I have seen the moon perched high, nay, at its vertex, its light cast upon the bones of men thinned by plague, abased by desire. And I have seen its nimbus drawn around the scalding sores of the poor and nescient. I have wept — yes, wept — at each passing, for there are none like those who have nothing, and are nothing but the singularity of their hearts.
This place was once pure. An old man may remember, or his father, or his. I have seen blankets of grass, tumbled folds of timothy and amaranth, miles of green, fathoms of sky. I have breathed in the succulent sweat of handmaidens and the palsied flesh of kings, and I have kissed their fevered cheeks.
Their furies confound me, their impatience sets me to rage, their innocence smooths my brow. And, too, their simplicity dazzles me: is there not more? And there is, there is. The complexity of their hearts is a feast, a table set for my pleasure.
Yes, I am that Angel you fear, or rush to embrace. But most of all, I stand before you without slyness or judgment. I do not hide, I am plainly clothed, plainly seen. I am what I am. You are the one who dresses me in the dark.
I am Death and I will reach for you with a kiss, and soothe you with my faithfulness.
Though it’s approaching two years since I published Ordinary Handsome, I still have deep affection for it. I still think of it as the benchmark of everything I’ve written since. It’s the simple story of a thief, a mistake, a dying town, and the ghosts, real or imagined, that haunt the town of Handsome. If a writer is allowed to say such a thing, it still haunts me. Enjoy, and thank you for reading. – Steve
Link and reviews here.
Fifty-seven years ago I killed a boy. Tonight, you walked into my room with a Mossberg 510 and a stained hobo mattress and fired a shot into my belly.
But we’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we, Euart?
The memories get scattered like buckshot every time I revisit them. I play them in my head until the sentences become clearer and my confessional feels more sincere. Everything has been garbled and meaningless, tangled in memories and false perceptions; all right, lies.
I’ve lived with a lie for fifty-seven years, and built upon it my cathedral, and you were the only one who knew it. I’ve been expecting you for all these fifty-seven years. One lie built a thousand until I couldn’t cut through them without anything but honest confession. And, maybe, a Mossberg 510 to pare away my guts.
I’m still not sure you’re not a hallucination, though this blood between my fingers tells me different. At this point, it doesn’t matter.
The clock reads: 3:18.
I know I’m finished, and it would have been true even without you in front of my bed. Put down that damned mattress and I’ll tell you what happened that night. If there are any lies, it’s only because I’ve been swimming in them for so long that I don’t know the feel of dry land. They are not intentional lies, just the way I remember things.
Let me put my hands back on the wheel, hands at ten and two, and drive through that night again. And then you can let me be.
Ronny Salmon was hungover and in a nasty mood. His wife left him three days earlier and he’d been living on Evan Williams bourbon-fried egg sandwiches. Archie Dollar was attending a Baptist circus tent revival, so it was Ronny and me, and it was a coin toss as to who was the better driver. When Ronny was in that kind of mood, it was better to let him be, so I ended up with the keys. Would it have made a difference? Maybe not. If Archie was driving, it would have made all the difference. Or maybe not. Sometimes fate squeezes its hand around your throat no matter what you do.
Arlene was… not so well. It was more obvious every day. So I needed more money for treatments that wouldn’t work and I needed more work so I wouldn’t have to see her deteriorate. Selfish? Of course. But I also didn’t want her to see me deteriorate. I was operating on ninety percent grief and ten percent need. It was the right decision, I think. I was there at the end, that’s what counts.
But until it happens, grief is just a word. You may think you know it, but it runs deeper than cancer, more malignant than regret. What the hell did I know about grief? I was sad that my wife was going to die? Is that all? But never mind. You know what I’m talking about.
I needed something quick and uncomplicated. We weren’t showmen, Ronny and me. But we were efficient. And we….
No, that’s not right. We were simple crooks. No finesse, not much better than thugs. Smash and grab, that was more like it.
I said I’d be honest, and listen to me. Daydreaming about the good old days, a couple of daring pirates in an old Bel Air. No. I wasn’t that good or that smart. Any planning came down to: who do we hit/got your gun/what’s the fastest way out of here? It was a job. I needed the money. Simple.
It was another gas station. We were never audacious enough to try anything better. A liquor store once in a while, but mostly gas stations. Fill your tank, check your oil, keep the change.
You know there’s no decent place to rob in a place like Handsome. We usually took our show on the road. But the sky was filling up with some nasty weather, and we both wanted to get home. Maybe not Ronny, all he wanted was a bed and another drink. And maybe not me either, because all I had to go home to was a dying wife. But neither of us were particularly ambitious. It was just workaday until we punched our card. And neither of us wanted to be out in the storm that was coming. We were going through the motions for a few hundred bucks.
Even though it was gray overhead, it was dark gray. Heavy gray. It was going to come down hard. We almost called it off. But when the weather is going to turn, that may be the best time to do a job. Little or no traffic, and you know the poor bastard you’re going to hit isn’t going to care. He just wants to go home, too.
We drank a lot of Pinot Noir that night,
the preferred drink of the cardiganed types (they said),
but we reveled in it, stranded here in the fuselage.
