by Joel Howard
Lizzie was a girl constantly dodging abuse, so she scoffed when some well-meaning adult asked her about dreams. But though she would never admit to it, Lizzie at times managed the smallest of them. It was such infrequent mental doodling that served as a life preserver among the treacherous currents of her upbringing.
As her great-aunt had once noted, filling Lizzie’s head with dreams was “like lying to her, building up her hopes for nothin’. What’s to be gained by asking a horse what it’s like to fly among the clouds? Waste of time, that’s what it is.”
Today, at 52 years of tumult and sadness, she’s called Betty. In a fit of grandiosity her mother had named her Elizabeth Taylor. Now, the name of gilded Hollywood and star-riddled hope squatted like an albatross on Betty’s potato sack life, where around every curve of her ample body was found the sagging of despair. Hers is a life that has gone as her mothers had, existing of hours of hard work, with joy so scant as to often be immeasurable. An outsider, someone not of her life, of her particular milieu, would say she should just pick herself up and leave, get the hell out of her situation and create (as if by magic) a better one. While that might seem the ideal, it’s a premise that is not just superficial, but simplistic to the point of flippant disregard. For Betty, any such change would necessitate money, friends, and family, all of which were few, and what existed of those three was scattered as surely as autumn leaves in a gust of chilled wind.
Betty and Al were more adversarial roommates than husband and wife. In their seven years together, packed hard into a small, frame home filled with enough items to crowd a house twice the size, they yet managed to find room for their stagnant mounds of emotional offal. Betty lived a life of ragged, hair-trigger emotions, a woman always knowing the other shoe will soon fall – and fall hard. Al, morose and uncaring, managed better, as he had a well-honed talent of either ignoring those around him, or insulting them so that they hurried to leave him in peace. Al’s past had bested Betty by one, being able to claim three ex-wives to her two exes, and along the divorce-strewn road, he’d better crafted the ability to either disengage or make a sport of arguing.
“Al, turn that damned thing down! I can’t concentrate on my book.” Betty was in the early pages of a romance novel, having stationed herself at a hard-backed dining room chair. Her preferred chair, a recliner with a vibrating mode and integrated cupholders, sat in the living room, positioned next to Al’s, directly in front of the one window, a place of good natural light and offering Betty a perfect view of their neighbors’ comings and goings. Around the corner from where she then sat, the football game seemingly hurled itself from the television, echoing across her thoughts. The large flat screen and its accompanying stand and speaker system stood as a shrine to pixels and plastic. It seemed at times the room’s knickknacks and trinkets jittered in unison with the vibration of the pounding plays and piercing whistles.
She remained momentarily silent, her gaze focused on the profile of her husband, her facial expression giving evidence of a simmering disgust. An ongoing ticker tape of Al’s failings continued in her thoughts, his aversion to touching her chief among them, and his impotence an ongoing failure that she felt spoke to his deeper, even visceral, dislike of his wife.
Again, she called out, “Turn that thing down!” Her head hurt, the aching deep behind her eyes a condition that afflicted her sporadically over most of her adult life. She often wondered if she might have a tumor of some kind, it having grown so immense as to push the insides of her skull to near fracturing, then forcing its dark presence into the depths of her soul.
“Go to another room if you don’t like the noise. My Saints is playin’.” His eyes remained riveted to the screen, his head pitched forward on his thin neck, while his right hand moved in a repetitive motion as he conveyor-belted popcorn to his mouth. A can of beer sat in the holder situated in the left armrest. Over his shoulder, he added, “Them stupid, sappy books you read are all the same crap anyways.” Then, in a comical falsetto, he continued, ‘Oh, my dearest love, I feel your hardness down there, please take me here, take me now’ bullshit. I’m not going anywhere, so you best go someplace else if you ain’t happy.”
“Whadda you know ‘bout hardness, anyhow? Take a pack of pills and a prayer answered to get you hard” She scoffed and let her gaze drift. “’Sides, this was my house before it was yours.” To the air and walls she spoke her mind.
There was nowhere else for Betty to go. The three postage stamp bedrooms were sized as to be like Russian nesting dolls, each a bit tinier than the next. They stood overfilled with just having a bed and dresser and a nightstand, leaving no room for a chair. As for sitting on the porch, the dank chill of an unusually cold Louisiana October day hung steady. Al was aware of the difficulty his advice posed, yet he couldn’t concern himself with such things, especially when there’d just been an interception by the opposing team. He continued feeding himself, bits of popcorn occasionally falling to the carpet, like flakes of dandruff littering someone’s shoulder. It carried Betty’s thoughts to the winter it snowed almost an entire inch, when her second husband Curtis built the saddest little snowman she’d ever laid eyes on, looking like the counterpart to Charlie Brown’s forever pathetic Christmas tree.
