The Last Stand Of Ms. Betty J. Washington
Published in The American
Betty Washington moved into Vida Luna’s apartment in the inhospitable month of January, when everybody she knew felt too cooped up to tolerate a guest, and the shelters all had bugs. The last time she’d found herself with nowhere to go in the middle of winter had been bitter indeed. Trudging around the Rockaways, damning herself for having left her good coat behind (though who could blame her for forgetting, with all that carrying on, her daughter crying and yelling so you’d think she was a child?) and looking for a subway until she wondered whether she should just walk right into the ocean. She still regretted the loss of that coat.
“Sometimes it’s hard in life,” Vida said with sympathy, relieving Betty of a hundred and twenty dollars in cash. The radio was playing You Are Everything and Everything is You, the falsetto voices like a soothing syrup. Betty eased herself into a chair at Vida’s kitchen table. Her bones felt too soft, or something.
She lifted a package of frozen chicken from out of her purse. “Lady standing in front of those Gowanus Houses,” she told Vida by way of explanation. Conversation was increasingly high on the list of activities that took more energy than they were worth.
She nudged the frostbitten package toward Vida. The lady in question, stationed beside a picnic cooler, had pertly inquired if Betty was interested in free chicken. Well, Betty knew what that was about: a van was parked right there with Light of the World Ministry written on it. She accepted that chicken and kept right on walking.
Now Vida was eyeing it with greed. “I make the best arroz con pollo you ever had. The secret is Rice-a-Roni. For rent, you’ll pay me by the week,” she added, supplying the answer to a question Betty had forgotten to ask.
The radiators sputtered, suffusing the air with heat. It made Betty want to cozy up in a blanket, burrowing into her newfound joy. For after a lifetime of prosecution and soured prospects, she had, most wondrously, found happiness: a rich warm mist that lay just beyond what had, until lately, been the limit of how much she could drink in a day. She was three-quarters of the way to it already; and as soon as this get-to-know-you rigmarole was over with, she’d go the rest of the way.
Vida lit a cigarette and said, “I’ll tell you one thing about myself. I’m what they call a people person.”
“I just want some peace and quiet,” Betty replied, closing her eyes for emphasis. It was very relaxing and she hated to have to open them again.
“Whatever you want, Betty. It’s my nature to take care of everybody. Isn’t that right, Gracie!” This was addressed to a terrier that had been sniffing at Betty’s shoes. The sweater it wore did not cover the naked pink flesh on its back and tail. With effort Vida bent to scoop it up. “And you’re going to be taking care of me too, Betty, because I’ll tell you the truth: I hate to be alone. When you answered my ad I said, praise God!”
Betty hoped she hadn’t moved in with a bible-thumper. Now Vida was pursing her lips to receive Gracie’s ardent tongue. Perceiving an opportunity to change the subject, Betty felt around in a clump of recollections. “Ex-husband, had a little dog,” she offered. “Name was Chi-chi.”
Vida cackled. “Oh, I have something I call my chi-chi,” she hooted. “You and me are going to get along. But Betty, listen, this is important.”
She stumped around the kitchen, waving the cigarette expressively. “...Are you paying attention, Betty? The landlord claims I can’t have anybody living with me, even though that’s illegal. Plain illegal. Are you listening?”
“Mm-hmm.” In truth Betty had drifted into a memory, faint as a doorbell in a distant room: an impression of her ex-husband, of grits and bacon on a yellow plate, and his aftershave. Lord, the way that man was always in her business. Talking to her family behind her back!
“I know how to live my own life, thank you,” Betty told the frozen chicken. Its drumsticks canted up at her impertinently.
“Betty! I’m talking to you. Querida, are you drunk? Listen, Betty, you have to be as quiet as a mouse so the landlord doesn’t notice you. Don’t talk to the neighbors! Can you do that?”
Betty nodded solemnly, feeling her eyeballs float up and down like bubbles in a spirit level. “Nobody is going to know I am here at all.”
At first it seemed as mellow a scene as Betty had hoped for. Vida, in a red negligee the size of a sofa slipcover, would make the morning coffee and fry a mess of eggs, feeding half of them to Gracie. Then she would produce a bag of weed and they would all start the day with a nice little lift.
