(Romper Room—Chicago, 1954–1975)
It’s December 1967: the summer of love is over.
Miss Betsy saw footage of it on the evening news—long-haired California boys and girls, naked or nearly naked, smoking grass and wearing pounds of beads. But the summer of love never touched down in Chicago, and it certainly isn’t going to come here now while Miss Betsy stands on the windswept El platform, waiting for the train that seems to get later and later each morning. Her knit cap reaches her eyebrows, and a scarf covers her mouth and dripping nose. Her coral-colored coat goes all the way down to her ankles, and she wears the collar up like a vampire. The cold is so concentrated it’s easy to pretend that the skin is burning instead of freezing, and Miss Betsy sometimes passes the time imagining that she’s standing stock-still in the middle of a house fire while flames lick her flesh.
Miss Betsy is the host of a local children’s show. The show’s purpose is to teach kids appropriate behavior, nice manners, and good hygiene. Kids recognize her on sight. So do mothers. Most men, however, have no idea who she is. The show has had other hosts over the years—Miss Patty, Miss Trixie, Miss Wanda—but Miss Betsy has endured the longest. The key to her success, she believes, is that she flirts with the camera. She smiles and winks, and often she gives sidelong glances from a distance while helping the children with one of their projects. The show’s producer hasn’t told her to stop, so she pushes it a little more each time—but just a bit, never too much. Most likely, the kids who watch her on tv interpret her flirting as a conspiratorial nod, as if she’s saying to them, I’m not your mother, so follow me to the ends of the earth and we’ll have loads of fun together!
In her dressing room, before the show, Miss Betsy sheds layers of wet winter clothes and puts on a pink polyester dress. Claire, the makeup girl, comes in and fixes her hair. When Miss Betsy was growing up in Beloit, Wisconsin, landing prominent roles in high-school productions of The Man Who Came to Dinner and Harvey, she imagined herself becoming the next Katharine Hepburn. She took classes from a vocal coach so that she could learn how to enunciate better. E. Nun. See. Ate. She could often be found wandering the side streets of Beloit, a mathematics textbook balanced on top of her head, practicing sentences like “Stephanie sat six sick simians on the sidewalk” or “What wayward whale waited in Waikiki water while we wiggled?” When little kids stopped her to ask what she was doing, she would keep walking, eyes focused straight ahead, all the while motioning with her fingers for them to scoot. She was going places, and no one was going to stop her—that is, until she met Johnny.
Johnny was three years older than she was but a good two inches shorter. Grease clung to the edges of his fingernails, his mouth tasted like cigarettes, and he used phrases that sounded like swear words but were actually things he’d made up, such as “mother spelunker” or “God slam it!” Johnny usually had an arm slung over Miss Betsy’s shoulder, pulling her snug against him, but when they made love she got the eerie feeling that he was picturing someone else beneath him, maybe one of the pinups from Wink or Beauty Parade or Titter. She knew he owned those kinds of magazines; one day when he went across the street to buy a pack of Lucky Strikes, she looked through a box of old comic books featuring superheroes with names like Steel Sterling and Black Terror, and there at the bottom she found a stack of barely dressed women, one after the other, raven-haired beauties wearing black bikinis, sexy redheads in polka dots. And so while making love, Miss Betsy would think, Look at me, look at me, but when Johnny’s eyes finally came back into focus, he often seemed surprised to find her there. That was 1951; Miss Betsy was sixteen. She told herself that she wasn’t in love with Johnny, and she certainly didn’t envision any kind of future for the two of them together, but neither of these facts mitigated the unexpected malaise that took hold of her when he enlisted in the army and left for Korea.
One afternoon, while taking a nap, Miss Betsy thought she felt the hot tip of a bayonet slip into her belly and spread her guts around, and when she woke up and saw the bed stained with clots of blood, she screamed, so certain was she that someone had sneaked into her room and stabbed her. It was, she learned later, a miscarriage for a pregnancy she never knew about, the clots a baby that was already dead before she had known something inside her had been alive.
When Johnny was killed during the Chinese Counteroffensive—shot, she learned later, through the head—she’d just as soon been told that she herself had only three more months to live. No one could console her. She cried so hard for so many days that she reached a point where she simply couldn’t cry anymore, as if her body’d had a quota of tears and she’d used it up.
Dolores, Miss Betsy’s mother, never liked Johnny, which, in turn, gave her license to pretend that nothing at all had happened to him in Korea. She had her own life to worry about. A once-devout Catholic, she’d recently become fascinated by other belief systems, reading musty books and sweat-wrinkled pamphlets on religions Miss Betsy had heard of, such as Hinduism and Judaism, but also at least one pocket-sized paperback about paganism and another that featured nothing but a pentagram on its cover. Dolores must have understood the dangers of reading them in a town the size of Beloit because she kept them squirreled away in their mud room, hidden behind a pair of mukluks and a box of stiff winter gloves. What if people started thinking she was a heathen? Or worse—a Satan worshipper? Dolores had social obligations in town. For starters, she belonged to the Junior League of Beloit and often hosted luncheons for the other women, serving her famous chicken and tongue sandwiches. When her turn came to host again, only three days after news of Johnny’s death, she didn’t sway from her initial plans.
