Patsy Says by Melissa McDaniel
Now some old birds in Cornville would just about lay down and die when it came time for their husbands to join Lord Jesus up in Heav'n, praise his holy name. But Betty Pitts was not some bird. No sir. She had plenty of life left in her, and she was determined to use every last bit of it to win Miss Cornville Senior Beauty Pageant the third year in a row.
At seventy-two, Betty was the prime age for competing. Girls in their sixties were still too self-conscious and soft to play up their old lady assets, and once you've crossed into the eighties, you can barely manage to stay awake through the whole competition. But, as Betty liked to tell anybody who would listen, being in your seventies was like “being seventeen, but seven times better!” And nobody who saw her could disagree. She was tall, with impeccable posture, and a wide, toothy smile. She radiated confidence and wisdom like a Renaissance queen. Head held high, she navigated through the sea of silver bobs and brooches, white pearls on whiter necks, and cigarette thin pink lips, until she finally came to the welcome table.
Sally Price just about jumped up out of her chair when she saw her, but the effort was too much for her round little body to manage. Instead she just waved her hands around in the air, beckoning Betty to git over here! Betty did her a favor by leaning over the table to meet her halfway, squeezing her old friend around her doughy middle.
“Well, well, well!” Sally said, “Betty Boop is at it again!”
“You know me sugar. I wouldn't miss this for a million bucks.” Betty winked.
Sally smiled as she handed Betty her waiver. “Good thing you're not doing for this for the money. All you'd get is a $100 gift to Applebee's.”
“And all the mozzarella sticks I can chew!”
The two women were cackling in harmony when a male voice behind Betty threw an unexpected note into the tune.
“Is this where we register?” The voice came from Ted Parker, leaning over his wife Martha's wheelchair. His spine spilled over in a smooth curve, like his body's number one function was to be a permanent armrest for his wife.
“Sure is! Hang on now, let me find Martha's name here, and I'll give you a waiver...”
Betty had to hand it to Sally: she never missed a beat. Quick as a whip, that woman. Not like some others.
Ted took the clipboard and pen from Sally and began to fill out the form. Meanwhile, Martha sat with her hands folded, her pale eyes as empty as an April sky.
“Hi Ted,” Betty said. “Hey there Martha. Don't you look pretty?” Whenever she spoke to Martha, Betty always found herself second-guessing her tone. Was she too condescending? Did she speak too fast?
“We got all dressed up in our favorite dress, didn't we?” said Ted, speaking for both of them like an overattentive parent or poodle owner. “How are you, Miss Betty? We haven't seen much of you these days.”
“You know me – busy busy!”
“Still taking old so-and-so to town at bridge every Friday?”
“You could say that. Every now and again.”
Ted leaned forward so that his lips almost touched Martha's ear. “Honey, you remember Betty dontcha? From high school?”
Martha lifted her eyes towards her old friend. Her expression was baby's crown soft, Play-Doh gentle. “Teddy,” she said. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“You got it, sweetheart,” said Ted. “M'lady calls!” He saluted each of the women, then drew the wheelchair smoothly away. Martha's snow white hair glided off like the holy ghost rounding up all the sinners.
“God bless Ted Parker,” Sally said. “Poor old boy really does love her, doesn't he?”
“I can't believe he's got her into this. Do you think she'll be okay? Around all these people and such'n?”
“I'd reckon she's taken something to calm her down...”
“But then what's the point? She hardly knows what's up from what's down.”
Sally just sighed. “Maybe this is what she wants.” She tapped her pen thoughtfully against her cheek, leaving a blue dot on her cheek.“Maybe he wants it too. Love is a funny thing.”
Betty thought she could've told Sally a thing or two about Ted Parker. About how he'd tried to go steady with Betty before he'd gone after her best friend. When she thought of her school days, Betty still thought of Martha, standing up in the back seat of that old Ford with half her body out the window. Laughing as the wind blew her blonde hair back in her face and hollering at the boys flying down the opposite lane. Scaring everyone to death as they raced up and down Broad Street.
Then they both got married, and it was gossip after church on Sundays and babies bouncing on thick hips. When Betty's husband Paul died, it was Martha that sat beside her at the funeral, clutching her hand. Betty had always thought she'd be there with Martha when the Lord took Ted too. But God worked in mysterious ways, didn't he?
It had been Ted who had told her why Betty had stopped returning her calls. Alzheimer's Disease. The name itself sounded evil, like Lucifer or Stalin or Schnitzel. She hated everything about Alzheimer. He had taken away her best friend, piece by piece, and now all she had left was the whisper of old skin.
Ted always did the talking for Martha these days. She was like the ventriloquist's dummy on his lap, quietly drooling across ruby red cheeks and lips that had clearly been applied by a man's hand. It made Betty sad to think about it. So she didn't. Instead, she said goodbye to Sally, carefully pinned her name-tag onto her dress, and made her way to the changing room.
After all the ladies were layered in chemical floral scents and cardigans, everyone gathered in the new church cafeteria, where a small stage had been set up. The cafeteria had largely been funded by the Miss Senior Pageant, so it had been all done up for the occasion, with carnations and golden-framed photographs of beauty icons and past winners. It was really something. Betty was just glad they didn't have to have it in the congregation hall again. Singing Dolly Parton in the same place where Paul's casket had sat had given her the heebie-jeebies.
The tapping of Marilyn Dosie's red kitten heels silenced the last traces of chatter. The beauty pageant coordinator tottered back and forth on stage, blinking at them all from behind her reading glasses. “Hi folks! Martin, do you think you could turn those lights down a touch? Martin? I really can't see a thing, it's – oh. There. Thank you much. Such a blessing to have so many lovely, lovely faces among us today. These are the woman have cooked for you, raised you, changed your diapers, and today we are here to celebrate them. When my Mama died, she told me, 'Honey, God is everywhere,” and that's what I want you all to remember today...” Like always, Marilyn started to tear up at the first mention of her mother. Luckily, Pastor Tom was ready to seize the microphone and start the commencement prayer at the first sign of a choke.
