Are You Happy, Miss Betty?

 

As a special treat today, here’s a sample chapter from Storms of Malhado

Galveston April 1961 – Are You Happy, Miss Betty?

Betty knew she shouldn’t smoke, but talking to Cornelius unnerved her. That a young man like him would bear the name Cornelius Swain with such pride was unsettling to her, and not in the same way in which her husband, Carl, found it bothersome. Carl often said that “the boy needs to be taken down a notch.” He’d say “boy,” not the other word, the one that made Betty’s skin crawl, but she knew that to someone as proud as Cornelius “boy” too would be offensive. Cornelius was not a boy. Cornelius Swain, the gardener, was a full-grown man. But a man young enough to envision a different world, a world where his pride and his talent would not be at odds with his race. Betty could sense this about him, and she knew that in that illusion, Cornelius was very much alone, at least here on the Island. The world that others like him saw themselves in was the real one in which they lived. A world of many words left unspoken, and eyes that looked away, such as Edna’s, the housekeeper, whom Betty assumed to be wiser than she let on, but who feigned ignorance and kept their conversations short. What bothered Betty was not that Cornelius could see himself in a better world, a more equitable one. What bothered her was her own lack of belief in such a possibility. Betty had been on the Island long enough to know that things would never change, despite some high school kids being served hamburgers at the University lunch counter. And so Cornelius’ insolence annoyed her twofold. Once because it was unrealistic. And twice because it was often aimed at her. His insolence had pegged her as the enemy. And Betty knew deep down that in not believing things could ever change, she was part of the problem. His insolence accused her. And it bothered her because it was right.

But what could a young woman like her do? Betty could not even balance her own check-book without Carl looking over her shoulder. She couldn’t even choose what they had for dinner, not truly choose. Sure, she would tell Edna what to fix. But it was never her preference. Not really. She did not choose the color of her nightgowns. They were all pastels, which Carl liked. She did not choose to go to bed with him. The only choice she apparently made herself, was the one not to have babies. And even that was not much of a choice, as it was, according to her mother and to her insufferable doctor, subconscious. Now, is a subconscious choice truly one’s choice? Betty lit up and took that satisfying first drag. Perhaps it was a more honest choice than any.

She cradled the receiver in her hand. She liked the feel of the hard, cool plastic. She’d always liked odd things, latched on to them in times of trouble, as if they could save her. The phone rang. Once, twice, three times. Betty held her breath. A nonsensical part of her wanted to hang up. But on the fourth ring an old woman answered. This was, most likely, Cornelius Swain’s mother, the one he had come back for. Betty briefly entertained the notion of what would have happened if he’d been able to stay up north. Would he have been able to study? Become someone important? Would he have made more of his chance at an education than she had?

By the time Cornelius came to the phone Betty thought she had found her voice. Yet when she spoke to him it came out all raspy and the smoke made her cough.

He laughed. “So you’s smoking again when the old man ain’t home,” he said. Betty decided to let it slide.

“I need you to come cut down the jasmine, Cornelius,” she said. “I’m afraid Carl’s allergic to it.”

“He ain’t allergic.” She could hear him laughing. “Not to the jasmine, at least. The old man’s allergic to life! But fine, I’ll stop by in a day or two and cut it.”

Betty rolled her eyes. A day or two in Island time could mean a week or two, and in Cornelius time it could mean a month. The jasmine would have shed its flowers by then.

“How about tomorrow, Cornelius?” she pleaded.

“Gotta take my mama to church. Besides, I thought you liked that jasmine I planted for you, Miss Betty.”

Betty bit her lips. She loved the jasmine. She wondered if that’s what made Carl allergic. It wasn’t the jasmine. It was her joy. He couldn’t bear to see her joy. Carl wanted her to be content. But he didn’t want her to sparkle.

“Why don’t you come after church, Cornelius? My husband is going fishing with his friends.” That came out wrong, she thought. And yet she knew that Cornelius didn’t like seeing Carl any more than Carl liked seeing him.

