This is me: one out of billions, not destitute, never married, not well traveled, a fan for music, like those long drawling symphonies, church songs, blind men on the piano, all that beautiful misery. My name is Bettina Clark. I live in the same city as you, in a boarding house, in the room on the top floor where a maid would sleep a hundred years ago. People always ask me where I come from: I come from a small town outside of a big one. Now I’m a person who resides mostly in what effect I can have on people’s misery. It’s a fine existence, even though I have no friends. My one true hobby is placing personal adds in newspapers put out in the countryside.
Yesterday there was a story in the news. It was a horrible story about an accident. A young woman, a crawling baby, a halfway house for the wretched. I can’t get it out of my mind. Right now it is too horrible. The objects involved are too garish. This young mother was only eighteen years old. I care because I live for horror. It’s the only thing that ties me to people. Otherwise I am completely alone.
My room is quiet and has a small window to the street. There is a narrow worn path across the floor, and the ceiling comes slanting down to one corner. There isn’t much room for monkey business. There are grooves in the wall, which is made of green-painted slats of wood. I think the grooves in the wall go along with where the mop and broom handles bumped against when that old maid slammed the door. A day doesn’t go by I don’t picture her rages. The room still smells like sweat and soap. Little treasured trinkets, darned stockings. Every day I thank the Lord.
I thank the Lord for the subtle fire in my groin, and for all the gross adventures of my imagination. When I was twelve I bent over in front of my elementary school gym teacher and he put one heavy open hand on one side of my spine, and another hand on the other side. “Bettina,” he said, and traced that gristly, calloused thumb bump to bump along my scoliosised vertebrae. When I am wrecked with age, I’ll have the humpback. You have to have something to succumb to. Because of it, I never hold a single grudge. It’s the give and take of life, I guess.
Another story in the news: a stranger from another city threw himself in front of the subway and survived. Pinned and severed, he lay on his back and spoke to the emergency medical technician. He moved his head like a dying dog. “It doesn’t hurt,” he said. There are some people on this earth, I swear. Any one you pass on the street just might be an angel, you have no idea.
I work in an office and by now I have earned a window and a shorter walk to the bathroom. My doctor says my little problems are worsening. I don’t like to swallow pills. My employer is a drunk with a pair of spoiled twin-looking children. “Strong genes,” he says, “are the backbone of our great society.” His name is Frank Marotta. When he hands me something to type or mail, he likes to hover next to my desk and spit into my hair. “Bettina,” he says, “Don’t you want to quit this? I still pay you seven dollars an hour.”
“Nothing doing, Frank,” I say. Poverty is one way to heaven, doesn’t everybody know that? But what Frank doesn’t know can’t hurt him. Every day I do my part to sabotage his operation. He’s too drunk to notice, and the guy who keeps the books is a drunk too. They go for long cheap Chinese lunches and come back stinking of gin and let it out in the ladies’ toilet, hiding it from one another. Which brings me back to the horrible news from yesterday about the young mother and her dead baby. It’s all just too much to do any more than just mention it right now. I have a fragile, grotesque grasp on current events.
Where does all this put me in the world? I ask myself daily.
Today is Sunday. I don’t have a kitchen. Just this dead maid’s room and a key to the toilet. But I have a little porcelain sink next to my bed, and if the others are out in the hall late at night, I just go in there. Whenever I pass one of the young men tenants on the stairs they do the same thing: rub up close and push their hot breath into my ear.
“What gives, lady?”
Don’t they know I’m old enough to be their mothers?
This morning I woke up and had the same thought I have every morning: who am I and what am I doing here? Then I remember my one greatest joy and it is that I generally expect the worst from people. I keep my purse beneath my pillow because those young men on the stairs and in the hallway like to snoop. If I’m not careful to lock up on my trip to the toilet, I can be sure to find one of them sitting on my bed or pawing through my small chest of drawers. I paw through their things too when they are using the phone downstairs. Human beings are curious animals. And we all want to be found out.
I wish the worst for people because I think every man, woman and child ought to be humble and fight the good fight. And I’m a terrible liar too. But I do it in the kindest way.
Here’s an example: while waiting for a bus, I might chat up an old man or lady. We talk about the change in the weather, and I’ll say, “It will rain today, no question. . . . Don’t you read the papers?” And they believe me. I’m no great beauty full of mystery or anything: why would I lie? But just think of their great relief when the sun keeps shining all day long! They might never appreciate such a gift as a sunny afternoon. We have got to be grateful for what we have.
