February 9, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Light rain shower 14°C

The Last Stand of Ms. Betty J. Washington

By Jenna Leigh Evans
Published: 2015-12-31

"My name is Ms. Betty Washington. I live upstairs in Number Three."
B

etty Washington moved into Vida Luna's apartment in the inhospitable month of January, when everybody she knew felt too cooped up to tolerate a guest, and the shelters all had bugs. The last time she'd found herself with nowhere to go in the middle of winter had been bitter indeed. Trudging around the Rockaways, damning herself for having left her good coat behind (though who could blame her for forgetting, with all that carrying on, her daughter crying and yelling so you'd think she was a child?) and looking for a subway until she wondered whether she should just walk right into the ocean. She still regretted the loss of that coat.

"Sometimes it's hard in life," Vida said with sympathy, relieving Betty of a hundred and twenty dollars in cash. The radio was playing "You Are Everything and Everything is You," the falsetto voices like a soothing syrup. Betty eased herself into a chair at Vida's kitchen table. Her bones felt too soft, or something.

She lifted a package of frozen chicken from out of her purse. "Lady standing in front of those Gowanus Houses," she told Vida by way of explanation. Conversation was increasingly high on the list of activities that took more energy than they were worth.

She nudged the frostbitten package toward Vida. The lady in question, stationed beside a picnic cooler, had pertly inquired if Betty was interested in free chicken. Well, Betty knew what that was about: a van was parked right there with Light of the World Ministry written on it. She accepted that chicken and kept right on walking.

Now Vida was eyeing it with greed. "I make the best arroz con pollo you ever had. The secret is Rice-a-Roni. For rent, you'll pay me by the week," she added, supplying the answer to a question Betty had forgotten to ask.

The radiators sputtered, suffusing the air with heat. It made Betty want to cozy up in a blanket, burrowing into her newfound joy. For after a lifetime of prosecution and soured prospects, she had, most wondrously, found happiness: a rich warm mist that lay just beyond what had, until lately, been the limit of how much she could drink in a day. She was three-quarters of the way to it already; and as soon as this get-to-know-you rigmarole was over with, she'd go the rest of the way.

Vida lit a cigarette and said, "I'll tell you one thing about myself. I'm what they call a people person."

"I just want some peace and quiet," Betty replied, closing her eyes for emphasis. It was very relaxing and she hated to have to open them again.

"Whatever you want, Betty. It's my nature to take care of everybody. Isn't that right, Gracie!" This was addressed to a terrier that had been sniffing at Betty's shoes. The sweater it wore did not cover the naked pink flesh on its back and tail. With effort Vida bent to scoop it up. "And you're going to be taking care of me too, Betty, because I'll tell you the truth: I hate to be alone. When you answered my ad I said, praise God!"

Betty hoped she hadn't moved in with a bible-thumper. Now Vida was pursing her lips to receive Gracie's ardent tongue. Perceiving an opportunity to change the subject, Betty felt around in a clump of recollections. "Ex-husband, had a little dog," she offered. "Name was Chi-chi."

Vida cackled. "Oh, I have something I call my chi-chi," she hooted. "You and me are going to get along. But Betty, listen, this is important."

She stumped around the kitchen, waving the cigarette expressively. "...Are you paying attention, Betty? The landlord claims I can't have anybody living with me, even though that's illegal. Plain illegal. Are you listening?"

"Mm-hmm." In truth Betty had drifted into a memory, faint as a doorbell in a distant room: an impression of her ex-husband, of grits and bacon on a yellow plate, and his aftershave. Lord, the way that man was always in her business. Talking to her family behind her back!

"I know how to live my own life, thank you," Betty told the frozen chicken. Its drumsticks canted up at her impertinently.

"Betty! I'm talking to you. Querida, are you drunk? Listen, Betty, you have to be as quiet as a mouse so the landlord doesn't notice you. Don't talk to the neighbors! Can you do that?"

Betty nodded solemnly, feeling her eyeballs float up and down like bubbles in a spirit level. "Nobody is going to know I am here at all."

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