Betty’s Blue Christmas-Exit 150A
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“Need cash fast? Visit Vinton Pawn and Gift.” The green corduroy Lazy Boy thumped upright and Betty pushed her wrinkled feet deep into his pair of well-worn slippers. It’d been twelve months since Frank’s death and his recliner had become the main cat bed now, as Toby, the hairless old Beagle, could no longer make the jump. She could be back from the cellar in two minutes if she started now. A slight breeze came though the warped front door by her ankles as she trudged to the basement door, unlocked the night latch and reached out and pulled a long string cord. The ancient bulb, coated in dust, illuminated the uneven cement deep staircase that led into the blackness.of the basement. It wasn’t a place she often went, as when she used to make pickles and preserves- he’d be the one to take them down for her. It was the place where Toby’s bitch had her pups, and Frank had carried them upstairs in towels for Betty to warm by the kitchen stove. It was the place for all the season’s decorations: Halloween witches, snowmen, pink Easter eggs, and Thanksgiving cornucopias. It was where Frank built his workbench. There was an ancient ringer washer down there, and various museum quality vacuum cleaners- none of which worked. There was even a root cellar built into the wall with a small latching door.
The three-story farmhouse was built in 1886- that’s what was penned on a basement beam, anyway. The wiring was only somewhat frayed with age, in a condition to cause prayer, but it usually worked, although the outlets did not fit the newer appliances. The family that had lived there before Frank and Betty had five children, and throughout the rambling farmhouse, indications of their existence lived on in pencil-marked measurings of their growth, chalk scribblings in the attic, and occasionally the small toy found embedded in the garden along with various buried pets.
If the commercials lasted two minutes, she could possibly be back from the basement by then…..She found herself bribing herself to go down. The thought of mildew and mice crunching wasn’t pleasant. She flinched as spindly whiskers rubbed the back of her calves- Dutch- the sixteen-year-old tabby. He stared up at her with hazy eyes, surprised to see her at the basement door. He’d only known Frank to go down there and seemed to give the look, “What are you doing?”
The Christmas box was in the far corner of the basement- she remembered that- under the deepest part of the stairwell. She descended slowly, bracing herself against the damp walls as there was no railing, common in old homes, and the stairs were inappropriately narrow, as people of the 19th century had smaller feet, or perhaps, were more dexterous. The crunch of a desiccated mouse under her slipper was only mildly disturbing. She’d gutted chickens and collected live fishing bait with Frank back in the day. Things that were dead didn’t bother her so much- it was the things that could still move.
But she disliked knowing what she’d have to pass on the way to get the Christmas box: his many unfinished projects, knick knacks, tools and equipment, all of which had at one point or another, been a part of their lives together. The stairs were crooked toward the bottom, and slimier since the flood of ’86. They still had a mildew coating. She could slip on those stairs and crack her skull quite easily, in fact. The thought crossed her mind. At the base of the stairs, Betty reached out toward another light pull she knew was there, because she’d watched Frank disappear down those stairs so many times, counted them, and waited for the “snip” sound of his pulling the cord. Then, he’d turn the cord and disappear, usually humming some Buddy Holly song.
The workbench still had cobwebs. Frank wasn’t bothered by them. He said to her, “just let the spiders alone to do their work. This is their place.” She had tried to explain to him that cobwebs were filthy, and that if she didn’t like them, she shouldn’t come down. Gerber Baby Food jars held nuts, bolts, and screws, keys from the children’s roller skates; not their own children of course, as they’d had none- but neighboring children who’d come to skate in Frank’s cement floor dairy barn. Up and down they’d sped- dizzying the milk cows during Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d even been in the dairy barn. It needed to come down, but there was no good reason as it wasn’t hurting anything where it stubbornly sat rotting, boldly leaning to the left against the traffic of Highway 81, as if in defiance of a new era that couldn’t appreciate her integrity.
The Christmas box was still under the stairwell, right next to the spare mower parts. She recognized it because it said “Chiquita Bananas” and had a sexy Cuban lady holding a bunch. Betty jammed her hands in her pockets and tip-toed by the workbench and the half-done birdhouse he’d been working on. The deepest part of the stairwell was full of pickets and chicken fencing. Two crowbars leaned against the wall by the bulging, worn boxes. The sides were limp and tired, like loose skin, and the seams gave way as she tugged on them. With her foot, she edged them out and realized they might not be able to withstand another trek upstairs.