With all the false good cheer she could muster, Dolores said, “They’re easy to make!” Miss Betsy had walked into the kitchen for a glass of milk and two aspirin; she had no idea what Dolores was talking about. Dolores, who must have sensed Miss Betsy’s confusion, pointed to her meal-in-progress. “You take a pint of boiled tongue and chicken,” she said, “you mince it, and then you put it in the fridge to cool. Once it cools, you add a half cup of melted butter to it, an egg yolk, a little black pepper, a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce, you mix it all up and—voilà!—you’re done. Just spread it over buttered bread before the guests arrive.”
Miss Betsy’s father, a dour man ten years Dolores’s senior, came home each day from the small savings and loan where he served as VP, filled his thermos to the brim with either Singapore Slings or Gin Rickeys, and then headed down into the chilly bowels of their basement to tinker with a Hoosier cabinet he’d bought from an Amish man in Shipshewana, Indiana. Miss Betsy wasn’t sure that her father even knew she’d been dating Johnny, let alone that he was dead. Not just dead, she reminded herself, but killed. Her father moved through their house like a man in purgatory, trapped between life and afterlife, and utterly unsure how he ended up where he did.
All of that was sixteen years ago now—half a lifetime ago.
“Jesus,” Miss Betsy says.
“What?” asks Claire, the makeup girl. “Something wrong?” Their eyes meet in the mirror. Claire looks like she was out most of the night, sleeping somewhere other than where she lived, coming to work wearing whatever she’d had on the night before.
“It’s nothing,” Miss Betsy says.
Later, during the show’s taping, Miss Betsy holds up the Magic Mirror to her face. The Magic Mirror is a handheld mirror frame that’s missing glass so that Miss Betsy can look through it and into the tv camera, pretending to see the kids watching her show from home.
“I see Bobby,” she says, “I see Annie. I see Joey. I see Crystal.”
Each week Miss Betsy receives a bag of mail from kids asking her to say their names, and after each taping Miss Betsy becomes increasingly aware that she’s disappointing far more kids than she’s pleasing. But what can she do? To make matters worse, she never sees Johnny. All the little boys named Johnny who watch her show must wonder why she never sees them, but even now, after all this time, she can’t say his name without tears welling up or her voice catching: grief’s surprise appearance.
* * * *
After today’s taping, Claire sidles up next to Miss Betsy and says, “Want to go to a party tonight?”
Miss Betsy smiles, as if to say, No, that’s not my scene, but Claire writes down the address and hands it to her, anyway.
“All my friends want to meet Miss Betsy,” she says.
“How old are your friends?” Miss Betsy asks. “Five?” She doesn’t mean to sound so nasty, but as soon as she hears the disdain in her voice, she hates herself for it.
“You never know,” Claire says. “You might even have fun.” Claire’s words would have stung except that Claire reaches out and touches Miss Betsy’s arm, then squeezes it.
That night, Miss Betsy takes a cab to the address. She isn’t sure what possesses her—she isn’t the sort who goes to parties—but she can’t stop thinking about Claire. Who is Claire, and why did she invite Miss Betsy to a party? A part of her—the mean-spirited part—thinks it has to do with her celebrity, that the invitation was a bet Claire made with some friends: Get the tv host to come to our party, and we’ll give you ten bucks. But Miss Betsy knows that the sin of pride is making her think such things. This, at least, is what her mother would have told her.
“The only reason people become actors,” Dolores once hypothesized, “is because they think too highly of themselves. They think everyone’s always looking at them. Normal people don’t live like that. Normal people have the opposite aspiration.”
“To be invisible.”
Miss Betsy tried explaining to Dolores that some people went into acting because it was an art, a form of expression, but Dolores wouldn’t have any of it. And the longer Miss Betsy stays on television, the more she suspects Dolores is right. It isn’t about art. It’s about how many people watch you. The more people who watch you, the better you’re doing.
“How am I doing?” she’d asked her producer recently, and when he answered, “More people are watching each week,” Miss Betsy tried not to reveal the histrionic pleasure she felt at this news.
The cab delivers Miss Betsy to a dark street full of old, run-down brownstones. It’s a part of the city Miss Betsy has never been. She hears in the distance a bottle break and someone yell or something howl—human or animal, she can’t tell. The cab leaves, and Miss Betsy squints to find the address that matches what Claire wrote down for her. When she steps closer, she hears the pulse of music coming from inside, and then a burst of laughter. Miss Betsy climbs the steps, holding on to the rail for support. She shouldn’t have worn heels, not with ice still lingering beneath fresh snow, but it’s too late now.
“E. Nun. See. Ate,” Miss Betsy says softly, clearing her mouth’s moist cobwebs while exercising her tongue. “E. Nun. See. Ate,” she says again and then knocks on the door. Claire opens it.
“Holy shit,” Claire says. “You actually came!”
“I can leave,” Miss Betsy says, but Claire has grabbed her by the arm and is tugging her indoors, reeling her in.
“Why would you leave?” Claire says. “You’re here now.”
“Could you do me a favor?” Miss Betsy asks, and she’s about to ask Claire not to make a big deal about her appearance, but Claire is already yelling for everyone to hush.
“Listen up, everyone,” she says. “This is my friend, Miss Betsy! I want everyone to be kind to her, okay?”
