Chapter One: They Didn’t Know to Look Out
Some people in Blue Moons say that both women get what’s coming to them. Downright nasty thing to say, in one manner of speaking.
Sounds about right, if you look at it another way.
The young Betty Daniels and Matty Sue Franklin are still alive and living in Blue Moons. They do just fine, except for the fact that the two teenagers are stuck in banged-up, old-as-hell bodies. And that Betty’s son Buick is completely insane.
Those two girls. They get what’s coming to them, alright.
Odd when such things drop into a life. The timing and all.
Matty Sue got hers when the two high school graduates were both feeling like nothing in the world could touch them.
The teenaged Betty Daniels-Baskin was already in the riotous, joyous phase of her early marriage. She’d called up her friend every morning with a complete description of the previous night’s physical activity with the new husband. She’d chosen a handsome 18-year-old named Pontiac Baskin from among her many suitors. Neither Betty nor Matty Sue had a clue as to what was down the road. Not just then.
Of course, none of us do.
A fall semester at SMU, happily away from home, was as far ahead as Matty wanted to see. But her body had a surprise for her. In the midst of the summer joys of a last Yellow Bird Girls’ Camp, that body had gift-wrapped and parcel-posted something called poliomyelitis to an unsuspecting teenage girl.
Mail call, Matty.
Opened it up and boom, got her. Beating Doctor Salk and his vaccine to the post office that was her legs by a solid decade. She hadn’t really known it was necessary to watch out for such stuff. All she had gotten before at camp were stone-hard brownies and poison ivy.
Matty Sue. She was still well shy of her nineteenth birthday when she woke up one morning flat on her back inside a neck-to-toe metal tube. Just her head sticking out the top like a bit of squeezed toothpaste waiting for a brush to carry her onto food-stained giant molars. But there she lay. A plastic hose sucked fluid from her lungs. Another pumped nutrients to her stomach, bypassing a throat that had oddly enough forgotten how to take in food. Matty had heard that there was a catheter somewhere down below, but luckily she could neither feel nor see it.
This was not a pleasant alternative to a July’s horse-back riding in sweet-scented piney woods around Lake Texarkana.
A mirror angled over her face allowed her to see well-meaning mourners enter as far as the nurses would let them. Her visitors would take in a distant eyeful and gasp at her plight.
“Poor girl,” they’d say. Every time. From a safe, non-contagious distance.
But Matty’s married friend Betty Daniels-Baskin was frustrated at being held back from the ward. She had taken to throwing paper airplanes inscribed with messages of love and lipstick kisses toward her canned friend, yelling greetings and screaming out the current location of her airborne messages. After the third flying paper incident, though, Betty was banned with finality from the hospital, and had to content herself with mailing the folded messages in envelopes disguised as regular, more boring adult correspondence.
Matty Sue couldn’t even open the letters herself. Her arms were inside the can. She knew from the first day that she had to get out of that thing, the sooner the better. Crying wouldn’t help, so she didn’t. She clamped her jaw down. Chewed off a good ounce-and-a-half of the inside of her cheek. She didn’t cry. If leg braces and a wheel chair were now the best she could expect, she’d get leg braces and a wheel chair. But she wasn’t going to live out her life in a damned tin cylinder, staring backwards and upside down at people who were broadcasting waves of pity to her from across the room.
“Poor girl,” they said, again and again.
“Hell, no. Get me out of here,” Matty cried to the orderly, a man who looked old enough to have worked on General Grant’s TB ward.
“Yes’m, soons ‘a doc he say so,” he said. He’d heard that demand before.
She did get out, though, just like she predicted, but it took her five months. Funny, the things that machine did to her. For instance, after about six weeks Matty Sue started having the very real sensation that she was moving. That she and the tube were coming unglued from the face of the earth and starting to roll around the ward.
The nurses told her not to worry. That the wheels were locked. “The machine can’t move on its own, Missy.’ Movement was a normal sort of hallucination, they told her. “It’s OK, honey. Many young people get to feeling they’re rolling around after they’ve been locked up in one of these iron lungs for a while. Don’t you worry your sweet head now. It’ll go away, darling. Just you wait.”
‘Wait, my ass,” said young Matty Sue.
She was unconvinced. She knew she had moved. She started measuring her location on the floor every day, staring in the overhead mirror and setting mental marks. But the movement only seemed to happen when she wasn’t prepared.
Still, she knew it was real.
Even funnier -- not haha funny, mind you, but strange -- was her last week in the machine. The week she had anxiously anticipated from the moment she woke up in her camp cot unable to breathe or swallow or move. It arrived, and she discovered that she didn’t want to get out of the artificial lung. She was scared that without it she might wake up in the middle of the night and suffocate, her body having forgotten once again how to breathe. She was safe in the machine. Safe. She didn’t want to get out. Not just then.
