By Emily January Peterson
She felt as if her life were over. The numbness in her legs, which most likely had been caused by the amount of time she had spent sitting on the couch in front of the television, had crept up into her chest and arms.
That’s funny, she thought. My heart still hurts.
In the weeks since her husband had died, the pain in her heart had not subsided. Mary, her daughter, insisted that it would just take time to adjust to being a widow, but Betty knew that time did not heal all wounds. In fact, Dr. Phil had said so on national television just last week.
She grabbed at her chest, willing the physical hurt to cease. Now she knew why people sometimes referred to emotional pain as a “broken heart.” The suffocating daggers of grief seemed to emanate from her heart, though she knew full well that the organ functioned perfectly.
Bart’s heart, on the other hand, had failed him, and her, and Mary. “Bart’s heart,” she said aloud, hoping the rhyme would cheer her spirits. Then she began to sob. She turned off the latest season of Survivor, a show she usually never missed, and cried until she fell asleep.
The next morning, she awoke tabula rasa. Her head felt clear and her heart felt happy. She began to rise with vigor, knowing that this would be a great day. She heard a lawn mower going outside, and thought that Bart must already be getting his Saturday chores done. She sat up on the couch and pulled free the Kleenex stuck to her cheek. Then the memory of the last month hit her like a terrible flood. Bart had died of a heart attack. She was alone. Her heart began to hurt again.
After taking the latest shower she’d ever taken (it was well past 2:00 p.m.) and the longest shower probably to occur in the history of shower-taking, Betty sat at the kitchen table willing herself to eat the tuna sandwich she’d made. The sandwich making had taken all of her strength. Each precise cut of the pickles and celery had been done with purpose. Betty had focused on the juiciness of the pickles between her fingers and the bumpy lines on the celery. She had hoped this would make her forget her troubles and work up her appetite.
She took a bite, trying to savor the wet mayonnaise and the crunchy sounds her mouth made with every chew. She looked out the window at the leaves on the oak tree, now turning red and gold, ready to fall to the ground. This reminded her of death, and that reminded her of Bart. She swallowed the lump of tuna mush and went back to the couch. She turned on the television and watched an infomercial on the greatest hits of the ‘50s hosted by Regis Philbin.
Regis is a good-looking man, she thought. Maybe he’ll leave Joy and marry me.
After imagining a life of celebrity on the arm of Regis, the program ended. She watched several commercials, all without much interest. She was still imagining the feel of the fur against her neck as she strolled down the red carpet with Regis.
She snapped out of her reverie when she saw Regis again, this time on a commercial surrounded by hoards of beautiful young women. Betty then realized Regis would never be seen with her. She had never been a pretty girl, and despite assurance from her mother that she was an “ugly duckling” who would one day become a swan, that had never happened. Betty knew nothing about makeup or clothes. The curl in her now-graying hair was dependent upon a perm every six months. And after she left the salon, the curls never quite looked as good as the hairdresser had styled them.
“Join me, tonight, to see which of these beauties will become our next Miss America!” Regis was saying.
That sounded like an invitation for a date, or the best one she’d get from Regis. So, she accepted.
Mary called at 7:53 p.m., just before the pageant was to start. Betty had assembled a notebook and a pen to keep track of her favorite contestants. Guessing the winner would make her somehow feel beautiful, as if being able to judge the winner would also make her a winner.
“Mother, are you okay? You sound out of breath,” Mary said.
“Yes. I’m fine. What do you need?”
“I don’t need anything. I just called to see if you’d like Dan and I to bring the kids over. We have popcorn and a movie!”
Mary seemed to be treating her like a child, or worse, Betty thought, an animal. She was dangling a carrot in front of her snout, teasing her with food and entertainment.
“No, thanks. I’m busy,” Betty responded. She found her place on the couch and turned up the volume. She did not want to miss a minute of her date with Regis.
“What?” Mary sounded surprised. “You’re busy? Mother, I know you aren’t busy. You need company.”
“I have company, thank you very much!” Betty announced. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to him.” She pushed the off button on the phone with deliberation and smiled. She could imagine Mary’s mouth open, wondering why her recently widowed mother would have a man at the house so soon after her father’s death.
The phone rang. Betty ignored it and took a bite of the popcorn she had made for herself. The pageant had begun.
The answering machine picked up the call. “Mother! Pick up! I know you’re there.”
Betty giggled and ate some more popcorn.
“Mother! For heaven’s sakes . . . mother?”
Mary hung up. The phone rang again.
“Yes?” Betty said with the receiver to her ear.
