Bird escapes his fate of small town coal miner and moves to New York where he finds dancing, love, and the power to pursue his dreams against all odds.
Known as Bird to family and friends, Ty Partridge is destined for the fate of all young men in his rural Missouri town. He, too, will surely end up working in the coal mines. Bird befriends Pop- the elderly owner of the local soda fountain shop-and Pop soon realizes Bird has much higher hopes for himself. Bird's passion is for dance.
In order to escape Greenstone, Bird has to go against his family and the town traditions. With Pop's help, he quickly becomes an outsider as he makes his way to New York City to pursue his dream of being a performer. Bird's new reality is a little too real though, as he comes up against crime and the threat of ending up homeless.
He soon makes the acquaintance of Nadia Slovinskia, who introduces Bird to her employee, Alexandra, the most beautiful woman Ty has ever seen. With the help of these women and his new city, Ty learns the importance of willpower and perseverance when pursuing his dreams, but he also must ask himself: are all dreams worth pursuing?
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By Audrey Murphy
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Audrey Murphy
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Anchored into the rigid Missouri soil were two corroded pipes, and from them hung a weathered sign that read: "Greenstone – Population 754." Each generation died, but their offspring kept that number true enough. As a young boy, I thought I'd never get away from that place.
Partridge is my surname. That's right, as in "partridge in a pear tree." And according to Grandpa Partridge, I'm of Irish descent, and that's why I'm tall and have a chiseled jawline that angles to form a somewhat pointed chin. He said my light skin, straight, black hair, and blue eyes make me a ringer for an Irishman too. I guess that's why Grandpa Partridge felt the need to tell me about my heritage.
Grandpa said that the man who would become his great-grandpa, Tyrell, left Ireland when a fungus ruined the single crop the Irish depended on for food: the potato. During what was called the Irish Potato Famine, the British offered no help to feed their Irish subjects, who were starving. Tyrell was among thousands of Irish who immigrated to America around 1847 on a steamboat that took them to New York. He settled in Manhattan, along with a community of his countrymen; he paid a landlord rent for a single unsanitary, rundown room, and he became a dockworker. Tyrell married an Irish girl in the community, and they had one son, my great-grandpa, Joseph, who at age nineteen, around 1886, left New York to pursue work in Missouri mining coal, a fuel that was in demand for running trains. He arrived by rail in Saint Louis, Missouri, and then traveled to Greenstone in northern Missouri, where coal was plentiful. He became a coal miner, a trade his son, my grandpa, would learn and pass on to his male heir.
Ty is my given name. Never been fond of it, but at least Dad didn't impose Tyrell on me, trying to hold onto his Irish roots. As a boy, though, anyone close to me called me by my nickname, Bird.
My folks, Marta and Charles, grew up together and got married in Greenstone. They raised me and my younger sister, Allison, there, and I knew for certain that that's where they'd die.
Grandpa Partridge started working as a coal miner when he was only fifteen, and he would put in six days a week for Mr. Arthur Shott, who took over Shott Coal Company in Greenstone, Missouri, after his father, Wilfred, died. When Arthur died, his two sons took over the business, and Grandpa worked for them till he was too old to handle a pick or carry a bucket of coal. Grandpa Partridge implanted the idea in my dad's mind that being a coal miner was his destiny too. And my mother followed in her mother's footsteps and worked as a waitress in the same restaurant Grandma Morgan had. My folks' lives were carbon copies of their parents' lives. They thought Allison and I should fall in line too. I disagreed.
Another thing I disagreed with was the town's name, Greenstone. It wasn't a place that flourished; it was the most backward, dried-up place I could ever have imagined. Even the town's only tree, a weeping willow, was testament that nothing and no one could overcome that town's force of gravity.
We had Burt Brown's Grocery, a family-operated store. An orange sign advertising the business hung by a chain above the entrance and was the only speck of color on the building's weathered-gray slate siding. Inside, the smell of pigs' feet and snouts hung ripe in the air, 'cause the unwrapped delicacies were displayed on ice in a wooden, glass-enclosed case. A sign that I'm sure Burt's son, Jack, had made dangled from the ceiling in red letters that read: "Meat Department." The greasy odor of lard floated through the air in Mrs. Brown's bakery section, where she kept watch, shooing flies from her uncovered pastries, wrapping each customer's selection personally.
Then there was Dollar Shop. Talk about covering the bases. That old wooden floor that creaked when I walked on it had shelves of cleansers, light switches, towels, sheets, baby diapers, toiletries—you name it, everything from A to Z. Yet the only thing I ever bought there was Bazooka bubble gum that came in a comic wrapper. It was rock-hard and took twenty chews to soften, but I loved it.
We had Jenk's Pharmacy, run by Martin Jenks, who filled prescriptions, rang the register, and closed up shop by hanging a "Pharmacist back in fifteen minutes" sign on the door when he had a delivery. Jenks's wood clapboard siding on the pharmacy wouldn't hold paint long. Unlike most of the other business owners, Jenks liked bright colors. One time, he painted that pharmacy kind of a purplish-red color. Mom called it magenta. I used to get a kick out of trying to guess what color paint he'd choose next.
