THE GOOD ONE – Chapter Two

Two
 Fragrance
  December
1987
            Claire
stood in front of the white wicker vanity in her bedroom as she looked into the
round mirror.  She wore an oversized navy
blue sweatshirt with a wide collar that exposed one bony shoulder and left the
other concealed but still sharp as it poked through the fabric.  White cotton underwear with a blue paisley
print peeked below the loose elastic waistline of the shirt.  She tilted her head down to look at her legs
and placed her feet together, side by side checking to make sure the fleshy
part of her upper thighs did not touch. 
She was eating again but would not let her legs rub against each other
to create a friction not unlike sandpaper rubbing together when she walked or
stood just like she stood in front of that mirror unmoving.  The thought gave her chills, made her skin
pucker and brought forth a surge of self hate. 
There were some rules she needed to keep as part of the prohibitive structure
to Claire’s powerful existence.  Part of
the standards she needed to survive, keep in control and intact.  She was not satisfied and made a commitment
to herself to ward off temptation for that day. 
She sipped a Diet Coke from the vanity. 
Breakfast.
Brushing her yellow-brown
hair that fell to the middle of her back, she held handfuls of it at mid-point of
its length then combed out the tangled ends. 
She repeated this process several times until the brush was easily
pulled through.  It was thick yet healthy
enough to warrant compliments that never registered.  She never felt it.  There was always room to be better and none
of it was good.  She was not.  How could she be?
She put the brush
down on the bureau, cluttered with lipsticks, bottles of Sea Breeze, Jean Nate
body splash with the black ball cap and Love’s Baby Soft perfume, a curling
iron, hair dryer, two combs, and a round brush. 
Stray hairs the color of straw were left on the brush and the
sleeve.  Claire pulled a fist full of
hair out of the brush bristles and pinched them off the sweatshirt, denying the
connection of hair loss to what the professionals told her happened as a result
of malnutrition.   She was fine.  She knew it was true but would not let it
inside.
Nose almost
touching the mirror, her eyes narrowed to focus, she felt the surface of a
raised red splotch on her chin, a pimple, with her index finger. 
She rolled her
eyes and mumbled, “Why do I always get these stupid things?  My face looks like chicken skin.”  It was the only one and her round smooth face
was still tinted from the summer sun already gone.  It never really disappeared in Georgia, just
faded with the seasons.
She reached into
the right hand drawer of the bureau and pulled out a white tube, unscrewed the
top and squeezed a dab of the contents onto her finger.  She rubbed the clear gel on the pimple,
screwed the cap back on and tossed the tube back into the drawer with the
makeup brushes, compacts of blush and powder and sticks eyeliner from blue to
black. 
She stared into
the mirror, pulled up the sweatshirt and turned to the side where she rubbed
her hand from the lowest set rib of her waist to her hip.  Between her index finger and thumb she
pinched her side where she gathered a small amount of flesh between her
fingers.  She gave a disgusted look into
the mirror then pinched again.  This time
she held onto her stomach then her inner thighs that barely touched each other except
for the topmost flesh of her legs.  Hers
was the one that mattered most.  Fixated
on the mirror she stood pinching her skin over and over again, her eyebrows
arched toward more concern and verging anger. 
The hatred was
immense and progressed suddenly from the disgust of her body, the way she felt
when her legs brushed together, the small protrusion of her empty belly and the
soft curves that were forming at the sides of those vertical lines of narrow
hips.  She had no waist.  Maggie had always called her a tomboy.  Maggie Hinkley, curvy with brightly blond,
though dyed, hair was always beautiful and comfortable as the object of
attention and as the one everyone wanted. 
Honey to bees, she was.  Claire
found herself unable to live up to that forced sweetness.  There was fear that she ducked from and could
never live up to.  Claire was Maggie’s
daughter.  Always in name but never quite
capable of the implications.
Maggie was
gone.  Claire was used to her being gone
though.  She was gone long before she
disappeared.
Claire tried to
abstain from the thought of her mother because she missed her and the effect of
that emotion felt caved in and hollow even though caved in and hollow could
also be empty and clean like her tummy that morning.  A new start. 
The mother she had when she was young was different, so Claire thought,
never too young to understand that what she remembered could be subject to a daughter’s
desire to be loved for the shy, sensitive, lanky, girl with the small breasts.  No hips. 
Maggie loved perfection and took such care in her appearance so that it
overshadowed everything else about a quiet girl afraid of loud voices.  Maggie was confident, constant chatter, and Claire
was silent. 
It was that way
for Claire but she still wanted or needed her mother there to help her choose a
dress for the winter formal.  If nothing
else, Maggie had impeccable taste in clothes that far exceeded the modest
budget of a lawyer who worked in a small town on small cases. Claire’s father,
Ernest, would always try to confront her with the monetary effects of his wife’s
style.  Maggie could spend money but Ernest
did not have enough of it for her.  That
was only one of the reasons she left, Claire knew.  Dissatisfaction and whatever else that made
her stray from a small town in Georgia to somewhere else or dead.  Claire knew dead was not the reason.  Her mother’s instinct toward
self-preservation was too strong to die. 
She disappeared because she left and that was that.
Claire knew her
parents were fighting by their silence and silence was contagious.  Whatever Maggie did was that way.  It spread. 
She smiled and her smile prompted others to smile.  She laughed and others laughed.  Social, she could guide the mood in a room to
the place she needed it to go.  Unless
she did not need it.
 Claire actually preferred the fighting to the
silence.  Now all her dad could do was
sit in it, let it surround him like it was insulation.  Only her grandmother, Bernice, broke through
all of that.  Claire went from living
with a mother who barely noticed her to living with a father who could not
adapt to the confusion and schedules of life alone with a teenage daughter
still deprived of the higher woman knowledge he could not transmit.  Claire went from being invisible to being
cared for by a grandmother who knew too much about being a mother.  She never left Claire alone and Claire had no
idea how to deal with it.  She bristled
against her grandmother’s love until she accepted it.  That acceptance hurt.  Oddly, she knew that with the acceptance of
it was the acceptance that her mother did not love her enough to stay.
The phone would
ring.  Grandma Bernie was always there
for her.  Always available.  She was there long before Maggie left.  She was there when Claire was admitted to the
hospital at ninety-five pounds when she passed out at school and hit her head
on the lockers outside of Social Studies. 
Bernie had been trying to feed her and connect with her since then,
recently diverting the focus from food to crafts, to make eating less
stressful.  Claire tried but eating
disgusted her by what it did to her body and 
no matter how she tried to tell herself that curves were good she did
not believe it.  She needed to stay
strong and the food made her weak and ugly whether or not the boys whispered
that she had a flat chest and was the anorexic girl.  Being too skinny got her more attention than
she wanted so she turned the corner with it. 
Maggie being gone also took the pressure off the perfection thing.  Bernice had taught her to make dinner for
herself but she mostly made it for her dad while she took bites of cereal.  At least it was something and it was not
bloody or dead just mashed up and into a form unlike its original self.  Eating it hurt nothing.
She took a banana
clip from the drawer to the left that held hair clips and bands  and snapped it in place at the base of her
neck then powdered her face starting with her forehead.  The phone rang just as she muted the
shine.  The compact still in her left
hand, she picked up the receiver and answered, “Hello?”
            It
was Bernie’s voice.  “Hi honey.”
            “Hi
Grandma.  How are you?”
            She was really always there for her.
            “Fine.
You’re up early.  Did I wake you up?  I could call you back if I woke you up.”
