They were all surprised to see Betsy when she turned up at Marie’s Pub a few months after her husband died, dressed in suede pants and a vest trimmed with rhinestones, wearing blue eye shadow and raisin lipstick. Her white hair was feathered back and stiff; she might have been an extra on some seventies TV show. She high-fived all the youngsters and slapped big hugs on the regulars. There were no seats at the bar so she leaned against the wall, singing along to “Me and Mrs. Jones” and sashaying her arms in the air, trying to get the others to join in. She was drunk already, John could tell, which surprised him: he’d never known her to drink much when Mike was alive.
He stepped out from behind the bar to say hello. He looked older than his 40 years because of the deep lines on his face, particularly around the eyes, but the women all agreed those wrinkles gave him character and his stooped posture made him seem thoughtful and preoccupied with important things. He wore a long ponytail pulled through the opening in back of his baseball cap and hiking boots with thick wool socks—even in summer.
“Oh, what a relief to be among the living!” Betsy slapped his shoulder. She had made sureto leave one light on inside for her Chihuahua, Jocko, and one outside so she’d be able to navigate the steps that led from her driveway to the front porch. If only Mike had lived long enough to build that garage he’d always promised her, she wouldn’t have to worry about slipping on the ice on her way into the house.
“I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner,” she grinned like an escaped convict.
“Well, it’s good to see you, Betsy.” John had a slow, deep way of talking, like he was reading instructions.
“How about a big glass of Chardonnay for a thirsty widow?” she asked, a tease in her voice.
He ignored the drunken patrons slapping down their beer money while he poured Betsy a glass of wine. “On the house,” he handed it to her. After that, she was at Marie’s nearly every night of the week.
Mike and Betsy had been townies. Met in high school, married just after graduation. Tried to have children but couldn’t. Betsy was secretly relieved. She knew she couldn’t manage a floppy bundle that cried all the time. Plus she was afraid any baby of hers would inherit her lazy eye, which had been a source of grief and shame her whole life. When she miscarried the second time, she told Mike she wanted to start an upholstery business, so he built her a shop in the basement, got her all the equipment she needed on eBay, even an industrial sewing machine that cost a couple thousand. And then one night he died of a heart attack while she was hammering tacks into a couch.
At first people dropped over all the time, and then the visits waned and Betsy found herself worried about money and safety and whether she’d be alone for the rest of her life. They gave her Mike’s route at the post office, which meant she had to get up at 4:00 a.m. six days a week and deliver mail all over the county for $12 an hour. She was 55, had a backache each day until noon; but that didn’t stop her from occasionally pulling over while she was delivering the mail to collect felled branches, cutting them with a chain saw right there in the back of her Subaru.
Most nights she’d wake suddenly, sit straight up in bed, and cover her mouth with her hand, suppressing a scream. She had nightmares, often about intruders or Jocko freezing to death or, strangest of all, the night she dreamt she was fighting someone invisible but terribly strong; no matter what she did she could not fend off this person, and then it became apparent she was actually fighting herself. She’d sit up in bed, hoping the familiar sights would quell the panic. But always she’d have to go somewhere else—usually the living room—and it would be hours before she could face her bed again. She’d pull Jocko in with her, squeezing him against his will (he preferred to sleep by her feet).
Winter had only just started. She’d dragged the metal can of salt up onto the porch from underneath where they’d always stowed it. Soon it would be deadly cold. There was propane to pay for and wood to haul from the pile, and by February her driveway would be so iced over, she’d have to park at the bottom and walk up the hill.
She was still in her bathrobe on Sunday morning when she saw John’s truck pull up her driveway. He hopped down and moved slowly, but Betsy thought he had a grace about him, long legs that took big steps, as if under water. She stepped out onto her porch, her hand around a mug of coffee, her fluffy white robe pulled tight around her settled waist.
“Well, good morning, Mr. Cooper,” she said.
“Hiya Betsy. How are you feeling this morning?”
“Well, it’s a bit nippy out here, don’t you think?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad. Just a preview of what’s to come. Anyhow, I brought you a present.” He held up her wallet.
“Oh, sweet Mary. What the hell is wrong with me? Thanks a million. You could have just called. I would have come and gotten it.”
“It was right on my way,” he said.