Brave (you said), and juicy like raspberries.
We toasted each other, and then our aspirations, unaccomplished,
oh, but we were still willing to fumble through the wreckage.
We stuffed a white candle in the neck of the bottle;
simple elegance (I said), and we watched the flame
sputter in the dark.
“I love her, you know.”
“Everyone loves her.”
“But, yeah. I mean really.”
“She’s a nice girl. But c’mon. You’re too young. She’s too young.”
“Doesn’t mean it isn’t real, Efrim.”
“Well don’t tell her. She’ll get all upset.”
“Just because. You don’t know, David. She’s… flighty. She gets these big romantic ideas and she doesn’t know what to do with them. She cries at the end of movies. She keeps a diary and draws hearts on the cover. She thinks the Partridge Family is real. If she thought things like that were real… well, I dunno. She’d take it too serious. She’d imagine wedding cakes and sparkly placemats. She’s not old enough to know that those things aren’t ready for her yet. If she knew that you loved her, she’d think bad things could never happen. And bad things always happen, especially to kids.”
“Maybe not this time?”
“Just wait, David. Please.”
“But I love her.”
“Then you should wait. Okay? You wanna shoot off some firecrackers?”
I pulled beans from the dirt this morning, before the storm arrived. I set them in in a bright orange tub of water. The early hours slink away like possums with needle-toothed grins, proud of their cunning. I’m late for work.
My hands are muddy from the dew, and my hair is matted from sleep sweat.
My ‘76 Datsun, low on gas, is a old man’s car, copper and rust, with a radiator that overheats, but it takes me to the promised land of the Cadillac Gift Shop.
The rabbit-eyed contraltos are posing at the counter when I arrive, and they cradle their Stella McCartney clutches like they were designer babies. Their Big Daddies stroke Platinum MasterCards with round pink thumbs. They match the Escalades with their shoes, white for casual, black for special, maybe an ATS-V Coupe for the hell of it, can we, sweetie?
We have baubles and shiny things for sale, and they aren’t cheap, but they are worthless. How about a key ring, 18 carats, or a crystal snow globe autographed by Kanye, koveted by Kim, or look here, a digital (platinum!) rectal thermometer for that Affenpinscher you store at the kennel.
Yes, there is dirt under my nails, and I could use a haircut, but all is well unless somebody pouts. But no one notices, because I’m not shiny, and I fade under the pink track lighting. No one ever saw the grimy work crew of the Yellow Brick Road and no one ever sees the man behind the counter of the Cadillac Gift Shop.
I work with the conviction of an insomniac, and think in soft colors on hard steel. Mr. Robinson appreciates my work ethic and every payday he pats my head as if I were a stray border collie. I am like the son whose name he never remembers.
He is in the trunk of my Datsun right now.
A supermodel’s mother asks me about the Ethan Murrow table setting. Her peasant blouse was hand-stitched in Portugal and her voice is like Meryl Streep and gin.
I have fresh beans waiting for me for supper.
Meager moments of the unexplored light,
peace between dark breaths,
flowing and flowing.
Street lights dredge the pavement like corn flour, a shapeless drift of luminance. It’s the same street, up and down, but it’s not. It’s different from ground perspective, sprawled on the cracks. His vision is fractured, bones the weight of gravestones, head like a shotgunned jukebox, kaput. It’s not like passed-out drunk in the funnies. It’s puking out your soul and then stuffing it back in your mouth, gathering the slop, hoping it fits back the way it was. And then waiting for the better angels to show up. They hardly ever do.
Drowning in an archipelago of shadows and neon, bobbing and submerging. A breeze riffs a storefront canopy — Andy’s Liquor Outlet — and the sound reminds him of sails, of a peaceable ocean somewhere far, somewhere clean. He waits for the footfalls of hard-souled men, ready to put him into a hard place, into a hard sleep.
No more, he mouths, but the words are tasteless. The night is silent, so maybe the angels can hear him.
The breeze lifts him up, the angels at work.
A big thank you to D. Wallace Peach for giving me the opportunity to talk about my writing. She suggested the idea a couple of months ago, and I jumped right on it. Her enthusiasm and support for my work has been incredible, and I’m grateful for the chance to talk about something I love. I’m a soft-spoken, shy person, but I long ago discovered that my strongest and bravest voice was through the written word. So if you’re interested in seeing what’s under the hood, read on. And please visit Diana’s blog, https://mythsofthemirror.com. She’s an amazing story teller, writer, and friend.
This is a selfish interview on my part. I’ve been wanting to pick Steven Baird’s writer-brain since I began following his blog a couple years ago. I love his writing, his fresh, lush imagery, his exquisite word choice. I picked up his book Ordinary Handsome and then his book A Very Tall Summer. I became a groupie. My review of Ordinary Handsome is here.
So, I convinced him to answer all my questions under the pretense of a blog interview. I hope you enjoy!
1. Welcome, Steven. Thanks so much for letting me satisfy my curiosity about you and your writing. You state in your bio that you started writing at age 10. But you didn’t publish until 2015. What took you so long?
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