            “No,
I’ve been awake for a while.  Getting
ready to go shopping.  What time do you
want to leave?  I have to be back at
three o’clock to make Dad dinner but he said he’d pay the rest of what you give
me for a dress.  I convinced Annene to
come with us if that’s okay.  Grandma
Estelle doesn’t feel well but she’ll come if we keep it short.” 
Claire propped the
phone between her shoulder and cheek then closed the compact and tried not to
look at herself in the mirror. 
“Annene said she’s
probably going to get one too.  A
dress.  She may wear the purple one she’s
working on.  She may get shoes.  I don’t know.” 
Annene, despite
her reputation and hair and awkwardness, was Claire’s friend now.  The bond between their grandmothers brought
them together which made the women happy. 
Pleased.  Boys at school called
her a lesbian because of the way she dressed in Doc Martins and snug black
jeans.  There was a lot of black and in
Georgia that did not fit in with anything.
            Bernie’s
voice lowered and with a twinge of disappointment she said, “Oh, that’s
right.  Why did I think it was next
month?”
            “It’s
a winter formal.  We just got out of
school a couple of days early.  Then we
have the dance.  Then the official
break.”
            “I’m
sorry dear, when I was in school, we went to class.  We didn’t get days off to get ready.”  It was a genuine apology.  She remembered nothing anymore.
            “They
treat seniors differently though.  We get
privileges.” 
            “Oh.  I wonder if there are any dresses on sale
before Christmas?  We can go to Penny’s
instead if you want,” Bernice said.
            “Oh,”
Claire stammered, “I thought we could go to the other shops.  When we were there last weekend we…”
            “Who
did you go with last weekend?”
            “Annene,”
Claire replied. 
Annene liked to
shop and despite her affinity with the color black, she was addicted to fashion.  Claire did not much like to do anything but
welcomed the chance to be dragged along. 
It kept her mind off the two things she never wanted to think
about:  food and her mother. 
            “Who
drove you?” Bernie asked.
            “Her
mom drove us and I looked around but didn’t find anything.  I told you all of this.  Don’t you remember?”
            Bernie
went from never forgetting a thing to a few things slipping.  She forgot little things like her keys.  She never forgot details of a story Claire
told her so this was a change. 
Claire looked at
herself in the mirror with shame in her eyes. 
She scolded herself for saying it. 
Maybe she had not said a word. 
Maybe there was never a real thing to say anymore.
            “Is
that boy taking you to the dance?” 
Bernie asked, intentionally redirecting Claire from the lapse in her
memory.  They were getting more obvious
and she had forgotten his name.
“Yep.  Neil’s taking me.  Anenne and Jeff are going together though
Annene said she’d still be fine with a cardboard cut out.  Yeah, we’re going together, but we’re all
going in a big group and getting a limo…”
            “A
limousine?” Bernie asked, her voice louder, incredulous.
            “Yeah,
Grandma.  Let’s just leave early, okay?”
            Claire
tried to sound firm and strong.  But, she
had stepped on the scale again and it was not firm and strong but lying.
            “Okay,
honey.  Boy, when I was your age I never
went in a limousine anywhere.”
            “Did
they have limousines then?”  Claire said.  She strained a laugh to relieve her
grandmother.  When Bernie did not reply,
she thought she may have hurt her feelings.
            “Grandma.  I was just kidding, you know.”  She really felt badly about it.  Bernie was loving and warm and up for a bit
of banter and teasing but Claire knew she worried.  Claire had given her something to worry about
and so had Maggie, the hinge to it all. 
She had left them and Bernie had glued Claire to her side because
neither one of them could ever get to Maggie, gone or not.  In Georgia or anywhere. 
            Claire
still hoped.  Maybe if she changed more?
            After
a short pause, Bernie said, “I’ll be there at nine thirty.”
            “Oh,
you’re driving?”  Claire said with a bit
of surprise that cut off her thoughts.
            “Grandpa
has to go to the hardware store so he’ll drop me off.”
            He
was always at the hardware store and now Claire’s father was always with Frank.
            “What’s
at the hardware store?  Isn’t he doing
any Christmas shopping?” Claire asked.
            “I
don’t know.  I thought when he retired he
would play golf with his friends.  Now
he’s just in the garage a lot.  I don’t
know what he does in there.  It’s like a
big secret.”
            “Uh,
huh,” Claire said. 
She looked down at
the carpet and slid the toes of her right foot under a pair of jeans that lay
in a heap.  Bending her knee, she lifted
them off the floor to her free hand and opened the closet door to the left of
the vanity.
            Maggie
had put so many mirrors in the room, on the four panels of the two tall closet
doors and the vanity.  She liked
mirrors.  Claire would have believed that
she installed them all to make the rooms look bigger if her mother did not
spend so much time looking at herself.  A
glance in the mirror of every room, sometimes a few opportunities to inspect
herself, and she made no claim to conceal them because there was nothing wrong
with this. 
            “Okay
Grandma, I’ll see you at nine.  Annene’s
coming, okay?”
            “Of
course, honey.  You told me.”  Her voice was kind.
            “Okay,
I’m gonna get ready.  Bye,” she said, and
made a kissing sound over the phone. 
Claire kissed
back.
            Claire
kept the receiver propped in the same position, pushed the button to hang up
the phone and dialed Annene’s phone number. 
After the fifth ring a slightly hoarse and tired voice answered,
“Hello.”
            “Hi
Annene.  Did I wake you up?”
            “Yes.  What time is it?” 
            “It’s
early.  I wanted to call and tell you
that my grandma is coming to pick us up at nine thirty.  So, can you get here by then or do you want
us to come get you?”
            “Just
come pick me up.  Can you call me before
you come too?  I’m going back to sleep,
okay?”
            “Okay,
go back to sleep.”
            Annene
slept late but Claire knew she would get up to go shopping with them.  She would be ready on time.  She would show up most likely in a bad mood
but there.
            “What
are you doing up this early up anyway? 
It’s winter vacation,” Annene mumbled, half into the pillow and half
into the phone.
            “I
don’t know.  Go back to sleep,” Claire
replied.
            “I’m
so tired.  We were up last night celebrating
our festival of lights.  Judy gave me
some money to spend.  How much are you
going to spend on a dress?” she asked.
            “I
have no idea.  Go back to sleep.  I’ll see you later.”
She knew but she
would not say.  Everything that cost
something worried Annene and so she became resourceful.  Judy worked constantly and slept during the
day because of it so she could not come. 
Annene was alone too in her own way. 
But, she was tough.
            “Okay,
bye.”  Annene said, and hung up the
phone, her face still on the pillow where she stayed for some time before she
moved another inch.
            Annene
Berry finished with the liquid black eyeliner and removed a pink and green
container from a clear makeup bag.  She
brushed her lashes over several times each and screwed the mascara container
shut.  She picked up a magazine and
flipped through the pages then put it down and looked at herself in the mirror
again.
            “Whatever,”
she said, and tossed the magazine on the bed. 
It was a twin bed
with a child’s canopy frame and a plain black comforter.  Annene spent hours at times lying on her bed
as she listened to records on the turntable before she moved on to compact
disks when her father bought her a stereo for her sixteenth birthday.  The compact disk collection grew from Rick
Springfield to Joan Jett, Blondie and Pat Benatar.  Music, teenage angst and black hair, brought
to mind things that scared her mother who had no remaining energy or resources
to deal with it.
            “My
daughter.  You were such an angel until
you were fourteen.  Then you turned into
a monster,” Judy told her.
            “Mom,
it’s called independent thought,” Annene replied.  “You should try it sometime.”
            “You
just like to argue with me,” her mother insisted.  Judy Berry was a shorter and more robust
version of her daughter.  Gravity’s
effects showed under her eyes as shadows and lines.
            “Mom,
it’s the generation gap.  What do you
expect?”