The process of extracting Matty Sue had taken ten days. First, only a few minutes with the lid up, then longer periods. She found that her arms were slowly returning to normal. By the third day, she was able to lie in her bed without the aid of the iron lung through entire daylight hours.
But night was harder. A nurse would sit with her the whole time, reading aloud from fashion magazines to keep the terror away. Describing new form-fitting brassieres and the possibilities of synthetic stockings with reinforced crotches. Until, on the eighth night, Matty slept alone and unaided. Her dreams had been terrible, and she had the worst night sweats she had ever experienced in her short life, but she awoke reassured that she could indeed leave the confines of the hospital and survive.
After all, FDR had.
Matty Sue’s departure took four more years of well-meaning, but experimental and painful, therapies on the polio ward. Her pin-up-quality legs were irrevocably mangled and scarred in the process, and she soon purposefully forgot that they had once been lovely.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt died of complications from his polio.
One rainy day in May Matty Sue was sent home. She was not a US president at the time.
She hadn’t missed out on much, and she caught up quickly. Even with men and marriage. Her courtship lasted a little longer than Betty’s, but Matty Sue felt that her experience was just as romantic. In its own way. True, she got proposed to -- and wedded -- sitting down. And, yes, sex wasn’t all the great shakes that she had been led to believe. But of course, that may have been due to the fact that she couldn’t feel or move a thing below her navel. And, on top of all that, she was sterile. As one of the lesser side effects of her four years of enforced experimental therapy. Early polio wards had been concerned about the immediate life at hand. Therapists never even considered the possibility that one of their polios might want to, or be able to, conceive. So all their medicines meant that she was sterile. It wasn’t that big a deal for Matty Sue. Not after all she had been through. The only thing sterility meant to her was that she didn’t have to go back to the hospital once a year like her friend Betty and cramp out another screaming mouth to feed.
Not that she didn’t like sex, now. Her range of activity was just a little different than most, that’s all. She thought her husband -- Giuseppe “Tushy” Giamanico -- was as sweet a man as god ever put on this earth. Lively, too. Loved to play. He’d given her any number of suggestive raises of the eyebrow and made rumbling noises during the signing of the marriage license and at the wedding ceremony, just to hear her laugh. The physical encounters that followed the marriage had always made up in tenderness what they lacked in passion. The results of her polio never seemed to enter his mind as a factor in their relationship.
Theirs was a poetic romance. Giuseppe Positano Giamanico had met Matty Sue Franklin in the dark. His future bride’s melodic laughter had caused his heart to flutter as he sat alone in the Claire de Lune, Blue Moon’s movie house. The picture was a typical run for the backwater cinema of The Lune: Stage Door Canteen, with Harpo Marx. In the flickering light, undistracted by explosive guffaws and sporadic harp music, Giuseppe had moved unerringly from seat to seat until he saw the face that belonged to the laughter.
Matty sat in her chair in the aisle beside Betty Daniels-Baskin. Betty was cradling two very small boys in her lap, and a girl in the flesh of her lower abdomen. Matty held onto a squirming Studebaker, the first of the Baskin girls. The children had not deterred Giuseppe. He went immediately to the theater manager to inquire about the identity of the lovely woman in the wheel chair. He was given her name, a recitation of a brief but tragic history, and he heard the obligatory “poor girl.” Giuseppe asked to buy the lobby poster. He knew that this would be a night he’d want to remember. The manager, Dwight Everby, soaked him for five dollars, later telling the projectionist that he spotted an easy mark right off the bat.
Dwight put it none too subtly, as was his standard. “That Dago with the big ass is soft in the head, too. Going on that way about a cripple -- gives you the creeps.”
Giuseppe was the victim of a rapidly expanding backside and its accompanying unflattering nickname, and while he knew that that did not come anywhere near the sort of handicap under which Matty operated, it helped magnify his feelings of empathy with her. He had dismissed her chair almost before he saw it. Later, when he looked at her cruelly-treated legs, he hurt for her, but was all the more dazzled by her beautiful smile, by her optimistic attitude, her dark hair and eyes, and (to be perfectly honest) by her very well-developed upper torso. With the constant arm and chest exercise, Matty’s body above her waist had become more than shapely. It was downright stunning. Tushy’s mind stood Matty Sue Franklin right up, and said, “Now ‘at’s a woman for Giuseppe, mio compagno.” She was 24, he 49. After a year of ornate, Old World courtship, Matty was convinced of Tushy’s sincerity. They married and never looked back.
When he lost his job of twenty-five years at the Longview sausage factory, replaced by a galvanized steel machine, her new husband wasn’t sad. He collected some unemployment money, stayed home and petted Matty. He was the busiest unemployed person she’d ever met. He gardened for her. Cooked for her. Bathed her. Taught her how to drive.
That last one was the capper. Rigging the old Chevy with hand brakes and a clutch was a true work of love. It had taken two days to figure out how to get her into the driver’s seat without bruising her legs. And another week to work out a system where she could get her chair into the car by herself. The idea was to make Matty Sue independently mobile. Much more mobile than the hand-propelled chair had ever allowed her to be.
