Bernice got her name from the mailbox, Elizabeth Cadwell Crump, which makes her seem older than she actually is. If there's the least bit of life that comes with a name, hers sounds to me as if she spends too much of it struggling for the next breath of air. She is small, thin, mid-twenties, a good ten years younger than Bernice and I. Though she lives in the next building, she is technically our neighbor--we're separated only by the breezeway that leads to the commons and the willow-shaded pond where several geese manage to survive year-round. She's never spoken to either of us, even when we've waved and said "Hello" loud enough to be heard at the pool. At first Bernice thought that maybe she was deaf. "Even if she is," I said, "We know she can't be blind. She drives a white Audi, for Christ's sake." Besides, anyone with the poorest eyesight couldn't help but see us waving. We're hard to hide even when we try. I'm six-foot-three and Bernice is blond and plump. But Bernice is not fat; she really isn't. It's been like this since Elizabeth moved in: we wave to her and she ignores us. It's become a kind of game. Bernice and I are friendly, fun- loving people who, given the opportunity, would just as soon drink beer as water, but whenever we greet her we probably have bottles in our hands. I think that's the reason why Elizabeth never waves back. But Bernice thinks it's something else that she hasn't figured out yet. We've renamed her Betty, but that's only between Bernice and me. It's like, "Did you notice Betty's outfit today?" or, "Betty almost looked at me when she came home this evening." We never see her in the morning; we're up and gone long before she ever leaves her unit. I like her hats, but Bernice says for her it's the glasses: some wide and darkly bookish, others light and frameless, depending on her disposition. I don't know how Bernice can translate her moods since Betty never speaks to us, but she says it's a woman thing, a reading of the signs. Bernice insists that Betty suffers from misplaced interpretive dressing, which she claims is an unconscious fashioning of one's moods. "You can learn alot about people by studying how they dress," she said. "It's like learning about a child by studying the pattern of their Halloween outfits worn over the years. Only with Betty it's everyday." "I was always either a bum or some kind of monster," I told her. "See!" she said, smacking the side of her leg. Then she started laughing. This is how she can be. Bernice studied psychology before she turned to commercial vegetation. She has her own business now, providing plants for offices and banks. She owns a small shop and a retired post office step van. Before I met her I never thought about anyone making a living keeping plants alive for other people. But that's what she works hard at, and she does okay. In a world that's gone to drywall I do plaster. A lost art, people say, but I know better. It may be almost lost, but an art? Well, I don't know. It's lime, sand and gypsum mixed with water and troweled onto metal lathe. I do good work, but mostly I think of art as something that hangs on the walls after I'm finished. So, when anyone calls it more than plaster, I just have to shrug. Everyone has their own opinion, and I have mine. Years ago I was in a prelaw program for nearly three semesters. It didn't work out, but that's okay. With both incomes and no children we get along pretty well.
Betty's hats are something, never the same two days in a row. We've counted at least thirty-three, but Bernice thinks she has more in reserve, waiting to come out on special occasions. I think she's probably right. We keep a numbered list on the side of the refrigerator with a brief description of what each one looks like. It's something to do. The thirty-third appeared less than two weeks ago, a straw, pointed thing with a bright red flower and a blue tassel hanging from the back like a graduation cap from an oriental ag school. We were grilling monkfish out on the lanai when I spotted it. Bernice said it looked merrily confrontational in a peasant sort of way, as if Betty could smile as she attacked you with a short-handled hoe. I thought that if she lost the flower and the distracting blue tassel, and rounded off the top it could pass as a tropical lamp shade, like something from a bar in the islands. When we saw that hat we decided she must be in a pretty good mood, but when we waved she ignored us again, so we went back to grilling. Bernice said she thought that Betty is either bipolar or clinically depressed. Maybe even a lesbian. But for the life of me I don't know how she knows those sorts of things. "Maybe she's just scared of us?" I offered. "Maybe," she said, "but I don't think she talks to anyone else here either. Especially men. What a shame. She probably doesn't know what she's missing." Then Bernice started laughing as she lifted her beer to her lips. I spread the teriyaki marinade across the darkening fish as she put her arm around my waist and told me she loved me.
When Betty comes home she is always alone, but last month she showed up with a short guy, dark, with a moustache. And thin, too, as if he needed a good meal. Bernice said he looked dangerous, but I said I didn't think so. He reminded me of an electrician's helper from a job I worked last winter. But I wasn't really sure if it was him. They always arrive in her car and he's always carrying things a step or two behind: groceries, laundry basket, stacks of books. If he sees me wave he'll only nod, because his hands are always full. Neither of them speak to each other as they walk to her door. Bernice nicknamed him Lash. "There goes your lesbian theory," I told her. "Maybe. Maybe not. Who says she's sleeping with him? Maybe he's a roommate or live-in help." I just said, "We'll see," and left it at that. Bernice can go on and on just to make her point seem as if it's the only legitimate one there is. Most times it's better not to argue. But I never thought that Betty was really a lesbian. Lash seems to back that up. At least it did to me.
