a gesture I hoped he took as encouragement. I squatted behind the plate, looked at Coach D, then nodded. Coach D tossed the ball. It seemed to float toward home plate. I swear I saw the seams of the baseball.

Abel lifted his front leg and swung the bat as hard as I had ever seen him swing it … and it connected. The ball rolled a few feet in front of the plate. Abel stood looking at it. Well stood is not quite accurate. He appeared to have full body shivers.

“Run!” I yelled. So did half the crowd in the stands watching the game.

Abel took off down the base path, but instead of heading for first base, he headed for third.

“Abel,” I yelled and chased after him. “Wrong way.”

I caught him halfway up the third base line and redirected him. 

It was one of those moments I wish I could have caught on video. But, really, I don’t need it—I have it in my memory. Every detail, as if it were yesterday and not ten years ago.

The infield was orange dirt, covered in the footprints of all the kids who played that day. The on-deck circle was still pretty much a circle, but the chalk outline had spread out and had been scuffed up quite a bit. The outfield grass was as green as it would get that summer and the kids in the dugout were all jumping up and down. I don’t know what they were screaming, but I know they were cheering as loud as they could. 

Abel was still holding the bat as he cut across the field from the third base line to the first base side. I remember this because I yelled for him to ‘drop the bat, drop the bat, Abel.’ He did drop it just before stepping on first base and jumping up and down as if he had just won the lottery. In a way, I guess maybe he didn’t win the lottery, but the rest of us had. You see, we were witnessing one of the greatest moments in our own lives. We just didn’t know it right then.

One of the coaches from the other team pointed to second base and yelled, “Run. Run. RUN!” I yelled for him to run. Abel did. Head down, arms flailing and legs pumping in an awkward gallop that was simultaneously one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The kids on the other team didn’t chase after the ball, as were their instincts to do so. They didn’t try to tag him as he rounded second and headed for third, then rounded third and headed home. 

I don’t know when I dropped his bat and fell to my knees just on the other side of home plate, but I had. I was yelling for him to ‘run, don’t stop.’ I waved my arms for him to run toward me. I don’t believe he ever saw that. His head was still down, and his arms were still flailing and his legs were still pumping for all he was worth. 

Halfway down the line he looked up.

He looked up.

Ummm … 

I get a little choked up here, and I’m hoping you will understand why.

You see, there was this … this … broad smile plastered on his face. His eyes dazzled brighter than I had seen on any child’s face before that day. I saw this through the face mask on his helmet, even as the helmet itself bobbed up and down on his head with each awkward step he took.

The little boy with special needs was living his dream, and for a brief moment in time, he was just like any other kid. But he wasn’t. He was flying. Somewhere in his reserved mind he was soaring through the clouds as he ran the bases. Then, just a few feet from home plate he dove, feet first. It was just as awkward as his gait, but just as glorious as well. He landed next to home plate and stamped one cleated foot on it emphatically. 

Then he stood and started his lottery dance again. I gave him a hug, just as I would my own son, then we gave each other a high five—him slapping my hand as hard as he could—and he continued to jump up and down, even as his momma stood in the dugout door, her hands over her mouth and nose, tears streaming from her eyes. 

That’s when I noticed everyone in the bleachers were not only standing but clapping and whistling and cheering. There were others crying, and there were tears in my own eyes, though I didn’t realize it right then.

Abel’s mom met him at the dugout gate, picked him up and hugged him tight. I don’t know if it was what she envisioned for him—I’m certain it’s not—but I know it was a proud, emotional moment for her.

It was over entirely too quickly. A season full of hours of practices and games. And it was over in less than five minutes. After the game, Abel’s mom came to me as I was getting my son’s gear together.

“Thank you,” she said. 

“Thank you,” I responded with a smile.

We talked for a few minutes. The words exchanged really doesn’t matter. What does is for a moment in Abel’s life he was just another little boy on a baseball team, wearing the joy in his heart on his sleeve as he ran the bases and slid into home plate. I bet in his mind it wasn’t just a hit, but a game winning homerun by Chipper Jones in the World Series that played out somewhere in his mind.

As I left the field with my family, holding my son’s hand, I was reflective of the season, of the first day I saw Abel and his mom and how wrong I had been in my assessment of the situation. That wrongful thinking drove me all season to help Abel play the game he loved. I think that was a heaping of guilt I carried on my shoulders until Abel got his hit. Then all that guilt was gone.

“Daddy, we played good today,” my son said as he tugged on my hand. 

I took his bag and slung it over one shoulder, then I picked him up. “Yeah, buddy, you guys played great today.”

***

If you’ve read this far, thank you. This is a true story. I changed the names of most everyone mentioned, including Abel’s. I chose the name Abel because I thought it was important to use something that showed it was possible to do this and what better way to show someone was able to do something than to use a name quite similar to the word ‘able?’

Abel would be around 16 or 17 now. I haven’t seen him since that last game. I wish I knew how he was doing, what he was up to. 

