I'm a freelance writer and editor currently at work on completing the first draft of my first novel. I'm also an award-winning journalist with over 30 years spent at newspapers in Kentucky, North Carolina and Mississippi.
The rain falls here down near where the South Fork and Catawba meet.
The branches of the tea olive outside my window hang heavy with water, lime green offshoots reach up, seeking sunlight, but instead it’s a cloud-filled sky. Tiny yellow clusters of bloom emit the sweet scent, but my window stays closed and I fear more rain.
I think of my great aunt Catherine, she gone nearly 15 years now, and how she’d tug my ear and say, “Michael B. You’re gonna do great things.”
But this morning, my mind remains muddied of the dream that lingers from the night before – me going from room to room, opening doors, only to find four blank walls and empty spaces. The only sound being that of the click of the latch and slam of the door. A constant opening and closing. Click, slam. Click, slam.
I sip the cold water from the glass and wait for the coolness to make its way down my throat and spread across my chest. I hope it brings energy. A spark to beat back my malaise. The bed, the warm covers, they beckon.
Gloom, gloom, gloom.
The Rolling Stones sing of “Wild Horses” and how “faith has been broken, tears must be cried, let’s do some living, after we die.”
I’ve done some living and never really thought of others. Things I should have said, but didn’t. Thought my silence an easy salve, not realizing the pain left behind.
It is still Tuesday morn here and the rain still falls.
Each day another red X on the calendar and another day closer to when breath will come no more.
Until then, these words will be written and songs will be sung. Her smile and laugh and love as constant as the reappearing sun.
NOTE: The above work came from a writing prompt presented during a recent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. In the session, presenter Kathie Collins offered a writing prompt taken from a recent workshop led by poet Ada Limon.
Some of the sights and sounds of a fantasy football draft.
It’s an early Saturday in Vegas, the sun climbing above the Valley of Fire only a few hours earlier, and a pack of Pakistanis behind me are chittering like hyenas surrounding a fresh kill.
“Adreeeen Peterson, Aaaadddreeen Peterson, Ayyydreeeen Peterson,” they chant, clapping and hopping from one foot to another, their target one of their own – he apparently shell-shocked, face dazed, finger still hovering over his laptop.
Moments earlier, he’d kicked off their fantasy football draft by making the first overall selection. Only problem was that he’d selected the wrong Adrian Peterson. Instead of drafting fantasy stud Adrian Peterson, the future Hall of Famer and bellcow for fantasy championship squads, our Pakistani had instead selected the Chicago Bears’ Adrian Peterson, he of few yards and even fewer championships.
And still they clap and chant. “Ayyydreeen Peterson, Ayyydreeen Peterson, Aydreen Peterson.”
The wayward Pakistani sinks his head to his table, accepting his fate and knowing his season is over before it starts
I turn back to my table and stare across at H-Diddy. He’s wearing his Bears jersey, arms folded across his chest, and he’s alternating between taking puffs of a Monte Cristal he’s kept stashed away from his wife over the past nine months, while popping green, yellow and orange M&Ms
“Things happen,” Diddy says, his facial features temporarily clouded in puff of Cristal. The smoke rises and he smiles. “Vegas, baby.”
A tiny love story from a night when the rain fell in Charlotte, NC, on a late June night in 2014.
At the Fillmore, musicians emerge from thick curtains and fingers pluck at strings and eyes turn upward and ears fill with rhythms and rhymes. Shafts of red and blue sneak from hidden banks, falling upon sweaty faces whispering of desires and regrets. I’d come for Ziggy Stardust and instead found her. She danced in a pool of emerald. A pert nose, dark eyes emerging from a mass of chocolate curls. We discovered “Modern Love” and she laughed and my heart leaped. I emerged, her number in my pocket and I sang of “Starman” and life was good again.
NOTE: The above work came from a writing prompt presented during a recent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. In the session, presenter Paul Reali challenged us to write our very own tiny love story of less than 100 words. “They try to capture in a very small space something that is very important,” he said.
Read of one woman’s push to chart a path for those wishing to discover their heritage in South Carolina.
As a child, Dawn Dawson-House learned plenty about this country’s founding fathers. Missing were the exploits of South Carolina civil rights leader the Rev. Joseph Delaine and Robert Smalls, a former slave who represented the Palmetto State for five terms in Congress.
Those lessons were learned at the family dinner table as well as at church and other social gatherings around her hometown along the coast.
