Keep the Bed Sheets Knotted
Bessie went out to check the mailbox at two o’clock, and again at two-fifteen. At three she finally saw the mailman walking down the sidewalk, taking his own sweet time. She steeled herself from running out there and demanding where he’d been all this time, that some people were expecting things—important things—in the mail, and waited, until he’d gone past the Waugh house at the end of the street and turned the corner, before running outside.
She wasted no time on any particular piece of mail, flipping through everything at first, looking, it must have seemed, for a certain style of handwriting, a specific return address. There was a second notice from the phone company, some credit card applications, a letter from her grandmother and a coupon to get her oil changed. Bessie walked back inside and threw the mail on the counter. The teakettle was already prepared, filled with water, resting on the burner, so that all Bessie had to do was turn on the stove. She opened up the cabinet and pulled out a teabag and a mug, and then on second thought she replaced the teabag, reached up to the top shelf where she kept the whiskey, turned the burner off again.
Walt had said he’d let her know on Tuesday. It had seemed crazy to her at the time and it seemed even crazier still now, but he said that if they were saying goodbye, he wanted to write it out. He said when they were talking to each other, too often he’d come away with the thought that he hadn’t really said what he meant to say, and he wanted to avoid that now if at all possible. He said if they were going to say goodbye than writing a letter seemed the best way to do that, and if they weren’t saying goodbye—well then writing a letter seemed the best way to do that as well.
But now, even accounting for the fact that maybe he’d sent off the letter after the mailman had made his rounds, even accounting for a day of slack here and there and no mail on Sunday, it’d been over a week and there was no conceivable reason it shouldn’t have arrived except the obvious one, the one that was staring her right in the face. She wondered if Walt was even in the goddamn country anymore. He could have been in Istanbul for all she knew—for all she cared, really.
By the time it was beginning to turn dark, she was properly drunk. There was something glumly appropriate about getting drunk in the middle of the afternoon, she thought. She tried hard to remember the last time she’d been so drunk. Probably in college. She’d had some torrid affairs in college. She’d even slept with one of her professors once. Dramatic Theory. They had run into each other at a bar; he’d been going through a divorce and she’d been about as drunk then as she was now. She remembered when the class ended he had given her a B. There had seemed something distinctly insulting about that B. A C would have been different, it would have been nasty, but she could have accepted it. But a B just seemed like nothing at all. It had felt like a slap in the face.
Thinking about it now, Bessie’s cheeks flushed all over again. If he’d been standing in front of her, she would have done just that. She would have slapped him right in the face. Walt, too. They told you they loved you, they told you you meant something to them—or at least they implied it—and then they didn’t even give you the simple common courtesy of slamming the door in your face. They just left it open and complained about the draft and expected you to close it yourself.
It was almost nine o’clock in the morning by the time Bessie finally woke up. Not since college had she slept so long; not since, it suddenly occurred to her, the last time she had gotten properly drunk. She was not someone who would ordinarily be considered lazy, and eventually she got out of bed and went into the kitchen. She checked the teakettle to make sure the water hadn’t gone anywhere before turning on the burner, and only then did she look around and see the pile of mail on the counter.
The coupon for the oil change was on top, but this held no interest for her. She’d had her oil changed not three weeks before. She flicked it aside and picked up the envelope from her grandmother. Bessie had been an only child, raised in tandem by her mother and grandmother, and it had come as quite a shocking realization, quite a blow really, when she discovered that she was not as intelligent, as beautiful or as compassionate as her mother had always insisted, but was in fact just as callous and demanding of the world as the world was of her. It was the kind of epiphany that had the potential of driving her to despair and most likely would have, even more than she already was, if it hadn’t been for her grandmother taking a nasty fall, causing Bessie to care for her during the long and inevitably fruitless convalescence.
Now her grandmother was in a nursing home, a place where Bessie had so far avoided going. In her place she sent care packages, and it was in reply to one of these (containing, in the order of which they were packed, an old Raymond Chandler paperback, a framed photograph of Bessie and Walt taken the month before on their trip to the coast, two bars of fancy soap, and finally a little box of chocolates—not for her grandmother necessarily, who had never really cared much for chocolate, but for befriending, or at least bartering, purposes) that her grandmother was now writing.
She waited until the water was near boiling, and then poured it into the mug Walt had bought for her. On the side of the mug it said, “Instant human (just add tea).” Walt had thought it was hilarious in an ironic sort of way. While she waited for the tea to steep, she turned the envelope over in her hands. Her motions were absentminded and contained none of the rush of the previous afternoon. She might just as well have been looking at the oil change coupon for all the reaction she showed. After about five minutes she pulled out the teabag and tossed it into the kitchen sink. She brought the mug over to the kitchen table, sat down, and opened up the letter.
We lost Delores today (the letter began). We replaced her pretty quick though, and we only lost one game of bridge from it. Still, we’re all very upset, and won’t forgive her anytime soon for such a sneaky and backhanded way of getting out of the game. We all have to play it, and death is no excuse for missing a hand.
In other news, I received your package with a smile on my face from ear to ear. I read the detective book first thing and found it suitably gruesome and wonderful, all those scintillating femme fatales and hard-boiled dicks tickle a particular funny bone here. I read it all in one afternoon, and that’s even with Missus Woodruff (widowed) coming in to chat up my ear and impose on me for some more of those fabulous little chocolates.
Also, the soaps were delightful, though they left me feeling a little like a young girl again, all scented up and nowhere to go. I wonder if in the next package you send, you couldn’t manage to stuff John Barrymore or Ronald Colman in there as well? Just a thought.
The photograph you sent has taken up prime real estate on my bedside table, just next to the photographs of dear old Henry and your mother. It’s so nice to say goodnight to you now before I go to bed. You look so happy. Is it anything to do with that man by your side? Walt, I believe you said his name was, and you’re right, he does have marvelous hair! I haven’t seen curls like that since you were a baby! You know who he reminds me of a little? Dudley Moore, that’s who. He has that wily, wooly, mischievous look to him, I thought.
Maybe you can bring him along when you come to visit me? We can tie up all the bed sheets and climb out the window and run away to someplace wonderful like Hydra, off the coast of Greece. I read in a National Geographic here that there’s no cars allowed on Hydra and everyone gets around by donkey. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? I think it sounds just wonderful.
I’ll keep the bed sheets knotted for a speedy getaway. Love, Grandma.
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Portland Fiction Project
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