Betsy felt her façade go cold as though it were made of a very thin sheet of ice. The crack that had started creeping on the first of October finally reached her heart and the real Betsy emerged in a shriek: “Stop!” she screamed. “Stop! Stop! Stop! I can’t go on.” It was as though she and Monique had planned a little surprise for the ladies with their own playlet from the story. But Monique looked as startled as the rest and the stage belonged entirely to Betsy.
Betsy stood up with resolution in her bearing and a wildness in her eyes. “Follow me,” she croaked.
So the women of the 7th Ward Relief Society Book Club quickly put down their books, their purses, and their little plates—with a crème puff or two rolling to the carpet—and followed obediently. They were silent, but their looks said many things: “I think she’s a little bit crazy.” “Maybe she’s on crack.” “Whatever this is I am not going to miss it.”
They all followed Betsy down the hall and to the closed door of the guest room. Betsy put a shaky hand on the door knob and closed her eyes in an attempt to support her resolve. Had she belonged to another religion, she would have genuflected. As it was, she offered a silent prayer. “I prayed. I wearied heaven with my prayer….” But short of having the pile completely gone and the day’s events turning out to be a bad dream, she didn’t know quite what to pray for. She opened the door slowly as the women gathered behind her and rose on their tiptoes in an effort to glimpse whatever was in the room.
The catastrophic pile made each of them wince, and they took in their breath as one. Except Sister Lila Freeman who didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. She had a heap rather like it in most of the rooms in her own house.
But the rest stood in quiet contemplation, each trying to process the scene in her own way. For instance, Sister Jepson focused on the makeshift marijuana pipe that was sliding down one side of the mound and realized that hers wasn’t the only family that had been infiltrated by drugs. Sister Anthony focused on the “What to Do if You Suspect your Child of An Eating Disorder” book sticking out from the bottom of the pile and thought that finally she and Betsy had something in common. Sister Adrian Peters’ eyes were drawn to the crumpled pink slip sent from the Town of Gilbert announcing that the Woodward’s water would be turned off if the bill wasn’t paid. Adrian recognized that slip because she had received several herself. Sister Salter felt the frustration and desperation that the room represented in its present state and realized that maybe Betsy Woodward didn’t have everything after all. And for some reason, Sister Jacobs wrapped her arms lovingly around Betsy and huskily whispered a tear-filled, “I love you!”
Betsy gave a wan, distorted smile. There was nothing she could say. One by one the Book Club women dispersed, some touching Betsy’s shoulder in a gesture of understanding, until Betsy was quite alone. It was over. The worst had happened. Betsy put her back against the door and let her feet slide out from under her until her bottom hit the floor with a bounce.
The next day—Saturday—Sister Harris called to invite all the Woodwards over for a barbecue that night and Sister Jacobs called to invite them all for Family Home Evening on Monday. On Sunday the Woodwards were too late to claim their regular pew which was just fine with the kids and just fine with the Johnsons who were sitting there smugly. But as if to make up for losing their spot, there were many genuinely friendly smiles and in Primary several women stole moments away from sharing time and song practice to ask Betsy about where she used to live and how she felt about the election coming up and what books she would like the Book Club to choose for the following year. And Monique grabbed Betsy after the block to tell her that a group of friends was meeting at Applebee’s for lunch on Thursday—could Monique pick her up?
After lots of pleasant conversation with those that seemed to ignore her in the past--except for Sister Poltice, who seemed to hang onto her envy like a dripping ice cream cone-- Betsy drove home, humming a cheerful ditty this time with genuine feeling. As the un-veneered, far from perfect Betsy walked into her far from perfect home with her far from perfect children, she almost tenderly picked up The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe from where she’d left it on the entry table.
Opening it at random, her eyes fell upon the words, “it was hope—the hope that triumphs on the rack—that whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeons of the Inquisition…” She smiled and carried the book to the badly misused guest room and set it respectfully on top of the disorderly pile. Her life wasn’t perfect, but thanks to her exPOEsure, at the moment she was nearly perfectly content.
