"I love Betty," Henry Thompson said. He said it every morning as soon as he woke up. He said it to his pillow and the yellow wall beside his bed. He said it to the nurse who gently pulled the false teeth from his mouth and to the orderly who brought his breakfast, to the television screen that loomed over his bed on a metal arm, to the windows of the recreation room where he was wheeled, singing love along the way. At every meal, when the other patients murmured grace or stubbornly stayed silent and refused to give thanksgiving, he said, over meats and vegetables, "I love Betty."
When Henry started saying "I love Betty," his children were confused. His wife had been dead for three years. A few days after Henry began his declarations, his children, Douglass and Claire, met with Henry's doctor in her office at the nursing home.
The woman took out a small plastic model of the brain and pulled it apart into four different sections. She pointed at each quadrant, stickered in red and blue veins. She explained that Henry didn't know what he was saying, that this was a further stage of his dementia, that this nursing home might not have the care he would need. "You have some decisions to make," she said.
While the doctor spoke, Claire looked at the plastic model. She knew she should be paying closer attention, but she couldn't. The doctor said it was a symptom, that the words her father repeated were arbitrary. But Claire didn't believe that. Her father had gotten so lost in the sweet thrills of nostalgia that he didn't ever want to return to mundane communication again. And why should he? she thought, and smiled.
Douglass nudged her arm. "Are you even listening?"
"Of course," Claire said.
One in the morning, a few nights later, Douglass lay in bed watching television, his wife, Nia, asleep beside him. The phone on the night table beside Douglass vibrated. He answered on the first buzz.
"I've been thinking," Claire said. He knew it was his sister without looking at the screen. She was the only person who called that late.
"I'm listening," Douglass said.
Claire took a deep breath. "I was really sad about Pop. But maybe there's something to celebrate here."
"Life's not always a celebration, Claire," Douglass said.
"No, not like celebrating to deny anything. I mean celebrating to accept who he is now. Like, I think it's remarkable. Because I think it's really special, what's happening here ..."
"What's happening here, Claire?"
"You know that storytelling workshop I've been taking?" she said conspiratorially.
Douglass sighed. Storytelling was the newest of Claire's manias — after the pottery class and the Thai cooking class and the Tuvan throat singing chorus and the time she believed she could blow glass.
"Don't sigh at me. Keith, the boy who runs my storytelling workshop, he's always saying, 'Everyone's got a story.' He says telling stories taps into our deepest empathy."
"Really," Douglass said. Claire had a knack for making gurus out of her teachers, for taking their rudely obvious statements as words of wisdom.
Claire clucked her tongue. "Listen, Dougy, everyone's got a story and this one is going to be ours. I'll edit it all together and I'll keep a copy and you'll get a copy and I'll send one out and maybe it will get on the radio."
"I don't know, Claire. It's ghoulish." Beside him, Nia turned onto her stomach.
"It's remarkable," Claire said.
"Losing your mind is remarkable?"
"No, love is. The triumph of love is remarkable." Douglass's ears burned in embarrassment for the both of them — Claire for saying it, himself for having to listen to it.
Not bothering to turn over, facedown into her pillow, loud enough for Claire to hear on the other end of the line, Nia said, "Tell that old hippie to go back to bed."
Claire laughed. "Tell Nia I said hi. Tell her 'I love you too, boo boo.'"
"It's late, Claire."
"All right. I'll let you two sleep. But first you have to promise me you'll do it. I won't let you off the line until you say you'll do it."
"I'll do it," Douglass said. "Is that all?"
"That's all," Claire giggled. She hung up before Douglass could.
She hung up before Douglass could.
Claire lived in the same apartment she'd had since she graduated from college, twenty years before. Douglass had lived there too, when he was younger and still loved Claire.
It's where Claire first took up melancholia, like the lavender oil she'd rubbed on her wrists as a teenager. She drank too much on weeknights and cavalierly slept in when she should have been at her job. Laughing, she proclaimed herself slothful at 25, a spinster at 28, a failed artist at 33. What once had seemed ludicrous predictions — Claire had always had men around, she had always been talented, her singing had made Pop weep — had all come thuddingly true.
