|Sep/Oct 1999 Fiction|
I miss Betty.
Betty knew how to repair cars, hang doors, and finish cement. She enjoyed barroom banter, salacious jokes, and pitching softball. Her father-in-law admired her, too. Virtually incompetent with his hands, he worked with his head. He didn't like to get dirty. She did, happiest when her face and clothes were smudged with axle grease. He'd have a martini at sundown; she'd open a beer. An unlikely pair sitting next to each other on the western deck, watching darkness descend into the Cape's scrub oak and tortured pine.
The incident occurred when she handed me a turkey baster.
During extended family get-togethers for Thanksgiving or Passover, following the meal, Betty and I customarily wound up in the kitchen. Unlike the rest, we'd both come from a working class background and found it less stressful to chat while being occupied with some task. The discussion around the table in the dining room generally concerned itself with politics.
Betty and Allison had been "married" two years, and they'd bought a flaming red Mustang convertible. Betty was rebuilding its engine. She'd become interested in automobile mechanics, having watched her father work on the logging truck he owned. When these two women took the convertible, top down, to soirées in Provincetown, one of them knew more about what made the car go than most men.
So we opened a six pack and did the dishes. She washed. I dried. We swapped bawdy jokes and commiserated about her alcoholic father, my vinous mother, and the Mustang.
"Are the men in your shop taking you seriously yet?" I asked. During the week she worked as a mechanic in a Toyota dealership north of Boston.
"Oh, yes. Once they found out I could tear an engine apart blindfolded, it was no standoff. Also, I can be just as foul-mouthed as any of them. Men. That's all I've known for Chissake. Six brothers and an old man."
"Your mother didn't have a chance?"
"Dragging on her tits. Jesus, she just might as well crawled around on the floor. Like one of those Puerto Rican low-hung street buggies. You dig?"
That's when she handed me the baster.
"Buddy, can we talk?"
"Well, sure, but isn't that what we've been doing?"
"We've been bullshitting like they're doing around the table. I mean real talk."
"It's about making choices."
She grabbed the baster back from me. "Gimme that goddamn thing. I don't want to even think about it." The soap suds dripping off her rugged hands, she closed the kitchen door.
"What is it, Betty?"
"Allison," she said.
Two years earlier family and friends had gathered in the cottage garden alongside Allison's parents' summer Cape home for a "commitment ceremony." The announcements we all received never mentioned the word marriage. Wooden folding chairs were set up under the towering hemlocks, and at the edge of the garden facing away from the ocean stood a makeshift altar draped with a Hermes scarf. A goblet painted gold sat next to a decanter of rose wine, and behind the altar, a woman pastor dressed in white chiffon and white silk heels. Allison's brother's Fender keyboard and amplifier were hooked up to orange cords snaking through the sand. While the assembled awaited the bride and groom to exit the summer house, Jeremiah played arpeggios with the organ button depressed.
Betty's father sported a powder blue tuxedo, the same vintage as the '52 Cadillac he and her mother had driven down from Maine. She was stoically attired in a cotton shirtwaist patterned with forget-me-nots. They sat alongside Allison's parents who were dressed like the university professors they were. When the pastor raised the goblet, Jeremiah laid into the doxology.
I was used to seeing Betty in coveralls and a sweatshirt with a Chicago Bulls logo. The local Mr. Tux shop had outfitted her in its standard number with cummerbund, bow tie and zipper fly. She looked like Harpo Marx exiting the garage. As if they'd been shellacked, her lapels reflected the early afternoon sun. Allison wore a white organza ball gown and held a nosegay of calla lilies. Betty's boutonniere was a lily of the valley sprig.
"Will you take this bride . . . through sickness and in health." From beginning to end, an off-the-shelf service. There was no child ring bearer. At the appointed moment, one of Betty's friends stood and lifted it out of her alligator purse. The lovers sealed the occasion with an impassioned embrace, I thought, and memorialized the occasion by planting a rose of Sharon tree. Betty dug the hole.
Following the ceremony, several of the bridal pair's friends coalesced to offer a toast. Allison's father stood on the edge of their knot and hoisted his goblet of champagne, along with theirs. The toaster bristled. "It's a women's only affair," she sniffed. It was as if an ominous wind gusted in off the Atlantic. Jeremiah ceased doodling "My Foolish Heart."
Betty stepped forward and wrapped her beefy arms about her father-in-law. "If the old man doesn't drink to our happiness, goddamn it, neither do I."
The straights and gays relaxed, and soon downed several liters of champagne in rapid succession. Betty drove the red convertible off to Provincetown with high heels of various shades--and her rented brogues--strung to the back bumper. A bed sheet taped to the trunk announced "Newlyweds."
Allison leaned on the Mustang's do-re-me horn.
Betty waved the turkey baster in front of me like a baton. "Allison wants to have a baby, Buddy."
"Oh, Jesus," I said.
