Did she know this woman, Betty wondered. On her porch, Betty felt a moment of vertigo after the oversized vehicle pulled into her driveway with her son-in-law Vince at the wheel. The woman she didn’t quite recognize opened the back passenger door, set down a step stool by the open door, and turned expectantly toward the porch. Oh, yes. It was her Sharon. Betty kept forgetting how lately her daughter kept her hair streaked with blond. “Highlighted,” Sharon called it. Betty had tried to think of a way to tell her this didn’t suit her at all. She walked down the drive, then obediently, she used the stool to climb into the car (or was it a truck?), sitting down on the back of her coat in such a way that her head was pulled sideways, and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
“You’re wearing your bouclé suit,” Sharon said once Betty was settled in. “Very dressy, for us, I’m afraid.”
“This is an outing, dear,” Betty replied.
There had been plenty of time to dress nicely. Awake at six, Betty had kept on her housecoat for her morning routine — breakfast with the crossword in the paper and her pills. Today she had done a bit of hand washing with her favorite morning news show on TV whose chatty anchors were always welcome guests in her kitchenette. Today, she had a luncheon invitation to plan for, and she had been in the mood to make it an event. By midmorning, she was shoving closet hangers back and forth looking for something to match her spirits. The yellow sweater Sharon had given her for her birthday was pretty, but it had a stain. A two-piece outfit of cornflower blue stood out among the navy slacks and print blouses, and she put it on. It was rather old, but was a very good label. She had hidden the receipt from Charlie, in fact, when she bought it at the Dorothy Lane shop. That had been gone for years now, as had Charlie.
Checking herself in the mirror, she thought how a corset would have given her waist a nice little nip-in. Then she put on some navy shoes with a modest heel and paraded in front of the mirror. What was it Oprah said?
“You go, girl!” Betty crowed. Then she detoured into the bathroom to apply some makeup. But she didn’t overdo it, just a dab of rouge and a dusting of powder.
At the strip mall parking lot, Sharon held the step stool again for her mother when she got out, and Vince took her arm as they walked. Vince was a nice man, really, just not what Betty had in mind originally for her Sharon. More to her liking would have been a doctor, or lawyer, or even a professor. There might have been a two-story colonial or enriching travel. Betty suspected at the time they married he was proficient lover, Vince of the James Dean insolent lip and curls. Today that lip was covered with a mustache, not too well trimmed, and he was bald as an egg. For Sharon, apparently, nice made up for these other things.
Once inside Café Olé, Betty tilted her head to gaze at the giant overhead menus. As she tried to read across the panels, the choices in red, yellow, and blue chalk swam together, so finally she pointed to a cinnamon roll in the bakery case. Frosting dripped along its edges. Sharon urged her to get a sandwich, naming the daily special.
“Honestly, mother, here’s your chance at a decent meal. How about this smoked turkey with red pepper mayonnaise?” She pointed to a model of the special that wobbled seductively on a rotating glass plate.
“No, just a cinnamon roll. That will be fine for me,” Betty said taking what her daughter referred to as her mother goose pose, toes turned out with her purse gripped over her stomach. Betty recalled she had once ordered a sandwich here, and it was obvious that the people who made up these concoctions did not have dentures. You wouldn’t dare open your mouth wide enough to take a bite. She had resorted to cutting it up, but the sourdough was so rubbery even this was a chore. So the gooey cinnamon roll might be perfect, especially if dipped in coffee. That was another thing — it was hard to get just plain coffee at these places. So this time she ordered tea and then saw the girl get out a teacup the size of that ride at Disneyland.
“Never mind the tea. Just a paper cup of plain coffee!” she said.
After a stop at the drink station where Vince squeezed a handful of lemon slices into some ice water and added a half-dozen sugars, they found a table. With Betty’s coat off, the trays deposited in the caddy, and Sharon’s purse on the chair, they began to catch up on news since last month. Sharon told how one of her colleagues that Betty knew had finally had her baby.