This story originally appeared in my short story collection, Ball Four. If you would like a copy of the book, drop me a comment below. 


Thanks for reading.

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

A.J. 

Meredith’s Umbrella–Rough Cuts #2

Today’s Rough Cut is a quick piece I wrote based on a comment to a Facebook post I made. The post was an image of a red umbrella on a blacktop road with what looked like blood around it. Honestly, it could have just been water. The question I posed was: What do you think of when you see this picture? There were almost 40 responses of a wide variation. 

One response, in particular, caught my attention. It was from Chaz Robertson, whose wife, Briana, is the author of some really dark and emotional stories. Chaz answered in a writerly way:  

“There is a rain drenched sobbing mother being held up by an equally wet and distraught police offer just off scene, stage right, there is a crashed car off scene up stage and stage left, there is a teddy bear hanging from the remains of the wrecked grill. The man behind the wheel reaks of booze and cordite. The pistol he used to kill himself after seeing the little girl under the umbrella lays on the passenger seat his limp hand close by.”

Another individual stated, simply: write that story. I know she was talking to Chaz, but my mind kept coming back to it. Over and over it kept saying what if? So, I finally sat down yesterday morning and pounded out this little story in about an hour before work. I sent it to Chaz, who liked it. Then, since it was his idea, I asked if I could post it here, as one of my Rough Cuts stories. With Chaz’s permission, I present to you Meredith’s Umbrella.

***

Meredith saw everything but she wished she hadn’t. 

Rain pelted the world. It came in sheets that went sideways, aided by gusting winds. It didn’t help that Main Street was a wind tunnel from the capital building all the way down to the courthouse eight blocks away. The road was the center of downtown, with shops, little eateries, apartment buildings geared towards college students, big hotels geared towards business types and coffee shops geared toward everyone. 

There wasn’t much traffic and the stores and eateries were mostly empty. The storm saw to that. Maybe tomorrow things will be back to normal. Meredith wasn’t so sure. Rain had been constant for the last three days and the weather man on Channel 6 News this morning said it would be here through the weekend and possibly into the early part of the following week. 

Meredith stood in the doorway of the small shop her mother owned. It catered to those with a sweet tooth. It wasn’t quite a bakery but was the closest thing downtown had to one. The treats were good, the coffee okay, the staff friendly and the atmosphere cozy.

She could get one of the pastries from the display case—she was fond of the raspberry cheese Danishes, but she wanted real food and the Mexican restaurant on the corner half a block down had the best chicken burritos. She stood at the door, her red umbrella in hand, and waited for the wind and rain to die down enough for her to make a mad dash the half block and not get completely soaked. 

Her stomach grumbled. She pressed a hand to it and whispered, “Be quiet.”

“You know that umbrella isn’t going to do much good,” Jim called from behind the counter. 

She glanced back. He was tall and lanky and his gray hair was slowly turning white. She wasn’t a fan of the man, but Mom liked him and allowed him to work there. Meredith guessed that was one of the perks to sleeping with the owner. She shivered at the thought and said nothing to Jim. Instead, she looked out the window as rain drops hit the glass and rolled down as if racing against every other rain drop. 

Maybe not, she thought, but I hope you’re wrong.

She doubted that. He was rarely wrong.

Meredith watched as the rain began to slacken and the wind tapered off so the trees on Main Street didn’t look like they were doing hula dances. 

“Now,” she said, not realizing she spoke out loud. She pushed the door open. A chill and a smatter of rain greeted her before she could get the umbrella up and open. She lowered her head and lifted the umbrella. With a press of the small silver button, the umbrella opened with a whoop and click. 

Meredith left the store and turned to her left, away from the wind. She held the umbrella slightly tilted behind her but still covering her head. With shoulders hunched and both hands clutching to the umbrella she hurried up the road. 

Two buildings down she came to the corner. The light was red in her favor and the crosswalk sign showed a white stick figure crossing merrily. She thought she might look like that stick figure, but with an umbrella over her head and not looking so merry. She went to step into the road, then stopped. The drain overflowed and the rain was ankle deep. Maybe that’s what saved her life—that one moment where she debated going back and eating a raspberry cheese Danish instead of crossing the road to the Mexican restaurant with the awesome chicken burritos. 

When she looked up, the stick man was gone, and a red hand replaced it. A couple of seconds later, the light turned green in the other direction. Though only one car poked along through the intersection, its wipers swooping quickly from side to side, its headlights on, Meredith waited for the light to change. That’s when she saw the woman and child crossing the street in the other direction of the intersection. They wore raincoats and rain boots—the mother’s were yellow and the little girl’s were pink. The girl couldn’t have been much older than five, or maybe younger. Meredith couldn’t tell. They held hands and the little girl seemed to stomp in the ever widening puddles. Clutched tight to the little girl’s chest was a teddy bear, who also wore a raincoat and boots—blue ones, in fact. 

Meredith smiled. It was one of those moments where she wondered if she would be a mother one day, if she would have a little girl she could stomp in puddles with. She hoped so. 

