THE GOOD ONE – Chapter Three

Measures
            Annene
stood in the kitchen behind Bernie and watched her stir a mixture of sodium
hydroxide solution into a pot of melted fat. 
The mixture was thick and a white coating stuck to the wooden spoon.
            “These
things take time,” Bernie said, transfixed.
            “So,
you put the lye in that goop?”
            “Yes.”
            “It’s
fat, right?  Lipids or something?”
            “Fat.  This one is fat but we’ll make glycerin soap
later.  We use vegetable oil for that.”
            “Glycerin
soap is that funky clear stuff,” Annene said, pointing into the pot with the
cracked black handles.
            “It
looks like amber,” Claire said.  The
friends stood next to each other.
“It looks like a
complexion soap I used a long time ago,” Bernie said.
            “Yeah,
but it’s body soap.  It’s non-toxic.  We can make it different colors and I have
some oils to scent it.”
            “How
long have you been doing this?” Annene asked.
            “Not
that long,” Bernie said.
            “Why did you start doing this?” Annene
said.  She rolled her eyes and shook her
head.
            “She
got bored of stitching.  Us old bags are
boring,” Estelle said from the living room sofa, her voice barely audible as it
wavered while she tried to stifle a cough – to hold it between the base of her
neck and the empty scars of her tonsils would make it impossible to breath.  It squeezed itself between the trachea and
pharynx.
            “Oh,
come on, Grandma.  It’s not that you’re
boring.  It’s that a person can only have
so many knitted products.” Annene argued.  
She splayed her hands on the kitchen table covered with crocheted and knitted
placemats and a runner all in the same color sage green.
            “Estelle
just doesn’t like it because you have to keep your mouth shut to do it,” Bernie
said.
            “Yours
is open.  How can you say that?”  Estelle continued knitting and pearling with
small needles held close to her face. 
She kept the movement small and precise. 
Despite her large knuckles she worked evenly and without haste.
            “Never
mind.  Keep looping,” Bernie
replied.  “Annene, this is called
soponification, when the acid, the lye, and the base mix with one another and
react.”
            “How
do you know so much about this?” Estelle asked, looking up from her fast moving
hands to find Claire reading from a paperback book kept open by the weight of
the oversized pages.
            “It’s
my recipe book.”
            “It
says that the fat is an acid.”
            “I
don’t understand how all that fat can clean your pores,” Estelle said.  She’d trudged over to the pot and peered into
it and she held in her right hand the set of Susan Bates number four knitting
needles and ball of yarn in the other hand. 
The corner of her mouth was turned up in a Lucille Ball cringe.
            “It
stinks,” she added.
            “It
says here that soap molecules have heads that attract water and tails that
repel it.  It is sort of like a magnet.”
            “It
sounds like a sex ed class,” Annene said.
            “Annene,”
Estelle, corrected her.
            “What?”
Annene said, mock defensive.  “Little
heads and little tails sound either like pollywogs or sperm.”
            “How
do you know about that?”
            “Grandma,
I may not have any dates but we did learn about sex in school, you know?”
            “You
did?”
            “Yeah.”
            “When?”
Bernie asked, intrigued.
            “In
junior high school.  They have you look
at slides.  Everyone got embarrassed and
laughed.  It was so weird,” she said, and
scrunched up her round face.  “Did you
have the same thing, Claire?”
            “It
was so embarrassing.  I was mortified
because this boy I liked was sitting right next to me during the whole
thing.  We never spoke after that.”
            “They
would never have anything like that when I was young.  It was thought improper.  As a matter of fact, I would think that it
was improper myself, now.  We learned
biology but, we were monitored very closely. 
My Aunt Ethel convinced me that anatomy was sinful.”
            “Oh,
Bernie, stop being so goddamn old,” Estelle teased, flopping her hands down in
her lap.  She had joined Claire at the
kitchen table though the girl was not there in body.  “Kids these days need to know about this
stuff.  Everyone just pretended to be so
pure but they weren’t.  When Bernie was a
little girl she said she would never wear a short skirt when all of the other
girls were wearing the style.”
            “Then
I started wearing those Lucile Ball house dresses that Diane von Furstenberg
turned into the wrap dress and Estelle wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.”
            “Cool,”
Annene said.