Their car had suffered cosmetically in Matty’s learning process. The outer frame and chrome trim were victims of numerous unplanned and unintended meetings with low curbs, intrusive garbage cans and aggressive shrubbery. But neither Tushy nor Matty Sue cared about appearances, and she had learned quickly.
The driving examiner at first refused to test her. The automobile’s levers and hinges were not standard, he ruled. Tushy would not accept this. He had to yell at the Texas State Driver’s License Bureau Assistant Supervisor, Northeast Region, for the better part of an hour to win his point. Matty Sue was allowed to take the test in their converted car.
Tushy stood nervously on the roadside watching her make right-angle turns and parallel park perfectly. The excited Matty drove past her husband with a wave of her gloved hand. The examinee lost five points on that wave, the overruled and still-aggravated examiner citing her for “improper hand signal”. She still passed easily. Got her license in the mail Tuesday morning of the very next week.
The same Tuesday afternoon she rammed Daigle’s Drug Store. Nothing major, but Tushy did have to spend ten days replacing the gingerbread carpentry around the store’s main window. They were lucky the glass hadn’t broken. The unemployed Giamanicos could never have raised the cash to replace that large field of plate glass. Pharmacist Tri-Larry Daigle had watched the whole of Matty’sunswerving approach. He had been scared to death and unable to move during the subsequent modest entry of the Giamanico vehicle into his store. He sedated himself heavily that night without filling out the proper forms. Thereafter, Matty Sue parked just out of reach of major structures, disembarked and rolled in her chair the last half block to her destinations. This eliminated much of her docking anxiety.
She was a good driver. “She just gets excited at the end,” Tushy said knowingly.
She was more excited when she got a job at the same factory that had laid off her husband. Management was looking for a good stable person who would take the pitiful secretary’s salary they were offering and stick around without complaint. They did provide health coverage and substantial long-term benefits, however. With the elimination of humans in the processed meat lines, the factory’s overhead was halved. They could make much more sausage in much less time without people sticking their fingers in the mix. Business in cheap meat-substitutes had boomed. With the lowered demand for sausage-makers, came a skyrocketing need for dependable administrative and clerical help. Matty Sue Giamanico was perfect. She wasn’t going anywhere fast (and with her slow chair she would have a hard time getting away with any cash or filched weenies), was healthy enough in spite of her legs, and she was grateful for any sort of job, especially seeing as how she had an unemployed husband at home. She drove herself to work and back every day as Tushy watched, delighted at what he considered his success, too.
The peak of the sausage boom lasted one more year, though Matty lasted at the factory for twenty.
Tushy lasted at home only seven. The doctors said he’d had a congenital weakness all along, but Matty knew her husband possessed a great, strong and generous heart. She didn’t give up on him, even when she found his motionless body slumped over the washing machine, family-size box of Tide detergent clutched to his chest. She’d managed to get his limp form onto her chair and rolled to the car. Her entrance into the Emergency Room at Brown Memorial is talked about to this day. She had driven through the glass outer wall and right up to the nurse’s station. Stopping there, she turned off the ignition and blinkers before asking directions to Admitting. Tushy would have been proud.
In spring of the next year she managed to return to the hospital, without seriously damaging either her car or the health institution, to spend a vigil with her friend. Betty’d had a stroke. Matty Sue was calmer on her second visit because she knew Betty Daniels-Baskin was going to be OK. Her best friend wouldn’t leave her.
She was proved right. It wasn’t time for that. The two girls had a lot more to do together.
Not that she had forgotten Giuseppe Giamanico. Matty Sue continued to treasure the time she had been allowed with Tushy. Even as she sat patiently in the hospital watching Betty, Matty continued to turn the years and minutes of marriage over and over in her mind like she would the first ripe tomato of the summer. Savoring it with all her senses. Squeezing the plump red flesh softly in her hands. Smelling and tasting it without sinking her teeth into the shining ruby surface. Wanting to bite, hungry for it all the while. The gardener finally unwilling to devour the thing she had so happily brought into the world.
After her retirement, even though she received extended benefits as a widow, Matty always considered herself a married woman.
It was only right.
* * *
True enough, Betty Daniels-Baskin also got hers, though a little later in life. It was that damned stroke. She had never even suspected tragedy was on its way. She figured that her friend Matty Sue had already paid enough life dues for both of them, Matty getting crippled up by polio at age nineteen and all.
So Betty lived as she liked from the start.
She liked being fawned over. She enjoyed being worshiped by the entire male population, from the high sheriff to the low-minded tractor operator who unearthed her septic tank. Every single one of them agreed she was the best-looking woman he would see in his whole life, past present and future. Worshiping Betty was as close to religion as most of those boys would ever get.
