ME AND BETTY WHITE

First published in North American Review, Summer Fiction Issue 2014

"I'm still hot."  That's what I tell my children, when I speak to them.  I keep a calendar on the wall and color-code their calls:  Red for Sarah Jane, blue for Billy (who doesn't like to be called that, thank you. Will will do, he scolds, thinking I've forgotten) and yellow is for Miss Prissy Chrissy who lives far away from Missouri in some state that with begins with a T, Texas or Tennessee, one of those.  I'm aware of the emerging pattern of the calls and even though they might exchange a date here and there, I know they've held a conference call and determined who would be in contact with the mother ship and when.  It's supposed to appear random.

"I'm still hot," I tell the cashier at the corner grocery store as she rings up my purchases: Bananas (good for dreams).  Peanut butter (protein), and a bag of fun-size Snickers.  I do a little dance like Betty White does on her Youtube video to demonstrate my allure.  I wiggle my hips while holding my cane poised to prevent a fall, the other hand punctuates the air with rhythm.

The cashier raises one pierced eyebrow and purses her ruby red lips.  "Credit or debit," she says in a monotone, as if every elderly shopper dances for her pleasure every day.

 

No one knows what I've planned.  They wouldn't like it one little bit, so I'm keeping my lips sealed which it isn't easy for me.  I've been known to tell all.  I accidentally let it slip when my sister was having an affair.  I don't understand how it happened and at the Thanksgiving table nonetheless.  It must have been that second glass of Gewürztraminer.  Sissy had on a lovely necklace and I inquired if David had given it to her.  Howard, her husband, almost choked to death on the turkey leg he was munching on like a dog.  He looks like an overfed Labrador, maybe crossed with a touch of something bulgy-eyed like a Boston terrier or a pug.  He and I haven't spoken in years.  And I don't care.  After Sissy weaseled her way out of that one, we had a good laugh.

I may share my plans now with Sissy because she won't tell anyone.  She can't, poor thing.  She is no longer hot.  In fact, she's no longer here, in a manner of speaking.  Her body is still with us but her mind is floating way out beyond the known universe.  Occasionally it touches down and we have a good chat about long long ago. It would be a terrible tragedy except that she seems so happy.   Her room is in the other wing of St. Agnes' Mead, the senior home in which I reside.  Her body rests in a bed with a remote TV control and call button.  The wing is entered through a door with a special red knob to press in order to enter.  All the residents refer to it as "the other wing."   I imagine a bird with one broken wing - that is their wing, a special place for elderly broken people.  Somewhere tucked away.  Not me though, not now, not ever, not if I have my way.

My room is small - a sitting area, a bed and a separate bathroom -thank goodness.  If I had to wander down the hall to a bathroom after midnight in my nightie I might need a chamber pot.  I imagine tossing the imaginary pot's contents out the window like they did in Merry Ol'England a few centuries ago.  A few centuries ago could have been yesterday the way time has warped for me.

"Heads up, arrivederci, au revoir," I'd shout to the masses one floor below as I heaved its fetid contents.

The only time a small room becomes a problem is when I need a hiding place. Secret places are difficult to find.  I have a special shelf behind rows of shoes in the closet.  Mostly they are old high heels that I couldn't ever wear anymore if my life depended on it, along with pairs and pairs of slippers that were given to me at various Christmases by one child or the other.  Useless now, all of them, except to hide things.  Several pairs are stuffed with bills, $20s, $50s, and even several $100s, accumulated over many years.  Douglas gave me orders before his death so very long ago now, to save my pennies for plane fare to meet up with him.  He is waiting for me.

I'm not hiding these things from the staff.  No one spies on me, except my brood when they arrive for a very scheduled visit.  "Here Mom, let me straighten that up," they say. Straightening up equals snooping.  They shuffle letters and papers on my desk and peek into drawers, but never looking deep into the dark closet behind the first row of shoes amongst the dust bunnies.  I pretend along with them, for the sake of peace and quiet, that they are only tidying my little room as a favor to me.  I'm not sure what they are looking for, perhaps evidence of my misdeeds, whatever that might mean.

I am "straightening up the shoes", counting my cash, when there is a gentlemanly rap on the door.  I know it's Jim Crenshaw.  He always knocks, softly, six times and waits.  My eyes aren't the clearest but my hearing has somehow stuck with me. Jim will be standing there ready to take me out on a date, to the ice cream store.  This is what he likes on Friday afternoons for his weekly drive.  I never refuse.  He's one of the very few among us at St. Agnes' that not only has a driver's license but has an automobile, and he's also one of only a half dozen male residents, a rare commodity.  He's also part of my plot but doesn't know it.

I return the loot to the shoes, close the closet door and arrange the curls on my head to hide the thinning spots before I answer the door. I try to stand straight but it's an effort to fight the gravitational pull at my bones. This is quite the embarrassment for me.  My posture was always textbook perfect.  I guess that's what has kept me from having my nose touch my knees like a few of the older ladies here.  If Douglas were alive, I'm not sure he would recognize me, except for my hot dance moves.  We did so like to dance.

I don't take my cane along on dates, however.  My balance is decent enough for my age, if I am careful.  I reach for the doorknob and notice how pale and transparent my skin has become - the blue veins crisscross the back of my hand like a tangle of urban freeways.  I can't remember if this is new.  Maybe my hands have been like this for a long time and I never noticed.  I've been aware of my pinkie that sits next to the other fingers like a little humpbacked animal, permanently retracted.  That's the problem with lose of eyesight:  reliability.  There are some things that one misses.  I always thought I was so lucky that my hair stayed blonde well into my seventies.  That is, until I had cataract surgery.  I woke up the next day and called my daughter, Sarah Jane, in a panic.

"My hair has turned gray, silvery gray all over.  It's from the surgery," I cried in obvious distress.

After she stopped laughing, she informed me that my hair had been that color for years and years.  "Mom," she said. "The cataracts, made your hair appear yellow when you looked in the mirror.  They are gone.  You've been gray for a decade."

The kids had never contradicted me when I had insisted that I was as blonde as Marilyn Monroe or Daisy Mae. And it still says so on my senior ID card - blue eyes, blond hair.  In spite of my fury at their betrayal, I restrained myself from hanging up on her.  She will be on the other end of the phone one day with her daughter complaining about some devastation of age.  Then she will understand.

 

Jim stands humbly with his cap in his hand, waiting.  "Ready for a soda Miss Elizabeth?"    He offers me his arm gallantly.  He is a true gentleman.  This will make people talk.  They would talk anyway because most of them have nothing else to do but to talk, and talking about each other is as good as anything else.  Sometimes they talk politics or religion but that usually ends in a shouting match with someone stomping off angrily and refusing to come to dinner.  The staff is very patient when this happens and coaxes the reticent resident to the dining room or else brings them a dinner tray saying to the rest of St. Anne's that the offended person is indisposed.  Indisposed is a wonderful catchall word.  It covers everything from influenza to constipation to anger at the world and our inability to exit from it gracefully.  None of this is anything we could have imagined in our younger days.

I pat Jim's arm as we meander down the floral carpeted hallway.  A rail runs along either side, in case anyone needs to stop and catch their breath or steady themself after a vision or heart palpation.   This happens frequently.

We pass Helen who is leaning on the rail, flowers in the basket of her walker, clutching a rosary.  I'm never sure if she will bless or curse me.  She's always in the chapel and attends the daily services.  It fills her days but makes her insufferable since she seems to think she is a mother nun and we are her flock.  She apportions out Hail Marys to us when we commit a sin in her eyes, which is often.  I make eye contact so I have to acknowledge her.  I try to smile.  A poor attempt.

She stares at my hand tucked in Jim's arm.  One hand clutches her bosom.  Her white eyebrows draw into her forehead and the corners of her lips tilt down.  Her double chin waddles back and forth.  "He knows everything we do, every sinful thought.  Ask forgiveness before the hour is too late."   She is shaking a finger at us.

Her voice fades as we head towards the door and our escape.

We stop and let Annemarie, the receptionist, open the sliding front door from the switch behind her desk.  "Are you all coming back for dinner?"   She's writing a note to herself so we won't be reported as missing.

"Just an ice cream soda, back soon."  I blow her a kiss.  Always stay on the good side of those who can help you.  I understand how it works.  I never raise my voice and yell like some of the residents here.  At least I think I don't.