“Mother, what are you doing? Nobody is over there, right?” Doubt began to creep into Mary’s voice.
“Why yes. I’ve hired a nice young man to come over and . . .” Betty wanted her story to be as shocking as possible. “Entertain me!” As she giggled, she covered the mouthpiece on the phone.
“What! You’ve hired a stripper!” Mary’s voice was much higher and louder than usual.
“Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t.”
“Oh, this beats all!” Mary said to her. Then to her husband, “Dan, my mother has gone crazy. We’ve got to go over there.”
“Mary! Don’t you come over. I’m fine. I was just joking about the man. Oh, my show is starting. I must go! Ta ta!”
She hung up again. The patriotic music had begun and Miss Alabama was introducing herself. The girl spoke with confidence, announcing her platform for keeping the arts in schools. Her shiny hair, perfectly coiffed, caught Betty’s attention. Betty began to write Miss Alabama on her list of possible winners; however, a slightly crooked front tooth offended her, so she crossed off what she had written.
The phone rang again.
“Mary, I’m fine!” Betty announced.
“I don’t know about that. You seem so . . . giddy.”
“What’s wrong with me having a good time. That doesn’t mean I’m crazy. I hope you tell Dan that I’m not really crazy.”
“I will recant my assertion of your insanity if you tell me what you are doing,” Mary demanded.
“Are you my mother now?” Betty said, knowing this would irk her overly concerned daughter.
“Mother, just tell me what you are doing.”
“I’m watching television.”
“You always watch TV. Why is it so important this time?”
“Well, if you must know I’m watching the Miss America pageant. Now will you leave me alone.”
Mary let out a sigh of relief. “Yes, but can we come see you tomorrow?”
“Sure. We’ll have a Sunday brunch, okay?” Betty hoped this would appease the god that was her daughter.
“Sounds good. I’ll bring the food.”
“Okay. Bye now!” Betty hung up before Mary could answer. She had already missed all of the contestants between Alabama and Florida.
Betty felt as if she had ruined the whole night, missing those contestants. However, she was unable to write down anybody in her notebook until Miss Mississippi appeared. Her teeth were white, square, and straight, a definite plus. She also had platinum blonde hair styled smoothly. Betty preferred curly hair to straight, but also understood the styles these days.
She sighed as she penciled in Miss Mississippi, remembering the days when curls were popular. That was a long time ago. She and Bart had met in high school, and he had always loved to finger her curls. He had made her feel pretty, although she knew deep down that would never be true.
Betty noticed another contestant, Miss Pennsylvania, because of her height. Her skin shone under the lights of the camera. It was a milk chocolate color. Miss Pennsylvania’s hair was also very straight. Betty wrote her on the list. She’s only twenty years old, Betty thought, but she seems mature. She’ll hold her own. Betty also appreciated Miss Pennsylvania’s height. Betty’s height had always made her the butt of jokes in school, but Bart had always loved that she was tall. Betty wished that she had been skinny too, but alas, no. Her figure was not curvaceous or slight, it was just horsey. Betty had always been a solid woman, one that would have made the female wrestlers on television tremble in fear. Betty once joked to Bart that she should become a wrestler and make loads of money. Bart had responded that those women were too mean and rough for his delicate wife to associate with. Betty knew he was lying. Well, maybe he wasn’t. In Bart’s reality, I probably was his beautiful, delicate wife, Betty thought. He must’ve been blind! This made her laugh.
The contestants finished their introductions. Betty had been tempted to write Miss Utah on her list, as this was her home state, but the poor girl was nothing compared to the specimen of Miss Pennsylvania.
Maybe next year! This thought cheered Betty even more. I can make this pageant a yearly ritual.
After a few entertaining numbers and the introduction of the judges, all of whom seemed to be extremely snobby and out of touch with reality, the top ten contestants were announced. Betty held her list in her lap, waiting to see how she’d done in her judgments. At the end of the announcements, each one of which resulted in the audience exploding with excitement, Betty discovered that she had only picked out one of the top ten contestants, Miss Pennsylvania.
Hmmm. This is going to take some practice. She felt disappointed, but reassured herself that her guesses had been a good first try. She had never seen a pageant before, and especially had never participated in one, so how could she expect to do any better. Practice makes perfect, she chirped to herself.
During the swimsuit competition, or as Regis announced it, the “physical fitness” portion, Betty began to feel physically ill. She imagined herself stranded in the desert without food or water. These girls are so skinny! How can they live? With each contestant’s entrance, Betty found herself cringing and becoming hungrier and hungrier. Her popcorn disappeared at an alarming rate.
Relief consumed her once the girls were properly clad. However, Miss California’s evening gown was a little low cut. Betty ‘s stomach felt a bit more full than she would’ve liked, but the popcorn was gone now, so she wouldn’t need to worry about eating any more of it.
Regis began to announce the top five contestants. “What! They competed in one lousy swimsuit competition and you can already narrow it down!” Betty shouted at her television. She couldn’t believe how flippant the judges could be about choosing a Miss America.
She almost decided to change the channel or call Mary and ask her to come over, but then Regis explained how the girls had been competing all week and that their scores from preliminary competitions were being factored into tonight’s scores. This made Betty feel better, so she put down the remote control and the phone and watched as a montage of footage from the contestants’ week of fun was played against the most corny song about friendship she’d ever heard.
She eagerly watched, hoping to catch glimpses of her favorite contestant, Miss Pennsylvania, who had made it to the top five and was now Betty’s pick to be the next Miss America.
The evening gown portion came next. Betty enjoyed seeing all of the lovely dresses, but she could not figure out how to judge this sort of a competition. All of the young women were smiling and looked pretty in their dresses. She felt that whoever won this part of the pageant had nothing to be proud of and that it was just an excuse for the “queen” to wear an expensive dress.
“It doesn’t take any skill to walk around looking pretty,” she said aloud. The statement seemed stupid now that she’d said it aloud. She thought about high heels, and how she’d never been able to walk in them. Seeing Miss Washington’s heels, Betty immediately felt dizzy. They must be at least eight inches high! Then, she thought of all the times she’d gone to a church party with Bart, feeling like a bug smashed on the floor, despite her best efforts at makeup and hairstyling.
“Okay, girlies,” she said to the television. “I guess it does take some skill to look good, but there’s more to life than that!”
The clock teetered at 8:59 and Betty felt her eyes grow heavy. She kept them open through the next commercial, expecting a winner to be announced any moment.
Regis let her down, however. This date was not over yet. The talent competition was next. Betty’s eyes widened and she no longer felt as tired. She had no idea that these mannequin-like women also performed talents. The pageant seemed to become more and more complicated, causing Betty to feel more drawn to it and excited about watching. During the swimsuits, she had almost given up on the idea of watching every year, but now it seemed plausible. She’d always enjoyed American Idol, so watching these girls perform would probably be similar.
Miss Pennsylvania did not let Betty down. The beautiful girl played classical piano, and very well as far as Betty could tell. She had enjoyed the performance, but also found Miss California’s singing to be extremely entertaining, despite the shortness of her dress. Betty decided that she did not like Miss California and her loosy-goosy ways. Miss Pennsylvania had been a class act during the entire ordeal. She would have to wait for the on-stage interviews to make up her mind, though.
Regis asked the girls questions, which Betty found to be silly.
“If you could be president, what would you change about our country?”
“Nothing!” Betty shouted. “Our country is perfect!” Betty had always been patriotic, some would say to a fault.
“Your platform is reading to children. Why is this important to you?” Regis asked Miss Pennsylvania.
“Platform? What’s a platform?” Betty asked nobody in particular. Her eyes were glued to the television, willing Miss Pennsylvania to answer well and to just plain answer. Betty’s curiosity had been peaked by the mention of a platform.
“My platform is Improving Literacy Among Our Nation’s Youth. I have always loved to read, so this issue is important to me because I’d like to share that passion with others. However, this issue is most dear to my heart because my own father was illiterate. He never knew how to read and hid this from me and my siblings. He recently died, and that is when I found out his secret. I don’t want any other person to feel so embarrassed by illiteracy that he or she has to hide this from their children. It is a handicap that can be overcome, and I intend to help people overcome it.”
A chime sounded, signaling that Miss Pennsylvania’s time had run out. Betty cocked her head to the side, trying to decide if her favorite contestant had answered well.
Before the commercial break, Regis promised that the winner would be announced when they came back, so Betty rubbed her eyes and stretched. She did not intend to miss the announcement of the winner, especially since she now felt she’d invested so much time in the pageant.
At the stroke of midnight, the clock Betty had long ago hung over the fireplace chimed, waking her suddenly. The television glowed blue, as nothing was programmed to run in the middle of the night on a weekend. She sat up, wondering where she was.
Then she remembered. She’d missed the end of the pageant.
Bio: Emily January Petersen holds a B.A. from Brigham Young University and an M.A. from Weber State University in English. She has worked as an editor but currently teaches English composition courses at Weber State University.