At seventeen, she’d been named Miss Blue Moons, then Miss Bowie County, and finally was chosen first runner-up and Miss Congeniality in the Miss Texas pageant in Austin. She’d won the swimsuit competition outright. The whole town had been behind her, all the way.
But they’d been more than a little put off when she substituted the glamour of ventriloquism for her usual piano recital in the Austin contest. She’d have won the big title if she’d stuck with the 88s. They knew that for a fact.
“Just not strong enough in the talent department to make it at State,” the Mayor had whispered discreetly to the senior Village Alderman. Not discreetly enough, he later realized. Three weeks after his comment both he and the Alderman were soundly defeated in their bids for re-election.
One hundred and five of Blue Moons’ most civic-minded citizens had traveled the 243 miles to the state capital to watch Betty compete in her final pageant. The Once-in-a-Blue-Moons Weekly had made that more significant by multiplication: the Miss Texas pageant resulted in a total of 25,515 miles traveled by the people of the town to see their Favorite Daughter in minimal stretch fabric and high heels. “25,515” was a 96-point headline, filling half the front page. Quite a few subscribers had kept that issue as a souvenir of the village’s brush with greatness. To this day, a framed copy in the mayor’s office still protects a rectangle of floral wallpaper from fading. All these years later.
She had come so close.
It had been the dummy’s fault. That was it. Absolutely it. Mouth didn’t work right. Tiny Stetson hat looked stupid perched on that green-spotted head. Frog reciting “The Cowpoke’s Lament”. Unbelievable. Betty had traded a sterling, never-fail keyboard rendition of “Alley Cat” for a talking frog, for godsake! Who had the girl been listening to?
But she was some kind of good-looking. Nobody could deny that.
“Don’t care,” as some one of them inevitably said on a daily basis down at Brady’s Bar, “I can say for a fact she’s the finest woman I ever put my eyes on. You can count magazines and the picture show, too. For my money she’d stand up against most all of ‘em.”
“Damn that frog.”
In those days the men were rigidly proprietary when it came to the image of Betty Daniels-Baskin. Of males of active hormonal age in Blue Moons, few had not held at least one personal fantasy that included her imagined participation.
She didn’t care. Not one bit. Went right on in life. Got married, popped out five kids. Looked at the coming of each new year without fear of age or other bother.
Betty actually enjoyed the regularity of her birthdays, even though she didn’t really celebrate. They rolled around once a year anyway, no matter how much a person fretted. So, like always, come the day she’d spend most of the time confidently and quietly with her family, maybe a walk to the market, proud to still be known as a woman seriously regarded by every man who had the pleasure to observe her.
Handling the produce on her regular trips to the Food Queen Supermarket, she’d often been approached by insecure males looking for a blessing. They’d hang out off and on for days, until the floor manager would drive them off. “Boy’s been standing by the dairy case so long he was getting frost on his glasses,” the manager would tell his cashiers about a sixty-year-old customer. “Another one waiting for Betty. I oughta charge a cover.”
Standing over limp mustard greens for a few words with Missus Daniels-Baskin was a middle-aged, Texas, Anglo, male trip to Mecca. They hadn’t the nerve to proposition her. Betty was sacred. Though undoubtedly driven by hormones, their pilgrimage did not have its roots in a desire for physical contact. Instead, to a man, they needed a reaffirmation of their own worth as a sexual creature. For many an aging Blue Moons male, the simple idea that Betty did not find him repulsive enough to avoid his greeting, had caused a mid-life crisis to be resolved, with a corresponding renewal in interest in his own marital partner. Most wives agreed that Betty’s presence had had a beneficial effect on their relationships.
Though not all. And there were exceptions to the men’s unspoken rule of subtlety and gentlemanly behavior around Betty.
Leweltus Whitsell, owner of the village’s sole hardware store, was known to occasionally entertain his female customers with the verbalization of certain randy, if not attainable, desires. Which were just as quickly denied.
“What? No’m, I couldn’t have said anything like that. Wouldn’t do it. Methodist, remember? You must of heard me wrong. Now, how many number three screws you need?” was a fairly standard avoidance line from Leweltus. Most women laughed at his clumsy indiscretions, found him entertaining rather than offensive. After all, he’d been rendered into a fairly harmless steer by a wife of bitterly acidic nature.
Wilomena Whitsell. One mean woman, that. A woman who, when she found out her husband had been slapped soundly by Betty in front of the Food Queen’s ground meat display (the large display recipe for “Meat Loaf Surprise” had been Leweltus’ conversational starting point), was visited by the first of what would become her many noteworthy fits of matrimonial hysteria.
Within an hour of the incident, Wilomena had physically assaulted her husband with an electric kitchen appliance to the tune of four stitches, a broken nose, and two black eyes, and then burned every scrap of clothing he owned on their new Gasglow® propane grill. Ten minutes later, the Whitsell car was spotted by a sanitation worker as it sped away from the Daniels-Baskin house’s flower gardens, which had coincidentally just been chewed up and spit out like a bad apple, ripped apart and criss-crossed by deep, violent wheel marks resembling the remains of a tic-tac-toe game between a pair of belligerent twin King Kongs. The perpetrator was suspected but not actively pursued.