            “Never
mind,” Judy replied.  The conversation
was a typical part of the morning ritual, as common as Annene’s breakfast of
toast or Twinkies and a Diet Coke.  It
was as predictable as each day that Annene overslept for school and Judy tormented
her into wakefulness as each took turns turning on and off the overhead lights.
Judy turned on the
light.  Annene got up and turned off the
light.  Judy returned to the room where
she again found her sleeping.  She
switched the light on again and went to her daughter’s bedside. 
“Wake up,” she
said.  “Time to go to school,” she said
those days. 
            But,
it was vacation so she stayed in bed and tried to push the thought of breakfast
from her mind.  A party dress was the
next step, that and wishing for a flat stomach. 
It could happen with a women’s magazine one-day fast.  Reality told her that she wouldn’t have the
energy to stay awake for the bad cover band if she fasted.  It was an illusion but every girl seemed only
to think about appearances.  And, Claire.  She had that history of starving herself by
her own will and sickness.  Any of the
normal girls and boys were cruel about it. 
Girls her age were so stupid and cruel. 
Annene could face that.  Could
face being called a lesbian because she was smart and wore black and never had
a real boyfriend.  Because she was smart
and wore black.  A way to mute the color
that swirled around in her mind.  It
calmed her down.
They would never
get The Untouchables to come back to the small auditorium to perform for their
prom because, unlike the year before, their winter formal committee had no
imagination.  It would be a wedding band
or DJ.  Boring stuff.  Georgia stuff and a lot of dresses with
fluffy sleeves.  They were behind trends,
always.
Annene would wear
the deep purple dress, the one that her grandmother, Estelle, saved for
her.  Estelle could barely get a hold of
the past but it was not because she failed mentally.  Estelle did not want to disclose something
about herself and it was obvious. 
Perhaps with some coaxing, Annene could find out why her grandmother
never wore it.  Why she let it hang in
her closet for forty-two years.  It was
not fashionable when Judy was in high school so Judy refused.  Annene knew Judy, her mother, had a stubborn
streak.  It was a family gene.  They all had it but Annene and her
grandmother did not clash.  Annene and
Estelle had a generation to buffer them. 
That Annene knew. 
The dress was
simple and hung by its spaghetti straps in the closet: the satin scarf of
variant violet hues wrapped around a hook like it was the too thin neck of a
silver screen actress.  It was simple
enough to stay in style. 
            “Some
things take time.  Estelle told her
granddaughter.  “I bought it and never
wore it.  I almost did,” she always began
then stopped herself before the words got out.        Annene
was different.  The girl wore black and
dyed her hair every six weeks with Clairol hair dye she bought at the
pharmacy.  Claire assisted when she was
available but Annene had mastered application technique and could do it alone
to the same effect.  She fit her hands
into the plastic gloves and separated the chunks of hair.  She painted on the dark goo and rubbed it
through the dull brown roots.  Reddish
stains would persist around the hairline for a couple of days but it would fade
quickly.  Usually, by the end of the
weekend.
She was lucky
enough to have finally grown back her eyebrows after she accidentally burned
them off while building a fire on a school camping trip with Claire.  It was September, just after school
started.  An overnight trip that required
little more than Annene’s presence.  But
when Annene chose to participate, to stoke the campfire flames, they shot up and
singed off her eyebrows.  Mrs. Clement,
the chaperone of the school trip relinquished blame to the girl’s lack of
common sense. 
When the EMT’s
asked what happened she explained that the flammability of the little hairs was
amplified by the ammonia content to the hair dye.  She applied dye to the area the night before
to match her hair and may not have removed it all.  The residue lingered and so went Annene’s
eyebrows.  Torched. 
            “It’s
like pouring lighter fluid on your hair. 
Washing your hair with lighter fluid then lighting a match.  The fluid acts like a magnet.” 
The man in the
white uniform looked at her like she was an odd worm which was fine since
Annene felt awkward as a standard and even moreso without eyebrows and a normal,
even hairline.  She was thankful that
Judy allowed her the time to stay home until at least partial growth
appeared.  Annene was grateful for her
mother’s act of mercy.  The hair grew
back just slightly and Annene returned to school after a couple of weeks healed
and skilled at drawing in eyebrows with a pencil.  A black pencil.
            “Kids
that age can be cruel,” Judy explained to Estelle.  “It’s already difficult enough with Annene.”
            Estelle
cringed.  Her granddaughter was anything
but awkward in her own mind.  “The most
inspired are those who have the mind to not always do what’s normal.  What is normal anyway, Annene?  Nothing. 
Average is normal.  And, you.  You are anything but average.  Remarkable child of God…”
“Okay Grandma.”  Annene cut her off at the mention of
God.  Too much God talk
amongst atheist parents caused
tension.  But at the time, Annene prayed
to God that her eyebrows would grow back and when they did, Estelle’s mention
of God did not bother her so much as it had in the past.  By winter break, they had almost fully
returned. 
            Estelle
told her that it would be a fine time for her to wear the dress.  That it had been in the closet for so long
that she should just go ahead and wear it.
            “But
you said I should wait.”
            “Only
because that dress is awful good luck.” 
With that, the
conversation closed.  Annene knew she
would not hear anymore about the dress, but she would go ahead and wear it and
her fully-grown eyebrows would be plucked and shaped in a terse arch. 
Of all the adults
in Annene’s world, Estelle got her attention. 
Estelle knew her granddaughter like she knew her own bones, where she
was most prone to aches and where she harnessed strength.
            Annene
would still go with her friend and spend time with Bernie.  Bernie did not mind that Annene always wore
black but understood that Claire needed her friend the same way Bernie needed
Estelle.  The explanation would come.
            What
else would a girl do but sleep through a few more hours of a winter
morning.  Dark as it was, maybe a shower
or a bath with the new bath gel before shopping and some Nag Champa incense
just to prod her mother’s suspicious mind. 
Judy labeled other goth kids as pot smokers and druggies.  But, Annene just liked the scent for what it
was and not its capacity to cover up something. 
            When
Judy passed the room, Annene told her, “I’m meditating.”
            The
thought of it got her out of bed and she walked to her small dresser where she
opened the metal latch to a cherry wood box with a brass half moon and star on
the top.  She removed the blue, white and
red box of incense, opened the side of the carton with her right hand and
pinched the wooden end of the stick which she slipped out of the long
rectangular carton.  Then, from the
incense holder that held more sticks of a different brand of incense she
removed a yellow lighter and lit the stick of Nag Champa with an already lit,
cheep devotional candlewick.  It was covered
with a picture of the thin Indian Buddha on the side which Annene did not
prefer at all given that a thin Buddha seemed much less happy than a fat
one.  A fat one could help her achieve what
she wanted as she crammed the AP reading list and reviewed outlines at the
kitchen table where she ate Fritos with Heinz Chili Sauce or Ritz crackers with
Skippy Super Chunk and Smuckers Strawberry Preserves.  Between bites, the fat Buddha could skim J.D.
Salinger, anticipate multiple choice questions and decide whether or not a
purple tint to her hair would repel her winter formal date.  The red tint would clash with the purple and
a change would probably be in her best interest.  A Buddha would do with purple if he had any
hair at all.
            “I
like you just the way you are,” Jeff said. 
She claimed to see right through him. 
She yelled at Neil, her older brother for sicking Jeff on her to begin
with.  Neil told her that it was not his
idea but Jeff’s.  Jeff asked her to the
dance on his own free will and really liked her.  It was so truly insane and adolescent, the
thought.  Annene had no idea how much
Jeff felt for her, how deep those adolescent emotions that had barely peaked at
eighteen ran through his body.
