More than any other character drawn from my own life in Water Signs, Erin Mahoney Lockheart owes about 90% of her creation more to a stereotype than an actual person. Yes, there is a real fiancée and wife whose acquaintance I’d made many years ago, and those recollections formed a starting point for the character sketch. However, after having spent so many years in South Florida, I felt very strongly about including a commentary about what I call our current “culture of self-absorption”, and it was this desire that led to the evolution of Erin.
Throughout Boca Raton and the surrounding areas, I’d seen, heard, witnessed and experienced enough examples of self-serving, egotistical and superficial behavior to write an entire non-fiction book on the topic. But since I was penning what would in the end be a triumph of virtue, integrity, traditional values and true love over all sorts of formidable obstacles, I had to find a way to highlight this theme via plot and character. And it didn’t take long to realize that Erin was the perfect vehicle through which to do just that.
So it’s only in the early stages of Part Two that Ken’s fiancée even remotely resembles her real-life counterpart (whose name has been completely changed), although in what is most likely a very dramatic departure from reality, Erin absolutely hates football — one of the many contrasts between her and Madeline purposely created for dramatic reasons. Although Ken confesses his commitment to another woman to Madeline in an earlier chapter (more on that in another post), it’s not until Chapter 24 that readers — along with Maddy, who has reluctantly agreed to attend a BBQ at their condo — meet her for the first time:
From the moment she entered their two-story condo on the fifth floor, she felt a distinctive yet subtle hostility in the air, similar to the one that had greeted her at Kenny’s real estate office awhile back. And though physically attractive with a willowy figure, blue eyes and silky blonde hair, Erin definitely exuded a hard, urban vibe, notwithstanding her impressive career and level of education.
Yet it wasn’t her tough, Philly accent and her rough-around-the-edges veneer that most impacted Madeline; it was her pervasive coldness and attitude of indifference. She barely engaged Maddy in conversation, though Ken’s former flame conducted herself with as much dignity as she could possibly muster under the circumstances. And while Kenny did his best to facilitate the flow of conversation, it wasn’t long before Maddy wished she hadn’t accepted his invitation in the first place. When Erin abruptly excused herself to go to bed — claiming a migraine headache — Madeline resolved to banish all thoughts of Ken and Erin from her mind forever.
In Part Two, Maddy performs her own rendition of this heartbreaking song from my favorite musical, Les Miserables for a local dance studio production.
This incident instigates a thirteen-year, self-imposed, selective amnesia on the part of Madeline, embarked upon for the sake of her own sanity and self-preservation (it’s also a compounding factor in her bout with panic and anxiety disorder). She literally forces herself to forget that either one of these people even exists, just as I did in real life. It was just too painful to cope with, too unbearable to work through, even though, like Madeline, I had many sympathetic shoulders I could’ve cried on (while this isn’t really explored in the novel, I suppose for myself pride was also to blame for my reticence in sharing this devastating news with someone, anyone who loved me).
And since the story is basically told from Madeline’s perspective, that’s the last we see of Ken and Erin for a period of time, while Maddy endures the nadir of her panic and anxiety problem before solving it via a psychic; offers forgiveness to her old boyfriend Jake Winston when he calls out of the blue; and finds some career success via her writing and communications skills.
In Chapter 25, I do provide a bit of foreshadowing and embellishment using an event that truly is straight out of real life:
Taking a seat in a nearby rocking chair, Ken leaned back and closed his eyes as thoughts of Maddy permeated his brain. How was she doing? Had she gotten married yet? Was she still writing? He hadn’t seen a copy of The Good News Gazette in a while, though he’d secretly held onto the copy his mother had brought over to his house just weeks after Bonnie’s birth. That was before Erin had set up a home-based business and taken a corporate position in the creative department of a local cosmetics company.
Paula Lockheart had entered Ken and Erin’s home that morning, armed with a stack of newspapers and magazines, which she’d carefully set down on the coffee table before heading into the nursery. As Ken walked through the living room on his way to make breakfast, a photo of two familiar faces caught his eye. And when he picked up the publication to take a closer look, his heart was filled with pride and longing.
Beneath the headline, “My Brother, My Hero”, and the byline bearing the author’s name, Madeline and Louis smiled back at him, seated at a round dining table. Wow. She’d finally achieved her goal of becoming a published writer. He well remembered the endless conversations — by the ocean, snuggled up on the couch or wrapped up under the satin sheets of his water bed — during which Maddy would eloquently share her dreams for the future. In spite of everything, he still missed that connection.
