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A tattered page from my Red Clay Diary…

I am on the last leg of the day, trying to get into and out of the Southside grocery store and make it home for some after-work peace and quiet.

As I pass the in-house buffet line en route to the dairy section, a clerk asks whether I want to pick up supper. I brusquely tell him “no” without pausing, then glance quickly at the prepared food and see that there are three small barbecue ribs left floating in their burgundy sauce. They are calling out to me.

We need to eat something fast-foody, so I say, “Uh, sir, I think I just changed my mind.” He walks over and I point to the ribs. “Can I just buy what’s left, and nothing else?” I figure that Liz and I can have a nice meal of leftover cole slaw and the ribs before collapsing into our post-long-day stupor at home.

While the clerk is weighing and pricing my order, the pleasant woman who usually works the counter walks up.

“Long day,” I say. “Yes, long day,” she says. We always exchange pleasantries. A woman and man pass behind me, heading for the produce section, and the clerk’s eyes flash. She looks at me knowingly and says something I don’t quite understand, nodding toward the couple. I ask for a repeat, she says the same thing, which I still don’t get, but it’s obvious she’s had an emotional PING and wants to share an opinion and a confession. It’s her body language that tells me this.

“Nobody’s going to do THAT to ME,” she says. I turn around but can only see the backs of the couple.

“What do you mean?”

“Her eyes all wide like that, it’s not right,” she says.

I finally figure out that she means the woman has two black eyes.

I say, “That’s terrible,” acknowledging the fact that she thinks the woman has been abused.

“No man will ever do that to me,” she confides with set jaw.

I cluck sympathetically and mouth some platitude in empathy.

She goes on.

“My ex-husband beat me up.”

“That’s terrible,” is all I can say again, and I mean it.

Her words tumble over the counter.

“He beat me with a hammer,” she continues.

“Holy Moly,” I say to myself and lean forward to learn more.

“But I got him good,” she brags.

I wonder how a small woman like this could stand up to an abusive male probably twice her size.

“I taped him up and set him on fire when he was asleep,” she says, proudly. “He’ll never do THAT to anybody again.”

I can only do what any writer might automatically do. I ask what happened next. There’s always a sequel, since no story ever really ends, you know.

“Did they do anything to you?” I ask. Both of us know who the They is I’m referring to.

“Heck, no, why would they?” she says.

I can only nod sympathetically again, mumble something about how glad I am she lived to tell me the story, and walk on over toward the dairy section for the half and half for Liz.

I pass by the couple and see the woman’s battered eyes for the first time. I know why the sight of them triggered the cook’s story. I wonder if this is what happened to her, too.

Later, writing this down for you to read, I wonder about barbecued wife-beaters and barbecue ribs and what kind of celestial relationship they might have to one another in this enormous and rather puzzling universe


© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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My world is bordered by an oddly-shaped wall and sheltered by an infinite dome. An Alabama wall that extends from one special point in Tuscaloosa to another in Peterson to another in West Blocton to, finally, my current home in Birmingham. The dome is always above, itself a kind of enclosure that, with the assistance of gravity, does not allow escape.

I was raised on Eastwood Avenue in T-Town, visited and played with McGee relatives on Pat McGee Road in Peterson, and with Reed relatives on Rose Lane in West Blocton. Now, 55 miles from Eastwood Avenue, I live on Birmingham’s Southside and work on nearby 3rd Avenue North, Downtown.

That’s about the size of my world. Small, isn’t it?

But within that compound, under that dome, I can go anywhere, do anything, in my imagination.

Guess I was destined to be a writer of words, a teller of tales. And mainly, I more and more find myself preaching the gospel of Paying Attention. I enjoy pointing out the wonders and perplexities of life to help fortify my hunch that no matter how small the compound, no matter how fettered the body, this world is bigger than I can ever imagine. The dome is immeasurably high.