            It
was at a party where they met, really met outside of the flirtations that
Annene passed off as absurdity.  Boys
Jeff’s age were just mean little fuckers convinced that mild forms of cruelty preceded
a date.  Annene knew about such
things.  Her grandmother was a gossip
columnist and informed her of the primitive courting gestures of young men.
“What’s that thing
in your nose?” Jeff had asked.  He
appeared through the kitchen side door behind Neil who arrived home after
school.  Books sprawled across the
kitchen table, Annene hovered over them already, peanut butter, jelly and
crackers at the side and her eyebrows full and perfectly arched.  Those brows furrowed at the interruption to
her steady concentration.
            “It’s
a nose ring,” Annene replied.  “What does
it look like?” she asked.  It was obvious
she was not looking for an answer.
She was dressed in
black from a turtleneck to Doc Martins stitched with yellow thread.  Jeff wore a black T-shirt with The Specials
album art on the front. 
“Oh,” he said, and
looked at her too long for her comfort. 
Like he was studying her.
            “It
looks like a nail in a tire.  You know
when you run over a nail, Jeff, and it sticks in it and the only way you can
get it out is to pull it out?  But, then
you have to patch the tire because all of the air comes out.”
            Jeff
just looked at her blankly and tried to resist a smile.
            Annene
glared at her brother, rolled her eyes, then lowered her head to her studies.
            Annene sat in front of the altar
she created and stared at family photographs of her parents and grandparents,
Estelle and Jack, lit by two candles that flanked the tabernacle that held the
scroll written in Korean that not one of the other Buddhists would
translate.  The whole practice was
getting weirder but it still made her feel better about things that had mostly
gotten away from all love to strange and alone. 
Her father was dead and Estelle was not well.  Jack was mentally gone.  Her guru told her to chant for them, for what
she wished for them and this all worked to the extent that it made her feel
like she had a choice in something larger. 
She was beginning to think she had no choice no matter how long she sat
there in the near dark room with those little bits of fire, of light. 
Light came through
the bedroom door.  She heard her mother’s
voice just moments before the bright fissure hit her eyes.
            “Annene,”
she called.  Her head appeared behind the
door.
            Annene
looked over her shoulder and squinted. 
“God, it’s so bright.”
            “What
are you doing here?” Judy asked.  She
held the knob of the open door.
            “Sitting.”
            Judy
held her tongue without success. 
“Now who are you
trying to be?  A monk?  Claire is here with her grandma.”
            “Who’s
driving?” Annene asked, and raised herself one leg at a time from the floor.
            “Claire,”
her mother answered.
            “Good.  Grandma told me she’d stay home but I
convinced her to go.  She won’t drive
with Claire’s grandma.”
            Judy
waved the air.  “That stuff smells
awful.”
            “It’s
giving me some clarity of mind, Judy. 
Relax.  You’re way too tense.”
            “Please
stop calling me Judy,” her mother said. 
“I don’t understand why you call me that.  What happened to the times when you would
just call me ‘Mommy’?”
            “You
don’t listen when I call you Mom so I call you by your God-given name.”
            Annene
was convinced that the practice would remove her anxiety.  A television documentary and her older artist
friends from the art shop job told her so. 
Tools for meditation helped:  two
candles placed on either side of a small cabinet, incense and a stool that
raised her just above her heals and took the pressure off her knees.  Her mind went undisturbed during these times
of meditation aside from the nose ring that she would intermittently spin in
its place as the little hold healed. 
Leaning over, she
blew out the candle and let the incense burn in its steady stream of smoke that
faded just above her head to nothing but a scent so clear and tranquil even
Annene thought herself happy.
            Claire’s
head peered above the Cadillac steering wheel. 
Bernie let her drive the car because she didn’t trust herself driving
with the girls.
            Annene
shifted in the back seat.
            “I
don’t know why I’m even going.  I have a
dress.  Grandma said I can wear the
purple early.  She said it’s good
luck.  I’m sure though that she’s just
afraid I’ll get stood up by Bozo and doesn’t want me to spend the money.”
            “Who’s
Bozo?” Bernie asked, and turned around from the front seat of the car to Annene
seated behind her.  Estelle sat behind
the passenger’s seat.
            “It’s
Jeff.  He invited me to the dance the day
before yesterday.”
            Bernie’s
eyes lit up.  “That’s great,” as she gave
in to her Pennsylvania accent that makes a period into a bookmark.  “In my day a boy was supposed to give you
some notice, but…” 
            “Things
are different now.”  Estelle said.  Her voice hushed and gravelly, she coughed
repeatedly into the back of her hand. 
She smoked since she was fourteen.
            “Yeah,
it fits me.  Of course I feel brilliant
knowing I can fit into a woman’s dress who is over forty years older than
me.  I’m dying my hair too, by the way,”
Annene added.
            “Annene,”
Bernie said, looking at Estelle through the rearview mirror.  Speaking for her.  “You’ll look fine.  Why do you want to do that?  It’s going to ruin your hair if you dye it
over and over again.”
            Annene
ignored her.  “Judy thinks I’m a freak.”
            “So
that’s what’s going on?  You had another
fight?”
            “No,
I just hate everyone.  I told her if she
didn’t send me to a shrink I’d start praying or something.  I don’t think she had meditation in
mind.  Definitely not chanting to a
mantra.” Annene laughed.
            Bernie
spoke up, “Maybe honey, if you didn’t call her by her first name.  Maybe she’d feel…”
            “Like
a mom?” Annene interjected, finishing Bernie’s thought for her.  “I told you, she doesn’t listen to me.  I call, ‘Mom’ and she doesn’t answer.  So, I call her ‘Judy.’”
            Claire
looked over her shoulder.  Her thin arms
hung from the sides of the steering wheel as though they were accordion hinges
on a vanity mirror affixed to a wall but with only one bend in the arm.  Twisted at the back of her head, Claire’s
hair was almost the exact shade of Bernie’s but lighter and without the
faintest hint of gray roots visible on the old woman’s head.  Claire’s pale blue eyes were concealed with
tortoise shell Ray-Ban sunglasses. 
Wayfarers.  She reached for the
dial and turned up the volume with her delicate fingers.  Bernie asked her to turn it down.
            “You
know your grandfather lost his hearing from loud noises, honey.”
            “Those
were fighter planes in the war, Gram,” Claire said.
            “Oh,
will…”  Annene blurted excitedly.  She gripped the backrest of the front seat,
jutting her head forward.   “Turn it
up.  Turn it up.”
            Claire
let go of the steering wheel with her right hand and moved it toward the
dial.  Bernie pushed away her hand.  “Wait, you drive.”   She said and pointed at the road ahead.  “I’ll turn it up.  So worked up about a song.”
            “It’s
The Clash, Grammy,” Claire said, bobbing her head to the rhythm.
            “Oh,”
Bernie said, again with a look toward Estelle who cleared her throat.
            Annene
closed her eyes and sang, “You didn’t stand by me, no not at all…,”
            “Just
give it a chance,” Claire almost shouted from the front seat.  “You only have to go out once.  He likes you, Claire.”
            “Tell
me about this boy.  Who is he?” Bernie asked,
intrigued.
            “He’s
Neil’s friend.”
            “Oh,
that’s nice,” she said, her approval rang through in her voice. 
It was obvious by
her smile that Annene’s older brother attracted the type of boy Bernie would
approve of.  Neil Berry was Annene’s sole
source of torture and disdain since birth. 
Annene was born into the world fighting him until she entered high
school when things calmed down between them and he left her alone to be herself
with her fringy friends.  Claire made the
most difference though.  She moved back
from Atlanta after her mom left and started going with Neil.
