by J.C. Dickey-Chasins
(Originally published in Red Cedar Review (Spring 2007, #42)
Mrs. Betts scraped egg remnants from the frying pan and filled it with water. Mr. Betts hummed the theme from ‘Camelot’ in the bathroom. She gazed out the window as she scrubbed, watching two cardinals flit through the canopy of the Siberian elm.
In all my born days.
The phrase hung in her mind, a talisman conjured up from the depths of memory. From where? What did it protect her from? She rinsed the pan and placed it in the dish drainer.
Now Mr. Betts mixed in words from ‘Oklahoma,’ mangling the melody as he went. Mrs. Betts had never cared for her husband’s singing, humming, or whistling—he missed the notes by crucial half-steps, and his rhythm was irregular. She wiped her hands and stepped into the hallway to shush him.
The sound stopped suddenly. There was a grunt and a dry sliding sound of fabric against wall.
Mr. Betts lay slumped against the bathtub, his head lolling as if he’d nodded off. His right hand gripped the tube of toothpaste, which had left a white, sticky trail from sink to floor.
“Harry!” She shook him by the shoulders.
His fingers loosened. The tube dropped to the floor.
His hospital room was 70 degrees, cool enough that Mrs. Betts sat with a blanket pulled tight around her shoulders and chest. She couldn’t sleep the first night—just watched him doze under a plastic mask, the fluorescent light from the hallway tingeing his skin pale and dead. Two tubes ran into his left arm, and six pads attached to wires dotted his chest.
After the operation—after Dr. Arantha told her everything would be fine—she thought of all the reasons her husband would die: he had retired just a year ago; hospitals were poisonous; his father had died of a heart attack at 59; he had chain-smoked until he was 52; he refused to exercise; he screamed at televised football games; he put Tabasco in his coffee.
But the doctor’s words pushed back: Every reason for recovery; Remarkable shape for a man his age; Good vitals. Mrs. Betts studied the backs of his hands, how the blue veins seemed to glow under translucent skin. Where were his thoughts now? Was he dreaming? Of what? Did he remember the thing he’d done to her?
How separate they had become. He was an old man singing show tunes and watching the NFL. And she was just a busybody. A nobody.
Mrs. Betts pulled away from the bed and settled in the corner, away from the physicalness of how they kept him alive. The nurses came every hour like nervous taps, glancing at her and asking how she was. Mrs. Betts fingered the silver and turquoise Jesus that hung around her neck. She closed her eyes.
* * *
The room was tacked on to her aunt’s house, low-ceilinged and stifling in the Iowa summer. Great-Aunt Ethel lay covered in quilts and blankets, her monkey’s head yellowed by years of smoking. Mrs. Betts was only six, but she knew the woman was dying. She smelled it in the stench of urine rising from the linens and saw it in the milky corneas of Great-Aunt’s eyes. Her mother pushed Mrs. Betts close to the bed.
“Hold her hand!” her mother said.
Mrs. Betts did so. Great-Aunt’s palm felt like a cast-away snakeskin, soft and crinkly. Her fingers trapped the girl’s hand. Mrs. Betts tried to pull away, but her mother wedged her tight against the bed.
“Sarah?” Great-Aunt said.
“Molly,” Mrs. Betts said.
“Molly.” Great-Aunt’s mouth gaped, displaying toothless gums. “The painter.”
Mrs. Betts nodded. She carried a reputation in the family for her watercolors of Great-Aunt’s irises and daffodils. She’d begun as a finger-painter, then moved to a brush last year.
Great-Aunt’s lids dropped, as if she would drift again into sleep. “What do you want?”
“To visit, Great-Aunt,” Mrs. Betts said, unable to break loose of the old woman’s grip.
Great-Aunt’s eyes opened. “No, no,” she said, suddenly irritable. “What do you want? Of mine?” She snuffled. “I’ll be dead soon enough. Want my favorite girl to have something.”
“But Great-Aunt, I don’t—” Mrs. Betts stopped as her mother jabbed her in the back. “OK.”
“Anything at all, hon.” Great-Aunt coughed and a speck of phlegm swung out, failed to break loose, and drooped across her lower lip.
Mrs. Betts looked down. She knew exactly what she wanted. But it was so nice, so expensive. Great-Aunt would never give it to her. She took a deep breath. “The blue Jesus on the cross?”
