A Mark Left in Littleton by Liz Betz

Bessie sneezes, then wipes her nose with a tissue from her sweater pocket. The work is a lot of what she expected, boxes to open and sort through, although more often now she only peeks inside to name where the box should go, garbage, recycle, a city thrift shop before she drags it to the appropriate area, each of which have grown like lava islands from a volcano spew.

She remembers the days when she had a burning barrel in the backyard not to mention the days when she could have worked all day at any job she wanted. Several times in the past week she’s had to stop to medicate for sinus, allergy, or muscle aches knowing full well that she’s just asking for her back to go out, to come down with a flu, or for exhaustion to drag her into a dark hole.

“I bet you think I’ll pay for this.” She says as she senses footsteps down the hall.

“I hope not.” A woman answers.

Oh, it’s Paige. Yes, she said she was coming this afternoon. Bessie feels a heat of relief that she hadn’t said more. She is so used to the familiar that the footsteps register as being her husband’s, in that half-attention when she forgets he is dead. Ralph’s been gone for ten months already and not walking for six before that, but Bessie was about to ask him to fetch the vacuum cleaner. So, she says to herself, now you can ask him to help around the house. When he absolutely can’t lift a finger instead of before when he wouldn’t. Making a saint out of the dead probably begins just like this. But her dead husband formerly the right honorable mayor of Littleton is no saint material.

 “I’m in here.” She calls to Paige as she drags a box across the floor. A scratching sound alerts her to a problem before she sees the deep gouge in the hardwood floor. What? She tips the box enough to see the offending coat hanger hook poking out of the box bottom. Damn it.

“It’s not that bad.” Paige kneels to finger the scratch. “A brown wax crayon could disguise this.”

First the mistaken footsteps, now Paige’s words. It as if Ralph’s influence isn’t over. Don’t worry about doing things properly, was Ralph’s attitude, no matter if it were town affairs or theirs. Oh, how infuriating still.

 “I hope one of these big piles isn’t meant for me to use.”

 “Oh my gosh, no.” Bessie turns and points to the closet. “My craft material is in there. And stuff I thought could be used for crafts, you know how it is.”

 She opens the door and surveys the overflowing shelves inside. She’s learned in the past few weeks just to start somewhere but still. It doesn’t seem there will be any end, even this small closet is a day’s work. She has a whole two-story house and the collections of fifty years.

Paige peers over the older woman’s shoulder. “What if…you sit down and I bring out one thing at a time?”

 But to sit doesn’t suit Bessie and for the next half hour she opens and sorts as she was doing while Paige addresses the bags and boxes from the closet. One thing and then another as Paige says yes or no, or wonders out loud about projects for the children’s reading program at the library.

 “I’m going to run out of storage too. This has to come home.”

 Her chosen treasures have buried a chair and are far more than Paige can bring home without her Henry knowing about it. She’ll likely take several trips and at odd moments when she is sure she will be alone to unload. It’s the type of behavior Bessie has noticed in the past.

 Bessie wonders where the stuff will go if Paige doesn’t take it. Her quarters in the manor will need to be clutter free. She’ll pack the bare minimum and she certainly doesn’t need this. It’s tempting to let everything go with the house. If anyone will buy the house.

“Let’s take a break. I’m half your age and I’m about done.” Paige says, as she makes her way around the boxes to the doorway. “Should I make tea or coffee.”

 “Tea, I guess. You choose what kind.”

 Bessie’s cell phone rings.

 “I’ll be along in a few minutes.” She calls to Paige as she tries to track the phone. She finds it in another room on top of a stack of condolence cards. She won’t take those with her either.

“Yes.” Almost added aloud – now what? A few minutes later, she almost adds aloud something else. Bloody hell. The town wants to honor her late husband. It is all she can do to not snort when she hears ‘Ralph really put his mark on Littleton and some commemoration would ensure future generations remember.’

Remembering her manners so as her personal behavior not be the talk of the town is thoroughly ingrained. It’s Matthew, the least offensive councilman, someone Bessie thought she could trust. But she knew how this could go and as the wife of the mayor, she’d retreated quite often from expressing an opinion.

 “No. I don’t have any thoughts on this.”

“We understand. It’s too soon, but it is understood you are moving away from our community. What’s say, while you are still handy for consultation, that a committee be formed and we’ll present you with a few suggestions. Would that be okay?”

 Should she say ‘Do as you please’? She said that often enough. Or ‘Don’t bother your pretty little head’? No reason for that to occur to her other than she’s heard it many times. Stall. That’s the thing. Simply put them off for a while.

 “I’m not ready for any of this now.” She says, ready to hang up but Matthew asks how it is going otherwise. They chat for a few moments more.

 “Don’t forget what I said. Any time, any job, I’m your man – this call was just town business, you understand.”