           
Claire turned the
radio dial and spoke at the segue, a moment of unclouded airspace within the
leather Cadillac interior. 
            “Alright,
you can turn it down now.  The treble is
much more subdued,” Annene shouted from the back then apologized for the sound
that still rang in her ears.  “Sorry, I
didn’t realize I was being so loud.”
She slouched back
into the maroon leather interior then slid to the right, off the hump in the
center and into the indentation that cradled her body. 
            “Tell
Grammy how you met Jeff,” Claire said.
            “She
knows how I met him.”
            “No,
how you really met him,” she objected, and turned to Estelle.  “They met at the party the weekend before
last.  Jeff walked up to her while she
was insulting another girl’s shoes then moved onto the fact that the guy
standing next to her smelled like Irish Spring and that she would rather gag on
a glassful of raw sewage than have to talk to someone who smelled like mint.”
            Bernie
listened intently, her eyes on Claire’s too thin profile then looked toward Annene
who sat in the back seat intentionally ducked well out of Bernie’s sight in the
rearview mirror.  Bernie tried to get her
in frame and craned her neck and shoulders to her left to make eye contact with
the girl.
            “You’re
not serious.  You didn’t really do that,
did you?  We at least had to be polite in
my day,” Bernie said.
            “Well,
apparently being rude works because Annene’s got a date,” Claire said.
            “Those
shoes were awful.  I told Jeff that if he
smelled like Irish Spring the night of the dance that all bets were off,”
Annene said.  “Gladiator shoes.  Who wears gladiator shoes in the
Eighties?  I don’t care if it’s a
trend.  It’s stupid.”
            “Your
father used to use that soap.  He used
that and Old Spice.  It made him smell
minty,” Bernie said, happy that she and Estelle’s oddly configured
granddaughter found some common ground.
“He smelled like a breath mint, right?” Annene said, and
pulled herself up against the back of the seat.
“This guy smelled
like one of those strong licorice mints which is fine if it’s in a person’s
mouth but not so fine if it’s all over their body.  You’re not supposed to smell soap.  Not on a man.”
            Bernie
listened from the front seat, her mind in a full speed as she thought about the
past.  It tripped her up into the
present.
            “You
know they make soap from fat?” Claire said. 
“Fat and something else.  Grammy’s
been reading about it,” she told Annene.
            “But
vegetable oil too.  It depends on who’s
making it.  The alchemy,” Bernie said.
            “Tell
her what you told me.  Grammy’s been
working on her Christmas crafts.  She’s
making bars of soap.”
            “That’s
interesting, a little creepy, but interesting.” 
Annene stopped herself from adding, Don’t
people your age usually give up on everything besides golf, soap operas and
talk shows?
  But, she refrained.  Claire was right when she said she should try
to be nicer.  Even though she thought it
was pointless, she tried despite her anger at things to be kind.  Things like Estelle smoking herself into
emphysema, her father being dead.  For
being a dead creep.  
“You’re not
knitting with that group of ladies anymore? 
Grandma stopped going.  She said
it was because of her arthritis and those women needed deadlines.  It got weird.”
            “Things
have changed a lot.  Soap making is
interesting,” Bernie said, mostly like it was an apology.  “I got the idea from Frank of all
people.  He kept complaining about waste
and refused to throw out the soap chips. 
I had a whole bag of them.  Then I
had a dream about it, which, to me, means that I’ve been thinking about it a
lot.  It was on my mind.”
            It
was not entirely the truth.  She wanted
to get Claire in the kitchen with her, doing something that took the pressure
off eating.  She needed to keep Claire
close.  Even so, sitting next to her in
the front seat of the Cadillac, Claire was still wasting away.  She got better after Maggie left but she
still had to watch.
            “Tell
her the story that you told me,” Claire said, her voice louder than usual.  She let go of the wheel and placed her hand
on her grandmother’s knee, urging her on.
“Tell her what you
told me,” she said again.  This time she turned
to Bernie and with a single motion, swerved the car slightly to the right where
a woman walked her dog at the side of the road. 
A trimmed white poodle with a red leather and rhinestone collar trotted
alongside the woman.
            “Claire,
you have to keep your eyes on the road. 
You almost hit that woman.” Her voice raised in alarm.
            “Yeah,
you almost took out the dog, Claire. 
Someone would consider that a civil service, Grandma Bernie.”  Annene laughed.
            “It’s
not the dog’s fault,” Claire said as she steered the car away from the
roadside.  As she drove away she peered
into the rearview mirror to look at Mrs. Clement behind her.  Annene turned around to see what the woman
would do having nearly escaped being flattened by a seventeen year-old behind
the wheel of a Cadillac.
            “She
just gave you the finger,” Annene reported, then turned back around toward the
front seat where she clung to the backrest and fought for the view in the
mirror.
            “I
can’t see, Annene,” Claire snapped, both amused and startled by her error.
            “Did
she really give me the finger?” Claire asked, half smiling.
            “I
can’t believe she gave you the finger?” Annene said, her eyes wide and smiling.  “Mrs. Clement, the team spirit camper, yogi,
gym teacher gave you the finger?”
            “Honey,
you have to keep your eyes on the road. 
You get too easily distracted,” Bernie said.
            “Yeah,
I know,” Claire said, shaken.
            “She’s
just learning, Bernice.  Lighten up,”
Estelle said from the back seat, her voice muted.
Bernie instantly
regretted the criticism.  The girl was
already all balled up in it like a potato bug with little legs as knives that
closed in on itself.
            “You’re
awfully quiet today,” Bernie said, her back to Estelle.  There was too much to worry about.
“That Mrs. Clement
is not exactly in the right giving you the bird.” She patted her knee then
flipped down the mirror to view Estelle in the back seat.  They made eye contact and just to be sure
Bernie understood, Estelle cleared her throat and rolled out few coughs.  It was common, the background noise of
rattled air from infected lungs, that it gave a sense of normalcy to the
situation that jolted all of them.
“Just ignore me
and keep your eyes on the road, honey.” 
Bernie’s tone was
patient but understanding and Claire was allowed to drive even though the girl
did not have much experience behind the wheel aside from the times she borrowed
the car – not nearly as entertaining as stealing the car in the middle of the
night.  Annene, always after a fight with
her mom, called Claire and whispered into the receiver.  “I’ve got the keys.”  Always she sounded like she was about to
carry out a military exercise.       
They cruised along
Peachtree Drive past the millionaire’s house, “Mr. Covart, the one who left his
wife for a twenty year-old,” Estelle said. 
She was always abreast of the town gossip.  “Abreast” made both the girls laugh quietly
and Estelle knew it.  “Everyone knows he
owns every inch of land from here to the Atlantic Ocean.”  She was a filter for happenstance but not a
very good one as her tendency to exaggerate was profound.  The millionaire invented the pink rust
remover that both Annene and Claire once used on their bikes to make them shiny
again.  Otherwise, he was a lonely man
who spent time in his lab, a shed at the back of his house.  Estelle never made up stories but listened to
the ones others told about him.  And
though she wrote about a lot of things, Estelle kept clear of his life.  He was one of those that was not so lucky
though it seemed like he was.  She could
see through the seams of any story tied together, exaggerated or not.  She knew what was the truth and was not. 
Annene began
stealing Judy’s car in the middle of the night when she was fourteen and only
five feet tall.  As fate would have it,
three years later, she was still the same height, only it was easier to see
over the wheel since she no longer had to duck at the few cars that passed her
on the road at two o-clock in the morning. 
She went to elaborate means in her attempt to cover her ass.  Driving was Annene’s freedom from Judy though
Claire did not understand the need for it. 
Judy was overbearing but she didn’t go anywhere aside from work.  She had to take care of her father who lived
with them.  She never smiled. 
