Read an Excerpt
Portrait of Betsy
By Betsy Howard Leland William Howard
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Betsy Howard and Leland William Howard
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe wasn't a dog anyone would have wanted. What most people would have called a loser dog.
But then, I wasn't a person anyone wanted either. And I, too, was a loser in the world's eyes. A ne'er do well named Jamie Fairchild, who, at the age of forty-one, had tried in his luck in many places and invariably had failed. Even my own family didn't want me anymore.
"I always knew he'd never make it," I could hear my sister Diana saying.
And that's why I hadn't.
Because she didn't believe that I could. I accepted her disbelief and made it my own.
I didn't want to disappoint her, after all. I loved her. To not fail would have meant the destruction of my sister, and I didn't want to destroy her.
It was hot that night. But New Orleans in mid-July is like a steam bath. I wasn't much cleaner than the dog. We were both pretty scruffy looking. I was hot and dirty, leading the way for a dog just as hot and dirty.
Behind the A & P there was a little playground, rather run-down, with a slide and jungle gym. I seldom saw children playing there. Alongside the fence enclosing the playground was a couple of garbage pails. One of them was overturned.
It was at this moment when I learned my first major lessons about the care of ex-street dogs: watch for overturned garbage bins.
The dog made a bee-line for something, lying not far from the pail, fast a lightening. I heard the sound of bone upon bone resonate through the deepening dark and it was coming from where the dog lay down on her belly, stationary. She had a chicken bone in her mouth and appeared in no mood to part with it. I didn't know at the time how deadly chicken bones could be to a dog, particularly if they become splintered. But I had to get it out of her mouth. I may as well have tried to extricate a nail embedded in hardened cement.
I then learned my second major lesson about caring for an ex-street dog. When such a dog finds a bone, all else ceases to exist. Love, fidelity, obedience goes out the window.
"I have found this bone, and for this reason, the bone is mine. And it will be mine until I have chewed it to bits and sent it to my belly, where it will still be mine. Anyone who dares to take this bone from me will do so at his or her own peril."
I dared, but the moment I tried to remove the bone from her mouth, her jaw locked down even harder than before, and a fierce and stubborn determination blazed from her big black eyes.
Then, I did something that I shouldn't have done. I pried her mouth open, and just as I was beginning to withdraw the bone from her teeth, she bit down in a last-ditch effort to retrieve the coveted treasure. She probably thought that she still had the treasure, not realizing that the treasure was my finger.
It didn't hurt, probably because I was so happy that I had dislodged the bone. I had only known this dog for, at most, a half an hour. But I felt as if I had been with her forever.
Our first meeting in front of the A & P had been more of a reunion than a first meeting. And why was it that, spotting her during my periodic visits to the store during the preceding two weeks, I had felt such an especial concern for her? Why was she there? Did she belong to anyone?
But what was even more amazing was that, during the afternoon of that very same day, as I was taking my fifteen-minute break in the kitchen of the food company, I went into a reverie: I was sitting on a beach up in Cape Cod, a factor even more interesting in that I had never been there or had even consciously dreamed of being there. I was feeling very lonely and dejected as I sat there on the beach. I had no friends, no real family, and every hope and dream I had lay in utter ruins. All of a sudden, a black dog came running up to me and seeing how sorrowful I was, began to lick away my tears, the tears that coursed down my cheeks not only in the dream but in the kitchen. As she licked away my tears, I felt a sense of inner peace.
Once I had retrieved the bone from her mouth, I picked her up in my arms and decided to carry her for the remainder of the way, lest the same episode be repeated.
She didn't struggle in my arms. I needed no further proof that she preferred the independence of the streets to domesticity. On top of that, her mouth was wide open, though she wasn't panting, the upper palate of her long black snout rising and falling ever so slightly, as if she were laughing. I never saw a happier face. She had found a home. Love had found safe harbor.
As I carried the dog up Toledano Street, the shadows of evening had already closed in. The only sounds were my footsteps and the steady, monotonous chirrup of crickets.
Forty-one and I had come to this. Every dream I had once had of being a great actor or writer had come to naught. I was still working in subservient positions, earning just enough to keep myself alive, but nothing more. My mother was dying of cancer and didn't show me any sign that she wanted me in Forrest Abbey to be near her during her final days.
"I think you'd be much better off in New Orleans," she had said.
She was thinking of Diana, of course, and the inevitable eruption of quarrels that would result between the two of us if I remained there.
I couldn't blame her. Who would want their final days on earth marred by continual quarrels?
She may also have known that Diana didn't want me there. That had been policy with Diana ever since I returned there in 1973.
If love had overcome any fear of violating house rules, it hadn't overcome my fear of Mr. Boudreau, the old ex-Korean war veteran and Cajun who was the apartment house manager.
Boudreau was from the swamp lands of Louisiana and, if military service had broadened his emotional and intellectual horizons to any extent, it was in no way evident in his attitudes and behavior.
He was a little man, not only in stature but in mind and spirit. If any expression had been stamped upon his old and weather-worn and wrinkled countenance, it was that of anger and bitterness. His eyes were mean.
Not only did he have a hair-trigger temper that could be ignited at the most trivial provocation, he frequently boasted to his tenants that he kept a loaded revolver in his apartment. Not only was this boast calculated to keep the tenants in line and as a warning to the tenants not to cross him in any way, it also betrayed his inveterate paranoia, his own feelings of impotence, but more importantly, his own fears.
He trusted no one.
As far as I could learn, he had never been married, and it wasn't surprising that he never had. For one thing, it is doubtful that any woman would have found him appealing, physically, sexually, or emotionally. But more importantly, he was a hardened and cynical man who had viewed with much cynicism the changes that had occurred in this country since the 1960s.
