Friday, March 09, 2007

On Ice (CNF)

Later, much later, I asked him about the end of the story.  He said, that was the end. 

Only when I begged did he tell me about kneeling down to speak to her.  (And no more.)

The dishes hadn't been washed since 1958, he said.  Give or take a few years.  And it had been about that long since the garbage had been taken out or the litter boxes cleaned.  The cats had long since stopped using the full litter boxes and used the furniture, rugs and kitchen counters instead.  We were walking again past Betty's house, and Jake rarely walked by without mentioning her.  

I had been to the house while she was alive and again after she died.  I knew his descriptions were, if slightly exaggerated, essentially accurate.  My husband left me for his lover.  I was looking for someplace cheap to live.  After Betty was gone, I considered buying her house.  I walked through clouds of kerosene fumes and flies, studied the heaps of garbage, the decaying floor and roof, and despaired of making it livable.

That was more than fifteen years ago.  Since then, a young couple did renovate the house. In the half-light of dusk, Jake and I regard the tan-shingled cape with lights glowing low along the walk and pristine picture window lit with the soft radiance of several spotless white lamps.  Through the wide window, the living room looks like an ad from Better homes and Gardens.  It's not recognizable as the house that Betty inhabited, though the outline of the roof is similar.  I could almost still believe it was her house, if I squint against the tall white pines and blueberry bushes brilliant red in the fading sunset.

Jake says he doesn't remember how he became friendly with Betty.  Probably spoke to her in her yard as he walked down the road toward Bottomwood Beach.  When he first saw her, she was grey, wrinkled, shrunken, diabetic, and arthritic, with a bad heart.  She had an ancient dog, Tuppy, and a passel of black cats, but no family or friends ever came around.  As the years passed, she kept getting smaller and smaller and the dog and cats got scrawnier and scrawnier.  Tuppy's hair, Jake added, was always falling out in patches. 

Jake didn't mention this, but one thing I remember about Betty was the plaid gingham aprons she wore with mismatched flowered dresses.  Even when her apron was black with grease and dirt and thick with cat hair, she wiped her hands on it.  A grey slip with partially detached eyelet often hung below the hem of the dress.  She scuffed around in slippers that might once have been pink.

A couple times a year, she would call Jake to say she thought she saw a cougar in the yard.  A cougar, Jake said, wryly, shaking his head. Down here by the shore.  Not plumb likely.  She would ask him to come, look around and make sure it was gone.  Once, she called to say there was a moose in her garden, and when he went over, there really was a moose.  It was munching the cabbages and Jake gently encouraged it to move back into the pines.

He could deal with an occasional moose or phantom cougar, Jake said, but it was the flashlight lens that really got to him.  Two or three times a day, every day, Betty called Jake to say that she had dropped her flashlight, shattered the lens and a shard of lens glass may have gotten into Tuppy's dog food.  Betty said her eyesight was bad and would he please, please come over and check Tuppy's food to make sure it was safe?  Jake tried to be patient with Betty, but sometimes, it wasn't easy.

One winter day, Jake said, the temperature had gone up to forty and it rained all day.  Betty called three times and three times, Jake went over to check Tuppy's food and reassure Betty that it was safe from flashlight-lens shards.  The dampness and dripping ceiling made the smell of Kerosene from the leaky lamps, the garbage, rot, and cat urine smell worse than ever.   

All evening, the temperature plummeted and rain fell and froze until the yards, driveways and road was a glaze of ice.   The temperature continued to fall until it was 20 below zero.  A monster wind howled up the road.  Jake stoked the woodstove, pulled rugs over the cracks under the doors, got ready for bed and slipped gratefully between the covers.

The phone rang. It was Betty.  She wanted Jake to come over and check Tuppy's dog food for flashlight-lens shards again.  A fourth time.  To us, Jake says, sometimes a man might be tired.  Sometimes he could be in a bad mood, be angry.  Be fed up.  Or just want to be in bed.  He told her no, he had already checked Tuppy's food three times, and it was fine. Betty said, yes, but she had dropped the flashlight again so it might be contaminated.  Jake said he was not feeling well and he was going back to bed.  Put the food up, he said, and he'd check it in the morning.

He turned off the light again and went back to bed. A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door.  He got up, turned on the porch light and struggled to push open the door against the wind.  Betty.  In her housedress.  This frail old lady who could hardly walk, he said, somewhat bitterly, had negotiated two ice-covered driveways, the glazed road and the roaring twenty-below wind to stand on his slick sidewalk.  As he opened the door, she slipped and fell backwards like a tree falling--crack--onto the ice.  The wind blew her skirt over her head. It was twenty below zero and Jake took a step out toward her onto the ice in his bare feet.  Betty lay there unmoving.  He stood staring at her, torn between pity and rage, a desire to help and utter fury.  Crazy with ambivalence and indecision.  His pajamas whipped around his legs in the wind.

He stops talking, stares toward Betty's old house.  His eyes slip away.  I know Betty died, but did she die then?  Jake doesn't elucidate.  He leaves Betty lying on the ice, her dress blowing up.  It's dark, twenty below zero. His bare feet melt down into the ice. 

Mary Stebbins Taitt, 070309, 031011