She hears the kettle whistle from the kitchen and when she enters the room Paige looks up. She’s spread silk ties over the table.

 “These are splendid, such beautiful fabric. I just want to use them for something but haven’t any idea what.”

 Bessie forgot she’d stowed them away. Was there a patchwork tote or a recycle the tie project she admired? A pain shot across her temples, how can she remember some fleeting notion? Or possibly make one more decision today?

“Let’s have the tea, then I think I should rest. If you wouldn’t mind going home.”

 “Oh. I’m so sorry Bessie. I never meant to tire you.”

The tea soon steeped and poured; the only sound is of cup to saucer.

 “The phone?”

 “Only rings if someone wants something.” Bessie is only stating a fact, something she or her husband would say, but the woman at her table, a true friend, phoned yesterday to ask about craft supplies. Paige fumbles with her cup, Bessie hurries to smooth this over.

 “A town big-wig, well sort of a friend too. They want to name something or build something.”

“Why ask you…Oh, in your husband’s honor?”

 “That’s what they call it, but the money won’t be the theirs, it’ll be mine. They forget I know all the tricks.”

 “Men, eh?” Paige can really get wound up but she isn’t teary, so apparently her husband Henry is behaving at the moment. Or likely he’s out of town.

Bessie sips her tea instead of responding and eventually Paige goes home with several boxes.

Later when Bessie rises from her nap, the sun is setting but she still has an hour before she normally has her evening meal. November isn’t the darkest month of the year, by Christmas the school children will get on the bus in the dark and come home in the dark. By Christmas, she wants to be gone and living in the city four hours south. She’ll gain a few minutes of sunlight every day too, a thought that cheers her more than it should.

 “It’s shedding this town and these things.” This is the real source of her happiness, she says aloud to the audience of ties that have been left spread on part of the table. Ralph wore red ties for campaigns. The blues and maroon ties, he favored for the conventions out of town. Every year he bought a dozen new ties. She rubs one between her fingers, black and charcoal dominates the masculine pattern, but she can see how a thread has pulled. A picture leaps into her mind, a tie being fondled by a bejeweled hand. The ring snags the silk. Her husband sputtered his laughter and she could prove nothing, but she remembers how his face turned red. She sweeps the ties back into the box.

 The next few days Bessie doesn’t go out of the house, eating leftovers and things from her cupboards so she doesn’t have to go to the grocery store. She pulls apart room after room, storage areas, travel mementos, books and music but she leaves the memories out of it. It’s just stuff and it has to go.

 When she is ready, Bessie phones Paige’s husband for help hauling the stuff away. Paige has mentioned that money is short and Bessie will pay, but despite this she has to appeal to his ego to gain his co-operation. Henry is the type Bessie is used to dealing with. If she is going to move as quick as she hopes she has to clear out a room per day and she needs his help.
He takes three loads to the town dump, while Paige and Bessie bring things closer to the door for removal. The removal of things for the landfill was a big enough step for this day but Henry finishes that job and returns with a trailer hitched to his truck. They can start moving furniture, he informs the women.

“You’ll need help.” Bessie says.

 “I’m looking at it.” Henry means Paige. Her chin drops as she rubs at her shoulder. She moves to pick up an end table, but Henry directs her to the end of the old couch.

 “Big things first.” He announces as he lifts one end of the couch. Paige manages to lift her end but soon has to let it drop. Henry snorts, then he tries to balance the couch on one corner leg and twist it toward the doorway. Soon Henry proves himself unable to move the couch despite his combative antagonistic approach. He isn’t pleased.

Henry scowls at Paige and directs her to a large table instead. Paige gamely tries to help again even though her face scrunches in pain. It is almost more than Bessie can stand. Paige will have to respond to Henry’s requests herself. If Paige can’t manage him there is little she can do. Her fists clench. Her thoughts are red with anger and she wishes she weren’t old and weak. Old and a woman. But she is and she has been in this sort of position before and there aren’t any answers she knows of.

 She turns away to look for her phone.

 Bessie leaves the room to wait for Matthew. Just think about Matthew, Paige should have married someone like him. Matthew is a decent person and Bessie trusted him as much as anyone. She almost confided in him a number of times in the past; he’d have the answers to her questions, he’d tell her. Then she would decide each time that she didn’t want to know, for to know would mean she’d have to act or she’d have to forgive. To think of doing either made her stomach heave.

 Today was different, there was work to do and he’d offered, the same way they all did, ‘if there is anything I can do.’ Yes. This. Move, stack, haul it away. Show Henry some decent behavior. Another man on the scene could prevent anything ugly from happening.

 Fifteen minutes later, when Matthew arrives, the atmosphere changes. He helps Henry load the old couch, then he suggests that certain things can then be placed upside down on the couch. The efficiency of his ideas makes the job of loading the trailer easier.

