A Sad Sad Short Story

August 6, 2018

 My Wife Thinks You’re Dead

Story and photo-illustrations by Jim Sizemore

When Betty stepped off the bus the first thing she did was corner Bernie on Main Street. Betty was a stringy-haired blond with a thin firm body decorated in tattoos—some of which were visible only when she danced naked in your living room. She had just been released from Goochland Correctional Institute. She was the sort who spent her short life involved in the wrong kind of sex with both sexes. Betty had planned to “accidentally” run into Bernie on his way to the post office, a workday chore he made like clockwork. When he turned off Main onto Market, they collided before he had a chance to avoid his fate. He was hooked like a fish that exists for one purpose—to be pan-fried for supper.

“Damn, girl” Bernie said. He stepped back to look her up and down.

She batted her eyes and played him out. “How you been doin’, Bern?” She knew damn well how he was doing—that the second he saw her he got a boner on.

“I’m not bad for a failure,” Bernie said. “And you?”

“Whatcha doing this evening, Mr. Man?”

“Now, girl, you know I’m happy married. You’re off my radar. I told my wife you was dead.”

“O.K.,” Betty said, “if that’s how you want it.” She flounced off down the sidewalk with that swaying-butt movement Bernie loved to see. But with Betty on the loose again he needed a strong reminder he had a family. Bernie went straight home.

Bernie appears old for his age, not all that much to look at, chubby-soft, balding in the worst way—front to back—and has mild prostate trouble which points him to the bathroom a bunch of times a day. His wife, Helen, loves Bernie more for his kind nature than anything else. Just picture it, here’s this forty-seven year old auto parts store manager who lucks-out and lands a beautiful young wife to share his bed and keep the house spotless. He and Helen have two kids—boy and girl—just the cutest things. Each Sunday morning he drops his family off at the Holiness Church and waits in the car, reading the sports pages. Bernie considers himself reformed from his wild days, but not yet ready for religious instruction.

When Bernie walked through the door, Helen straightaway asked him what he was doing home in the middle of the afternoon. He came up with a nervous story about needing to get some work stuff. Bernie’s jiggly behavior, plus a telephone call Helen had received only minutes before, put her on a Mean-Green Betty alert. She didn’t let on, though, just allowed Bernie to think he had lied his way out of the situation. Bernie was sunk. That phone call had alerted Helen to the younger woman’s resurrection.

“Your buddy Fred called,” Helen said, telling part of the truth. “Wants you to drop by the police station tomorrow first thing. Some kind of special project.”

Fred, the town sheriff, was Bernie’s best friend from high school. At one time Fred also was belly-bumping close to Helen, but she had kept that fact from Bernie, it being a bit of deception she allowed herself out of concern for his feelings. Without another word, Helen went back to work on a complicated tuna fish concoction she was whipping up for supper, her mayonnaise-covered hands deep in a big yellow mixing bowl. Bernie picked up some papers and walked out.

Helen was whistling as she worked, but she had murder on her mind. She had confessed as much to Fred earlier when he called. Helen told him straight out that either Bernie or Betty had to die, and she was at the point where it didn’t matter which one. Fred laughed, of course, but he also felt uneasy—not being sure if Helen was joking or what.

Monday was Helen’s bowling league and her mom kept the kids, so Bernie was free to do as he pleased, within reason. He went out for a ride and stopped at Jigg’s Drive-In for a beer. Before long he got to thinking about old times. The Jigg’s crowd provoked it, most of them being real young, and Bernie realized he didn’t really know anyone enough than just nod and say “Hi.” On an impulse, he decided to cut out and visit his old friend Chuck. That turned out to be a bad idea of the first rank. He and Chuck were a duo that went back to the days of the booze-pill-and-sex bunch that featured Betty as the main attraction. In those days the three of them were—well, let’s just say they got to be very close.

Chuck is your basic small burg bachelor, a big rumpled guy with a small neat apartment over the pet shop on Main Street. He’s the sort of fellow who gets along by going along, satisfied to spend his days working part-time in an auto body shop, selling weed or a handful of pills to take up financial slack. Chuck would never intentionally harm a soul but he’s not above providing the means for folks to screw themselves over.