Betty wondered about the name, and Sharon said it was Rudolf.
Vince looked up from his sandwich. “Who would name a baby, Rudolf?” A bit of mustard hung off his mustache from biting into his monster of a sandwich. Betty was about to say she thought it was pleasantly old fashioned when Vince added, “Why not Dasher or Blitzen. How would that be?”
“Well, they are Hungarian,” Sharon offered, laughing.
Betty’s thoughts drifted to Hungarians, and she seemed to hear her own mother’s voice more clearly than her daughter’s across the table.
“Let’s go down to the Hunkies to see if they have any tomatoes,” her mother was saying. No one had thought a thing about calling them “Hunkies,” Betty mused. The children would come up to their Ford with baskets of produce to sell, and her mother might give them ten cents extra for ice cream.
Several taps on her arm reminded Betty to focus on the people at her the table. She knew she was inclined to drift off, even when Sharon and Vince were giving her an outing like this one.
“Have you been to visit Aunt Louise lately?”
“Yes, a week ago with Mabel. We got mixed up and two young fellows showed us the way back to the highway.” As soon as she said it, Betty was sorry. Now they wouldn’t let her drive around with Mabel.
“Oh, mother.” Sharon placed her hand over her mother’s, rocking it back and forth. Betty felt the familiar, slender fingers and admired how nicely Sharon now kept her nails.
“Ladies in distress, men to the rescue,” Vince said. He went on, “You be ready to relax tomorrow afternoon, Mother Miles.”
“Yes, we’re coming to clean your house for you,” Sharon announced. Betty put down her cup. At Sharon’s no shoes were allowed indoors, and Vince ate his snacks at the kitchen table. They would be stacking her dishes the wrong way, criticizing her cheerful throw rugs, and complaining about the plastic containers she kept handy on the counter.
“Oh, no,” Betty said opening and shutting the clasp on her purse.
“You can watch TV while we work,” Sharon said.
“I never watch TV.” Betty opened her purse again and got out her wallet and then remembered these places had you pay ahead of eating, as if you might run off. Vince had already paid anyway, she thought next. This was their month to treat.
Vince smiled at her. “You do too watch TV. You watch that mean Judge Judy every day at 3.”
“Well, maybe once in a while.” Betty looked at Vince more critically as he stood to pile up their cups to carry over to the waste area. He still had some life in him. If Bob Dole could talk about it, couldn’t anyone? She almost giggled. Sharon would be mortified at such speculation from her own mother, Betty knew, but lately she had found her thoughts taking her to new places and ideas.
“Mother, a good house cleaning won’t take an hour. Vince can take out the trash, I’ll vacuum, and you can dust,” Sharon said, hustling Betty into her coat. When her daughter was on a mission, there was no stopping her. More objections were pointless, Betty knew, but it occurred to her that maybe Vince would sit down to watch Judge Judy, too.
They took the long way home, so Betty could see progress on a shopping development. Sharon also pointed out a new assisted living facility. Betty felt mildly annoyed by this pairing of tour sites. If Sharon thought she was ready for an assisted living place, she certainly wouldn’t be hiking around a shopping center.
“Will you look at that!” Betty said as they drove slowly by the facility that to her resembled a hospital masquerading as a resort.
Sharon ordered, “Turn in, Vince.” Their vehicle cut sharply into the grounds.
“Yes, so many bird feeders. How nice,” Sharon said turning toward her mother in the back seat.
But Betty was studying a sign meant to discourage traffic. “‘Shady Grove Assisted Living. No outlet,'” she read aloud slowly. “Ha! You can say that again.”
Vince hooted. Sharon sighed, and then said, “All right, mother, you win.”
Vince turned out of the drive, spraying gravel. When they got back to the duplex, the step stool came out for the fourth time.
“Mother, put your left hand, not your right, on the door as you step down.”