But although she only ever left the apartment on Sundays for church, Vida had an unsettling abundance of energy from which chatter flowed in an endless stream. If she was not weighing aloud whether or not to make an online purchase, she was narrating the action of a television show. She was always either arguing on the telephone, or rehearsing an argument she would later have on the telephone. To delivery boys, she spoke in giggly Spanish.
Spanish was good, Betty observed from the sofa. She was snugged into an afghan while Vida’s voice burbled from the kitchen, talking on the phone to one of her people in Puerto Rico. It was like, what did you call it? A babbling brook.
Unbidden, Vida set a plate before her: half an English muffin with a lump of butter mashed into its center. Betty’s mouth watered. Generally speaking there wasn’t much left to her appetite, but that toast looked just fine. Vida made kissing noises into the phone before hanging up, and set to brushing the mats out of Gracie’s fur.
“When I think about the girl who lived with me before, Betty…you wouldn’t believe. That bitch made all kinds of crazy accusations! Good thing we have Betty with us now, right, Gracie? Isn’t that right, girl? We like good people.”
With contentment Betty chewed her English muffin. It was nearly uncooked, a buttery dough dumpling.
Released from Vida’s clasp, the dog chuffed the carpet for crumbs. You’d think from the way Vida carried on, Gracie was the moon and stars, but because going up or down the staircase made Vida gasp and whimper and yell out prayers, she never took Gracie outside. The leash hung by the door unused, even though anyone with a speck of sense knew dogs shouldn’t be doing their business in the house.
“Betty, are you deaf? Why don’t you get the door,” Vida cried.
Betty was watching furls of snow blowing against the windowpane. From her mug of tea, whiskey-scented steam rose in shimmering coils.
Her roommate bustled past to open the door, proving, as she frequently did, Betty’s great wisdom in having failed to move a muscle. She went out onto the landing and came back panting, with her hair coming out of its bun. “That lazy no-good landlord just accused me of throwing garbage out of the window. Can you believe it?”
Betty took a noncommittal sip of tea. Vida’s loud talk was smashing her peace all up.
“Listen to me, listen, I was so mad, I was about to shove my cane up that motherfucker’s ass. Even if somebody was going to drop a bag down there, it’s going to fall right next to the cans anyway. Hey, mami, it’s Friday, you owe me a hundred-twenty.”
Betty sucked her teeth. “Profanity,” she remarked, and shuffled off to find her cash.
From the kitchen Vida yelled, “You left the burner on again, Betty. Yes, you did! I told you, I’m watching out for you, but you have to listen to me.”
In her room, Betty was having trouble finding her money. She had let herself go a little in the organization department. Used to be, she kept things neat as a pin. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” she told her reflection; her reflection nodded back.
“This is not the full amount, Betty,” complained Vida. “And I’ll tell you something, you’re hardly paying anything to live here. Because I’m giving you so much more than you can imagine.”
Betty felt like a nocturnal animal that Vida was purposefully blinding with a big flashlight. She just wanted to sit down and eat Saltine crackers from the paper sleeve they came in; but here was Vida, not budging. “It was all there this morning,” she assured her.
“I have news for you, Betty. You don’t notice how much you spend on booze. Anybody that’s got eyes could see.”
Betty frowned. “I have hardly any time left to live,” she told her. “My organs aren’t right.”
Vida softened. “Aiy, sweetheart, that’s terrible. What’d the doctor tell you?”
“My organs,” Betty repeated firmly. “Liver and pancreas and so forth and so on. All swollen up and ready to go any time.” In truth, this had not been a diagnosis so much as a lecture on probable scenarios; but the notion of being a person whose death was nigh made Betty feel as though she brandished a scepter.
That doctor! She had never been spoken to so rudely in all her life, and that was saying something. Sinking deeper into the sofa Betty muttered, “You don’t talk that way to your elders. Wash your mouth with soap.”
“Well, don’t you worry. I’m a wonderful nurse, that’s one of the main things about me.”