 Bessie and Matthew both witness Paige’s stumble when Henry switches directions suddenly and slams into her. She cries out that her ankle has been hurt. Matthew helps her into the house. Henry follows behind and when he mutters something about Paige being a clumsy weakling, he is told to be thankful it isn’t his ankle that twisted, for it is easily done.

 “I’ll take you to the hospital if you think that’s what you want.” Matthew says and for a moment it seems Paige considers this but when she sees Henry’s face, she shakes her head no.

 Bessie brings a package of frozen peas to Paige and the women arrange to elevate the injury and apply cold relief. The package slips about so the search is on for something to fix that. Bessie has an idea.

 “There should be a box of men’s ties beside the desk in the office. Could you fetch them, Matthew?”

 Matthew turns to do as he is bidden while Henry’s eyes widen.

“So, everything just stops because of Paige’s little boo-boo?” Henry looks after Matthew’s disappearing back, then turns to Paige. “See how selfish you are? It’s your friend that needs our help but now it’s all about you.”

 “That’s enough, Henry.” Bessie says but then her hand flies to her mouth. “I mean, we’ve done more than I expected for today. There’ll be enough time to take the furniture away before the second-hand store closes for the day, even if we stop for coffee. We should stop for coffee. Right Matthew?”

 “Right -O, Mrs. Mayor. Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. I really miss Ralph.” Matthew places the box by Paige’s feet, opens it and secures the slippery bag of frozen peas to her ankle.

 “Yeah, he was a pretty good fellow. Didn’t cater to the mamby-pamby’s did he?” Henry warms to his subject. “I heard he’s the one that stopped the money flush that was the University Prep Program. That crap was nothing but a bunch of women trying to get their degrees so they could dump their husbands.”

A flush burns Bessie’s cheek; she’d labored five years to get the funding, to find staff and office space and then a decade to make it acceptable to people in the community to enroll. Paige had started a course that would have qualified her to be a teacher’s aide.

“There were some tough decisions to make. One thing for sure, there is never enough money for everything.” Matthew tests the knots he’s made in the tie around Paige’s ice pack. “This should work just fine.”

 He rises but avoids a direct answer to Henry’s statement by offering to make coffee for everyone. He passes Bessie with a touch to her shoulder and gives her a smile that seems to say ‘what can you do?’

 What can you do? Don’t worry your pretty little head. It wasn’t in the budget to continue. There are things in the budget for women. The town gives space, rent-free, to the fat club. ‘Not that they ever helped you lose weight.’ The town funds the children’s programming through the library ‘So your friends can leave their children behind and go to their hen-parties.’ Bessie can hear Ralph say these things and she suffers again because of the ways her work was erased. She could have made a difference but the cold hard facts are she couldn’t overcome the resistance within her own house.

 Her friend Paige was left high-and-dry with the closure of the University Extension program, never regaining the momentum for change again. There were others too, the very women that would might have benefited from a chance for education. None of the town seemed to realize how narrow-minded they were. From mayor down to the town, or from town up to mayor, they were the same. It was so bad that any campaign to bring awareness of mental health issues or domestic violence never got the official rubber stamp.

 Bessie drinks her coffee silently, unable to be a gracious host while Matthew tries to smooth past Henry’s sour comments. Paige shrivels further into herself as her ankle swells. She pulls her pant leg up and everyone sees the purple.

 “That needs a doctor.” Matthew states and only Henry questions this, but his words have no conviction. Only a fool would argue the seriousness of Paige’s injury.

 “Should I come back to help after?” Matthew asks, Paige’s arm around his shoulder as they move to the door.

 “No. Just get Paige some help.”

 If Matthew will only start the ball rolling. Be by Paige’s side. This was no accident, he knows that. Bessie watches as Paige is helped into Matthew’s vehicle and they head to the hospital.

 This is life in Littleton. This is the town that her husband Ralph left his mark on. Bessie takes a deep breath and gets ready. There’s something she’s decided to do.

 Shredded papers mixed with the condolence cards are put into the brick surrounded firepit in the backyard. Bessie sloshes gasoline, meant for the lawnmower, onto the papers. No matter if she is reported, let the fire department come. She strikes the match and a swoosh flares into the sky. Then she opens the box and throws tie after tie into the fire. Ralph left his mark and he’d worn a tie when he did it. He and Littleton have left a mark on her.

 It burns. So let it burn. 

Liz Betz is a retired rancher who loves to write fiction. Her pastime seems to help her days go by, her brain to stay active and sometimes keeps her out of trouble. An overactive imagination is a wonderful thing to harness, but left alone…Her publication credits are many and varied as she explores the fictional world of mostly somewhat older but not necessarily mature characters.

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