Claire did not so
much miss Maggie as much as she missed the woman who she remembered as a little
girl.  That woman vanished long ago and
both Ernest and Claire shared in a brief glimpse of what she could have been
had she held on to each of them.  If they
held on to each other.
Though Ernest remained
but was not so much the emblem of perseverance. 
He was always alone.
Nothing was easy
for anyone.  Not anymore.
Claire looked
ahead to the entrance, a mural of multi-colored tulips along the foundation
above the hedges and pansies of yellow, blue and orange in the foreground of
the flowerbed.
Having almost run
over the gym teacher and cheerleading coach, Claire was glad to arrive at the
mall store where they had to pass every mother and daughter shopping team on
the way to the other side of the complex to get to Contempo Casuals, a small
store with less expensive and trendier clothes. 
They would find shoes at Nordstrom where they dye satin shoes to match a
dress.  Claire tried to stay focused on
the task at hand as they walked through the ground floor of the mall.  The two levels hovered above them, blocked by
the Plexiglas guardrails that revealed just the bottom half, from the waist to
the ankles, of shoppers who shuffled past the edges of her eyes so slow and
relaxed they appeared to have nowhere to go. 
Nowhere to rush.  Claire wanted to
rush in an out and get it done.   That had nowhere to rush.  The teenage girls who travelled in packs with
big, gold hoop earrings and color, still showed their bare legs as it was not
yet too cold to wear a miniskirt or shorts. 
December in Georgia was reliable that way.  Claire heard Annene and Bernie’s voices in
the background as she took in the details and slipped inside herself at the
vision of those packs of girls with their mothers who joined them to help and
talk a lot about whatever was at the ends of their mouths at the moment.  Whatever was on their lips.  Even if it was her.  Even if it was Maggie.  Those clear, plexiglass bannisters at each
level above created an empty funnel that ascended high, obstructed only by advertisements
for jewelry and stores pictured on static flags that hung from the vaulted
ceiling from strings attached to the beams above the food court on the topmost
level.  Through that ceiling was the
clear sky and light that was wrong and glowed fluorescent, light bouncing off
of everywhere to shine and show all of the little nuances of self Claire would
rather hide.  There was nowhere to hide
there.  No one to hide in or behind.  Nothing to conceal her mostly from herself.  Every one of those girls was a reflection of Claire’s
lack.  Every one.  Even the girls who were normal-sized and
geeky.
Then there were
the mirrors that made her look fat and horrid. 
More fat and horrid than ever.
Inside and deep
within the mall structure gave a strange hallow tone to their voices as they
spoke with distraction to the store windows they passed by.  Bernie, Estelle and Annene with their
rubber-soled feet in white Reikas, wide toe ruched loafers, Doc Martins and
jellies made no extra noise as they stepped with focus and haste across the
white linoleum tiles.  Claire wore hot
pink plastic jellies, equally mute, a pleated turquoise mini skirt and black
t-shirt with ruffled sleeves.  Annene was
in uniform black jeans and black t-shirt. 
Bernie in a turquoise velour lounge outfit and Estelle, a cream blouse
and black slacks.  Members Only jackets,
acid-washed jeans and parachute pants fitted the male mannequins behind glass
storefronts.  The stiff, blank-faced females
wore bright colors, just like Claire.  Their
wigs were teased.  Just like her too. 
Claire thought
herself fat in comparison to them and hated the softness to her own body.  She wished it was hard like those stiff,
faceless, plain, and unanimated figures. 
It was closer to her empty insides that she tried to ignore as her
stomach reached out to the acute smells from the food court, unnoticed by
everyone but her.  She was so hungry, but
instantly diverted her attention to the inevitable stares of the pack of girls
who talked low and pointed at her as they passed.  Bernie took her by the elbow and pulled her
in close to her side, like a bird under wing. 
A broken little bird.  Claire did
not have a moment to wonder that maybe she was just being paranoid to think
they were talking about her.  They could
have pointed to the glass storefront just beyond her.  It could have been Annene’s appearance.  But, no, it was Claire.  The girl whose mother disappeared.  The girl who was sent to the hospital for
starving herself.  Those events combined
managed to slip her several notches down the rungs of Alpharetta High School
Society.
Bernie told her
that it would stop when people found something else to focus on.  It was the first rule of gossip and Estelle
would know as much.  But, this was Alpharetta,
Georgia and there wasn’t much else to talk about.  It was almost a full year before that
happened and Claire discovered that new residents to Apharetta were almost as
close to being as interesting as those who disappeared.  “New to Georgia” struck up conversation and
intrigue and focus on The Hinkley Family dimmed.  Jeff Stone was another target of the
Alpharetta Mafia gossip and she felt for him having been there herself.  Claire was comforted by the thought as she returned
her grandmother’s gesture with a pull that brought them closer, their arms
hooked into each other.  She silently
relished in the dysfunction of their group; the oddity of two best friends and
their hip grandmothers who knew how to love them like no one else seemed to be
able to figure out. 
            Three
hours later, the women appeared from inside the building with several handled
shopping bags.  Pleased, Claire, Annene, Bernice
and Estelle turned the corner where Mrs. Clement, a thin woman with skin too
tanned and curly, brassy, brown hair brushed into a static bush, stood just off
to the right smoking a cigarette.  She
held a leash with the white toy poodle at the end of it.  Startled, she threw the cigarette on the
ground and stepped on it.  Waving her
hand at the air, Mrs. Clement pulled down her white sweat suit jacket and
tugged the matching velour pants up an inch from her hips to her waistline.  She lingered in that cloud of smoke for a few
seconds before she recognized them as the drivers and passengers of the car
that almost ran her over.  They could see
it on her face.
The moment they
were within earshot, she spoke sternly and loud at Bernie. 
            “You
shouldn’t let your granddaughter drive that car barreling down the street like
that.”
            Without
pause, Bernice responded evenly.  “I’m
sorry. Mrs. Clement, it is, right?  I’m
too old to drive the car and my husband, Frank, couldn’t come with us on this
shopping trip,” she lied.  “Men just
don’t like to do this kind of thing.”     
Large, round
sunglasses covered the gym teachers’s eyes. 
The skin on her face was tanned but leathery and her hands were the same
but also freckled.  Her hair was shoulder
length, a dull brown and frizzy.  Annene
always forgot her gym clothes and Mrs. Clement did not like her.  She liked the cheerleaders that she coached
and the girls who played sports.  Annene
did neither. 
Placed on the
ground next to Mrs. Cement, was a portable dog suitcase with handles and
vents.  She set the poodle down on the
concrete and the dog immediately sniffed around the pansies that bordered the
walk while Mrs. Clement listened with a look of disgust on her face. 
“My driving is
really awful, you see.  It was my fault Claire
got distracted.  Perhaps you should carry
your dog in the tote bag if you feel like going for a stroll along the
highway.”  Bernie nodded her head
continuously.
“Neither of us
should be behind the wheel.”  Estelle
confirmed.
            Annene
smiled.  Mrs. Clement said nothing but
packed her scruffy dog in the carry bag and trudged across the pedestrian
crosswalk to the elevator that led up to the second floor of the parking
structure.
            “I
hate that dog,” Annene said, when her gym teacher was too far away to
hear.  She waited until the parking
structure elevator doors closed behind her to say it.  “I hate poodles.  Who needs a hypoallergenic dog in Georgia?”
Claire laughed and
Bernie inhaled deeply, shocked as she tried for calm.
            “It’s
a defenseless animal, Annene” Bernie said, patient.
            “It’s
ugly,” Annene  replied, “I don’t  care. 
You know what I think about little dogs, right?”