Whenever I seek consolation or protection or sanctuary from daily travails, I turn inward. Inward is the only peaceful place, the only constant I recognize in a shifting and sometimes shifty world. And Inward is all mine, a place protected from insurrection, a special community of one that I take with me wherever I go. A place I will take with me on the day that I finally Go.

One more meandering thought:

I no longer proselytize or try to tell others what to do with their lives.

I no longer rail against the way things are, for they are what they are.

I no longer think I can change the world or even alter the course of impending train wrecks I spy all about me. Instead, I now attempt to be the best side of me.

I now believe that it is important to observe those around me and simply be available when needed.

I believe in treating each encounter as if it is the best and final encounter.

I believe in leaving a trail of goodwill and kindness.

I believe that now and then this trail will provide solace to those who are ready to notice it.

I believe in all the great and wonderful times I’ve experienced within the wall and under the dome.

I believe in saying “I love you” to those I love, each and every time I encounter them–just in case they are in doubt.

And finally, as a writer who has learned a few lessons, I believe in shutting up in order to listen to you while you tell me about your life and feelings.

Go on, I’m listening


© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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On the Kerouac Least Heat Moon Steinbeck road to somewhere that’s not Here, parts of my mind are rattling around in an effort to remain awake and alert.

I’m driving a certain distance, watching the highway the cars the drivers the signs the markers the passing foliage, all in an effort to arrive safely and in one piece at my destination. But this bundle of alertness doesn’t take up all the space in my head, so part of me just keeps on writing and making notes, marking notations, taking imaginary selfies of both world at large and thoughts internal.

Having never driven behind myself, I don’t know what my car and I look like to someone approaching from the rear. But I do know what the rear driver and car look like because the three rearview reverse-image mirrors in my vehicle reflect scenes from a life distantly lived, distantly imagined.

The Tastykake glazed cherry pie I’m munching on provides refreshment accompanying my three-screen viewing of this rear-approaching person, and I can’t help recording details. She is dabbing at her nose with a tissue while glancing at the reflection of a car behind her. She is talking animatedly to an invisible friend, or to a small child I cannot see, or to a phone buddy…or to herself. Diagnosis of schizophrenia is a complicated thing these days, it being the case that everybody talks to the vacant air just about all the time.

The great challenge of our species is how to fill the times in between with something worthwhile, or at least something non-damaging to others. What do I do with myself during the times in between? Observing what goes on around me, fore, aft, left, right, below, above, inside, out, is something to keep me busy and out of trouble.

The Tastykake is crunchy and dribbly, the roadway running beneath my car is potholed and patchy, the sky is cloudy and gray, the car behind me is mottled and old, I the driver am also mottled and old. But the neverending road leads on, the overlapping thoughts and feelings and imaginings continue unabated.

The reverse-image driver’s rounded face is unreadable. Her eyebrows point up, like a theatre drama/tragedy mask. Her expressions alternate between wonderment and pain. But she stays the course, managing the endless highway and the endless chatter and the runny nose and the hundredfold additional sadnesses and thrills with which she must deal.

I pass by a vacant Hamburger Heaven with an enormous CLOSED sign. I wonder whether this means Heaven is closed to all hamburgers, whether there are hamburgers in Heaven, whether Heaven itself has shut down, whether the neverending road is all there is.

At last I approach the City and watch as it absorbs the sunrise morning into its cement glass metal concrete brick self, only to reflect back at me its ambient light and heat. It is familiar and comfortable. It is my Kerouac Least Heat Moon Steinbeck Tastykake destination.

I dab cherry syrup from my beard, house my rusty metal steed in its stable, grunt my way to a standing position and continue the few steps leading to today’s next adventures

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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On a windy sunny morning Downtown, I’m strolling along Third Avenue North, as usual keeping to myself while covertly observing everybody and everything around me.

It is cemented into my daily behavior, this passion for paying attention to tiny things and tiny lives, tiny things and tiny lives that might otherwise be ignored or expunged from memory.

Suddenly, reality walks right up to me and snarls, causing me to shift focus from the important to the unnecessary.

