People only see what they are shown and believe the tale they are sold.
Everything was perfect.
Well, okay, as close to perfect as Betty Craven could conceive. And that was always above and beyond what the average person ever achieved. But as Betty so often lectured herself, perfection was an elusive bitch; just when she thought she’d manipulated all the pieces into place, some goddamned force of nature with a chaotic agenda took control, vanquishing her precise plans. Perfection wasn’t easy, but it was what kept Betty motivated. Sure, it also kept her jaw unusually tight and even popping at times from the extreme tension. And that neck pain that often paralyzed her range of motion? Yes, that was also a health casualty in her quest for excellence. Oh, and the syncopated flutter that occasionally rose up in her right inner ear that not a single doctor could diagnose, except for citing “stress” as a factor? Yes, that too was just another consequence of what it took to be Betty Craven.
But no one saw the struggle under the polished veneer. People only see what they are shown and believe the tale they are sold. Her dearest, closest friends admired her strength and willpower. She was solid and dependable, but she was also beautiful. A former beauty queen with classic features, Betty’s curvaceous, five-foot-ten-inch frame was envied by other women, who suffered silently as they stood within her stunning orbit. Her hips, sculpted by gourmet cuisine and decadent desserts, were in suitable proportion to her voluptuous breasts that she reined in with custom brassieres. To Betty, exercise was not about cavorting on gym equipment; rather, exercise was a rousing few hours of weeding and digging in her prize-winning garden.
At the age of fifty-eight, she carried herself well. Her blond hairtouched up every twenty-eight days like clockworkwas the same shade as on the day she stood on the stage in the middle of the football field and was crowned Homecoming Queen of Spring Woods High School in Houston, Texas. The same, suitable coif adorned her smiling face on that perfect June day in 1974 when she married Frank Craven, her military beau, at the age of twenty-three in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And nary a hair was out of place in the photos six years later, as she held Frank Jr. in her arms and gazed at the camera in an appropriate manner.
And now, at this moment, her wavy, blond locks were still flawless as they skimmed just below her porcelain ears with the pearl stud earrings. Except for the infuriating fifteen pounds she couldn’t lose around her waist and stomach, Betty Craven still had that indefinable “it” factor. To anyone who knew her longer than five minutes, Betty was the personification of perfection. She was the woman every other woman wanted to be.
And if she could just hold it together for three more hoursjust three more goddamn hoursanother day would finally expire and she could retreat into the claws of regret and her beleaguered memories. Simmering discontent best described Betty Craven lately. The undercurrent of grief had never abated since the day he died. After a few strong drinks at night, she’d often see him in her dreams. But then she wondered if they were really dreams, or if he was stuck between the worlds and destined to spend eternity navigating the tortuous maze of purgatory. From the moment he passed from this world, her body felt weighted by lead. Betty could keep up a good front, because she’d done it for so damn long. She’d trained her body to move and react with such precision, that nobody would ever know the acute disconnect beneath the facade. “The Feet, mechanical, go round,” wrote Emily Dickinson, a favorite of Betty’s. “Of Ground, or Air, or Ought, a wooden way, regardless grown, a quartz contentment, like a stone. This is the Hour of Lead.” Yes, that was an ode to Betty Craven. She closed her eyes and took another anxious breath.
The doorbell rang. Smoothing her freshly ironed, creamy yellow dress across her hips, she re-adjusted the elbow-length sleeves. If Betty ran the world, no one over the age of forty would be caught dead in a sleeveless dress or shirt. There are things you do and there are things you never do, and dammit, sleeveless numbers are verboten. Betty quickly swept the living room with her steely blue eyes, programmed to root out any un-fluffed pillow, a chocolate candy or delicate cucumber sandwich askew on the hand painted platters, or an errant carpet fiber that had resisted the domination of the vacuum. She adjusted one of the large featured flowers in the vase she’d grown from heirloom seeds in her immaculate garden. It was a magnificent bloom with bold orange and crimson striations. But was it too bold? Betty’s jaw clenched. Did it overpower the presentation?
The doorbell rang again, this time with more urgency. They’d all arrived nearly simultaneously, parking their cars in her circular driveway and issuing a penetrating, humming natter outside her spotless cherry-red front door with the spring wreath on it. A wave of apprehension overwhelmed her. Would their expectations be met? Would the food be as impressive as the last get-together she hosted? But far worse, would she fail? Failure wasn’t an unknown visitor in Betty Craven’s house. In fact, failure was sitting thirty-five feet outside the kitchen door, down a short, brick path and slowly decaying in the empty, 600-square-foot, sunny space above her garage.