At some point in history, someone said something I think is very stupid and other people keep repeating it over and over again.
“When God gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
I really can’t think of what this means. If God gives you a lemon, why can’t you just be satisfied with a lemon? And if you aren’t satisfied with the lemon, why not bury the lemon in the ground and practice some patience. One day you might have a tree—tall and slim with silvery smooth bark. You could admire the look of the tree. You could lie on the cool ground in the shade of this tree and gaze up at the sky and think how lucky you are to have these pretty lemon tree leaves pitter-pattering their moonshaped shadows across your face. And if you were very patient and a little lucky, your tree might bear fruit. Maybe then you could think of lemonade. Maybe if you had a thirsty guest who had traveled a great distance in the dust down the treeless road just to see you, you could use a few of the lemons for his lemonade. Maybe he came to wish you a happy birthday. If God gave you a friend, would you squeeze the life out of your friend and throw the rest of him away just to quench your own thirst a little? It’s not very forward thinking.
Occasionally I lose track of time and lean my ear against the door of my dead maid’s room and listen to the young men talking. They have those big burly voices that carry through walls. They’re like the men you see in movies: tall and their faces perfectly match their personalities, and each of them only slightly differs from the next. Sometimes all I listen for are the curse words. I like it when they say, “Fuck!” and call each other “Bastards!” It really makes me curious. Sometimes when they stop me on the stairs I say the words back to them. Like “Fuck you bastard!” but I do it in the same hot whispery voice they use on me with their thighs pressed up against me on the stairs. I don’t know where they get the nerve but I try to play along. I see no point in making enemies in the home.
My mother and father were deaf and stupid. When I was a child they acted like everything they did was a favor to me. The bread was always moldy and when they put on the radio it boomed and kept me up at night. For deaf people they really liked music. It always killed me how much time they spent together with their secret codes. They wrote me a few notes after I moved out and that was it. I’ve been living here for seven years. Some nights I come home from work and plan to do some awful things, but I rarely have the wherewithal to carry them out. I like it when bad things happen to people, but I’d rather stay out of it. Sometimes just planning to do something awful is enough of an awful thing to do. This is not to say I haven’t tried. I have tried several times to do something so awful I can hardly mention it here. But if you are sitting there thinking, “This lady is so awful,” or “This lady’s marbles have been whacked a bit too hard by impatient children,” I’d like to remind you of how much my heart went out to the young mother and her drowned baby in the halfway house. Remember how disturbed I was and what a point I made in addressing what a tragedy this has been, especially considering the mother’s youth and the graphic, stinky details. So I hope you bite your tongue after you open your mouth to damn me.
If you step on my foot in the hallway or on the stairs, you can be sure that the sweet angel in me will save you from being turned over the banister to tumble to your certainly crunchy death on the foyer floor. So just thank your lucky stars.
Sometimes your lucky stars appear to you not like stars at all but glossy plastic buttons on a lady’s coat or two little freckles on a child’s knee. Or sometimes your lucky stars are two tweaky roaches crawling out of the drain when you are standing there naked. You never know. Sometimes I stay late in the office and go through the bookkeeper’s ledger. I have a very good pencil with a perfect eraser at the end of it. I just go through it and make small changes. I make sure to change the important sums and figures which he’s done up on his greasy calculator. And I add a line or two to the letters he or my boss asks me to type up and drop in the mailbox on my way home. I might write something like, “Cut the shit, Charlie. We all know you’re desperate as hell.” Or when it’s a letter to a lady, “Barbara, baby, everyone knows your silly husband goes with little boys.” When I answer the phones, I put on a special voice, the voice of a secretary with lots of secrets. I like to put people on hold and then just sit there breathing into the phone. When Frank’s wife calls, I never give Frank the message. I think the phone is an odd element in our civilization. It’s hard to tell the lies.
And this brings me to my most beneficial pastime. I keep a jar of dimes under my bed and every Sunday I take two pocketfuls and get on a city bus with my purse tight in the crook of my elbow. I take the bus to a bad part of town where there are no public libraries or pharmacies, just dirty movie houses, corner stores that keep all their inventory behind bulletproof glass, liquor stores with blinking pink and yellow neon signs, an elevated railroad for cargo trains, a dark coffeeshop full of sleeping bums and drunkard women, old men with faces as wrinkled as the brown paper bags they keep their bottles in, the fetid, stimulating smell of shit.
