THE GOOD ONE – Chapter Four

Four
Glycerine
            Ernest
Hinkley fumbled for the house key in his pocket, muttered a few words to
himself and found it.  He turned it in
the lock which stuck two or three times before it made the full rotation.  The phone rang the third time from
inside.  It was the phone line.  The machine would pick up at five so he
rushed clean through the living room with half spirited urgency.  Another day had ended and to reach the phone
would not prove his meaning in that day. 
Still, it could always be Maggie. 
The thought turned in on itself then, and any gratitude for the end of
the day instead found sadness.
Ernest placed the
beaten briefcase on his office desk.  He
released a long sigh and pulled at his necktie then unbuttoned the topmost
button of his white and blue striped oxford shirt.  Both hands on the edge of the desk, he
glanced at the lit red light of the voice message machine beside the phone to
the left of the desk and turned on the accountant light with the green glass
shade.  He unhooked the latches on the
worn brown leather-bound case and opened it to the papers layered inside
divided with manila envelopes.  He
withdrew one envelope and slid out the sheets of paper, unfolded them slowly
then held onto one and placed the others on the table.  His eyes fixed back and forth to the words of
the letter until he reached the last line. 
Ernest Hinkley
aged quickly that year.  He was a man in
stark contrast to his youth.  Photos
alone seemed to testify to this as his study was decorated with them.  Family portraits hung on the wall that traced
back to his youth of light brown hair, an indelible smile and athlete’s physique.  Good straight posture.  There on his desk, was an Ernest who stood at
the center of his high school team.  They
were dressed in soiled white and red uniforms and fell out of photographic
formation as they rolled over each other, arms raised and mouths open for
celebratory howls.  He could hear them
through that image.  Behind the chair
where he sat was a framed degree, the words etched out his credentials as
esquire and books stuffed in every space of the bookshelf to the right of the
entrance just ahead of him.  He could
still hear Maggie’s voice when she announced dinner from the kitchen.  The only words he had left of her were in
those papers served earlier that day.
Ernest looked to
the portrait on the wall, professional and retouched and framed in the
meticulously carved gilded but not gaudy wooden frame, a tasteful match to the
very formal portrait of the Hinkleys.  Claire
was just two years younger in the portrait and just in the course of the past
year had also transformed.  She had
become thinner and more defined through the cheekbones while Ernest appeared
ten years older with his graying hair thinner. 
It had gone from an attractive salt and pepper to old gray.  The grooves under his eyes had changed from
shadows to charcoal smudges.  His waistline
grew, as the rest of him atrophied. 
Maggie wore white
the day they sat for the portrait and Claire chose periwinkle blue at her
mother’s strong suggestion.  Ernest wore
pin stripes though Maggie warned him not to wear a pattern in the photo, for
fear it would look too busy and detract from the precise composition she was
after.  She was right, and each glance at
the photo served as that reminder.
            He
moved mostly photos and some furniture and left the Atlanta house to renters,
resolved to make a small profit on what remained of their monthly
mortgage.  Alpharetta, with all of its
flaws; the women’s Mafia gossip group and the dull case load Ernest could
expect gave him a certain comfort in returning to his roots.  They had not been gone long and assembled
their modest house scaled to Ernest’s needs. 
Maggie wished for more while Claire was content with simplicity.  She would never ask for more.  For Maggie it was never enough.
He wondered what
it was with women.
            When
the papers arrived, Ernest was not surprised by the enclosed letter, written in
his wife’s hand, but was saddened by her failure to mention Claire.
            “I
don’t think she likes me,” Maggie once told him.  “I feel odd. 
It’s a very strange feeling thinking your daughter doesn’t like you.  It’s the worst kind of rejection.”
            “How
can you say that?   Claire loves you,
Maggie.”
            “I
don’t know,” she said, then corrected herself. 
“I do know.  Remember the time I
took her to the ladies’ bridal shower?  I
remember it. I dressed her up in this beautiful pink dress with ruffled
underwear.  You know, those diaper covers
toddlers wear?  I did that and the second
I walked into that room at the club, she started screaming.  I mean, I’ve never heard anything like
it.  She was awful.  I had to turn around and leave.  She didn’t calm down until I got her back to
her room in our first house and turned on the mobile above her crib.  It always calmed her down.”