The doorbell rang again and “I went to open it with a light heart—for what had I now to fear?” In came a group of rather young moms from the ward, headed by gum-chewing, phone-texting Lisa Wilde—her blond, streaked hair pulled into a skimpy straight out ponytail with more hair hanging out than in it. Why did young women wear their hair like that? It made Betsy think of Olive Oyl from “Popeye.” There was nothing attractive about it. But in spite of hair-dos, this was a very confident group. Youth always seemed confident around those that had a little age on them.
Betsy had all the ladies go to the kitchen to fill their plates before the actual Poe discussion started. She heard lots of nice comments like “What a gorgeous home,” “Betsy is so good at decorating,” “I wish I dared ask her to help me do something with our guest room.” At that last comment, Betsy almost choked on the carrot she was munching for nerve control. “She’d love to see what I could do with a guest room!” was Betsy’s cryptic thought.
She also heard some muffled remarks like, “Betsy doesn’t look quite as great as usual, do you think?” and “If I’d known this was all Betsy was going to serve us, I would have eaten dinner at home.” and “I was expecting a lot better food than this.” These last two observations were whispered quietly but Betsy heard them. “And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over–acuteness of the senses?” They were said by the second and third largest women in the group—Sister Pines and Sister Hasbrow who seemed to go together like peanut butter and jelly. You seldom saw one without the other and vice-versa.
Betsy felt like shouting, “The way my month has gone so far, you’re lucky I didn’t just serve you water and crackers!” Which reminded her that she had totally forgotten to provide something to drink. She wondered if anyone would be offended if she suggested that those who were thirsty could stick their heads under the faucet. Probably.
Finally, the Book Clubbers were settled back in the living room and Sister Harris stood up to give some background on Edgar Allan Poe: “Born to an unfortunate heritage, orphaned , unsympathetically raised…………”
“Ta dum, Ta dum.” Betsy looked around to see if anyone else had heard that superfluous sound. Nope. Just she, it seemed. She tried to sit calmly with her hands held in her lap as Sister Harris finished up and Sister Barnes started a discussion on “the Pit and the Pendulum.” But Betsy couldn’t concentrate on any of the words because “meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased.” “Ta dum. Ta dum.” It was definitely coming from the direction of the guest room. “It grew quicker and quicker and louder and louder every instant.” “But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed.”
By the time Sister Barnes sat down and Monique Jarvis started her part of the Poe discussion which happened to be “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Betsy had a very difficult time sitting still. She sat on her hands in an effort to keep them from rising in a grotesque choke-hold on her own very fragile neck.
“Ta dum. Ta dum.” What a noise! “And now a new anxiety seized me…the sound would be heard by a neighbor!”
As Monique went on and on about the old man and his blue glazed eye and the mad man watching him and ultimately killing him and hiding his body under the floor, Betsy could hear her own “ta dum, ta dum” growing louder and louder.
Then Monique invited more discussion of the whole story and of the policemen who came to the madman’s house. “But the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder---louder! And still the (women) chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? NO, no? They heard! They suspected! They KNEW!...They were making a mockery of my horror. I felt that I must scream or die!—and now—again hark! Louder, louder! Louder! LOUDER!”
Betsy glanced at her mega, industrial watch that wrapped heavily around her left wrist. 6:32. This was no time for self-indulgent liquidation. Betsy gathered her willpower along with armfuls of Mark’s stuff and threw it all into the wheelbarrow. This load, too, was dumped into the guest room with a flourish and an extra oomph of determination. OK. Trade the wheelbarrow for the vacuum. A speedy run-through in the showable spots. A quick dusting of visible furniture. And because “there came a most deadly nausea over (her) spirit” Betsy grabbed a can of Dr. Pepper from the stash in the back of the pantry, and poured it hissing and bubbling into a glass of ice. She’d have to throw away the can discreetly so her kids wouldn’t see it.