In spite of such infrequent though unsettling incidents, Betty continued to move with a regal grace in her small, comfortable world.
Then one year, sitting at her dressing table, things changed. A few drops of coagulated liquid decided who she would be for the rest of her life. And that was that.
She remained perfectly beautiful for a short while like a red red hothouse rose. But the stem had been cut right off at the bottom and stuck in a bucket of stale water. Looks just fine, for now, but sooner or later that flower’s going to droop.
Even as the two young ambulance attendants wheeled her into the Brown Memorial Emergency Room, each was making subtle overtures to the prostrate, immobile woman in the low-cut silk teddy. They knew who she was. Oh yes. And how lucky they were. Not many men in Blue Moons had touched Betty Daniels-Baskin. But here these two fellows were, carting her about flat on her back and almost naked.
They were also scared shitless. Guaranteed. Each man shuddered at the deep sexual power of her flesh as he lifted her onto the ambulance’s gurney. Each man savored an admittedly vain hope that he could gain her post-trauma favor. Each also knew he didn’t have a shot in hell of getting near her again. Betty was still a glorious, lush, dream of a woman then, even as she was being rolled under harsh blue lights into critical care.
But overnight something happened. Half her classic, high-cheeked good looks dropped a centimeter toward her feet. Just a centimeter. Never to move again. The right side of her head was suddenly draped with unresponsive flesh. Her left profile was still quite fine, but viewed head-on, half her face sagged just enough to be unsettling to the first-time viewer.
Even a quick glance told the story. Something was haywire with Betty Daniels-Baskin.
The reason was not readily apparent, not as long as she sat quietly. But then somebody would start talking and give her away. The affected skin on her right steadfastly refused to care about emotions or events, even as the left side continued to animate. Matty Sue’s story about Betty’s youngest -- and most inspired -- son Buick asking for a Biblical explanation of his peepee in Sunday School could now lift only the left corner of Betty’s mouth toward a smile. The right remained hanging glumly in place.
She had got hers alright. Big Time.
True that Matty Sue Giamanico, nee Franklin and life-long best friend, had long ago swallowed her own dose of come-uppance from life. But Matty Sue’s physical devastation had made her friend feel invulnerable. In Betty’s calculations, the fact that something so horrible could happen to Matty reduced the chances of anyone else encountering a fate even half as bad. That’s how Betty got blind-sided by the stroke. She had been so sure she was safe.
But Matty had survived, and she was determined that Betty would, too. She tried to poke a bit of fun once they got Betty home. Said that a happy Betty looked like the two Greek masks, Comedy and Tragedy “sliced right down the middle and glued onto the top of one fine body.” She, of course, called her friend “Bet-TEE” with the accent on the last syllable, like most folks in Blue Moons.
East Texas pronunciation had been deemed unsuitable in her education. Matty Sue had been forced to pay attention in Miss Jenkins’ sophomore English class. “Proper use of metaphor and simile is a sure sign of an educated and stylish modern woman,” Miss Jenkins had said in her lilted soprano voice. Young Matty Sue didn’t care much for Miss Jenkins and her picky way of talking, but she liked the metaphor idea, anyway. She enjoyed the way weird connections rolled around in her brain. Like the masks. Gave her and Betty’s problems a stylish air.
Sort of poetry. Sad and funny at the same time, see?
A month or two after the stroke, she took Betty for a walk. Matty made Betty exercise, bade Betty roll her right into the Blue Moons High School gym to look at the two gilded and cracked faces. The flat Greek ones. There they were, still hanging on the crumbling velvet stage curtain. Still looking over the spot where a petite Betty Daniels and an unusually robust and upright Matty Sue Franklin had happily starred in Blue Moons High School’s production of a haphazardly-adapted “Little Women”.
Betty’s lefty smile started to grow as she remembered that day.
The senior class homeroom teachers had been once again unable to restrain their male charges, as had been the case all through four immediately previous years of schooling. A bit of a riot had burst out after the second curtain call. The action, unlike that of the play, developed very quickly. The excited country boys leaped to their feet and scrambled out the front doors of the gym. They tore ragged handfuls of flowers from the carefully-planted bed at the gym entrance, then ran forward, back down the aisles of astonished parents and mildewed folding chairs to throw their offerings wildly at the young actress duo onstage.
The two popular seniors had bowed through a third and final curtain call. They laughed on and on, bowing forward then leaning back to catch rough, sprawling bundles of bright spring narcissus as the flowers were tossed into their uplifted skirts. The girls courted their admirers. Contrary to the wardrobe mistress’ instructions, Betty and Matty were not wearing thick cotton pantaloons. The ruffles were just too hot and constrictive on a sensitive young woman’s nether regions. Betty’s legs were long, shapely and spectacularly brown, even in late April. Matty’s weren’t bad, either, and she knew how to set them in place for viewing, like the soldiers’ pin-ups. The boys got a good look. That Matty, she was no fool.