The mother and daughter reached the sidewalk and rounded the light pole on the corner. They stopped opposite Meredith. It gave her a chance to see the dimples on the little girl’s face, her soft pink lips and the brown bangs hanging down her forehead. 

When the light changed, Meredith looked in both directions. Though there were no cars coming down Main Street, one did come along the intersecting road. It swerved, it’s driver’s side tire hitting a puddle. Drain water sprayed into the air. The car swerved again. 

“No!” Meredith yelled as the car bumped over the edge of the curb and towards the mother and daughter. The mother had time to look back but nothing more. Somehow, the car missed her. Hours later, Meredith believed in her heart of hearts the woman would have rather been the one struck and would second guess why they were even out in the rain in the first place. 

The front of the car struck the little girl. She did a spin, like an ice skater would a graceful pirouette. The teddy bear was pulled free from the girl’s hand and the girl landed in the road several feet from where she stood less than three seconds earlier. The car turned sideways, spraying more water up from the road. The passenger’s side struck several parking meters before coming to a stop against one of the trees planted in the center of the sidewalk. 

There was a scream that seemed to last for minutes. The mother ran to her daughter. She dropped to her knees along the drain that had been too full to hold all the rain. Meredith didn’t need to see the girl’s face to know she was dead. Her little hand floated in the water, the hood no longer covering her head and her hair spread out like a halo beneath her. There was blood. She could see that much. 

Meredith wanted to run to the woman, to put her arms around her and pull her away from something no parent should ever have to see. Her legs felt like concrete as she hurried across the street. Her skin was cold. At some point, the umbrella had been lowered. Though the rain and wind began to pick up again, Meredith didn’t notice. 

Before she could reach the woman, a loud sound, like a gun going off, rang out to her right. Meredith didn’t duck. The woman didn’t move from where she cradled her daughter’s head in her arms. Meredith turned to where the car now sat. The driver’s side window was broken. A splatter of blood and hair clung to where part of the window was still intact. In the car, the driver’s head had tipped back, his mouth open, the top of his head missing. 

Meredith’s belly grumbled, not from hunger, but from a sudden rush of nausea. She bent over and vomited.

“Ma’am. Ma’am,” came a voice from somewhere nearby. Meredith wiped her mouth and stood straight. Over where the little girl lay dead, a cop stood. He was young, maybe not even in his thirties yet. He took the mother by her arms and helped her to her feet. The mother collapsed into his chest, her hands to her face. The officer—in a gesture Meredith would later say was the sweetest, most caring thing the cop could have done—put his arms around her and stroked her hair with one hand. She didn’t know what the officer said, and never would, but in that moment, she thought the officer was an angel and had come to the mother’s aid. 

Meredith glanced back at the car. The front end faced the road. Stuck in the grill was the little girl’s teddy bear. Her heart cracked and tears finally fell down her face. Meredith stumbled to the car, passing the blown-out window and the dead driver. Though it was faint, she could smell alcohol and what she thought was the residual odor of cordite from the gun. Meredith pulled the teddy bear free and started back across the road. She didn’t know its name, but she thought it was something cute, like Mr. Stuffings or maybe something simple like Teddy.

The rain increased; the wind picked up. Off in the distance came multiple sirens. But the little girl … she still laid in the road, her hand still moving with the steady flow of water running down the street, her eyes facing a sky they would never see again, her hair flowing out around her. Meredith’s shoulders slumped. On her heavy legs, she walked over to the little girl. She didn’t look directly at her as she bent down and placed her umbrella over the girl’s body. It bobbed in the water, but it did its job. It covered the little girl’s face and upper body. 

Meredith sat down on the curb, the water rushing over her shoes and sloshing onto the sidewalk, soaking her pants. She cradled the bear in her arms. As she rocked back and forth and cried into the soft fur of the stuffed toy, a brief thought entered her mind, then fled: Jim was wrong.

AJB

8/06/2021

ImPossible

My wife, Cate, joined a fitness group. They support each other with words of encouragement, congratulations on achieving goals, and friendship on their quests to become healthier. I’ve watched my wife take on this fitness routine with a fierce determination that makes me proud of her. They also do check-ins through the Marco Polo video app. Cate listens to them throughout the day, whether it is while she is driving or eating or just sitting on the couch resting after a long day. Seeing how I’ve been in the vicinity of my wife on a few occasions when she listened or watched these videos, I have heard a few of them. These women seem to genuinely care about each other, which is something we don’t see a lot of these days.

On the first Saturday in April, Cate and I took a day trip to several state parks here in South Carolina. Before we visited any of the parks, we popped into an RC car shop in Monroe, North Carolina, then went and had what amounted to brunch at this little diner called The Village Grill. As we sat and ate (me eating a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich and she eating a salad), she mentioned one of the videos she recently watched. The woman’s name is Marcia and her check-in was kind of typical check-in fair, but the main part of it was about one word: Impossible.