“The community of Beaufort won’t let you forget that African-American history is important,” Dawson-House said. “Our teachers, our families, our festivals and events, you were surrounded by African-American heritage. I found it interesting because it spoke to us.”
Since January 2021, Dawson-House has been the executive director of the WeGOJA Foundation. Pronounced we-GO-juh, the name is a fusion of three languages spoken by people of African descent who were brought to America as slaves.
WeGOJA works to document and promote African-American heritage sites in South Carolina. That work is done through historical markers, listings on the National Register of Historic Places and the Green Book of South Carolina. Teacher guides are provided for classrooms and there are plans to provide toolkits for the large number of African-American families who gather here each year for reunions.
Dawson-House, who spent nearly 25 years in public relations for the SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, believes there’s no time like the present to embrace the stories of our past.
“The more we can share the story, the more we can build interest into advocacy, into action, we can start creating our authentic story better,” she said. “It’s not just for tourism, but for the public’s full understanding of our history and our full story so it’s easier to make wiser choices when we talk about public decisions.”
Getting to know Dawn Dawson-House
Claim to fame: She recently accepted the job of executive director at the WeGOJA Foundation after a long career in communications with South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Alma mater: Graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1985 with a degree in journalism. “I thought I was going to be the next Oprah Winfrey, but got out into the real world and realized I couldn’t pay rent.”
Favorite state park:Landsford Canal State Park in Catawba with its “gentle tumble” whitewater and colorful rocky shoals spider lilies. “It’s a beautiful sight.”
Time to unwind: When she’s not enjoying Mexican food, you can often find Dawson-House on her treadmill. She and her husband of 25 years, William House, an investigator with the S.C. Attorney General’s office, are planning a train trip through the Canadian wilderness.
Seeing Carl was not unusual. Hearing from Carl was quite unusual.
“I dreamed of you in spectacular color.”
Carl clutched his backpack to his chest with both hands. He took a step forward. Maybe he was aware of the others. Maybe not.
“I dreamed of you in this very moment.”
She raised her eyebrow. Seeing Carl was not unusual. Hearing from Carl was quite unusual.
“You were making me a biscuit. One of those hot buttered rounds where the strawberry jelly is so thick it leaks and stains the sides. Heavens.”
Jasmine put a slice of cheese and a wedge of ham between the folds of biscuit and wrapped it in yellow wax paper. She stepped to her left, in front of the pail of potatoes, and Carl followed.
“You want hash browns,” she asked.
Carl leaned forward to whisper. “Can you not see?”
Jasmine sighed. “I don’t have time, Carl. You want hash browns or not?”
Carl turned and looked at those who stood waiting. The couples with their eyes glued to their cell phones, their hands in a constant scroll. The girl who pulled the string of pink bubblegum from her mouth, wrapped it around her finger in a loop of three and stared at him.
“You are in my dreams. And, yet, you are here before me, now in this presence, serving me a feast upon which I shall savor and accept with the greatest of gratitude.”
Jasmine walked to the register and her fingers punched the numbers. Her feet hurt. She’d been making biscuits since 5 a.m. and her baby needed more formula.
“Three twenty five, Carl.”
He stood before as he does nearly every morning. He wears the same long coat with the holes in the sleeve. His pants are still dirty and his shoes covered in dirt. His hair is thin on top, greasy and unwashed. He smiles and she sees his teeth stained yellow, one missing, completing the homeless ensemble.
“I see you every night,” Carl says, reaching his hand inside his pocket, where he digs and digs and digs.
“Hey buddy,” says the man with the cell phone. “Can you pick it up?”
Jasmine smells him and she wonders if he joins the others under the overpass by the interstate. She sees them when she drives to pick up her daughter from her mother. Carl is here every morning and he’ll shyly slide a quarter across the counter and ask for a cup of coffee. Never before has he asked for a biscuit.
He pulls his hand from his trousers and his palm is empty. He raises his eyes and she notices they are brown, as brown as her baby girl’s.
Jasmine pushes the biscuit across the counter to his waiting hands. And he smiles.
“You do see. My dream angel.”
NOTE:The above work of fiction came from a writing prompt presented during arecent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. In the session, presenter Kathie Collins challenged us to think of synchronicity. As writers, we are always excavating something or using our writing to explore something inside us.
Best writing advice? Well, there is a Hemingway quote that hangs on my wall: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”
I was recently asked to be a featured member of the Charlotte Writers’ Club. The feature, dubbed Meet A Member, runs in each monthly newsletter and is a great way to learn more about the fellow club members.