“Want to come in for a cuppa Joe?” She motioned toward the house. “I’m freezing my tootsies off.”
“Sure.” He stepped onto the porch and opened the sliding door, followed Betsy inside and sat at the table.
Betsy was thrilled to have company so early in the day. She filled a mug with coffee and cream (she assumed everyone took cream) and set it on the table in front of him, then sat down opposite him on an oak pressback chair.
“Man, there were a lot of drunks carrying on last night,” said John.
“Oh, that isn’t fun.”
“It sure ain’t. I’ll tell you, sometimes I just want to let them drink ‘til their eyeballs are floating.” They both chuckled. Everyone knew that John was clean and sober in AA and had been for about a year. Thankfully, he kept quiet about it. But it wasn’t so long ago he was weaving his way through town with a bottle in a bag, tripping over fire hydrants. So people were glad for him that he’d taken care of his problem.
“Well, I confess I like a glass of wine or two in the evening. It makes the stars brighter.”
“Best that you remember your wallet though. Lucky for you it was Davy who found it.”
“It’s old age. You lose your looks, your libido, and your memory. And not necessarily in that order.” She grinned.
“Well, I don’t want to stick my nose where it don’t belong, but if you ever want to go to a meeting with me, I’d be more than happy to take you. If you hate it, you could just say the word and we’ll leave.”
“You mean one of those alcoholic anonymous meetings?” She laughed as if nothing could be more ridiculous. “I have a girlfriend who goes to those meetings. Practically every night of every week. Talks about her higher power. One day at a time. Turning it over. All her friends now are from those meetings. I swear I hardly ever see her.”
John knew what that was about. Probably an old drinking buddy who needed to change her circle to keep clean. He put his coffee cup down on the table. Well, he’d done it. Someone had complained about Betsy’s driving at night, a few of them had discussed it, and John was appointed to reach out to her. He worried there would be a night when no one would catch her stumbling out the door and she’d wrap her car around a tree on the short drive home—there were plenty of trees and signs and buildings, not to mention deer and bears and all those animals that dart into the road, forcing you to swerve. And no one wanted anything bad to happen to Betsy.
He settled in while she told him a long story about her mother running over her own foot. She laughed like it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to anyone. She stood up to reenact it, miming one hand on the steering wheel, one foot on the gas pedal, the other on the pavement. She waved her hands up and down. “You see what I mean? It doesn’t make any sense.” John forced a chuckle, thinking her mother was probably too old to be driving.
She got a bill on Monday from the tree guy. She’d dipped into the savings from Mike’s pension to have some trees cut down, deadwood and leaning birches that looked as though they were aiming for her roof. Now sunlight poured into her kitchen and every time she saw it, she felt disquieted, thinking that soon she would be old and poor and without a husband. She put her mail on the kitchen table, took her $7.99 bottle of wine, and went down into the basement where she was working on a couch for a wealthy young couple from New York who had bought a summer home nearby. It was a gorgeous Queen Anne sofa, and they wanted it reupholstered in pink velvet. Furniture tacks all around—not consistent with the Queen Anne style, even she knew that. They had agreed on a price of $2,000, which would help get her through the winter. Still, she knew she could not afford to live alone. She’d considered advertising for a roommate, but she was so set in her ways, just beginning to adjust to life alone—and not really minding it. And it depressed her, the idea of a roommate at 55 after having lived with Mike for 34 years, which had not exactly been a walk on the beach.
She gently removed the gold fabric that covered the sofa, folding it neatly and placing it in a box where she kept all the recycled fabric she was saving for a patchwork quilt she still hadn’t started. She worked and drank until she couldn’t see well enough to sew. There was nothing for her to do but go to bed in her sweats without brushing her teeth, pulling Jocko close even though he tried to squirm away. “Too bad, mister,” she said, “Mama needs you.”
Tuesday night she was back at Marie’s on the last bar stool, staring at John. He wore a blue baseball cap and a hooded sweatshirt, and she noticed that he never handled his tips until the customer wasn’t looking. She hadn’t realized she was looking at him, but when he waved she looked down, embarrassed, and waved back, a coy one-finger-at-a-time gesture. He took a sip of his club soda and got Judy, the other bartend, to relieve him so he could go outside for a smoke. He stepped out from behind the bar and asked Betsy if she wanted to keep him company while he indulged his habit. Suddenly a cigarette sounded divine. She hadn’t had one since Mike was alive. She followed John outside, pulling her denim jacket tight around her. There was a bitter prick in the air.
“Could you roll me one of those?” she asked.
“One of these? You don’t want one of these, do you? They don’t even have filters.”
“Mike smoked the same thing.”
The moon was high and the leaves were shimmering. She remembered her twenties, when everyone would come outside in winter time, strip down, and jump in the lake. She never did. She was not the type to get naked in front of people. Instead, she stood at the shore and laughed, as if it didn’t bother her, all her shyness and shame at not being pretty.
Some young girls came outside. They giggled. Three of them were skinny with long hair and tight pants, short little jackets, and shoes with heels so high and unsteady, Betsy expected they would didn’t topple over. She had to laugh.
“Hi John,” each one called out.
“Hi girls,” he said. He flicked his ashes, embarrassed at the attention. Suddenly, it occurred to Betsy that he would be the perfect roommate. He was handy, he had a job, and she knew he needed a better place to live. Plus, she’d been in his apartment once and it was neat and clean.
“How are the Long River Apartments?” she asked him.
“Well, besides the cockroaches in the kitchen and the rats in the laundry room, it’s not so bad. The rent’s cheap.”
She leaned in for a light. The first drag made her cough. Then she took a deep drag and thought how smoking comes right back to you. Like riding a bike. She looked at John, considered telling him this, but he was gazing far off, thinking about something important. She thought how she was an old lady with white hair, but she didn’t feel old, she felt drunk, and that made her feel worldly and ripe.
“How’d you like to be my housemate?” she asked, taking a drag. “I have a beautiful, sunny room on the first floor, toward the back of the house; well, what am I talking about? You’ve seen the room. It’s just sitting there: vacant. You could have it in exchange for help around the house and, oh, say, $300 a month.”
“$300? That’s awfully cheap.”
“If you could bring in the wood and carry my upholstery projects sometimes, that would be a huge help. Not all the time. I wouldn’t be after you all the time to do things. Just occasionally.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Betsy. I’m a pretty odd duck.”
“Oh, please. You don’t know about odd ducks. I sing songs to my dog. And I eat the same thing for dinner every night.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“Pork chop and peas. And I listen to the same CD while I eat.”
“What CD is that?” John smiled.
“That might be a deal breaker,” he teased.
“Okay, you can choose the music. I need a change. Not that we’d have to eat dinner together every night. We can be as independent as you’d like.”
He chucked his cigarette. He had a soft spot for Betsy. And he liked her house, all that knotty pine: the walls, the floors, the ceilings. The kitchen was small and always spotless, with one of those windows that juts out to accommodate plants. She had an old TV, not one of those huge ones where everyone is pulled wide in both directions. And covering every surface were ceramic knickknacks: Chihuahuas, Polish pottery, little bluebirds, gingerbread houses. Doilies hung in the windows and covered the seats. John’s room—if he took it—would be on the first floor in the back, right next to the bathroom. And Betsy’s room was upstairs next to her office and a second bathroom. So privacy wouldn’t be an issue. He told her he was definitely interested. And he asked if he could drive her home, but she insisted she was fine to drive.
Later his ex-wife came into the bar hanging all over her latest hobby. She wouldn’t even look at him. He watched her climb up onto the pool table to make a shot. She had trouble getting up there because she had short legs, and he laughed, turning away in case she looked over. He wanted to hate her. Or to feel nothing. But he still thought of her hands and feet and the way she looked just after a shower when her hair clung to her neck. Plus he felt sorry for her. She was desperate for something she couldn’t even name. He couldn’t name it either.
He moved in on a Sunday. One truckload and he was out of that dump. Betsy waited at the house, dressed in a sweatshirt and dungarees, and she waved frantically as he pulled up the driveway. She climbed into the back of the truck and handed stuff down to him; he piled boxes on the porch. Jocko was barking inside, his wet nose filming up the sliding glass doors.
“The sun is just pouring into your room today,” said Betsy.
“I’ll tell you, I thought about firing up the stove, but I always wait as long as possible—usually until Christmas—that way the wood pile lasts through ‘til May.”
“That’s smart, Betsy,” he said. This was the first piece of bad news. He hated to be cold.
In an hour, they’d cleared out the truck bed and moved everything inside. Betsy made tuna sandwiches with pickle slices and potato chips, glasses of lemonade. They sat at the dining room table.
“Boy, they’ll be gossiping,” she said after a long silence.
“Yes, they will.”
“What do you think they’ll say?” she asked.
“Oh, they’re always saying something. As if a man and a woman can’t be friends. As if we’re in the dark ages.”
“It’s asinine,” said Betsy, disgusted. “I should have moved to Florida. That was my original plan when Mike died. This town is too small. People’s minds are the size of warts.”
“Well, who cares? If it entertains them, then maybe it’s keeping them out of trouble.”
“That’s a very positive attitude, mister.”
“I have lots of experience looking on the bright side.” But this he said sadly, as if it wore on him, all this optimism and the effort to cultivate it.
That night the bar was closed so John decided to go to a meeting. He invited Betsy to come along and she considered it, but declined. He was glad to go alone. He already felt the need for solitude. When he got home, he stopped on the porch and knocked. She hopped up, startled, then mock-chastised him for not letting himself inside. “I left the door unlocked,” she said. “You live here!” And she promised to have a key made for him in the morning. “Did you eat dinner?”
“Well, I’ve got an extra pork chop and some peas. How’s that grab ya?”
“It grabs me very well,” he said.
She’d left her glass of wine on an end table in the dark living room. “American Idol” was playing on the television. John stood in the threshold watching TV while Betsy nuked the food. “That kid is going to be the next Barbra Streisand,” she called from the kitchen. “For my money, she’s better than Barbra Streisand.” She gave him a plate, then plopped down onto her spot on the couch, snatched up her wine, and stared at her TV show, marveling at all those kids making a vainglorious grab for the American Dream.
When John had finished eating, he sat in the brushed cotton recliner.
“You can smoke in the house,” said Betsy.
“Yes, mister, you certainly can. Let me find you an ashtray.” She was too drunk to be ashamed about how drunk she was. She heaved herself out of the sunken sofa and went rummaging about in the kitchen for something resembling an ashtray. “It’s funny,” she said. “I really ought to reupholster this couch. But that’s how it always is. You never do for yourself what you do for everyone else.” There was a bitter edge to her voice.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, thrilled to find a tiny cast iron frying pan with two little indents carved into the top for resting a cigarette.
“Look at that,” he said.
“Isn’t that cute? Finally someone can use it again.”
John’s parents owned the only convenience store in town. They had bought the bankrupt property, then added gas and propane and DVDs. They were wealthy now, but John never asked for anything, though occasionally his mother would slip him fifty dollars when his father wasn’t looking.
“You what?” his father said.
“I moved in with Betsy Lyst.”
“Why on God’s earth would you do that?” He pretended he hadn’t already heard from Nancy, John’s ex, who had delivered the news with aplomb followed by derogatory comments and predictions of disaster.
“Because I don’t want to live in a dump anymore,” John shot back, chucking his cigarette away from the gas pump.
“She’s a real fruitcake,” said his father. “But I suppose that fits: two fruitcakes sitting in a tree.”
“That’s very funny, Pop. I knew I could count on your support.”
His father was changing the prices on the petrol tanks. Gas was going up. “Support? You’re too old for support. When you quit college you wanted support. When you divorced your wife, you wanted support. You work in that dive. And now you’re living with a lazy-eyed widow. You should make things right with Nancy. Then I’d support you. And come to church once in a while. I don’t care about myself, but you’re killing your mother.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t go to church if I don’t believe in God,” John replied, and began rolling another cigarette.
“You are troubled, boy. You need some of that Prozac or Ability. I’ll give you money to go see a shrink. And stop smoking that wacky tobacky by the gas tank.”
“It’s a cigarette. And you know it.”
“Well, things have a way of working out somehow. Looks like Nancy found a man to pony up and give her what she wanted,” John’s father looked at him sideways and up, a mean, caught-ya kind of glare. “You don’t even know what that is—“ he spat on the ground for emphasis.
“I have no fuckin’ idea,” said John.
“Well, don’t look at me. If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.”
“Of course you are. You’re dying to tell me.”
“She’s pregnant is what it is. You must have been out smoking margy-wanna when they taught the class in school about how every woman wants a baby. Must have been too stoned to pay attention.”
“You’re ridiculous,” was the best he could muster. He felt disoriented. Hateful. Deceived. Had that always been what she wanted but could not name? He chucked his cigarette too close to the gas tanks and stormed off toward the truck, climbed in, gunned the engine, let the seatbelt warning chime over and over as he did a large semi-circle through the convenience store lot. His father was still muttering, hoping John could hear his derision. John wanted a drink so bad he could taste the tequila hitting the back of his tongue, feel it making a hot quick path down the middle of his body. Sobriety and changing his stripes and cleaning up his act and trying to better himself—none of it fucking mattered. His life was and always would be shit. But he couldn’t face the local liquor store, the resultant spread of news of his fall from grace all over town.
With him Nancy had had an abortion. Said children ought not to have children and that, anyway, she didn’t want to give up her freedom. And John hadn’t protested. Had never thought to protest. He only knew that he wanted her to be happy. Kids, no kids, it really didn’t matter. He ripped up Betsy’s driveway now, jerked the emergency brake up and hopped out, feeling half drunk and in the mood for more. He pounded on the sliders even though he had the new key to the main entrance.
Betsy hopped up from the table where she was enjoying her pork chop and peas, a just-opened bottle of wine. “Mister! Where’s that key?”
“Got anything stronger?” he nodded at the wine.
“For who?” she asked, puzzled.
“Tequila would be my first choice.”
“I have scotch,” she shrugged.
She filled a short glass a quarter of the way, then held it away and cocked her head. “Is this really a good idea?”
He held out his hand.
By six, the sun was low in the sky, and Betsy had turned a few lights on. She was less inclined to sit in the dark now that she had someone else to consider.
“Want to watch some TV?” she asked.
“Brilliant. How about one of those gruesome reality crime shows?”
“Really?” she clapped her hands together, excited. She flicked on the TV. John had finished the bottle of scotch and started on Betsy’s wine. He stood in a dark corner of the room, trying not to replay the scene with his father.
“Can I just say, I hate my ex-wife.”
“She’s unpleasant,” Betsy agreed.
“Don’t you think so? I mean, really. Isn’t she just a nasty individual?”
“I think you’re too nice for her.”
“Thank you, Betsy.” She sat on the couch, in her spot, and he sat down on the other end of the couch, where he’d never before sat.
“How about we have a cigarette?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and rubbing her hands together like a little animal.
“I hate to be a bad influence,” he said. He removed his pouch of tobacco from his pocket and rolled a cigarette while Betsy went to get the ashtray from the dish drain.
On television a woman had been found in a dumpster behind an aerobics studio. She was the instructor. Everyone hated her because she was mean.
“She was a skinny bitch,” said Betsy.
John laughed. “Like my ex-wife.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked cautiously.
“I hate her.”
“She is awful.”
“Does everyone hate her?” he asked, beginning to feel better.
“I don’t know anyone who likes her.”
“Men like her,” he said quickly.
“Oh, men like skinny bitches,” she waved her hand dismissively.
“I don’t.” He shook his head. “Not anymore.”
On the program, the suspect, the instructor’s boyfriend, was exonerated. His other girlfriend was charged. They agreed that she was also a skinny bitch. She was indignant, claimed she was being framed. But everyone interviewed on the program said she was guilty. They all hated her. Betsy and John did too.
Betsy got the bottle of wine from the kitchen and poured some more into John’s glass. He grabbed her wrist and held it in his hand. He pulled her onto his lap, put his arms around her thighs, and locked his hands together. Something inside her fell like a dead bird from the sky. She held the bottle of wine on her lap. She knew she needed to get up. So much depended on her getting up. On television a commercial advertised pads for women with incontinence. That made it worse.
“How about those cigarettes?” she said.
“Oh, I rolled one for you.” He handed it to her. She took it and gingerly unfurled herself until she was standing again. She felt like she’d stopped an explosion. John rolled a second cigarette and they watched another crime show, in silence, as though they’d had an argument. She hoped he’d forget what had happened, and that she would not regret walking away from one night that might have offered her a few hours of pleasure.