"She's a poet," said Bernice. "A poet? How do you know?" I'd just gotten home from work, but Bernice was already drinking a beer and watching the news. She said, "I saw a notice on the bulletin board down at Zhwee's," a soy sprout kind of restaurant close to the university. "She's giving a reading there Friday night." "A poet. I guess I should have figured that out before," I told her. "I'm the one who should have figured it out. All those hats and glasses," said Bernice. She took a swallow from the bottle, then said, "I think we ought to go." In an English class I was forced to take during my first semester the teacher made us read poetry. Once he made me stand and recite a stanza out loud, but I didn't understand a word I'd said. After I sat down and everyone was laughing, he said that reading poetry was an acquired skill, one that demanded lots of practice to pull it off well. "It's like learning how to drink good scotch instead of cheap beer." That was my only venture into that world. I've never been to a poetry reading. Never even imagined one. Wouldn't know what to do when it gets quiet and all those words flow out like some hopelessly foreign language. I told Bernice that I didn't think I should have to go. "It'll be fun," she said. "And we should support our neighbor, even if she doesn't wave back. Besides, maybe she's written one about us. The People I Never Acknowledge." "If she did I'm sure I wouldn't recognize it if she read it." "I'll tell you if any of them have to do with us," she assured me. And that was it.
Friday at work was a bear: a large, perfectly circular foyer, the sun beating through the domed skylight, and a morning shower that drove the humidity into the 90% range. The heat was like a hot hammer driving me like a nail. It was a steam bath from 10:30 on. When I walked in the door at 5:45 the only thing on my mind was a cold beer and an evening by the pool. Betty and her reading weren't in the cards. But it was Bernice's game and I got dealt the poetry hand, whether I wanted it or not. "There's no sitting this one out," she said. I tried at first to appeal to Bernice's softer, tired side. "I'm exhausted, babe, and today was a killer. Let's just stay home tonight." But that wasn't about to happen. My aching back and sore legs weren't about to change her heart which was singularly set on going to Betty's reading. I leaned back in the passenger's seat while Bernice navigated the traffic as if I were an expectant mother late for the hospital. I closed my eyes once when she turned in too close, nearly cutting off a car full of older women. If I could have, I would have prayed. We arrived ten minutes early, and I asked her if she would mind if I just stayed in the car and slept. I promised that I would still be here when it was over. "I didn't come here to be alone," she said. "Let's go in." There were thirty people, maybe more. I didn't recognize anyone except Lash who was drinking wine at a table in front of a small raised platform where there were a microphone and an empty three-legged stool. I looked around for Betty, but she didn't seem to be there. Bernice and I found a small table at the back of the room. She wanted to move to the front, but I sat down and silently refused to get any closer. When I ordered a glass of beer, the waitress told me that the only alcohol they served was wine. I asked her to bring me one. "Red or white?" "It doesn't matter," I told her. "Glass or carafe?" "Big," I said. Bernice said, "Carafe of chardonnay, please. Two glasses." After the waitress left Bernice gave me one of her looks, the kind that let me know that I was on the edge of being way out of line. "This could be fun," she whispered without moving her lips. "Sleep could be fun," I said. "This is like going to the dentist when everything in your mouth is getting along just fine. Why mess with it if it doesn't hurt?" "This doesn't have to be painful." "This doesn't even have to be," I said, but she was already through dealing with me. People continued squeezing into the narrow, low-ceilinged room, standing along the weathered board-n-batten walls after the tables filled. As I drank the wine I scanned the place for a recognizable face, but still no one looked familiar as they all quietly talked among themselves, waiting for things to begin. Many seemed to know each other as they waved and smiled back and forth across the room. Finally a thin man with a neat, grey beard appeared on the platform, welcomed us to another of Cafe Zhwee's First Friday Poetry Nights. Then he introduced "the wonderfully brilliant poet whom we all know and have come to appreciate and love: Elizabeth Cadwell Crump." She appeared through the clapping from a small nook at the side of the makeshift stage. At first I wasn't sure if it was our neighbor, but as she stepped onto the platform and took a seat on the stool there was no doubt that it was our Betty with a scarf wrapped around her head in an oddly seductive way. A few strands of well-placed hair lay across her forehead. When the clapping stopped she opened a leather-bound book, searching through it for just the right poem, I guessed. When, finally, she opened her mouth and introduced the piece I realized that it was the first time I'd ever heard her voice. It was softer than I'd imagined, though, as she raised it, it became a little shrill as the smallness of it tried to fill the room. But it wasn't unpleasant. Other than the thrill of the newness of her voice, I was lost from the very beginning when, holding her book in her left hand and the other high in the air, index finger pointed toward the ceiling, she spoke: "Erigone, our mother, hanging from a tree, a dying fruit clinging like a tendon to the bone." I turned to Bernice who was smiling, fixed on Betty's face and every