“Thank you,” Miss Betsy mouths.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Claire says. “Mi casa, su casa. Except that this isn’t my house.” She shrugs then leaves, following a bearded man wearing a turtleneck into the bathroom.
No one talks to Miss Betsy for the first half hour. She pours herself a glass of wine and nibbles on some crackers. She hasn’t seen Claire or the bearded man emerge from the bathroom yet. Is there another exit? Why, of all places, are they in the bathroom together?
“I know you,” a woman says. She’s wearing a polka-dotted dress and fake eyelashes.
Miss Betsy smiles.
“You’re that lady,” the woman adds.
“I guess I am,” Miss Betsy says.
“My name’s Peggy. You want to get high?”
Miss Betsy follows Peggy into a room where coats are piled on a bed. The only light in the room comes from a fish tank. The room is full of wavy shadows, and it’s easy to imagine that they themselves are underwater. Peggy sits on the coats as if they aren’t even there. She lights a joint and passes it to Miss Betsy.
“I haven’t done this before,” Miss Betsy says.
Peggy smiles. “The thing to remember is to hold it in your lungs as long as you can. Okay?”
Miss Betsy does as she’s told, but then she starts coughing. “Oh God,” she says between coughs.
“You’ll get used to it,” Peggy says. “Don’t worry.”
Later, after they leave the underwater room and Peggy has disappeared with someone else into another part of the house, the bearded man with the turtleneck approaches Miss Betsy and introduces himself as Worthington.
“Terrible name, I know,” he says. “I’m told you’re the famous Miss Betsy. I don’t own a tv, I’m sorry to say. I love your shoes,” he says. “How high are those heels?” He laughs and says, “I’m asking you how high your heels are.” When Miss Betsy says nothing, he says, “How high? Get it?” He shakes his head. “Claire wants me to share my mushrooms with you. You ever do shrooms? Yes? No? Well, what you do is smash them up and mix it with tea. You can eat them, too, but they taste like shit and sometimes get caught at the back of your throat. They’re drier than hell and leave a kind of metallic taste in your mouth, but you won’t notice it once you start peaking. Here,” he says. “Watch.”
Worthington pours them each a cup of tea and then crumbles an equal amount of mushrooms into each cup.
“There,” he says. “Bottoms up!”
Miss Betsy, who feels dizzy listening to Worthington, sips her tea.
“No, no, no,” Worthington yells. “You gotta down it.”
Miss Betsy drinks faster. She wants to ask Worthington what he and Claire did together in the bathroom, but she can’t stop staring into Worthington’s beard. It’s tangled, and there are crumbs stuck around the rim of his mouth. Doesn’t he know that she hosts a show about, among other things, proper hygiene? She forces the tea down in three long gulps.
“Enjoy the ride,” Worthington says. He touches her face with the back of his hand before leaving her alone.
Two hours later, Miss Betsy has locked herself inside the bathroom and is sitting on the edge of the tub, staring at a single square of tile on the floor. Inside this one square of tile, she thinks, are the answers to the universe. She is certain that she can feel all the veins in her body, the blood rushing through them, the nerve endings reaching out toward the tile square, the way plants are drawn to the sun. Why has she not known about this bathroom until now? Why has it been kept a secret?
“She’s probably tripping her ass off right now,” someone outside the bathroom door says. Miss Betsy hears the knocking—again. Whoever is outside the door has been knocking for a while now. Miss Betsy wants to get up and open the door—she really does—but she is paralyzed. The tile won’t let her move.
“In a minute,” she says, and her voice sounds funny, like something that can bend in unexpected directions, something a person could see, maybe even taste. She reaches into her purse and pulls out her Magic Mirror. She carries the mirror around with her because kids are always stopping her when she goes out in public, and they want her to say their names. Upon such occasions, she’ll pull out the Magic Mirror and look through it, into the face of the child, and then she’ll say whatever name the parent has whispered into her ear—but tonight, here in this bathroom, she sees Johnny. He is as he was when she last saw him, a smooth-faced boy with grease under his fingernails and smoke pouring from his parted mouth. His eyes are pale and distant. “Johnny,” Miss Betsy whispers, but he can’t see her or hear her, and when he finishes his cigarette, flipping it out of view, he disappears inside his own last puff of smoke.
* * * *
They are inseparable, Miss Betsy and Claire. For the next month, the routine doesn’t waver: Claire leads the way, Miss Betsy follows.
“Where to?” Miss Betsy asks.
“I know about a party in Lincoln Park,” Claire says. Or, “I heard about these two guys in Bucktown who have some great shit.” Or, “My place.” Miss Betsy sometimes falls asleep on Claire’s sofa. Claire sleeps naked in her bed, a thin bedsheet sometimes pulled as high as her waist but sometimes not. The last two times, she and Claire have gone to work together, sharing a cab and splitting the fare.
Claire, who uses only eyeliner and sometimes doesn’t wear a brassiere when she goes out for the night, is the sort of girl Miss Betsy wishes she could have been but, given who her parents were, could never have been. But maybe she shouldn’t blame it all on her parents. Growing up in Beloit, Wisconsin, probably played some role in making Miss Betsy who she is today: a woman unafraid to milk a cow or confess to a priest but apprehensive about undressing in front of strangers. You’d think that where she grew up—a city whose land was once owned by a French fur trader who had two Indian wives—would still have been possessed by some residual wildness, but all the vestiges of more carefree days probably evaporated after Caleb Blodgett, a proper New England Yankee, came to town, bought the fur trader’s land, and summoned his New England Yankee friends to come join him.