“I left my cup in the other room,” Betty said meaningfully.
But now Vida was pecking at the keyboard of her laptop. “What you need is a good man to take care of you. Don’t you ever go online to get a date? They’ll give you presents, money, anything. Oh yeah, honey, I love my candy men! All of ‘em!”
Betty sat up as straight as she could, given the couch cushions. “You are making a mistake about the kind of person that I am,” she informed Vida.
Vida did not look up. On the lenses of her reading glasses were illuminated, oily whorls. “Now, Betty,” she reproached, “what you’re thinking, that isn’t dignified. We’re dignified people, we don’t have that kind of trashy attitude.
“Look at these stupid motherfuckers,” she crowed, scrolling down a page. “Yeah, papi, you think you’re God’s gift because your cock is like a donkey — so you say. My last husband, may he rest in peace, he was nine inches. Sometimes when he’d put it in I’d scream a little, because my chi-chi is kind of shallow, you know?”
Betty, who had escaped to the kitchen to stab open a box of wine, shouted, “I am a dying woman.”
“You told me that already, Betty, but you’re not listening. I’m an excellent matchmaker, but you’re not going to find a rich man looking like that. I’m sorry, but some things it’s good to know.”
“Excuse me,” Betty began, and paused to formulate a rebuttal. Admittedly her face looked bumpy; and the whites of her eyes were wrong. “I don’t need any candyman,” she concluded.
“Earth to Betty! You got a job? No. You got a husband? No. Savings? No. So let me help you get a boyfriend.” Vida had abandoned the dating profiles and was toggling between three shopping sites. “Keep your eye on that black negligee,” she advised. “There’s an annual sale. Make an effort! Then we’ll be like two great big gorgeous sexy sisters! But maybe we got different daddies, though, right?” At this she laughed so uproariously that she began to cough.
“A person in my condition needs rest,” Betty reproved; but Vida, having seized on the image of Betty as a diamond in the rough, produced a sticky basket crammed with half-used beauty products. Once Vida was on one of her kicks it was easier to ride it out than to resist, and shortly Betty had her feet in Vida’s lap while her roommate kneaded Jergens’ Lotion into her cracked heels and knuckles. To keep it interesting, Vida described some exciting fistfights she had instigated. “You know how it is when you’re pregnant,” she said. “Your hormones go crazy and you just have to punch somebody!”
With a sudden tingling sensation Betty saw herself setting the mobile to spin above Clarice’s crib; but as Vida’s hands slithered around on her hands, the image fuzzed over and then winked out, leaving her free to relax and pretend she was at a spa where rich white ladies went to get cucumber slices put on their eyelids. Her mind afloat, a refracting soap bubble. Getting babied, that’s what they called it.
Her thoughts drifted around. There was her father in his suit and tie, shouting from the pulpit. Her childhood slouched by with a hangdog air and a sense-memory of braids bound too tightly. A recollection intruded of visiting Clarice in the foster home. That caseworker with the pinchy face, who refused to understand a single word Betty said yet demanded that Betty listen to her never-ending judgments.
She dismissed that whole sorry business with a regal shake of her head. For later in life had come triumph after triumph over every kind of fool and liar.
The next morning Betty found her roommate pacing the kitchen and sucking furiously at a cigarette.
“Betty, listen to me. That sonofabitch landlord. He keeps saying I’m not paying the rent. What is he, crazy? That maricon, I’m telling you — one of these days I’m going to kick his scarecrow ass from here to Kingdom Come.”
“Quit fussing. I’ll make us some coffee.”
“Shut up, Betty. You shut up. Your coffee’s no good, I already made us coffee.” Vida turned her back and began cracking eggs into a pan. “Listen to me, Betty. I care about you like a sister, so I’m going to find you a rich boyfriend right away. Betty, listen, I’m going to tell you a story. My honeymoon was spent in Haiti. This was my second husband I’m talking about. We got all rattan furniture for our wedding registry, because I love rattan.”
Gracie was prancing with anticipation for her breakfast. “I’m from a very good family, you know. His mother begged me to marry him,” Vida continued. “On her knees.”