            “Grandma,
that’s not even very short.”
            Estelle
corrected her.  “It’s short for
Bernie.  Bernice Hinkley wouldn’t wear
short dresses until she moved to the city and started working for that fashion
magazine.  Then she thought she was hot
as…”
            “Estelle,
stop that now.  I was just shy.”  She nudged Annene, nodding.  “Your grandmother was one of the first
flappers, you know.”
            “Hank
didn’t think you were shy.  Hank thought
you were a real hot number.  I
remember.  He and your Grandma, Claire.  Hank McGuinnes took her out on the town to
all of the fancier restaurants and even…”
            “Estelle,
can we stop with this right now?  You’re
going to disrupt my concentration.”
            “What  kind of attention span do you need to make
soap?” Annene asked.
            “It’s
the same type of attention you have to pay to making gravy, Estelle.”
            “Or
lighting campfires,” Claire mumbled.  Her
eyes scanned the magazine pages without looking up.  She wondered if they remembered her being
there in the room with all of them, saying nothing, while they talked about
melting fat.  Her own voice sounded odd.  Out of place. 
Tweaked.
            Estelle
continued, “ You have to keep adding the broth from the giblets and flour.  With this you have to add the lye to the fat
or oil or it doesn’t mix properly.”
            “Grandma,
lye is acid, by the way, so it burns if you’re not careful,” Claire said.
            “Oh,
come on.  Is anyone in this house any fun
anymore?  I was just telling you that you
were very reserved at one time and you came out of your shell.”
            Estelle
watched as Claire looked up from Vogue.  The cover model was Twiggy thin and sullen
like most of the Paris runway models.  Claire
ran her hand down her thigh to her calf as she looked at the model on the cover
then returned her attention to the article. 
It was coming off if she managed to control it.  The hips developing would shrink and her
small tummy flatter and that little barely conceivable belly would disappear to
become concave.  The scale read a loss of
five pounds and her jeans, the skinny pair, were loose and that feeling of dark
ugly fuzz in the pit of her stomach welled up in her. Just looking at the
picture of the woman she wished she was a sculpture that could be cut in
half.  Empty though her belly was she
continued scanning the pages and turned back the top right corner with her
lithe fingers.  Anger brewed at the ugly
bulge inside her.  Something and nothing
were the same in the nourishment of her famine.
“I can’t believe
you worked at this place.  You seem so
different now,” Claire said from the kitchen table where she sat with Estelle
who had moved from the adjoining living room to the breakfast room.
            “What?”
Estelle said.  “My hearing must be
going.”
            “Look
who’s getting old,” Bernie said.
            “Be
nice.  I want to hear about you and that
Hank guy.”
            “Estelle,
you tell the story.”
            “You
sure?  I don’t want you to wind up
poisoning yourself,” she said, sarcastic. 
“I mean, you could really wind up getting hurt.”  Estelle became so at ease with the teasing
and banter with her friend that she
            “Oh,
Estelle, get a job,” Bernie
said.  She rested the spoon on the side
of the pot and her hand on her hip.
            “Grandma,
don’t stop stirring.  It’ll get all
lumpy.”
            “Oh,
how do you know about soponification, Claire.”
            Annene
shook her head.
            “This
is the dorkiest thing I’ve ever done. 
It’s weird,” Annene said.  “If you
want soap go buy some.”
            Estelle
shot her a look that locked onto Annene’s eyes then fixed on the top of Claire’s
head bowed as she turned the magazine pages.
            “Well,
you said it’s like gravy.  And, you can’t
stop stirring gravy because it gets all lumpy, right?”
            “You’re
a smart girl, Claire.  It runs in the
family, Bernie said.
            Claire
just looked at her blankly before she lowered her head and smiled faintly.
            “I’m
hungry.  Are you hungry, Claire?” Annene
asked.
            “No,
I’m fine.”
            “You
girls can run and get something to eat. 
I’d make you something here but, frankly, I’m concerned that the food
will be affected.”
            “What?  By the smell,” Estelle asked.  “It’ll be fine.”  She did not look up from the row of knitting
almost finished.  Toward the end of one
of these rows, she never looked up.
            “Will
you mind your own business?” Bernie reprimanded gently.
            “No,
there’s some lunch meat in the refrigerator and you girls can make the
sandwiches here on the breakfast table.”