The old woman smiled. The phlegm sparkled. “Yes, yes,” she said, “the blue Jesus, that’s good. What else?”
“I…nothing,” Mrs. Betts said.
“You sure? Well, it’s in my overnight bag,” Great-Aunt said, “under my panties.”
Mrs. Betts blushed. Great-Aunt released her, and Mrs. Betts went to the luggage. It was exactly where the old woman said, wrapped in tissue paper. Mrs. Betts unfolded it. Jesus looked up from his sterling cross, his turquoise torso rubbed dull with the fingered prayers of 60 years. She slid the necklace over her head and turned.
“It’s beautiful, child.” Great-Aunt’s eyes closed. Her tongue darted out, capturing the phlegm. “You remember me, hon. Feel that cross on your chest and know I’m roundabouts.”
“Yes ma’am,” Mrs. Betts said. Her skin warmed the metal and stone.
* * *
It was sullen and airless on the July night Mr. Betts proposed to her—a week into his first job, and already he was full of the things he’d buy. “A Fleetwood, navy with gray interior—sharp, understand? And one of those leather briefcases with the stitching around the corners.” He cupped her hands in his. “And those chrome-edged tables—a red one for the kitchen, like we saw in Seward’s last week.”
She nodded. He was like a puppy, panting and wriggling enough to escape its skin. She let him squeeze her fingers, hoping his excitement would infect her. “I’d like that.”
He leaned in close, almost suffocating her with Old Spice. “And when we’re married, you can quit your job at the bank. Tell ‘em to go to hell.”
“But I like it,” she said.
“I can introduce you to the guy that buys insurance,” she said. “It could be your first big sale.”
His face brightened. “That might work. Sure.”
They smoked through the evening and sipped seven-and-sevens. When the sky lightened in the east, he made his move. She let him paw her. It was all right, after all, now that he’d asked. She didn’t make a sound when he tore the bottom button of her blouse. His chest pressed the blue Jesus into her sternum. Her head was alternately spinning and glued to the earth below their quilt.
Afterward she wondered what they’d done.
* * *
The monitor beeped three low tones, then stopped. She straightened, straining to see Mr. Betts through the half-light. Was his chest still rising and falling? If it was serious, surely the alarm would be louder, more piercing. Mrs. Betts shrugged off the blanket and rose.
The blue Jesus bobbed against her breastbone. Mrs. Betts bent down and studied Harry’s face. He didn’t seem distressed. She glanced at the offending monitor. All lights were green. It was nothing. Nothing at all.
He’d given her just one piece of jewelry during 36 years of marriage: her wedding ring. He joked about it, said he didn’t see the use in twisting expensive metals around expensive stones, and how could it make any sense to invest emotion in an object? Mr. Betts was not one for sentimentality in the best of times.
They had seen that in each other, at least. Two stoics, marching down the aisle, locked together in the belief that the world simply was, that you did what you would and then you died. No fretting over religion or legacies. Though Mrs. Betts thought she felt better when she wore the blue Jesus—as if the figure gave off a protective glow.
Mr. Betts twitched. His eyes opened and shut, blind and reflexive. Mrs. Betts’s throat tightened. Mr. Betts had shrunken right in front of her—an old man tied to tubes and wires, pulled free of their life, and now a piece of the never-sleeping hospital. She felt with absolute certainty that he would never hum again. She imagined herself in his body, floating in a fog of pain killers and antiseptic refrigerated air. But that’s not right. He isn’t aware of anything now. He never dreamed.
The light flickered, and she felt someone behind her.
“What the—has it been doing that for long?” the nurse said, reaching past Mrs. Betts. She frowned, then turned a dial on the monitor. “Just a sec.”
Mrs. Betts stepped to the right, bracing herself on the bed railing.
The nurse flicked on the overhead light. “Just some dust in the rheostat—keeps sticking one notch too high. Don’t you worry, everything’s fine now.” The nurse patted Mrs. Betts. “You all right?”
Mrs. Betts nodded.
The nurse disappeared through the doorway. Mrs. Betts ran a finger down Mr. Betts’s hand. She paused at the half-inch scar just below his index finger knuckle.
* * *
The bathtub water had cooled. The bubbles were gone. She lay back, feeling goose bumps rise on her legs, watching the afternoon light slant lower and lower through the glass- brick window. The boiler in the basement clicked on. The radiators creaked as they passed hot water.
