I learned yesterday that my novel Heather Girl won first place in the West Virginia Writers Competition.
When I first finished Heather Girl two years ago I submitted it in the competition and it received an Honorable Mention. Not bad. But I thought I could do better.
I re-worked the novel. I completely changed the beginning, which caused me to lose some passages I had spent many hours on. And the changes in the beginning rippled throughout the book. I also made a conscious decision to embrace the romance which in the previous version was a secondary theme. I’m telling you this not to say that I’m some kind of literary genius. Far from it. Two of my other entries in this year’s competition – a short story and a poem – didn’t even place.
The lesson here is that hard work is required. Sometimes you have to tear down what you’ve created and rebuild it. It’s not necessarily fun, but in the end, it will be better.
In my first version, the story began with Heather in the coffee shop staring at a photograph of an old man. Then she looked at another photograph. And then another. Near the end of the first chapter was the inciting event: she learned her father was paroled from prison.
In the revision, all of that is gone. Instead, Heather is already on the road to Texas and stops to see her ex-husband. I think it’s a more engaging beginning.
This will be all you hear about Heather Girl until its available commercially. Until then, here are the first chapters of the final version.
She had been on the road for three and a half hours when she reached Statesville and took the second exit. She turned right and drove two miles to Hunter Road, where she took another right. The supermarket was there on the right, just where it was supposed to be. To her left, across two lanes of traffic going in the opposite direction, was the home improvements store. Another mile on Hunter Road and the high school should be on the left. It was all so familiar, even though she had never been there. A little further up the road was Lakewood Drive. Another right. It looked different. The street view she had seen so many times online must have been taken in the spring when the sun was bright and the leaves on the trees were green. It had, of course, changed over the few years that she had begun looking at the neighborhood, but it must have always been spring or summer when the car with the top-mounted camera cruised the streets.
Her heart was pounding.
Lakewood Drive was a two-lane asphalt road with a narrow shoulder, but as she had surmised from the street view, there was little traffic. She pulled over to the side, her right tires off the gravel shoulder and onto the grass. Her fingers drummed against the steering wheel.
The houses were modest, mid-century models built close to the road. In another half mile the lake would come into view. His was a 60s brick rancher that sat back off the road.
She looked in her rearview mirror and saw that the road was clear. She could make a wide turn and go back the way she came and leave things between her and Robert as they were. Instead, she let her foot off the brake and kept going forward. She drove slowly, in part to identify the scene she had seen on the internet, and in part because she was unsure about continuing.
The trees along the road opened a little and to her left she saw the sparkle of the water from one of the lake’s narrow fingers that stretched out into the lowlands. It wasn’t until she saw the brick sign that announced Lakeview Estates that she saw the wide body of water as she remembered from the street view. As she drove past the gate, she saw that it was held open with a rope. For sale signs were planted in overgrown vacant lots. Though she didn’t see evidence on the street view, she had nonetheless imagined the neighborhood as posh, with manicured lawns on the water’s edge and the beautiful homes of doctors and lawyers and sales reps living well on their commissions. Across the water were more houses, but like the lake itself, they were smaller than she thought they would be.
She drove on.
One house. Two houses. The third house on the left. The brick rancher. An oversized pickup in the driveway. She slowed, almost coming to a stop.
That was enough. She would just drive by, turn around up the road, and drive by again on the way out.
Instead, she pulled into the driveway.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. He was likely finished with his weekend chores. Maybe he and Karla were just sitting in the living room, watching a movie or a ballgame. Maybe getting ready to go out. But only the pickup in the driveway. Karla probably wasn’t home.
As she got out of her car she saw the curtains in the front window move. Maybe Karla drove the pickup. Maybe Robert wasn’t home. She had never met her. Without Robert, the introduction would be awkward.
The front door opened when she was halfway up the sidewalk.
“I’ll be damned.”
He was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt and looked like he hadn’t shaved for a few days. His once-blonde hair was mostly brown now and even though there was more than a little gray, he still wore it long and unruly. It made her smile. He was aging very well.
“And out of the sky she fell, like an autumn leaf floating on a cool October breeze, my beautiful Heather girl.”
He was off the porch and had wrapped his arms around her before she made it to the steps.
“It’s so good to see you.”
His voice was almost a whisper, but not quite. A true whisper would have been out of place, maybe a little threatening, and a normal voice would not have conveyed the same sincerity. It was the perfect intonation, the kind of thing that came natural to him. She had no choice but to believe his words.