That evening Chuck and Bernie were in Chuck’s living room, shirts off, drinking beer, toking on a fat spliff passed back and forth, and yelling at a two week old football game Chuck had recorded on his VCR. Three minutes into the fourth quarter there came a knock on the door. Chuck opened it and Betty glided in on what seemed to be air currents. Whatever it was that she had ingested also produced an aura of sensuality that glowed off her like yellow-green neon. Bernie and Chuck could tell she was there for one purpose only, big-time party tag.

It being hot and no AC, the first thing Betty did was take off her blouse and head for the fridge to, “get a beer and cool my tits.” A tad high, Bernie somehow thought he was capable of resisting her charms and followed her into the kitchen. Betty was stationed in front of the open freezer door fanning cold air onto her chest with one hand and sipping from a Coors can with the other. As in times past, Bernie felt himself instantly attracted to the incredible muscle definition in her back.

“Goddamn it, Betty,” he said, “one of us is gonna have to leave this town.”

She turned around, smiling, with one perfect breast cupped in her free hand. “Really, Bern? You mean that?”

“Good to see you, baby—been a long time—but I can’t afford to play them games no more.”

“Your choice, hon.” Betty slid past him and headed for the living room where the amiable Chuck waited in ecstatic anticipation.

Bernie stayed in the kitchen for several beats, feeling what resistance he had ebb from his body like brackish water from a swamp. By the time he got to the living room Betty was completely naked, astride Chuck in the classic lap dance position, him smiling over her bare shoulder like it was Christmas and he was more than willing to share this gift. Bernie watched those two go at it awhile, then shrugged. “What the hell,” he thought, moving toward them, “Helen thinks she’s dead.”

Next morning Bernie showed up at the police station and Fred laid out his plan. He explained that his drug enforcement department had a federal grant to conduct a sting which he hoped would nail the town’s top drug dealer, but he needed help. Fred knew that Betty was fresh out of Goochland, knew Bernie’s history with Betty, and Helen had updated him on Bernie’s progress becoming a model husband. In Fred’s view, all this made Bernie the natural candidate for undercover police work. Betty would be the bait to set up the sting. Fred was sure Bernie would go along with it for the many times Fred had kept Bernie out of the can. So he was surprised when Bernie refused to get involved. “Trouble’s not what I’m looking for,” Bernie said, sounding like a country song lyric, “trouble’s where I’ve been.”

Fred just smiled, waiting for the right moment to play his ace in the hole. He told Bernie that his assignment would help rid the community of the illegal substance operation fronted out of Rexton’s convenience store. His task would be to lure Betty to Chuck’s apartment, then have her call Rexton’s and instruct the contact to deliver some fine white party powder. Once the viper showed up with the goods, and they had the transaction on videotape, his squad of highly trained cops would take it from there.

“Things are different now,” Bernie said to Fred. “It’s not like the old days. I don’t have nothing to do with that woman.” He was getting more and more upset. “When Betty went to jail I expected it would be the last I seen her. Honest. Especially when the rumor got around she was stabbed dead in a lesbo love triangle. That’s what I told Helen, and she believed it. Shit, I believed it myself. And that’s how I want to leave it.”

Bernie was almost like a brother of Fred’s, but for himcommitment to law enforcement was stronger than blood. He would have nabbed his mother for dealing, too. Without a pang of conscience he smiled at Bernie and played his trump card. Fred informed Bernie that Chuck was already in on the sting, had been deputized. He described the tiny surveillance camera they had planted in Chuck’s VCR. When Bernie heard that he went as pale as an Allman Brother and sat down. Fred asked Bernie if he would like to see a playback of the threesome action the camera had recorded the night before. Bernie barely had the strength to shake his head. Then, Fred asked if Bernie had changed his mind about cooperating with the investigation. All the defeated man could do was nod.