I’ve been a member of the Charlotte Writers’ Club for nearly two years now and have found it to be a great resource as I venture into the world of fiction writing and freelance work.
One of my favorite benefits of being a club member are the monthly programs by published authors taking on such topics as “Maintaining Suspense in Your Writing” and “Getting to Know Your Character.” The club holds several writing contests throughout the year and rewards the top submissions.
There are also opportunities to present your work during Open Mic Nights, as well as a Virtual Writing Salon. There is the supportive community of fellow writers tackling many of the same issues, as well as chances to share feedback as part of several critique groups.
All in all, I’ve found a very worthwhile organization and one that I’m happy to be a member of.
What follows are my responses to the questions asked each month of the featured club member.
Meet a Member for July 2021
Bio: A product of the western Kentucky coal and corn fields, I’ve spent most of my life documenting achievements and failings while working as a journalist at newspapers in Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina. I keep rowdy fans in check at Panthers games, write random features for magazines and enjoy the occasional sip of bourbon beneath my redbuds. All while pondering the first draft of my first novel.
When and Where Do I Write? I’ve found the Open Studio at Charlotte Lit to be a perfect place to get away and get my words down — morning, noon and night.
Favorite writing tool? I wish I could say I bang out my scenes via Hemingway’s Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter. Instead, it’s the soft pitter-patter of my MacBook Pro that brings comfort.
A favorite writing resource? Notes taken from Charlotte Lit classes and CWC presentations are a great help, but I find that when I’m stuck I go in search of some of my favorite authors. Ron Rash and Jennifer Egan have helped get me back on track lately.
Best Writing advice you’ve received and actually taken? On my office wall hangs a supposed Hemingway quote: “Write drunk. Edit sober.” Claire Fullerton says, “For a writer, there is no there to get to, there is only the fulfilling, soul-driven act.” And that goes hand-in-hand with what I heard fellow CWC member Landis Wade say once: “Find joy in the process.” All good advice, I’d say.
One thing I would like help with? Now that the first draft is done, what’s next? How do we embrace revision? How do we query? The benefits of self-publishing? I’ve got quite the laundry list.
Membership in the Charlotte Writers Club entitles one to participate in workshops, critique groups, contests, and guest speaker programs. The cost is a modest $35 per year for individuals and $20 for students.
The organization welcomes all writers in all genres and forms to join our Charlotte-area literary community. A membership in the Charlotte Writers’ Club helps support writers, readers, and literacy at a critical time in our nation’s and our city’s history.
To join or renew a membership, click this Membership Link and follow the instructions.
It was the summer of 1978 and I discovered RC Cola and baseball. My daddy? Well, he found Billy Beer.
In the summer of 1978, I discovered RC Cola and baseball.
I guess the soda that was a cheap knock-off of Coca-Cola had always been around, as was baseball, but that summer I consumed as much of both as humanly possible.
The reason? The collector cans that featured the RC logo and its slogan “Me and My RC” on one side and a photo of a Major League Baseball player on the other with his signature, stats and other pertinent information, such as was he right-handed or left-handed.
The collecting became an obsession and the stack of royal blue 12-ounce cans soon filled a wall of my bedroom. While I was always hopeful of an All-Star, such as Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson, it was multiple cans of little-known light-hitters like Freddie Patek and Bobby Grich that made up my shrine.
These ballplayers were the ones I heard Jack Buck talk about at night and on Sunday afternoons, his voice stretching from the St. Louis Arch out across the corn fields of Southern Illinois and the cliffs of the Shawnee National Forest, across the Ohio River and into our little pocket of western Kentucky.
We lived “out in the country” as they said back then and my momma said it was too far to drive into town for Little League baseball. So, one day, I took a can of black spray paint and drew out a square strike zone on the side of our new brick home. I picked up a rubber ball and stood 12 feet away and threw as hard as I could, over and over, aiming for perfection. My daddy came home, saw what I did, spanked me good and gave me a can of turpentine and told me to scrub. And I did, until my fingers ached, but that black box remained, now part of our home.
And, inside those brick walls, the monument of tin cans grew larger and larger as I drank more and more RC. And, as you can surmise, an 11-year-old boy hopped up on caffeinated soda is going be clumsy and careless and the temple would often come clanging down, oftentimes at night when I’d stumble making my way to the bathroom.
Maybe collecting the cans was a gene thing, like a widow’s peak hairline, passed down from generation to generation.