Betty had smiled and winked at her then-steady-date DR Nicholls Jr, solitary spawn of well-to-do DR Nicholls Sr. Jr was considered a catch. DR Sr received a handsome government pension for having lost his nose and right thumb manufacturing howitzer shells to advance the invasion of Europe. A side benefit of DR Sr’s war-effort-related nasal reduction was his son DR Jr’s hardship deferment from service in the ongoing carnage of WW2. For the first dozen years of DR Jr’s life, the Nicholls family resided less than a hundred yards from the electrified gates of the Texarkana ammunition plant. DR Jr was consequently raised a young man moderate and subdued in most action. But the day of the play he had been dragged away to detention hall hollering Betty Baskin’s name, with the untossed remains of a yellow jonquil dangling from his shirt front. Betty thought DR Jr’s efforts a sign of true love. The best she had known. Until then. She enjoyed the feeling.
Fourteen years later the stroke diminished her joy considerably. It took quite a few more years for even a semi-smiling Betty to reappear.
The delay in her rediscovery of any sort of happiness was in part due to the same bit of malicious blood that had tugged at her face. It hadn’t been satisfied with renovating her exterior. Greedy for pieces of Betty, it had also taken most of her ability to communicate. During the first weeks of recovery she had been unable to open her mouth, unable to say anything at all. She couldn’t even blink her eyes. Nurses would close them for her at night and open them in the morning. The doctors at Brown Memorial speculated openly that she could be severely brain-damaged.
Matty Sue understood the innate pessimism of small town doctors. Normally faced with minor illnesses and injuries, and lulled into complacency by a quiet medical existence, they were far too easily overwhelmed by the Big Ones. She’d seen it firsthand.
“Looks like her mind may be gone, for all practical intents and purposes,” one particularly well-starched specialist had whispered with an air of solemn pronouncement. On hearing that, Pontiac Baskin, her husband, had to squat quickly on the tile floor and put his head between his knees.
But Matty Sue knew what to do. She put her face as close as she could to Betty’s. Leaning forward in her chair to press Betty’s nose solidly with her own. She could smell her friend’s sour hospital breath. Matty looked down down down into the bed-ridden woman’s eyes. Looked hard. Saw a cavern of pitch and hell. Something was happening behind those dilated pupils. Matty recognized it.
Betty’s some kinda pissed off.
“Yep,” Matty Sue breathed out loudly, and rolled back from the sickbed.
Then she said, “Bet-tee’s in there, alright, and she’s not happy with any of this, not one little bit. I can damn sure testify to that. So don’t you jackasses be messing with her. Saying she’s gone and such. Haven’t got a clue, do you, boys? Bet-tee’s here just as much as she ever was.”
And indeed Betty was there, but with control of only half a face and a handful of words. When she awoke, she found her range of communication with the rest of the world had been brought down to a very basic level. Very basic. Most men in town agreed that she was nowhere near as sexy since she couldn’t smile right. Though they, of course, still wouldn’t mind some time alone with her. “Yessirree,” they’d say, making dog-panting sounds and moving their hips. Even though they knew they remained terrified of Betty’s power over them, they’d make out like they still could be the sexual aggressor. That’s the sort of men they were.
It took five years after the stroke for Pontiac Baskin to light out of town at a run.
Pontiac was a well-intentioned man, carried through nineteen years of marriage and five children (all named after American-built automobiles) by the scraps of a dramatic high school love affair that remained legendary amongst the adults of Blue Moons. Folks still told the story to their children. Said it was better than anything made up.
“Real love always is,” they’d say hopefully.
The storied courtship had started violently with Pontiac. Fifteen days after the girls’ triumphant senior play, as his final schooling experience was coming to a close, Pontiac Baskin had fought a prolonged, brutal fistfight with the once-conservative DR Nicholls Jr. Love’ll do that, too. DR Jr was six inches taller and forty pounds heavier than Pontiac. The winner was to have the right to take Betty Daniels to the senior prom. The fight was a formal affair, with Pontiac loudly announcing his intentions at school assembly on the very next Monday morning after the “Little Women” curtain call. Further written challenges and counter-challenges followed. The class president stepped in to set down the rules for the event. Draw a big square in the black dirt and cow pies out behind Miller’s barn, the green one with the coffee billboard on its Highway 12 side (“Every drop is one of sweetness,” proclaimed the barn-bound sign). Each combatant was allowed to bring two close pals to act as seconds, along with a dozen official spectators to witness the rightful settling of the matter. No weapons of any sort allowed, not even pocketknives, with the president himself promising to search everyone present. This was a serious matter, and had to be handled just right for the results to be held as binding.