Now, at 42, real sadness rolled off her in waves. But Claire was like those old women who douse themselves in ever-heavier splashes of their favorite perfume because their noses get too used to the smell. She still told all the old jokes about her solitary, shiftless life: the successive cats she called her children, the Sundays spent facedown on the sofa listening to Coltrane.
But those details of her daily life weren't bohemian anymore. Claire stunk of sadness so sharply, it made Douglass's eyes water. And it was painful to see that she didn't know it, that she still thought it was a light and delicate aroma, something spicy and mysterious and intriguing. She was blind to the actuality, that her unhappiness was so palpable Douglass was afraid the scent of it would rub off on him and that he too would be left reeking of loneliness.
When Douglass came into her apartment, he only hugged Claire halfway, kept a space of air between the two of them. He was ashamed of this, but he still did it.
Claire pretended not to notice. She pulled back and Douglass looked around. When he had moved out, she had continued her life of whimsy with a vengeance. She told everyone it was good Douglass left, because now she could paint her walls pink. The whole apartment was an anemic peach.
She told everyone it was good Douglass left, because now she could paint her walls pink.
Bunched up on a corner of the couch were a blanket and pillow. Douglass knew in a flash that this was Claire's bed, her current resting place during her nights of whirring insomnia. Back in the days of Douglass and Claire, the two of them slept till noon and lived on cans of tuna fish, bags of corner-store candy, and 40s. Judging from the dainty saucer on the side table, dusted with bright crumbs of children's cereal, Claire still followed that diet.
They had lived like that for nearly a decade and a half, until Douglass found his wife five years ago. Nia was a sweet enough girl, but she'd taken one look at the Jamaica Plain apartment and told Douglass there'd be no truck with her as long as he lived like that. "Nia says we live like animals," Douglass had said, amazed at first. "And not even wild ones. She says we live like house pets waiting for our master to come home."
Nia was smart. When Douglass complained about work or his friends, she didn't egg him on like Claire did. And when he let his fears slip out, she didn't turn them into a joke. Nia took him seriously. She didn't dress herself in winking knowingness. She didn't find irony particularly attractive or delicious. He'd been wary when they began and she spoke enthusiastically about a West African dance class — he'd instinctively cringed. But Nia picked single things to love — when he finally saw her dance, she moved with a dedication and quiet resolve that struck Douglass to his core. He quickly realized that a girl that keen was worth keeping. Especially at his age — 34 when he met her. Pops and Ma, when she was alive, had been happy, so happy about Nia. But not Claire. Douglass moved into Nia's and whenever he ran into Claire she said, "Tell Nia life's good at the puppy pound." Claire said, "Let Nia know I've managed to keep my litter box clean all on my own."
In response, Douglass had tried to turn his heart against Claire. He constructed the case against her piece by piece. To anyone who would listen, he argued against Claire's capriciousness; her dreaminess; most damning of all, her lack of a husband and children. Eventually, the arguments stuck, and he convinced himself that he had always secretly held his sister and their shiftless life together in contempt.
"It's just not mature to be living like that," was how Douglass summed it up to Nia. "It had to end sometime."
Now, before Douglass on the coffee table was a small, gray box with thick black wires stuck to it. Claire gestured for him to sit down. She began to set up the recording equipment, and Douglass found himself impressed. Her face took on a concentration he had not seen on it since she was a child. He watched as she tested the sound levels, slid on a pair of headphones, squinted at the digital readout in front of her. When she caught him looking, she grinned and winked both eyes. Douglass looked down. A microphone rounded its way up to his mouth.
"Do you ever remember Pop saying stuff like 'I love Betty' when we were kids?"
"Of course not, you know that, Claire."
Claire made eyes at the recorder. "It's for the record."
"For the record, they weren't touchy-feely."
Claire leaned forward. "I saw them, once."
"I saw them. I was maybe nine or ten. I wanted Pop to fix my bicycle chain. I stayed up, waiting for him to come home from work. And I saw them. They were sitting at the kitchen table, side by side, and they were kissing each other on the cheeks, real quick. I'd never seen them do anything like it. I shut the door and went back to bed."
Douglass knew, with a pang, that she was lying. He wasn't sure why she was, but he knew that this story was untrue. He could feel her watching him, waiting. Douglass looked down at his hands. Between them the red light on the recorder glowed.
Finally Douglass said, "Well, that's romantic, I guess." He looked up and he saw that she knew that he knew she was lying. But he wasn't going to call her on it. He would humor her.