However, it wasn’t necessary that she bring up all the lights and decorations. She hadn’t bothered with a tree this year-she’d just have to fuss about taking it down again and hauling it out to the woods. Frank usually brought one home from what was leftover Christmas Eve at the Home Depot ( he’d worked part-time in the last years.) Betty decided it only necessary to hang a few lights (to prevent the neighbors from thinking she had died or was in some deep state of depression and the animals were starving.)
She kept the shades drawn so if one of them did come to deliver some plate of cookies, she wouldn’t be obliged to answer the door and go through all the “you shouldn’t haves…” and “how sweet of you’s, and “bless your hearts.” It wasn’t that she didn’t like people, that she didn’t care, but the thought that they did anything out of obligation toward her made her want to grit her teeth. She could hear them now:
“Oh, mommy, don’t make us go over to that old lady’s house! She’s creepy!” Or,
“The old coot should be in a nursing home anyway.”
She dug in the box for a stray length of lights, and found instead a clump of tangled cords dotted with broken bulbs. Good old Frank. As she vigorously pulled on the clump, other various Christmas accoutrements fell from the moist boxes. “Shit.” She whispered, as if someone might be nearby, and dragged the clump trailing behind her up the cellar stairs and into the tv room. There, she plopped down in the easy chair. It was then she remembered one of the lights was still on in the basement. “Shit.” The cat in Frank’s chair stretched briefly in response, extending his toenails.
At the next commercial, she would make another sojourn. It was late out now- time for Conan O’ Brian. The sky was like a sheet of wet tar, with intermittent twinkling stars. Last year at this time, Frank was snoring beside her, toes pointed sideways in the Lazy Boy, and she had to poke at him to get him to wake up and come upstairs. He’d said, “Whadaya want now?” Sometimes on Christmas Eve they’d have a celebratory mug of eggnog- just one little pint from the 7-Eleven split between them, because they didn’t drink. Their Christmas gifts to each other were always practical: a new pair of pajamas, long underwear, a pound of Whitman’s chocolates, a new tv remote. (There were probably three or four irretrievably lost in the couch.) She made sure the cats always received a packet of catnip or a plastic bouncy ball (although the dog liked to eat those.) There were only three of them now- all veteran barn mousers except for Peewee- the kitten they’d found by the K & W Cafeteria.
The accident should have been more of a surprise, but 81 was known as an unforgiving necessity of living in southwest Virginia-narrow roads, black ice, limited shoulders, too many trucks. It happened two days before Thanksgiving. He’d gone for gas and cigarettes, merged onto the highway, as he had several millions of times, expecting a furniture truck to let him in. The driver probably didn’t even realize he’d hit him. It was at that moment Buster, Frank’s “personal cat,” as he called him, began pacing and hissing as though he had tapeworms, and then at five p.m., an officer knocked at the door. “Mrs. Waldrop?” A sudden dizziness caused her to become unbalanced and she instinctively knew. “I thought I heard sirens….” She said, and grabbed her mouth as if to keep the experience inside where it couldn’t become real.
“I’m afraid Frank’s had an accident,” he spoke softly, taking her hand and squeezing it with his other. “His truck went off the road and flipped. It happened very quickly. Is there anyone you’d like to call?”
“Yeah, yeah- goddamn 81. Where is he?” she asked, as if going to reprimand him. She started to pull on her wool coat.
“They’re taking him to a facility at Daleville until arrangements….”
“Let’s go”…, she continued, as if going to pick up a misbehaving child at school or a lost dog.
“There’s really no rush….”
“No, I need to see him…ask him if he got the coffee…,” she trailed off.
“Bad credit? No credit? We can help!” blurted the commercial. Outside there were no Christmas lights, no indication whatsoever that it was two days before Christmas Eve. The cold, stiff globule of tangled electric lights still lay miserably on the floor, where Peewee pawed at them. The light in the basement showed faintly through the bottom of the warped door. She could perhaps simply let it burn out on its own. No, that would never do. She’d never sleep knowing she was wasting electricity. “Is it time to have that talk with your doctor- you know- THAT talk….”