A young woman stands on the sidewalk, staring off to the west at oncoming traffic, as if waiting for someone or something. She looks neither left nor right.

Off in the distance, I see the Screaming Man approaching. The Screaming Man is a Downtown regular. He haunts the landscape so much that we denizens pay little attention to him…until he gets out of hand.

The woman leans over the curb, again seeming to be searching—perhaps hoping to hail a ride.

I know the habits of the Screaming Man, so I instantly feel protective of her. He is going to walk up to her, ask for money, scream epithets if she turns him down, maybe knock her purse out of her hand. I’ve seen it happen before.

I say, “Good morning” in a cheerful voice, hoping to engage her so that the Screaming Man will decide to pass on by and not take on both of us. This sometimes works.

“Uh, good morning,” she mumbles, surprised that anyone would speak.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I continue, glancing at the Screaming Man, who is trying to decide whether to stop.

“Are you trying to hail a cab?” I ask—you can’t hail cabs in Birmingham, and many visitors do not know this.

“Yes, but I don’t see any.”

The Screaming Man wobbles past, talking to himself and hollering at the windy towers.

I give the pedestrian the number of Yellow Cab, since I’ve never used Uber. She is grateful. I continue my stroll.

Now, back to tiny things and tiny lives and tiny moments and tiny kindnesses.

It’s all in a morning’s stroll, a morning’s effort to expunge the bad and focus on small wisdoms, hidden comforts, unexpected joys


© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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Love of books often has little to do with the books themselves but with the surroundings, the time, the associations, the feelings, the fragrances and the adrenalin rushes.

Each booklover brings into a book a special burden, a special package of memories and expectations, a special preconceived notion of what a book is and what it will do for them.

One of my favorite customers repeatedly recaptures her childhood by purchasing all the books she remembers and therefore all the memories associated with them. She recalls with a glowing smile how her father read to her when she was small. He lay on the edge of her bed and read stories aloud while she snuggled close to his side and felt the warm vibrations of his voice through his chest.

Her memories include the wonderfully secure feeling she had during these childhood times, and she can call them up whenever she is reading in bed at night, those loving and just-right notions that children have that nothing bad is ever going to happen in life.

I can vividly remember what it was like to lie on the floor of the bedroom my brother Ronny and I shared and, while Ronny was outside methodically searching for four-leaf clover, I would read and re-read my favorite stories from our set of JUNIOR CLASSICS or our volumes of CHILDCRAFT.

The room was painted dark blue–at our request–and the curtains were filled with stars, so it wasn’t hard to take a trip outside our bodies whenever we pleased, into another solar system, over to the other side of the world, or deep into the innards of the earth, places where stories in books had already been.

My dog Brownie would lie there staring at me, waiting impatiently for me to get away from those books and come play with him, and he always enjoyed the game in which I stared intensely into his eyes from a distance of about six inches until he would finally snap at me to break the spell, never coming close enough to bite but always making me flinch back just in case.

Brownie himself has become part of my stories and he is thus now in existence both as a great memory and as the subject of tales that will someday be in books and blogs and podcasts. Perhaps someday Brownie and I will exist only as books, since all those people who have known us will have long passed.

My greatest hope is that the books Brownie and Ronny and I shared will survive us long enough to be enjoyed centuries later by kids who are finally coming back around to discovering these marvelous artifacts with pages and stains from little boys’ fingers and small dogs’ sniffings