Claire, on the other hand, most definitely isn’t from Beloit. Miss Betsy gets the feeling that there isn’t anything Claire wouldn’t do. Climb a water tower. Pose for Playboy. Shoplift. The hair on Miss Betsy’s arms stands on end just thinking about her.
Miss Betsy is starting to see the effects of too many late nights. Her upper lip twitches for no reason. Her hands shake. The skin under her eyes is dark and creased. Claire gives her a different kind of pill before each show to help her perk up. Lately, Miss Betsy still smells like smoke when she steps onto the set. Her clothes are wrinkled. The show’s ratings have never been higher, though, so the producer doesn’t reprimand her. Today, however, she doesn’t feel right after taking Claire’s pill, and when the time arrives on the show to look into the Magic Mirror, she sees people she shouldn’t be seeing.
“I see Zhang,” she says, “I see Hu, I see Bei.”
During the commercial break, the producer motions her over. He’s an ailing man of sixty with gout that causes him to limp.
“When you do the mirror bit,” he says, “stick to seeing Jane and Timmy. We don’t want to scare anyone at home, now do we?” Before Miss Betsy can explain that she doesn’t feel herself, the producer limps away.
* * * *
Miss Betsy works at the same television station as Bozo and Ringmaster Ned, as Frazier Thomas and Garfield Goose, as Ray Rayner and Cuddley Dudley. She’d gone out on a couple of dates with one of the puppeteers, but she didn’t like the way he kept touching her spine, as if searching for a slot to insert his hand. All of them, including the stuffed orange dog, enjoy a celebrity status that Miss Betsy doesn’t have and will probably never have, and although there are times that she feels twinges of jealousy when she passes Ned or Frazier in the hallway, it’s nothing compared to the feelings that overcome her when she sees the host of Treetop House. In truth, Miss Betsy shouldn’t feel anything but sympathy for the poor woman. Treetop House is always in jeopardy—it’s already been canceled once—so there’s no real fear of Treetop’s host bumping off Miss Betsy, whose ratings are solid. No, the deep-seated anger comes from the fact that they’re both chasing the same demographic: preschoolers. Treetop House is like a distant cousin who lives in a small town, a girl who will meet neither the quantity nor the quality of men that Miss Betsy will meet, and yet when the cousin does come for a visit, the men pay more attention to her than to Miss Betsy because she’s prettier and younger. Because she’s different.
“Have you ever watched Treetop House?” Miss Betsy asks Claire one night.
“Treetop House?” Claire says. “How old do I look?” She laughs. “I’m young, but I’m not that young.”
Claire lives is a studio apartment in Lakeview. She fixes cocktails in her small kitchen while Miss Betsy sits on the edge of Claire’s bed.
“What was that pill you gave me this morning? Before the show?”
“Oh that,” Claire says. “Why? Didn’t it do the trick?”
After bringing Miss Betsy her drink, Claire lights a joint. Once half the joint has been smoked, Claire licks her forefinger and thumb and then pinches the lit tip, extinguishing it. With uncharacteristic fastidiousness, as if the cigarette were fragile and rare, she sets it down in the kidney-shaped ashtray on the bedside table.
“What are those for?” Miss Betsy points to a short stack of empty liquor boxes.
“I’m collecting them for a friend,” Claire says.
Miss Betsy can’t help noticing that next to the ashtray is a paperback copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima that hasn’t been moved since Miss Betsy began coming over. The mushroom cloud on its cover is coated with an ever-thickening layer of dust, and it’s getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between explosion and filth. Miss Betsy is staring at the mushroom cloud when she feels Claire’s hand on the thigh of her crossed leg. The hand slowly snakes up her skirt, running all the way up her stockings. Miss Betsy wants to resist and not resist, but as soon as the warmth that’s pulsating near Claire’s hand begins to radiate, Miss Betsy uncrosses her legs and lets Claire touch her.
Later, as Miss Betsy starts drifting to sleep, she tells Claire first about Johnny and then about the miscarriage. For the first time, Miss Betsy admits that she wouldn’t mind having children one day.
“Me, too,” Claire says. “A whole roomful of them!” Claire presses her palm against Miss Betsy’s belly. “Do you want me to get you pregnant?” She whispers this into Miss Betsy’s ear but then she starts to laugh, pulling Miss Betsy to her, pinning her to the bed with one of her legs.
Before drifting to sleep, Miss Betsy whispers, “I love you,” and Claire, after a moment of silence, whispers, “I see you, too.”
* * * *
The next day, Miss Betsy has a raging headache, the kind of headache that sends shock waves from her brain to her eyes. With each heartbeat, her vision momentarily blurs. Before leaving the dressing room, Claire takes hold of Miss Betsy’s face and puts her lips to Miss Betsy’s mouth, working her tongue inside with more purpose than passion. Claire keeps her eyes open, too, staring intensely into Miss Betsy’s own. When Claire finally backs up, letting her hands drip down Miss Betsy’s face, she smiles and says, “Feel better?”
On the set, Miss Betsy’s patience with the children is short. She can’t stop thinking about what she and Claire did last night. Was it a sin? What would parents whose children watch the show think? During a commercial, when a boy named Edgar yanks on her skirt, she tells him to go away.