            “How
do you know there’s lunch meat in the refrigerator?  What are you doing snooping through my love
letters and my refrigerator?”
            “Oh
come on Bernie, you always have lunch meat in the refrigerator.  And, you also always leave your love letters
out for people to read.”
            “Oh
no, here we go again,” Bernie said.       
            “What
does that mean?” Annene asked.  She moved
from the opened refrigerator with the turkey wrapped in white paper, the bottle
of Hellman’s Mayonnaise and French’s mustard in hand.
            “Just
tell the story, will you Estelle? 
Fine.  Tell it.  Tell it all. 
I don’t care anymore.”
            Estelle
smiled wide.  Bernie looked at her and
shook her head.
            “Where’s
the bread?” Annene asked.  She moved away
from the table.   Claire stopped reading
and waited.  She felt her hands seize the
pages more tightly and her jaw clench.
            Before
Bernie could answer, Estelle replied, “In the oven,” then set the needles down
and started in for a story.  She cleared
her throat.  “Frank and Bernie were
dating for about a year.  He was an ad
man and she was this hotshot layout designer for that exact magazine.”
            “I
was not a hotshot.  I shuffled around
copy and photographs and got yelled at by hotshots.  Come on you’re a gossip columnist for crying
out loud,” Bernie blurted to Estelle.
            “Do
you want me to tell the story or are you going to keep interrupting me?”
            Bernie
raised her hands in the air in surrender.
            “Grandma,
keep stirring,” Claire said.
            “You
hungry, Claire?” Annene asked.  She
separated the bread and placed them in the toaster oven.
            “No,
not really,” she said.  “Grandma
Estelle.  Tell the story,” she said.  She changed the subject and flipped once
again through the magazine.
            “So,
Bernie started dating this man, Hank McGuinness.  He worked in Frank’s firm and took Bernice to
a company dinner one night.”
            “It
was a party, Estelle.”
            “Okay,
a party.  A dinner party.  And, Frank was there.  Hank left a couple of weeks after that on an
extended business trip and Frank showed up the night of a blackout to ask if
she needed any help and then they never stopped talking.  One thing led to the other and Frank proposed
to Bernice.  By the time Hank got back, they
were engaged.”
            “I’ve
heard that story before.”
            “Did
you know that she was engaged to Hank at the time?”
            “No,”
Annene replied, cynical.
            “And,”
Estelle continued,  “That she was
pregnant with Ernest when Frank proposed to her.  They had a shotgun wedding and Bernie had to
cancel everything with Hank.  They had an
engagement party and that’s why I bought the dress.” 
            “That’s
why you never wore it?  You never wore it
because you thought it was bad luck so you gave it to me?”  Annene’s rolled her head around with her
eyes, her mouth turned up.  “Seriously.”
            “It’s
not bad luck if it skips a generation, Annene. 
Don’t worry, honey.”
            Annene
twisted the bread bag so it hugged the crust tight and replaced the twist
tie.  She closed the toaster oven.  “I’m so hungry.  This thing toasts fast doesn’t it?” she
asked. 
Claire smiled at Annene
then told Estelle, “Her blood sugar drops and she gets cranky.”  She said it in a way that was half amused and
half envious that Annene could feed her hungry self.
            “I
don’t get cranky, Claire.  At least I
eat.  I don’t starve myself.” 
Claire’s smile
faded.  She had nothing to say.
“I can’t believe
you gave me that dress to wear knowing that it was bad luck.”
            “Annene,
the point is it wasn’t bad luck,” Bernie interjected.  “The point is it was good luck because I’ve
been happily married for the last forty-three years.  The point is,” she continued, “If you would
listen for a minute and breathe…  You’ll
get your sandwich in a minute.  The point
is, if I married Hank, my life would have been much different.”
            “Yeah,
you would have had a cottage in the Swiss Alps, a house in the Hollywood Hills,
a chateau in the South of France, a London flat and an apartment on Park
Avenue.  You would have had an assistant
to help your assistant and you would have never had any time for the likes of
me,” Estelle added, breathless and self-satisfied.  “Claire, your grandmother would have had more
money than God.”
            “Was
this Hank guy loaded or what?” Annene asked. 