My dad cherished a can of unopened Billy Beer, a beverage known more for being endorsed by the beer-guzzling brother of then President Carter than for its taste. And he proudly displayed that single can of Billy Beer on our living room mantle next to the family Bible handed down by the teetotaling Robinsons on my mother’s side. I’m sure he saw fortune in his future and a day when that can of Billy Beer would be worth thousands of dollars.
But maybe it was more than that.
Eventually, my RC cans were dispatched to a grey, weathered barn that was starting to lean more than it was upright with a good part of its rusty tin roof curled back like the shavings from an apple’s peel.
That summer I remained true, continuing to drink RC and adding to the collection, the cans climbing the slats around a feed crib that contained more rats than healthy ears of corn. But the rains came, as they do, and the bottom of the cans began to rust. And I picked up football in the fall and then basketball in the winter and spring. There would be girls and then a driver’s license and the cans would topple and fall when the winter winds blew between the ever-widening planks of oak.
Eventually, the rust spread, covering the faces on the cans, and I could no longer see if I was looking at Freddie Patek or Pete Rose. One fall day, the cans were thrown into black plastic bags and tossed in the back corner of the corn crib, that darkest part down where the rats made their nest.
But the can of Billy Beer remained. For a while.
More than 40 years later, the homeplace remains, as does my mom. She’s like the maples she planted in that western Kentucky dirt. Still strong and rooted in place. The old barn has long been torn down, replaced by a shiny red, two-story building built by the Amish from down Crittenden way that is more guest living quarters than it is a work shed.
The RC Cola cans are also long gone, dispatched not soon after my father left when most of his blue jeans and those country western shirts with the pearl snap-on buttons were taken from the closet and dumped in the backyard, doused with lighter fluid and a match was struck.
I don’t know if I ever asked my mother if she took the cans to a recycling center or just simply put them in the burn barrel, their sides blackening, indistinct. Just another can in a smoldering mess of household garbage. Forgotten.
Come to think of it, I don’t know if we’ve ever really discussed the divorce much.
The separation stung at first, but eventually as you get older and perhaps wiser and maybe forgiving, you learn to accept the betrayal and loneliness. Like the collector cans, the pronouncement of “till death do us part and forever and ever” was something that was just taking up space and needed to be thrown out. The connection gone.
Still, there are days, like today, when an overheard bit of conversation or a question about obsession takes me back to those cans of my childhood. It’s those memories that remain. Good and bad.
It’s your mom going to the IGA, picking up a six-pack of RC Cola and there being two more Freddie Pateks in the bunch. You disappointed, but not saying anything as you pull the tab and drink the bland soda, hopeful for another day.
It’s spray painting a black square on the side of a brick wall. And bits of that square block still clinging to that sturdy brick, 40 years later.
It’s clinging to the past and hoping that what you hold will only become more precious as time goes on. But, more importantly, it’s realizing when it’s time to just take it out to the burn barrel, light a match and move on.
I hear the incessant “caw, caw, caw” and I want to place my hands over my ears and hum the words to a happy song. But nothing comes to my lips.
The crow is black. The crow is foreboding.
Is the crow death?
In the river bottoms, the crows come in packs, swooping low over the harvested fields, the broken stalks of corn like the limbs of war dead, half-in, half-out of the grey, boot-sucking muck.
A murder of crows is what they call that pack of black that fills the fading light of late afternoon.
“Fitting,” I mutter to myself, raising the collar of my worn pea coat to my neck, a shield against the harsh December wind that comes from the north.
I, too, am in my final season and I believe the crow knows.
I skirt the field and climb the hill and they fill the branches of the barren oak that rises up and over the farmhouse. The roof has started to sag from the weight of rain and all these years. I know that I’ll not repair it.
Inside, where my wife once stood at the stove, stirring the pot of soup, and the brown-headed girl, she being 10 then, came to me with open arms and words of “daddy, daddy, daddy,” it is now quiet. On the wooden table, there is an opened bag of bread, a slice of white lies to the side left to grow stale. Mold just a few days away.
My breath catches and I feel a tightening in my chest. I retreat back to the cold wind that whips around the porch and I stumble down the three wooden steps. I stuff my hands in my pockets and hunch my shoulders.
I don’t look up. There’s no need. I know the crow is near.
NOTE:The above work of fiction came from a writing prompt presented during a recent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. In the session, presenter Kathie Collins challenged us to respond to the Van Gogh painting “Wheatfield With Crows” and write what moved us.An interesting note is that the painting is believed to be the last work of the celebrated painter.