“Dear Father...” he began. The pastor was no older than twenty-nine, with smooth, rosacea prone cheeks and steady blue eyes. All the contestants had a hard time keeping their eyes closed as he spoke in that smooth, crooning baritone, speaking to God like they were best friends and all. Tom's prayers were usually brief, and he never forgot to conclude them with a grim plea for the safe return of troops overseas.
Betty always thought he looked to young to be a pastor. He was just a boy. But that was another funny thing about getting old – it seemed more like everybody else was getting younger and younger.
Eventually Marilyn was able to control her tears, and the pageant contestants filed on to the stage to be introduced. When Betty's name was called, the burst of applause that followed sent a ripple of pleasure through her bones – bones that were not aching, but still young and strong and pure. Betty knew that her arthritis would not be a problem today.
“Martha Parker, age seventy-two! And her other half, Ted Parker!”
The applause was loud, but not as loud as Betty's. Ted stepped forward and took the microphone from Marilyn's grasp.
“Thank you. You have all been friends and neighbors for many years. You know me, and you know Martha. And I'm sure you know, we've had our struggles. It's sad to say, but Martha can't do a bikini contest. She can't sing in the talent show. But she's here, and she's just as beautiful as she was the day we married, and she wants to win. So, as it pleases the judges, I'll be competing in her place today. I hope that's alright with y'all..Because I can promise you I'm going to give it my best shot.”
Betty could hear the faint wheezing of Robin Smith standing beside her, and she felt a tooth aching in the way back of her mouth. She took the pain and put it away in a small box in the back of her heart, snapping the lid closed so that nothing could escape. She was only seventy-two, she reminded herself. And the competition had just begun.
The swim suit contest was the first big act. Betty knew she had that one in the bag. Years of Zumba and water aerobics had kept her body thin and toned. She wore a flattering floral tankini that pulled in the bits that sagged. Her breasts had never been particularly large, and now she thanked the Lord for that. She pranced up and down the stage, striking poses as the crowd whistled.
Then Ted Parker walked on in a speedo and began flexing his muscles. Betty's floral tankini was completely forgotten. The judges could hardly contain their grins as they took notes on their scoresheets.
Ted topped her again in the question and answer, telling tearjerking stories of his devotion to his wife and cracking jokes at his own expense, ridiculing his large ears and colorful ties.
When he stepped off the stage, Marilyn was again wiping tears away from her eyes. But this time they were tears of laughter. For the first time ever, Betty could see a full row of lipstick-stained teeth behind Marilyn's puckered lips when the beauty coordinator addressed the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen – isn't this the best Miss Senior pageant we've ever had?”
The crowd agreed.
When it came time for the talent segment, Ted went up alone. Betty found herself watching Martha instead. Her old friend looked small and dazed in the large wheelchair parked beside the stage. Ted was clearing his throat, dragging it out, waiting until everyone was fully captivated. This, Betty knew, was going to be his grand finale – a tragic and heartfelt tribute to his wife.
“My dear princess. How do I love thee,” Ted began, “Let me count the ways. I love thee to depth and breadth and height....”
Those fancy words would've sounded funny out of Ted Parker's Alabama-born mouth if not for the sincerity with which he spoke them. Betty couldn't ever imagine Paul doing something like this for her. She closed her eyes. The world grew foggy and grey beneath her eyelashes; she felt herself rising up out of her chair, rising up,
Betty's chin knocked against her collar bone, and then she jerked her eyes open and noticed that everywhere around her, people had leapt out of their chairs to give Ted a standing ovation. The uproar was still fading when Robin pinched her arm, signifying that it was Betty's turn to return to the stage.
“I was going to dedicate this song to my husband Paul,” Betty said. The microphone felt heavy in her quivering hand. “But I think Martha deserves it tonight.” It did not occur to her that it was still the early afternoon. The lights dimmed and swallowed up the faces in the audience, until they glowed like a hundred tiny gems, golden pores in a beehive.
In the swollen light, the wrinkles and withers melted away, just as a rock becomes smooth and clean in the tumbling. Betty stared into the audience and thought that they all looked better than they had at seventeen, better than sixteen, back within the holy circle of the womb. Of perfection.
She opened her heart and her mouth, and the song poured out.
“I'll be loving you, always...”
The day Patsy Cline had died, Betty and Martha had lit candles and listened to all of her records, drinking wine out of coffee cups. At the time, it had seemed so beautifully tragic that their heroine had been too good for old age. They had lost what they'd never had to begin with. Patsy's voice poured out of every window in Cornville that day, sweetening the humid air like syrup on waffles, like fresh rain on brown grass.
“With a love that's true, always. When the things you plan, need a helping hand, I will understand...”
The words were drying on her tongue. She felt herself falling off-beat and out of tune. Betty could feel the audience's pity for her and her pity for herself as her thoughts tripped and could not rise up again.
“Things may not be f-fair...always...”
The lyrics had vanished like stones sinking in a dark pond. Betty's voice faded into a hum, and then to nothing, until she was left alone in the spotlight, staring into the shadows of the audience while the drum beat ticked on without her.
© Melissa McDaniel 2013
Melissa graduated from the University of Georgia with a BA in English and Creative Writing in May 2012. So far her time in New York has been spent juggling publishing internships, part-time jobs, and a novel in progress. You can find more of her work at her wordpress blog, Pendulum Project.
Patsy Says was read by Elizabeth Murray for the Age & Beauty Show on 3rd April 2013