Before I continue with my story, let me state that after Cate told me about it, I asked if I could listen to it. A couple days later, as we sat at the kitchen table (me working on the RC car I bought the Saturday before, and she watching Marco Polo videos), she asked if I wanted to see the one by Marcia, the one about the word Impossible.

“Of course,” I said.

She tapped the screen of her phone a couple of times, then turned it around for me to see. Though, I didn’t look at the video, I stopped what I was doing and listened. 

Marcia mentioned how, at the beginning of the year, they were challenged with coming up with a word … a word for the year. It sounded like this word could be the one that defines their year. Or, maybe, it was a word of encouragement or something to strive for. Marcia liked the words some of the others came up with, but none of them was her word. None of them spoke to her. 

Then, in one of her workout programs, the instructor mentioned the word Impossible. It clicked with her. It resonated with her, and I think it might resonate with you—it did with me.

Stick with me. This next bit is important. 

Marcia mentioned how she is older (no, I’m not mentioning her age), and how she might have a little more weight on her bones than she thinks she should be carrying, and how she has bad knees. They were all things she could use to say she couldn’t do something, or maybe, something was Impossible for her to accomplish. It may not be exactly the same, but we all have things that we make excuses for why won’t try to do something. I don’t want to say it was an excuse for her, but I believe she alluded to it. 

Ahh, but then the instructor said that word. Impossible. It hit her. The word Impossible is made up of two words: I’m Possible. By seeing it as I’m Possible, the concept of Impossible changed for her. 

I’m Possible. Do you get that? Read it again:

Impossible … I’m Possible. 

Marcia goes on to state, in a somewhat excited tone, that “I’m possible to be the wife I need to be to my husband, the mother I need to be to my children …” But the realization doesn’t end there. She can be so much more—the possibilities are limitless. This was a huge realization for her.

There is more to Impossible and I’m Possible than just breaking the word into two and putting an apostrophe in there. It’s a mindset. It’s about believing in yourself, in your abilities, in your determination. It’s not making excuses.  

It’s about Can and Can’t. Possible and Impossible. 

If you go into something with the word Can’t (or Impossible) on your lips or in your heart, then you’ve sabotaged yourself. You’ve already given up, but you don’t realize it, yet. Mentally, you’ve checked out and you might think you are putting a lot of effort into something, but you aren’t—at least not the effort you could put forth if you went in with the mindset of I Can. Can’t or Impossible truly limits you in what you will do.

When I was younger, I played a lot of sports. I was good, especially at basketball. Every time I stepped onto the court I felt like I was the best player out there. It didn’t matter if I was or wasn’t because, mentally, I believed I was. Believing in yourself is more than half the battle. I sized up my opponent before the game started, and in my head and in my heart, I always believed, “I’m going to own you.” I never went into a game thinking my opponent could beat me, that he was better than me. 

It was a mindset. Just like Impossible and I’m Possible is a mindset. If you think it’s Impossible, it will be. If you think I’m Possible, YOU will be.

What Marcia did was look at things with new eyes. Instead of things being Impossible for her because she was a little older, maybe a little overweight, and had bad knees, she began seeing all things are possible if you believe. 

I’m Possible is also about ownership. Ownership of who you are, what you do, and how you view life. It’s making no excuses. There are no I Can’ts with I’m Possible. 

With that in mind, be possible. Not just possible, but be possible without limits. Believe in the term I’m Possible. Believe that you have the ability to do anything you want, and not just be who you are, but be who you want to be. Don’t say I can’t. Don’t give yourself a reason to not be possible. Be like Marcia. 

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

A.J.

They Seemed Okay

In April of 2018, I was sitting at a table on Main Street here in Columbia. I was eating a meal with my wife and listening to our favorite local band. The text tone on my phone went off. I didn’t check it. I have this pet peeve where I hate having dinner with someone and that person is constantly answering their texts or phone calls. So, the phone sat on the table, face down at I ate and Prettier Than Matt performed.

The text ring chimed again. And again. And again.

Finally, Cate said to me, “You might want to check that. It could be important.”

I flipped the phone over, typed in my password and checked the text. Cate had been right. It was important. 

I sat staring at my phone and shaking my head. I think I put one hand to my forehead and rubbed. 

“Everything okay?” Cate asked.

I shook my head. “No. (Name that shall not be mentioned) committed suicide last night.”

I wiped my mouth and responded to the multiple texts that I had received about the death of a friend. Just the night before I had talked to him—less than 24 hours earlier and he ‘seemed okay.’ 

Fast forward almost a year later. It’s now April 1st, 2019. I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed when I see an announcement that stopped my scrolling. A friend of mine’s son had posted on his mother’s page that she had died in her sleep. I thought it was a bad April Fool’s Day joke and I sent my friend a PM. 

It wasn’t a joke. She didn’t respond and by the time her mom responded a month later, her death had been confirmed by multiple people. It had been speculated she didn’t just go to sleep and not wake up. 

My friend had depression issues. She and I had talked about it on more than a handful of occasions. A few days before we had talked. Plans were being made for projects we were working on, for things she wanted to work on. She ‘seemed okay.’