“My mama’s cooking Sunday dinner after church,” he said. “But tell you what? I’ll come by when we’re done eatin’, how’s that?”

 

Betty put out her cigarette and flushed the butt down the toilet. She opened enough windows to cause a draft. It was ridiculous that Carl minded her smoking so much, when he was perfectly able to tolerate the smell if it was his friends or his clients or any number of other people producing it. Who’d ever heard of smoking bothering anyone, let alone a grown man?

It was still early to start dinner. Edna didn’t come on weekends, but she had left a pie in the icebox for Betty to serve. Blueberry pie, Carl’s favorite. There was cold chicken too, for chicken salad. She figured she could make that much without offending Carl’s taste buds. Though he’d insisted on hiring Edna once faced with Betty’s lack of talent with all things domestic, he still held the expense against her. It came up each time she wanted money for a new dress or any repairs done to the house. God knew this monster of a mansion needed many improvements, but Betty had learned to bite her tongue. “If your mother had taught you how to keep house, we’d have more spending money.” Truth was her mother had wanted to teach her a great many things, but it was Betty who had insisted on moving to Houston and going to school instead. Little good that did her. When it all came to nothing, as she should have known it would, she’d been happy to meet Carl, happy to fall in love, but happy also to be saved from a life of squalor in roach-infested apartments in Houston, trying to support herself on a retail job’s pay, art school a distant dream. Yes, marrying Carl had definitely been the right thing to do. But how could she have fallen into the trap of letting him bring her back to the Island?

She sat in silence next to her husband at dinner that night. She chewed her chicken salad and smiled. Betty knew that it was her finest talent, the art of being alone, of seeking refuge. It was most useful, actually, when she was with someone. She could retreat without the other person ever knowing. She could nod and smile, make companionable noises even, at Carl’s accounts of what new houses had gone on the market, what showings he had, his complaints about the slow economy of the Island. But Betty wasn’t truly there. She was half listening, half lost in details that seemed to matter only to her, details she had an eye for. The way the light fell on a glass of water, the edges of the glass shining then darkening as they rounded. The grains of salt in the salt shaker, how they each sparkled individually. It wasn’t just that she saw these things, whereas other people glossed over such minutiae, it’s that she enjoyed seeing them, a secret pleasure that had given her comfort throughout her life.

It used to get her in trouble as a child when her mother would accuse her of daydreaming, but over time Betty became prolific at disguising just how absorbed she was in looking at ordinary objects when others counted on her listening and being present. There had a been a time when she had hoped her being so observant, so attuned to and curious about the shades and folds of life, meant that she’d be perfect as an artist. But it was the same meticulous way of looking at things that seemed to be her undoing. She saw every flaw in her works, just as she noticed the details of the world around her. In the end, her talent only helped her through lonely dinners with her husband, or through the dreary lunches she occasionally shared with her mother – lunches she postponed until her mother grew impatient and complained that Betty never wanted to see her. The truth was, Betty never did, and when they got together after weeks of careful avoidance, she took refuge in the amber reflection of the ice in her glass of tea and let her mother’s complaints and criticisms, her nagging about the grandchildren that failed to materialize, roll off her like water off a duck’s back.

Come Sunday her mood had somewhat improved. She could feel her period coming on but she didn’t feel herself get too sad that she wasn’t pregnant. Shouldn’t she feel sad? Instead she felt ravenous and since Carl had gone fishing in the wee hours of the morning, before she was even awake, she indulged in a large breakfast of eggs and bacon just for herself. Eggs and bacon, that much Betty could do, but had Carl been home he would have complained about it for sure, would have compared it to his mother’s. She helped herself to leftovers from last night’s pie as well. She’d tried and failed miserably to whip up some cream to go on top, and what she’d served Carl for dessert had been a soggy mess, but he’d pretended not to notice because it was, after all, Saturday night, and on Saturdays he liked to make love to her and had found out the hard way it wouldn’t do if she was salty. Sometimes Betty wondered if this was the only power she had. Not that she could really deny him, something told her that was unwise, a fear perhaps she’d internalized from her mother’s monologues about women who slept in separate rooms from their husband and whose husbands visited the girls on The Line. There was no more Line in Galveston any more, but the stray brothel still held out against the tides of time. So Betty didn’t think saying no to him, especially on a Saturday night, could be a good idea, but she was amused to see that if she pouted and wasn’t feigning interest and excitement, Carl would rather go into the former coach house, now a garage, and mess with the engine on his car. She hadn’t pouted last night, but she had disappeared into her own thoughts once again. She wasn’t just good at seeing things, really seeing them, noticing all the details. She could recall them later too, turn them around in her mind, examine every surface, imagine how they’d feel or smell.

