From the Archive: “Betty Brown Calling,” by Michael Byers

Browse By

Betty Brown Calling,” short fiction by Michael Byers, appeared in MQR’s Spring 2009 issue.

*

Caroline and Sylvester Haselton lived in Columbus in a house that had belonged to Caroline’s parents. Large and grave, it was full of closets and parlors and back halls and tiled washrooms and tiny spare bedrooms under the eaves. Her parents’ furniture, each piece so long installed in its place, tended toward the dark—dark wood carved with leaves and fruits, green upholstery with the horsehair scent of the nineteenth century upon it, maroon drapes that kept the sunlight off the Heriz carpets Caroline’s young father had acquired in trade one day in 1912 for two old horses and fifty dollars. Her father had been a minister but had never felt it necessary to mortify his flesh, and his leather-bound study, left intact since his death, always induced in Caroline a weighty, soporific happiness.

Her husband Sylvester was an engineer. At work he managed projects and spoke on the telephone, and hired and fired people. “I was too good at the real engineering,” he would say at parties, “so they bumped me upstairs.” But this was only partly true. He was not religious in the least but as Caroline’s father had been, Sylvester was a thoughtful, well-regulated man, with sound instincts for the conciliations that physical matter had to make to approximate the ideal. It was a talent that allowed him to be not only a good designer but a good politician at the office, and as time moved on and he grew older he moved up in the world in the natural progression of things. When she was young Caroline stayed home and raised the twins—Buddy and June—but when the children had finally grown and gone, she was left with nothing much to do. After a period of enjoyable boredom she decided to find a job. This did not bother Sylvester, though she had worried it would. “Heck no, princess,” he said, over his half-glasses. “Have at it.”

“It means I won’t always have dinner on the table when you come home.”

“You can come work for us if you want.”

“Not for all the tea in China,” she said. “I don’t want to see you all day long every single day of my life.”

“Very few people do,” said Sylvester.

Other women her age were doing the same thing as their own children went off into the world, some were even having affairs and getting divorced, and Caroline had no trouble finding work through friends.

She began by filling in temporarily at Guarantee Title and Insurance. She was a form processor, which meant she opened mail and put checks in one pile and statements in another, and gave letters of complaint to another woman at another desk. She was given red rubber tips to put on her fingers and a plastic letter opener, and though the job had few satisfactions it was something to do and got her out of the house and onto the bus in the morning. It was not as hard as she had thought it would be, and it provided her with a few new things to think about. The checks, for example. She had always assumed her checks were scrutinized with a suspicious eye and so had honed her signature to a perfect sameness, imagining that banks would not honor them otherwise. But checks often arrived unsigned and were processed with the rest. “Nobody looks at them?” she asked. The woman at the desk next to hers smirked: “Honey, there’s only so many of us.” Scrawled notes of apology and pleading often defaced the statements, and at first Caroline felt obliged to hunt down somebody and ask what to do. “Just stack it up,” the answer came, “it’s not your problem.”

“Well, whose problem is it?” She worked to keep the surprise, the disapproval, out of her voice.

Her supervisor took the statement, glanced at it, handed it back. “Not yours,” he told her.

After two months she quit and took a job at Wilmont Steel & Alloy Manufacturing, where she answered phones and deflected creditors. Wilmont was run by a drunk who lurked behind his hollow-core office door like a criminal, now and then emerging to drive his pickup away with a roar, spattering gravel on the vinyl siding. This was delicious for a week and then became too sad, so she quit that too and took a position at the cosmetics counter of Frost & Sons, where she sold blush and helped girls put on their lipstick. In her white smock Caroline felt motherly and freely told girls what they were doing wrong. She hesitated to press foundation on girls so young, who had no need of it, and eventually this led to a fight with her supervisor. “Believe it or not,” he said, leaning over the glass counter, “we’re actually supposed to be selling this stuff.”

“But they don’t need it.”

“That’s the beauty, honey, they don’t need it. How the economy works, sweetheart.” The supervisor was a few years younger than she with an unsavory grayness under his eyes. So many men were just awful to look at, sweaty with bad smells coming from folds in their skin or like this one, sallow and poisoned-looking. He gestured at the gold chandeliers, the track lighting. “Who needs any of this? Nobody, baby.”

