A young girl tries to hide a deed against her stepmother
|Betty picked up the iron and set it on the kitchen counter to cool. No need, she thought, to burn the house down. She opened the front door and gazed through the screen door, thinking she wasn’t a klutz, she wasn’t a bad girl. She ran her hand on the aluminum panel and felt the dent.
She made the hollow over five years ago. Betty remembered numbed nose, the cut lip and the eye that turned black and blue when she tripped running up the marble steps and fell against the screen door, leaving the depression with her nine year old face. She had sat on the steps of their row house and tried not to cry because that would bring Maxine, her stepmother, out. Blood had run from her nose onto her fingers. She wiped them on the steps as she choked the sobs back. Then, door had opened.
“What have you done this time?” Maxine stood in the open screen door, hands fisted on hips. Betty’s eyes dropped, then started up again, beginning with the red chipped toenail polish, up the unshaved legs to the faded green plaid housedress covering a body that looked like squished marshmallows. Maxine’s penciled eyebrows came together and hazel eyes in deep pockets of puffy skin squinted at Betty.
“I fell. I’m bleeding.” Betty felt the chill of the November morning and goose bumps ran up her arms under T-shirt. She licked a cut on her lip where they’d met her teeth and tasted the iron of blood.
“What a klutz you are. Get those steps cleaned up before your father gets home,” Maxine said. The television chanted inside: “Nixon, now more than ever! Nixon, now more than ever!” Betty had wondered why Maxine didn’t have the soap operas on.
She now opened the same dented screen door to go out. She squinted into Baltimore’s morning sun and sat on the marble steps, noting tiny flecks of black, brown and grey swirled through the white marble like the leavings of an errant peppermill.
She ran her left hand on its coolness, a stark contrast to the early summer day promising heat and humidity. A trash truck roared down the street, a dragon expelling the smell of diesel mixed with the rotting garbage. A plume of exhaust wafted over and Betty held her breath until it passed.
She looked down at the dip worn in the marble, the result of hundreds of feet over decades. Feet. Her father’s feet. She put her palm in the dip to connect to him, hoping he left a bit of himself behind before he died.
She smiled, thinking of the street fairs he took her to in the summer, the slurpees, the cotton candy, and street performers making balloons into animals. He’d raise her to his shoulders so she could see better, then let her ride up there on top of the world. He tickled her, he said, just to hear her laugh.
Maxine wasn’t so mean then, she thought. Her remarks were cutting and sarcastic, and could plunge deep in an unguarded moment. Betty heard regularly how stupid she was, how clumsy she was, how much trouble she was. She learned to ignore Maxine, to stay at a friend’s house or at the school library, until it was time for her father to come home.
When did it get bad? She thought in the sixth grade. She and her dad often read together in her room, each with their own book, sharing the table lamp between two relocated dining room chairs. They could hear the rage, as her father called these incidents, coming up the stairs.
“She must be off her medication, again,” her dad would say and put his book down on the pink chenille bedspread. Betty remembered the bags under his pale blue eyes when he looked at her, the cheeks that were beginning to droop with them. “I’ll go down and try to calm her. You stay here. No sense both of us getting into it.” He’d run a hand through his gray-brown hair, slicked back on his head, and open the door.
The doctors told them Maxine had a chemical imbalance in her brain. Psycho something. They sent her away for “treatment” to a hospital, a place Betty wasn’t allowed.. After a few weeks, her step mother would return with candy for Betty and kisses for her dad. Maxine scoured the house from stem to stern, and Betty came home from school to freshly baked cookies. Then, within days, the rages started again for some imagined crime: a pair of shoes left out, the TV on the wrong channel, an empty cup in the sink. Left without check, Maxine’s voice leapt up an octave into racking sobs detailing how Betty and her dad ruined her life, that she deserved better, that she wanted to have her own child, not someone else’s.
Which would have suited Betty fine. She certainly didn’t plan for her mother to be hit by a drunk driver crossing a downtown street.
Last year, her dad said he had to go in the hospital for tests, but he never came out. The doctors said he had an advanced cancer of the stomach. Betty stood at his bedside and held his calloused carpenter’s hand, finally climbing into the bed and snuggling up to him, moving tubes and bottles out of the way.
He stroked her hair. “Maxine isn’t all bad, Honey. She has her good points.”
Betty lay still, waiting to hear what they were.
“Just do what she says. Stay out of her way and for heaven’s sake, stay in school. Promise me that, okay?”
Betty looked up into the gray face, almost matching the fading blue eyes, her eyes watering. “I will Dad, I promise.”
Now, sitting on the step, the morning summer sun rising in the haze, she almost laughed. Like she had a choice. She was only fourteen. She knew kids who ran away. Sometimes they came back and whatever made them leave got worse. Or they didn’t come back. She couldn’t think about that; no one talked about it. She lifted her palm from the marble to transfer the coolness to her face. Choices, she thought. What choices?