Then there was Doc Arnold, who leased space from Jenks for his family practice. The waiting area, consisting of three chairs and one exam room, was separated from the pharmacy by a curtain that hung from the ceiling to the floor. A "No Appointment Necessary" sign was taped to the accordion-like partition where Doc Arnold examined patients.
Sussman Bank was next door. Folks cashed their paychecks and had savings accounts there, but loans were handled at Sussman headquarters in Wakefield, Missouri, a one-hour drive from Greenstone.
To pique our curiosity about the world at large and satisfy us in the entertainment sense, we had a beat-up movie theater called Motion Picture Palace. It may have once been a palace, but when I was a young boy, it had seen its day and then some. None of the old, red-velvet seats had less than two broken springs. The trace of blue paint on the concrete floor must have dated back to George Washington's time, and the sticky soda and bubble gum, some of which was mine, made the soles of my sneakers adhere to the floor. The movies we watched had been shown earlier in large cities; they got tossed our way when they were cheap to rent. But in the Motion Picture Palace, I wasn't Bird Partridge, a "going nowhere" guy; I was a lawyer, detective, or scientist, trying to set things right.
Since I didn't often have fifty cents to buy a movie ticket, I mostly hung out with friends or rode my bike on the gravel roads, getting a wave from local drivers who inched along. I figured those narrow, bumpy roads had to connect with better paved ones somewhere. There had to be towns and cities where people didn't crawl their way through life.
As a freshman in high school that August of 1964, I did have a special hangout. Above the entrance to the building, a weathered, red-and-white striped canvas awning hung unsteadily from the cracked mortar, and a red neon sign in the picture window flashed on and off like bursts of lightning, advertising the business, Pop's Pop. And though it was a shabby building, like the rest in Greenstone, for me, that soda-fountain shop was the highlight of the town, and old man Bradford, who insisted that everyone call him Pop, sold the best cherry cola I've ever had. He didn't skimp on the cherry syrup, and I liked the cylinder-shaped glasses he served the cola in.
Lined up along his black Formica soda fountain bar were chrome-legged stools with red leather seats. Matching tables and chairs were scattered about on black-and-white tiles that made a checkerboard floor, and the cracked plaster wall behind the bar was a shrine to rock 'n' roll artists. Pop told me that of all the pictures on that wall, Elvis's was his favorite, 'cause he pulled himself up out of poverty and became the King of Rock 'n' Roll.
"Bird, anybody can come up in the world if they work hard and don't give up," Pop said while we sat sipping our cola and shooting the breeze one day. After that, Elvis's picture was my favorite too. And though I didn't expect a life like Elvis's, I knew I wanted more than Greenstone had to offer.
Even though I didn't much take to advice from adults in Greenstone, I could tell right off that Pop wasn't like the other folks who lived there. I wanted to believe what Pop said was true, but with Dad's insistence that I become a coal miner, I felt like a fly on a sticky trap; I knew all the hard work I could muster wouldn't release me from my sure fate. I was down in the dumps from Dad's preaching about mining, and Pop could sense I was blue. He asked me why it looked like my best friend just died, so I told him.
"Bird, your dad's wrong to try to brainwash you about that God-awful job. The pay's poor, and the hours are long. All that comes from mining is a broken-down back and lungs full of coal dust. I'm proof of that. Figure out what you want and go after it. Don't let nobody or nothing hold you back."
Though I didn't realize it that day, that old soda-fountain shop and its owner were going to impact my life in a way I could never have imagined.
I looked at my watch and saw what time it was. "Gotta get going, Pop. Dad's due home from the mine, and Mom will be home from waitressing at the diner."
I'd been given a few chores to do: milking our cow, Brownie, and slopping the hogs, and I wanted my folks to see me in the act of carrying them out. That way, I got a lighter hammering when Dad started in on me about "acting more like a man." Besides, if I didn't get home before my dad, he'd ask Allison where I was. I figured I'd get more than a lecture if he found out I'd been with Pop, so I peddled that old bike of mine fast as I could to get home.CHAPTER 2
While movies at the Motion Picture Palace had helped me imagine being something other than a miner, Pop planted the seed that stretched my imagination to a possibility I hadn't considered. That seed was planted the first time I saw what Pop called the "jitterbug."
Like usual, me and a bunch of the kids were hanging out at Pop's Pop after high school let out for the day, having a cherry cola, me chewing my bubble gum, trying to get it wedged in the space between my front teeth. Pop started talking about back in the day when he was young and did the jitterbug.
"We danced wild back then, even did acrobatics. I'd face my partner, grip her waist, and she'd jump up at the same time I lifted her, swinging her legs up and forward so they formed a V at my waist. Then she'd swing her legs back, away from my waist, and I'd throw her straight up in the air. That was a barrel of fun."
All of a sudden, he got up from his barstool, dropped a quarter in the jukebox, and grabbed Emma Jean Wilmyer, who was fourteen at the time, same as me.
That fast music started and Pop said, "Emma Jean, you're about to have more fun than you've ever had before."