Claire smiled smaller, more of a wince. "Well, wanna know what I think? Before he could protest, she continued, "I think they did it that way because it was sweeter."
"Claire," Douglass laughed, uncomfortable. "C'mon."
"No, now that we know his true feelings. I think he kissed Ma that way because it was the sweetest."
Douglass shifted in his chair. "Do you have another question?"
"Do you think it's harder to love other people, now that we're grown up and knowing how much he loved her?" Claire said it quickly, breathlessly, as if she'd just discovered something.
"That's it? Just no? You're not gonna elaborate?"
"Claire, I don't want to talk about this with you. I don't think that's true." Douglass started to get up, and Claire put her hand on his arm.
"But I need to get each of our viewpoints about love to have this thing make any sense."
"Claire, Nia needs the car to get to dance class. Is that really it? This is what you need?"
Claire nodded her head, vigorously, tucking her chin and opening her eyes wide. A pantomime of an eager little girl. If I were a kinder person, Douglass thought, I would laugh. But he only felt angry with her. He sighed and sat back down and folded his hands one into the other. He was silent.
Claire lifted her chin, her eyes cool now. "You can say anything," she said. "Just make it up if you have to."
Douglass stood up and leaned over the table. He put his mouth close to the wire hatching of the microphone. He knew his voice would hurt, amplified through her headphones. He said distinctly, looking at Claire, speaking so clearly that she had to bend her head under the force of his voice:
"Love is great, it's the greatest thing in the world. I'm glad Ma and Pop had it and I'm glad that Pop has it still. I wish all of Claire's listeners have it, but I especially want my big sister to know that she has it." And then he reached out and pushed the stop button.
"Love is great, it's the greatest thing in the world."
When she walked into his room, he was alone. He was in bed, a blue knit blanket around his shoulders. Claire set the tape recorder on his tray. "Hi, Pop," she said, and he gave her a limp wave of his hand, an uninterested "I love Betty." He was focused on a Satchel Paige documentary on the television. She laid the wires for the microphone on the tray. When she pressed the button on the machine, her own voice sprang into the room: it was the part she'd recorded as narration.
She had written it in a burst of inspiration, and she could hear the pride in her own voice as the recording played: "When my father says I love Betty, it means anything and everything. It means he is hungry, or tired, or wants the station changed on the television, or he is constipated." She liked that last part. It made it sound like she had a sense of humor.
The ending line was one she'd recorded a dozen times, trying to get the inflection right. She had wanted it to sound thoughtful and winsome. She had wanted someone to hear her voice and fall in love with her. She had wanted Douglass to hear her voice and love her again. She had recorded this section in her apartment last night, before bed. She had been in her nightdress, a mug of peach schnapps beside her for courage. She had leaned over the tape recorder and said, staring at the red blinking light, willing her mind blank so that the words could be the truest versions of themselves: "I love Betty means life. I love Betty means life is always love."
Her voice cut off sharply. The red light blinked. The recording was finished. She could start taping.
Henry said nothing. He was looking steadily at the television, his eyes darting back and forth, following the plays of a very old game.
"Pop, what's your name?"
"Pop, I need you to say your name for the microphone." She took his chin in her hands and turned his face toward her.
He looked her in the eye. "I love Betty," he said. And Claire thought with all certainty, so sure, she thought: I love Betty means nothing.
Henry moved his eyes from the screen. He was looking into her eyes now and he said it again. "I love Betty."
Claire felt her father's weak skin in her hands. She smelt his old man's breath, staler than stale, smelling of flatness and closed spaces no matter how often he opened his mouth, no matter how alive the sentences he made with that breath sounded.
"I love Betty," he said again. Claire couldn't look him in the eye.
She put her hand to her father's mouth to stop the sound. She felt her father's tongue, wet, his lips, insistent, the soft knuck of false teeth against her palm as he continued to say into skin, "I love Betty." Always in the present tense, never in the past. It was nonsense to listen to and nonsense to stop it, but she pressed harder against her father's mouth, cupped her other hand gently against the back of his head, pressed until she couldn't feel the words on her hands anymore, only the wet of her father's breath against her knuckles.
Kaitlyn Greenidge is Lenny's contributing writer and the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.