We all could learn a little something from Henry Darby.
He spends his days as the principal of a high school in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
At night, he stocks shelves at an area Walmart. His pay goes to help needy students and families.
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared as a SC Stories feature in the April issue of South Carolina Living magazine, which is distributed monthly by the South Carolina Cooperative Electric Association.
Students at North Charleston High School in the Lowcountry of South Carolina often gaze at the wall of awards principal Henry Darby has amassed over the past 40 years. He’ll ask them what they believe is the greatest honor among the stack of plaques. They never pick the starched white shirt hanging in a box.
“it reminds me of my humble beginnings,” said the North Charleston native. “It’s not the height that you reach, it’s the depth that you come from.”
The shirt came from cloth his mother gathered from an area dump. Florence Darby took the fabric home, boiled it in a kettle in the back yard and made the material into a shirt. He wore that shirt to school two to three days a week for the next four years.
Darby knows poverty, but also the value of education and willingness to work.
He recalled a day when he was 10 years old and his mother was given food stamps.
“My mother put both her hands upon my shoulders, pulled me near to her and tore up the food stamps in my face. Her words were, ‘Boy, you’re going to learn to stand on your own two feet.’ I have never forgotten that lesson.”
And he also knows there are times when others need help.
“I know what it feels like to live in poverty and it’s not a good feeling,” he said. “I just do my best to help those I can help to get out of poverty.”
“I know what it feels like to live in poverty and it’s not a good feeling. I just do my best to help those I can help to get out of poverty.”
Henry Darby, principal of North Charleston (SC) High School
In addition to his full-time duties as principal, Darby works the 10 to 7 overnight shift on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at a local Walmart. His pay goes to help North Charleston students and their families struggling to buy groceries and clothing, pay rent and keep the lights on.
“The first six weeks or so it was pretty rough,” he said of his job as a stocker. “Just standing, standing, standing. Muscles I hadn’t been using before. Feet swollen, knees swollen. But I’m not a quitter. I’m one of those Vince Lombardi guys. ‘Quitters never win and winners never quit.’”
His story has garnered state and national attention and there’s been a spike in donations. That’s been heartening, Darby said.
“Americans came together to support a cause to help children. It’s almost as if we want to forget about our differences… It’s a beautiful example of how Americans can help Americans.”
Some of his friends, worried about his age, have urged him to slow down. He proudly points to the 40 pounds he’s lost over the past seven months and said he has no plans to stop.
“Whenever I can’t teach or can’t help someone, I’m just gonna say, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot. You can carry me home now.’ I just love helping people.”
Getting to know Henry Darby
Age: Born on Nov. 28, 1954, Darby is 66 years young.
Occupation: Principal of North Charleston (SC) High School; 17 years as councilman for Charleston County (SC); associate at Walmart since August 2020
Book smart: A collector of rare historical books, his favorites include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” and a first edition copy of “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” by Jefferson Davis.
Music to the ears: He’s been playing the piano for the past 40 years and has been recognized several times for his talent. He loves to listen to jazz composer Charlie Parker.
The GOAT: There was a time he had a herd of domestic goats. “Goats will keep your yard clean, manicured. And since I was working three or four jobs at a time, I didn’t have time to cut my own grass. I loved my goats.”
What could possibly become of a cold winter’s day, one impossibly large hill and a frozen box of chocolates?
When you’re 13 years old and you stare down Dyer hill, the snow still falling, your gloved hands wrapped around the sharp metal blades of your wooden sled, your heart is going to race.
Five slippery steps on the thin white powder, the ice-covered blacktop lurking below, then throwing the Western Auto Flexible Flyer out before you, the thump of your chest landing on the wood and then speeding head-first into a cold wall of winter.
Before you leap, you sneak a peek.
The girl with the freckles, the one who can throw a football farther than any boy and run just as fast, is watching. You begged your mother for the $5 bill and then read card after card until finding the Valentine that was just right – not too mushy, not too dorky – and the heart-shaped box of chocolates that you plan to leave in her mailbox when darkness descends.
Her blue eyes sparkle, the red scarf dotted with flakes of white to warm her lips, and your heart races and you run and you run and then you leap.
Editor’s Note:“A Heart-Shaped Box of Chocolates” stems from a writing prompt during the most recent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. We were challenged to write a bit of flash fiction, no longer than six sentences, detailing a season and a moment during that season.