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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Three-year-old Jimmy Three is stooping low, almost squatting, here on the front lawn of his parents’ home. His head is inches above the base of a holly tree, and he is peering intensely at a spiderweb.
The fresh, dewy summer morning sun warms his back while he waits for signs of the spider’s arrival.
Jimmy Three remembers being taken to a sawdust circus just weeks ago, a canvas-tent cathedral filled with playful clowns and glowing tigers and pretty acrobats and lithe jugglers, all existing for the moment just to please J. Three and other admiring kids.
But the memory he treasures most is the one where a safety net topples to the ground just before a limber trapeze artist does his airborne triple-somersault feat.
Earlier, the acrobat flips through the air and effortlessly flies above the gasping crowd, safely rescuing himself at the last moment in the clutches of a fellow performer. Then, for a suspenseful tick or two, he stands high up on the small suspended ledge, stares down, then free-falls down, down, down to the waiting net, where he lands, bounces, and forward-flips himself safely to the ground.
The crowd and Jimmy Three are happy and satisfied. But the acrobat has just begun.
At the holly tree, a gangly black spider cautiously appears on the web, making it quiver a bit. Jimmy Three doesn’t move, doesn’t blink.
The circus crowd applauds, then suddenly freezes. That’s because the trapeze artist is now knocking aside the metal posts that suspend and secure his safety net. In seconds, the net is flat on the ground. The acrobat glances up at the high platform and begins ascending the ladder.
The spider begins its eight-legged journey to the center of the suspended web. Jimmy Three wonders what would happen if the web fell and the spider fell with it. Do spiders survive such falls? He picks up a nearby twig.
Now the circus acrobat is back on the ledge. The trapeze is freeswinging, teasing him with its closeness, penduluming back, out of reach. The artist’s companion is at another ledge across the tent, waiting to swing and catch his partner should he decide to do a netless triple flip.
Before the crowd has time to gasp, the act is in motion, the rapid muscular flips are done, the actor securely rescued, the finale underway, and the singular moment permanently recorded in the imaginations of every child present.
Jimmy Three smiles to himself at the memory, waves at the safely bouncing spider in the morning web, puts aside the stick he was about to employ, and goes on to the task of finding four-leaf clovers in the dusty yard


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My favorite road signs and display signs are the ones that grow larger in memory as time passes.

Cruising past a variety store/thrift store/remainder store I notice a carefully hand-lettered-hand-colored poster that prominently states, EARS PIERCED WHILE YOU WAIT.

It’s not until a few beats later that the message snaps back at me. EARS PIERCED WHILE YOU WAIT.

What I enjoy most about signs like this is that they actually communicate, with a high degree of accuracy, what they are attempting to get across to passersby, despite their humorous blend of common sense and mixed metaphor.

Even though I write and edit as part of a vocational calling, I am careful NOT to correct every grammatical or syntactic misuse I see. Especially when the communication is deliberate and the message immediately understandable. I almost admire the creative and original way the author has laid out this cardboard placard idea.

Another handmade sign at another independent roadside sale: THE SALE LASTEZ TILL MARCH 6.

This statement precisely reflects, economically and simply, exactly the way the proprietor talks and, again, I can’t find fault with its clarity. THE SALE LASTEZ TILL MARCH 6 says it all. No proofing red marks allowed.

As a kid, I used to ponder over the meaning of metallic intersection signs that warned NO U TURN. It took me years to decide what this message meant. Was it a shorthand way of saying, “Don’t you turn here,” or “There is no way for you to turn here,” or was it something that only grownups understood, and was it any of my business anyhow? NO U TURN.

For weeks now, just a block from my home, I pass a large orange sign that has been damaged to read, ME WORKING. The N has been obliterated and the message altered. I keep meaning to have Liz take a picture of me next to the sign, holding a shovel and grinning idiotically. But I never get around to it. One day, there is actually a hardhatted city employee digging up part of the street near the sign. I’d love to see all hard workers sporting badges that say ME WORKING. Or, during breaks, ME NOT WORKING.

My brain does rattle on, doesn’t it?

I guess just jotting all this down for your entertainment means that ME BE WORKING.

I hope your laughter and goodwill lastez while you wait and that you make no dangerous U turns, at least on my watch

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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Horace and I are free-falling down an elevator shaft, much to my horror, much to his delight.

The time is many years ago when Birmingham still has living elevator operators on duty in each tall building. Horace is the uniformed elevator man at the controls. I am the hapless businessman who makes the mistake of stepping aboard, wearing suit and tie and carrying briefcase.