            “That
has nothing to do with you, Maggie.  She
was afraid of people.  She wasn’t used to
seeing all of those women.  If that
happened to me,” he began.  “If I had to
do that I’d probably respond the same way,” Ernest laughed and he knew that his
estranged wife hated him for it.
            Ernest’s
humor, the small jokes that once made her forget her troubles could not wash it
away.  It made an impression so lasting,
that look of concern over failure and loss and hanging on that her husband was
afraid to look her in the eye.  Maggie’s
mind was never quiet with the satisfaction of motherhood other women felt and
enjoyed in peace.  So, she left Claire
alone most of the time.
            “It’s
strange, Ernest.  It’s strange how you
can place so much on a dream and then when you arrive, it’s not exactly the way
you imagine.  You know?  Like, I thought, when Claire was born.  I thought that things would be so
different.  We would love the same things
and do the same things and we would instantly understand each other.  But, I don’t understand her, how she stays in
that small quiet world of hers and she does not lose her mind with all of that
silence.”
            “Maggie,
she’s a child,” Ernest objected.  “Just a
child with an imagination.”
            “No.  It’s not that she’s a child.  Some things you can’t change.  You can’t change this.  You just can’t change.”
            Ernest
remembered her every move.
            Maggie
kept her back to him then walked to the door that lead out of the living room
to the base of the stairs.  He had
watched as she ascended the stairs to the bedroom, her shoulders slumped and
the motion so slow he felt her defeat and failure because it was also his own.
Claire’s face
appeared behind the once closed door to her playroom, a room she outgrew years
before but she still used as a reading room. 
Ernest invited her to sit.
She heard
everything.
            “Your
mother, Claire.  She loves you.  You know that? “  His voice was gentle but unconvincing,
covered with layers of guilt that were not his own but in his possession.  His collateral damage.
            Claire
nodded her head.  “Yeah.  She wants me to be like her.  Was she always like this?”
            Her
eyes were so wide with the bare need for the truth that he had no recourse to
give her the child, couched version of anything.
            “No.  She was different but people grow and when
people grow they change.”
            “I
don’t want to grow,” Claire had said.
            “Too
late for that.  You’re pretty tall for
your age but if you don’t you’ll be a short young lady.”
            “Doesn’t
matter.”
            “What
doesn’t matter?”
            “Doesn’t
matter.  I want to always be the same
even if Mom.”
Claire cleared her
throat, and shook her head to clear her eyes. 
“Does she really
think I don’t like her?”      
            She
rubbed her arms, then.
            “I
think your Mom just wishes she had more to talk to you about, Claire.  That’s all. 
You’re perfect just the way you are.”
Ernest sat in the
chair, the book opened on his lap.  His
glasses hung from the collar of his shirt, unbuttoned twice with one hand.  He still wore his work clothes after dinner,
sleeves rolled to his elbows the way Maggie once liked for its endurance
through long hours of work and late dinners or none.  Sleeves revealed much about a man and his
wife so Maggie would not allow short-sleeved, button-down shirts because that
made him appear lazy.
Claire wore her
white flannel nightgown with the flowers and eyelet collar and cuffs.  Thick, white oversized socks covered her feet
and were rolled down to the ankle.  Her
hair was pulled up in a hair band with two green balls intertwined, holding it
together.  Lying down on the sofa, she
pulled one of the two stacked pillows out from under her head like she would
sleep there.
“I just don’t like
the same things she does.  I don’t know
why.  I try to like those things she
wants me to like but I can’t.  It feels
weird.”
            Ernest
put his glasses back onto his face and lowered his eyes to his book.
            “Your
mom just isn’t herself these days.  I
think she’s under pressure from her clients.” 
Ernest lifted his
eyes up over the rims that rested low on his nose to look for a response. 
Claire’s breathing
slowed and, as it did, her father watched the girl drift out of consciousness
with the ease of a cloud the slipped across the sky.
It amazed him how
quickly she could fall asleep.