In the last couple of years, four of my friends committed suicide. 

I’m going to pause here and let that sink in.

Fast forward to just a few days before Christmas of one of the toughest years ever, 2020. A friend of mine posted about his daughter’s sudden passing. I saw it, but said nothing right away. I thought my friend from my teen years probably needed his space, needed to grieve. 

The Monday after Christmas, I sent him a message. I’m going to be honest here: I was worried about him and I didn’t expect him to answer so quickly. Within two minutes, he responded and it shocked me to the point of nausea and speechlessness. His sweet, teenaged daughter had committed suicide. 

It brought tears to my eyes. His daughter was the same age as my son. My stomach knotted and I could only shake my head in shock and disbelief.

I’m still shocked.

I don’t know the situation behind my friend’s daughter’s suicide, but the two people I mentioned and the two I did not all had depression and anxiety issues. One of them suffered from PTSD and injuries he received while serving in the military overseas. My four friends all dealt with some form of mental illness, whether it was depression, anxiety or PTSD. Two of them didn’t think they measured up to the world’s standards. One of them was lonely and raising kids by herself. Her depression was debilitating, as was my military friend’s.

Listen to me for a moment. All of you who read this, all of you who follow this page, please listen to me. Mental illness is no joke. Depression is no joke. Anxiety is no joke. It’s as serious as Cancer and heart disease and any other sickness that can be deadly. 

Sadly, there is a stigma surrounding these things. You hear things like, that person is just seeking attention, or it’s not that bad, just a little sadness, or it’s all in their head, or, worse still, it’s just an excuse for whatever that person doesn’t want to do or deal with.

So often people who suffer from any form of mental or emotional illness are told to get over it, to rub some dirt on it, or any other way of saying this is a nonissue and they’re making more out of it than it is. I don’t cuss much on my website, but I’m just going to say this: that’s bullshit. People who deal with these issues can’t just get over it, can’t just move on or rub some dirt on it or man up. It’s a big issue for them. Sometimes it’s so difficult they can’t bring themselves to get out of bed or to go out around people. Sometimes the cloud of gray they are surrounded in is so thick and all encompassing that they see only one way out. They don’t see any sunshine on the other side of those clouds. For some—for many—there is only damp, cold and rainy days.

I’m not going to sit here and say I understand suicide. I don’t. I’ve never gotten why people choose to end their lives instead of seeking help. [[Let me clarify one thing before I continue: I think I do understand when someone is suffering from a terminal illness or who is losing their mental facilities thanks to illnesses like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.]] Here’s the thing: where are you going to get help from these days? It’s such a stigma that talking about it to others sometimes makes things worse in the fact that those people sometimes look at you differently once you air your depression or anxieties out. Sometimes reaching out can make things worse if you reach out to the wrong person. How wrong is that?

“They have issues.”

Don’t we all? Don’t we all have something that touches us in a way that hurts us on a whole different level? Don’t we all have our own demons we have to deal with? Just because someone can get over something doesn’t mean the next person can. Each person is different. 

We can medicate, but that’s not treating the issue, it’s treating the symptom. If you want to get to the cure or even to the ability to maintain this, you have to treat the root. You can snip the leaves all you want, but until the root is treated, the plant will keep growing. That’s not to say some people don’t need medication—they most certainly do, but that’s not always the cure. 

We can seek counsel from a therapist. That’s a start. Even that isn’t always going to help. 

What I think—and please understand these are my thoughts and how I feel about this and nothing more—is until we start taking the different forms of mental illness serious, it’s going to get worse. Until we start educating ourselves, our children and our leaders, about mental illnesses, it’s going to continue to get worse. We need to look at mental illnesses, not as a stigma or as something to be ashamed of, but as something that can be talked about, that can be openly discussed without being ridiculed or treated differently. Until we accept that many people can’t just ‘deal with things’ we’re never going to get hold of this.

And, again, listen. This is important. I mentioned ‘get over it’ earlier. Don’t say that. Ever. Just don’t do it.

She’s probably going to kill me for this, but my daughter has anxiety problems. Every feeling she has is amplified. She feels things on a much deeper level than I do. When she has a panic attack it’s a big deal. For the longest time, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand she couldn’t control them or when they happened or how long they lasted. For me it was as simple as ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ Essentially, that is just a lousy way to say an even lousier ‘get over it.’

I want to say this and I want to be clear about this: I. Was. Wrong. It should have never been ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ It should have been, ‘talk to me, tell me what’s going on, help me understand so I can help you.’ Don’t get me wrong, my default setting wasn’t get over it. It was to try and help, but when I couldn’t help, get over it became that default setting. That was shitty of me. I hate that I couldn’t help, but I hate even more my eventual reaction. It was wrong and it could have led to far worse things. I know this now and I’m thankful my daughter has learned the warning signs for when a panic attack is coming and that she can put herself in a place, mentally, to handle it—not to deal with it, but handle it. 