I have a little ivory-handled handgun that I keep in my purse along with a wad of twenty-dollar bills rolled into a flesh-colored nylon sock. I wear my sunglasses and an unfashionable suit. People take me for a church-lady or social worker, I guess. I don’t get many concerned looks. When I get off the bus I hold my purse in the crack of my armpit. Sometimes I buy a newspaper and hold that against my chest like a worried woman. Nobody pays me any attention.
Next I go into the coffeeshop and sit at a table in the corner from which I can see out the greasy, dull windows on to the street. I also have a good view of the counter. I can see who walks in, what they do, where they choose to sit, and how they address the waitress who is a portly older woman in a smock with poorly managed graying hair. It is on these trips which I thank God for my crooked spine. Being invisible as I am to these people, it’s nice to have a little secret evil snarled inside, just to smarten up my attitude. Some people are shy and can easily fade into the background. Not me, though. I’m always looking for that fine line.
When the graying waitress comes by, I order breakfast for two.
“One high stack of pancakes, one cheese omelette, grits, two boiled eggs, ham, one oatmeal, and french fries.”
She writes it down and brings the coffees. She doesn’t ask if I’m expecting anyone to join me, just sets out an extra pile of napkins. I listen to her yell my order to the cook through the hole in the wall behind the counter. I watch to see who turns around. Usually no one is eating, just drinking coffee and maybe having a donut. Inevitably someone will spill something or break a glass. Nobody cares. The next person to walk by will just kick the broken glass to one side. Most people here are too dumbed down by life to make much effort, to harness the power of their minds. I think it goes without saying that these people are all lowlifes, down on their luck since birth and not making any steps towards a brighter future. I like to see their slumped necks and dirty collars. The women are like maimed dogs: quick to jump and full of nicks and looking for someone to lick their open sores. A few men throw them angry glances and then remember themselves and try to beat the dust off their pantlegs with an old hat, grunt like cows. Or they return their sad head to the crook of their arm set up on the counter. You’d think they should be weeping but these people do not weep. They just sit around. They do not talk animatedly or disturb the air much when they move. They drink and spit and get up to use the toilet. They go outside to throw dice or get sick in the garbage can. They motion for the waitress and nod and sneer at her. They look for something to wipe their hands on. The smoke from their cigarettes looks like the wavy lines people draw to 16 mean a stinky smell. Sometimes I open the paper and read the Sunday funnies while I wait for the food. When it arrives, I let it sit there and wait for someone to come over to beg.
I will tell you something: I like to believe in things, but I don’t like phrasing them the way other people do. I tell you this because it’s just now occurred to me. At first I wanted to tell you, “I believe that patience is a virtue.” But when I heard the words sound themselves out in my mind, they sounded so stupid. It incenses me when things sound stupid. I really do believe in virtues, and I believe patience is a good one of them. But a person just really shouldn’t repeat stupid phrases. Really a person should never repeat any few words put together by another person who has used those words in that way before. When you copy words you are really saying to the world, “I am simply too dumb to think this out on my own,” and “I am a person who would rather be accepted than be understood.” It takes patience, and a bit of imagination to put your words together correctly.
So when I sit and wait for a bum to come and beg at that coffeeshop table, I am exercising the most difficult virtue of them all. I am waiting for pride to break down. Think of how much that bum must hate me. He hates me. And because he hates me, he will beg of me. This is how it works. Nobody dares stoop to someone they love. While I’m waiting, I reach into my purse and finger the glossy ivory handle of my gun. I do it to complete the situation. If there were not a weapon involved such as this one, I’d just be a desperate woman.
I know the young men in the halls at home think I am a desperate woman. It’s the same game with them. They beg of me too because they know I am a woman neglectful of marriage. They know I was never beautiful or had a father who bought me pretty things. They push up against me on the stairs and catch my hair in their mouths while they lean into my ear. I keep a rigid neck and grit my teeth. I think of Moses parting the seas. I think I could do it if I really put my mind to it.
I had a baby once. It came out like a monster and sat breathing like a huffing furless goat in its glass cage. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. As far as I know it is being cared for by a thankful pair of human beings somewhere in this city. It seems ridiculous, I know.