            Ernest
had not heard from Maggie in one year and in one year his first contact with
his wife was through divorce papers accompanied only by a letter written in
large and loopy yet perfectly formed script.
Everything had
been status quo.  Nothing out of the
ordinary.  No shifts in mood.   Only the similar detachment of cool Maggie
just before she disappeared.
Each night he
spent wondering whether the woman would write, or whether she would phone, or
reappear, or be found dead.  Maggie left
the questions unanswered.  Despite twenty
years marriage Ernest could not attest to knowing his wife.  Maggie, in her cool repose mixed with
Southern charm, left a dark channel of mystery between them.  Ernest made it his work to uncover truth but
he could never find hers.  Never in a
million years.  It was the thing that
drew him to her and what repelled her in the end.
            Posted
from Hollywood, California, the envelope was forwarded from the Hinkley’s
Atlanta address.  His arm extended to get
a clear view of the address label, Ernest examined the envelope then took out the
case for his reading glasses from the briefcase.  He eased the pliant metal arms over his ears
with one hand and one at a time then leaned into the leather cushion and read
the letter again from the beginning:
Dear Ernest,
            I am so sorry to have to contact you
this way but the past year I think I have found another way of life that feels
right.  I don’t know exactly how to say
this, but I think it’s better for the both of us that we stay apart.  I don’t see any other solution.  I know you deserve a good wife and Claire deserves
a good mother.  I spent years trying to
be all of those things to you and never felt, frankly, any good at them. 
            I hope you know it has nothing to do
with you, Ernest.  You were my husband
for twenty years and those years I tried so hard to do what was right.  I need to do what is right for me.  I’m in therapy and have set up business in
California.  I’m seeing a man – a
Hollywood producer who I met at an audition. 
It’s so strange the way things happen…
I’ll leave it to you, how you would like to
divide our things?  You have always been
fair.
            Ernest
set the letter on his desk and held his head in his hands.  There he remained quiet for a long, very
silent and very still moment, his breath slow and calm until it suddenly
doubled up and jolted into immediate weeping and he tore the glasses from his
face onto the floor to give the tears room to fall.  Wet, he banged his fist on the letter smeared
by his pain and self-pity and anger. 
Only a few minutes
passed before he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes and
face then clenched it tight around his nose. 
The news was too new for much more sadness.
            Maggie
was happy.  Maggie was fulfilled.  Maggie had gotten what she wanted and the
woman that Ernest had built his life around was gone.
            Claire
yelled from the entrance, “Dad, I’m home,” before she opened the door to his
office.  She knew better than to enter
unannounced.  He spent his nights in that
room with the door closed since her mother left and she knew he needed to avoid
her at times no matter how much it hurt her.
            Ernest
lifted his head and wiped his eyes, then ran his arm over the few drops on the
wood surface rather than use the handkerchief. Quickly, he removed a file from
the briefcase that he quickly shut and pushed aside then shielded his face with
his arm that propped his head up over the materials he pretended to read.  They covered the papers from Maggie.  He always faked working.  It was easier those nights that sadness was
too much to face Claire.  He needed to be
strong for her.  Crumbling was not an
option.  Life had already gone to pieces
for his only daughter.
Claire knocked on
the door. “I’m going to make dinner now. 
Anything you want?”
            Clearing
his throat he replied, “No, whatever you want to make is fine with me.”  Ernest’s eyes were a shade pink from the
tears and blocked with his hand so he could feign its use to focus. 
When Claire left
the room, he uncovered the folded papers, slid them back into the envelope and
placed them inside the briefcase.  He
fastened it shut. 
Claire walked into
the kitchen and opened the pantry closet door to the shelves lined with
Campbell’s soup varieties, S&W canned corn, pasta wrapped in plastic, Uncle
Ben’s rice, Ritz crackers, and Cheerios. 
They were shelved separately according to category.  Claire spent hours after the move, arranging
them just as her mother had trained her to do. 
It was almost as if she was training her to take over the business of
running a home.  Like she knew she would
leave.  She had to have everything just
so.  The counters  wiped clean after the dishes were washed
immediately after dinner.  A pantry of
food categories.  These habits stayed in
place because Maggie had trained Claire. 