Horace and I are alone in the elevator, so for the moment he is in total charge of me and my smug universe. At least for the next fifteen stories down.

Horace’s ritual is clear to me only later, when I’m trying to calm down, when I am counting my lucky stars.

Earlier, the upward ride from first to fifteenth is smooth and gentle, as there are other passengers present. But right now, with no-one else aboard, Horace has a chance to play his game, the only game in which he for a few seconds has total control of his life. And mine.

Horace nods a polite, obligatory nod and grasps the handled wheel as he closes the clanging doors.

Staring expressionless straight ahead, he spins the wheel to what I can only assume is full throttle position, and the elevator begins its joy-ride drop.

I back up against the wall and clutch my briefcase, gasp deeply and glance in panic at Horace, who is elegantly expressionless and artfully oblivious to my plight.

The elevator descends as if in free flight, my stomach ascends as if compensating for the fall, I suddenly decide that this is definitely a structured game. I must play my part.

Pretending to ignore my internal churnings, my last rites recitations, my roller coaster fears, I, too, become stoic and expressionless, lest Horace reduce me to a whimpering mass.

Just before the feeling of certain death and transfiguration, the elevator magically screeches to a halt at the first floor. I try experiencing breathing again. I straighten my tie, hold my head up as if nothing unusual has occurred. Horace opens the doors and I wobble through them to the lobby, just as he says in his most gentlemanly and polite voice, “Watch your step.”

And so I shall, so I shall.

One thing I learn from this experience is that exercise is good for me. You know, at my tender age, walking down fifteen flights next time is probably going to be the right thing to do.

Assuming I ever enter this particular building again

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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One enthusiastic customer, beaming, walks up to the front of the store balancing a waist-to-chin stack of books he wants to purchase.

As I begin to add up his finds, I notice that they are all about astronomy, the scientific heavens, real space travel, cosmic phenomena, stargazing, telescope making…

This takes me back to a time some sixty years ago when I was an amateur astronomer reading and poring over some of these same titles.

I wax nostalgic about my childhood planetarium, star maps, late-night watches, eclipse predictions…

“You know there’s going to be a major solar eclipse this year!” he reports. He plans to travel to the Carolinas with family to view an event most people won’t even know is happening.

OK. This makes me want to tell the story of my blacktop fireflies.

Stop me if you’ve already heard this. Here goes…


 The firefly nights and the ‘skeeter mornings frame each day as we the children of summer and autumn play at our chores and work hard at our play.

Back then, in childhood (where I suddenly am transported), time doesn’t matter at all. We are too young to notice time slipping and sliding past our nighttime openscreened windows.

Sometimes we lie on our backs on the black flat roof of our small home at 26 Eastwood Avenue in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and gaze up at the stars and the planets and the Moon and an occasional meteor and an even less frequent comet, and we lie there and breathe the dampened chilly nonpolluted air, sometimes unable to tell the difference between shooting stars and spasmed fireflies.

The shooting stars can be oohhed and ahhed at, but we can never catch one unless we are lucky enough to be hit directly, and then wouldn’t we be famous for a while? “There goes that boy who got hit by that meteor,” everyone would say.

The fireflies we  touch and gently cradle in our palms and place in widemouthed Ball jars for a few minutes in hopes of getting enough together to light the entire neighborhood, but we never gather quite that many, because there is always something else to do.

Lying here on the flat black roof, looking at the stars and smelling the moist fragrance of the old quilts Mother lets us use, we do not notice the mosquitoes. There is just too much to do, you see. We have to count the stars and figure out how many per square foot are up there, we have to hide the Moon behind our thumbs, we often count the number of meteors we see in a 15-minute period, then chart their paths on a sky map, we need to take the lens cap off the old Criterion cardboard-tube refractor telescope and take a close look at the stars and now and then at the neighbors’ homes, we have to wonder which of those tiny colored lights moving very high up in the sky might be satellites or planes or unidentified flying objects.