“What you did this morning was bad, Betty,” she heard her father say somewhere in her mind. “You planned it didn’t you?”
“Sort of.” Betty felt as she always did when her Dad caught her at something, slightly embarrassed she’d disappointed him. “She wanted me to scrub the steps AGAIN, Dad. Then she came at me with the hot iron. She wasn’t even ironing.”
Not hearing a reply, Betty wondered yet again, why Maxine insisted on Betty scrubbing the steps every day since her father died. White, they must be white, like Mrs. Robinson's next door. Mrs. Robinson used bleach. Maxine refused to let Betty use bleach.
“If you just keep at it,” Maxine insisted, hands on bulging hips over Betty and her bucket of soapy water, “they’ll be white. What will the neighbors think if they aren’t white? You know how they talk about me anyway. Now get to work.” The door would slam and Betty would scrub. After a few minutes, Betty simply stopped. Of course, the steps were never white enough and the cycle would start again, usually after a loud screaming match.
Betty folded her arms across her knobby knees and stared through to her rubber flip-flops on the white marble. She squirmed her right foot and felt the marble through the hole in her shoe. She blew a breath down the front of her man’s undershirt, noting the zipper on her shorts was ripping out. Strands of blonde hair fluttered in her face and she reached back to redo her ponytail.
For awhile, Betty thought she could overcome the need to scrub the steps. She tried good grades. When she brought home all 'A's last year, Maxine punched her in the chest. "Go scrub those steps, you stupid girl." Then, the bourbon bottle came out.
Another idea was to be bad. Betty spilled ketchup on the steps to see Maxine’s reaction. The result was a chilly night with a thin blanket spent in the back yard. Mrs. Robinson saw her there and Betty begged her not to say anything, afraid she would get in even more trouble. Mrs. Robinson brought out cushions from an old couch and two more blankets.
“This happens again, and I’m calling the police,” she announced, tossing a flashlight to Betty. “If you change your mind, the back door’s open.”
Betty watched Maxine’s aggression grow over the last year. She threatened to leave Betty on her own, sent an occasional ashtray flying across the room. Last week, Betty tasted her first beer, thrown in her face. She became concerned what Maxine might do when she was sleeping and, after several nights studying the spackled ceiling, went to the hardware store, purchased an inside lock for her bedroom door and installed it herself.
She’d explained to the store owner, Mr. Patrick, the lock was for the kitchen door. It was her first lie, but it did not end the fear. Maxine’s seething looks roamed in her head like frantic birds in a cage. Dread sat in her stomach like a bowling ball while she was at school, then mushroomed into her chest on the way home, her brain trying to anticipate what waited there. She found she couldn’t think, study or talk to her friends about ordinary things. She felt the fear advancing into her knees when she walked, as though a hinge was loose. It ran down her arms into her fingers making them shake to pick up a pen.
She stood. Today, things were different. Betty climbed the steps, opened the door and saw Maxine for the second time that day on the couch. A bottle of bourbon lay on the floor, its contents in a golden puddle on the gray linoleum. The room reeked of tobacco smoke. Should she open the windows?
“No,” her father said. Betty whipped around to the kitchen fully expecting him to be leaning against the door jamb, beer in hand, a tired grimace on his face. Only the dark yellow of the kitchen greeted her gaze. She turned back. It was time to get going.
Betty trotted out the front door, letting the screen door slam behind her, and walked two blocks to the hardware store. A breeze wafted over from the Domino Sugar plant bringing the smell of brown sugar mixed with the salt air of the Patapsco River. A tabby cat slunk by and hissed at her. Betty hissed back.
As she opened the hardware store door, the attached bell rang. She spotted Mr. Patrick, a thin balding man in a faded green apron, behind the counter shuffling papers. She shifted her gaze through the small store, a jumble of sagging shelves supplying everything from hammers to air conditioners. Dust motes drifted by and she sneezed.
"Betty! Always good to see you, Hon,” Mr. Patrick said, using the universal Baltimore endearment. He returned his attention to the papers with a frown. “Can’t believe these prices.”
His balding pate sported a few hairs across it and some of these fell in his eyes. He wiped them back and glanced up. “Do you need something??
“Mr. Patrick,” Betty’s eyes roamed past him to the back of the store. They were alone. She took a deep breath and licked her dry lips. “I remember you said sometimes people don’t like the paint you mix for them and you sell it real cheap.”
“That’s right. What color you looking for?”
Mr. Patrick cocked his head. “As a matter of fact, I have some.” He started toward the back of the store and waved Betty to follow. “One of those modern “loft” people wanted it to paint a concrete wall. Can you imagine? Concrete walls?
Betty shrugged. “Beats me.”
“Me, too.” Mr. Patrick stopped before a collection of five paint cans on the floor, their assorted colors identified with a paint swipe on the top. “This was TOO red, they said. Paid for it, but didn’t want it.” He picked up the can and put it on one end of the workbench. “Hand me that screwdriver.”
