I blame the 12-day heatwave of 2015 for the loss of Beverly Bettencourt.
You see, Beverly didn’t have air conditioning. She’d grown up in Savannah and brushed off window units, never mind central air.
When the summer days turned thick and heavy, Beverly would turn off her oven, leave another golden pie cooling on the windowsill and dab the sweat off her forehead as she moved onto her front porch. There she would sit, slowly rocking, pitcher of sweet tea and plate of her secret recipe chocolate chip cookies by her side, waiting for the neighbors to visit. And visit we did. Everyone joined Beverly for long, wandering chats which sometimes would settle into front porch parties as more neighbors gathered and the wine flowed. Even the mail carrier would pause in his route because no one could resist Beverly’s merry blue eyes and her gentle order to “sit a spell.” It would be fair to call her – back then anyway - the neighborhood’s grandmother.
This would go on for three, maybe four, days - however long the heatwave lasted. Once it broke, Beverly would smooth her grey bun, knot her apron around her plump middle and bustle back to her beloved kitchen. In those days, our neighborhood could count on confections worthy of the top Paris patisseries emerging from Beverly’s oven for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, bake sales, first days of school, last days of school, graduations, moving out days, moving in days and the many parties our four little streets shared. Even on the bleakest of days, a vanilla and cinnamon glow seemed to emanate from Beverly’s Cape Cod, drawing us all to her.
But getting back to August of 2015, each sticky and steamy day oozed into another, even stickier and steamier. By the seventh day of the heatwave, the neighborhood streets were empty and still, baking under the thick heat, everyone hid away their air-conditioned living rooms and basements.
Everyone except Beverly.
She stayed on that porch day in and day out, rocking and fanning herself, unruffled by the heat but bemused by the silence.
On the eighth day of the heatwave, I stopped by on my way to the gym.
“How lovely to see you, dear! The neighborhood’s gone deathly quiet. Do sit a spell. Have some tea. I have some of your favorite sugar cookies inside,” she said, setting out a glass.
“Oh no – I can’t. I’m heading to the gym. I wanted to say hi though – it’s been so hot.”
“Oh,” Beverly said adjusting her glasses. “I see.” She smiled her gentle smile. “Well, you best be getting on then.”
I shifted, torn between my conscience and my flabby triceps. And, my God, it was sweltering on that porch. I could feel the sweat trickling down my shoulder blades. And then, inspiration! Inspiration which I’ve regretted to this day.
“Come with me to the gym!”
She abruptly set down her tea glass with a sharp clink and studied me over her glasses. Then she chuckled.
“Oh, heavens no. I’m 81 years old, young lady.”
“So what? Come on,” I grabbed her hands and tried to pull her out of her chair. “Come on, come on, come on. It’ll be fun! You can get on the bike and go real slow. I’ll help you.”
“Let me think.”
“No, no – don’t think. You’re healthy, right?”
“I have a good ticker,” she said, thumping her chest.
“Do you have sneakers?”
“Ok!” I said. “Put them on and let’s go. It’s an adventure!” I started clearing away the tea and cookies even as she sat there.
“Adventure,” she repeated, staring into the tangle of crepe myrtles shading her porch.
She pushed herself out of her chair sharply and hastened back to her room for her sneakers.
The gym was empty when we arrived. I directed Beverly to the exercise bike, thinking that would be easiest. She peered at it through her glasses and shook her head.
“I have never ridden a bicycle in my life and I don’t intend to start now,” she said.
“But it doesn’t go anywhere. You don’t have to balance.”
Beverly gave me a hard stare.
“I can see that, my dear.”
As we contemplated the bike, Trevor, one of the gym’s finely chiseled trainers, appeared.
“Hey, girl,” he said. “Who’s your friend?”
“I am Beverly Bettencourt, young man,” said Beverly, drawing herself up to the full extent of her 5 foot 2 inch frame. “And I would like to try something other than this contraption.”
“Well hello, Miss Beverly. How would you feel about taking a walk on the treadmill?” he said, offering her his sublimely muscled arm.
She nodded and Trevor escorted her to the treadmill, tossing me a wink over his shoulder. I went about my workout glancing at Beverly’s progress. Trevor hovered about her the entire time, explaining the machine, showing her the grip bars, reducing the speed to the lowest level. Beverly looked like she was moving in slow motion, but earnestly watched the monitoring screen and lifted her blindingly white, never-seen-a-scuff sneakers steadily.
She said little on the ride home, leaving me to wonder if I’d ruined her afternoon. When I left her, sans a tin of those pillowy sugar cookies, I was convinced of it. If only I could have known.
I didn’t make it to the gym for the next week. I had good intentions, but each night after work I wound up splayed on my couch with a glass of wine, binge-watching Homeland. So I didn’t realize that the neighborhood was chattering about Beverly.
When I finally dragged myself in for a workout, I faltered as I entered the cardio studio, trying to orientate myself to the scene before me.
There was Beverly, on her treadmill, wearing purple cropped mandala swirl leggings, a matching jacket and sleek Nikes. She was striding at a quick pace, pumping her arms. Trevor was jogging on the treadmill next to her while a 20-something woman I’d seen in my Pilates class ran on the machine on the other side. Trevor waved and I walked over.
“Heyyyy….” I said. Beverly didn’t take her eyes off the monitoring screen and Trevor held up a finger to tell me I should wait. A few seconds passed and the treadmill slowed. Beverly looked up and smiled at me.
“I’m sorry, dear. I had to finish that interval.”