word that filled the quiet room. There was something about a loyal dog dying at her feet, but for the life of me I just didn't get it. I felt very alone and tired, as if I were fumbling through a strange house in a thick, pitch dark. For me the rest was a wash, broken by periodic "oohs" and "ahhs," slight fidgeting movements in between her poems, and once near the end Lash yelled out, "Yes!" moved by a particular passage that cruised somewhere high above my head. There was a moment when I thought that Betty looked straight at me, but if she recognized me she didn't let on. At the end there was clapping, someone said, "Bravo," and Lash tried to start a standing ovation. As he stood, he nearly lost his balance, and when he turned back to the audience, waving his arms to encourage everyone to follow his lead, I could see in his eyes that he wasn't holding his wine very well. Six or eight others stood which seemed to please him as he smiled widely and gave each of them a hearty thumbs-up. Betty appeared embarrassed by his insistent flapping, but then it was over and Bernice and I left. The cool night air seemed to make me forget my exhaustion. So, when Bernice suggested we take a walk, I agreed and we crossed the street to the campus where I hadn't been in years. We'd met there when we were twenty, which seemed like a lifetime ago. We held hands and slowly moved down the quiet, familiar paths, and once we stopped and kissed as we'd done when we were both so new to each other. Finally we sat on a bench, and I laid my head in her lap while she gently stroked my forehead and hair. Relaxed, I slept. I finally awoke and Bernice was smiling down at me. The night seemed perfect, the stillness of the dark around us like a heavy, warm blanket. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, but I imagined the words would sound like stones breaking stained glass windows. There are times when silence works so much better. When we got back to the car it was nearly midnight; the cafe was closed. I drove as Bernice relaxed back into the seat. The traffic was light, and I placed my right hand on the top of her thigh; she placed her warm hand over mine. When I parked outside our unit and turned off the lights, neither of us made a move to open the doors. I rolled down the window and slouched back into the seat, too, as Bernice ran her thumb across the back of my hand. She was the first to hear the voices; I could feel it in the tense movement of her thumb before I heard them too. They were coming from the breezeway, not a yelling so much as a loud, insistent pleading along with a commanding slur of swearing. We both sat up as Betty and Lash emerged from the light, moving in our direction, though I'm sure they couldn't see us in the car. Lash had something in his left hand that he held high above his head. Betty was trying to get at it as she begged him to, please, give it back. Her scarf had unraveled and was hanging over her shoulder. "No fuckin way," he yelled. Her voice broke and she began to cry, "Give it to me, dammit!" He laughed, then said again, "No fuckin way, bitch!" That's when she lunged at him, trying to pull him down. He grabbed her around the neck with his free right hand, still holding the left high out of reach. She made a sound like a dog that's been clipped by a truck. That's when we both opened the doors and stepped from the car. I yelled, but neither of them seemed to hear. Betty was falling back and still Lash held her neck. Bernice screamed out, "What the hell are you doing?" as we closed in. Lash turned and saw us approaching and barked, "This ain't your fuckin business, man!" I told him to let her go, and he pushed her to the ground. I could see from the light in the breezeway that he was holding her bound book of poems. She grabbed at his leg, and he smacked her across the face with the back of his hand. That's when I hit him and felt the bridge of his nose splinter against my right hand knuckles as I laid him out on the damp night grass. An odd shooting pain ran quickly up my arm to my elbow, then more slowly beyond, to my shoulder. As the book fell away Bernice was there to grab it. Betty cried and struggled for breath as Bernice knelt down beside her. I stood between the women and Lash who sucked for air and covered his face with his hands. "Oh Christ, you hurt me," he yelled, then whimpered when he saw the blood from his nose running through his thin fingers. "I think you broke it, man." "You don't pull that shit around here," I yelled. "I wasn't doing nothing. Just messing around." "Get the hell out of here before I break something else," and he wobbled off holding his nose as he crossed the parking lot heading for the street. My heart pounded in my head as I watched him move away, and then I noticed the blood on my hand. When I turned and saw Betty tightly holding her book to her chest and Bernice with her hands on Betty's shoulders, I thought of a fledgling that's fallen from the nest, eyes wide in disbelief that all of this could be happening here, so close to home. The scarf was on the grass beside her. "It's okay, now," I heard Bernice tell her as I lifted the scarf, the silk so smooth between my rough fingers. From far away and deep surfaced the number "thirty-four," and I thought, "How odd, a number at a time like this." But Betty's uncontrollable sobbing pulled me back into the moment, and I watched as she dropped her head until her chin rested on the book of poems. Bernice hugged her tightly, and I studied the pair of women, so comfortably close to each other. It's times like this, when I love Bernice so much, that it's hard to bear the weight of not being able to say what it is I feel, all the words, like barnacles, clinging to my tongue.
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