Claire watched her friend bite into the sandwich  without caring about the consequences.  She would occasionally comment about jeans
getting tighter but she never cared like Claire.  Two slices of bread at two hundred and the
rest with all of that what Bernie called good fat.  She felt her body stiffen against it to
resist.
            “Loaded
isn’t the word.  He took over that
advertising company and made millions. 
Frank left the company when Hank got back from that business trip.  Frank almost killed him.”
            “No
way!” Annene said, dragging out the words. 
She wondered why her friend sat there with little to say about the
conversation.  Claire’s face looked
blank.  The bell went off on the toaster
oven and Annene quickly removed the slice that had gone slightly black.  She tapped her fingers on the sides to test
the heat then, picked it up quickly and dropped it on the counter.
            “Grandpa
almost killed someone?”
            “Well,
not really.  They got in a fight and
Frank left the company” Bernie replied.  
“Hank was Frank’s boss.”
            “When
I told him I was pregnant he really went nuts,” Bernie said, intently stirring
the mixture in the pot.  She did not look
up.
            Annene
started to scrape the burned face off the toast into the sink but rested the
knife on the lip of the sink as she processed the information.  She held several pieces of turkey in her hand
and turned around, “You were pregnant?”
            “Yeah,
we had to get married.  Frank
insisted.  I knew he was an honorable
man, then.”
            “You
went from not wearing a long dress to sleeping with your fiancé’s employee?”
            “Transformed,
she was, Annene.  The truth is out.   God, I hate keeping secrets.”
            “Why
are you telling me this?” Claire asked.
            “I’m
telling you this because I’m not a saint. 
Not by any means.  No one is,
honey.”
            Claire
flipped through the magazine pages without looking at them, one after the
other, the same pages from cover to cover. 
She turned them too quickly.  She
laid her hand flat on the pages.  “Can we
talk about this later, please?  It’s
making me uncomfortable.”
            “Why?”
Estelle asked.  “Your grandmother thinks
there shouldn’t be any secrets.”
            “I
was perfectly happy not knowing,” Claire said.
            “The
only reason Grandma didn’t tell you was that your mother disapproved.  She didn’t want you to know.”
            “Yeah,
and she’s gone now, so you can spill the beans?”
            “No,
honey.  I just don’t think it’s healthy
to hide things,” Bernie said, as she stirred the pot.  “I’m sorry. 
We don’t have to talk about this anymore.  I just wanted you to know.”
            “Thank
you. I don’t want to talk about it
now.  You could have at least told me
privately,” Claire said.  She closed the
magazine in her lap.
            “I’m
not going to tell anyone, Claire.  I’m
your best friend and I want to talk about it,” Annene said.  “How did you get married, pregnant?  Wasn’t that like a huge taboo back then?  I mean, it’s not so great now, but it used to
be really bad.”
            Bernie
stirred the mixture in the pot and took up another spoon designated to scrape
off the thickening liquid soap from the larger of the two as though it were
vanilla cake batter.
            “How
do you know if it’s ready?” Claire asked.
            “How
can you ask such a question?  Don’t you
want to know how your father was conceived, for crying out loud?” Annene said.
            “Not
really,” Claire mumbled.  Embarrassed,
she lowered her head to read the magazine she reopened without looking, laid
out in front of her on her lap.  Pushing
back the chair with her knees against the table, she got up from the table and
went to the counter, her mouth turned down in obvious distaste.  “Where are the carrots?”
            “You’re
gonna turn into one of those really skinny girls, Claire.  Me, I don’t have to worry about a thing.  I eat to keep my energy up…” Annene said.
            “Grandma,
are there any carrots?  I just want a
carrot,” Claire asked.
            “They’re
in the refrigerator.  There’s dip too, if
you want it.”
            “Don’t
you taste it to test if it’s ready or not” Estelle said to Bernie from the
table. She quickly stitched back and forth to form the one row of deep purple
yarn tied in slip knots to form the beginning of another scarf.
            “Who
the heck wears a scarf in Georgia, anyway?” Bernie asked Estelle.
            “Do
you two ever stop?” Claire asked.
            “No,
she’s used to it,” Bernie said, defeated. 
She rested the wooden spoon on the inside of the pot and let her hands
fall to her sides.
            “I’m
in your life to make sure you cough up the truth, Bernie.”