“Go on,” she says. “Shoo.”
In her dressing room afterward, alone, she peers into her Magic Mirror, hoping for a glimpse of Johnny but seeing only carpet beneath her feet. She squints and concentrates but with no luck. There’s some mud she tracked in, and there’s a hair resting atop the carpet fibers, either hers or Claire’s.
Claire. The summer of love may have passed Miss Betsy by, but the winter of love has arrived full-force. Miss Betsy thinks she’s in love with Claire, and she suspects that Claire’s in love with her, too. Why all this time spent together? Why did what happened last night happen? When Miss Betsy looks at herself in the mirror and thinks about being with Claire, her pupils dilate. This, according to her mother, is how you can tell if you’re in love. Jesus, Miss Betsy thinks, staring into her own darkening eyes.
Even though Miss Betsy showered this morning, soaping herself from head to toe, Claire is still all over her. She’s under Miss Betsy’s fingernails; she’s on the roof of Miss Betsy’s mouth; she clings to Miss Betsy’s tongue. You can wash and wash and wash, she wants to tell the kids, but you can’t wash away your lover so easily. Even if you soap and brush and scrub every last part of yourself, the lover’s presence still lingers. Is it merely psychological, or does some kind of molecular combustion take place, fusing your lover’s skin cells to your own? All that Miss Betsy knows for sure is that she craves Claire. She craves her and wants to hold her again—right here, right now.
Miss Betsy opens the dressing room door and looks out. The raspy-voiced clown from the circus show walks by, cuts his eyes toward her, and raises his absurdly painted eyebrows, as if to say, What the hell are we doing here? He has a red bulb for a nose and orange hair, and he wears white gloves that go all the way up to his elbows. She sometimes sees him in full clown regalia standing out back, sneaking a smoke. At the other end of the hallway is the security guard—a crew-cutted fellow named Gleason.
“Have you seen Claire?” Miss Betsy asks.
Gleason smiles. Miss Betsy has never asked him a question before. It’s usually a nod in the morning and nod on her way home, but the way he’s looking at her now, her question must have been interpreted as something salacious, a connection between herself and Claire that goes beyond the professional. Is the look on her face that desperate? Gleason’s eyes are like two fat spiders crawling up her legs. Miss Betsy is surprised to find that she’s not as repulsed as she thought she’d be.
“Cute girl?” Gleason finally asks.
“The young one,” Miss Betsy says, not wanting to expose her true feelings. “She does makeup.”
“Yeah, yeah. She left a while ago. Said she wasn’t feeling all that good. Late night, she said.”
Miss Betsy nods and is about to retreat back into her room when Gleason clears his throat.
“That mirror?” he says. “You know—the one you look into?”
“Why don’t you ever see me?” he asks. When Miss Betsy doesn’t say anything, Gleason laughs and says, “Hey, I’m kidding. You should lighten up. You’re still young. Have some fun.”
“I do have fun,” Miss Betsy says before shutting the door and turning the lock.
* * * *
It’s Friday, and no word from Claire. The weekend goes by and—nothing. Claire doesn’t come to work on Monday, and when Miss Betsy goes over to Claire’s apartment after taping her show, someone else is already moving in.
“Where’s Claire?” Miss Betsy asks two men carrying in box springs.
“Claire who?” one of the men asks, and the other man shrugs.
Miss Betsy wants to cup her palms to the side of her head and scream. She’d read somewhere that in times of stress women reach for their heads while men cross their arms. Her own experience tells her that this is true, but why is it true? When she learned that Johnny had died in Korea, she’d cupped her hands over her mouth then grabbed fistfuls of her hair. When she saw the clots of blood on her bed after taking a nap, she’d covered both nose and mouth with her hands. What in the long history of women caused them to raise their arms and expose their hearts while men tightened into themselves, as if returning to the womb?
The tv station hires a new makeup artist later that week. Her name is Hazel. She’s at least sixty, and her own makeup is off by a fraction of an inch, the way a translucent mask may appear if not suctioned perfectly to one’s face. She looks blurry. Out of focus. When Hazel darkens Miss Betsy’s eyebrows, she gives them an upside-down V shape that makes each eye seem as though it has its own roof. The upside-down Vs makes Miss Betsy look sinister, not at all the right impression for the host of a children’s television show, and yet Miss Betsy doesn’t want to hurt Hazel’s feelings. Hazel is married and has three kids, all grown now and married with their own kids. The Breeders, Miss Betsy thinks bitterly, and whenever Hazel confides in her about this or that family squabble, Miss Betsy thinks, This is how it happens, this endless cycle of human reproduction, no one stopping to wonder if it’s a good thing for the planet, all this extra shit and piss, the exponential increase of worries and grief and nightmares, and the toll it takes on everyone else?
Nights, Miss Betsy goes to every party she hears about, hoping to find Claire, but the parties are full of people she’s never met. Even so, the parties’ hosts are pleased when she shows up. She’s a celebrity, after all. A kind of celebrity, at least. A conversation piece. And she has to admit that she’s starting to like the attention. Why not? She’s earned the right to enjoy the fringe benefits of fame, hasn’t she?