She downed the Dr. Pepper like a pro, then ran into her room, shimmied out of her jean capris, and put on her semi-clean black pants and pulled a black and white polka dot knit shirt over her head. She blushed her cheeks and brushed her eyebrows and just started brushing her teeth when the doorbell rang at 6:50. Betsy stared at herself in the bathroom mirror while toothpaste foamed from her mouth. The early doorbell made her foam even more. “I foamed, I raved, I swore!” Sister Bryce. She knew it was Sister Bryce. She was always early. Who would come early to anything? What a waste of a potential-filled ten minutes! Didn’t Sister Bryce have something to dust at her house or a floor to sweep? Why, in ten minutes, she could read a whole Ensign article but instead she was standing on Betsy’s front door step cheating Betsy out of ten minutes of final straightening. Betsy cursed. Just a little curse. Nothing major. Just a little “darn, darn, darn!” is all. Betsy ran to the door tossing the living room pillows in place on her way.
“Hello, Donna,” she greeted sweetly as Sister Bryce stepped into the foyer and was led to the living room. “Sit down wherever you like—since you’re the first one here,” she added with emphasis. Then, “Excuse me for just a second.”
Betsy walked calmly from the living room and then raced to her bedroom, stopping for the wheelbarrow. Forget the tour. There would be no tour tonight, but someone might ask to see her new bedspread. Why had she said anything about it to anyone? Into the wheelbarrow went the piles of books and magazines that always seemed to find their way into the master bedroom. “Who was reading all these?” she wondered. It certainly wasn’t her. A couple of boxes of Kleenexes, some stray laundry, and the clothes she had quickly changed out of got thrown in, along with some framed pictures that never made it to the wall and some bags of Wal-Mart essentials that she hadn’t put away yet. At least she had already made her bed. She was the only one in the family who believed that a bed should be made first thing in the morning to create a bit of order out of chaos.
Down to the guest room she rolled the wheelbarrow for its final run. Betsy dumped the load quickly and laid the wheelbarrow on its side in the disastrous pile. More lines from Poe came to her: “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing but you should have seen me.” And “I chuckled at heart.” And “I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness...for I had directed the ray as if by instinct precisely upon the damned spot.” And “I might as well have attempted to arrest an avalanche.”
The doorbell rang again. She hoped Sister Bryce would have enough initiative to answer it because Betsy still wasn’t ready. As she shut the guest room door firmly she seemed to hear “a low dull quick sound such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” “More Poe?” thought Betsy. She felt “Poe-ssessed!”
She ran back to her bathroom for a quick brush of mascara and a swipe of Maybelline’s “On the Mauve.” She found a hair pick and attempted to lift her hair into order. Even the mirror seemed to be quoting Poe: “In vain I struggled to perfect—to regain it.” Whew! She only had to get through the next hour and a half or so, but she was feeling the crack “like the thread of the spider.”
Betsy found a sunny smile in her arsenal of expressions and walked sedately into the living room. She would have chosen to walk sedated into the living room but sedately would have to do.
Several guests were already there: delightful Sister McAfee—her face honored with wrinkles that crinkled with each lovely and frequent smile; Sister Branson—her head bobbing in time to her personal ill-health soliloquy; Sister Lansbury—comfortable as an over-stuffed chair and similar in dimensions. And there were others, wrapped in a variety of personalities and packaging.
Why today when she had all these wonderful women coming?—these women whom Betsy had trained into thinking that she was definitely one person who had it all together. They would never understand if she totally fell apart.
Well, there was nothing she could do about it at the moment so she went to work. She got out a dish pan—a big plastic one that she’d bought at Wal-Mart just for this purpose. She quickly threw all the dirty dishes in it and hauled it to the guest room. “Please, please, please, let no one open this door tonight,” she prayed in a whisper. She had made the mistake a few years ago of putting another plastic dishpan loaded with dirty dishes in the oven to hide it. It served the purpose of allowing the kitchen to look great, but the next morning Betsy turned on the oven forgetting its contents. The fire it started wasn’t pretty. Yes, the guest room was a better place for this filled dish pan.
Betsy grabbed a towel and wiped down every visible kitchen surface until she came to the table. Sand? What was sand doing on the table? She took a paper towel and swept the sand across the plastic tablecloth that made a laughing sound with the effort. Even the table was laughing at her. This was not funny and she would have none of it.
Out came the lace tablecloth and onto crystal plates and into crystal bowls went the Costco specials: mini cream puffs, spirals, baby carrots, salsa, chips, cheesecake bites. She briefly contemplated putting some HCG on a serving tray for the two women who seemed to live on it and nothing else. The thought would have been humorous if she had been in a better humor.