And there was always Frankie, her greatest failure.
Enough! She shook off the chatter in her head, let out a deep, authoritative breath and cheerfully opened the door.
“Everything’s fine. No worries at all. Have you tried the chocolates?”
“Welcome!” Betty exclaimed, beaming that trademark pageant smile she still knew how to skillfully manufacture on cue.
A stream of well-dressed women entered, loudly talking amongst themselves and greeting Betty with effervescence and accolades.
“Your house looks beautiful!”
“Oh, look at the table!”
“What smells so divine?!”
Betty counted heads, instantly vexed that she hadn’t made enough food. There were twenty-five women, three more than expected. Her gut compressed. Quick. Think. She still had a large pineapple in the refrigerator. Yes, she could cut that up if necessary. Goddamnit, she fumed, why do people show up uninvited and not have the decency to give her advance warning? Spontaneity was fine, as long as it was well-planned in advance.
But Betty kept smiling like a pro. Judi Hancock, a wiry, fifty-two-year-old high school art teacher, and one of Betty’s three closest friends, strode closer, air-kissing Betty’s cheek. As always, her red, polka-dot-rimmed eyeglasses, strung with a decorative necklace, hung around her neck. “Oh, Betty! You didn’t have to go all out for us. What a spread!”
“It’s nothing,” Betty assured.
“Nothing to you, maybe. You always make everything look so easy!” Judi exclaimed.
Renée Holder brushed against Betty’s back. “A few extra gals asked to come to the meeting,” Renée stated, her tanned, fifty-five-year-old face still rosy from a game of tennis on that May Day afternoon. “It’s such an important issue, and we need to get more people involved, so I knew you’d be on board.”
“Of course!” Betty replied with an agreeable tilt of her head. “We’ve got to get the word out, don’t we?” Guacamole. That was always filling. She could whip up a bowl of guacamole during the break and serve it with the bag of corn chips she’d stuffed in the back of the pantry. Wait, what was the expiration date on those damn chips? Betty suddenly looked around the room. “Where’s Helen?”
“Bringing up the rear!” Judi said, pointing to the last few women entering the front door.
Helen Wheeler steadily made her way into the living room, carefully closing the door behind her. At sixty-nine and widowed for fifteen years, she was the oldest member of Betty’s tribe and the one she could always count on to be the most pessimistic. She moved slowly and ate slowly and listened more than she spoke, but Helen was like an old couch in Betty’s eyesusually comfortable to be around but always with the possibility of a rusty spring erupting suddenly and catching her off-guard. If that rusty spring did poke through Helen’s demeanor though, any rancor was usually subdued. Anger took energy away from Helen’s preoccupation with everything that can, and does, go wrong. Helen didn’t the see the glass half empty. No, it was full all right; full to overflowing with whatever poison could kill you.
Helen, Judi and Renée may have occasionally gotten on Betty’s nerves, but they were there for her when Frank learned he needed a liver transplant four years ago. They were still there while Betty and Frank waited for the call that never came. And finally, they were an impenetrable force field that stood by her when Frank died thirteen agonizing months after his first diagnosis. Helen, Judi and Renée were three rocks in Betty’s life and cornerstones of her faith in the power of unwavering friendship.
“Where’s Ronald?” Judi enquired as she secured a seat on the exquisite, rose-colored love seat with the fleur-de-lis pattern.
“Upstairs on the master bed watching television,” Betty replied, directing a quartet of chattering women to the seats.
“Animal Planet, no doubt!” Judi exclaimed.
Betty smiled. She would never force her fourteen-year-old, black and white cat to watch Animal Planet. It was too predictable. Ronald was upstairs at that moment enjoying The Discovery Channel, while classical sonatas played softly in the background.
Renée nervously waved to Betty from across the room and motioned her to corral the women.
“Everyone! Please take your seat,” Betty announced in her trained hostess tenor. “I promise you, there will be plenty of time for conversation and food at the break!” She adjusted the sleeves on her yellow dress once again and patted the back of her blond locks, as she moved in front of the crowd. “Before I begin, I want to apologize for the mess at the corner of the house. I’ve got a gentleman working piecemeal on roof repair, and I know it’s unsightly.” The group regarded Betty with uncertainty.
Judi piped up, “I didn’t see a thing, but I’ll make a point to look later.”