She swallowed, hating the iron taste in her mouth. The clenching and grinding in her pelvis had finally stopped. She knew she should get out and change, get ready for Mr. Betts’s arrival home from work. But then the image of the bloody clot going down the toilet reappeared. She began crying.
Three times now. Three.
Dr. Howell says I’m young enough to try again.
She closed her eyes and felt a shiver across her chest. The refrigerator hummed. She fought to clear her mind of the image. No red. White. A white, clean sheet. She opened her eyes and stared at the wallpaper.
Then her eyes drifted to the toilet bowl. She rose, splashing water over the side. Damn it. She toweled off, then dressed.
Tires crunched against cement outside. A car door slammed. Mrs. Betts looked in the hall mirror and pulled her hair away from her face. I look like hell.
She met Mr. Betts in the living room.
“Hi hon.” He pecked her cheek. “Why’s your hair wet?”
She shrugged. “Took a bath.”
“Huh.” He glanced at the wall clock and looked quizzically at her, then tossed his overcoat on the couch. “Kinda late, eh? So what’s for dinner?” He moved toward the bathroom.
“I don’t know.” Mrs. Betts wanted to crawl into the hall closet and hide behind her red wool winter coat. She’d just blend in, like it had never happened, as if it had never been alive.
Mr. Betts turned around, eyebrows raised. “You don’t know? As in, here are three choices, pick one?”
She shook her head. “No. I just…let’s eat out.”
He frowned. “We did that last night.”
Her uterus contracted. She grimaced and closed her eyes a second, waiting for the pain to pass.
“Are you all right?” Mr. Betts touched her shoulder.
She opened her eyes. “I lost it.”
“Oh Jesus. Crap.” Mr. Betts turned away, his right hand tightening into a fist. “Again? Jesus.”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“I’m not saying it’s your fault.” He turned around. “Just seems like there was something you could’ve done. I mean, this is three times. It’s not normal.”
She stared back and the taste was in her mouth. She wanted to spit it out on him. Not normal.
She shoved him against the doorway, both hands against his chest hard, almost knocking him down.
His arms flew up, trying to brace against the sill. “Shit!” He yanked down his right hand and stared at it. “Why’d you—oh, Jesus, now look it.” A pearl of blood appeared just below one of his knuckles, growing, then collapsing and sliding down his hand. He grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around the cut. Red bloomed through the fabric.
Mrs. Betts watched, still breathing hard. Three times. Son of a bitch. She grew angry all over again.
He looked up, then backed away. “Listen, Molly, I’m sorry. Ok? Whatever it was I said. Sorry. Sorry. All right?” He held up his hand. “Shit. Won’t stop bleeding.”
“I’ll drive you to the emergency room,” she said.
The doctor said Mr. Betts had hit the barrel of the door hinge, a nice clean cut, no real tearing, just a little dirt and grease. He said the wound would leave a tiny scar, and then he sent them home. Only three stitches.
They had not talked in the car on the way home. They had not talked for a week afterward. And then one day he came home from work and everything was as it had been.
Except at night Mrs. Betts would deny him. She feigned sleep when he approached. She stayed up until he collapsed on the couch. She joined two book clubs that met in the evening. And after four or five months, he gave up.
* * *
Her finger moved past his scar, to the white tape covering the IV needle, which was connected to a tube, which fed into a plastic pouch filled with medicine.
Mr. Betts clacked his molars under the filmy white oxygen mask.
She knew he would die. She would face 20 or 30 years without him. He would die and she’d find something hidden in his workroom, a collection of dirty magazines, or confidential records of an insurance swindle, or a secret diary. The lawyer would uncover a new will that gave everything to his golf buddies. A woman would arrive unannounced on her doorstep claiming to be his illegitimate daughter. She’d have terrifying dreams of his dramatic arrival in hell and the reading of his sins.
She would hear his jaws clack in the middle of the night. She’d wake up and there would be a noise but no noise, and she would move to the center of the bed.
Mrs. Betts leaned over and pulled a strand of hair back from his forehead. His eyes moved under the lids, back and forth, back and forth. Feet tenting the blanket. Did she still love him? She looked away. No. The part of him she’d loved evaporated the day of her third miscarriage. She’d gone all these years on habit.