Irritated, Betty returned to the cellar door and repeated the descent. It was the light over his workbench she’d left on, and she felt angrier by the moment to have to go down there, but even angrier with herself for having fear. The light seemed to mock her, and she thought about ripping it from the socket. The stairs were clammy and the cold reached through her slippers to her anklebones. She reached for the light pull and noticed something behind the stack of appliance manuals stacked on top of the bench- a bottle of some sort. She stood on her tiptoes and looked, without reaching for it. It was definitely a bottle of whiskey; Southern Comfort as a matter of fact. It was open and was three-quarters full. But hadn’t they sworn off drinking years ago? “Making a bird house my ass…” She carefully reached behind the manuals so as not to touch any spider webs and retrieved the bottle. There was very little dust on it. Peewee had joined her now and curled his tail with interest as if sensing some new game to play. “Might as well take this upstairs,” she told the cat. “Might be good in a spare rib sauce….”
Betty reached around the couch for the remote and found it warm, underneath Toby. Peewee jumped in her lap and stood on her chest, obscuring the view of the television. The purring increased and it bit her nose amorously. Unable to see the screen, she looked outside where a scant fluttering of snow had begun. There was an endless infomercial for the “Snuggi” wearable blanket. Pulling the cat from her chest, she struggled out of the chair and followed by three cats, went to the kitchen and took down a packet of catnip from the top of the refrigerator where she hid presents. “You get it without wrapping paper this year,” she mumbled.
The cats lolled about on the kitchen floor, and her eyes set upon the Southern Comfort bottle. It was the 100 proof variety. “That explains a few things…, she said, remembering his trips to the basement before mowing in quite variable patterns, their five acres of unoccupied pasture. They used to drink and smoke L & M cigarettes together when they were dating. They stole liquor from his father’s hiding place in the barn and swigged it around bonfires. Many a fire had been fueled by cases of empty beer. Most of their drinking friends were dead now, or too sick to remember the “good ‘ol days.”
It wasn’t until Betty found out about his drinking at the Moose Lodge with that waitress, Shirley something-or-another, that they agreed to stop. She was substantially grateful he hadn’t found out about her boozy fling with the park ranger.
She’d given the whiskey tumblers away for the church yard sale, and for a moment the thought of not using a glass at all entered her mind. She turned on the sink to rinse the bottle, immersed it in the rusty warm water, and watched the liquid inside glow. The blue veins in her wrists and hands were pretty against her thin white skin. Then, she wiped down the bottle with her robe and looked out at the forested night land behind their pasture. The snow was beginning to stick now and the birds would be looking for seed tomorrow.
She unscrewed the bottle and breathed the aroma of the liquor. It filled her nose, chest, and brain, like the sound of a familiar voice in a crowded room. A juice glass, not too big. She poured in the first two inches of golden fluid. The cats had finished rolling in their nip and were contentedly licking off residue from their paws. The refrigerator hummed contentedly. Betty sipped, drank, and refilled her glass. Her throat and tongue felt numb and her ears began to buzz. She hadn’t had a drink in 26 years, except the vanilla extract when his mother-in-law visited….
She returned to the den in time to hear the last of the special offer for the “Snuggi, switched around for stations, but only having rabbit ears, the choices were slim: America’s Funniest Videos, This Old House, The Walton’s Christmas Special, The Grinch who Stole Christmas.” The whiskey was beginning to take effect and almost anything became suddenly interesting. “The following is a commercial for the History of Rock n’ Roll- an exclusive offer not found in any store….”
“Well, hell, we’ve got all those records!”
She filled her glass half-full again and called Peewee. The basement looked different now- it seemed to glow, to throb with an ethereal luminosity. She ran her hands lovingly over the thick surface of his workbench, decoupaged with all sundry types of hammer hits, cuts, burns, and penciled calculations. Frank’s Craftsman screwdriver set was still lined up by size, and hung on the pegboard, ready for use on any size job. The birdhouse wasn’t that awful- he’d already drawn a circle for the entrance hole in pencil, albeit, it was off-centered. The roof was roughly nailed on, not sanded. “What a fuss,” she thought, “when you can pick up a new one for $6.99 at Walmart. If her memory served her correctly, what she wanted was also under the stairwell. Strangely no longer afraid of the dense, fabric- like webs, she reached for the box of LP’s. It was heavy, but she could manage it with the alcohol buzz.