“You’re Claire’s friend, aren’t you?” a woman with a beehive hairdo asks Miss Betsy at one of the parties, nodding and smiling as if she knows something personal about the two of them, but when pressed, the woman walks away, saying, “No reason, I was just asking.” As the weeks wear on, more and more people, both men and women, seem to know that Miss Betsy knows Claire, and Miss Betsy starts suspecting that Claire’s bragging about their night together, telling people where, for instance, the prim tv host put her tongue or what she sounds like when she moans—the sorts of intimate details that would prompt strangers to want to find out if it’s true.
At first all Miss Betsy does is drink wine at the parties, but as the weeks dissolve into months, she begins accepting whatever people offer her—a toke, a hit, a snort. Some nights she falls asleep on a stranger’s couch, curling into a ball and pining for Claire; other nights, she hooks up with someone at the party, following him or her, sometimes both, into a room or, failing the convenience of privacy, remaining out in the open. Her flesh is malleable. She puts up no fight, offers no resistance. The body is of no consequence, she tells herself. It’s the soul that matters.
One Friday in February, Miss Betsy takes a cab to a party on the west side. It’s in an apartment next to an abandoned warehouse. Dozens of the warehouse’s window panes have been shattered, and Miss Betsy thinks she hears the building itself emit a sound, but then she realizes, after it sweeps over her, that it’s just wind. The driver pulls away, and she is the only living thing on the street. Everything else is concrete or glass or asphalt or brick. Even so, Miss Betsy can’t help thinking she’s being watched. Somewhere in the dark, perhaps from inside a gutted building, there are eyes trained on her.
I don’t hear a party, Miss Betsy thinks, but then she imagines Claire taking her by the hand and leading her up to the apartment. Lately, she has begun imagining Claire beside her everywhere she goes. At first, it was a playful thing to do—conjuring up this woman who has disappeared—but now she has a difficult time not imagining Claire with her, even though she is angry at Claire, furious at Claire, for casually telling everyone intimate details about the two of them. Despite this, she summoned the imaginary Claire to bed with her last night, and this morning they took a shower together, Miss Betsy remaining under the spray until the water turned cold and the landlady knocked on her door, wondering if she was okay.
At the apartment’s bank of buzzers, Miss Betsy hears people talking, music playing. The filament inside the lightbulb above her quivers. The fire escape—an ancient ladder attached to the side of the building—rattles.
“E. Nun. See. Ate.”
“Who is it?” a voice asks after she presses a button, and when Miss Betsy tells him, he says he doesn’t know anyone by that name.
“Don’t know any Miss Betsy,” the man says.
Miss Betsy puts her mouth closer to the speaker. “I’m a friend of Gabrielle’s.” This isn’t exactly true. She met Gabrielle last week at another party she had crashed with only the barest thread of a connection. They’re barely acquaintances, let alone friends.
The door buzzes, Miss Betsy puts her shoulder into it, and up she goes, three flights of stairs. Upon entering the apartment, a man with shaggy hair asks Miss Betsy to open her mouth. She obeys, the way she would to take Communion, and he gently sets something on her tongue. This is the body of Christ, Miss Betsy thinks.
“Let it dissolve,” says the man.
“What is it?” she asks.
“‘What is it?’” the man repeats and laughs. “You’re in for a treat, sister.”
On her way across the room, a woman wearing a shiny silver dress says, “Hey, I know you. You’re that lady,” and Miss Betsy smiles. The woman, who’s slumped so far down in her butterfly chair that her legs jut out like a limp marionette’s, says, “My kids love you.”
“Tell them I see them each time I look into the Magic Mirror.”
The woman says, “They’re down the hall, if you really want to see them. I’d come with you, but I can’t move. I think this shit’s finally starting to kick in. Or maybe not. I keep thinking I’m feeling this giant warm wave wash over me, but then I think, no, no, it’s not here yet. They’re names are Vickie and Johnny.”
Miss Betsy nods. Johnny, she thinks, and her heart feels momentarily clamped off from the rest of her body—an organ without a host.
The woman says, “They’re no taller than dogs standing on their hind legs. Is that a weird thing to say? Maybe it is kicking in.”
“What size dogs?” a man sitting in the circle asks, and the woman bursts out laughing.
“Oh my God,” she says. “I didn’t even think of that.”
Miss Betsy excuses herself while others in the circle start to laugh, even though it’s clear that they don’t know why they’re laughing. Miss Betsy sits down next to a man who’s studying the back of his hand. He holds it up to the light, turning it one way and then the other, as if the hand is see-through. Miss Betsy watches but doesn’t say anything.
Unlike the woman in the silver dress, Miss Betsy has no doubt when the acid kicks in. Things she’s looking at leave trails when she turns her head. Parts of the room start to melt. Most telling, however, is that she knows what everyone in the room is thinking; she can read their minds. You have no secrets, she thinks. I know everything. She is aware, too, that everyone in the room is looking at her, even though their eyes are seemingly focused elsewhere. They’re stealing glances; they’re wondering why she’s here among them.
“Excuse me,” she says and stands, taking her purse with her, thinking, I don’t trust you people.
The woman in the silver dress says, “Such nice manners,” and everyone laughs.