Betty was flummoxed. It was an eyesore. At least it was to her, putting another damper on her bid for perfection. “Well,” she continued, “moving along. I want to thank you all for giving up a few hours on this beautiful, early-spring Saturday to listen to this timely presentation. I’m cheered to see so many people who care about our community.” She took a deep breath, hoping to tamp down any hint of her Texas lilt that tended to surface whenever she spoke in a front of a crowd. “I know as members of the Paradox Republican Women’s Group, we all share a growing concernno pun intended, of courseregarding the upsurge of medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations in our tightly knit neighborhood. Like you, I am…” she searched for the proper word, “disheartened whenever I see another one of these medical,” Betty rolled her eyes, “establishments taking over an empty storefront that used to house a favorite gift shop or coffee house. We are all concerned as to where this undeterred expansion of drug dens, albeit legal according to our liberal state constitution, could lead“
“Legal schmegal!” Renée interrupted from her perch near the front of the attentive group. “None of us voted for this insanity!”
The group softly chuckled.
“And with that deft interjection,” Betty continued, “I would like to introduce Renée Holder, who will help us navigate through these uncharted waters, and hopefully propose a few gems of action we can use to regain our comfortable foothold in this conventional, but oh-so-charming, enclave we call home.” With that, Betty motioned for Renée to take the helm.
Like an impatient tigress, Renée leapt forward, and arranging her stack of notes with a nervous edge, she spoke. “Well, as always, Betty, you are blessed with a poetic command of the English language. While I might lean toward the prosaic, I more than make up for it with the real life, ‘been there and done that’ reality.”
Betty quietly took a seat on the last available chair, a French provincial with a stunning, polished-pecan frame. Renée was right, when she admitted to not being poetic. While they were coming up with names for their Republican women’s group, Renée seriously wanted to call the group the Colorado Republican Association Political Society. Not only was the name long-winded and difficult to fit on the stationary, but Betty noted that the acronym spelled CRAPS. It was tough enough to hold your head high as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican in their modest but upscale city just thirty-five minutes south of Denver. If they were known as CRAPS, Betty knew the liberals would have a field day. Thus, Betty’s simple but effective proposal of the Paradox Republican Women’s Group moniker was chosen. As hard as the liberals tried, they couldn’t make any word out of PRWG, except possibly the word prig. But since Webster’s defined a prig as someone who took pride in behaving in a correct and proper way, and who felt morally superior to people with more relaxed standards, the aberration of their group’s name by some liberal malcontent didn’t concern Betty. Even three years after their inception, she still wasn’t sure if Renée held the name change against her.
“For all the newcomers here today,” Renée continued, “I think it’s important to mention a little bit about my personal background and what I bring to this discussion.”
Betty’s tight jaw clamped down. Good God, she thought, Renée was about to voluntarily dig up her personal dirt once again. How many times would she have to hear about the Twelve-Step Program? It was becoming tedious. Besides, Betty had already decided that if she ever needed to enter A.A., she’d insist on being in the Thirteen-Step Program, simply because she wanted to take that extra step.
“As a recovering alcoholic and drug addict,” Renée zealously announced, “I know the lifestyle better than most of you. I started down my rocky road of addiction with marijuana and I can tell you, as I approach my thirty second year of sobriety, that pot…marijuana…dope…grass…weed…doobie…ganja…a big fat blunt…whatever you want to call it, is a gateway drug.”
Betty felt herself disconnecting. That familiar sensation always happened when the emotional pain started churning in her gut. She pressed her hand against the dip in the arm of her chair, finding momentary solace in the tactile connection.
“That is the opening of my letter to the editor of the Paradox Press. It’s a letter I’m reading to all of you in the hopes you will sign your name to it, so we can create a lot of attention and buzz in our community.”
Judi chuckled. “Buzz? Isn’t the point to stop the buzz?”
“You know what I mean!” Renée replied, looking down at her notes and getting back on message. “The Democrats choose to ignore it, the Libertarians opt to dismiss it and even some in our own Grand Old Party choose to believe marijuana is not harmful. Some of them even refer to this green menace as ‘medicine.’ Really? Medicine. I find that word insulting when it’s connected to a Federally confirmed Schedule I drug that has torn apart and destroyed so many families in our nation. Penicillin, morphine, cortisone, insulin, digitalisthose are medicines and serve a purpose in society. Those drugs save lives and aid in relieving discomfort, whereas marijuana does not. Marijuana, as I can sadly attest, creates a lack of initiative in people. A sense of what’s the use? And when that occurs, motivation ceases to exist. The need for a stronger, more potent high is sought out, and with that, the increased need for hardcore drugs begins.” Renée hesitated before continuing. “And as some of us have personally experienced,” she cleared her throat, “the graduation to cocaine and heroin often ends in death, and those left behind are consumed with grief.”