She touched the oxygen tube feeding the mask. She rolled it between her thumb and forefinger. She pinched it shut and watched his mouth. His right arm began to rise and she leaned against it, pinning it down. His lips parted under the mask. She began counting, as if she’d dived to the bottom of the deep end, waiting out her opponents. He shuddered.
A buzzer sounded. Mrs. Betts jerked and released the tube. A red light began flashing on the panel behind the headboard.
The nurse appeared and pushed her aside.
“What’s wrong?” Mrs. Betts said.
The nurse did not reply. Her fingers jabbed the panel. Then she leaned down, ear against Mr. Betts’ chest. “Damn.” She rose and punched a button on the electronic box that hung from her belt.
Mr. Betts’ eyes were open. He stared at the ceiling. His mouth was agape, the clacking gone.
Another nurse arrived, and then a doctor. They enveloped Mr. Betts. They put two pads on the old man’s chest. There was a thump. The doctor studied the panel, then nodded. The thump again.
Mrs. Betts retreated to the far wall. Shame washed over her, engorging her, constricting her. What had she done? Surely a few seconds—minutes?—what could it have done? It had been an impulse driven by the scar. She had been there, and yet she had not.
Another thump. The doctor frowned.
Was he thinking of her? Did he know? She fingered the blue Jesus, wanting him to talk, to tell her what Harry had said as he passed from flesh to ether. But instead she heard Great-Aunt.
“You had talent, Molly.”
Mrs. Betts glanced at the doctor, but he was still staring at the console, frowning.
“Kept it locked up, girl. As if he had the key. But he didn’t, now, did he?”
The voice seemed just behind her right ear. She smelled Great-Aunt’s breath, a foul mixture of peppermint and garlic.
“Say your good-byes, Molly. You’re alive.”
The doctor rose, sighing. He walked to the corner. “I’m afraid I have bad news, Mrs. Betts.”
She looked up, fingers tight around the cross. In all my born days.
Mrs. Betts was cleaning his study two weeks after the funeral when she discovered a manila envelope sandwiched between a book on variable annuities and a notebook. She bent the two prongs of the metal clasp open and pulled out a sheaf of papers. They stank of cigarettes, and the top sheet had a half-moon coffee stain.
She fingered the onionskin paper. She remembered using them with carbons in the days before copiers. Had he hidden them? Or just forgotten? She smoothed out the first sheet and began reading.
‘Pros: teach baseball
take on trips
His underlining had perforated the paper.
My God. Mrs. Betts blinked and swallowed hard, the words lodging in her mind. She ran her fingers over the indentations left by the typewriters, a reverse Braille.
Baby bed: $45
Diaper svc: $7/wk’
And so on, halfway down the page, lines of costs with occasional exclamation marks and arrows. Then a grand total, and words again:
‘Can’t afford it, not now. Plus merger this yr means I’m gone more. Don’t want it, really, and I think neither does Molly. Hit me but that was hormones. Things are fine now. Why mess them up? Thank God she doesn’t cry over every little thing. Odds against it now, 3 times in a row. 4th times a charm. Nope, not working. Really all right. Is it worth $124,332.31 to toss a ball around with a kid? Too many kids anyway. Too’
And the typing ended.
Mrs. Betts dabbed at her cheek. A tear splashed down, making the sheet translucent. She flipped it over, thinking he might have jotted a note somewhere. Nothing. Her side ached, as if he’d sucker-punched her. The blue Jesus bobbled against her neck.
Why had he written this? It was like an argument with himself. She heard his voice saying the words as he bent over the typewriter. After she had gone to bed. At night. Always at night. Not in bed with her, but in his study, adding numbers and arguing with himself.
She settled into his leather desk chair. It wobbled slightly, tilting back, and she grabbed the edge of the desk. The sheet lay askew. She straightened it, bottom edge parallel with the blotter. Don’t want it really
Her stomach hurt. She pulled up her blouse and rubbed the skin until it pinked.
When she had said yes, his face lit up, as if he were surprised. He slid the ring over her finger, then smiled. He touched the second button of her blouse, then looked down.
She took his hand and kissed it.
He looked up. “You look like you were going to ask me something.”
She smiled. “Where are we going?”
Copyright © 2007 J.C. Dickey-Chasins