So, in this way it was as though she was entirely gone and while both
hated that about her, it was still there without any words to claim it.
Dinner was the most
conspicuous.  Claire and her father sat
around the table in the same arrangement every night with that one empty
chair.  One hallow space in the
configuration.  Ernest insisted that the
new house resemble the old Alpharetta home as much as possible, scaled down as
it was. 
Dinner would be
ready at six thirty.  Always.
            It
was five thirty.  Claire walked out of
the pantry to the vacuum-packed refrigerator and pulled hard on the door which
stuck to guarantee peak refrigeration. 
It took at least two hard tugs to get it open.  She scanned the inside.  She’d lied about the market to Bernice and
had no intention of going since she already shopped the day before.  She would make her father’s favorite, chicken
parmesan with just enough bitter cheese to taste.  He was on a diet to lower high cholesterol
readings.  She removed the package from
the refrigerator and took out broccoli, parsley and onion from the vegetable
bin then closed the door shut.  Placing
the contents on the kitchen counter, she turned once again to the pantry and
took down the olive oil, garlic salt and box of Uncle Ben’s rice.  Under the sink she pushed open the swivel
cabinet and removed the red pot and the Pyrex dish for baking then removed one
lemon from the antique scale on the island in the center of the kitchen.  The brass scale was dated from the 1800’s and
one of the many from Ernest’s modest collection started by Maggie upon his
graduation from law school.  Fruit filled
the hammered brass bin on one side and bread on the other.  They could only get it to balance if they
tried.
            She
went through the dinner preparations and washed the chicken, doused it with
oil, chopped parsley, garlic salt, and parmesan then garnished it with thin
sliced lemon.  The water boiled in the
red pot and she dumped in one measuring cup full of rice.
            While
it cooked she finished her homework at the kitchen table.
It was six thirty
when Claire yelled, “Dinner,” to her father who had made his way into the
living room easy chair and sat under the brass floor lamp with the thatched
cover that lit the boiler plate contract he’d strained to read.  Ernest put it down, removed his glasses and
placed them at the side antique table. 
He rarely brought work home from the office and preferred to use his
time to work than read the paper.  It was
his reassurance to Claire, to show her that he could pass the time doing
something normal and calm.  His proof
that he could still keep a roof over her head.  
No story but his own resonated in his mind anymore.  He hated himself for the pity of it.  He loathed the emotion, the internal
truncation that blocked the real and simple things, the activities he once
enjoyed but was too rigid to withstand as held all of it together from the
outside.  When he left the house, he felt
the voices of those who pretended to know him through the story that his wife
had left her own daughter.  There was no
other story.  That was the only story.  It was the story of Maggie and the sad life
she left.
            Placing
his hands on his knees, he rubbed his thigh back and forth, ironed out the
creases in his slacks with his hands over the loosened pressed pleat once down
the middle, and raised himself from the chair to shuffle slowly into the
kitchen.  Claire was already at the
table, picking through a small green iceberg lettuce salad she had made for
herself.
            “That
chair just sucks me in.  I don’t think I
got a lick of work done.  Good thing I
have you to cook for me.”
            “Yeah,
otherwise you’d be eating ice cream for dinner,” Claire said.
            He
looked at the salad bowl in front of her. 
“Aren’t you going to have any of this, honey?  It looks good.”
            He
pointed to the dish set on the placemat at his seat to the right of his
daughter and her slight, sloped shoulders.
            “No,
I’m not very hungry.  I ate earlier. You
eat.”
            She
offered a conciliatory smile.
            “You’re
getting really thin, Claire.  You have to
eat.”
            “I
am eating, see,” she said, and lifted
a bite of the salad, iceberg lettuce, beefsteak tomato, pealed and chopped carrot,
to her mouth and chewed heartily.  “You
know I can’t eat a lot, anyway.  First
everyone tells me how chubby I am then I get thin and you talk about how skinny
I am.”
            “That’s
not what I mean.  I never told you, you
were chubby.  It was just baby fat.  Your mother…” 
Ernest started but stopped himself.
            “I
know,” she replied.  “My stomach is
bothering me.  I’ll eat later if I feel
better.  Okay?”