Judi glanced toward Betty but quickly turned away. Betty swallowed hard. She wasn’t prepared for the reaction, especially not in front of strangers. Remaining stoic was a gift and a necessity. One didn’t allow others to chafe that well-honed surface. Betty took a shallow breath. Her right inner ear began that damn syncopated flutter, that came from nowhere and ended when it felt like it.
“Have you seen the fine citizens who run and operate these medical marijuana dispensaries?” Renée continued with derision. “Sources tell me that a criminal elementi.e., former street drug dealersmight own and operate many of these dens of iniquity. And possibly over seventy percent of the people working in these drug establishments are more than familiar with the long arm of the law. Are they not laughing at us right now? Have the liberal laws of our venerable state finally gone too far? Yes! A resounding YES!” Renée looked at the audience. “I put that in caps for effect.” She resumed reading her letter. “With this information, ask yourself: Are these the types of people you want in your neighborhood? And don’t get us started on the whole caregiver and patient fiasco! Since when is an unemployed, twenty-year-old high school drop-out with a green thumb and an empty basement, considered worthy of being given the moniker of a healthcare professional with patients under his care?! Don’t insult our intelligence! These stoners are not ‘caregivers,’ because the plant they are pushing is not medicine!” She let out a meaningful breath. “Marijuana equals death. Death to our communities. Death to our collective integrity. Death to our way of life. Death to the family. Death to the children.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Death to the country.” Renée waited. “That’s it. That’s the end of the letter.”
“Well done,” Helen said. “I’ll be happy to add my name to your letter.”
Considering that she rationed her words so carefully, this was high praise coming from Helen.
“Well, thank you, Helen,” Renée replied. “That means a lot to me. I bet you could give us insight into what your generation would tell these young people and others who use, grow or dispense this drug.”
Helen pursed her lips. “That’s simple. First we’d tell them to ‘smarten up.’ Then we’d tell them to toughen up, if they don’t want to end up being a leech on society. Weakness. That’s what it is. Plain and simple.”
Good Lord, Betty mused, Helen was on a roll. Weakness, she stated. Where had she heard that gem before?
“Would anyone else like to share their thoughts?” Renée asked the group.
Judi raised her hand and leaned her lithe body forward. “Hi, everyone. I’m an art teacher over at Paradox High School. This one student of mine is nineteen. He had to make up a grade, so he’s the ‘wise sage’ who puts the fun in our dysfunctional motley crew. He’s really popular because he got his dope card…” she feigned embarrassment, “uh, excuse me…medical marijuana card, because of a bad back. Seriously, I never knew until recently there were so many nineteen-year-old kids with bad backs.” Judi used air quotes with her fingers to stress bad backs. The women chuckled softly. “So, numb nuts has his pot card, and he brazenly goes to the marijuana dispensary, located exactly one thousand and one feet away from the schoolso it’s, you know, in legal state limitsto get his ‘medicine.’ Then he meets his buddies, all around sixteen years old, and doles out the treats to them in his beater car. I saw it with my own eyes! Oh, and they don’t call it ‘getting high’ anymore. They call it medicating. I mean, please. This whole medical classification is, excuse my language ladies, pure bullshit! I am married to a doctor. I know what real medicine is. Medicine is for people who need to manage their physical problems. Marijuana is for brain-dead losers who move their lips when they read or watch television.”
The conversation continued for another hour. Betty excused herself before the break and slipped quietly down the hallway to the bathroom. Closing the door behind her, she stood motionless at the sink, relieved to be away from the zealous exchanges continuing in the living room. The thump-thump in her right ear had thankfully ceased, only to be replaced by an intruding stiffness in her neck. For a moment, Betty let her guard down, allowing a long, tired breath to escape her lips. It shouldn’t be like this. After all, it was spring, when life is renewed and possibilities are endless. Already a cascade of eye-candy color and sweet scents swept across her front yard, as the oversized tulips, narcissus and daffodils displayed their vibrant faces. Even during the worst times, that sight alone ordinarily buoyed Betty’s spirits.
However, it wasn’t working anymore. Betty could spend hours digging and transplanting in the gardenit was still a meditative draw, that allowed her mind to temporarily quiet. But it was getting harder to get up in the morning and easier to feel discouragement settling in like an unwelcome houseguest. She heard the gaggle of women stir, a sign that the much anticipated food break beckoned. Two hours tops. That’s what she told herself. Two more hours and they’d be gone, and she could sink into the silence with a stiff bourbon to escape. With every bit of reserve she had left, Betty stood straight and faced the mirror. Dabbing on a quick touch-up of lipstick, she smoothed her dress, chided herself silently about her minor paunch, sucked in her gut and flashed her pageant smile. She adjusted the unused guest towels with the large embroidered “C” so that they lay identically. As she turned to leave, she realized the missing ornate mirror on the rear wall had left an obvious outline on the wallpaper, where it had hung for so long.