You see, I’ve always had a trouble when it comes time to trust. If there were someone I could trust in this world, let it be someone in this shit-stink diner, let it be that young man—the runaway, the whore—who will break out of the din and ask if he may join me.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he might say.
“Good morning, young man,” I’ll say.
He motions to the empty seat with what is in his hand—a sweaty handkerchief, a battered hat, a soiled newspaper. It is at this time I see he is a good actor. He grins shyly, now holding his hands together humbly in front of him. He does the slightest shuffle of his feet. When he lifts his eyes they are kind, bulging, hungry, appeasing eyes. I decide to look him up and down and squint just to see what he thinks about that. He doesn’t mind. I nod at the empty orange booth across from me. He does an awkward, manly move and scoots in.
“I don’t cook,” I tell him. “I’m not that kind of woman.”
“Mmm hmm,” he turns his head mechanically to the window, thinking of words.
The plates of food sit and steam. Someone at the counter yells something in his direction.
“Help yourself,” I tell him.
While we are eating, I set my fork down on the table and pull out my gun. Nobody notices. It’s just a little game, just to see.
I could have some expansive thoughts while this boy tries to eat like a civilized person in front of me. Bits of food get caught in his spotty beard. His lips are glistening with the grease in the soft sunlight. His silence paints over the situation and it is easier to ignore everything else around and focus more on the evenness of his jaw working, the delicate skin around his eyes, a soft down of blond hairs picked up by the sun. His eyes are a honey brown. I want to kidnap him. I think about walking out on the street with him and hailing a taxi. I imagine leaning back against the warm leather seat and giving directions to the driver. The boy would be nervous and excited. Or maybe he would be all business as usual and roll down the window to spit. Maybe I would hold the gun on him. If he refused to come with me, I would pay him a dime every ten minutes. Every five minutes if he looked forlorn. We would go to the art museum. In the hallway with pewter and bronze relics from early America, I would point at what I like and make him look at it. The reflections of our faces in the curved and polished silver cups and pots and plaques would twist and swirl us into a kind of two-toned monster, symmetrical and complete. In the high-ceilinged galleries of portraits, we would stand absorbed together, staring up into the eyes of dead kings and queens: men and women who sat for hours, days, weeks, years maybe, just so that their faces would show up somewhere in the world.
Back in the maid’s room, I put on the radio and let the music do to me what it will do. I think of myself as a great oriental carpet in an elegant banquet hall, and I crawl around it, and trace every pattern, designs like dreams spreading infinitely, on and on.
Knock knock knock.
Three times means someone is on the phone for me.
“Long distance,” says the booming voice of the boy in the hall.
It’s not what you think: a long-lost twin, my drunk boss, a police officer, a distant relation announcing a death, my child, nothing like that. The payphone in the hall is strangely sterile, an ugly mauve color with hardened little buttons. Next to the phone, a legal pad is stuck on the wall with a hanging ballpoint pen to keep track of the bills.
“I’m calling in answer to your ad,” says the man on the phone. “I have a daughter and a dog.”
“Tell me more,” I say.
When we pull up to the small wooden house in the forest, the dog is smaller than I imagined. Just a little raggish gray thing that skulks around the porch and does not come when I put my hand out.
The daughter is well-groomed and sets the plates carefully on the table.
“My girl likes to draw, don’t you honey?” says the man.
If I feel like letting you in on any privacy about this man, I say to you that at his finest moments, he’s just as adaptable to tragedy as to triumph, and that he looks away when I do my nasties.
After dinner the daughter spreads out her drawings. And there it is, the crystal clear vision of youth. The curling yellowed paper, the lines delicate and perturbed, each self-portrait truer than the last. And she keeps them coming. “This is me, and this is me, and this is me again.” Announcing all the silvery sketches, each with that same brilliant phrase: “This is me!” The father sweats luminously across the table.
“I do one every day,” says the daughter, her uncharacteristic big gripping hands smoothing over the edges, moving over the world she knows with a certainty that makes me want to weep. She puts one of these hands on my shoulder absentmindedly.
“If I do one a day, by the time I die I’ll have thousands,” she says. “And then I’ll hang them up in a line and walk past them while I’m really sick and dying. And so the last thing I’ll see before I die is the picture I drew of myself when I’m dead.”
“Everyone has a few great ideas,” she says restfully.
And then she says to me, “What do you do? What is your great idea?”