            “Okay,”
he said, and cut into the chicken breast on his plate.  It oozed bubbles of fat from the olive oil
and parmesan and Claire tried her best not to wince but still turned her upper
lip up. 
He released a long
sigh, speared the piece of what looked to Claire like compacted tendons, put it
into his mouth and chewed, his eyebrows slanted.  At the edge of his seat, he began to speak to
her in a tone that told her it would be a long talk.  Long for Ernest, her father, who was short on
small talk.
“Now, I don’t know
how to tell you this but, I got a letter in the mail today.  I’m only telling you because it’s the right
thing to do and not the thing that’s going to make anyone feel good.” 
Ernest shoveled a
fork full of rice into his mouth, chewed and nodded his approval then cleared
his throat and continued.  Juice from the
chicken both masked the metal taste in his mouth and made it worse. 
“It was a letter
from your mother.  She served divorce
papers with it.  Do you know what that
means?”
            Claire
dropped her hand to the table so the fork clinked against the plate when it
made contact.  He spoke to her like she
was a little girl.  It was slow and gentle
but the slow and gentle of it made her angry.
“Where is she?”
            “She
said she wanted to find a place that was comfortable for her.”
            Claire
swallowed the lettuce.  Involuntarily,
she extended her arm with her palm open. 
        
“Where is
she?  I… 
I need to see the letter,” Claire said, and shifted in her seat.  Claire’s eyebrows lowered as she concentrated
on her father’s words like to do so would pull the periphery around her tight
so she could hold onto them and subdue what imploded and burst inside her. 
Her father spoke
words intended to soothe her but she could not draw forth the details of that
emotion.  Words fell away as she clung to
this first information, her mind speeding with questions.  To realize her mother was not dead both
excited and maimed her and she felt her back hunch forward as the cavity around
her heart caved in on itself, exposed all hidden hurst though anyone who knew
her understood that shield.  It was not
anger or confusion anymore.  It was all
Maggie. 
All Maggie. 
All Maggie. 
No Claire.  No reason for Maggie to stay.  Barely a mention, she was sure, without
reading the letter herself she got this much. 
But she had to read it.
Her eyes remained
fixed on the kitchen table and she mirrored her father’s composure.  Shut herself off again.  Clamped down.
            “Aren’t
you going to eat your dinner?” she asked, and held the fork tighter.  “It’s going to get cold then you won’t want
to eat it.”
            “I
can heat it up, Claire.  I want to talk
to you about this now.  I know how hard
this all has been for you.  It’s a
difficult time and you can’t expect to deal with it by just shutting it
off.  You haven’t talked about it and I’m
worried about you.”  He let out a long
sigh.  “Grandma’s worried and we need to
talk this through.”
            Claire
ignored him.  “Dad, I don’t want to put
it in the microwave.  Just eat it,
alright?”
            Ernest
looked for a long while into his daughter’s eyes, a brown so dark it concealed
her pupils.  Or buried them. 
Lowering his gaze
he speared the piece of chicken and put it in his mouth.  Claire pierced the lettuce again with her
fork.  She watched her father, satisfied.
            “Can
I see the letter?” Claire asked.
            “Claire,
all she told me was that she moved to California and is involved with a
Hollywood producer and is living the life she always wanted.  She’s happy.”
            “Oh,
she’s happy and we’re here in Alpharetta waiting for her to let us know if
she’s even alive.  She’s happy?”
            “Claire,
I don’t know what to say.  I’m as angry
as you are.”
            He
took a long breath and placed the fork and knife beside the plate and slid to
rest his back on the support of the chair. 
Two fingers, his thumb and middle finger of his left hand, he rubbed his
temples, his hand shielding his eyes that closed tight.
            “Angry?  Dad, I’m not angry. You know, I always tried
to be that perfect little girl for her, going to tea and eating little biscuits
at all of those functions for her business and she’d just stare at me with that
blank expression like I was some sort of alien.”
            “Claire,
your mom loves you…” Ernest began before Claire interrupted.
            “Dad,
she didn’t love me.  Do you know what she
told me when I sang for her?  I decided,
I’m going to let Mom see something I think is so important, and you know what
she did?  She told me to get into the
kitchen and make dinner and not waste my time. 