Betty left the dishes in the sink. Edna would come tomorrow and wash them. She came Mondays and Fridays, and sometimes if there was spring cleaning to do, on Wednesdays – something Carl grumbled about. Betty secretly wished they could afford to have her come every day. She herself was useless, and Edna often saved her by doing more than what Betty had hired her to do. She’d help out with meal prep. She brought the occasional pie or cake she baked on nights when she couldn’t sleep, as Island breezes cooled her tiny cottage. It hurt Betty’s heart that she couldn’t pay her a little extra for such unexpected kindnesses, as even at Christmas she had to fight Carl, to cry, and pout, and threaten to leave and go to her mother’s – something they both knew she’d never do – in order to extract the privilege of giving the housekeeper a measly little bonus.

Betty went back upstairs, actually went all the way up to the third floor, where the servants’ quarters had been back when the house was inhabited by a wealthy family, and sat at her drawing table. The table was a wooden rectangle with uneven legs that required balancing with matchbooks. It wouldn’t have been remarkable in any way, except for its sturdiness, a quality at odds with its wobbly nature, a paradox Betty found endearing, as if this large and unwieldy furniture item, undoubtedly left up here by former inhabitants because it was too much trouble to move, were a hippopotamus with a limp, or a massive heifer with a vertigo problem. Betty loved the discoloration of the surface, the circles of wood underneath the worn veneer, the warmth and porousness of it. This table, to her, was like a friend, and the third floor where it resided, her place of refuge. She was grateful for this old abandoned object, a feeling that eluded her about most other things in life, including the privilege of living in the house itself. She supposed that one good thing about Galveston was that nobody wanted to be here. They could afford a mansion if they wanted to, although it was a mansion in disrepair, and sometimes Betty wondered if newer houses with better insulation and fewer ghosts were not indeed more expensive than this ancient carcass Carl had surprised her with.

Her mother thought it strange that Betty liked to go to the third floor. Her mother thought that must be the most haunted part, she’d heard it somewhere, and that a sensible girl would steer clear. But for all the talk going around, Betty had not so much as been startled by an unaccounted for draft of air. She’d been in other houses on the island where she could feel a presence. But not here. And she was sensitive – as observant of currents of air or unaccounted for energy as she was of light and shadow, of particles of dust floating in rays of light, shiny like snowflakes, or of the subtle changes in color as the Island sky churned the golden hour into the blush of dusk.

Perhaps an actual supernatural presence would have been easier to bear than a vast mansion that was haunted in a different, metaphorical way. For it wasn’t actual ghosts that bothered Betty here, but the thought of the imposing old home as a symbol of days gone by. It was its testimony of an era of affluence wiped out unexpectedly, the Island’s perpetual nostalgia for its own wealth and glory, lost in the violence of the Storm of 1900. With its grand entrance, tall ceilings, dramatic staircase seconded by humble back stairs meant to lead servants seamlessly from the kitchen to the third floor where their rooms were, the house served as a constant reminder that Galveston’s past would forever outshine its precarious present and uncertain future. Betty wasn’t sure it was healthy to live with this much nostalgia. And yet, her domain was the abandoned third floor, the now redundant servants’ quarters, where at the old wooden table which at some point must have been used for more practical tasks she sat for hours and stared at blank sheets of paper.