            “But,
about my husband and son.  You just don’t
have any tact?” Bernie replied.
            “You
two are getting way too crabby.  When we
get old, Claire, do you think we’ll get that mean?”
            “They’re
just kidding though,” Claire said. 
“Grammy’s making that stuff because it has a greater value than just
soap.  She told me that she and Grandpa
Frank had to save their soap chips and mush them together.  They were too poor in the Depression to
afford new soap.”  The subject had
changed but not for long.
            “Let
alone anything else.  We made everything.  We made something out of everything.”  Bernie stirred the pot and did not look up.
            “Are
you serious?” Annene asked.
            “It
was bad there for a while.  When we were
growing up things were different.  It was
long before Ernest was born though.  He
got the good end of things.  You didn’t
throw things out just because it was broken or there wasn’t enough of it.  You made it into something else.”  She shrugged. 
“We got pretty creative.  Kids
these days have so many luxuries.  Many
don’t even know anything about it.” 
            “I
know when the Depression was, Grandma.”
            “So
do I,” Annene said, and bit into her sandwich. 
The words were audible through a mouthful of food.  “I probably wouldn’t have lasted very
long.  Judy said I’m a bit of a
princess.”
            “You
are a princess, Annene,” Estelle said. 
            “Me?  Oh, come on. 
A princess doesn’t accidentally burn off her eyebrows trying to light a
campfire.  They don’t go camping.”  She was talking with her hands and eating and
on Annene, to Claire, it looked okay on her friend to do that.  When Claire did it she was a pig.  A big, fat ugly pig who could not stand a
single crumb at the side of her mouth. 
Maggie hated that kind of mess.  The
kind of mess that patches up the small little cracks between teeth with a residual
spackle that only kids who lived in a house with too many mirrors could find.         
“Yes they do,”
Bernie said, and laughed to herself.  She
added flakes of lye to the mixture. 
“Stand back a bit.  It’s sodium
hydroxide and it’s pretty poisonous.  I
don’t want to you end up eating any of it.”
            “What?”
Annene asked, her words muffled.  She
swallowed.  “What does that mean?”  Still stuck on the camping comment that Claire
made, she reached with her index and middle finger and rubbed the curve of her
eyebrow.
            “It
means you’re better at shopping,” Estelle said.
            Insulted,
Annene tried to respond but waited while she chewed through another bite.
            “I’m
gonna go,” Claire said.  She folded the
pages of the magazine together and rolled it into a tube that she held in both
hands, tight enough to bend the thick stacked slick pages.
            “Where
are you going?” Annene asked.  She had
finished half of the sandwich.  “I’m
almost done.  I’ll go with you.”
            She
ran her tongue over her teeth and her skin rose with the movement that stopped
when she swallowed and lifted poured herself a cup of tap water.  She drank it quickly in two or three gulps
and set it on the counter.
            Claire
shifted her weight between her feet that under the slight weight of her body
did little to suppress the urge to flee and fly from the discomfort of just
being among that normal time with the actual people who loved her.  She felt none of it.
“No, I have to get
back home.  Dad’s going to be there soon
and I told him I’d make him dinner.  I
have to see what we have.”
            “Why
doesn’t he just come over?” Bernie asked. 
She was doing all of this for Claire, part knowing and part no knowing.
            “I
think he wants to stay at home.  He gets
really tired lately.”  She looked at the
floor as she said this.
            “Some
men just aren’t good at being alone,” Estelle said.  “Ernest seems like that type of man.”
            “Ernest
is very independent,” Bernie said.
            Claire
flushed, “I just want to walk Annene.  I
need the exercise anyway.”
            “No
you don’t.  You need to eat
something.  Why are you so antsy all of a
sudden?” Annene asked.
            “Why
do you think?” Claire said, irritated that the subject came around and she
ushered it through like she would as a bouncer who let someone underage into a
bar.  All of it was just too much to
take.
            “I
know he’s independent but he was always home by six thirty for dinner,
right?  You always say how dependable he
is and dependable men usually need someone to depend on them.”
            Annene
shot her grandmother a look.  Claire
stood looking at the floor for a few moments before she announced, “I’ll call
you in a little bit okay?”  She shifted
back and forth on her feet.