With concentration, Betty was applying margarine to a slice of bread. “Baloney,” she pronounced.
“Baloney? What, you mean, like, cold cuts baloney?”
“Baloney,” Betty repeated definitively; but she couldn’t recall what they had been talking about.
“Baloney. Now there’s something I haven’t eaten in ages,” mused Vida. “Not in ages. But Betty, I’m telling you about my honeymoon. It was in Haiti and I got in so many altercations with men with guns, men with machetes — you know? But God always protects me. Even from men with big weapons — ooh, that sounds sexy!”
“That’s not sexy, that’s vulgar.”
Vida laughed. “I love vul-ga-ri-ty,” she trilled.
“You’re a vulgar woman,” Betty said, retreating to the sofa. “A vulgar woman.”
The apartment on Butler Street was turning out to be not that great of a place. This thought fully crystallized in Betty’s mind the next day while she was at the corner store, waiting to pay for a fifth of Wild Turkey. It was nice that Vida cared, but she was too much; and the way she spoiled her dog rotten made Betty sick. The crooning endearments, the goofy pink barrette.
While the shopkeeper counted out her money, she reviewed options that she’d already scrapped. All she could think of was the wreath of artificial ivy on Clarice’s front door, and the doormat with “Welcome” on it. Some welcome!
Outside, a feral kitten was eating from a pile of kibble on the sidewalk. “Maybe you shouldn’t have let me borrow your precious car, meant so much to you,” Betty advised the kitten. Nobody even answered that number in the Rockaways any more.
When she returned that afternoon, toting what remained of the whiskey and an order of fried plantains that the whipping wind had only partly cooled, Vida’s face was peering anxiously over the third-floor bannister. “The lady downstairs saw you, Betty,” she called. “She asked who you are. Why don’t you listen when I tell you, be quiet!”
Betty swayed at the foot of the staircase. “According to you, I ought to walk around like I’m ashamed of myself. Don’t do anything, Betty! Be like an itty-bitty mouse, Betty! Don’t want the landlord to know about me? Hunh! I’m going to go see him right now.”
“Betty, don’t you do anything.”
“You find that man and let’s get acquainted,” Betty demanded. “I am wearing my best housecoat.”
“Aiy yi yi, Betty, come upstairs! You’re acting crazy, you vieja loca borracha de mierda. Anyway it’s rent day, you better come up and pay me.”
A raw draft whistled under the door. Betty, head held high, went upstairs to fulfill her obligation.
However, she was significantly short of cash. What with this and that, she’d let her budget get away from her. An issue to be addressed; but for now she could not think of what to say about it.
“Okay Betty, listen — it’s no problem. Rodrigo’s coming over tonight, he’s the one who gave me the pretty red nightgown? So now I’ll tell him to bring a friend. Okay? I’m watching out for you! So go put on some real clothes. And put on some cologne, that Jean Nate from the drug store.”
“All right. But no funny business.”
“Nothing’s funny! You’re so paranoid all the time. Why don’t you do something positive in this world, and make us something to eat.”
Betty lost track of time while cooking some rice and beans, which was too bad, but when she opened the window to let out the smoke, the cheerful sounds of laughter and bass-thudding car stereos floated up to her. The dirty slush was melting off the sidewalks, and the people in the neighborhood who got government checks were out having a good time. Gracie milled expectantly at her feet, ears cocked. “Don’t get too excited,” Betty told her. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Rodrigo showed up wearing a cowboy hat and bearing a bag of weed so scanty it was close to insulting. He had brought his brother, a barrel-chested man of perhaps forty who was dangling a bottle of tequila by the neck. They came in calling hearty greetings, stomping the salt off their boots. That mess fell right onto the kitchen floor, Betty noted; but Vida received them with enthusiasm, and shook potato chips into a bowl.
The brother, whose name Betty did not catch, fooled with the radio until it played Latin pop. He was a hefty man, with rolls on his neck, but not bad-looking. Rodrigo salsa-danced with a suggestive grin and Vida, blowing marijuana smoke in his face, waggled her tremendous rear end to general hilarity.