"My sentiments, exactly. I'm too old to be a parent. I don't particularly take to kids. Had to put up with enough from my brothers. Cleaning their diapers and watching after them. I love Allison. Christ knows I do. I stopped beating the path to the bars once we got serious. We do wonderful things together. We're good in bed. We're damn kind to each other. Jesus, we're just about to take a trip to Nevada to visit all the casinos in Las Vegas. We'll have a hell of a time, and I don't want to have to begin worrying about some goddamn shit machine."
She was drumming the baster on the Formica table.
After fathering several children of my own, I felt worn out, too.
"It sounds heartless of me, don't it, Buddy?"
"Oh, Jesus, no," I said.
"Look at my mother. What's left of her?"
"You can't talk Allison out of it?"
"She's the bride, right? Picking out nursery wallpaper, for Chrissake. I come home from the shop covered with gunk and grit, looking like my old man after a day in the woods, and she's sitting at the kitchen table with the pattern books. 'Do you like the one with calliopes, Betty?' Me, I just want to take off my shoes, eat meat, mashed potatoes n' gravy, and read the newspaper."
We both laughed.
"Funny isn't it?"
"But I understand," I said.
"I've got no choice."
"You mean to have the baby?"
"It's only natural."
"How do you do that?"
"We've been doing some checking."
"The sperm thing. There are agencies, you know?"
"This is all new territory for me, Betty."
"Like the wallpaper, the bassinet and the crib . . . Allison's researched that, too."
"It ain't working out the way we want it to."
"I mean it ain't my man oil, you dig?"
"I get that part. So?"
"Where do we get it, and how can we be sure?"
"You mean the shooter?"
"Yeah," she said.
"I've read where some gay men contribute their sperm to lesbians who want to conceive."
Betty shook her head disdainfully.
"Why?" I said.
I wasn't getting it.
"Allison has the kid by, say, Harry Potter's seed. It's all antiseptic and politically correct in the beginning. Little Jennifer arrives, and she is a darling. Allison's ecstatic, her whole family's ecstatic . . . and, bingo, so is Harry Potter. He's got rights, too. No damn way, Buddy. We don't want any man staking a claim to our kid."
"So that's out."
"What are your other options?"
"They give you this catalog. Air-brushed photographs with the vital statistics of willing male donors. How well each one did on his SATs, if he plays the trumpet, any inherited diseases, and his IQ--if he has any." She shrugged unenthusiastically.
"What's the catch?"
"They're all fucking five-foot-eight, balding, and in med school."
The noise at the dining room table had turned raucous.
"We went through the catalog twice. I was more interested in the wall paper."
"I don't even know how the process is done," I said.
"Simple." She wielded the baster before my face.
"You're shitting me."
Betty shoved it into the turkey's carcass, squeezed the yellow bulb. "Now we wait."
"And if it doesn't take?"
"Go on the gizm trail once again. And..." Again she thrust it into the carcass. "You men are so lucky."
I could taste her bitterness. We walked back to the now cold and scummy sink water to finish up. It was quiet for the first few pans. There was prolonged laughter in the dining room, about what we weren't certain. Soon the home baked pies would be set out. Allison's father would be calling for dessert any minute.
"What is it?"
"You're educated, and that's important to Allison. But you're real people, too, which is damn important to me. I don't want any kid of mine not to have some sludge in its veins. It needn't be alcohol like my old man or your old lady's got running through theirs, but I want her to know what it feels like when she's lying under a chasis and a damn oil pan begins raining across her pretty white face; it ain't cow piss, Buddy. But it ain't dirt, either."
She was becoming lachrymose.
"Allison's never had to worry where her next dollar was coming from. She ain't had to consider how she might have to take something that didn't belong to her so her brothers could eat."
A flush of red had begun to rise up her neckline.
"I don't give a shit if our kid grows up to listen to Bach or Mozart, or plays the piano like Liberace--screw all that. But it's important to Allison that our kid be educated and not ignorant like his..." she hesitated. "Like whoever the fuck I am."
She had more to say.
"Does Allison sleep with me because I'm uncultivated? Because I got graphite moons under my fingernails? Because my tits perspire gasoline when we're wrapped around each other in bed? I sure as hell ain't like those people sitting in the next room. You ain't either, Buddy."
Betty was tapping the turkey baster against her temple.
"Buddy, we want you to be its father."
Strange how we had reached this fork in the road. I mean humanity's. The complex irony so convoluted it would never be satisfactorily unscrambled. In my mind flashed pictures of Betty standing in that cheap tuxedo looking blissfully happy that day. Now burdened with the problems of parenthood. Me, the husband of Allison's stepsister, and father many times over.
"Are you asking me to dance, Betty?"
"Allison and me. You're bright like her, dumb like me, and since you got nearly a half-dozen under your belt, you're too damn tired to want to take ours to the ball game or play tea. Whadaya say, Buddy?"
"I've had a vasectomy."