A panic attack can be as debilitating as any longterm pain. It’s a heightened form of anxiety that grabs hold of you like an angry dog to a bone, and it doesn’t let go so easily. Depression is the same way.

I wasn’t raised to understand depression, anxiety, panic attacks or any other form of mental illness. If I was sad then that’s all it was. If I feared something, then it was me being irrational. If I was unhappy, I had to ‘get over it.’ It took me a long time to understand that this is something that can crush a person and lead them to make decisions that I still don’t understand. 

Life is precious and the minutes are so few. I always thought from the time you take your first breath you begin dying, so why speed the process up? I don’t understand suicide. I don’t understand the mindset you have to be in to make that decisions. I’ve written about suicide in some of my fiction and I’ve tried to understand the pain and sadness of someone on the verge of ending his or her life. It’s a dark space to go as a writer. I imagine it is so much darker as someone struggling with depression and any other mental illness.

So, where does all this rambling leave us? It leaves us with me saying—no, begging—please, world, stop frowning on those who struggle with the various forms of depression and mental illnesses. Please, take their hand and help them. Please, don’t just listen to them talk, but actually hear them. You don’t always have to have the solution, but have the empathy to be a friend, and for Heaven’s sake, love them. Love them in a way that leaves them feeling loved, in a way they believe they are loved. Don’t be critical and rude and don’t tell them to ‘get over it.’ 

We all need to know someone cares—All. Of. Us.—so be that person who cares. Reach out, even if your friend or family member ‘seems okay.’ My two friends at the beginning of this ‘seemed okay’ when I talked to them last. They weren’t.

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

A.J.

Learning, Training, Practicing–Say What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I also found math boring. 

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

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

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

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

Training is mental as well as physical. 

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

Are you still with me? I hope so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then came the practicing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A.J.

At The Top of the Hill

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

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

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

Go ahead. Picture that. I’ll wait.

Are you done laughing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

An Author’s Gift

Recently, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. He’s a tremendous person with tons of talent when it comes to both music and the written word. He is humble and engaging. I enjoy our conversations. However, he struggles with confidence when it comes to writing. Man, do I get that? Yes, yes I do.

During the course of our conversation, I made a statement that has stuck with me. It was two sentences and I’m going to give you them one at a time, then put them together.

First: Writing is a gift to yourself.

For many people, writing is an outlet, a hobby, something they do because they feel the words. Sometimes, writing is used as therapy. Writing is also a profession that many, many people attempt to succeed at. 

gift-1420830_1920Whether or not you write for yourself or for publication, writing is an art form. It is like music and painting and sculpting and woodworking and any number of other things out there. Most people don’t pick up a pen, a brush or a guitar and right away know how to use those various instruments to create something good, great or magnificent. For most, our first attempts (and even our hundredth) aren’t all that good and are far from magnificent. Simply put, it takes time to develop the necessary skills to create art.

Like with any other learned skill, it can be frustrating, and so often we give up before we get started because we get discouraged that we can’t do what others do. Let me quote Theodore Roosevelt here:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

If you know me at all, you have probably heard that statement. I, for the longest time, struggled with comparing myself to other writers. I struggled with comparing myself with their successes and the lack of my own. I struggled with wondering how in the world can someone who isn’t that good of a story teller sell so many books or have so many fans and I couldn’t do or have those things. I struggled with comparing myself to others instead of enjoying what I do and how I do it. It made it difficult to write because I would get so angry that I would rant and rave to my wife (who has always been so patient with me) about my failures and others’ successes. She always said, “You will get there one day,” and little by little, I have.

Back to the point. I learned how much I enjoyed creating stories when I stopped worrying about what others were doing and comparing myself to them. I didn’t say writing stories. I said creating stories. Creating is art, and I create art. But I don’t do it for you, the readers. I have to make that clear, not to you, but to me. I write stories for me. I create art for me. It is the one gift I can give myself every single day.

As of this writing, I have created over 2000 short stories, twelve novels, dozens and dozens of songs, a handful of poems and quite a few haiku.  I have created this art from my brain, my heart and through my fingertips. I have given myself these gifts over the years, and I have kept every single one of them. 

Part of this gift to myself is seeing growth in my abilities. I can go back and say, Man, I wasn’t all that good in 2004, but look at where I was in 2008, then where I was in 2010 and where I am, here and now. I can see growth in everything I write, everything I create. And it excites me and makes me want to create better works with words. That excitement is such a gift. 

Another part of this gift to myself is when I complete a story, when I see it through from beginning to end, I get to see the finished product. I get the self-satisfaction that I succeeded in creating something out of nothing. I get the joy of completion. These are gifts that others can’t give me. I can only give them to myself.

Second: Sharing your writing is a gift to the world.

We all have our favorite authors. They are like the relatives that give us the best gifts at Christmas or for birthdays. They are the aunts or uncles you go to when you need a pick-me-up. They are the people you can rely on to make a gloomy day better. You sit, you open one of their books and you begin to read. Pretty soon, you become engrossed in their words, mesmerized by their stories, and for a few minutes, an hour or two, the world is a little better because you aren’t dwelling in it. You get enjoyment from their stories. You feel because of something they wrote. For a while, you are alive in someone else’s world.

