Betty’s not the name she was born with, but it’s served her well enough.
When you think of the name Betty, you think of a flour-dusted housewife wearing Avon cosmetics and bearing French’s green-bean casserole to a block party potluck. You think of a bee hived waitress in a diner that serves blue plate meatloaf and mashed potatoes to a clientele willing to plunk down two dollars and forty-nine cents in assorted change for it. You think of a member of a Gals’-Nite-Out bowling team, the kind that wears matching starched turquoise shirts that say Blue belles in broad cursive across their backs. You think of a kind of dessert, or a cartoon character.
Betty is none of those things, yet in a manner of speaking she is all of those things too.
When you first see Betty, like Billy did that June evening, all you want is for her to love you back. As Betty knows perfectly well, that’s pretty much all anyone needs, to be loved. When you’re with her, you feel like you don’t want to be anywhere else.
Betty washes her hair and sets it in rollers in the late afternoon when her day is getting started; she lets it dry out on her fire escape while she sips Folgers Instant from a brown mug. Her bedroom faces east, and the fire escape is done with its share of sun by the time Betty comes to stretch out her legs. Her eyes are retro blue, the color of an open ’57 Chevrolet with fins the size of surfboards and a back seat wide enough for six or seven good-looking greasers plus herself. Betty’s eyes are just that blue.
Betty’s hair is her pride and joy. True, you could say she spends a little too much time at the sink with her head under the chugging faucet. The neighbors have been known to complain. It’s a kind of escape when the Texas sun is making the broken glass in the street twinkle like the stars above, and the stars in the night sky are too dim what with the dust on the road. It helps to drown it all out with cool rust and minerals and a deprived sense of hearing. It’s a transition from bed to being. Betty lets it rain down over her head, rinses out her hair real good, rinses all the aftershaves, the colognes, and the other man-smells off herself—and gets ready to start all over again. Watching the water collect where her bottle-blonde curls have stopped up the drain makes her forget who she is, and she’ll stay there longer than you’d think a person should.
Ever done that yourself? Try it sometime. It’s a lot like hanging your head over the side of a dock on a spring afternoon. You lie down on your back, tip your head over the side and let all the blood collect in your brain. It doesn’t take but a minute before the sky becomes the lake, and the lake becomes the impenetrable sky. Turn your head to one side, and the lake becomes a wall right next to you, a churning, hazy, pleasant kind of wall, and you know that when it comes time to meet the Maker, you will have to pass through a wall that looks just like that. You will leave the air and the clouds and the distant shore, and dive on through. And it won’t hurt a bit.
Betty grew up along Highway 183, just north of Mendoza. Her daddy used to tell her she’d better watch herself before her ass grew to be the size of the Texas panhandle. He used to panhandle her some too, until one day she packed a bag and just walked clean away. The cowboy in the first dusty pickup told her she looked just like Betty Grable, hips, hair, eyes, and all—and so the name stuck.
Now Betty looks herself up and down before going out, checks the width of her rear against marks she made on the wall, just to see whether her daddy was right. She plucks the rollers from her hair and teases it out, and sure enough—Betty is right on time.
Betty has never needed any particular man. She does just fine on her own, thank you. Her daddy taught her at least that much. If you asked her what her needs were, she couldn’t tell you. She likes to bring a man to that point when he just gets inside her, like a hound dog that can’t wait to rush to its bowl, and she’s happy to let him have it. That’s when she feels the love wash right out of these men, like someone wringing out a great big mop. All their love washes into her, and she feels she’s done right by herself. She likes to hear them say her name: Oh God, Betty, oh Betty, my God! She likes hearing her name alongside the Creator’s. Then she knows her bed is a sacred place.
But it’s not real, and she knows that too.
Betty’s a good girl, really. And she’s clean, she picks up after herself, takes care of herself. She brushes and flosses her teeth twice a day. While the man gets dressed to leave, she takes the time to wash. For him it’s a little extra show just for free, and sometimes she makes it interesting. She struts herself a little as she’s bending over the sink, lets the water drip a bit down her legs maybe, or, if she knows he’s really watching, she’ll wring the washcloth out at her throat, so that the water runs over her tits just as sweet as you please. Then she’ll turn to him, coquettish, innocent, and ask some simple question like, “So you going straight home from here, honey? You be careful out in this heat, now. Yesterday I seen a tin can melt like a stick of butter.”
Betty wishes she could do something constructive with her life, just a little something, like learning how to sew or crochet, or even taking care of a potted plant. Sometimes she envies the women she sees on the streets in the afternoon, the gals going into banks or the grocer’s in their little white gloves and pressed suits.
The ones with children she tries not to see. But once she helped a woman whose baby had torn away from her and was this close to getting hit by a big old taxicab. Between the mother’s wailing and the tires and the horn and the obscenities hurling all around, Betty managed to grab hold of the little tiger, dressed head to toe in baby blue and looking like a cornflower caught in an auger. The well-heeled little mother was by then squirting out crazy tears and wanting to hand Betty a twenty-dollar bill. Betty didn’t take the lady’s money, but she patted the little one on the head and watched them walk away, a bit closer together than they had been before, and she wondered whether it was really true that she couldn’t have children of her own.
Betty had learned one thing that day, though: her looks could stop traffic.
The men treated her as if they were her neighbors—and often they were. Betty felt comfortable around them. One of them liked to lay out his money on the dresser, patting it out with hands shaped by forty years of working the wells, and say things like, “Bitty grocery money for you there, darlin’,” or “There you go, gal, you go get yourself that pretty blue thing they got in Jacobson’s winder.” Things he should have said to his wife before she went and died and it was all much too late.
Once she had gotten a job in the club next to her building, which was a little bit more steady. Sometimes she served drinks, or danced. The men would sway with her, with their big hands on her ass, and she would wiggle it for them. This is not to say that in public she was anything but a lady. Sometimes, when she saw someone who looked lonely or sad, she would just sit down and start talking to him. She’d say, “Shucks, I been dancing so much I could suck down the Gulf of Mexico if it weren’t for the salt. Say, don’t you look smart in that hat.”
And that’s all it took. He would turn to her gratefully, with a different kind of thirst in his eyes, and begin to drink her in. Well now—he might say, How about could I get you something, Ma’am? And she would reply with ease, and he’d smile and stick up his hand to make his order, and she’d cross her legs in just the right way, and then, before long, she might suggest they head on upstairs together.