DR Jr had even imported a college boy -- a sophomore in divinity school -- to help. DR Jr telephoned long-distance to the Baptist minister’s son, a friend of his father’s, asking him to come to Blue Moons for the day to act as referee and chaplain to the fight.
“Could be one of us’ll die. Ought to have a preacher on hand. You’re close as we can get at the moment, even though neither of us is Southern Baptist,” said DR Jr over the phone, adding, “But we’ll get you a five-spot for gas, I swear on the Sears catalogue.” Schooled in the consequences of uncontained explosions, DR Jr was himself not an altogether dishonorable young man.
The seminarian drove all the way to Blue Moons from Centennial A&M College in Shreveport, Louisiana, to stand momentarily between the two fighters. Unfortunately, “Bust his ass, cowboy,” were the college man’s only words of spiritual advice, and those words were most certainly uttered only as directions to DR Jr. The collegian had twenty Christian dollars of his own riding on the heavier combatant, knowing the odds were he’d win. DR Jr was favored three to one. Pontiac, he thought, looked the loser.
He was wrong, though it took almost an hour’s worth of bare-fisted blows for that to become completely apparent. The Centenarian paid his lost bet most ungraciously, especially for a prospective man of the cloth. He departed grumbling in religiously questionable fashion, his naval phraseology presumably countered by the pronouncement of several less-than-joyful quotes from the older of the Testaments.
It had been a hard fight, and Pontiac’s joy in victory was somewhat tempered by his badly broken nose and his blackened and bloodied right eye. But 24 hours later, Pontiac Baskin went to the prom, all starched shirt and gauze bandages. And he proposed marriage to Betty that very night at 11:10pm, near the punch bowl, on their first date.
To the chaperones’ and town’s amazement, long-legged Betty Daniels, the catch of the century, accepted the 18-year-old boy’s mad offer on the spot.
That evening remained the biggest, most vivid moment of Pontiac’s life. The only picture he ever carried of his wife was a tattered and butt-molded black and white glossy snapped by a half-blind commercial photographer from Mount Pleasant, Arkansas, on the night of the dance. The night of her acceptance. Even after the stroke -- especially after the stroke -- he would quickly pull the dulled photo from his wallet with pride at the mention of his wife.
“She was a handsome woman, Betty was, and sweet as you could ever imagine,” he’d say with a sigh, aiming the faded front of the photo at his audience. “Damned handsome, and said yes to me right away, as beat up as I was looking.” Then Pontiac’d get himself another look before sliding the picture into the small simulated-leather tabernacle where the once-crisp reproduction had resided for the better part of two decades.
The intake of some form of alcohol could reasonably be predicted as the coda to the re-emergence of that photo. Beer and a shot at Brady’s. Maybe a pair of those puppies.
While Pontiac had indeed won the lovely Betty, he had not been quite as lucky as his rival DR Nicholls Jr as far as participation in the War. That is to say, Pontiac did participate, while DR Jr did not. Pontiac’s own father had passed away some years earlier without the smallest bit of governmental maiming, and his mother had immediately remarried upon her first husband’s death, bonding with a large and robust garage owner. Pontiac was not needed at home. However, the resourceful young man craftily volunteered for the National Guard before the draft could take him into the Army as an infantryman, which was to be the fate of most of his soon-to-be-cannon-fodder schoolmates.
Pontiac managed not only to stay Stateside, but to draw the even rarer military duty of securing his own home town. After basic training, he was promoted from Buck Private by his Company Commander, and named as the enlisted man in charge of Civil Defense Preparedness for Bowie County. During his three years’ service, PFC Baskin had the opportunity to personally inspect every house in the town of Blue Moons, a job he undertook on the pretext of measuring windows for blackout cloths. His casement initiative was a great means of demonstrating to his superiors that he really had a function in the Guard. The knowledge he gained in this capacity would serve him well in his later abbreviated career as a real estate agent.
His job also allowed him to stay in the close and frequently sweaty company of his new bride, and even be paid a small monthly housing and food allowance on top of his basic pay. Pontiac Baskin had left the National Guard a Staff Sergeant with thirty-five hundred dollars in the bank and three bawling children in white rattan bassinets, already sixty percent of the way to his final progeny output. He had a good-looking wife and a healthy sexual appetite, as did she in those early days.
Betty Baskin’s enthusiasm for that sort of activity would dwindle in short order.
Toward the end of Pontiac’s residence in Blue Moons, in the months before he turned tail and ran, the memory of the exuberant and beautiful town girl to whom he had proposed was overwhelmed by his dozen-or-so daily encounters with a bitter half-beautiful hag. Arms swinging, Betty’d storm up the new treated-pine steps of the double-wide that served as his insurance office. She’d slam the door open and throw out two, then three, of the seven words she used regularly for all speech. Since the stroke.