Carl didn’t bother to come up to the third floor, and Betty had made sure Edna understood that this part of the house was to be excluded even from the more thorough cleanings. Edna had seemed disappointed. Or perhaps Betty had misread her expression. It didn’t matter, anyhow. She’d rather have dust bunnies pile up in the corners of the room, than suffer even a benevolent intrusion. Solitude was the greatest luxury. She could leave her sketches lying around. She could leave books open, photographs scattered, still lives in place. Nobody would bother her workshop. Betty loved having a place that was entirely her own. Yet she knew that there was something amiss with her desire for isolation. For one, it meant the absence of criticism. It was a weakness that she craved this so. It reminded her that she had dropped out of art school, dropped out during her first semester, and not just because she couldn’t make ends meet. Like the old house, she was a creature whose most ambitious hopes lay buried somewhere in the past.

 

By the time Cornelius rang the doorbell, Betty had finished a portrait of a woman and child from one of the old photographs she collected. She was moderately pleased with it, so pleased, in fact, that she forgot, for probably an hour or so, that the exercise was largely pointless, that nobody would see her work. As she raced down three flights of stairs to answer Cornelius’s impatient ringing, the thought briefly crossed her mind again: Perhaps if she got good, and by that she meant really, really good, perhaps then it wouldn’t matter that she’d dropped out of art school. Perhaps she could submit her work to galleries in Houston, and… Well, she couldn’t imagine Carl being too pleased, but she could maybe talk him into it and then…

Cornelius seemed to be leaning on the buzzer. Betty abhorred loud noises. She opened the door and almost bumped into him. He was smiling. He seemed to be all teeth. White teeth framed by manly lips and stubble. That smile stuck with her, it impressed her for some reason. She filed it in her secret bank of images, things to recall when she was bored or lonely or cross or couldn’t sleep at night.

“You been running, Miss Betty?”

“I ran down the stairs,” she said, and she found herself flustered at being out of breath. “Do come in.”

They made their way into the kitchen, and there she found herself embarrassed again, at the sight of her dirty breakfast dishes. She’d thought of Carl, tired from fishing, too tired to notice them, but hadn’t thought of Cornelius coming in here, hadn’t realized at the time that what he thought of her and her untidy kitchen mattered to her. Did it?

“Would you care for some tea?” she asked, and opened the fridge before he could answer.

Cornelius sat at her kitchen table. He sat in Carl’s chair.

Betty poured iced tea into two glasses. As she did, she took in the honey-colored glow of the liquid in the pitcher, the droplets forming on the side of the cold glass. She handed him the glass, relishing its coolness on her fingers. She sat across from him because it seemed awkward not to. Cornelius took a big gulp of tea and sighed afterwards like his soul had just been delivered from hell. She found the physicality of him overbearing. Was it because he was attractive? Was he even attractive, objectively speaking, or was he only attractive to her? The thought embarrassed Betty and she wanted it banished. She concentrated on observing the drops of condensation on her glass. Each glimmer of light held an accent of darkness. The glasses had been a wedding present from one of the girls she’d gone to Ball High with, one of the so-called friends who’d been relieved to see her return to the Island to live a life not much different than their own. The only things remarkable about Betty were that she lived in the big haunted mansion on Broadway, and that she sketched in her workshop on the third floor. But the mansion was falling apart, and nobody knew about her drawing. So perhaps the only thing truly remarkable about Betty was that she didn’t have a baby.

Cornelius set his empty glass down. There was a ring of light at the bottom of it. A ring of light encased in a ring of darkness. Betty was at a loss as to what to do, so she refilled the glass. An amber glow joined the two rings at the bottom. New droplets of condensation formed.

Cornelius thanked her with a nod, then took another gulp. “It sho’ is hot outside,” he said. Betty nodded, though she hadn’t been out all day. It was the kind of day when she didn’t venture anywhere until close to sunset, when she liked taking a walk if Carl wasn’t home and if she could. Suddenly the thought of stepping into the backyard with Cornelius seemed oppressive. But surely it wasn’t necessary. He could figure out what to do, couldn’t he?