            “Yes,”
Estelle said.  “We know.”
            Annene
punt kicked an invisible ball into the air. 
“We kick them into the street.”
            Bernie
shook her head.  “I stood up for you
though.  That I don’t support.  You can’t blame animals for their people.”
            Annene
nodded.  “You’re right.”
            “Thank
you, Grandma,” Claire replied.
            “Can
you believe she smokes?  Who knew that
Mrs. Clement smoked?  She’s the gym
teacher.  Gym teachers aren’t supposed to
smoke.”
            “I
used to smoke,” Bernie said.  “Way back
when it was fashionable and I was a layout designer for Vogue.  “That was before
anyone knew it was bad for you.”
            “Oh,
come on.  We knew it was bad.  We just liked it too much,” Estelle said.
            Annene
made no attempt to stifle her reaction to what felt like a mental sling shot,
completely out of the blue. 
“You worked for Vogue Magazine?” she asked, her
disbelief blatant.  No effort to conceal
any of it.  “I don’t even read that magazine.” 
            “No
one reads it,” Claire said.
            “Yes,
when I lived in New York.”
            “And
you moved to Alpharetta, Georgia?  Are
you crazy?”
            “Yes,”
Bernie replied, grinning.  “I used to
be.  Not being able to drive slows you
down a bit, dear.” 
            “Then
she became a nurse,” Claire continued.
            “Frank,
Claire’s grandpa moved here for a job and I came here after a while.  We tried to break it off but we were too in
love.  Too lonely without each
other.  He had a great job in advertising
but he got transferred to Atlanta.  I had
to decide what was more important to me.”
            “You
gave up a job at Vogue so you could
be with him and become a nurse?  I don’t
know if people do that anymore,” Annene said.
            “Annene,”
Claire said, cutting her off. 
Protective.
            “No,
I don’t mean that it’s bad.  I just see
you as working at this high fashion magazine and you moved here so you could
decorate houses.”
            “Actually,
that was my third career.  I dropped out
of nursing school before that because I got pregnant and just didn’t have much
of a knack for science, as hard as I tried. 
It’s interesting but I wasn’t any good at it.”
            “To
Alpharetta though?  I don’t see how
anyone would actually choose to live here.”
            “Alpharetta
is beautiful.  You don’t know what a good
thing you’ve got.  It was a good place to
raise Claire’s dad.”
            “I
know,” Annene said, pained.  “Judy tells
me all the time.  She sneered and changed
her voice to the pedantic and shrill tone her mother used with her.  ‘Not everyone lives the way we do,
Annene.  Someday you’ll be grateful and
understand why I’m telling you all of this.’ 
It’s the same speech.  Like I
don’t appreciate it.  Come on.”
            The
three ladies arrived at the side of the Cadillac.  Claire remained quiet as she opened the trunk
and loaded the handled Nordstrom bags and plastic garment bag that held her
dress.  She laid the dress out across the
shoe bags and closed the trunk.  She
liked it.  It was not too much of
anything.  A lot of the girls would be
wearing black dresses and she could fade into the mirage of them in the moments
when Annene, in her purple glory, was occupied elsewhere.
Annene broke the silence
with her words that cut through the well-placed fabrications of
Alpharetta.  She told the truth and that,
Claire knew from the start, was the reason she loved her friend so dearly.  No lies. 
The reality of her words even in their most brutal sense, made Claire
laugh or gave her comfort except when she was mean, because when she was mean,
she could be cruel.  Annene’s
angst-ridden state that chewed out Mrs. Clement and the poodle could offend
anyone but it was honest.  It made Claire
grateful that she had a white mutt, Hildy, a mix of Husky and German Sheppard
who greeted Claire with not only a wagging tail but also a circular motion to
that swing that distinguished Hildy as one of the happier dogs Claire had ever
known.
            Hildy
was always there when Claire got home. 
She felt sorry for
Mrs. Clement’s dog getting the bad wrap it did. 
Animals aren’t their owners. 
Bernie was right.  So right that
she held onto the thought for a long while.
            Claire
had always been shy but the past months left her more withdrawn since her mother,
Maggie, disappeared.  Disappeared as in,
“left.”  Claire tried not to speak.  Tried not to appear but to vanish like her
mother.  Only Claire’s vanishing was
haunted and withered, slight and gone. 
Transparent and surrounded by a self she would rather vanish from.  A self that felt surrounded by barbed wire
that cut into her with the slightest movement, the faintest spoken words, too
many eyes on her.  Food in her small belly.  At the same time, Annene refused to leave her
alone.
Annene spoke her
anger when she felt it.  She was always
herself and seemingly unafraid to be so. 
Annene was the only girl who did not gossip about Claire and her family,
focusing in on the lack, the second version of the new girl who came back to
Alpharetta from Atlanta when her father could not hack it alone without a wife
and mother to his daughter.  It could
have been easy for Annene because that kind of vicious gossip was in her
blood.  Her grandmother, Estelle Berry,
was a gossip columnist but they shared more than they did not.
Estelle and Bernie
had been friends for years, since their boys were in school.  Claire and Annene came together as part
accident, part fate and all need.
Psychologists at
the eating disorder treatment center told Ernest Hinkley that Claire had a
problem connecting with people. 
Overheard by one of the kids, the information spread and the girl had
difficulty making friends as soon as she returned from Atlanta to
Alpharetta.  Claire and Ernest, her
father, moved back from Atlanta to Alpharetta to be closer to Bernice.  They’d only lived in the city two years
before Maggie left and when she did the only choice for Ernest and Claire was
to return home.  It was Maggie’s idea to
leave in the first place. 
Claustrophobic,
the place choked out her talent and gave her nothing to be but a mother among
southern women who found peace in places Maggie could not find.  They had all hoped that the move would lift
her spirits, that she would stop blaming her husband and daughter for her
gloom, the way she left the room hunched over and lurked in the corners of the
house submerged in days of sadness.  She
could not escape from it no matter what Claire or Ernest did to cheer her.
            Annene
had never been her friend at that school before she left for Atlanta.  Claire never needed her.  Life was normal.  Claire was normal and even a popular for a
girl who never fit in anywhere but everywhere. 
Annene was not normal.  Now, not
normal was normal for Claire.
            Two
years changed Claire’s everything.
            She
was always by herself but rode a Vespa and needed a friend.  So, there was Annene picking her out of the
fringe and sifting through Claire’s excuses to stay alone.
            Bernie
conceded to let Annene drive with a bit of convincing, “I promise I’ll swerve
out of Mrs. Clement’s way this time.”
            Estelle
inhaled with a long wheeze.  “You know as
well as I do that she’s driving home. 
She only had to walk the dog to go tinkle.”
            “Maybe
if she squeezed it really hard it could go in the flower bed in front of the
mall,” Annene replied.
Claire took her
seat at the back of the car and looked out the window to a view of a concrete
wall.
“Let her, Gram.  She’s a good driver.  Really,” Claire said as she faced Annene and
Bernie who stood between the open driver’s side door and the frame of the
Cadillac.
            “Come
on, let me drive Bernice.  Please.  Grandma Bernie.”
            “Fine.  Promise not to call me Bernice,” she said,
signaling to Claire to give Annene the keys. 
“It makes me feel like an old fart.”
            “Yes,”
Annene said.  She shot her arms up, triumphant.
            “You
tell your mother about this and you know what she’ll do.”
            “I
know, I know.  Grandma always lets me
drive.  I’m an excellent driver.  You have my word.  I won’t breathe any of it.”
            Annene
took the wheel while Claire watched, knowing from their their secret outings in
the Pacer that Annene was a good driver. 