He laughed as he stepped back.
She didn’t have the same gift. It was good to see him, but only in the way that it’s good to drive through your childhood neighborhood and see the house you grew up in, the street you played on, the grade school you attended. All but forgotten were the hard times, the teasing taken as a kid, the fights with friends, the pets that were buried in the corner of the back yard, so that all that is remembered are the games in the street, the tree fort, the creek in the hollow, the suppers of skillet lasagna and mac and cheese, and the cool mornings on bicycles and the warm evenings catching fireflies. You can’t stay long in the old neighborhood, you can’t even really love it, but it’s always good to be back.
With Robert it was the same. So much to remember, so much to forget.
“Damn, damn, damn, Heather, you are a sight.” His smile was broad as he spoke, his hands comfortably on his hips.
He wasn’t wearing shoes. Even his bare feet looked good. She wouldn’t tell him that, but Robert had a way of knowing such things.
“What are you doing here? On your way to the beach?”
“Is Karla home?”
The question caught him off guard. He tensed. Not enough that anyone else would have noticed. He shifted slightly on his feet as he looked over Heather’s shoulder and his right hand went from his hip to scratch his head behind his ear. He was about to tell a lie.
“Nah, she’s not here right now.”
Not a lie, but not the truth. Karla had left him. The whys of it all, Heather could guess.
“I’m on my way to Texas.”
“Texas?” Then he remembered. “To see your brother?”
He crossed his arms and looked at her, his face a question mark.
“He’s been paroled.”
He stared at her, not moving, looking as though he was searching for the right words. It was one of the things she had loved about Robert, his strong empathy, which he was somehow able to project without speaking, to make you feel his emotions without so much as a touch, to make you feel comfort just by being near him. The wind ruffled his hair. It would have made a good picture for Avery.
“Do you have coffee?”
He put his arm around her shoulder as she walked up the steps. At one time he might have pulled her close. At one time her arm would have wrapped around his waist. But now their bodies stayed distant, and while his gesture wasn’t completely unappreciated, his touch felt too familiar for comfort.
They stepped through a small foyer into the living room. Above the fireplace was a television. In front of the fireplace a single leather recliner and accent table. No other furniture.
She didn’t have to say anything.
“Yeah. She’s gone.” He shrugged. “I guess I’m just too much of a jackass.”
“I gave her all the furniture. It was all hers anyway. I never liked it.”
The recliner was new. A tag still hung from the back. The break-up was fairly recent.
“You hungry? Come on in the kitchen and I’ll whip something up.”
She followed him through the dining room to the kitchen, also new with stainless steel appliances and a six-burner stove. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a steak.
“You haven’t turned vegan on me, have you?”
“No, but you don’t need to do this. I can’t stay.”
“Heck, I need to fix me some dinner. Just as easy to cook for two.”
“How’s the business going?”
“It’s picking up again.” He worked as he talked, scrubbing potatoes, shucking a couple of ears of corn. “I’m back up to half a dozen agents. Still not selling much new, but there’s a real demand for existing homes.” He cut the ends off the potatoes and put them in the microwave.
“And your health?”
He laughed. “My health? Are we using euphemisms now?”
“No. I just meant your health in general.”
“Five years coming up in a couple of months.”
“That’s a big milestone.”
“Doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
Well, it did, Heather knew. She also knew that downplaying it was an acknowledgment that he had to go day by day. Anniversaries don’t mean anything when you can throw it all away with one drink.
“That’s good, Robert.”
“I guess. But what’s it got me? Living alone again.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
She knew better than to press it. Besides, it was none of her business and the failures of his relationships had no bearing on her life whatsoever, as long as he was able to help pay for Micah’s education. So what if he ran another woman off? So what if she had left him? If he really had quit drinking, the abuse wasn’t likely to be as bad as she had experienced, not that he had ever actually beaten her, but when he had been drinking his anger was nearly uncontrollable. Over the years they had their share of bad fights, but when they both had been drinking, it was hard to tell who abused whom. There was a lot of shoving and throwing and screaming. Always screaming. Sober, he was likely to be less abusive. Maybe every bit as controlling. Maybe as jealous as ever. But on whole, he had to be a better person.
Or it might have just been his inability to be faithful. There was always that.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean anything.”
“So the old man’s getting out. How do you feel about that?”
“Oh, I think it’s just wonderful. I’m hoping we can get back to being father and daughter again.”