“I say!” she’d exclaim to him, both to get his attention and to let him know that she needed something. Two out of seven. When he didn’t respond quickly enough, which was every time, her first statement was quickly followed by the inevitable second: “I say shit!” Three out of seven.
The “shit” usually translated as “no”. And that he’d best pay attention to Betty.
Pontiac’d then go through another bout of their interminable charade-method communication, pointing to various objects and in various directions, Betty adding complex changes in tone and emphasis to the words until her message was brought to light.
Pontiac pointing at the drugstore, a usual destination.
“I saaa-ay!” A positive response.
A finger on the back. Back medicine?
“I say shit!” the negative reply.
Another negative “I say shee-yut!”
Her mouth was barely open before he pointed at her nose. After five years he had begun to anticipate a “shit” reply. This temporarily confused Betty, who had to hold back her stomach negative and somehow quickly come to grips with the fact that he had hit on the area she wanted medicated. Those days the few moments of his wife’s confusion were the sole source of Pontiac’s marital pleasure.
“UhUHWUUhh,” came from Betty’s mouth as her vocal chords tried to realign themselves for the correct response.
Knowing that he had hit on the right item, Pontiac would pick up the phone and dial the four numbers of Daigle’s Drug Store before Betty could recover.
“Daigle’s,” said the birdlike voice on the other end of the line, the blue-banded magpie electrically traveling almost half a block of wire to settle in the nest of Pontiac’s pink and slightly hairy ear.
“Tri-Larry, Pontiac. Them nose pills. Probably the big bottle. Bet-tee’ll be right over.”
“Yep, right over,” Pontiac’d say.
“Sure, Pontiac,” warbled Larry Daigle III, proprietor of Daigle’s. But Tri-Larry was not happy.
“Okay. I’ll do it this time. Again. But I’m telling you, boy, it’s just this one more time. You know she has got to go see Doc Willis and get his John Henry. I just can’t keep giving out these things if the Doc don’t give me an official piece of paper saying refill the prescription. He’ll kill me.”
“Bing-bong,” commented Betty (five out of seven), knowing intuitively what was progressing on the phone and getting agitated enough to break out the big guns of her vocabulary. The sound of her doorbell had, in her first post-stroke year at home, entered into her mind and voice with the visitors it heralded. That sound was now a comment on a druggist’s reticence. Pontiac had better set the boy at that pharmacy straight, and right now.
“Don’t you be giving me that ‘Now, Tri-Larry’ routine, Pontiac. You know these things got some serious drugs in ‘em. I’m only supposed to give ‘em out with the Doc’s OK. The Pharmacy Board they come check these records real careful every so often, yes they do, even here in Blue Moons. I could lose my license.”
“Me and the woman are paying your kids’ way through college, Tri-Larry Daigle.”
“Even if that was true -- which it ain’t, seein’ as how her buddy Mrs Giamanico is even a bigger hypochondriac than Bet-tee is and got federal money to prove it -- I still work on the prescription system. I gotta be hard. I can’t even take it into my mind that Matty Sue Giamanico had that polio. Wheel chair or no. Twenty-something years ago now, and she’s still getting medicine off being a sick teenager. But at least she’s legal. The government doctors they give Matty Sue her official OK to be a roll-around junkie. Me and the Doc get Washington DC paper every damn month on Matty Sue Giamanico. And a check. Like clockwork. Unlike your Bet-tee. If she’d just give in and take that damn federal money she wouldn’t have to come begging to me like this. She could be calling the Doc on the phone, and he don’t care, give her all the drugs she wants, whenever she wants. As long as he gets paid to write the prescription. Me, I could be losing my business if I give her this stuff without the Doc, and you of all people should know it. Regulations. Necessary, boy, them regulations are.”
This low blow was not unexpected. Pontiac had lost his real estate license years before, due to several instances of “unknowingly” avoiding the limits of state and federal statutes. His lawyer’s repeated use of the “unknowingly” word had allowed him to narrowly avoid an enforced and prolonged sabbatical in the company of more knowledgeable felons. People kidded him about it all the time. But Pontiac had adroitly and quickly changed occupations after his set-back, and was now the sole resident multi-purpose insurance agent in Blue Moons. Lone Star Protection covered everything that had to be covered, insurance-wise, in the northeast corner of Texas’ Sandy Hills. Consequently, Tri-Larry Daigle knew he could not afford to push Pontiac Baskin too far. Not if Daigle expected his premiums to stay at a reasonable, base-line sort of level.
“She’ll be over in a minute,” said Pontiac.
“Over. God damn!” Betty had been listening carefully. She was content to have passed on her meaning, both repeating a word she had just heard spoken and simultaneously articulating the last two words of her core vocabulary.
All seven words spoken, “I say shit”, “bing-bong” (Pontiac had always counted that as two), and “god damn”, plus the bonus word tossed in for good measure, she was content. Betty knew she’d get her medication.
She’d walk over there herself, right now.
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