With a voluminous heave, Betty stood, pausing to catch her breath before reaching down to dogear page twelve before closing her book. “He’s right about one thing,” she thought. “These romance books are all pretty much alike. But I like ‘em anyways. They ain’t the here and now of things, and that’s a goddamn good thing of itself.” She toddled down the short hallway to a closet, retrieving a canister vacuum and its various attachments. Returning to the living room in a heavy sigh, she and the vacuum were soon both humming, the beater attachment flaying hard against the carpet. In tidying up, Betty found a small measure of calm, and in the resultant cleanliness she found some solace.
Al offered no protest to the noise, staying in his recliner and gulping a long swig of beer, small rivulets running from his bottom lip to his unshaven chin. Occasionally, he swiped the back of either hand across his jaw line. The game had given way to a commercial break, and, having hit the mute button, Al offered his help, prefaced by an extended, phlegmy belch. “Hey, there’s some popcorn right here on the floor.” He made no effort to move other than using his right hand to wave toward the bits of popcorn littered around him. A bit of beer sloshed from the can as he directed her.
Betty steered the vacuum toward the offending bits of popcorn, the powerful appliance snatching the pieces up like an aardvark feasting upon an ant hill. She banged up against the side of the recliner, eliciting a smirk and a second, resonant belch from husband number three. She backed the beater up and rammed his chair again. Over and over, back and forth – bam, bam, bam – she rammed his chair. Al’s response was to restore the volume, opting for the din of commercials over any possible discussion with his wife.
The vacuum had been a gift on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary, which came with advice in lieu of a flowery card. “They say it’ll make housekeepin’ easier, especia’ly for anyone up in years or a bit heavy. You sure ring the bell on both of them counts.”
For that same occasion, having fallen into a rare moment of romantic sway, Betty had gotten Al a fishing reel he’d had his eye on for some time. She’d put it on layaway nine months earlier, slowly paying it off in secret, using money from her part-time job at the dry cleaners. Al had used their joint VISA card to buy the vacuum, almost six hundred dollars, a sum they were still paying on via minimum monthly payments.
“He’s no better than the first two,” she mumbled, morose at the continued realization she’d managed to marry the same man three times over. “Every one of ‘em a lazy bag of useless. A dog’d be better than any one of ‘em. A hunnerd times better. And at least a dog’d have some manners.”
Betty stood down from her assault on the recliner, redeploying her rage and laying siege to the television. Positioned directly in Al’s line of vision, she now slammed the beater against the lower edges of the tee-vee stand. Al ran the volume up to its highest level, the crescendo of vacuum and an athletic wear commercial ricocheting against the hard walls of marital regrets. Finally, sensing his wife hadn’t any inclination to stop, he slammed the recliner’s footrest down and hoisted himself from the chair. Finding the cord, he yanked hard, slaying the bleating appliance with one shot. Returning to his chair, he slightly lowered the volume of the game, then reclined the seatback.
“You bonkers or what? Stupid woman. Game’s come back on.” His menacing glare served to further entrench his wife’s anger, his stubbled jowls and yellowed teeth serving notice of a future dreary and fatigued.
“Plug it back in.” She stepped toward Al. “I said: Plug. It. Back. In. Curtis, I damned well mean it.” She continued toward her husband, face set in grim determination, the beater now held crossways across her body. Al fell into uncontrollable laughter, collapsing back into his chair, pounding the armrests with his fists as he roared in amusement. Beer sloshed its way onto the armrest.
“What? You so lost that you’re calling me by your dead husband’s name. I ain’t Curtis. He died, remember, fell from a ladder? Prolly happy to be gone. Prolly jumped off that ladder, smilin’ as he said so long to your mountain of crazy. I swear to God, you’re insane. ‘Sides, whatcha gonna do, put me on a ladder and hope I jump, too?”
She paused to reflect on the prospect of life without a husband, a quiet life, one of solitude to be had anytime, and solely at her discretion. She wondered what kind of dog she’d get. The idea of no more blaring television, no belching of stale beer and spicy nachos. A dream of life without suffering condescension from a man who claimed as his sole financial contribution a small disability allowance for a badly healed ankle fracture, leaving Betty as the breadwinner.
“One pittance plus another pittance just adds up to deeper kind of poor,” she’d often said, hoping to cajole Al into finding at least a part-time job. To which he invariably replied, “if it weren’t for this damned ankle of mine…”
Now though, she fell into mental revelry, thinking of a change that would allow her to read or dance or roll naked on the floor – anytime she wanted. “Hell, the dog won’t mind. And it’ll be a girl dog, too.” Al stared at her, her outburst and far-away grin causing him to shake his head.