            “Okay,
honey.  Take your time,” Bernie
said.  She looked over her shoulder for
just a moment, long enough to catch sight of her granddaughter’s frail wrists
and tendons that bulged like wires.  Her
thin legs, lanky even though they were covered in denim.  Bernie stared back into the pot too much too
the center then held her head back from the pungent smell and fumes but
continued stirring.  “What are you going
to make, honey?”
            “I
don’t know.  Whatever is there.  Probably chicken and rice.  He’s on a diet, he says, so I’m trying to be
respectful.  It doesn’t matter anyway
because he winds up going to Baskin Robbins afterwards when he takes Hildy for
a walk and eats a pint of ice cream in front of the TV.”
            “That
sort of defeats the purpose.  At least I
eat healthy.  Tapioca pudding is rice,
right?”
            Annene
tried too hard to get the message through to her friend and she knew it.  She was never subtle in the way she conveyed
she cared about a person.  You care means
you do not shut up about it.
            “Right,”
Estelle said.  “She loves my
tapioca.  It’s comfort food.”
            “Maybe
you should make some of that for Ernest. 
I bet he’d like it?”
            “Maybe,”
Estelle said.
            Claire
put her hand on her grandmother’s shoulder and, Bernie’s back turned, kissed
her on the cheek.  “Bye Grammy.  I’ll see you later.”
            “Call
me later.”
            “Okay,
I will,” Claire said and took a bite of the carrot in her hand.
            Annene
took another bite of the other half of the sandwich set on the counter and
waved as Claire walked out the door. 
Using the back of her hand, she wiped her mouth.
            “Use
a napkin, Annene.  Please.  Your mother would have my head if she knew I
put up with that.”
            “What
are you Miss Manners now?” Bernie said from the stove. 
She turned the
dial with one hand and removed the pot with the other while the flame dimmed
and clicked until it extinguished. 
Turning around she faced Annene who wiped down the counters with a
sponge, pushing crumbs into the sink. 
The tin molds laid out and gathered on the counter to the right of the
sink were each shaped like the outline of an upside-down loaf of bread.
            “Annene,
can you help me by holding the molds in place while I pour this in?
            “Isn’t
that hot?”
            “Yes,
put the gloves on, quickly though before it solidifies.”
            “Alright.”
            Annene
stood over the molds and watched as Bernie poured the mixture into them, the
fluid flowing in one perfect stream from the rim of the pot and over the rose
petals and herbs that lined the bottoms.
            “Aren’t
the petals going to wilt in there?”
            Bernie
said nothing, her thoughts siphoned by worry. 
Bernie felt like a failure every time Claire ran away from her
affection.  She would feel that failure
and continue trying. 
“No.  They shouldn’t.  The book said they shouldn’t.  They’re fresh flowers and the herbs are dried
so they should be fine.  The soap should
hold them intact once it hardens.  It’s
like wax.  Like wax keeps butterflies
intact and flowers alive in candles for years. 
You’ve seen those, right?”
            “You’ve
seen them, Annene.  You just prefer those
other ones,” Estelle clarified.
            “What
other ones?” Bernie asked.
            “The
ones on her altar,” Estelle answered, her hands back to knitting, the tips of
the metal needles clicking like waiting nails tap to polished glass.
            “Never
mind.”
            “It’s
nothing to be ashamed of honey. All of the celebrities these days are
Buddhists.”
            “You’re
a Buddhist?” Bernie asked, tilting back the pot once the first mold reached the
top.  Another moment and the mixture
would have spilled over.
            “Watch
out Grandma Bernie, you almost ruined that one.”
            “I
thought you were Jewish,” Bernie added, still holding the pot.
            “Bernice,
if you don’t pour the next one that stuff is going to harden and you’re going
to have a plate-sized bar of soap and a ruined pot.”
            “Oh,
keep your opinion to yourself, will you? 
I didn’t know this.  I thought she
was Jewish.”
            Beads
of sweat formed on her brow but she could not let go.
            “No,
Judy is Jewish.  We don’t discuss my
practice.  It gets her edgy.”
            “You
do seem much calmer lately.  Estelle,
isn’t Annene much calmer?”
            Estelle
looked up from her knitting.