He picked up the steaks with a fork and put them in the hot, cast-iron skillet. He smiled.
“Reminds me of Westwood.”
“Westwood was a long time ago.”
A long pause.
“He’s staying with Owen.”
“You’re not bringing him home?”
“I don’t even want to see him. There’s no way he would ever live in my house.”
She sat at the table and watched him work. He poked at the corn boiling in a pot of water while the steak sizzled in a cast iron skillet.
“When did you learn to cook?”
“I lived by myself for a while, you know.”
“What, two weeks?”
“More like a year.”
“Yeah. But not in the way you think. Melissa left not long after I moved down here. I didn’t tell you because I felt like an idiot.”
“You are an idiot.”
He laughed as he turned the steak.
She felt bad for saying it, but only a little. He was an idiot. Probably still is. And what did that make her? She had married him, after all. She had stayed with him through the abuse, through the girlfriends, through the drinking. And here she was, sitting in his kitchen, watching him cook. Watching him. It wasn’t like he was building a deck, or chopping wood, or hauling bags of mulch, shirtless, on a hot summer day. He was cooking. His shoulders slumped a little more than they used to and his arms had lost some of the definition he had been so proud of. He was no longer the man he once was. His hard edges had melted away. Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t stop watching him.
He hadn’t protested when she called him an idiot. That was new, too.
“For you, Heather girl,” he said as he put a plate in front of her. “I’d offer you a glass of wine but, you know. Iced tea ok?”
That didn’t really tell her anything. He had never been a wine drinker. There could be beer in the refrigerator, or liquor in one of the cabinets. Because he always had been and always would be a liar. He was such a good liar.
“Are you seeing anybody?”
She hadn’t prepared herself for the personal questioning. He was staring at her, a slight smile that might have been mistaken by someone else as flirtatious, or by someone more naive as friendly encouragement, but she knew better. She pretended not to notice the smirk, the dig that said somehow he knew that she was seeing no one, and that she hadn’t even been to dinner with another man since he had left the house. She cut the steak and speared a piece with her fork.
She shrugged and feigned nonchalance. “Well. Nothing serious.”
His smirk went to full-on smile. He didn’t believe her.
“Avery. He’s a photographer.”
He was still smiling, still watching her.
“He went to school at Columbia.”
The smile disappeared. And though it had delivered the effect she thought it would, she regretted saying it. Robert had never been to college.
“He didn’t graduate.” It came across as patronizing.
“You’re trying too hard.”
She felt her face flush. “I shouldn’t have come here. I’m sorry.”
He reached across the table and put his hand on hers. She pulled away.
“I need to go.”
“Can’t you stay a little longer?”
There was no guile in his expression. His eyes had turned soft and pleading, his smile gentle and nervous. He was nineteen again, unsure of himself, captivated by the girl with the flaming red hair who could persuade him to do her bidding with her own teasing, alluring smile. He looked at her, a strand of his brown hair in front of his eyes, tempting her to brush it away, to touch his face, to feel his shoulders through his white t-shirt, tempting her to stay, to finish dinner, to find the bottle he had hidden behind the cereal in the cabinet above the refrigerator, to sip and smell the sweet liquor on his breath, and let the evening take them back in time to their wonderful and terrible lives of so many years ago, that would delight the flesh, break the heart, and leave them in ruin.
“I have to go.”
He stayed at the table as she got up and walked out. As she opened the front door, she heard him from the kitchen.
She closed the door behind her.
The blast of the truck horn reverberated through the car, through her skin, through her bones. Without conscious thought, she knew what it was and knew that the impact was imminent. She squeezed the steering wheel and her body stiffened as she looked in her rearview mirror and saw nothing but the ever-growing front grill of a massive truck. The impact never came, and for a moment she thought that he must have already hit her and was pushing her down the highway. Then the horn blasted again and the truck backed off.
Ahead, all was clear. A car blew by her on the left, the horn blaring. She looked at speedometer. She was only going forty-five. She passed a speed limit sign. Seventy. Another blast from the truck behind her and she pulled onto the shoulder.
Her hands were shaking.
She didn’t remember getting on the interstate. Didn’t remember pulling out of Robert’s driveway. Didn’t remember getting in the car. The last thing she remembered was his hand on hers.
She rolled down her window and turned off the engine, the cool air swirling her hair every time a car went by. Her hand shook. She told herself it was just nerves, but she knew that was a lie.