And much like his real-life inspiration, Ken calls the editor of the paper in an attempt to obtain Madeline’s phone number, only to be dejected when she refuses to give it out. Instead, she offers to share his contact information with her newest writer and allow her to decide if she wishes to dial the number. Skeptical of whether or not she’d actually take the initiative to call, he is thrilled when a few days later, his former girlfriend’s curiosity gets the better of her:
Ken felt the same powerful eruptions within at the sound of her voice, though she gave no indication of her personal status, opting instead to update him about her parents and siblings. Madeline also omitted from the conversation her ongoing struggle with panic disorder, preferring to keep the tone light, so as not to solicit any unwanted offers of help or worse — an invitation to dinner at his home. The last thing she needed was an evening with Ken, Erin and their new baby.
Thus, we’re starting to learn a bit more about Erin indirectly, by way of her husband’s lingering feelings for another woman. Readers already know from Chapter 19 that he’d had some reservations about going through with the wedding, confiding in Madeline that part of his motivation for doing so was that “we didn’t want to live in sin anymore”. And it’s also in this chapter that we get a glimpse into Erin’s personality when he notes how “she kind of depends on me” since most of her co-workers were busy with their own families and social lives. There’s a distinct impression that for all of her high-powered business acumen, Erin is also very high maintenance. This is confirmed (along with their eventual divorce) in Chapter 27 via Paula Lockheart’s internal musings during an outdoor power-walk:
Too bad her former daughter-in-law hadn’t shared that opinion. Oh sure, in the beginning she used him like a security blanket after she’d accepted a lucrative position with an ad agency in Miami and relocated from Atlantic City. Oddly, for such a talented and successful girl, Erin had more than her fair share of insecurities, depending on Ken to provide everything from a social life to a comfortable place to live.
And while he was working hard as a mortgage broker and real estate agent by day, and taking classes in marketing and business at Florida International University four nights a week, she constantly harangued him over stupid things, like buying her the “wrong” gift or not spending enough time together. Paula sighed as she recalled one particular Valentine’s Day, when Ken had inadvertently provoked Erin’s ire by buying her rollerblades — even though she’d been asking for them for months. That had been just one in a series of troubling incidents that should have prevented her son from walking down the aisle.
In Chapter 28, we get Ken’s perspective on his now ex-wife, and the reasons for the dissolution of their marriage:
Then there was the negative influence of the Boca Raton culture. While an exceedingly beautiful city and desirable place to live, Boca’s downside was the extreme superficiality of many of its residents, some of whom held positions of power within the community, from the local paper’s society page writer to the plethora of ambitious millionaires that populated upscale neighborhoods like Broken Sound, Royal Palm and The Sanctuary. While Ken envied no one, content to focus on his own goals, Erin got caught up in the web of botox, breast enhancements and liposuction that characterized the activities of the city’s wealthiest females.
And as her business thrived, so did her vanity, leading her to undergo a seemingly endless parade of plastic surgeries, all to assuage her fears of growing older, and to help her keep pace with the women with whom she networked for both business and social purposes. After almost thirteen years of marriage, Ken didn’t even recognize her — or was it more accurate to say he was just beginning to?
As a direct result of her own self-centered behavior, Erin’s marriage ultimately implodes. For all of his genuine efforts to make it work for the sake of their children, Ken realizes that without her willingness to change, it’s a futile undertaking. For a woman who had it all — a devoted husband, two healthy children, a beautiful home and a thriving career — Erin expressed very little in the way of gratitude, opting instead to focus exclusively on the superficial side of life. Thus, her humble Southwest Philly roots, doting childhood, foundation of faith and hard-earned education are tossed aside for the pursuit of all things material. And in the end, it costs her dearly.
Am I stating as an author that it’s bad to attain things like fancy cars and designer clothes? Absolutely not.
What I am positing however, is the need to keep these things in perspective and not lose sight of what truly matters in life. Ken rises from humble beginnings to find impressive success in the corporate world, but it never alters the person he is inside. He remains faithful to the morals and values with which he’s been raised; the same is also true for Madeline, though materially she is not quite as successful.
To Ken, his children are a top priority; to Erin, they are sometimes an afterthought far behind her own wants and desires (though she does truly love them). In this society we’re living in and specifically in South Florida, I’ve seen parents, divorced or married, more concerned about their social lives than their own kids’ well-being. I’ve witnessed the substitution of money and material things for time, attention and discipline. And I’ve even watched as middle-aged mothers disgracefully competed with their daughters for the affection of a man, or the wink of a stranger’s eye.
Our current culture seems to have jettisoned the concept of growing old gracefully and dressing appropriately (albeit attractively) for one’s age. Our children are worse off because of it, and it’s well past time for good people to help swing the pendulum back. And I hope through my writing I can positively affect the discussion. In the meantime, I am forever grateful for my upbringing by loving parents who cared enough to spend time with, discipline and educate their children.
Fun Fact: The paper I used to write for was The Happy Herald, though at the time it was called The Happy Times Monthly. And yes, my first published piece was indeed titled, My Brother, My Hero in honor of my brother Ralph (Louis in the book), and featured a photo of us on the front page. If my scanner was working properly, I’d include that same photo here, but instead will post this one of the two of us in Deerfield Beach: