Short Fiction

Skinny Bitches


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-colored lipstick. Her white hair was feathered back and stiff like an extra in the movie “Saturday Night Fever.” She high-fived all the youngsters then leaned back against the cinderblock wall and threw her arms open, anticipating hugs from the regulars, most of whom she’d known all her life.

There were no seats at the bar, so she stood all through “Me and Mrs. Jones,” doing her Ethyl Merman and sashaying her arms to inspire the others to sing out. She was drunk, John could tell, and this surprised him. He’d never known her to be a drinker 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 that his stooped posture made him seem preoccupied with interesting things. His long ponytail was pulled through the opening in his baseball cap, and he wore hiking boots with thick wool socks all year long.

“Oh, what a relief to be among the living!” Betsy slapped his shoulder. Instantly she was overcome with worry she’d forgotten to leave a light on for Jocko, her Chihuahua, until she remembered switching on a table lamp in the living room. She had no idea whether she’d turned on the porch light. If Mike had built that garage like he was always promising, she wouldn’t have to worry about darkness or slipping on the ice en route from the driveway to the porch.

“I feel like an escaped convict,” she threw her head back and chortled.

“Well, it‘s sure nice to see you, Betsy.” John had a slow way of talking, like he was reading instructions.

“How about a big glass of Chardonnay for a thirsty widow?”

John ignored the regulars slapping down their beer money and poured Betsy a glass of wine. “On the house,” he said.

After that, she was at Marie’s every night of the week.

Mike and Betsy 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 lifelong source of grief and shame.

After her second miscarriage she told Mike she wanted to start an upholstery business. He built her a shop in the basement, got all the equipment she needed on eBay–even an industrial sewing machine that cost a couple thousand. Then one night, while she was hammering nails into a couch, he had a heart attack and died.

At first, people dropped over with hot food and liquor. Then they sent cards instead and Betsy found herself suddenly afraid of things she’d never even considered—driving, walking on the ice, the darkness outside the clean kitchen windows, headlights spraying across the ceiling. The days dragged on, each moment passing like a twig was stuck under the car. She had taken over Mike’s postal route, which meant getting up at 4 a.m. six days a week and driving all over the county. In exchange she was paid $12 an hour. Just thinking about it made her glare at the shifting roads, vitriol rising inside her. She was fifty-five, had a backache each day until noon, but that didn’t stop her from pulling over at the sight of felled branches, dragging them to the back of her Subaru and cutting them with a chain saw, like a serial killer.

Winter had barely begun its onslaught. She dragged the 50-pound can of salt onto the porch. Soon the world would be trapped under ice. There was propane to purchase and wood to haul in; by February she’d have to park at the bottom of her driveway and walk up the hill, stretching rubber cleats over her boots so she wouldn’t fall, and even then falling if she didn’t move like she was infirm. In the heaviest night she would sit straight up in bed and cover her mouth to suppress a scream. Always were recurring dreams about intruders and death and murderous things happening to Jocko.

Betsy was in her bathrobe on Sunday morning when John’s truck pulled up the driveway. He moved slowly, though Betsy thought he had a grace about him, his long legs taking big, underwater steps. She cupped a mug of coffee, her fluffy white robe belted tight around her settled waist, and stepped out onto the porch.

“Howdy Mr. Cooper.”

“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 when you consider what’s around the corner. Look what I found.” He held up her wallet.

“Oh, sweet Mary and Jesus Christ. You should have just called. I KNOW you didn’t need something to do this early in the morning.”

“Actually, I’ve been up for hours.” He handed the red leather wallet up from below.

“Want come in for a cuppa Joe?” Betsy motioned toward the house. “I’m freezing my tootsies off out here.”

John pulled himself up onto the porch and stepped through the sliding door, following Betsy inside. She filled a mug with coffee and cream, set it on the table, dragged out a noisy chair and sat opposite him. Awkwardness subsumed the country peace and quiet.

“Man, there were a lot of drunks carrying on last night,” John spoke quietly, shaking his head.