Miss Betsy walks down the hall but imagines she’s on a moving walkway. She even makes the humming noise to accompany her journey. At the end of the hall, she looks around. Why did she think the restroom was here? The first door she opens is for a closet. Inside is a fake Christmas tree and boxes of lights and ornaments. When Miss Betsy realizes that the tree is still growing, she slams shut the door. Should she tell someone that there’s a living tree inside the closet?
She opens another door. This time it is the bathroom, and Claire is already in there with Worthington—Claire facing the wall, her long skirt hiked up, while Worthington pushes himself into her from behind, his pants puddled on the floor. The way his beard is trimmed and his hair is sticking up, he looks conspicuously like the devil. This is no hallucination.
“Are you okay?” Miss Betsy asks Claire.
Worthington laughs. Claire says, “Do you want to join us?”
Miss Betsy knows, in this moment, what death must feel like: the last breath taken, the last drop of blood drained, the coffin sealed. There’s nothing but a hole in the Earth waiting for her. She shuts the door.
To escape, she opens yet another door but finds two children inside: Vickie and Johnny. When she sees Johnny, she realizes that he is actually her Johnny, except that he is only four years old now.
“Miss Betsy!” Johnny yells, and the little girl named Vickie smiles. She cups her hands over her mouth then inexplicably starts chewing on her fingers.
“Don’t eat them,” Miss Betsy cautions the little girl, but it’s Johnny that she looks at when she speaks. Oh, what a darling little boy he had been! What a terribly sad but beautiful face!
“Let’s play a game,” Miss Betsy announces, and she leads Vickie to the closet and makes her stand inside. “I want you to wait in here, okay? Wait in here, and Miss Betsy will be right back with a giant ice cream cone for you. The biggest ice cream cone ever!” She pats the girl on the head then shuts the door. She pushes a chest-of-drawers on rollers in front of the door. Taking Johnny by the hand, Miss Betsy leads him down the hallway, past the bathroom of broken hearts, past the woman who claims to be Johnny’s mother but who’s too busy chattering away about a mythical race of half-rodents-half-men to notice them. They leave through the front door.
“Where are you taking me?” Johnny asks as they head downstairs.
“Shhhhh,” Miss Betsy says. “No questions. You’re my little Johnny. That’s all you need to know.”
They step outside, into a tidal wave of wind.
“I’m cold,” Johnny says.
“You’re fine,” Miss Betsy says, pulling Johnny into the street. Miss Betsy hesitates, trying to remember the general direction of her own apartment. It’s miles away, she realizes, but maybe someone will see them, a woman and boy walking in the freezing cold, and offer them a ride. She can see the wind coming toward her. It looks like water, and for a moment, as it passes over them, the two are completely submerged and floating down the street—or so it seems. Choking from the water-wind, coughing and blinking, Miss Betsy staggers backward.
“I want my mommy,” Johnny says. His voice is a tire whining against asphalt, a strip of burning rubber. She’s a druggie, Miss Betsy wants to say, probably a junkie. She’s unfit for motherhood. Instead of explaining this to the boy, she pulls him by the hand, ignoring his pleas. They walk several more blocks. I wonder how tall the tree in the closet has grown, Miss Betsy thinks. I wonder if Vickie is still waiting for her ice cream cone. I wonder if Worthington’s prick is still inside Claire.
She stops walking and grabs Johnny by the shoulders. “Why did you die in Korea?” she asks him. “Why did you leave me with blood all over my goddamned bed? Half of that blood was yours.” She’s shaking Johnny now, hard, and Johnny’s crying. “You’re a son of a bitch, do you know that? You’re why I’m here right now. Do you hear me? It’s all your fault! Every last thing.”
Miss Betsy sees in the distance several men and women running toward her. They, too, are without coats, and she thinks at first that they are being chased. But no: they are all people from the party. And no one else is behind them. They are heading for Miss Betsy, swarming toward her. Before Miss Betsy can turn and run, she is tackled to the ground, the air knocked out of her.
She hears someone saying over and over, “My baby, my baby,” and she hears Johnny saying, “She hurt me.” A man on top of Miss Betsy, staring down at her, says, “Are you crazy, lady? Are you nuts?”
Miss Betsy sees Worthington and yells a warning to everyone with him: “You are the children of your father, the Devil, and you want to follow your father’s desires.” She’d heard a priest say this once in church many years ago, and now it’s come back to her, as clear as the pocky face of the man on top of her.
“She’s having a bad trip,” someone says, and someone else says, “Let’s take her back and calm her down.”
A knot blooms at the back of her head; her face is too raw to touch. “When he tells a lie,” she continues, glaring at Claire, “he is only doing what is natural to him, because he is a liar and the father of all lies!” She lets two men she doesn’t know help her while Johnny and his mother keep a safe distance ahead.
* * * *
A few weeks later, Miss Betsy loses her job. The producer, whose gout has all but incapacitated him, tells her that she has become too unpredictable. “But worse,” he says, “is that you don’t look all that . . . how shall I put this . . . hygienic anymore. We need someone more . . . what’s the best word . . . clean.”
Miss Betsy refuses to respond to any of the producer’s accusations, and after a few days of not speaking at all, she realizes that there is no need for speech. Why talk? The only things to talk about are trivial and insignificant, so why bother?
Miss Betsy expects a lull in the show, but when she turns on her tv the next morning, she sees that the new host is Claire. Alone in her room, she thinks, Miss Claire? Her heart clenches, fistlike. Her face is so hot she needs a cool washcloth to put on her forehead.
