A few days ago, my faithful friend and reader Lee Anne, commented that I hadn’t mentioned Heather lately, Heather being the main character of my novel in progress.
For those who may be new to the story, Heather has traveled to Houston, where her father, George, has been paroled. At this point in the story it has been revealed that her father murdered her mother. Heather hasn’t seen him or talked to him in the ten years since. Her sole reason for even going to Houston is to make sure her brother is prepared to take care of their father and that there is no chance that he will try to come to her home.
In this scene, Heather sees her father for the first time since his conviction. She and her brother are outside of an old school that has been converted into a community center. Inside, a group of parolees are finishing up a mandatory counseling session.
HEATHER HAD PAID NO ATTENTION to the empty classrooms as they had walked, but ahead, light shining through a long bank of windows spilled onto the sidewalk. As they approached, Wayne put out his arm and stopped her.
“They can’t really see because it’s dark outside.”
He took a couple steps forward. Heather followed. Inside, they sat in a semi-circle. A young man who look more like a boy, sat in front, notebook in hand. The counselor. She went down the line of old men. She couldn’t pick him out.
“Which one is he?”
“On the end on the right.”
“That’s not him. It can’t be.”
Wayne nodded. “That’s our dad.”
His shoulders slumped, his chin rested on his chest. His hair was totally white and stood from his head on weightless wisps. It was hard to tell as he sat on the metal chair, but he looked thinner. Not the stoic figure who had stood in front of the judge ten years ago and received his sentence. Not the man of confidence who had built his small engineering practice into a regional design firm. Not the imposing father she had looked up to when they worked together in the garage. This was an old man. A frail old man.
“I knew he would be older.” It wasn’t necessary to finish the thought and she let the sentence trail off. “He’s only seventy-three.” Then it occurred to her that maybe she had done the math wrong. Maybe skipped ten years. She looked at Wayne. “That’s right, isn’t it? Seventy-three?”
“Yeah. Chronologically. But biologically, it’s more like he’s ninety-three.”
She scanned the others in the class room. A few seemed more alert, but not by much.
“Is that what prison does?”
“I don’t know. All those guys, Dad included, are out because they’re either in their last months, or they aren’t who they were when they went it. Some don’t even know who they are.”
“You said Dad was sick. Is he terminal?”
“Not in the sense that you’re talking about. No cancer or congestive heart failure or anything like that.”
She thought about the alternative.
“How far along?”
Wayne shrugged. “You’ll see.”
The young man in the front closed his notebook and straightened in his chair. He looked at the old men, as if waiting for questions or comments. No sign of life from any of them. It seemed to Heather that as counseling sessions go, this had to be the least rewarding for the counselor. He forced a smile and then stood. Some of the men pushed themselves up and started shuffling toward the door. Most stayed seated, including their father.
Wayne and Heather walked around the building and by the time they got to the door, the lady who had smiled at Wayne earlier ignored him as she pushed her father out in his wheelchair. The young counselor was guiding their father by the elbow. He looked up at Wayne, then leaned in close to their father’s ear.
“I’ll see you next week, Mr. Roth.” He spoke more loudly than was necessary.
Their father reacted with a sharp turn of his head toward the counselor. “Geez oh wiz, why the hell are you yelling at me?”
It was the first time she had heard his voice in more than ten years and it was the one thing that hadn’t changed. A deep baritone. A little gravelly. Unmistakable George P. Roth.
She traded a look with Wayne. Both had been on the receiving end of his brusque reprimands many times, especially during their rebellious years. As he had aged, he had either mellowed by choice or contrition and he reserved his worst outbursts for politicians and TV preachers.
She wondered if Wayne had had the same flashback, but she dared not ask in front of him.
Wayne stepped forward and put one arm around his father’s shoulder and steadied him by the forearm. “Ready to go home?”
His father looked at his face, studied, then muttered something under his breath. Wayne gave Heather a quizzical look, Heather shrugged in return. As they stood side by side, she saw how much shorter he was than Wayne. He had always been taller. At least six-two. But now he was bent over and his legs never straightened.
They were still several feet from the door where Heather was standing, but everyone else had left. Even the counselor had gone back into the classroom. Her father glanced up to chart his course, but didn’t acknowledge her presence. He took a step.
It was then that she noticed her pounding heart. Her breaths became short and choppy. Though she had envisioned the conversation that she needed to have, the things she needed to say, she had given little thought to first words. In one imaginary scenario, he would see her for the first time, there would be a long pause, and he would begin with an apology. He would explain that he never meant to hurt her. That he understands why she hates him and understands if she never wanted anything to do with him again. Then she would tell him everything. How he had no right to do what he did. That he was selfish, thinking only of himself. That he robbed her of the chance to be with her mother when she needed her the most. No, she would say. I don’t want to see you again.
She took a deep breath, trying to regulate her breathing and slow her heart rate. It only made it worse.
He took another step. Then another. He saw her out of the corner of his eye. He glanced up, an annoyed look, as if he were irritated that she was in his way. She stepped back and held open the door. He shuffled through. He didn’t know her.
copyright 2017, joseph e bird