Caroline left and found work at the university bursar’s office, where she worked with three old black women in a basement of Townshend Hall. Her desk had been occupied by dozens of short-termers but the old black women had been there forever and kept up an indecipherable chatter behind her head. As the only white woman there, she was given the checks to handle. These checks, for much larger amounts than she had handled at Guarantee, were more pleasingly composed, and it was her job to add them up to their vast totals, then zip them into a blue leather pouch for delivery to the bank. But the flush of embarrassment she felt at being the check handler grew worse instead of better, and the job itself was boring. An occasional flash of sneakered feet past the high window was her only company. Three months later she abandoned the desk to its next occupant and started behind the register at a chocolate shop at the mall, wearing a pink Wefterle’s apron, with her hair in a white paper hat. And then there were more jobs after this one, one after another. Quitting her first job at Guarantee had frightened her, but the world, as it turned out, was both more and less solicitous than she had imagined. They understood why she would want to leave, and they didn’t really care that they would never see her again. It was liberating, and like all liberations it was also disturbing. In such a world what was not possible, after all? Coming home off the bus in the evening she was happy to clomp up the front steps and open the front door into the cool dim of the foyer. After nine hours of her absence, the house seemed, for a moment, just another building — one of a million similar houses, the one that happened to be hers.

~

Eventually she took a position as a phone solicitor for On Board Enterprises Incorporated, which sold cruise tickets. The training was held in a glassed-in room in view of the calling floor. “You need to speak slowly,” said the manager, Penny. Like Caroline she was in her forties, her hair pulled into a frothy upsweeping pile. “And enunciate. You’re selling large valuable packages and you need to sound like you know what you’re talking about. Now repeat: morning.”

“Morning,” everybody said.

“Okay, morning.”

“Morning.”

“You see how my mouth actually moves when I talk? Energy. You put energy into your mouth and you sound educated.” Penny passed out a half-sheet of paper, mimeographed. “These names are for you to use in customer contacts. You must choose a name from this list. You may not use your given name in customer contacts.”

Someone asked, “What’s wrong with my name?”

Penny did not look up. “I will read these aloud. Elizabeth Barry. Margaret Hale. Sarah Williams. Christine Forbes. Jennifer Grandy. Victoria Lincoln. Betty Brown.” She glanced at Caroline. “And I don’t know what you’re doing here,” Penny said. “You don’t look like you need the work.”

“I do.”

“You’ll quit in a week,” Penny predicted, “at the most.”

“I won’t,” she said. But Caroline was not offended. Penny probably knew what she was talking about, after all, and if anything it seemed a sort of kindness, advance permission to leave without warning. The calling floor was hot, noisy, and windowless. They were each assigned a desk and a push-button telephone, a flat beige device that was in that day still so uncommon as to look, to Caroline, like an adding machine. A computer printout — the first she had ever seen — of likely customers was handed to her, as it would be every morning, with the perforated edges still attached. Thinking them somehow an important part of the paper, she left the edges intact. The lists, it was soon apparent, were compiled either automatically or by some process so sloppy and shallow as to be nearly random. More than half the numbers had been disconnected, or the residents had been gone for years to another state, or the numbers themselves, as though cursed, had dropped into some forgotten place, and now when she dialed them, the line only clicked. The manager loomed over her shoulder twice a day without a word. Penny was right, she did not really need the work, and the other callers were young, sort of hideous in the way her son Buddy was now, unshaven and manic, or, like June, sullen and disdainful. But having told Penny she wouldn’t quit, she couldn’t very well leave.

Later it occurred to her that Penny had said this to her on purpose.

But the job, like the others, had its pleasures. When a voice did answer to the name on the list it seemed to Caroline a piece of luck, and to use a false identity was a wonderful novelty. She was Betty Brown. She had heard of actors who were nervous stammering people while offstage but who became fluid and confident once concealed behind the mask of a character. Now she knew how they felt. The cruises left from San Juan and called in Saint Maarten and Tortola, places Caroline had never been, and because they were unoccupied cabins to be sold at the last minute the prices were reasonable. Carrying this happy fact before her as a reminder of her own benign intentions, she found herself, without trying very hard, selling well and making a lot of money. Her weekly checks were broad pink documents stamped with the signature of someone she had never seen: Walter O. Jordan. Was this too a false name, the name of an imaginary executive dreamed up to put the bearer at ease? There was no telling. Leaving the neighborhood bank in the Saturday bustle she would find a street that was new to her. When did these electronics shops become so inviting, with their smells of heated wiring? When did the bakeries, with their little white tables, become the perfect place to read the newspaper? It was the money, she decided, brushing sugar off her lap. June and Buddy were in Portland and New York and by all appearances were not coming back, and there was something to this, too, that she could sit at an outdoor table and not be caught enjoying herself too much.