The monolithic Hi-Fi had been their first purchased as a couple. It had a lovely mahogany finish and gold colored knobs. She wondered if it still worked after all these years- the last time it’d been on was to listen to the news President Kennedy’s death. Gently, she removed an assortment of figurines and whatnots off the top, slid open the cover, and turned it on. Gradually, the tube fuses became warm and hummed. The turntable spun, and she pricked her finger against the needle to remove and dust.
By now the dog had waddled in to inspect the commotion. The cats watched warily from the den as Betty placed the first record on the turntable. “Elvis: Gold. Volume One.” She picked up the needle and placed it in the groove of the third song, “You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone.” Betty turned up the base and undid her terrycloth robe. The wide-planked oak throbbed comfortably, giving way to the beat. It ran through her feet and up her ankles. The old glass panes in the front window shook with the vibrations. The red light from the tubes cast shadows against the back wall, and Betty turned off all but one light and began to dance. “Treat me like a fool… treat me mean and cruel…. Buh uh uh love me….”
Those songs, those rhythms and harmonies, were as much a part of her and as very real as Frank. They had lived their lives through those songs, and whether or not she wanted them there, didn’t matter. They’d made love to those songs, planted the garden with those songs, taken long drives to the lake and fished with those songs on the radio. They were woven into everything they shared, both glorious and painful.
She hated him for leaving her. She hated having breakfast alone. Going to Kroger alone- she missed his bitching. She missed the way the dog hid his shoes when he kicked them off and the way the cats lay on his stomach while he watched tv. She missed his tomato plants in the spring- the way he’d raise them from his own seeds. She missed the way he sang in the shower. Where was he!? Why did he go without her? Why couldn’t she have gone to get the damn coffee with him? Why’d she have to be alone for Christmas? Betty reached for the glass. She moved the needle on the stereo to “Blue Christmas,” and pretended she was dancing with him, a blank space between her chest and her enveloping arms. For the first time in many months, Betty cried. The tears weren’t cold like they were at the funeral- this time they were hot, and burned her cheeks. Even her teeth hurt. She tripped and fell, curled into a ball, and kept crying.
She played the song ten times before deciding to open the drapes. It was still snowing and there was a ring around the moon. As she danced, she closed her eyes and pretended she felt his hands around her waist, and imagined the smell of his jacket, of the naugahyde, the L&M’s, summer night air whisking though the windows of his car and of course Elvis. Always the music.
As she danced, mostly falling down, to Jailhouse Rock, and started laughing Frank had always said she couldn’t dance worth a lick. Betty took the wad of lights and began to untangle them. She actually found enough bulbs in the hardware drawer to replace the broken ones, and finally strung them over the faded front draperies in a way so that the lights showed inside the house rather than to the outside. They reminded her of the colors on the juke box flashing at the Tiki Bar. She took the needle off and placed it on song six: ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” She took a scarf from the front closet and pretended to do a strip tease for him. She began to remove her robe in a teasing way, imagining he was there, like on “Ghost Whisperer.” Toby looked at her strangely, the cats had grown bored and wandered off.
At the end of the record, the song began to skip. She lay on the sculpted, pet-haired carpet and stared at the lights in the draperies. The dog exhaled deeply. It was hard to get up and harder to find her way to the Hi-Fi. She shut it off with her palm and stumbled upstairs, leaving her robe on the floor. The scurry of animals accompanied her. Scarcely able to navigate into the bedroom, she dove into her bed with one mighty thrust.
She went to sleep listening to the roar of 81 and watching the snow shuffle in all directions. The room sun like a kaleidoscope and the drone of infomercials continued downstairs and just before sleep, she was able to convince herself that he might be back that night.
In the morning, the animals were arranged on her bed, except for Toby who couldn’t make it up. He slept across her slippers. For the first time since Frank had died (except for her three-minute) showers, she was completely naked. If felt wonderful and cold at the same time. Today she’d buy eggnog- not a pint, but a whole quart.