What if someone noticed it? How would she explain it? Her mind ran laps of anxiety until the cackle outside the door grew louder. She had to reappear and reclaim her hostess mantle. Hunting in the vanity drawer, she found a lonely nail. Removing her shoe, she pounded the nail twice into the wall and cleverly hung a spray of dried lavender she’d decoratively placed on the side of the vanity. Slipping her shoe back on, she centered herself, opened the door and walked into the hallway.
Rows of framed photographs lined the wall. Each photo a close-up of another triumphant entry from Betty’s garden. She stopped momentarily at one that meant more than all the others. It wasn’t a photo, but rather an antique watercolor of stunning white violets amidst a spring garden, framed in faux gold. Betty felt her heart sink as she stared at the picture, losing herself in the moment. She touched the edge of the frame, a wave of sadness unexpectedly overwhelming her.
“Compassionate Care Centers!” Renée derisively declared. “That’s what they like to call some of these marijuana dispensaries. How disingenuous can you be? That’s like trying to make prostitution a noble venture, by just throwing the word compassion in there. ‘Come visit our compassionate call girls.’ Can’t you just see the ad? As if the guy is going there to discuss his issues. No. He’s paying her to screw him. Just like people are paying for marijuana, not because they need compassion, but because they need to get loaded.”
“Betty?” Judi called down the hallway.
Betty turned, still faraway. “Coming!” She shook off the memory, and by the time she joined Renée and Judi, the “hostess with the mostest” was back on track.
“Everything all right?” Judi asked.
Oh, God. What did she see? “Everything’s fine. No worries at all. Have you tried the chocolates?”
“Not yet!” Judi said. “Gotta start with the delectable sandwiches first and then move up the food chain to the pièce de résistance.”
Helen joined the women. “I signed your letter,” she stated to Renée. “Now let’s hope it makes an impact. So many times these things fall flat.”
Yes, there was the inimitable Helen in action, Betty thought. Always seeing a silver lining of plutonium around those clouds.
“I better get in the kitchen and whip up a little guacamole, just in case we need it,” Betty stated, starting to make an exit.
“We’ll help you,” Judi insisted, pointing to Renée. “But I wanted to ask you, where’s that divine antique chair with the needlepoint seat that always sits by the front door?”
Betty’s stomach lurched. “Out for repair. Ronald had an impetuous moment and clawed it underneath.”
“Ech, cats,” Helen moaned. “Did you know a form of AIDS exists in cats?”
Betty gently patted Helen on the shoulder, smiled and headed quickly to the kitchen. Like little superfluous lemmings, Renée and Judi followed. Betty reached into the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator and brought out several avocados, an heirloom tomato from the local farmers’ market, a few stems of cilantro and a lime. As she stood up, she felt a twinge in her neck and slightly winced.
“You okay, Betty?” Renée asked, leaning against the kitchen sink.
“Of course,” Betty said, waving it off. “Just been battling a bit of muscle tension lately.”
“That ear thing going on still?” Judi stressed.
“Now and then.” Betty wanted to concentrate on the avocados and this damn chatter wasn’t helping.
“Would you go see Roger already?” Judi stressed.
Roger was Judi’s husband, a General Practitioner who never met a pharmaceutical drug he didn’t love to prescribe to his patients. Doctor Hancock was the personification of “Dr. Feel Good.” Thanks to his devotion to Big Pharma and the perks that go along with it, Judi and Roger enjoyed outstanding vacations in Mexico and Hawaii, all paid for by the drug companies, in exchange for good ol’ Doc Hancock’s support. Betty knew it was only a matter of time before she’d end up in his office. The almost incestuous, entangled connections with her friends made it difficult to guard her privacy.
“Yes,” Betty said. “I’ll do it.” She needed to change the subject. “Love your pants. Are they new?”
Judi seemed a bit taken back. “Yeah. Linen. I love them. I bought several pairs.”
“Well, you’ll have to tell me where you got them,” Betty smiled, mashing the avocados with purpose.
“Oh, I think they’re all sold out,” she replied. “They were on sale.” Judi cut the lime and squeezed the juice into a bowl. “Hey, not to be maudlin, but have you stopped by lately to see Peggy?”
