January 19, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

The Last Stand of Ms. Betty J. Washington

By Jenna Leigh Evans
Published: 2015-12-31

"Nothing's funny! You're so paranoid all the time. Why don't you do something positive in this world, and make us something to eat."

Betty lost track of time while cooking some rice and beans, which was too bad, but when she opened the window to let out the smoke, the cheerful sounds of laughter and bass-thudding car stereos floated up to her. The dirty slush was melting off the sidewalks, and the people in the neighborhood who got government checks were out having a good time. Gracie milled expectantly at her feet, ears cocked. "Don't get too excited," Betty told her. "You're not going anywhere."

Rodrigo showed up wearing a cowboy hat and bearing a bag of weed so scanty it was close to insulting. He had brought his brother, a barrel-chested man of perhaps forty who was dangling a bottle of tequila by the neck. They came in calling hearty greetings, stomping the salt off their boots. That mess fell right onto the kitchen floor, Betty noted; but Vida received them with enthusiasm, and shook potato chips into a bowl.

The brother, whose name Betty did not catch, fooled with the radio until it played Latin pop. He was a hefty man, with rolls on his neck, but not bad-looking. Rodrigo salsa-danced with a suggestive grin and Vida, blowing marijuana smoke in his face, waggled her tremendous rear end to general hilarity.

"Come on, Betty," cried Vida, "Get into it. Have a good time for once!"

Betty had a drink and a toke to be sociable, before the noise drove her into the bathroom to comb out her wig for the night.

But Vida followed on her heels, barging right in. "I'm serious, Betty, you ought to be nice to that guy," she said quietly. "He has a real job, licensed contractor." She came up close and gave Betty a conspiratorial nudge. "Listen to me, try it, you might like it!"

"Get off me," Betty said sharply. Being cornered reminded her acutely of being punished to the coat closet, sitting in the damn dark all day, that nasty smell of pent-up shoes. "And I don't care for your meaning," she told Vida. "Not one bit."

Vida's tone changed. "Hey, mami, if you have the rent already, do what you want," she shrugged. "I'm just saying, it would be terrible if you couldn't afford to stay with me any more."

Betty stood with her head down like a bull about to charge and waited for Vida to go away. At length Vida sighed, "I'll tell you something, you're not a very good hostess," and left the bathroom.

Betty emerged to discover that the tequila, the weed, and Rodrigo had vanished into Vida's bedroom with Vida. The brother was crouching on the kitchen floor, petting Gracie while she chewed at the rash on her tail.

Betty felt dazed at the implications. Did Vida really expect she could... pimp her out? It was beyond denigrating, it was insane. Still, the sense that her roommate might lunge back out at her was jangling her nerves.

She did a stately about-face, and unearthed a bottle from its hiding place under the bathroom sink. She was so unsettled that for a few seconds it was as though she fell asleep standing up; she snapped out of it to find herself pouring a generous few fingers of whiskey into the toothbrush glass. Then the importance of being seen to entertain the man swam into focus, so she bore the drink into the kitchen.

He held it up uncertainly, squinting at the guano streaks of Colgate on the glass, and gulped it down. Betty perceived that he had a courteous nature. "Won't you sit somewhere comfortable," she invited, leading him into the living room.

As he sat beside her on the couch — too close! — she fumbled Vida's computer onto her lap. Its impenetrable weight was immediately comforting, a protective lead apron. Gracie panted and yawned at her feet.

"Your mama should have fed you by now," Betty chided the dog.

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