It’s an amazing gift you get to keep forever, either on your bookshelf or on a digital device (or both), but most importantly, in your memories. 

women-4465904_1920I see where people post pictures on social media with the caption, Making Memories. You see pictures of people at the beach and captioned or hashtagged with it is Making Memories (#makingmemories). You see pictures of people out to dinner and you see those words. You see pictures of people on vacation and there are those words, making memories. It’s like pictures we take out of a box from our childhood. If it’s a Polaroid (if y’all don’t know about Polaroids, Google is your friend) there is usually something written in the white space beneath the image. 1982, Tony, Buddy, Me. If it’s a photo that was developed at any fine establishment such as CVS, Walmart, Eckard’s or any other place like those, then most of the time there will be writing on the back of the image. The only difference is we made memories without saying, Making Memories and sharing all those photos with the world. #I’mreallygladwedidn’thavesocialmediawhenIwasakid. 

These pictures are all memories of the past, of when things were better or maybe worse. They’re memories. Some of those memories are the most beautiful gifts you can have. To be fair, some of those memories are like having bad hair on picture day at school. You want to forget that happened, but the picture is there to taunt you for the rest of your life.

Stories are the same. 

When an author shares their work with you, they are giving you a part of their gift to themselves. They are saying, hey, I want to share my gift with you. I want you to partake in my excitement, in my art … in a piece of me. 

Let’s look at that last part for a minute: hey, I want you to have a piece of me. Our stories are our babies. We’ve been with them from conception (the idea), to birth (the writing), to adulthood (completion). We’ve watched them develop and change, sometimes struggling to raise them (use the right words) and correct them (rewrites and edits). Then we let them go and we hope we’ve done our best. Sometimes, before we let them go out into the world, we hug them a little tighter (go over the story one more time), then we say, ‘Okay, child, it’s time for me to let you go.’

Sometimes, it’s terrifying. 

But we’re also ready for that story to go out into the world, to earn a living. They are our children, and by an author saying, hey, here’s my story, he or she is giving you the gift that is a piece of their hearts, their souls, their lives. And those authors want their stories to be accepted, to be loved, to be read and remembered in a positive light. 

My friend and I are both huge Pearl Jam fans. Back in August of 2019, my friend stood in a pub in Wilmington, Virginia, and belted out Once, By Pearl Jam. He dedicated the song to me. I still have the video on my phone. It was a gift to me, a memory I will always have (#makingmemories). It’s also a memory I cherish because it was so much a part of himself that he offered, not only to me, but to everyone there who witnessed it. 

If you’re an author, writing is a gift to yourself. It is a wonderful, beautiful thing to treasure, to look back on, like an old picture. It’s a gift you get to keep to yourself and you’re not being selfish by doing so. It is something nobody can ever take away from you. But if you choose to share your writing, then you are giving the world a piece of that gift, a piece of you and who you are. 

If you’re a reader, you can give a gift back to your favorite author(s). You can buy their books, you can write reviews and you can let the author know you appreciate the gifts they give you with the words they write.

As always, until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Thank You

Now that April has passed and May is here, I wanted to take a minute (or five) to thank y’all for stopping by during the past month of stories. It means a lot to me that you all came by, checked out my website, read my stories and subscribed, liked, commented and shared my work with others. 

Reading 1At the end of last year, Cate and I sat down and figured out a game plan for 2020. We discussed events, signings, book clubs, speaking engagements and new releases. In order to really do well at any of those events, we needed new books to promote. We planned to release five books in 2020, two of them in March, one in April, one in June and one in October. Well, here it is, May 1st, and none of the books have been officially released.

That was completely my decision. 

With the current state of affairs in the world today, I just didn’t feel good about releasing books at a time when people are losing jobs and money is tight for so many. My moral side said, “Don’t do it, A.J.” My business side said, “Release those books.” Morality won out, for the most part. 

At the time this pandemic began to spread in America, We were days away from releasing My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert. Books were purchased and we had been promoting it through social media in anticipation of its release the next weekend. Two days earlier, we had participated in a book club discussion of my first novel, Cory’s Way. We didn’t know then that all the events we had scheduled for March, April and May would be cancelled.

As things progressively got worse around the country, I was sent home for a week because of possible exposure to the virus. Fortunately, I didn’t get sick and I went back to work. However, during that time of quarantine, I thought more and more about the releases that didn’t happen and that were not going to happen. 

Instead of releasing a new book, I decided on a cheaper alternative for you, the readers. I set my mind to putting out one story a day for the month of April on my website. All of them free. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I wanted to give folks who were at home during this time something they could read without shelling money out of their pockets. 

Reading HeartI hope you enjoyed the month of April. I enjoyed bringing you these stories and I hope they brightened your day, week, month a little. There will be more stories in May, including a four part story titled, Because I Can. 