“Oh, that can’t be fun for you.”

“It sure isn’t. I’ll tell you, sometimes I just want to let them drink ‘til their eyeballs are floating.”

Betsy chuckled. Everyone knew that John was clean and sober in AA and had been since the car accident that nearly took his own life and didn’t spare Benny, the German shepherd mix who seemed to have always lived in the cape next to the convenience store. It wasn’t long ago John 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 and also that he didn’t go on about it all the time.

“Well, I confess I like a glass of wine or two in the evening. It makes the stars come out.”

“So long as you remember your wallet. Lucky for you Davy Miller found it.”

“I’ll tell you, you turn 50, you lose your looks, then your libido, and then, just when you need it most, your memory. I just hope it isn’t early Alzheimer’s.”

“Well, if you ever want to come with me to a meeting, I’d consider it an honor.”

“John Cooper, are you trying to get me to go to one of those alcoholic anonymous meetings?” She laughed as if nothing could be crazier.

John emptied his coffee cup, rested it on the table. Well, he’d done it. Someone had complained about Betsy’s driving and John had volunteered to do some 12-step service.

Betsy told a long story about how her mother ran over her own foot. Laughing so hard she could barely talk, she mimed one hand on the steering wheel, a foot on the gas pedal and another on the pavement. She waved her hands up and down. “You see what I mean? It doesn’t make sense,” she wiped away the tears, waiting for John to laugh. He managed a chuckle, thinking it was sad and that Betsy’s mother was probably too old to drive.

She got a bill on Monday from the tree guy and left it unopened on the table until evening. She’d raided Mike’s pension to have deadwood and leaning birches cut down, only the trees that seemed to be aiming for the roof. Ever since, sunlight poured into the kitchen all day and sometimes the change in how everything looked made her sick with the certainty of impending poverty.

Walking past the bill, she brought her $7.99 bottle of wine down into the basement where she was reupholstering a Queen Anne period fainting couch for a young couple from New York. They wanted it reupholstered in pink velvet with burnished tacks. The $2,000 they were paying would just about cover her propane for the season. But there was still a mortgage and food and gas and all those quickly forgotten expenses that derail careful planning. She contemplated a roommate, but she was finally beginning to adjust to life alone and the idea of living with a stranger at fifty-five, after having put up with Mike for 34 years, depressed her.

Betsy gently unpeeled the old gold upholstery, folded it neatly and placed it in a Victorian trunk where she stored the treasured collection of recycled fabric she’d amassed over the years. She worked and drank until she couldn’t see well enough to sew and 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, her eyes absently fixed on John. He wore a blue baseball cap and a hooded sweatshirt, and she noticed he never handled his tips until the customer looked away. She didn’t realize she was staring until he waved. Embarrassed, she proffered a coy, one-finger-at-a-time greeting. He took a sip of his club soda and called Judy, the other bartend, to take over so he could go outside for a smoke. He invited Betsy to keep him company while he indulged his habit. Suddenly a cigarette sounded divine. She hadn’t had one since Mike died. She followed him, pulling her denim jacket tight.

“Could you roll me one of those?” she asked, jutting her chin.

“One of these? You don’t want one of these. They don’t even have filters.”

“Mike smoked the same thing. Same brand and everything.”

The moon was high and bright and the leaves were shimmering. It was the sort of night that made all the town’s residents appreciate their surroundings. She recalled her twenties, when all the kids would come outside in early winter, strip down, and run into the lake while 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 giggling. They were skinny with long hair and tight pants, wearing short little jackets and shoes with heels so high and unsteady, Betsy couldn’t fathom how they managed to remain upright.

“Hi John,” each one called out in a little singsong.

“Hi girls.” He flicked his ashes. Suddenly, it occurred to Betsy that he would be the perfect roommate. He was handy, 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.

“Well, besides the cockroaches in the kitchen and the rats in the laundry room, it’s practically paradise.”

She leaned in for a light. The first drag made her cough. But the second went down easy, and she thought how smoking comes right back to you, like riding a bike. She looked at John, considered sharing her theory, but he was gazing off in deep thought and she remembered she was an old lady with white hair, but she didn’t feel old. She was drunk, and that made her feel worldly and ripe.

“How’d you like to be my roommate?” she took a drag. “I have a beautiful, sunny room on the first floor, toward the back of the house—“

“Yes, you do,” he interrupted gently.

“Oh Jesus!” She hit his arm and laughed. “What a dithering fool I am. You even picked out the wallpaper. And, I’m happy to report, every corner is still laying flat.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Betsy.”

“Wanna live in it? I’ll give you a good deal–say $300 a month and a little help around the house.”

“$300? That’s awfully cheap.”

“If you could bring in the wood and carry my upholstery projects sometimes, that would be a HUGE help. I wouldn’t expect you to do things all the time. Just occasionally.”

“It’s tempting. But you know, I’m an 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 practically every night.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

“Two pork chops and some peas. Not only that, I always listen to the same CD while I eat.”

“I’m afraid to ask—“ he looked down, grinning.

“Oh, it’s Celine Dion. She makes supper feel like a special event.”

“That might be a deal breaker,” he chucked his cigarette.

“Well, you can choose the music. I’m very flexible.”

John liked all that knotty pine: the walls, the floors, the cathedral ceilings. The kitchen was small and spotless with one of those geometric windows built out to accommodate plants. The TV was old and heavy with a big rear-end, and covering nearly every surface were knickknacks: Chihuahuas, Polish pottery, blown-glass bluebirds and little gingerbread houses made of balsa wood. Doilies on the windows made patterns when the sun poured through. The downstairs room had its own bathroom. And Betsy’s bedroom was upstairs next to her office, with a second bathroom. So privacy wouldn’t be an issue. He told her he was interested and he offered to 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 acted like she didn’t know John was there. He watched her try and hoist herself onto the pool table to make a shot. But she was short and clumsy and he turned away so she wouldn’t see him laughing. He wanted to hate her. But he knew her too well, that she was desperate for something unidentified. He once believe he knew what she needed, but it turned out he had no idea.

One truckload and he was out of that dump. Betsy waited, dressed in a sweatshirt and dungarees, and waving like a teenybopper as he pulled up the driveway. She climbed into the bed of the truck and handed stuff down while John 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,” said Betsy, handing off a box of records.

“Fantastic.”

“I’ll tell you, I thought about firing up the stove, but I always wait as long as possible—usually Christmas. That way the wood pile lasts until 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, poured glasses of homemade lemonade. They sat at the table.

“Boy, they’ll be gossiping,” she said after a silence.

“Yes, they will.”

“What do you think they’ll say?”

“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.” John dabbed at the corner of his mouth with a gingham print napkin.

“I should have moved to Florida when Mike died. That was my original plan. Everybody around here has a mind the size of a wart.”

“Well, I always say that if gossip entertains them it’s probably keeping them out of trouble.”

“That’s a very positive attitude, mister.”

“I have lots of experience looking on the bright side.” He said this sadly, as if it wore on him, all this optimism and the effort required to sustain it.

That night the bar was closed so John decided to go to a meeting. He invited Betsy but she declined. He was glad to go alone, already feeling pressed for solitude. When he got home he knocked on the sliders. Betsy hopped up, startled, and made a big fuss.

“Why didn’t you use your key?” she cried.

“I didn’t want to scare you—“

“Oh nonsense. I don’t scare that easy. Did you eat dinner?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, I’ve got pork chops and 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 watched TV from the threshold 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 the couch, reached for her wine, and returned to her 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 know, you can smoke in the house,” said Betsy.

“No…”

“Yes, mister, you certainly can. Let me find you an ashtray.” She was too drunk to notice how she teetered forward after heaving herself out of the sofa. “It’s funny,” she said. “I really ought to reupholster that couch. But that’s how it is. You never do for yourself what you do for everyone else.” There was a bitter edge to her voice. “Oh, look at that!” She held up a tiny cast iron frying pan with two indents in the top for resting cigarettes. “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 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 around.