She quits going to parties. She stops dropping acid and smoking grass, but there is always gin around to take the edges off and smooth life’s corners.
Her father dies one Saturday afternoon after heading into the basement to tinker with the Hoosier cabinet he bought when Miss Betsy was still a teenager. According to Dolores, the last thing he asked, before heading downstairs, was if eggnog really had eggs in it.
“Imagine,” Dolores says at the funeral, “living with a man for forty years who doesn’t know if eggnog really has eggs in it.” Dolores takes a deep breath and holds it a moment. She looks as though she might start weeping. “I turned my back on him,” she says. “I refused to answer.” Dolores, who’s unaware that Miss Betsy no longer speaks, shakes her head. “I should have answered his questions, but I’m just so tired, dear. So tired.”
* * * *
One night, on her way to the corner liquor store, a man with a gun steps out from a darkened alley and demands Miss Betsy hand over her purse.
Miss Betsy shakes her head. I can’t, she thinks.
The man reaches out and yanks the purse strap so hard that Miss Betsy falls to one knee. He jerks it free of her arm, then turns back into the alley and takes off running. Miss Betsy, on her hands and knees, begins weeping. Her face, slick from nervous sweat and tears, feels as though it’s leaking, and for a moment she fears she’s been shot, even though she knows that the gun wasn’t fired. She opens her mouth to scream, but nothing comes out.
At night, in the pitch-black, she sits bolt upright, certain someone is inside her apartment. It could be the thief who now knows her address, but maybe it’s someone from one of those parties, a person to whom she gave her personal information when she shouldn’t have. She flips on the light, hoping to scare whoever it is, but no one’s here. She checks every room, every lock, every window—all is secure. When she gets back into bed and turns off the bedside light, returning to darkness, she feels it again: two eyes. But she realizes now that no one’s inside her apartment. Someone somewhere has pulled the Magic Mirror from Miss Betsy’s stolen purse and is staring at her through its empty oval. She should find it a comfort—someone, at least, is watching her—but she doesn’t want to be watched anymore. Like talking, nothing good has come from it.
* * * *
Miss Betsy drives back home to Beloit the next morning, abandoning her Chicago apartment and leaving behind her belongings.
“So, what are you going to do with yourself up here?” Dolores asks. “Do you want to stay here for a while?”
Miss Betsy nods.
“You got a cold or something?” Dolores asks. “You got laryngitis?”
Miss Betsy writes on a pad of paper, I quit talking.
Her mother reads the message, thinks about it, and then starts weeping. After a week in the house, Dolores demands that Miss Betsy speak.
“I won’t eat today unless you talk to me!” Dolores says. “I’ll starve myself to death!”
Miss Betsy doesn’t speak, and Dolores eventually makes herself a tuna sandwich.
The next morning, Dolores is weeping again at the kitchen table. “My own daughter is a mute,” she says when she notices Miss Betsy walking into the room.
I’m sorry, Miss Betsy writes, but Dolores crumples the sheet up and tosses it aside. “Oh sure, oh sure,” she says. “You’re sorry. But what about me?” she asks. “How do you think I feel?”
After a few weeks, Dolores gives up her theatrics and the two women fall into a routine, a rhythm of life Miss Betsy remembers clearly from childhood. When she hears Dolores’s car keys jingle, she puts on her long wool coat, carefully buttoning it up. She trails behind her mother and listens to the woman’s tirades about this or that while she herself remains silent. Today, in the car, Dolores returns to her favorite subject: Miss Betsy not talking.
“Why won’t you talk, dear?” she asks. “It’s not right, you not talking. Why won’t you talk to me? What have I ever done to you?”
Dolores pulls into the parking lot of the last remaining butcher shop in Beloit. Dolores has been coming here for over thirty years, but soon she’ll probably have to go to the supermarket. Supermarkets are the wave of the future—or so everyone says. But the only future that concerns Dolores is tomorrow. Tomorrow is the Junior League luncheon, and it’s Dolores’s turn to host.
Miss Betsy follows Dolores, who heads straight for the counter to take a plastic number off its hook. While they wait, Dolores studies the meat.
“I pray for you to talk again,” Dolores says. “I pray every night, Betsy, but I’m not sure what else I can do.”
Miss Betsy shakes her head. Not here is what she tries to communicate.
“Number fourteen?” the butcher asks, and Dolores steps up. She orders a pound of chicken breasts, pointing to the ones that she wants, but when it comes to the tongue, she wants the butcher to hand it to her for further inspection. The butcher tears a sheet of wax paper, picks out a plump one, and hands it over the counter to Dolores.
Miss Betsy’s mother is as inexplicable to her as a perfect stranger. The butcher and Miss Betsy make eye contact, and there’s a moment when Miss Betsy believes that they are thinking the same thing: This woman is a handful, isn’t she? The tongue is gray and knobby, an unsightly piece of flesh. Dolores is squeezing and sniffing it. She is making a spectacle of herself, and the people in the shop have stopped what they’re doing to stare at her. The butcher, visibly tired and stained with the blood of silenced animals, smiles at Miss Betsy and Miss Betsy smiles back, while Dolores holds the thick slab above her head. Moving her lips, speaking to herself, Dolores peers hopefully up at the dead tongue, as if offering it to the gods.