Annene
interrupted, “Can you please pour that because Grandma’s right, if you don’t
hurry it’s going to harden.  Bernie
looked at Annene, focused on the molds and the perfect stream of liquid soap
flowing from the pot.  Bernie, tipped and
timed it perfectly so that each mold was filled to the rim, quickly.  She breathed hard and her arms quivered
though the weight was lifted as the pot emptied.
            “Not
bad for the first go around.”
She took a kitchen
towel from the counter and patted her face starting at the hairline then her
flushed cheeks.  “We should see how it
worked in just a couple of hours,” Bernie said. 
“Now I have to clean up.”
            Annene
took that as her summons to leave and briskly wiped the crumbs from her black
long-sleeved shirt.  She shook the
potholders she did not use then tucked them back into the drawers where Bernice
found them.  Estelle watched her
granddaughter who cautiously maneuvered around Bernie who took a long breath
before she grasped the handles of the pot again and lowered it into the
sink. 
Annene walked over
to the sofa where Estelle sat and kissed her grandmother on the forehead.
            “What?  Are you walking too?” Estelle said, looking
up.  “If you wait a minute I can drive
you.”
            Annene
had already kissed Bernice on the cheek and walking quickly, her back to the
grandmothers, replied, “I want to see if I can catch up with Claire.  I’ll see you later.  Thanks for lunch.”
            She
waved and turned with a fast, detached smile.
            The
water gushed out of the faucet into the pot. 
Bernice put her fingers under the tap to test the temperature as she
passed her fingers under the water then swung the faucet so that the water
flowed into the tureen.  Steam rose from
the water and Bernie watched as the pressure from the water crashed down,
easing back the mixture until the force of the water pushed away what had the
density of Elmer’s Glue.  She waited there
and watched the fragments of her blurred reflection in the silver bottom.  The pot filled halfway with milky water
before she spoke.
            “I
think this Christmas will be nice. This time, it will be a good one.  The past,” she began then stopped herself and
shook her head.  “I completely botched
that one,” Bernie said.  “I was trying to
show her that nothing in life is perfect and instead I violated her trust and
made her feel worse.  Being a grandparent
is no easier than being a parent.”
            “Claire
is having a hard time.  What kind of
woman would leave her child like that?  I
don’t understand how she could do that,” Estelle said.
            “I
don’t understand either and I’ve even tried to. 
But, you can never understand a person. 
You can’t unless you are that person.  And, Maggie. 
I tried.  I really tried.  I just can’t.”  She paused a moment.  “I wish you wouldn’t bring it all up with Claire
around too.  It’s just too hard on
her.  It’s difficult enough as it is.”
            “You
can’t expect just to toss it aside, Bernie. 
That’s not like you.  You have to
be…” Estelle argued.  Again she dropped
her busy hands into her lap, frustrated. 
“Isn’t that why this all began in the first place?  Everyone is so quiet.  I can’t be. 
It’s not healthy and it’s not my nature. 
Someone has to talk to her and her father can’t possibly read that
girl’s mind.”
            “I
do talk to her, Estelle.  We talk every
day,” Bernie countered.  “But, I can’t
replace her mother, Estelle, and I feel awkward even trying.”
            “You
don’t need to do that, Bernice.  She just
needs something.  No one’s asking you to
be a mother.  She just needs someone to
show her the right way to live.  Look how
thin she’s gotten in the past few months. 
She’s getting worse, not better.”
            “I
know.  I will.”  Bernie turned the faucet knob to shut off the
water and stared at the pot.  “I wonder
if all of this guck will come off?”
            Estelle
lifted her hands again, continuing the needlework.
            “It’ll  come off. 
It’s soap, Bernice.  It’s
fine.  It’ll come off and the pot will be
cleaner than it’s ever been.  You like
things clean, Bernie.  It’ll be
fine.”  Estelle coughed then lit a
cigarette, inhaled on it deeply then set it in the tray, the stream of smoke
rising.
            “When
are you going to stop that?” Bernie asked.
Estelle ignored
her but not the cough.
“You’re right,”
Bernie said.  “It’ll come off.”  She looked into the milky water and nodded
her head.  Suds gathered all around the
pot and caught the overhead light and reflected like a mirror the impressions
of objects around Bernie’s kitchen.  She
poked at the suds and popped them one by one with the knife Annene had left in
the sink.  “You’re right,” she
repeated.  “It’ll come off.”