Bernie entered the front seat, passenger side.  She modeled perfect etiquette, bent at the
waist, made contact with the leather interior as she sat, then swiveled around
to face the windshield all the while keeping her knees together until her feet
reached the floor boards when she crossed her ankles, hidden by the long drape
at the hems of the velour fabric.  Bernie
was of a different time where manners were practiced and her body was polite.  But none of that respectful front ever
receded behind a heavy layer of warmth that remained in the forefront of all
she said and did.  Not easy to do.  Annene put the key with the black plastic
logo on the head into the ignition and turned it on.  She waited for a few moments while the engine
hummed then pulled the automatic gearshift from the steering column and pushed
it over to the left.
            “Reverse
is my best gear,” she said.  She looked
over her shoulder.
            Claire
and Bernie remained silent with Annene at the wheel until Bernie realized
Annene touched the pedals with just the tips of her toes. 
“Adjust the seat,
Annene,” she said, and reached across.
Annene slid
forward at an angle and tapped the brakes until she got a firm hold.  Once stopped, Bernie reached further across
her lap and pushed one of the sliding silver buttons on the door armrest.  Humming, the seat moved forward so both of
Annene’s feet, not only her toes, rested on the pedals, easily. 
“I got it,” she
told Bernie, who pushed herself back to the passenger side with some effort.
            “Okay,”
Annene said, and shifted the car to reverse and swept her arm over the
backrest.  “When are we being picked up?”
            “I
called.  The car is picking us up at six
o’clock,” Claire said.
            “You
called?  Didn’t the boys call?”  Bernice asked.
            “No.
Dad said he would pay for the limo so I called.”
            “I
don’t know, ladies.  It’s just that in my
day things were different.  There were
rules.”
            “There
aren’t rules anymore, Grandma Bernie. 
Women are emancipated,” Annene said. 
She smiled and turned to Bernice who pointed to the windshield. 
            “I’m
not exactly from the dark ages, you know,” Bernie chirped.
            “We’re
completely from the dark ages, Bernice,” Estelle corrected.
            “Gram
worked.  She had a job,” Claire said from
the back seat.
            “We
both had jobs.  We were progressive
because we had to be,” Estelle said. 
“But, we had families and there’s only so much you can do.”
            “I
don’t mean to offend you.  It’s just that
we don’t have to wait for a guy to call. You just have to be rude,” Annene
said.
            “Rude
is the new normal, Bernice,” Estelle said, coughing.
            “What
do you mean, you have to be rude?  We
were polite in my day.  My father would
never let me call.”
            “Judy
doesn’t like it either but she doesn’t forbid it.  I think she probably thinks it’s the only way
I could get a date in the first place.”
            “Annene,”
Bernie said, as though trying to cover the truth.
            “Jeff
asked you to the dance though,” Claire said.
            “Yeah,
but I was rude, right?”
            “This
is what I mean by rules, honey,” Bernie began, then added, “Keep your eyes on
the road.” 
Annene returned
her eyes to the road.
            “There
were two of them that I listened to and those are:  No calling him and don’t call back until he
calls twice.”
            “Isn’t
that lying?” Annene asked.  “It’s a
game.”
            “No.”
            “I
think it’s lying because you’re playing games,” Annene insisted.
            “I
know.  That’s what I thought too long
before I had the capacity to think for myself,” Estelle said.  “You have to know what you want.”
            Annene
quieted and kept driving.  She passed the
millionaire’s house on the highway, quieted by the drone of the engine and her position
behind the steering wheel.
            “I
don’t think that would work for me,” Annene said.  “Judy was surprised that I had a date in the
first place.  It seems so
complicated.  Claire, on the other
hand.  Claire could do that.”
             “No, I couldn’t,” Claire argued, and pulled
herself up to the seat less urgently than Annene, her wide eyes reflecting in
the rearview mirror, appeared to be on the verge of explosion if she kept her
mouth shut too long.  She opened and
closed her mouth as though she was going to speak then didn’t.
            “I
mean, it’s just that the four of us thought it would be fun to go together to
the dance.  Jeff and I are friends,
anyway.  I think that’s the best way, to
be friends.”
            Claire
kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead and to the side as it curved along the
hillsides of the expertly cut front lawns and a series of houses that Bernie
referred to as “McMansions.”
            “Your
Grandpa Frank and I were friends even when things first began,” Bernie said,
her words trailed off as she stared out the window at the scenery that
passed.  Southern mansions and perfectly
trimmed lawns blurred into a trail of color as though a rainbow tried to catch
up with falling drops from the sky.  She
stared out the window for a few moments before Claire spoke.
“I think Mom would
like my dress.  I think she would like
the scarf that tied around the neck.”
Bernie looked into
the rear view mirror at Claire still focused out the window.  Bernie had to keep her thoughts to herself
because while she claimed not to hate Maggie and tried not to show it, Claire
and her grandmother had that common ground: 
their mutual incapacity to connect with Maggie Hinkley.  It made Bernice angry and pained to watch Claire
drown in that as every day all of them tried to save Claire from wasting away
in the emptiness that gave her strength.
Bernie shook off the
thought as she tried to recall the pleasant images of her life, blurred in the
periphery of those strong emotions. 
Images from her history sped through her mind in flashes without order
or a single pause as they drove along the highway until they came to the yellow
diamond shaped caution road signs that warned of the curvy road ahead.  
Annene tapped the
brakes, expertly.  “I think,” she began
before Bernice interrupted.
            “I
think she would too.  What’s most
important is that you like it.  You
have to wear it.”
            “Yeah,
at least Grandma Bernie didn’t force it on you,” Annene said.
            “You
love that dress.  What?”  Estelle said, too loud and coughed then
cleared her throat before she continued. 
“You don’t like the dress I saved just for you?  You’ve talked about that dress since you were
a little girl. At least that’s what you told me.  You said you couldn’t wait until you were a
senior to wear it to prom,” Estelle said.
            “I
thought I was wearing it to prom, not the winter dance.”
            “You
don’t have to wear it,” Claire said.
            “I
know,” Annene replied.
            “Then
don’t.  Your grandma saved it for you,” Claire
said.
            “Dear
Lord, no.  Estelle saved it because she
never thought she was suited for it,” Bernie said.  “She loved it but it looked awful on her.”
            “She’s
right,” Estelle said.
            “And,
it suits me?” Annene asked, miffed.  “It
clashes with my hair.”
            “Yes.  You look great in it. It’s vintage.  You like that style and you’re giving it a
personal touch with your fantastic fashion sense and skills.”
            “No,
I don’t.  I don’t like it,” Annene said.
            “Then
wear something else,” Claire said.
            “No.”
            “Why?”
            “Because
I’m afraid I won’t have another chance to wear it.  It’s not like I’ve had a lot of dates, you
know.  Jeff’s Neil’s friend, anyway.  Neil probably bribed him to go out with me.”
            “Oh,
come on now, honey.  You’re young,”
Estelle said.
            “What
does that have to do with it?” Annene said, her eyes shifting to the reflection
of her grandmother.
            “If
I could remove anything from my youth, I’d take out the insecurity.” Bernice
said.
Estelle
interrupted.  “Your eyebrows just grew
back in, Annene.  Things will change.”
            “They
will?  I don’t really know if I want them
to change.”
            “Of
course they will, honey.  Nothing ever
stays the same,” Estelle replied.  She cleared
her throat and sat up straight then looked quickly at the rearview mirror where
she watched Annene trace her eyebrows with her index finger, one hand on the
wheel.  Estelle pointed ahead toward the
windshield then reached forward from the rear passenger seat and placed her
hand on Annene’s back.  She patted
gently.
            Annene
looked ahead.  Estelle made it all alright.