Betty could have been a millionaire if she’d bet on the first words she would hear every time she returned home from work to the little walk-up apartment she shared with her mother.
“What took you so long? You know I’ve been here by myself all day.”
Never, “How was your day?”, "How are you feeling?" or, “Are you tired?”
Betty had long since given up on responding. She’d hand her mother her cigarettes, and on a Friday, her paycheck, and go into the kitchen to make dinner. The old woman spent her days in the armchair by the window watching the neighbors, smoking, and listening to radio soap operas. Any friends she'd ever had had long since ceased to visit. Lumbering to the dinner table, she would regale Betty with breathless details of their neighbors’ comings and goings. Relieved that others were the target of her mother’s caustic comments, Betty would murmur in agreement occasionally, her thoughts far away. On Saturdays she would clean the house, her mother rambling on in the background.
“Mind that picture now when you’re dusting. That’s the only picture I have of your father, may he rest in peace. Now if he’d lived…” She would sniffle for a few moments at this point, wipe her eyes, and continue the monologue unabated.
“Careful, don't drop that vase. You're so clumsy, I swear. You missed a spot over there. Don’t forget to shake that rug good now. You know how dust makes me cough. Don’t leave streaks when you polish the mirrors. I taught you better than that. If you want a job done right, do it yourself, that’s what I always say.”
Expert as she was at tuning her mother out, Betty would sometimes mutter to herself as she viciously beat the rug out on the fire escape, trying not to imagine she was pounding her mother’s face.
“Why don’t you do it yourself then? And a pack a day of cigarettes has nothing to do with your cough, I suppose.”
When the chores were done, she would escape to her room to read the movie fan magazines she brought home from the drug store where she worked, sighing over the impossible life of glamour of her favorite stars. On Sundays she would occasionally go to the movies, thrilling to the musicals, laughing at Charlie Chaplin, wishing she could dance like Fred and Ginger. She sometimes daydreamed of having her own place but living on Mars seemed like a more plausible eventuality.
On this memorable Saturday, she had to try hard to keep her usual stoic expression because she was bubbling with joy inside. Harry had finally asked her out on a date. He was a customer at the drugstore. Betty had not noticed at first how frequently he came in or that he always made a bee line to her till until one of the other girls started teasing her. He was not exactly an oil painting, but he wasn’t a gargoyle and when he got over his initial shyness, he was able to speak coherently. He would meet her in the park where she usually went to eat her sandwich at lunchtime, and they would stroll around the boating pond together. She was thrilled when he finally got up the courage to invite her to the movies. Her very first date. The thought of him meeting her mother was daunting, but perhaps this was a new beginning. She summoned her courage. After dinner she bathed, put on her best dress and shoes, and daringly, a spritz of perfume. Her mother glanced up as she entered the room, then did a double take.
“What are you all dressed up for? Where are you going? You never told me you was going somewhere.”
Betty took a deep breath and cleared her throat.
“I am going out with a friend.”
“And leave me at home alone? Bad enough I’m here all day by myself. But that’s okay. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind for once. Don’t wait up for me. I won’t be late.”
The hands of the old clock on the mantel had never seemed to go so slowly as it ponderously ticked away the minutes. Harry was supposed to pick her up at seven. Betty paced back and forth, peeking through the shades to the street below umpteen times.
“Can’t you sit at peace?” her mother said, looking up from her knitting. “You’re making me nervous. You’re fidgeting about like a grasshopper on a hot griddle. Maybe he’s not going to show. It is a fella, isn’t it? Yes, I thought so. About time. Don’t know what took you so long.”
Betty sat down in the chair opposite her mother, unable resist the impulse to bite her nails. Her mother glanced up from counting stitches.
“For the love of God, stop biting your nails. I’ve been telling you that since you was five years old. Now when I was your age, I was a looker,” said the old woman, with a hoarse, self-satisfied cackle. “I could pick and choose. I knew how to hook ‘em and land ‘em. Your father was a lucky man, I’m telling you. I thought you wasn’t never going to meet nobody.”
Betty clenched her fists in her lap, her stomach in a knot, trying not to cry. The clock began to chime the half-hour, its rusty chimes mingling with her mother’s wheezy laughter, both seeming to mock her for thinking she could have a date like a normal girl. She focused on her mother, quivering with hatred. Her fingers seemed to curl around the heavy marble ashtray on the side table of their own volition, and she launched it as hard as she could at the clock. She recoiled in horror as it missed the clock, ricocheted off the wall and struck her mother on the head. The old lady gasped and slumped over. Her eyes rolled back, and a thread of blood trickled down her forehead. Betty froze. At that moment, there was a timid knock on the door.
“Betty? It’s me, Harry. Sorry I’m late, but the streetcar broke down and I had to walk halfway. Hello? Betty? Are you there?”