Betty’s jaw tightened. She could lie and say she’d visited regularly, but the deception would be revealed eventually. “No…I just…I really should“
“She’s not doing well, Betty,” Renée interjected, chopping up the tomato in her typical manic manner. “I dropped by her house last week, on the way home from one of my meetings.” Even after thirty-two years of sobriety, Renée still felt a need to attend both AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. “God, it was awful. The pain from the cancer is off the charts. Moaning, screaming, vomiting,” she shook her head. “Peggy stopped the chemo, did you know?”
“No,” Betty replied, trying desperately to focus on the avocado and tune out the discourse. “Why?”
“Her doctor told her there was no point,” Judi declared. “She was told she has fewer than two months. So they’ve got hospice at her house, and her family takes shifts.”
Betty stopped mashing the avocado and looked at the women. “Jesus, I had no idea. I…keep meaning to go see her…I just…”
Judi put a comforting hand on Betty’s shoulder. “I get it. You’ve had your fill of sterile hospitals. But she’s home now, so it’s not like what you experienced with Frank.”
But Judi didn’t really “get it.” It wasn’t the hospital. Betty had no problem showing up at a hospital, with flowers in one hand and candy in the other, and sitting by someone’s bedside, if the person she visited was expected to leave the hospital alive. It wasn’t the damn hospital she feared; it was death. Between 2005 and 2007, she’d held the cremated remains of her husband and her only child. One urn was buried in a military cemetery and the other ashes, secured in a plain brown box, were sheltered on a shelf in her closet. Given the choice, she’d run from any tint of death. Asking her to voluntarily show up at Peggy’s bedside while she “moaned, screamed and vomited,” was asking too much.
Renée piped up. “Why don’t you bring her a big box of your chocolates? You know how much Peggy is addicted to your chocolates.”
It was a classic comment for Renée to make, Betty thought. She stepped foot in Betty’s former chocolate shop only once, and that was for the grand opening celebration. Instead of enjoying the event and indulging in a cornucopia of decadent cacao confections, she spent the evening frantically zipping from one guest to another, droning on about the perils of addiction. It was like inviting an Amish elder to a keg party.
“It’s the high altitude honey,” Judi exclaimed, carefully mincing the cilantro. “I swear that’s your secret ingredient! Given the choice, my Roger would grind up all his pills and melt them into one of your incredible chocolates. I tell you, Betty, the day you closed The White Violet, Roger nearly wept. I kid you not! You were the like the local crack house, where he’d always stop on Fridays to get his weekly cacao fix.”
Betty managed a weak smile. Talking about her failed entrepreneurial gourmet chocolate shop, that lasted fewer than eighteen months and chewed through every cent of Frank’s life insurance policy, was not fodder for friendly banter across a kitchen counter. “I just wish there’d been a few hundred more die-hard people like Roger out there. I’d still have the shop if that were the case.”
“You haven’t been able to sell any of the commercial equipment you bought?” Renée asked.
“No,” Betty quickly replied, adding the lime juice, cilantro and diced tomatoes to the avocado. “I really should do that soon. So much to do!” She tried to sound cheerful as she sprinkled a pinch of salt and spices into the guacamole.
Judi leaned forward in a faux clandestine manner. “Hey, Betty, I know we’ve mentioned this before, but it’s been three years since Frank Sr. died. It’s time for you to get out there and…you know…mingle.”
Betty regarded Judi and then Renée with suspicious eyes. “Mingle?”
Judi hesitated before launching into her animated spiel. “We have found the perfect man for you!”
“What?” Betty’s anxiety level shot up. “I don’t want a man!”
Renée raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you want a woman.”
Betty’s ire rose. “Good God no! I’m saying I don’t need a man in my life, thank you very much!”
“I told you, Judi,” Renée stressed. “The wound of grief with Frank Sr. is still too fresh. She still hasn’t processed the experience.”
Betty stood there, towering over both of these women and wondered why in the hell she felt cowed by them. Process the experience, she thought to herself. Jesus, Renée was talking more and more like an overly therapatized veteran. There was nothing to process. She was married to Colonel Craven, the only man she’d ever known in the biblical sense, for nearly thirty-two years. Thirty-two long, painful, suffocatingly tense years, where she’d perfected the art of walking on eggshells, quickly assessing the level of stress in others so she’d know what emotion she should feel, feigning interest in matters that bored her, parroting others’ words and observations, and doing it all with a plastic smile on her face. Between the day Frank got the diagnosis that he needed a liver transplant and the death knell that followed a little over one year later, Betty continued to play the loyal, supportive wife. But thick fibers of contempt wove through each marathon bedside vigil and depressing update from the doctors. And yet, no one ever knew. By the time the great Colonel Craven was laid to rest in a “balls to the wall” military send off, Betty had to force herself to focus on the event and not on the fifteen-pound roast she had slow-cooking in the oven back at the house.