A week later, as the trio of Bernie, Betty and Chuck await the drug drop-off, Betty’s last words are recorded by the camera in Chuck’s VCR. Later, those words will be presented as evidence at the inquest into the killings. In the grainy, slightly out of focus image, we see Bernie and Betty on Chuck’s davenport. Chuck is off to one side, only half in frame, sitting on the arm of the sofa. Bernie says to Betty, “O. K., girl—it’s true—we’ve seen a lot of miles together, and it’s still fun, but after this, that’s it.”

Betty smiles. “Whatever you say, Bern.”

Leaning into the frame, Chuck points at Bernie and says to Betty, “He might be my buddy but he don’t speak for me.”

Bernie ignores Chuck and continues to Betty. “Even good times have to end—from here on you’ll just have to find another ex-sweetheart to party with.”

“Right you are,” Betty says. “After today we will all go our separate ways.”

At this point in the surveillance tape there is a knock on the door.

Betty’s grave is on a lovely maple-shaded slope in Cedar Hill graveyard. It’s early autumn in the mountains, leaves bright red and yellow, a Kodachrome-blue sky. As mourners dismount from cars parked along the paved path winding through the hilly setting, a soft breeze stirs the leaves. It’s only fair that Betty’s final resting place is so serene—considering her short life of constant action. Betty’s service is attended by local friends and family, plus several strangers, mostly men, all of them from small towns within a fifty mile radius. More of Betty’s good-timing friends.

To Bernie’s surprise Helen encourages him to attend Betty’s funeral. She volunteers to come too. She even brings the kids. Helen reassures Bernie there are, in her words, “No hard feelings considering how the situation turned out.” If Bernie is suspicious of Helen’s behavior he doesn’t let on, realizing that it’s best not to go into too much detail about her sudden interest in seeing his “old friend” off to the hereafter. Either he completely misses Helen’s sarcastic tone, or just assumes that his wife is being her usual forgiving self. Chuck is at the funeral, too, crying full-out like he does when anyone dies. Chuck, for all his wastrel ways is, as Fred says, “a sensitive dude.”

The newspaper account of Betty’s death had speculated that it was open and shut, “a simple drug bust gone bad.” This, despite the fact that rumors around town suggested Fred may have used unnecessary deadly force in the exercise of his duties. The mere sight of Fred, the lawman responsible for the demise of their childhood playmate, inflamed several of Betty’s male cousins and there was a brief scuffle. Those boys were escorted off the cemetery grounds by three of Fred’s uniformed deputies.

Fred’s version of what happened during the raid at Chuck’s place is simple, at least on the face of it. At the inquest he testified that the drug dealer had reached for what he—Fred—thought was a gun. (It was later determined the only “weapon” the dealer had on him was an Italian sausage he was bringing home to his wife in a paper sack.) Fred claimed that, fearing for his life, he had fired in haste, and was most apologetic about Betty standing where she was, directly in the line of fire. The police department impounded Fred’s .38 and assigned him to desk duty for the duration of the internal investigation. At the time of Betty’s interment they had not found any holes in Fred’s story—no smoking gun, so to speak—so the consensus in town was that he would be restored to full duty in a week or two when passions cooled.

The last prayer is recited over Betty’s grave, and a handful of dirt is dropped on the casket lid. The funeral party and guests head to their cars so the professional grave diggers can close up. Going up the shaded path, Bernie holds the hand of his son, the boy holds his younger sister’s hand, and Helen has the little girl’s other hand in hers. Fred passes the family on the way to his unmarked patrol car, and for a brief instant Bernie thinks he sees his old friend wink at Helen. He does see Fred smile at her, and Helen smiles back. Bernie says nothing. In the car on the way home, Helen says, “Bernard, sweetheart, I don’t feel the least bit like cookin’ tonight. What-say you take your little family to Carvelli’s for pizza and then to see a picture at the Visulite?”

THE END

Story and images copyright 2018 by Jim Sizemore

This tale was inspired by a country song by Junior Brown. (This shorter version is a reprint from a post in four parts dated July 28-30, 2008.) When I originally heard Mr. Brown’s lyrics (Curb Records), it occurred to me that the best country songs tell a condensed story which may inspire characters and incidents for a short story. Or a novel. Perhaps even a play or movie.