‘Do something productive,’ she said.”
            “She
just had a difficult time understanding you, Claire,” his eyes opened.  “Your mother. 
She had a hard time understanding me and I was married to her for twenty
years.  She never belonged in all this,”
he said, and gestured with open arms to their home shaking his yead.  “It’s not your fault.”
            “Oh,
I know it’s not my fault.  It’s not my
fault she is such a coward she can’t even stick around.  What was so wrong with this place?”
            “Your
mom always had big aspirations, Claire.”
            “Oh,
so this wasn’t good enough?  You’re
telling me that she had to go to Hollywood to fulfill her dreams?  It sounds like a bad movie.  Made for TV movie.”
Claire paused and
put down her fork.  Let go of it. 
“Did she say
anything about me in the letter? “
            “She
didn’t address you, no,” Ernest replied. 
Head lowered, he almost whispered.
            “And,
it’s not my fault?” she asked, defiant.
            “No,
it’s not your fault, honey.” 
            Claire
pushed the kitchen chair back with her knees and got up from the table. She
took her plate to the sink then turned around and faced her father.
“It just seems
that no matter how much I want her to accept me, she’ll always try to stuff me
in a pink fluffy dress and Mary Janes one size too big and will have to leave
the ladies’ luncheon because I started scream. 
She can’t even stand the sound of my voice.”
            Claire
shook her head and jut out her lower jaw.
            “It’s
not you, Claire.”
            “I
know.  What, did she say she wasn’t any
good at being a mother?  At least she’s
right about something,” Claire said, and took in a long breath, her hand on her
hip.
            “She
is your mother, Claire.  Our problems,
your mom’s and mine, had nothing to do with you.”
            The
phone rang from Claire’s bedroom.  “I
have to get that.”
            “We
need to talk more.  It’s the middle of
dinner,” Ernest said.  His words reached
for her but clenched only at the space between them.
            “I’m
done,” Claire said, her hands set on the table and arms shaking just long
enough for each of them to notice when their eyes attached for barely a second
until she turned her back and walked into her bedroom with its pink walls and
eyelet comforter, its whitewashed furniture and mirrored closet doors. 
Claire snatched up
the phone.
“Hey, can you come
over?  I have to get out of here.” 
She stifled a
noxious bout of tears with a deep breath.
            “How
did you know it was me?” Annene asked, flat.
            “You’re
the only person who calls me except Neil and he’s out with Jeff.”
            “Are
you okay?” Annene asked, though she knew the answer.  Claire rarely asked for Annene.  Annene moreso pushed herself on her friend.
            Claire
ignored her and sat on the pretty, flowered bedspread.  “When can you be here?”
            “In
a half hour.  I have to finish up
dinner.  I was going to come by but it
was too late.  I left right after you did
and walked home.  I’m never doing that
again.”
            “Annene,
I’m talking to my dad.  Can we talk when
you get here?”
            “Sure.  Are you okay?”
            “Yeah,
I’m fine.  I’ll tell you when you get
here.”
Curiosity would
get Annene there faster.  Concern too and
Claire did not mind being vague though it made her feel wrongly manipulative.  Claire sat down cross-legged on the queen
sized bed and looked at herself in the mirror. 
What looked back was weird. 
They’d been waiting all of that time for the queen to arrive.  They’d kept the house clean, silver polished,
fridge stocked, pantry organized by cans and boxes and soup and cereal, only to
find the queen herself had moved on and made another life for herself. 
Nothing moved from
its spot, really, in Alpharetta, Georgia. 
Nothing moved or changed.  Clothes
still hung in Maggie’s closet and Claire resisted the urge to walk in there
just to be close to her as she had done countless times over the past
year.  Just to be close to her, she
touched the silk dresses where they hung. 
Just to be close to her.  That
warm soapy scent that mothers have.  It
was her only comfort, being there.  Even
that photo of them together left her with a feeling of detachment.  Of something false and gone.  It was the scent.
            Alone
in her room with the door closed Claire muffled her sobbing into the white, cotton
covered pillow.  There was some room and
space to cry just briefly.
Her father always
knew when to leave her alone.