“His name is Tom Reed,” Judi slyly offered. “And he’s your type.”
Betty turned to Judi with an incredulous eye. “Type? I have a type?”
“Well, yeah,” Judi gently said. “He’s six years older than you, quite comfortable, President of Rotary, divorced for five years. Um, let’s see. He’s stable, owned his own insurance company, obviously a Republican, well admired in the community…Oh Betty, come on, just meet him for drinks and see what you think.”
Betty was of the opinion that men were way over marketed to single women over fifty. The last offering foisted on her was an arrogant specimen by the name of Harold. Betty was forced to sit next to him at Judi’s yearly summer soirée last August. His silly comb-over was the least offensive part of his social strategy. In anticipation of meeting Betty, he prepared a bright-yellow postcard onto which he wrote everything he felt she might want to know about him. Betty realized she was in trouble when she noted his favorite leisure activity was “power napping.” Somehow, Harold failed to include his other leisure activitycompiling inane statistics about himself and writing them on yellow postcards.
The phone rang. She checked the Caller ID and quickly lowered the volume on the voicemail. “Damned salespeople!” Her head spun as she spooned the guacamole into a green dish, shaped like an avocado. “I can’t make any promises regarding Mr. Reed.”
“Would you at least promise us you’ll think about it?” Judi asked.
Betty felt cornered, a feeling she’d grown accustomed to over the last thirty plus years. She’d learned that placating was the best approach. “Yes. Fine. I’ll think about it.” She headed toward the kitchen door, ready to present the guacamole to her guests. ”Now, if you don’t mind, girls, the gazpacho is getting warm.”
The spare but elegantly appointed luncheon went over well with all the women. But the elicitations of delight were broadcast the loudest when the group indulged in Betty’s sensuous chocolate medallions. Simple yet divine, the darkest cacao embraced the finest cocoa butter from Bali, sweetened with the smoothest ambrosia honey. With subtle yet defining undertones of cinnamon, fresh ginger and the finest Madagascar vanilla beans the chocolates melted on the tongue. Looking at the group while they indulged in one chocolate after another, Betty felt as if she were witnessing an orgy of edible delights. She had single-handedly made a roomful of women forget their individual dramas, if only for a few minutes. Something about that always warmed her heart. It was difficult to fall back into the “battleground” mentality after that kind of gourmet indulgence, so the rest of the meeting was brief. Renée’s letter was passed around the room and signed by everyone. Betty, always one to be formal, signed the letter “Elizabeth Craven” in her finest penmanship.
As the women left, Betty made a point to thank each of them personally. Manners were such a thing of the past, but in Betty’s world, they still reigned supreme. She heard Renée’s strident voice ring out across the driveway. “Fight the good fight, ladies! Never fear! We can and will win on this issue!”
Judi was the last to leave. She hugged Betty tightly and held her hand. “You are making an appointment with Roger, right?”
Betty smiled but the weariness was setting in quickly. “Yes. I will.”
“In the meantime,” Judi stated, jotting down some words on a piece of scrap paper she pulled from her purse, “there’s this incredible salve that was recommended to me by one of the other teachers. It’s called ‘Mama’s Muscle Mojo.’” She rolled her eyes. “I know it sounds sketchy but it really works. It will help until you can get in to see Roger, and he can give you something to really relax the muscles. It’s only available at one health food store.” She jotted down the info and handed the note to Betty.
Betty read the name of the store. “The Hippie Dippie Health Food Store?”
Betty folded the scrap of paper and placed it on the entry table. She wasn't interested in drinking juices from juice bars, and if she wanted “outrageous” soups, she'd make one. But she thanked Judi nonetheless and wished her a happy weekend, before closing the door and falling into the silence.
It took Betty another hour to clean up and put away the few plates of leftover food. She collected two-dozen of the chocolate medallions she'd set aside in the kitchen, wrapped them in diaphanous, gold, tissue paper and placed them into one of her trademark crimson and gold boxes, left over from her shop. Circling the box with a matching elegant crimson bow, she placed the box to the side. The blinking light on the voicemail caught her attention. She turned up the volume and played the message.
“Hello, Mrs. Craven. It's Lily from Classical Consignments. I wanted you to know your antique chair with the needlepoint seat just sold. Talk to you soon!”