“You what?” his father said.

“I moved in with Betsy Lyst.”

“Why on God’s earth would you do that?” His father pretended he hadn’t already heard all about it from Nancy–John’s ex–who had delivered the news with aplomb. They’d all predicted disaster.

“Because I don’t want to live in a dump anymore,” John chucked his cigarette away from the gas pump.

“She’s a fruitcake,” said his father. “But I suppose that fits: two fruitcakes in a tree.”

“That’s so funny, Pop.” He started to walk away then turned his head. “Thanks for your support–as usual.”

“Support?” his father shouted after him, attracting the attention of a couple walking out of the store, “Aren’t you a little old for support? When you quit college you needed support. When you left Nancy, you needed support. And then there were all the tickets and car accidents. Now you tell me you’re living with a lazy-eyed widow who is one of the most peculiar people in a town full of peculiar people and you expect support? Make things right with your wife. Then I’ll give you some support. And would it kill you to come and sit next your mother in church once in a while?”

John lit the cigarette he’d just rolled. “Actually, yeah, it would kill me since, I don’t believe in God.”

“You are deeply troubled, boy. You need some of that Prozac or Ability. And stop smoking that wacky tobacky by my gas tanks.”

“It’s a cigarette. And you know it.” John climbed into his truck, didn’t bother with the seatbelt. The chime kept ringing as he drove home, thinking only that he wanted to get drunk. It had been a quiet distant thought for days, but there was nothing quiet or distant about it now. In fact, there were no other possible sources of solace.

Betsy was at the table with dinner and a just-opened bottle of wine.

“Got anything stronger?” John pointed to the wine.

“For who?”

“Tequila would be my first choice.”

“I have some scotch,” she shrugged and cocked her head.

“That’ll do.”

She filled a short glass a quarter of the way, then stretched out her arm and held it off to the side. “Is this really what you want?”

He reached for it. One sip and everything was ten steps closer to never having happened.

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 in excitement and flicked on the TV. John had finished the bottle of scotch and they were now sharing Betsy’s wine. He stood in a dark corner of the room.

“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 shitty person?”

“I think you’re much 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 reposed.

“How about we have a cigarette?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and rubbing her hands together.

“I hate to be a bad influence,” he said, removed a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and rolled a cigarette while Betsy went to get the ashtray from the dish drain.

On TV was a story about a woman found in a dumpster behind an aerobics studio. She was the instructor. Everyone hated her because she was mean.

“She was what I like to call a skinny bitch,” Betsy said with authority.

“Like my ex-wife,” he half laughed.

“Exactly.”

“Man, I hate her.”

“She’s awful.” This flew out almost joyously, Betsy too loose now to strain toward kindness.

“Does everyone hate her?” he asked, beginning to feel better.

“I don’t know anyone who likes her.”

“Men like her.”

“Oh, men love skinny bitches,” she waved her hand confidently, a decorated soldier of life.

“Not me,” John shook his head. “Not anymore.”

The aerobics instructor’s boyfriend, who had been the main suspect, was exonerated and his paramour was charged. John and Betsy agreed that she was also a skinny bitch. She claimed she was being framed because other women were jealous. But everyone they interviewed was certain she did it.

Betsy got the bottle of wine from the kitchen and filled John’s glass. As she turned away, he grabbed her wrist and held it in his hand, pulled her down onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her thighs, then locked his hands together.

Something inside her fell like a dead bird from the sky. She knew she needed to get up. Everything good depended on her getting up. On television a commercial advertised diapers for women with incontinence.

“How about those cigarettes?” she said.

“Oh, I rolled one for you.” He held it out. She gingerly unfurled herself back to standing. John rolled a second cigarette and they watched another crime show in silence, as if maybe they’d had a fight. Betsy hoped he wouldn’t remember anything and that tomorrow she’d still believe she’d done the right thing, putting survival before a few hours of ill-advised pleasure.

 

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