We never get bored, because we do not yet know what time is. We do not know that time passes and that everything changes all the time–even us, even our dreams.

We only know that lying on our backs on the flat blacktopped roof, munching on a few Graham crackers we have taken from the kitchen, is the only thing going on that we are aware of.

The stars twinkle. The planets do not. The Moon is so glowy bright. The crickets provide ambience so cleverly and persistently that we seldom hear them.

The fact that the flat black roof is stone hard is not even noticed. We sleep like the near-babies we still are.

At long last, the Sun begins to rise and we slowly wake up to its radiant pressure on our faces and feel the dew over our clothes and now-soggy Graham crackers and quilts, and we never guess that the Sun might never rise again, we never think about the stars disappearing, we only wonder how far the Sun and stars go and what lies beyond the boundaries of the Universe. One thing we do know: we are dead-center in the middle of the Universe. We are each the center of the Universe. And we somehow know, instinctively know, that every creature in the Universe, whether on Earth or on Jupiter or in a distant galaxy, every creature, wherever it is, is definitely and individually at the center of the Universe, too. We somehow know that the center of the Universe is always wherever we are at the moment, no matter who or what we are.

So, 26 Eastwood Avenue is the center of the Universe and at least in one dusty wing of my heart, it will always be thus


© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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My late-afternoon trek resumes after I stop for gasoline and a quick snack at just another roadside convenience store. I hold in my hand a Baby Ruth candy bar, something I haven’t eaten for years, something that syphons memories from the cloudy recesses of my dormant childhood. The flexible metallic packaging is quickly separated from the delicacy.

Munching my fond memories, I glance to the right and see this stunning apparition passing me by. It’s an old house.

This old house is just sitting here in the dusk by the side of the blue road I am driving on, somewhere in the Gothic reaches of rural Alabama.

The sun and mellowed-red skies are behind the house, and the streaked clouds glow, casting the front of the house into shadows that aren’t quite ebony, not quite gray, not yet blackened.

I pass by, but it’s too late to ignore the image implanted within me.

The old house sitting in the dusk looks abandoned but sturdy, a place you could still move into and live a life in if you chose, but it looks like nobody has been there for some time.

The caramel and peanuts feel right at home in my mouth, and I wonder how many Baby Ruths I craved when young so many years ago.

The windows have no glow to them, as if lights and lanterns have not been turned on inside for years.

Houses like this are always branded Haunted by my generation and my parents’ generation. Some folks are scared to go into houses that are old and not quite stylish, afraid they’ll run into things that a well-lighted carpeted air-conditioned suburban home couldn’t possibly contain, things like ghosts and spirits and nesting animals and crawly critters.

The candy’s sweetness sticks familiarly between my teeth, but I know it will slowly melt and absorb and disappear.

There is something different about this house, though.

It just sits here empty but ready for occupancy. It is not run down and abused as those feared old houses of yore were. Nobody has vandalized it or marked it for desolation.

Nobody wants this old house right this instant.

My first thought in seeing this old structure is, “Boy, I’ll bet there are some really interesting ghosts in that place!” But something nudges at me, pushes me one notch further.

This is a house so lonely that it would gladly welcome ghosts. This house was once a Home.

This is a house so forlorn that even the ghosts have moved out, gone on to other hauntings.

Both life and death have been sucked out of the old wooden floors and plaster walls of this old house.

Now it just sits in a time zone all its own, and it is just a matter of time before either curious humans or curious haints take a second look and try to decide whether this elegant corpse is ready for reanimation, or whether it is now so much a part of nature that it will just be dismissed from memory and left to the winds and the rains and the scorching days and the humid nights.

Until it looks once more like part of the red clay earth from which it springs.

Until it and my Baby Ruth wrapper fade away and survive solely as some weary traveller’s long ago idea of what the world once was, what it is now, what it may or may not become

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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