Outside, the path to the parking lot is lined with flowers.   I remember some of their names:  impatiens, lamb's ear and big clumps of day lilies.  They make a nice show.  I walk the path and think of all the gardens and all the paths everywhere I have ever walked.  I think of Dorothy in Oz laying down in a field of poppies and going to sleep.  How lovely that would be.  I squeeze Jim's arm again.  He is the scarecrow.

He opens the door of the car for me by pressing something on his keychain, I note.

"This is a 1997 Chevy Malibu, the car of the year," he tells me proudly, like he does every time we go out for a drive in it, repeating himself as most of us do without noticing.  I don't let on that he's ever told me that before.  I smile, tilt my head, and look attentive as I lower myself carefully onto the seat grasping the frame of the car, then swing my legs in one at a time.  The car is more than a dozen years old so I sink into the cushion that has compressed over the years.  Jim's deceased wife was a very large lady.  I have seen her picture on his dresser top.

I admire the car, more than he knows and I need to understand how this particular one works.  It's been a while since I have driven any car.  It couldn't be much more difficult than riding a bicycle which they say you never forget once you get back on it.  I will need a pillow or a bolster to see over the steering wheel since I have spent the last decade shrinking.  And sunglasses, I note.  Otherwise everything is pretty much as it has always was in any of my cars, back when Douglas was alive and we were a wild and crazy traveling duo.  I do so miss that ornery old man.  And wherever he is, I'm sure that he's waiting for me.  I will forgive him any heavenly dalliances he may have had.  Twenty years is a long time to ask a man to wait for your arrival.

Jim puts the car in reverse and ever so slowly backs out of his parking space. The car jerks as he stomps on the brake. I don't know why I am surprised that he drives like an old man.  He looks in all directions and nods, before pushing the shifter into drive.  We roll forward.  A sign at the end of the drive reads: Come back soon.  I know the other side well:  Welcome back home.

Hours later, a chocolate ice cream soda and mission accomplished, we are welcomed back home before dinner.  The car is unscathed.  I don't think we have caused any accidents and only infuriated a couple of irate drivers in a hurry.  Maybe they had a wife in the backseat delivering a baby or someone bleeding to death.  I assume that because of their bulging red faces and angry gestures involving the middle finger.  I decide that at escape time I will stick to the back roads when I execute my plan.

I stop in the lounge to use the community computer.  I know a little bit about navigation, how to search, how to print.  It makes me a modern dame, just like Betty White, the golden girl.  I go to YouTube and play her song for the thousandth time.

"Oye Betty, come check out my hot wheels," Luciana whistles.

Betty has her number.  "I may be a senior but guess what, I'm still hot," she sings back as she struts and winks and touches the bulging muscles of the buff young men posing around her.  Oh yes.  My Douglas was that buff, at least as I best remember.  Remembering is a tricky thing these days.  I hate the blank spots, like popcorn in my brain.

I print out a couple of maps, showing routes west, fold them and tuck them into my pocket before heading across the hallway to the dining room.  There is no real map with my destination and I know it.  I erase my searches, proud for the forethought and for my computer skills.

After an unremarkable dinner with more ice cream for dessert, my mind is elsewhere.   Sylvia, who is assigned to sit next to me and is stone deaf, pokes me in the ribs and asks me loudly, "what did I say?"

I didn't say anything so I proceed to say, "I said that I think Karyn, the head nurse, is pregnant."  I say it loudly and everyone in the room quiets and looks at me.  Karyn most certainly is not pregnant.  She is skinny as a rail; it would be obvious.  And she is well beyond childbearing age, I think.  Everyone appears to have heard me, except Sylvia who furrows her brow and looks puzzled.  Either she didn't hear or doesn't understand. Oh, she says softly and nods, her eyes widening.  I excuse myself from the table.  The social worker will be looking for me tomorrow to have a talk about gossip.  I may not be available.

I walk to the far end of the hall and press the magic red button that leads me to Sissy, first room on the right.  The non-ambulatory ones are housed closer to the door since they pose no threat of escape.

The curtain around Sissy's bed is pulled back and I push a chair up close to her side so I can talk.  I take her tiny emaciated hand and hold it a long while.  She turns her head and smiles so sweetly at me that my heart is crushing my chest and I fear I will abandon my plan.

Her voice, so rarely used, cracks, "Mama always says that I am a good girl."

