Joseph E Bird

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Heather’s Father

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

Check Engine

Joe H. used to say he didn’t have a creative bone in his body.  That was far from the truth. Consider this paragraph from an early draft of his unfinished novel, Test Drives.

“If Laura Lanham were equipped with a “check engine” light, perhaps someone she meets today would see something besides her silky dark hair, her high cheek bones, her cover-girl skin, and the way her jeans and her Alderson-Broaddus College sweatshirt seem to celebrate every swell and toss of Laura’s lithe body as it ripples beneath them. But that won’t happen today or any other day soon. For want of a simple warning light, Laura is allowed to roam the streets of Alban City in a large, gasoline-powered battering ram as if everything is fine, when it’s not.  In the year 2003 humans have not yet done for themselves what they have done for their cars, so the check engine light in Laura’s well-designed automobile will afford her car a level of protection Laura does not enjoy.” — copyright 2003, Joseph Higginbotham

Check Engine Light.  What a metaphor.

I look back on his writings and remember what I saw back then. A lot of understated but biting satire.  Characters that would be right at home in Twin Peaks.  I also see the autobiography in his characters.  Some in this one, some in that one.  Put it all together and you see everything that Joe wrestled with in his life.

No more.  He fought his good fight. He will be missed.


Can you handle the truth?

If you want to be better, you need someone who has the guts to tell you the truth.

Family won’t do that. Most friends won’t.  They want to encourage. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. They’ll lie to you and tell you work is wonderful, even if it’s not. But if you want to get better, you need someone who will tell you where you’re going wrong.

A few years ago I wrote my first novel, Counsel of the Ungodly.  It’s the story of Savannah Joyce, who fled big city life in Boston to set up shop in a small resort town in the mountains of West Virginia.  A new highway will bring more tourism to the area, but there will also be winners and losers as developers vie for prime real estate along the proposed highway. Savannah’s peaceful world is turned upside down and she realizes she can no longer run away from her past.

When I finished, I sent the book to Joe Higginbotham to take a look. Here are a few of his thoughts (along with my reaction to his comments).

JH: I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Counsel of the Ungodly needs a lot of work. (Ouch.) The good news is that it’s worth it. (Ok, that’s better.)

JH: You’re opening paragraph needs a grabber. (Sure, I can work on that.)

JH: Your settings are weak. Each scene needs to answer the fundamental questions: what, when, where, who. (Seems like a lot of work, but ok.)

JH: Your dialogue is lazy. (Another ouch.) I think you’re trying to make your dialogue too realistic. Realistic dialogue is boring. Make every word of dialogue do one of two things: 1) Move the action, or 2) reveal character or relationship. (Ok, this is good. A lot of work to do, but good advice.)

JH: Your sentences, in places, are as meandering and indirect as the mountain streams of Hampshire County. (He was right. I still struggle with this.)

JH: I rejoiced when you finally killed Tim off. (Uh-oh. Tim was supposed to be a likable character.  The reader was supposed to be shocked and sad when Tim took the deep-six dive. JH had much more to say about why he didn’t like Tim.)

JH: I never liked Savannah. (Triple uh-oh. Savannah is the main character. She has to be likable. This is even worse than not liking Tim  JH had much more to say about why he didn’t like Savannah. My two main characters, and the reader doesn’t like them.)

You get the idea. Friends and family won’t tell you stuff like this so directly. JH had the guts to tell me not only what he didn’t like, but what he really didn’t like. Better Joe than a potential agent.

So I worked on the book and did the best I could with his suggestions. I entered the book in the West Virginia Writers Competition and it won first place. So yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about what I did. I sent Joe the revised copy.

JH: I calculate that this iteration of Savannah could not only beat 40 entrants from West Virginia, but another couple hundred form surrounding states. (Yes!)

JH: But you can and must do better. (I realize now that he was right. 100% correct.)

And then he followed that comment with three paragraphs of what I needed to work on with Tim, to whom he was finally warming, and Savannah, who in his mind, needed more clarification of her character and motivations.

Do you want to be a better writer? A better artist? A better song-writer? Find someone who knows what they’re talking about and ask them to be brutally honest. It’s the best way.

If you want to be a better writer, read these books.

I’ve always read a lot. Maybe not voraciously, I’m too slow for that. But I’ve read a wide range of books. When I began writing, Joe Higginbotham gave me books. Books that he bought for the sole purpose of sending to me so that I could experience good writing.

He was a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut so he sent me some of his books.  Slaughterhouse Five. Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut is so different, so unique, it’s hard not to be influenced by his work.

He also introduced me to one of my favorite authors, Chris Offutt. Offutt is from eastern Kentucky, close to my neck of the woods, and his stories connect with me for that reason alone.  There is also a simplicity and directness in his writing.  The characters in his stories are not overly complex and their journeys are not epic, but they’re real people. Joe mailed me three of his books, The Good Brother, The Same River Twice, and No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home.  I’m glad he did.

He encouraged me to be a better business person and said I should read Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi, and Selling the Invisible, by Harry Beckwith.  I did. As well as many others that he recommended.

And the first book he said I should read – well, study really – was Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology.  Heavy stuff, man.

But that was Joe.  He knew what he was talking about and challenged you to be better. That’s a good friend.

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