She took the next exit that promised lodging. In the distance she saw MOTEL in white, glowing letters and drove to the two-story block building with rooms that opened onto a parking lot that was shared by a waffle house. She had seen worse. She asked for a room on the second floor, even though it meant carrying her suitcase up the flight of stairs. On her second trip, she noticed a man and a woman sitting in a pickup a few cars down from hers. She was halfway up the stairs when her left leg buckled, and had she not been able to steady herself with the bag she was carrying, she would have gone down. She glanced back at the pickup. They were still watching. The woman had those eyes. Too big, too wide, too alert, too something. Too long on meth, more than likely. Haunting eyes. Predator eyes. It didn’t matter. Heather wouldn’t leave the room until the next day.
Inside, she turned on the television for background noise and lay on the bed fully clothed, covered only with her jacket. Even so, she fell asleep almost immediately and slept until dawn.
Heather dropped by today.
I make it sound like it’s no big deal, but she drove two hundred miles. She’s on her way to Texas to fetch the old man and I’m in the general direction of heading south, but she had to veer a little east and tack on another couple of hours of driving time, so it’s something, even if it’s not a big deal.
She’s looking a little rough. Tired. She’s wrinkled around the eyes and her hair has lost its fire. But look at me. A little more belly than I ought to have and my whiskers come in with more grey than brown, and who am I to talk about hair? Then again, I’ve got twelve years on her.
She pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon. I’d been to the store that morning and picked up a couple of steaks, among other things, not because I was expecting company, but they sell them by the pair and that would take care of two meals for the week. So here comes Heather and I grab the steaks from the fridge and act like I’m Emeril and douse the steaks in olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and grind a little pepper and I can tell she’s digging this man-at-home-in-the-kitchen act. But it’s no act. I don’t have much of a choice if I don’t want to eat out every night. I scrub a couple of potatoes and wrap them in wax paper and put them in the microwave. I offer her an iced tea.
That’s all that needs to be said. In the old days we would have shared a few beers. She’s probably a wine drinker now. I’m sober and aim to stay that way. Maybe if I’d quit ten years ago, things would be different.
I drop the steaks in the skillet and they sizzle and pop and release a faint cloud of steam that fills the room with the primal smell of meat on a fire and as I look at Heather sitting at the counter sipping her tea, I imagine we’re on the roof of that building on Westwood with the sun setting across the bay behind us. Me grilling and Heather reading a book, and I wish I had a beer. Funny how smells can throw you back in time.
And she’s twenty years younger and her eyes look softer and her hair is smoother. I’m still in my thirties. And I really wish I had a beer. I’d give it all up, start over, just to go back in time with Heather.
He’s staying with Owen, she says.
Abrupt change of subject. She’s not interested in the way we were. Smart woman.
She’s talking about the old man. He’s been paroled. Going to stay with her brother, apparently.
How’s Owen feel about that?
They wouldn’t be letting him out if he hadn’t agreed to it. He’s an idiot.
I decide not to argue with her.
The boys have moved out of her house. Robbie’s got a family of his own. Micah’s finishing up school. I think, anyway. Don’t hear much from him. Don’t hear much from any of them.
Which is why Heather dropping by was as big a surprise as they come. Good surprise, though.
The old man killed her mother. Mercy killing, though the judge didn’t see it that way, or if he did, he didn’t give a crap. She was suffering bad. Huntington’s disease. Now they’re letting him go.
Like I said, I’m older than Heather. She was a kid when we met. We ran off to San Francisco doing dope and drinking all the time. Then here comes Robbie. So we got married and tried to act like family, but we were still partying. When Micah was born we left California and moved back to West Virginia. Heather straightened up and I tried, but my roots were deeper than hers. It took me a while. She ditched me and I moved to Charlotte. And there you go.
I think Heather has Huntington’s. She’s never come out and told me but I can put the pieces together. Her hand was all trembly. Her right hand. Or maybe it was her left. And she looked so tired. I reached across the table and touched her. She drew back. I guess she thought I was making a move. She doesn’t know how much I still care about her. She told me she was seeing a photographer, but I don’t believe her. She’s driving to Texas. Alone. That’s why I touched her hand. She’s alone. I’m alone. I needed to feel her skin, feel her warmth. She needed the same thing. I know her better than she knows herself, even though we’ve been apart for so long. And I know we’ll never be together again. But she’s still my Heather girl.
copyright 2020, joseph e bird