Around this time her sex life with Sylvester changed. The erotic life thrives on novelty and the novelty of new money and a new name was enough to set Caroline off. Entering her own empty house she felt herself an intruder. If she cared to she could stand in the foyer and remove every last stitch. Seen in the mirror her body was what it was, but she had long since come to terms with its decline and now had a tolerant affection for her old tidy rear end, her little paunch, the collection of moles that covered the back of her upper arms like a spatter of hardened paint drops. Sylvester had always been thin and now that he was in his fifties his chest had dropped somewhat and he had begun to acquire the desiccated look common to old men, which she had long imagined him having but through which—now that its first shadow was upon him—she could still see her old Sylvester. It was only as though he had put on a kind of costume. Like most men he was vain and now he did not like to watch himself undress. “That fucking old guy is at it again,” he would say, “following me around.” In the bright attic rooms, where they sometimes went for sex, they could hear the traffic, and when it rained the sound of rubber tires on concrete rose to their window as though bringing a secret to them. When Sylvester huffed above her she could see, very clearly, the pink tracery of veins in his nose, as if he had drawn himself a very small map to keep where he could see it. Their neighborhood had fallen and then, twenty years later, risen again around them, and the old grand houses that had been neglected and subdivided had been rescued and reinhabited, and now Caroline on her way home from the bus stop could round a corner and find a long sleek foreign car parked in a driveway, and sometimes even this was enough to arouse her. At such times too she felt she occupied that other, altered self, Betty Brown, a little younger than she, not fat but solid in the hips and with a big, high bust that rose under her dress—it was a flowered brown dress—and brown heels, and while she resembled Caroline in the face, Betty Brown’s hair was different, softer, thicker, and very richly brown, styled with a controlled deep wave and falling just over her shoulders, which were soft and firm. This was not what Caroline looked like. She was not yet fifty but she tended to wear sweatsuits, usually turquoise or pink, and comfortable beige sneakers that looked, to her suspicious eye, orthopedic, but which the salesman had assured her were not, and she was not rounded off like that, not plump, in fact she was just starting to get stringy.

You live a life and things are ordinary but they are familiar, and after a while that ordinariness rubs away and beneath it there is something else, some luster. The world turns out to have one last surprise after all, and Caroline would never have thought to expect it but eventually some quality of truth began to nose its way up from the center of things. It was nothing she could put into words, exactly. Roughly, she felt a renewed sense of what she had suspected as a girl, that the world was vaster than anyone acknowledged, that it was more than it appeared, that the secret invisible animating substance of the world was really there and that it afforded glimpses of itself in certain lights. It was the notion of the magic wardrobe, that you could step into the glinting air somehow, that the rooms around you were filled with a presence, a depth, that escaped direct apprehension. She supposed it was a religious feeling in its fashion but as a minister’s child she had no illusions in that direction, only that she felt a shimmering immanence in the plain textures of the day. Her children grew older and had their own children and were divorced and troubled, there were deaths in the neighborhood and among her old friends and her sister died, too, but this beautiful feeling did not diminish. She had not asked for it and did not tend to it and still it did not really go away. Possibly it was her life all added up together and if it was, such a thing does not diminish. As she entered her sixties she could have dismissed it as elderly sentiment, or worse, but she knew she was not demented. She could still recite to herself the books of the Bible in order as her father had made her learn, as well as all forty-two, then forty-three presidents with vice-presidents. She was intact as far as it was within her power to perceive. Bodily there were the expected problems, her joints suffered as she entered her seventies, especially her fingers and wrists, but no, this feeling was something else, something real, not an artifact of her decay. No one talked about it but maybe no one else felt the need to, maybe everyone else had been expecting it all along.