"Oh you are," I assure her.  "I'm the wild one.  But you won't tell Mama will you?"   Sissy looks up at me, her big empty eyes confused.  "Tell what?" she asks.

I hold her hand tighter and raise it to my lips.  "I love you," I say as I kiss her hand.

"I won't tell," she replies.  "What's your name again, I forgot."

"I love you."  I say, releasing her hand realizing that there is no good-bye, no hello, no parting words ever needed for her.  I have to do this alone.

"Thank you, Lovey," she closes her eyes as I back out of the room.  Her body seems to rise.  It floats over the bed and then settles back down with a sigh.  The world is so unstable now.  I am never sure what is happening here or on the other side.  Lately, about 4 a.m. every night, I hear a tinkling bell ring.  It rings several times.   When I wake, no one is there.  I understand.

It is my time.   I knock on Jim's door.  When he doesn't answer, I try the knob.  Very few residents bother to lock their door unless they are going away.  It's too much trouble to fuss and fumble with keys and locks.  Jim's door opens and I go in as if I am looking for him.  I know what I want and head straight to his desk.  There's only one long drawer and I open it.  The car keys are there and I slide them into the pocket of my sweater, exiting the room quickly before anyone can spot me.  For once, I am glad that the hallway is empty.  The nightly post-dinner movie must be crowded.  It's some romantic comedy featuring Beatle songs, something mushy that most everyone will like. Jim will not miss his keys until next Friday when he goes out for his weekly afternoon drive.

I have to wait until morning.  I know that darkness is not my friend and that everything is lax here on weekends.  Everyone comes and goes.  Other than bingo and Saturday night at the movies, activities halt.  We rely on visitors for entertainment.  I am not expecting anyone this weekend.

 

In the morning I take my overnight bag out of the closet.  It is a green cloth bag with leather handles, well worn, and used whenever I spend the night with one of the brood.  I dust it off and fill it with essentials.  Then I empty out the shoes.  I feel like a child breaking into a piggybank - gleeful and secretive.  I shake each shoe onto the floor.  I am intoxicated by the large amount of money I've accumulated.  I have no idea how much I'll need and what for - to pay a toll or a bribe or the ferryman perhaps. At the last minute I remember to shove a small pillow into the bulging suitcase.

I dress in my purple workout clothes, the ones that look just like Betty White's in her video. A two-piece outfit dotted with silver stars.   I check myself out in the mirror.  I pull the zipper of the top piece down to the crevice of my breast, squeeze them together as I sing, "guess what I'm still hot."  I lick my finger and touch it to my cheek.  I hear the sizzle.  I wink once at myself.  I hear Douglas' approving voice as I close the door and lock it.  "That's my girl," he says. "See you soon."  I slip on the black plastic sunglasses I bought for this day.

I pause in the foyer and sit in a chair as if waiting for a ride.  Annemarie looks up for a minute and goes back to polishing her nails or whatever she is doing behind the counter.  I look at my watch and act impatient.

"Annemarie, I'm going outside to wait for my daughter.  It's too stuffy here. I'll be back Monday or Tuesday so let the dining room know, please."  I head out, then turn around and flash a smile.  "Have a good week-end.  Thanks."  I wave.  St. Agnes' Mead already feels like Brigadoon, vanishing behind me in a fog that only I can see.

I finger the keys in my pocket as I walk toward the resident's lot on the far side of the building.  Jim's car recognizes me and doesn't protest as I press the correct button on the fob and the door unlocks.  I slide into the driver's seat.  So strange after so many years of only sitting on the right side of a vehicle.  It's only a little change made in my life but all the little changes have accumulated to one large lump that I will be glad to leave behind.

I take my time and adjust the mirrors, fiddling with them until I can see out all sides of the vehicle.  I've removed the pillow from my bag, tucked it underneath me and I can see out over the steering wheel.  I remember the various movies I've seen with this ride in them - some on motorcycles, some on stallions, some on chariots - and it's not for the faint of heart.

I turn the key and bless Jim for his careful tending of the car.  The engine catches right away.  "Oye, Betty, check out my hot wheels," I chant as I peel out of the driveway, burning a little rubber.  I head west, away from sunrise, away from settlements and homes, anxious to reach the edge of the map, the edge of the world, as we know it.