She laughed out loud at the scene she’d created in her mind. No more suffering his vile flatulence, what Al called the Scent of Love. Never again his mocking her as he pointed to a woman tall and thin, a woman half her age and possessing a casual beauty so foreign to Betty as to be gibberish. And she would get a cat, too. Why not? Al claimed allergies to all pets, but she felt certain it was simply that he didn’t want her to be happy. Yes, she realized at last, he found joy in her unhappiness. She knew from past relationships that such a thing just worsened over time. The fists that were now shaking at her, the same hands that littered popcorn and commanded the volume so screechingly loud, might soon come to visit her flesh in shades of black and blue. She shook at the memory of past abuses heaped upon her.
Reinserting the plug into the outlet, she called out, “who says my Curtis jumped off that ladder?” She then brought the roaring beast back to life.
As Al again raised the volume to ear-shattering decibels, the smirk on his face was the last thing she saw before raising the beater and slamming it down exactly at the bald spot on the top of his head. The jarring force of impact and the resultant kickback of his skull both surprised and delighted Betty, a warm sense of satisfaction enveloping her, cradling her in a pool of possibilities.
“I’ll name the dog Greta,” she thought, again raising her weapon.
Again and again, she wielded the piece as one would a hatchet, lowering it with a force great enough to split a log, belying both her age and physical condition. The beater bucked and leapt as she continually maneuvered it, serving as a third arm, an appendage of brawn that pulsed with indignation and anger. She felt energized, and as Al slumped to one side she simply adjusted her position and continued with the chore of again becoming a widow. Eventually Al slid from the chair, his face turning upward as a seismic grunt escaped his body. She gave him one last whack, the crack of his nose and left eye socket breaking elicited a grin that spread wide across her dreamy state.
She paused for one deep breath, heaved the beater over her shoulder, and in a final gesture of freedom hurled it at the television, silencing the game. Feeling that she had finally wrested control of her life, an ensuing calm draped itself about the house, providing Betty with a sense of profound peace.
After a short pause, Betty strode to the kitchen and returned with a dishtowel, one of her favorites, depicting a Parisian café scene. Approaching Al, she placed it carefully across his distorted face, further silencing the past seven years. Back in the kitchen, she phoned emergency services, where she reported the incident as an accident.
“My husband, he fell. The ladder, he’s at the bottom of it. Not movin’, not breathin’. Nothin’. Nothin’ at all.” Then, in the same robotic tone, she stated the address before gently replacing the receiver, treating the device as one would a fine piece of crystal.
Looking at the crumpled heap of Al’s body, she spoke in a tiny whisper. “My poor baby. Tsk-tsk, you done asked for it, though. You know you went and asked for it. You men sure ask for it, all of you.”
The police cruiser and ambulance pulled to the curb simultaneously, one from either direction, emergency lights flickering, their bright colors bringing color to the drab neighborhood of cracked paint and broken sidewalks. The two cops headed to the front door first, while the two paramedics, having each retrieved a bag from their rig, followed up behind.
“There’s no answer. Is that a vacuum cleaner I hear in there?” It was the younger cop, who, having banged on the door with the might of a rookie’s bravado, had stopped and turned to his partner.
“Try the knob,” the older cop said, his hand on his holster, belying his expression of sustained boredom. He ran his tongue deliberately across his upper teeth, having sensed a bit of his lunch – barbequed ribs and a buttery baked potato – still there.
Inside, they found Betty, the vacuum wand in her hand. She’d left the beater attachment lying among the shards of teevee screen, and was using the nozzle by itself, poking it around Al’s lifeless body, stabbing at bits of popcorn comingled in his blood. She was also sucking bits off his clothes, before then attacking the corpse, seemingly in an attempt to vacuum away the obscenity of death. Jab, jab, jab, her motions were practiced and steady, as was her breathing.
In maneuvering her to the same chair she’d earlier occupied, the two cops found her to be malleable as putty. She acquiesced to their every movement, looking down at her romance novel as if she’d never before seen it.
The paramedics soon pronounced Al beyond hope and returned to the ambulance. Betty mumbled incoherently at first, unable to explain why she’d mentioned a ladder in her call for help. The cops had looked one to the other, the older one shrugging his shoulders as one who’s seen many oddities in the course of twenty years dealing with the public.
The coroner had been called, in addition to detectives. Betty couldn’t recall the last time she’d had that many people over. She was thankful she’d tidied up before their arrival, and said as much, even offering to get her guests something to drink. Once the body had been removed, she spoke as a woman both buoyant and hospitable.
Having removed Betty to the front porch and seated her on a small bench, a recently arrived policewoman watched over her. Betty continued with mostly unintelligible meanderings, posing questions that she herself then answered, her voice shifting as she did so.
“Ma’am, what happened here?” It was a dapperly dressed detective, having stepped outside and bent down to address Betty as one would a small child. Finding in his blue eyes a refuge of comfort and understanding, she smiled.
“He fell. Simple as that.” She had gone flat, both in voice and expression, as if someone had dialed back her life force. Her gaze was then as a hawk, fixed forward, unflinching, focused upon something on the far horizon.