I will also be promoting more of my books in the coming weeks, because the truth is, I’m an author and with all of the events that have been cancelled, book sales are way down.   I’ve added a purchase tab on the website (you can find it in the upper right hand corner) that has information about purchasing autographed print books. I’ve also added a donation button at the bottom of every post, so if you just want to throw a little love to your friendly neighborhood author, he would greatly appreciate it.

I would like to thank you all once more for a wonderful April. I look forward to the coming months and I hope you will stick around, like the posts, share them and comment on them. I would love to hear from you all. Also, if you have any suggestions on what you would like to see, drop me a line.

For now, I hope you have a wonderful day, night, weekend and life. Be safe, and until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Our Once Upon A Time (Free Fiction)

Our Once Upon A Time

By A.J. Brown

Once upon a time …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found myself in tears, heart aching and breathless. 

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

“I have to.”

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

“He’ll come looking for me.”

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

“Then run away. I’ll go with you.”

“No. No. He’ll kill you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a time seems so long ago.  

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

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

__________

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

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

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

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

A.J.

 

The Path Not Taken (Free Fiction)

The Path Not Taken

By A.J. Brown

Why couldn’t Myra give in just this once? It’s always her way. My way or the highway, as she liked to say. Sometimes that’s not such a good idea.  

Myra, my one true love and my biggest pain in the butt all rolled up into one person; always telling me what to do, when to eat and even when to go to bed. I always did as she said. I didn’t really care for the way she gets when she doesn’t get things her way.  Little did she know I would get up in the middle of the night after she had gone to bed and eat what I didn’t from the night before or stroll around the house, seeing what I could get into, just to defy her a bit.

“Let’s go this way,” she said and began down a not so worn path in the woods.

I didn’t want to go in that direction. I had a funny feeling something was wrong and those feelings were usually accurate. One time a storm was brewing way off in the distance. I tried to warn her but she wouldn’t listen. She never did.

“There ain’t a cloud in the sky,” she said, even looked up for emphasis. “Quit your whining and come on. It ain’t gonna do anything.” She was wrong and we both liked to drown when that storm hit, and the pond rose too fast and swept our feet out from under us. 

This time I tried to get her to go in the other direction, on a path that was a little well-worn and easily identifiable. It was a path I had been along many times with Rhett.

“Fred, we’re going this way,” she insisted. “Don’t fight me on this.”

I let out a deep breath and shook my head slightly. This is not going to be good. I could smell something terrible about to happen. I held my ground and refused to budge. I even backed away a little.

“Fred, come on,” she all but growled. “It’s about to rain and we’re going to get soaked if you don’t get a move on.”

I looked toward the sky. Gray clouds gave way to black ones. This was not good. Not good at all. The first rain drops hit me and my hair stood on end. I hate storms. I hate them, hate them, hate them. Then came streaks of lightening and loud thunder claps.

“Fred, let’s go.”

With the rain pouring down I still refused to go with her. I looked back in the direction I thought was safe. She was going to have to drag me or carry me if she wanted me to go with her.

path“Fine,” she snapped. “Stay here, then. Don’t bother coming to the door and begging to be let in. It’s not going to happen.”

Myra turned and stomped off in the mud. I took a couple of steps forward as if I was going to follow. I stopped and listened to the rain pelt the trees and ground around me; to the thunder above me; to the wind whipping around me; to the sudden scream of terror that echoed from the path not too far away from me.

“Fred!” she yelled for me. “Please, help me. Fred!”

My name was the last word from her lips.  

I took a few cautious steps along the path. When I saw the large grizzly bear snapping Myra’s body from side to side like it was a rag doll I stopped. Then I ran along the path I had wanted to take until I came to an opening. In the distance I could see the house.  When I got to it, Rhett was sitting on the porch, smoking his pipe.

“Fred, where’s Myra?” he asked.

I turned and looked back to where I had come. I ran a few steps in that direction and stopped. 

Rhett’s eyes grew large with the sudden realization that something was terribly wrong.  He was off the porch in no time, following me.

There wasn’t much left of Myra when we found her and the bear was gone.  

Now, I sit on the porch, looking toward those same trees where I had ventured so many times when I was younger. I miss Myra, even with her stubborn ways. Rhett does too.  Occasionally, he pats me on the head with a warm hand.

“You’re a good dog, Fred,” he says. “A good dog.”

_________

This story was written for a prompt in a writing group dedicated to flash fiction. The way it worked was a prompt was posted on Mondays. You could not open the prompt message until you have one hour to write. That’s all you got. One hour. You also were not allowed to go over 1000 words, not including the title of the story. You spent your hour writing and editing if you had time, then you submitted the story to the group. Next you had to read the stories of the other participants and vote for your top three stories. The winner would choose the prompt for the next week. I loved doing them and I got a lot of cool ideas from writing in this group.

The prompt for this story was simple: you are either an animal or its owner and there is danger ahead. That’s it. I chose the animal.

I hope you enjoyed The Path Not Taken. I also hope you will like this post, comment on it and share it to your social media pages. 

A.J.