“Come on, Betty,” cried Vida, “Get into it. Have a good time for once!”
Betty had a drink and a toke to be sociable, before the noise drove her into the bathroom to comb out her wig for the night.
But Vida followed on her heels, barging right in. “I’m serious, Betty, you ought to be nice to that guy,” she said quietly. “He has a real job, licensed contractor.” She came up close and gave Betty a conspiratorial nudge. “Listen to me, try it, you might like it!”
“Get off me,” Betty said sharply. Being cornered reminded her acutely of being punished to the coat closet, sitting in the damn dark all day, that nasty smell of pent-up shoes. “And I don’t care for your meaning,” she told Vida. “Not one bit.”
Vida’s tone changed. “Hey, mami, if you have the rent already, do what you want,” she shrugged. “I’m just saying, it would be terrible if you couldn’t afford to stay with me any more.”
Betty stood with her head down like a bull about to charge and waited for Vida to go away. At length Vida sighed, “I’ll tell you something, you’re not a very good hostess,” and left the bathroom.
Betty emerged to discover that the tequila, the weed, and Rodrigo had vanished into Vida’s bedroom with Vida. The brother was crouching on the kitchen floor, petting Gracie while she chewed at the rash on her tail.
Betty felt dazed at the implications. Did Vida really expect she could...pimp her out? It was beyond denigrating, it was insane. Still, the sense that her roommate might lunge back out at her was jangling her nerves.
She did a stately about-face, and unearthed a bottle from its hiding place under the bathroom sink. She was so unsettled that for a few seconds it was as though she fell asleep standing up; she snapped out of it to find herself pouring a generous few fingers of whiskey into the toothbrush glass. Then the importance of being seen to entertain the man swam into focus, so she bore the drink into the kitchen.
He held it up uncertainly, squinting at the guano streaks of Colgate on the glass, and gulped it down. Betty perceived that he had a courteous nature. “Won’t you sit somewhere comfortable,” she invited, leading him into the living room.
As he sat beside her on the couch — too close! — she fumbled Vida’s computer onto her lap. Its impenetrable weight was immediately comforting, a protective lead apron. Gracie panted and yawned at her feet.
“Your mama should have fed you by now,” Betty chided the dog.
“So, Betty, where’re your people from?”
“Queens,” Betty said shortly, clicking on a site she loved to visit. “Done with them, anyhow. I could pass any day now. Not that they care.”
He chuckled uneasily, looking over her shoulder at the screen. She was scrolling through her favorite catalogue items.
“Unh, unh, unh. He thinks it’s funny that a woman is dying. Now tell me: there’s this one” — she zoomed in on a gleaming casket with opulent pink satin innards — “and this one. They’re the same price.” Click, click: the same casket with a lining of ivory-white.
Betty turned to him. “Now: which one is the very most elegant? In your opinion.”
He cleared his throat. “Eh, the pink?”
“Well, that’s a Puerto Rican for you,” Betty muttered. She was in that mood where she got a nearly physical sensation of wanting to jab something.
The man straightened up. “Ah, I beg your pardon, ma’am? First of all, I’m from the D.R.”
Betty snorted, and clicked on a selection of tufted casket pillows. Probably pillows. It was hard to see unless she squinted out of the bottoms of her eyes.
His face worked, flooding with color. “You know what: I didn’t come over here for a fuckin’ funeral,” he said at last. He stood up so abruptly that Gracie yelped with surprise.
The door slammed after him, and Betty went to go hang up her blouse.
“Talk to me,” she huffed. Well, she hadn’t told him to leave, so Vida could take a flying leap. And oh, how good it felt to be in bed, as she sank into a dense luxurious oblivion.
When she woke up, Vida had only made enough coffee for herself, and was drinking it at the kitchen table, speaking rapidly on the phone in Spanish, which for once Betty wished she could understand. Vida hung up and gave her a look.
“You still owe me for the week, Betty.”
This checked her path to the coffee pot as sharply as a truncheon and she felt her blood pressure spike. What kind of person said a thing like that first thing in the morning? “‘Don’t worry, Betty, I’m taking care of you, Betty,’” scoffed Betty.