“Perhaps you could go over the events for us. Maybe start a bit before your husband – he was your husband, right? – okay then, just before your husband ended up on the floor there.”
Finally blinking her eyes, Betty appeared to collect her thoughts, mumbling for a moment before regaining the animation she’d had upon the initial cops’ arrival.
“Floor? No, that’s not how it was. See, Curtis had been puttin’ up the Christmas lights, just like always. Oh, my Curt was a real fan of Christmas. Like a little kid he was, jolly as Santa hisself. I seen him out here and I waved at him as he went on up the ladder. Then I switched on the Hoover. That old thing is loud like you wouldn’t believe.
“Anyways, I get the vacuum cranked up and damn if my Curt doesn’t start yelling about somethin’ or other. He just had to wait ‘til I couldn’t hear him good to holler after me. Always inconsiderate, Curt was, ‘specially when it come to his own wife. So, I shut off the Hoover and head out here to the porch where he’s swearin’ up a storm. He’d lost his ho-ho-ho spirit just ‘cause the lights were tangled up down on the ground here.”
“You mean out here? Today? And his name’s Curtis you said?”
“Why yes, what else would I be meanin’? Anyways, he swore a blue streak at me and I felt my head poundin’, like there was someone hammerin’ away inside my skull. Then I set to tremblin’. Like a sheet of ice swept over me. And then lickety-split, I got all hot real fast like. Like a furnace. Next thing I know, my Curt’s layin’ on the ground at the bottom of the ladder. Right over there.”
Betty pointed to a piece of brown lawn that lay empty save a garden hose left uncoiled, a green snake lolling about in hopes of the sun appearing. There was no ladder to be seen, nor any Christmas lights.
“You should ask my Al. Maybe he saw what happened, or at least heard it. Is he still in there in front of his teevee? Always watchin’ his shows and sports, but he had to have seen or heard somethin’. Man’s as useless as pockets on panties, but his hearin’s all right. ”
The detective sighed, finally standing from his crouched position in front of Betty. “Okay then. Maybe you can come with us and explain it in detail.” He looked over to the older cop, who simply shrugged before using a fingernail to dislodge a final piece of barbeque rib stuck between his teeth. He then put that same finger up to his temple and made circular motions, mouthing “Cuckoo”, before asking of the detective, “Ever been to Isaac’s Ribs and More over on Crenshaw? Now they know how to do ribs right.”
As they led Betty to the patrol car, she spoke of her childhood, reveling in a dreamed existence of forty years past, never once loosening her grip on a broad smile. Her words were laden with hope, as if days long gone could be reinvented to suit her dreams, and as if this was an existence she’d spent years formulating, placing every detail with the finest accuracy. Money and travel figured prominently in her ramblings, as did a loving husband. Those very wishes she’d learned to pack away so early in life were emerging again, this time in an attempt to greet the struggling light of the chilly fall day. Her birth name, Elizabeth Taylor, seemed now to hold for her the promise her mother wished at first breath.
As they neared the jail, she spoke from the back seat, in a velvety soft voice, each syllable delicate, as she detailed a romantic life that never was, and surely would never be. She’d put an eraser to the past she so loathed, leaving it as mere smudges of graphite and grief.
“I’ll be happy, ‘cause I’ll have everything I want, everything I need. Love and devotion will be with me every single day. And I’ll love him back, and be true to him always.” On she went, her words as a luxurious scarf being wrapped around a delicate and pure version of herself. She hummed then, her body vibrating on the strength of her dream. But then, in a voice that devolved into one rife with menace, she spoke again, addressing the back of the two heads.
“I ever tell you ‘bout my first husband? His name was Earl. We were sweethearts from the ninth grade, got married when we was seventeen. Boy, was he a looker. And the women – ooh, hoo, they sure loved him. It was his getting caught lovin’ the ladies back that was the end of him. I ain’t gonna be done that way, don’t care if you’s Elvis Presley hisself.”
The silence from the two cops then became her unseen enemy, and she yearned to fill the car with words, anything upon which her dreams could remain float.
“Either one of y’all got a dog? I’m gonna get me one. A cat, too, maybe. Pets help keep your brain healthy. Y’all know that?”
At the behest of the cop’s burning silence, she lay her head to one side, resting it against the cool seat vinyl. Exhausted, fifty-two years of fear and anger seemed at that moment to release themselves from her body, floating as a cloud unseen. Gazing into the world through the side window’s metal grate, she saw upon each of its several bars so many new horizons, all resplendent with fairy tale endings. A high-pitched, girlish laugh, tee-hee, tee-hee, tee-hee, erupted from the hollow where fear and anger had long resided, having entrenched themselves and grown immense like some raging tumor, and cradled herself among the possibilities of a small girl’s persistent dreams.