One more gone, Betty mused. She felt the same brief pull of regret and sadness that always followed, when another material possession evaporated from her existence. It'll be all right. She had to keep telling herself that, even though the sense of loneliness and fear tugged relentlessly at her heart. She finished the few remaining cucumber sandwiches and scooped up the remnants of guacamole. A cup of gazpacho soup cleansed her palate, as she looked at the time. Six o'clock. Yes, it wasn't too early to start imbibing. She poured herself a stiff glass of bourbon from the Waterford decanter sitting on the credenza in the living room. It used to hold the expensive brand, but now it cradled Old Crow, an amber liquid good enough to satisfy the likes of Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant. Heading upstairs to her bedroom, she passed the door that led to the attic. Betty hovered by the door, taking a sip of bourbon and falling carelessly into a memory. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she knew it was time to retreat into the safety of her bedroom.
Three hours later, she was still awake and lying in bed, floating on the fumes of her fourth drink. Ronald continued to snooze happily at the foot of the bed, as Betty pulled the comforter toward her chest. Surfing the TV channels, she came across the early local news. Reverend Bobby Lynch, a grey-haired, controversial fixture in Colorado Springs, was being asked for his opinion on the plethora of medical marijuana dispensaries cropping up around his mega-church. Utilizing the most fervent Saturday afternoon modulation of his Sunday pulpit voice, Reverend Lynch condemned what he called “the slow slide into Hell.” He stressed that this issue was about “morality,” and that “the moral fabric” was being ripped to shreds by “the abomination of these drug havens.” He then added that he “wept for the children.” When the interviewer asked him what “children” had to do with the topic, Reverend Lynch replied with his standard “children are our future” line and then randomly added, “Jesus never needed to smoke a joint.”
This odd conversation was sharply contrasted against a sound bite from a marijuana activist, who went by the unusual name of “Doobie Douggie.” With his long, unruly mane of grey hair and multiple tattoos, Doobie Douggie was a longtime expert grower of “the herb.” At the age of seventy, and wheelchair bound from taking a shot to the back in Vietnam, he wore a t-shirt with the statement “Legalize the Weed” emblazoned on the front. Douggie believed that cannabis was given to mankind by God, and due to its varied usefulness as both fiber and medicine, anyone who wanted to could and should grow the plant in their backyard based on their God-given, inalienable rights. Even though Douggie qualified for a cannabis “red card” under Colorado law, he refused to play by the system’s rules and openly grew close to fifty varieties of medical marijuana inside and outside his rural home, forty-five miles south of Paradox. For this, Douggie had been caught “green handed” and arrested countless times. He was commonly seen wheeling himself out of the courthouse after each arrest, wrapped in the American Flag and screaming, “Give cannabis a chance!” and “Marijuana doesn’t kill people! Government kills the people!” To the growing marijuana activists, Doobie Douggie was their patron saint of pot. He was edgy, fearless and angry as hell. Just as Reverend Lynch talked about the moral fabric, Douggie stressed the usefulness of hemp fiber and the fact that Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. He explained that canvas hailed from cannabis, also noting that ships’ sails were made from the hemp plant, as well as the rope onboard those vessels. After a one-minute rant that was intelligently stated, but filled with rage and a few bleeped expletives, the interviewer had to cut Douggie off and wrap up the segment.
Betty clicked off the TV and fell into the silence. It wasn’t even 9:30 but she could feel the suffocation of the night. She used to be a night owl, but now it was the avowed enemy. She felt like a hostage, held in a fist of darkness. The shadows and thumps woke her from shallow sleep and tormented her racing mind. The numbness of the bourbon didn’t help either. Instead of reducing the anxiety, it seemed to incite both paranoia and ghostly images.
Through the glaze of booze and angst, she heard a defined thud and checked to see if Ronald heard it too. But the ol’ boy was sound asleep. Creeping from the bed, Betty lay an unsteady, bare foot on the carpet and slid open the drawer on the side table. Removing her small-but-effective Beretta Tomcat handgun, she slinked to the bedroom door and peered into the upstairs hallway. She heard the same thud again and located the origin. Turning back into her bedroom and looking outside her window, she noted an errant branch on the large, canopy elm that hugged the corner of the backyard. Her favored, stately tree needed to have its dead branches pruned, but it was another expense she couldn’t afford.
Betty sat on the edge of the bed, turned on the bedside lamp, and gently concealed the Tomcat in the drawer. The room suddenly felt heavy around her, as she sensed his presence bleed through the darkness and sit behind her on the edge of the bed. The fourth Bourbon always fueled these discarnate visions. She didn’t want to turn around, because she hated the way he looked. The sunken cheeks, vacant eyes and the weeping sores that festered on his arms and neck, reminded her too much of the last time she saw him on that cold slab five years ago.
“Mom?” she heard him whisper.
“Yes, Frankie? I’m here.”
“I can feel your fear.”
Betty nodded. “I know. You always could.”