Betty glanced to her right, wrapped a sweaty palm around the tool and handed it over. Mr. Patrick opened the paint can and stepped back for her to inspect.
Betty gazed into the most glorious color of red she’d ever seen. It was candy apples and summer fairs. It was the parades with big fire engines watched from her father’s shoulders. It was the red pickup truck he drove to the plant every day.
“What do you think?” Mr. Patrick asked, bringing Betty back.
“It’s perfect.” Betty looked into his grey-green eyes and made herself hold them, hoping he wouldn’t suspect anything.
“Good.” He replaced the lid and pick up the can by the thin wire handle. What are you going to paint?” He asked as he led the way back to the store’s front.
“My room,” Betty said without hesitation, the lie flying off her lips like a bubble, her heart thudding a little quicker.
Mr. Patrick put the can on the counter. “Maxine will let you paint your room red? Huh. Here’s a stir stick and an old brush you can have.” He put the tools on the counter. “Can you carry all that?”
“Oh yes, thank-you,” Betty replied. “How much is it?”
“It’s already paid for, Hon. Go paint up a storm.” Mr. Patrick returned to his paperwork and Betty backed out the door with her prizes.
She stopped on the marble steps of her house, opened the can with a quarter and swirled the paint with the paint stick. She felt herself drawn into the funnel in the center. What would it be like to jump into paint? Thicker than water, she thought, more like pudding. The rich chocolate kind her real mother made from buttermilk. She put one finger in and swirled it around, the paint creaming against it. She held the finger up and watched the paint send tendrils of red down to her palm. She swiped the finger on the marble step and made a Happy Face under the door.
“Betty,” she heard her father in her head again. “You can’t hide what you’ve done.”
“Sure I can, Dad. You’ll see.” She picked up the brush and the can and went into the house.
The cigarette smoke still hung in the air. Betty coughed and put the paint on an end table. She opened the living room window, then walked to the kitchen and opened the one over the sink. A mild breeze ruffled the yellow checked curtains and she immediately felt better. It was good to have a plan, to know she was in control of something. She returned to the living room and considered the dingy brown and yellow plaid couch. It would look better in red.
Of course, Maxine was in the way, draped out on her back, one arm dangling to the floor, one over the back of the couch, her pale face in stark contrast to a mass of brown/gray hair. The nicotine stained fingers matched the yellowed skin under her bloodshot eyes staring at the ceiling.
Betty took in Maxine’s thin seersucker housecoat, barely containing her lumpy body. She wore no shoes and Betty decided to paint her toenails red, like they were that day. She moved the can to the floor, knelt down by the couch and used her little finger to delicately touch each nail with red. This accomplished, she sat back on her heels.
Should she paint the clothes or just the skin? There was a lot of paint; she could do the entire body.
Betty brushed her way up Maxine’s legs, making the leg hair stand up in red prickles. She painted the cushions of the couch on the way, giving extra attention to the coffee stains and the cigarette holes. She maneuvered over Maxine’s basketball belly, gave two quick strokes to each sagging breast, then up the neck. She drew the brush from the collarbone to the chin with a flourish.
“So there!” she said.
The left arm, draped on the back of the couch, had gotten painted on the way up. The right arm remained flesh colored, still flung to the side, as though trying to grab the iron resting on the baseboard across the room.
Betty painted the arm carefully, starting at the shoulder, giving special attention to every crease of skin, every fold. She opened the palm, holding the fingers out with one hand, while delicately painting every life line. She thought of the many times that palm had been raised to her, had slapped her, and had thrown her across the room. Betty rolled the fingers closed and squeezed them until paint came out. She could hardly breathe and squeezed her eyes shut.
A dog barking outside opened them. Time for some fresh air. Betty picked up the paint can and brush, walked out the front door and began painting the steps. Mrs. Robinson walked by, stopped and stared.
"Betty, Maxine will kill you."
"Oh, no, Mrs. Robinson. I don't think so." Betty smiled at the woman in her work dress of brown with a white collar, a bag of groceries in each short sleeved arm. She continued to paint, covering her Happy Face, making whirls of red, then x-ing them out. She felt positively giddy and gave the neighbor a big grin.
“You let me know, you need anything, Betty. I’ll be home tonight.”
“Thanks. I think I’ll be fine,” Betty responded.
Mrs. Robinson shook her head and went into her own house.
With the steps finished, Betty realized she could not get in without stepping on the paint. She shrugged, picked up the can and tiptoed up and through the door, leaving a track of red prints. The paint felt sticky on her toes, but she ignored that as she surveyed her work. Maxine remained as Betty left her, a white face framed by black hair in a sea of red, mouth gaping.
Betty looked at the remaining paint in the can, then back at the mouth. Well, she thought, this will take care of the rest. She poured it in Maxine’s mouth. It overflowed and dripped onto the floor.
She pulled the kitchen knife from Maxine’s chest. Blood dribbled out. Betty smiled.
A perfect match.