Betty groped with her right foot until she found the step stool. Sharon steadied her right arm until Betty took a heavy step to the ground with her left foot, tilting back slightly off the edge of her shoe. Sharon seemed short-tempered with this ineptness in getting out even though anyone could see the SUV wasn’t the ideal vehicle for transporting an elderly person.
“If those shoes are that loose, they’re worn out, mother. Why aren’t you wearing the new ones I got you?” She had brought over three pair recommended by the podiatrist’s office, so her mother could choose one.
“Oh, I forgot about those,” Betty said, though she knew perfectly well why she hadn’t worn them. “Old lady shoes,” she called them out of Sharon’s hearing. They were putty-colored and heavy. Each foot felt encased in concrete when she had them on and looked that way too. Now though she felt guilty. After all, Sharon was just trying to look out for her. On their way to the porch, she felt Sharon’s arm looped through hers press more firmly than necessary just for balance.
“You’ll be OK, right?” Sharon gave Betty a quick kiss as she unlocked the door for her and handed her house keys back.
Betty watched out the window as they pulled out of her driveway. Sharon was such a good girl.
With nothing else on her horizon, Betty changed out of the suit, and set a stove timer for 40 minutes, just the right length of time for a nap. This was something else she did that drove Sharon crazy. “You don’t have to set the timer. Just sleep as long as you want.” But the ticking of the white timer had a pleasant busyness about it, and it was comforting to know she would be summoned from sleep. Edging around what she called the “electric chair,” another of Sharon’s ideas, Betty headed for her own favorite armchair. She put her feet on an Ottoman and tipped her head back for her snooze, leaving the power recliner to nap by itself.
With the timer tick-ticking, Betty nodded off, then sensed she wasn’t alone in the room. Someone was in the recliner. It was Judge Judy! She recognized her little white collar immediately. The judge was glaring at her.
“Your daughter says you have throw rugs. Is this true?”
“Yes, but . . .”
“What’s a woman your age doing with throw rugs?” barked the judge. “Don’t you know they’re hazardous?”
Then Betty realized Sharon was there too, twisting the edge of her sweater, an Easter one with rabbits on it. The judge addressed Sharon: “I’d go easy on the highlights, if I were you, sister. It looks cheap.”
Wait a minute! No one should talk to her Sharon that way. Betty grabbed the controller for the electric chair and mashed the black button toward “Up.” Judge Judy began to rise. She tried to grip the arms of the chair as the seat rose and slanted, dumping her on her feet like a load of potatoes.
“I’ll be over to vacuum tomorrow,” the judge screamed. “So be ready!”
Ding! Betty’s eyes flew open. The living room was empty. The electric chair was squatting quietly in its corner. As Betty carried the timer back to the kitchen, she thought again how handy it was, while she stepped carefully over the edge of her sunflower throw rug. She stopped to study the yellow rug that never did lie flat. Then she rolled it up to tuck it under the bed and even tossed margarine containers from the kitchen counter under there too for good measure. Next came some dusting. She touched up the photo of Sharon in an Easter sweater. She gazed at the sweet, serious face — there was a slight rumple in her forehead between her eyes as if something behind the photographer didn’t quite suit her. Betty pressed the cool glass to her cheek for a moment. Next she took up the heavy framed picture of her husband. “Guess what, Charlie! Sharon thinks she should clean my house. Remember her room?”
Finally, Betty lugged the vac out of the closet and sat down on the ottoman to change the bag, putting yesterday’s newspaper down first. She gripped the body of the sweeper between her feet. The old bag wasn’t very full, but she worked it off anyway, trying to keep her toes out of the loose dirt that landed on the paper. Then over the exit neck, she inched a new filter bag, pleased that it didn’t rip. Finally, she rolled the grip over the bag, catching only a tiny welt of her skin in the spring coils.
“I wouldn’t want Sharon to have to tussle with this,” she said. “Not with those pretty finger nails.