Excerpt from High Ground, copyright 2017 by Richard Authier Lee
Margaret’s shoes, jeans and underwear were in a heap by the front door when she returned dripping from the shower, a bath towel wrapped around her wet hair. Patches of skin were red and sore where she had scoured off greasy filth. Bailey sniffed around the vile mess until she shooed him away. She used a broom handle to push everything into a trash bag, pulled open the door and nearly stepped out onto the porch naked.
“Baldy-bare-assed” her father used to laugh when she was little, as he lifted her from the tub and wrapped her in a soft towel that smelled faintly of flowers. All baldy-bare-assed.
She remembered the flannel shirts in his closet. A few well-worn items remained there, clothes that Mother would have disowned him for wearing at home. Jeans with shiny knees and seats, soft, weathered flannel shirts. She dug deeper, pulled a cluster of hangers into the light and froze.
Something black and frilly made of silk with lace and ribbon hung there, and the faint lingering scent of an awful perfume. She was stunned. It hadn’t ever occurred to her before. But why not? Surely, Mother was enough to make any man’s testicles shrink up and fall off. No man was good enough for her—for very long. Even at the funeral she seemed to be beginning to reel a new one in. A politician. Mother had introduced him as the next Lt. Governor of the State of Massachusetts. It was so obvious, the way she moved with him, touched him. She was screwing the guy—or soon would be. With Father not yet cold and in the ground. It was no wonder, really. She could not recall a single moment of tenderness between her parents in more than ten years, and the thought flashed through her mind: could this be why? Had there been some sort of private arrangement between them all this time? An accommodation, Mother would have called it, like they were some sort of libertarian librarians.
She could not bring herself to see it that way. Would not.
God damn it!
She pulled on a flannel shirt and buttoned it enough to cover herself. She thought of all her father’s summer vacations and long weekends spent alone in Maine, thought of him in this bed, and the bold little schoolteacher “friend” who had come all the way down to Wayland for his funeral. The woman looked as out of place as a barmaid at a cotillion. Just a simple little country schoolteacher with a taste for married men and Frederick’s of Hollywood.
Margaret tossed everything in the trash barrel outside, dressed, dragged her suitcase from under the bed and emptied the dresser drawers where she had put her things two days before. She banged down the stairs in a huff, threw the suitcase into the back of the car and was suddenly overtaken by her tears, first quiet drops that slipped down her face like dew from a flower, then by cold, wrenching waves that racked her body. She looked back through wet eyes to the little house and the mailbox where Bailey sat on the walk, cocking his head.
She had come here to find her father, and suddenly he seemed to find her. She heard his voice in her mind. It doesn’t matter what you do or what anyone ever tells me about you, Princess. I want you to understand and remember this: I will always love you. Always and forever.
She reached into the car and pulled a tissue from her purse. The tears stopped. His words filled her mind again. This was all so stupid. Stupid. Stupid. That she should begrudge her father a respite from his withering life with Mother. Robert Haart was not a man who spent summers trolling for girls on Old Orchard Beach. He came back for the peaceful past of his childhood and on a few warm summer nights he received the loving touch of a woman in this house. Why the hell not?
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit!” Margaret wrestled the suitcase out of the car and back upstairs, sat on the far side of the bed to catch her breath and looked out across the quiet fields. Bailey sprang up across her lap and plunked down at her hip. She could imagine her father outside as a boy with Sparky, his first beagle, the one he recalled so vividly all of his life. He was never without a beagle dog from that time on, despite Mother’s disgust for them. She could imagine him climbing the trees between the Haart house and the Brandt estate and sitting long afternoons on the hilltop gazebo, looking out to sea. The fields, the trees, the sea, even his dog remained, but Robert Edward Haart was gone forever.
Always and forever, she thought, and the ache nearly stopped her heart. The tears came again, this time from the hot wellspring that had brought them in torrents at the funeral and she let them wash over her. She was alone now, like the old woman in the mansion on Mill Hill, waiting for her time to come―like her own grandmother had. She recalled the morning she had asked about her grandmother again and this time her father had insisted that her mother answer.
Rent checks mailed to a rooming house in Nashua, New Hampshire, forty miles away, with a stipend that went to gin that wiped out all other coherent thought. There was a pained look on Father’s face as Mother coldly spoke the words. “Yes, all right. My mother died yesterday. Your grandmother. Really, dear, it’s best you didn’t know her.”
Margaret wiped her eyes and drew a deep, cleansing breath as Bailey stiffened and cocked his head to a sound that had not yet reached her ears.