When Sylvester got sick and began to die he had a period of panic and then a settling-in began. It was cancer, and they fought it for a while until the point of diminishing returns was reached and they stopped. When he began to fail for the last time Caroline called the children and they flew in from their opposite coasts. But he failed more quickly than anyone had predicted and by the time they arrived he was comatose. There was a question whether to keep him going—to pump fluids into him to get his blood pressure back up, to bring him back to consciousness to say goodbye—but in the end Caroline decided against it, it would not have been humane, Sylvester would not have wanted it. She knew this. Helping him to die was her last act of growing to know him, the boy he had once been still vivid in her mind’s eye, painting the green sign above his father’s storefront. Now he lay on the white sheet in the hospital, his mouth hanging darkly open. Machines worked soundlessly above his head and though he was still breathing it was difficult to detect. What a fondness her body still felt for his! What an urge she had to climb into the bed with him, to attach to him whatever round pulsing thing it was that animated her, to die with him! After he died Caroline, full of sadness, flew to Portland to stay for some weeks with her daughter. June by now had been married twice and had children by both husbands and the house, which was in the suburbs, was a cluttered mess, but Caroline resisted the urge to clean. The guest bedroom had dust on the windowsills and soap spots covered the bathroom faucets. June’s children were teenagers and gone into their own worlds, and June was a lawyer who worked late, so the afternoon would wear on and night would fall and still no one would be home, the windows would turn dark and the furnace come on and still Caroline would be alone. In that hour she would feel a terrible loneliness. She wanted to go home but not to the big empty house in Columbus where Sylvester no longer was. No, she wanted to go home to her childhood, to sleep in her father’s enormous leather chairs while he made what sounded like deals on the telephone, pastoring to the sick and lonely, to go back to the early days of her life when it all remained before her, when she had yet to meet her husband, when her life was still waiting to be lived. She was not afraid to die but she would miss thinking about him. As she thought these things, as the terrible loneliness ballooned within her, the phone would begin to ring, and Caroline would answer it. Once in a while it would be her daughter from the office or Buddy calling from New York. But usually it was just a telemarketer, the bustle of the calling floor audible behind them after the computer picked up.

“June Haselton, please,” they would say.

She wanted to talk, and she wanted not to be rude, but she wasn’t going to buy anything, and the faster she got off, the better the caller’s numbers could be. “She’s not here right now,” Caroline would say, kindly. And then, performing a mother’s prerogative, doing a little secret cleaning up, she would say, “Please remove her from your list.”

And then there she was, standing in the kitchen by herself again, full of its uncountable odds and ends, its tea strainers, potato mashers, kettles, potholders, saucers, saucepans, the horrible teenage vitamin bottles for the weightlifting sons, the cantaloupe for the girl, and she could not help thinking that Sylvester’s clothes were still in the closets at home, and how could she face them alone, without him to help?

~

Long before this, when Caroline was forty-eight and June and Buddy were twenty-four and full of trouble, Caroline had had an affair. Well, there had been some kissing, nothing more. No one had ever found out. It was her secret. This was after she had left On Board Enterprises Incorporated. She was working at a supermarket pharmacy and on the raised platform behind the counter she had sort of fallen a little in love with Dr. Fredericks. He was small, bald, pink-cheeked. He jabbed at the multicolored pills with his fat fingers and managed to scoot around her and make her feel sturdy and funny, although he was the funny one. It was exactly what Sylvester did, so why did she need it from Dr. Fredericks too? He would eye her somehow from below scooting by.

They kissed those few times at night after everyone had gone home, back among the high metal shelves, hidden. Up close he had brown hair tufting from his ears and nostrils. The affair surprised her by being easy, easy to start and then to stop. She left two months later for a backroom job at J. C. Penney’s where everyone was younger than she by decades, and she ended up happy with Sylvester and didn’t see Dr. Fredericks again. It had never felt very important or even much like a brave renunciation but now here in her daughter’s house she was not so sure. You are alone in a life to such a surprising degree, it is just you up there alone in your head for so much of a life, all the most important things happen there or do not happen at all. Caroline had never thought of herself as having much courage or daring. But now, at seventy-four, she knew she could have ditched her whole damn life if she had wanted to. Everyone else had been divorcing and remarrying and no one seemed to need good reasons. Dr. Fredericks had been a widower. She could have been the second Mrs. Fredericks if she had wanted to be. Yes, she could have been. Instead she had stayed with Sylvester, and then there had been that shimmer, that luster, which she had not asked for.

She turned these things over in her mind as she stood there, beside the telephone, in her daughter’s house.

*

Image via MoMA.

%d bloggers like this: