Two minutes before the train pulled into the station Bettina opened her square, gold compact and frowned at her oval face reflected in the tiny mirror.
Too pale, she thought and firmly pressed her lips together. Too pale and plain-looking without my usual mask of lipstick, blush, and face powder.
“Play down the makeup,” Michael had cautioned. “Pop’s old school. Detests painted women. Lipstick, mascara, eyeshadow. ‘Devil’s tools,’ he calls them. ‘Used by the fairer sex to beguile men.’”
“But Michael,” Bettina protested and wrinkled her nose. “You realize first impression are important.” She and Michael had eloped and were planning to meet his parents for the first time.
“How can my family not be impressed?” Her new husband had given Bettina a lingering kiss.
The train pulled into the station. Bettina pinched both cheeks. Maybe a flicker of blush?
“No,” she murmured, and snapped the gold compact shut. Deceptiveness and dishonesty belonged in her past. “I won’t allow deceitfulness intruding on my happiness, on my future with Michael.”
Bettina’s new husband took her overnight case, held her hand, and helped her descended the steps onto the train platform. “Sweetheart, you look fabulous,” Michael’s eyes brightened.
Bettina smiled. The red, form-fitting sheath dress was worth depleting her rapidly dwindling savings; she quit the profession since meeting Michael.
“Mmm, I missed you, Bettina.” Michael’s lips brushed his wife’s cheek. A reserved, quiet man, he seldom displayed emotions publicly.
“Oh, darling, we’ve only been apart for a day.”
Yesterday, Michael drove from Philadelphia to his parent’s home in southern New Jersey. Breaking the news to his unsuspecting family before presenting his new bride seemed warranted.
“How did your family react, Michael?” Bettina slipped her arm through Michael’s, and together the couple walked to his car in the parking lot.
“‘About time, Son,’ Pops said. ‘Man needs a good woman.’” Michael smiled and opened the car door. “’Bettina’s a good woman, Pops,’ I told him.”
Bettina slid into the passenger’s seat. Dear Lord, she thought, help me keep Michael’s trust.
“Your mother’s reaction? And…” Bettina twisted the gold chain on her red leather purse. “Your daughter Conchetta’s reaction?”
Michael exited the parking lot before responding. “Remember, Bettina, my first wife died five years ago when my daughter was two. My mom’s the only mother my daughter Conchetta’s known. We’ll have to proceed cautiously.”
Very cautiously, Bettina thought, with both Michael’s mother and his daughter.
Michael parked in front of the small, white bungalow. Dark, heavy drapes covering the large picture window parted slightly. Bettina saw two faces peering out.
The door opened. An unsmiling woman, grey, stringy hair falling below her stooped shoulders, walked across the porch.
“Hello, Mother,” Michael said. “This is Bettina.”
“I can see that, Son.”
Peeping from behind the woman’s long, faded denim skirt was a frail, dark-haired young girl.
“Come here, Conchetta. Meet your new mother.” Smiling, Michael held out his arms, but the child whimpered, shook her head, and clutched her Grandmother’s hand.
“Son, your Father’s acting uncivilized. He’s working in the vegetable patch. Spreading fertilizer.” Michael’s mother picked up Conchetta and rocked the child gently in her arms. “Won’t come in and wash up for company. Best go ’round back and introduce your new wife.”
Bettina’s heart raced. How much do I really know about Michael and his family? She twisted the rings on her finger.
“Why the rush?” An acquaintance, admiring Bettina’s sparkling diamond engagement ring, had asked. “You’ve only known the man a month. Take my advice. Summer him and winter him, my dear.”
Michael took Bettina’s hand. “Don’t frown, Bettina. Everything will be fine. Trust me.”
Michael’s father, a tall, angular man, was spreading pig manure, turning it with a shovel into the dark, rich garden soil. He pushed the shovel into the manure pile, wiped his brow, and watched his son and his son’s new wife walking along the path skirting the garden plot.
“Father, may I introduce Bettina?”
“So, this is your bride, Son.” Hard eyes appraised Bettina: her bright blond hair; her red dress; the red purse clutched in one hand; her high heeled shoes.
Bettina swayed against Michael.
Michael’s father planted his foot on the shovel’s blade and lifted a heaping shovelful of manure.
“Puttana,” he suddenly shouted, “Puttana,” and hurled the shovelful of manure.
Bettina’s bright red dress, her shoes were splattered with filth.
Michael jerked the shovel from his father’s hands. “What have you done,” he yelled. “Are you mad?” His face twisted in rage.
Bettina sank to her knees. She covered her head with her hands, and rocked back and forth. Her screams pierced the air.
Michael’s mother opened the back door. “Son, drop that shovel.” She hurried down the back steps. “Don’t follow me, Conchetta.” she said to her granddaughter who tagged behind her. “Stay on the porch.”
Michael swung the shovel and hit his father on the side of his head.
His father groaned, doubled over, and toppled to the ground.
“Grandpop. Grandpop,” Michael’s daughter whimpered and jumped off the porch.
Michael raised the shovel a second time.
“Give me that shovel, Son.” Michael’s mother held out her hand. “Think of your daughter.”
Conchetta was staring at her father. “You’ve killed Grandpop,” she said. “You’ve killed him.”
Michael plunged the shovel into the pile of manure.
Michael’s mother stooped and sopped the blood flowing from the long gash on her husband’s forehead. She looked up at Michael. “Best take Bettina inside, Son. Help get her cleaned up.”
Burying the Past
The kitchen table in Michael’s efficiency apartment was cluttered; white Styrofoam cartons, colorful, plastic bowls covered in Saran wrap, paper plates swathed in aluminum foil–food offerings for the newly bereaved widower.
Maddie, his granddaughter walked into the kitchen, unzipped her denim jacket and draped it on a chair. “Morning, Gramps,” she said and kissed Michael’s wrinkled forehead. “Casserole ladies from the church performing their Christian duty, I see.”
Michael chuckled. “So much food,” he said. “For one person. Can’t figure what those women were thinking.”
“Don’t you, Gramps?” Maddie’s eyes shone.
“Now, Maddie. Michael’s white, bushy eyebrows lifted. “Only one woman for me. My Bettina.”
Maddie shook her head. Bettina was her step-grandmother. Her gramps had been married twice.
“Were you able to find everything?”
Maddie nodded. “Found the garment bag, Gramps, hanging on a hook in the self-storage unit. Just like you said.”
“Shoes and the purse, too?”
“Yep. Neatly packed and labeled. Everything’s in my car. Took some time, though. Your self-storage unit’s crammed full.”
“Now Bettina’s passed, I’ll clear things out. Nothing of any importance in there.” Michael stooped and lifted a sturdy, empty carton from the floor.
“Nothing? Who knows, Gramps? Mom and Auntie Vita might find some of your old stuff valuable. Or at least of sentimental value, Gramps.”
“I doubt it, Maddie.”
“Gramps, Mom and Auntie Vita, well, they are worried about you.”
Maddie had overheard the two women discussing Michael’s stoic, unemotional response to Bettina’s death.
“Conchetta, you Dad’s not grieving,” Great-aunt Vita had said. “You’d think after fifty years of marriage. . .”
Dad’s said his farewells,” Maddie’s mother had said. “Bettina’s been in a nursing home past five years. Alzheimer’s.
Michael arranged several containers of food in the cardboard carton. “Too late for your mother’s concern, Maddie. Never showed concerned while Bettina was living. Now, help me load this box, will you.”
“The battered woman’s shelter will welcome the donation.” Maddie picked up a pie plate and peeled back the foil. “Mmm, pineapple cheesecake, Gramps.”
“My favorite. Put it in the frig. If you can find room.”
“Grandmother Bettina won blue ribbons at the state fair, didn’t she? For her cheesecake.” Maddie slid the cheesecake in the bottom shelf of the crowded refrigerator.
“For a gal who couldn’t boil water when I married her, my Bettina turned into a darn fine cook.”
“You know, Gramps, I could drop the box of food at the woman’s shelter then stop by the funeral home.”
“We’ll go together, Maddie.” Michael brushed his eyes. “Delivering those items to the funeral home is the last thing I’ll ever do for my Bettina.”
“Red? That was Grandmother Bettina’s?” Maddie stared at the red sheath dress Michael had taken from the garment bag. “Black or grey were the only colors Grandmother Bettina wore.”
“Bettina wore that dress once.” Michael sighed and shook his head. A lock of silver hair falls across his forehead. “Never wore red again, either,” he said and suddenly laughed softly. “Except for the red lingerie I bought her.”
“Gramps, you’re sooo naughty.” Maddie grinned and unwrapped the package containing shoes and a red leather purse.
“Took some elbow-grease getting those shoes clean.”
“What happened, Gramps?”
“My fault, Maddie. I should have remembered.”
“Remembered what?” Maddie repacked the shoes and purse and zipped the red dress in the garment bag.
“Pops was from the old country. In Sicily, only whores wore red. My father took one look at Bettina. ‘Puttana,’ he yelled. ‘Puttana’ and threw a shovelful of manure at my bride.
“Imagine. Calling my Bettina such a foul, foul name.”
Michael’s family stood in front of Bettina’s casket for a private viewing of the body.
“Where’s the outfit she was supposed to wear?” Great-aunt Vita asked a rotund man standing in the doorway. “The grey one?”
“There must be some mistake,” the undertaker said. “Your departed loved one is wearing the red dress this young lady,” he nodded at Maddie, “and her grandfather brought to the funeral home yesterday.”
“Maddy. Sneaking behind my back.” Conchetta’s face was ashen. “Where the hell did you find that old dress, anyway?”
Michael smiled and squeezed Maddie’s hand. “Don’t frown. Everything will be okay. Trust me,” he whispered.
“Whatever possessed you, Michael,” his sister Vita asked.
“It was what my Bettina wanted.” Michael smiled. “Doesn’t she look beautiful? In her red dress?”
Long-stemmed red roses nodded in the metal urn on Bettina’s tombstone.
“See who sent them. Maddie.”
Maddie read the small card. “An acquaintance.”
“Can’t imagine who.” Michael walked to the headstone and kneeled.
Gramps needs time alone with his beloved Bettina, Maddie thought. She walked to the car clutching the card.
“My dear, so happy to meet Bettina’s granddaughter,” Miss Combes said. “How did you find me?”
Maddy watched the frail woman pouring tea into delicate porcelain cups.
“Actually, Bettina is my step-grandmother. Married Gramps after his first wife died.”
“Ah, yes. Michael. Quite the catch.” Miss Combes lifted the teacup to her lips.
“You know my grandfather?”
“No, my dear. Bettina wouldn’t have dared introduce her husband to me. But Michael’s not the reason you’re here, is it?” Miss Combes set her teacup in the saucer. “You’re curious about Bettina. Her past, maybe? Her secrets?”
“You and Bettina were friends. That would explain the red roses on her grave.”
“Friends?” Miss Combes’s thin, penciled-in eyebrow arched. ”I would say we were more like acquaintances. Professional acquaintances.”
“Why red roses? The florist said you insisted on red roses. He remembered taking your order.”
“I see. That’s how you found me. The florist gave you my address.” The woman’s eyes narrow to slits. She lifted a small tray of baked good. “Please try the macaroons. Quite delicious.”
“Excuse me, my dear?” Miss Combes selected a crinkly gingersnap cookie.
“Why did you send red roses? You must have a good reason.” Maddie leaned across the table. The tea cups rattled in their saucers.
“Bettina told me of the humiliating incident. With the red dress.” Miss Combes crumbled the cookie between thin, gnarled fingers. “I’ve wondered my dear, if Michael’s father was aware of his daughter-in-law’s past. Her profession.”
“Her profession?” The color drained from Maddie’s face. “What are you saying?”
“My dear,” Miss Combes said. “Before Michael met her, his beloved Bettina worked for me as a prostitute.”
Really well done. The prose is well written, as is the pacing; you’ve covered a lot of story time gracefully in the limits of the exercise directions. And you’ve handled backstory well. Overall, 5 well-deserved stars!
Thanks for the submission.