Pop's movements were quick and freewheeling. Emma Jean tried to copy his bouncy steps that looked like he was hopping from one foot to the other, but she couldn't. She had never danced before, and when he turned her in circles, she got so off-balance, I thought she was going to fall. She was tall for a girl and solidly built, and Pop knew he didn't have the strength to lift her, but his steps were quick, and Emma Jean got winded trying to keep up with the old guy. Us kids watching laughed till we couldn't get our breath. When the music stopped, Emma Jean flopped down on a barstool.
We all clapped and yelled, "More, more!" Pop said we should be participants, not spectators. He said he wasn't able to do the acrobatic moves that he had done in his youth, but he offered to teach us kids what he said was a tamer version of jitterbug called East Coast swing. A bunch of us said we'd show up every afternoon for lessons at Pop's Pop. Some of the guys and gals didn't keep their word, though; they only showed up once or twice a week, but I didn't miss, not even once. We'd push the tables and chairs up against the wall, and we had ourselves a pretty decent dance floor.
After three weeks of lessons, Pop told me I had the potential to become a "darn good swing dancer."
The few times my folks inquired as to what I did after school, I said I hung out with friends awhile and then went home to take care of my chores. I think my folks were too exhausted when they got home from work to press me about where my friends and I were hanging out. Dad's usual routine was to change out of his mining clothes and then catch a few winks in his chair while Mom made supper. Since my folks had no clue I was at Pop's soda-fountain shop, I was able to take each afternoon dance lesson Pop offered, and I still had time to sit and talk with him before I had to get home.
One day, Pop told me how he used to be a "hot item" on the dance floor, how he never sat out a dance 'cause the ladies about fought over him. When he told me that, the twinkle in his eyes gave him a mischievous look, a look I didn't expect from a guy as old as him. And his thin, white hair, wrinkled skin, and brown age spots seemed like a disguise, that the real Pop was hidden by those markers of age.
"I competed once. Won too," Pop said, and he pointed to the wall behind the bar. "See that trophy up there?"
Two gold metallic dancers were atop the tall column of the trophy; a gold metallic "#1" was mounted onto the base.
"Won that a long time ago in Wakefield. When I was your age."
Even if Pop hadn't had the trophy on display, I would have believed him.
"Bird, you're rough around the edges 'cause you lack the know-how for the steps, but your feet are quick, you're coordinated, and you catch on fast. There's talent waiting to be drawn out of you; I'd stake my name on that. Why, I can see you someday dancing on stage."
Then Pop asked me that important question that teased my mind and set me on course for my chosen career. "You ever thought of becoming a professional dancer?"
I hadn't. No one had ever suggested that I could become anything other than a coal miner. So, like a lighthouse, Pop's question illuminated a path I hadn't considered.
Pop kept giving me more difficult moves to learn, and every time I mastered what he asked of me, he showed me another move that challenged me more. With each new step Pop added, I pushed myself to work harder. I was determined to not let him down, determined to build up my self-confidence, so I could believe in me, like he did.CHAPTER 3
I walked into Pop's Pop after school let out that afternoon in February of 1965. I was the first of Pop's swing-dance students to arrive. Pop was sitting on a barstool watching his old dinosaur black-and-white TV that sat on the soda-fountain counter. He was adjusting the rabbit ears to get better reception. The static cleared, and the screen showed a bunch of college students carrying signs opposing US involvement in the Vietnam War. I sat down on the barstool next to Pop.
"Wow, look at all those protestors," I said.
"Those North Vietnamese shouldn't force Communist rule on South Vietnam, but those young kids got a point. This war's costing young American soldiers their lives. How do you feel about it, Bird?"
As far as I was concerned, Greenstone, Missouri, was good for nothing, except mining, but there'd never been anyone shot there. How could I wrap my head around the massive killing that took place in a war? I didn't know how to answer.
"The other kids are here for your lesson, Pop; can we get started?"
He turned off the TV. "Sure. Can't solve the world's problems, anyhow."
In the past, I had hated starting back to school to hit the books again. But that August, beginning my sophomore year at Greenstone High School was easier to endure. I knew after school, I had dance lessons to look forward to.
By October, I was dedicated to swing dancing, and Pop and I had grown close. I could talk to him about anything, things I wouldn't have talked to my folks about. I'd tell Pop my plans for performing on stage, saving money, and someday having my own dance studio. How after I accomplished those things and found my future wife, I'd expect him at the wedding. Pop smiled, but the fire in his mischievous eyes was no more than a flicker.
Though I didn't know how I was going to make it happen, by the end of my sophomore year that May of 1966, I was more determined than ever to have a dancing career. It didn't matter how many times I had to repeat a dance step Pop showed me; I did it until I got his approval. And even when he said, "Perfect, Bird," I'd practice it half a dozen times more. It got to the point that Pop's dance lessons were more than lessons to me. He'd drop a quarter in the jukebox, and I'd pretend I was in a dance contest like Pop had been in. My partner and I would outdance the other competitors on that checkerboard floor at Pop's Pop. When the dance finished, I imagined the crowd clapping and cheering for us as we were handed a first-place trophy like the one Pop had.
Excerpted from Bird's Flight by Audrey Murphy. Copyright © 2015 Audrey Murphy. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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