Gathering the empty cartons and the dishtowel, she ran to the guest room and tossed them on top of the loaded dish pan.
Now what? It was getting so late. How was she going to make it by 7:00 with any semblance of her public self? “There suddenly came over my spirit all the keen, collected calmness of despair.”
The wheelbarrow. That would be the quickest. “It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain.” She ran to the garage and grabbed the wheelbarrow from its revered spot in the corner. She dumped its contents of miscellany and rolled it through the kitchen to the family room. In went the school papers, the backpacks, the sweatshirts, the week’s mail, the shoes under the coffee table, the half bag of Cheetos and the tall stack of newspapers. Betsy had begged the kids to not eat in the family room but if they insisted on eating there, to at least pick up their dishes and put them in the dishwasher. She might as well have tried to instruct a herd of zebras. So on top of the pile in the wheelbarrow went three dirty plates, seven glasses and five forks. Betsy wheeled the barrow right to the center of the guest room and dumped it unceremoniously. She didn’t have time to be careful.
The bathroom was next. Into the wheelbarrow went the damp stinky towels and the stiff washcloths and the pile of dirty clothes both Mark and Benjamin had left on the floor. What did they care if a group of ladies was coming to the house and just might need to use the bathroom? Not as a group, of course, but it would only take one woman to spread tales of disgust to the rest of them. Betsy took one of the damp towels and wiped down the sink with its globs of toothpaste, the tub with its week’s worth of soap scum. And the toilet. Yuck. The toilet. Oh, Nelda, Nelda, Nelda. Betsy definitely didn’t pay her enough. Why can’t boys hit the water instead of back behind the toilet seat? It couldn’t be that hard to aim dead center, could it? No wonder Marcie insisted that the males in her family sit on all occasions. With a wipe-down of the mirror and floor, Betsy was on to the office. “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded…I went to work!”
She’d have to admit that most of the mess of the office belonged to her—the white cardboard carry-all she used for the Primary Singing Time spilling over with word charts and teaching tools, the messy stack of spiral notebooks filled with ideas and notes about gardening, writing, photography, and inspirational thoughts. Betsy wondered if an I-Pad would eliminate the need for all these notebooks that had no order at all to them. Well, she’d think about it later. If she’d have a “later.” The way this day was going, that was debatable.
All of her office stuff went callously into the wheelbarrow along with the kids’ doodling papers and unfinished school assignments and Nick’s piles of church manuals and books and file folders that had never found a safe, permanent home. This load, too, was dumped in the guest room. The pile was huge now and Betsy was feeling a sense of power, of accomplishment, of get-it-done-ness. “In the enthusiasm of (her) confidence,” “in the wild audacity of (her) perfect triumph,” Betsy wondered why she had never done this before? She had several very clean rooms and only one horrendously messy one. It was worth it. She thought she could now run get herself ready when her heart buckled under a new realization.
Since Mark’s room was closest to the front door, that room would have to be purged, too, so that coats could be laid on the bed if necessary. Betsy opened Mark’s room with trepidation and rolled in the wheelbarrow. The smell was overwhelming and it was piled high with stuff—boy stuff. Clothes, shoes, stiff socks, guitars, music, papers. She had pleaded with him to put his things away because she was having company, but her words must have hit a ricochet spot near his ear drum and disappeared into the opposite corner of the room. She started throwing everything into the wheelbarrow: the CD’s, the sketches of football plays, the several pairs of basketball shorts. And another apple and pen. Out of curiosity, which she really didn’t have time for, she slipped the pen into the apple. A good fit. Was this a straw for sucking out apple juice? A tiny piece of information she had heard somewhere came unglued from her memory and she sank in the comprehension that this wasn’t just an apple and this wasn’t just a pen. And together they didn’t make a straw. Together they made a very unique pipe. A great marijuana smoking pipe. Betsy didn’t have time just then for her body to turn completely inside out, starting with the top of her head, going down through her skull and straight through her body to her feet. But she was definitely going to put it on her to-do list. She also fought the urge to throw herself down on the floor with flailing legs and pounding fists as she sobbed herself into oblivion.