I looked from Beverly to Trevor to the other girl, not knowing what to say.
“You see our Beverly?” Trevor said, smiling widely at her.
“Yeah – um – you look great, Beverly.”
“Thank you.” She was walking at a slower pace now, in cool-down mode. “Lilly took me to – what was it called, dear?” she asked, turning to the woman next to her.
“Lululemon,” said Lilly, dabbing her face with a towel.
“Yes, that’s right. A charming store.”
“Um, Beverly – you were going pretty fast there. Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked.
She stepped off the treadmill and patted me on the arm.
“Yes, yes. I saw my doctor. He said I’m as fit as a fiddle and that I’ll be fine as long as I train carefully and consistently.”
“Train for what?”
“My marathon,” she said gesturing to a poster on the wall for the following year’s Hickory Grove 5K.
“But Beverly,” I didn’t know what to protest first. “That’s a 5K – three miles – not a marathon.”
“It’s MY marathon.”
“What does that even mean?” I asked, not at all liking what was transpiring.
Lilly tugged at her sleeve. “Come on Beverly. Time for yoga.”
I turned to Trevor.
“I’ve been gone for five days. What happened?”
“Lady’s a firecracker –“
“Beverly? No way, she’s a sweet old grandma with big white sneakers.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking, but she came in the day after she came with you. Found me and told me she wanted to run a marathon. So we agreed on the 5K – which, we’re calling Beverly’s Marathon – so you better get on board, girl. I worked out a cardio and strength training plan for her, she saw her doctor, we’ve got eight months. She can do it.”
“But she’s 81!”
“So? We’ll be careful. What’s your problem?”
I shook my head not sure what my problem was, but well aware I had one – a big one. I left, not feeling much like working out anymore.
After that, the changes came quickly. Beverly spent everyday at the gym except for the training days when she and Trevor, joined by some of our enthusiastic neighbors and Lilly, would walk and jog slowly through the streets. Her clothes began to hang loosely and her face took on a more angular, hollowed out look, layers of once plumped out skin sagging and folding over on themselves. The glasses disappeared when she got laser eye surgery. Then one day, the sensible bun she’d worn for all the years I’d known her was gone, replaced by a silvery pixie cut. The neighbors buzzed about Beverly. How exciting she was, how great she looked, how they admired her determination. My stomach tightened with each new change and I felt my mouth turning down like the Grinch’s on Christmas Day. No one seemed bothered that the warmth had disappeared from Beverly’s house. It was dark and empty most of the time. The cookies, cakes and pies she’d sent around so regularly were gone. The long and lazy heatwave porch visits had ended. She’d had the charming little vegetable garden where we could so often see her digging and weeding covered by sod when she ran out of time to tend it.
I didn’t want to see Beverly – not this Beverly. I cancelled my gym membership and withdrew to my couch where the shorter days and longer nights matched my darkening mood. But the crispness of autumn and deluge of pumpkin spice had mysterious ways of working its magic and the nugget of an idea began to form.
I watched for Beverly and finally caught her one day in her driveway, stretching before her run with the group.
“Beverly!” I shouted. She squinted.
“Hello! I haven’t seen you for some time.” Even her voice sounded different. Deeper, maybe? Colder?
As I approached her, I could see she looked as radiant as everyone had been saying. Despite the web of wrinkles and sagging skin, her face was lean and tan setting off an electricity in those blue eyes. A kind of vibrance seemed to pulse from within her. I knew my plan was doomed, but plunged ahead anyway.
“Hey Beverly – you know the holidays are coming up. I was wondering if you could teach me to make those incredible pumpkin cream cheese muffins you make every year.”
The second I asked, I regretted it. Beverly glared at me and lifted her chin.
“I don’t have time.”
“But you always had time. What happened? You’ve changed Beverly. You always loved baking.”
“Did I?” The two words felt like two bullets heading straight at my chest.
“You seem to know so much about me. Tell me – tell me about the perfect daughter I was. The perfect wife. The perfect mother. The perfect grandmother. The perfect old lady. Tell me about all the chances I turned down – for fun, for adventure, for education, for travel – for someone else, always for someone else. How many hours did I spend in that kitchen? How much time did I waste on threat porch watching everyone else live their lives? All those meek little smiles, all those simpering “dears.” Not this time, missy. I am going to run my marathon and I dare anyone to get in my way.” Her voice was cold and fierce.
I wondered if I was witnessing early signs of dementia.
“Are you ok, Beverly?”
She took a step toward me and locked her eyes on mine.
“No one will ever force me into their box again. Stay away from me.”
April finally came and with it, Beverly’s Hickory Grove 5K Marathon. I hadn’t seen her since the day of the pumpkin cream cheese muffins, but she was the neighborhood star, the belle of the ball, you could say. Everyone was talking about her so I knew as well as anyone her run times on any given day, where she bought her newest sneakers or the smoothie she had for breakfast. Someone called the local news which even sent a reporter to do a story on her.
There was no fighting the tsunami of pride in our neighborhood over Beverly, which is how on the day of the 5K Marathon, I found myself along the route, huddled among my neighbors and holding a hot pink sign with block lettering that said: “Run, Beverly, Run!”
And when she trotted by and when the crowd roared, my neighbors probably thought the tears trickling down my face were for the joy and pride in our dear friend. No. The tears came because of the cold dark oven. Because of the pixie cut that replaced the bun. Because of the sod that covered the garden. Because of the heatwave that had sent Beverly to the gym. Just because.