“So you ain’t changed your mind about that pretty jasmine, Miss Betty?”

She shook her head. “My husband’s allergic.”

“It’s a pity,” Cornelius replied. He didn’t motion to stand up. Should she? She looked at his hands on the glass. Cornelius had beautiful hands. He’d told her once about the things he’d wanted to study. Architecture. She could imagine those fingers drawing. Her period approaching was surely making her sentimental, because it nearly made her cry, the thought of those possibilities unused, the things Cornelius could have done if only the world and the Island had been different. And suddenly she couldn’t help herself, she had to include him into the only secret world she had that somehow resembled his own loss.

“You know,” he said, “if you give it another ten days or so, them blooms will be gone anyway.” Betty couldn’t say she hadn’t thought of this. The scent was already changing, becoming riper, fuller, at its loveliest just before it expired. Thinking of it made her almost weep.

“Do you want to see what I drew today?” she asked. Her voice didn’t crack and she was glad. She had to get a grip of herself. It’d be awkward and silly to cry in front of the gardener.

Cornelius gave her that smile again, the one that was only white teeth. It sent shivers through her, that smile.

When they got to the third floor he just paced back and forth.

“So this is your secret, Miss Betty.” He paused in front of the drawing table, picked up her sketches. He took longer looking at her unfinished work than at the drawings she’d taken hours to complete. “Tell me about this one,” he said, holding up a sketch of a woman running on the beach. It was one of her favorites, though she knew it wasn’t one of her best. There was something amiss about the woman’s stance, something that didn’t look natural. The shoulders, maybe. But Betty couldn’t bring herself to throw the drawing away. There was motion in it, the woman was clearly running, and there seemed to be joy in that motion. You could even see a trace of a smile.

“She seems happy,” Betty said.

“Are you happy, Miss Betty?”

She caught herself too late. She knew her face had been honest. She had trouble hiding her eyes, and her only saving grace throughout a life of fake smiles was that people never looked. Cornelius did. When his eyes touched hers there was depth there, understanding, and a type of longing. He drew nearer, his hand grabbed hers. And Betty, Betty who was aware of how this simple gesture changed everything between them, did not pull away from his touch. Instead, resolutely, guided by an instinct she could have stopped but chose to give in to, her fingers clasped around his. His skin felt coarse, but in a good way. It felt warm. Betty recalled the image of his fingers which she had studied earlier at the kitchen table. She liked knowing that those long fingers were now intertwined with  hers. His body pressed hers against the edge of the table. The smile with all those white teeth drew close. The dark skin with stubble. There was a moment when she could have still, despite having allowed her hand to hold his, fake outrage, shock, dismay. Scream, even. Not for anyone to come to her rescue, but to jolt them both out of the knowledge that his advances were welcome. But Betty didn’t want to lie. She chose this, the honesty and the danger. She chose to smile, chose to let her own face pull back from his slightly, not as a protestation, but in order to tease and lure. She chose to look into his eyes with longing. Chose to wait for the kiss she should have stopped. He took his time. Looked at her. Waited. Did he also consider pulling back? Betty knew in her bones she didn’t want that. His lips felt hot like peach cobbler just out of the oven. Hot and soft. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to sink into that feeling, the warm feeling. She could feel his hand on the small of her back. He pulled her closer, the white teeth bit her lip. It was like their two smiles colliding. There was something imperfect in it, like the drawing of the woman running on the beach, imperfect yet deeply satisfying.

Betty pulled away first. “I can’t.”

He looked at her, his eyes intent on hers, still as deep as before. She couldn’t stand it. She looked away.

“I’m married,” she said.

“Nothing a judge can’t fix.” He laughed. The depth in his gaze was gone, replaced by a defiant sparkle. She didn’t know what to say. There was shame and anger and…

“I’d like for you to leave.”

“As you wish, Ma’am.”

If you’d like to buy the book, you can find it here. 

You might also like these products I made on my Society6 page with some of my favorite Betty-inspired art.

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