“I do take care of you. But if you don’t pay your share, how am I supposed to pay the landlord? Make sense already.”
Every kind of sick feeling overwhelmed Betty and she knew that if she didn’t find something to settle her nerves right away she would be passing through the Pearly Gates in a minute. “Going out,” she announced, scrabbling for her wallet and keys.
“In your slippers? Aiy, yi yi. Listen, as soon as you’re back, you’re paying up. Otherwise I’m going to have to kick you out and get a new roommate, I’m not kidding.”
Luckily for Betty, the Twilite Lounge opened early on Saturdays, and it was there that she stayed until five o’clock that evening.
When she returned, much fortified, there was a man stooped over a broom in the foyer, sweeping at muddy shoeprints. His black hair showed neat pomaded comb marks. He turned slowly as though he were on a hinge, and pointed the dustpan at her. “Who are you?”
Betty lifted her chin. “My name is Ms. Betty Washington. I live upstairs in Number Three.”
Abandoning his task, the man gripped her arm. When she recoiled, he tightened her grasp and she instinctively went very still.
“That lady! She don’t pay rent since August, not one cent! I been in housing court five months try’na get rid of her! She got no lease, she ain’t supposed to be in there at all! A 400-pound cockroach, that’s what she is! I run a nice building, no trouble — and she wants to bring me this shit. You tell her: March thirtieth, state marshals gonna be dragging her ass out and changing the locks — that’s right!”
Releasing her at last, he stormed out; the flimsy door shook in its frame. Betty, rubbing her arm, heard his footfalls clumping down the block.
No rent? No rent?
“Nothing but a witchity, old, fat-ass LIAR,” she said. There was a rattle as somebody in Apartment One cast the chain lock across their door.
With determination she climbed up the stairs, even though the risers were going up and down like the keys of a player piano. Rodrigo passed her on his way out, winking and touching the brim of his cowboy hat.
“I heard a big commotion,” Vida said, ushering her inside. The apartment stank of skunkweed. “Betty, why do you want to make trouble? I keep telling you, you have to be quiet!”
Betty walked right past Vida the liar. “Pretend to be a person’s friend,” she said. This cold wave of clarity washed her across the undulating carpet to her bedroom, where she began to pack up her personal effects. Clarice was a cold fish, God knew, and did not always treat her with respect, but at least she was didn’t run around shooting her mouth off.
She wrapped her wig in tissue paper while Vida watched with bloodshot eyes from the doorway. “Just had a conversation with the landlord. Very edifying,” she told Vida.
Vida turned away, flounced onto the couch. “You shouldn’t have done that. This is your whole problem, Betty! You don’t listen.”
Betty marched past her to the front door, and set down her bags. “Just because you talk doesn’t mean I have to pay you any mind.”
“Betty, you’re drunk,” called Vida from the living room. “Come sit down and listen to me a minute. Betty.”
“Now she realizes,” said Betty. “Begging me.” Gracie was dancing around her with agitation, toenails clicking on the linoleum. The front door was crosshatched with scratches, marks of her fruitless pleas to be let out of the house.
“Oh yeah, she loves you all right,” Betty told the dog. “She’s just too damn lazy to do a thing for you. That’s what you call a hypocrite.”
From the living room Vida’s voice was indignant. “Hypocrite! After everything I’ve done for you!”
Betty took the leash from its hook, snapped it onto the dog’s collar, and picked up her bags. Then it was like she and Gracie rode a cloud to the corner of Butler and Bond, it went that fast and floaty at the same time.
A window opened above her, and Vida’s shrieking curses followed them down all the way to Baltic Street. Let her holler and carry on! It would take her twenty minutes to get down those stairs.
The mild March evening had given way to a chilly mist, and people on the street had resumed their wintertime briskness of pace. An ambulance, lights flashing silently, bumped past on its way toward the projects.
Betty paused to fumble in her purse for her subway card and then went on, Gracie trotting at her heels. The ride to the Rockaways would be long, but at least the A Train was only a few blocks away.
Sagely Betty nodded at the dog. “We don’t have to listen to a blessed soul,” she said.