My dear friend Bruce had told me that, during the Mardi Gras festivities that year, he had stood on the top steps of the apartment building's entrance stairs and had, in the manner of Cotton Mather delivering his fiery sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, berated several young women for their scanty and revealing attire.
"Git some clothes on!" he had thundered at them. "You look like a bunch of whores!"
Fortunately, at least for him, none of these young women's boyfriends decked him. As Bruce observed, "He should watch what he says to other people."
But Boudreau was a child of the swamp lands, incautious, precipitate, and paranoid. Had he been back in Cajun country, he doubtless would have been the first to take down his shotgun at the approach of a strange vehicle, particularly if said vehicle had New York State license plates on it.
But I think the main reason Boudreau had never married was that he loved no one, not even himself.
As I approached the front of the apartment building with this bundle of love in my arms, I saw Boudreau seated like some old gnome on its front steps, smoking a cigarette. I knew in my heart that he'd never let me cross the threshold with this dog.
I debated turning around, retracing my steps, and then returning when he had quit his post of sentry. But never having been one who liked to practice deceit of any kind, I decided to see if somewhere in that hardened and cynical heart of his there might be some soft spot that would grant the bending of the rules.
But I was mistaken.
Coming up to the front steps, I asked him, as courteously as I could, if some special dispensation could be granted me where the dog was concerned.
"The lease says No Pets," he was adamant.
My hopes were dashed. But more importantly, so were the dog's.
If I were to return her to the grocery store parking lot, her days would surely be numbered. It would only be a matter of time before she would either be run over by a car or taken off to the ASPCA. And looking the way she did, no one would have adopted her, which, in turn would only spell one fate: euthanasia.
But, to a landlord, carpeting is of far more value than life, and principally because carpeting means money.
Money: the most important thing to my family, more than love, loyalty, and compassion. In our family money was the measure of a person's worth. If one had it, one was someone. If one didn't, one was nothing.
Every time I went back to Forrest Abbey for the Christmas holidays, I bore with me my home- made Christmas cards and presents of poems or pictures I had drawn, but the merits of these creations, even if appreciated, never elicited from my mother and sisters those ecstatic paroxysms of joy and gratitude as did the fancy store-bought items they gave one another and me. They never even hung up the still-life pictures that I had drawn despite the fact that an artist friend said that they revealed much talent but shut them up in some drawer or other, and quite possibly, for the same reason they would suffer my near presence only during the Christmas holidays. As long as I remained at a considerable geographic distance from them, they could banish not only me, but the guilt of how they had dealt with me, from their consciousness. My mother, an accomplished painter herself, immediately examined each picture with the view to finding some flaw, any slip of the colored pencil with which to discredit the entire work.
There always had to be something wrong, either with me or with my work. Nothing I ever did appeared to please them.
And pleasing them was what they invariably demanded of me.
"When you come to see us," Diana said to me. "You are here to please us."
I didn't argue with her. I had learned, through painful and bitter experience, not to. To argue would have meant a quarrel that would escalate to such proportions that my mother, eventually taking sides with Diana, would begin to move against me as well, and leaving me, in the end, to have to leave the apartment complex for a long walk or to an all-night breakfast at the Toddle House.
Fear of a quarrel had finally conditioned me into complete submission to my sister. And this fear followed me, throughout the years, wherever I had gone, whether it was New York, New Orleans, or Paris, informing and infecting every relationship I had with supervisors, co-workers, friends, and even lovers.
My fear of Diana had rendered me completely incapable of speaking my mind and standing up for myself. For, in my mind, to do such things meant only one thing: punishment.
"I'd like a dog too," Boudreau said.
It was only too clear what he meant. If he couldn't have something that he wanted, then why should I? If he couldn't be happy, then why should I?
For twenty-one years I had attracted such people into my life, people bitter, disillusioned, cynical, all feeling that Life had cheated them in some way. People who had failed to realize the dreams of their youth. People who had failed to find fulfillment in love relationships. The main reason why I attracted such people was that I was deathly afraid of Diana. From the time I awoke or was awakened from sleep one night as a little boy, to find her standing over my bed, both her hand curled to the configuration of a tiger's claws, and her mouth opened to resemble the growl of some predatory animal, my sister, by even the slightest remark or suggestion, was able to strike terror into my soul.
Diana knew what my deepest fears were, and, throughout the years, she had played upon these fears with all the practiced expertise of a concert pianist.
If there is any foe of faith, fear is its most formidable. Fear weakens resolve and determination. Fear shatters confidence. Fear, if indulged, breeds even greater fears that, in time, can completely paralyze a person.
For many years, most of the decisions I had made were based entirely on fears. Fearing that I might be a homosexual, I submitted myself to a form of psychotherapy that ultimately led to a nervous breakdown. Fearing that I might lose my immortal soul, I left New York City. I left Forrest Abbey because I was afraid that I would go insane. I left Oxford, Tennessee because I was afraid that I would die. I left Paris, France because I was afraid that would run out of money or that Madame Bonaparte would have me deported or that I would meet with some "unfortunate accident."
What I failed to realize, however, was that if others had the power to intimidate me, it was because I had given them that power. And I gave away this power because I was afraid of going against my sister. The result of these fear-based decisions was that I had ended up exactly as Diana had wanted me: alone, isolated, trapped, and utterly impotent, both in my own work and in my interpersonal dealings with other people.
I wanted the dog, and the dog clearly wanted me. But our respective desires didn't stand a chance in the face of this old, bitter, trigger-happy Cajun whom the building owner found useful as a watchdog.
"What will happen to the dog?" I asked Boudreau.
"The ASPCA will probably get it," he said. "They'll know what to do."
He didn't have to explain.
I knew that it would be of no use in arguing with him. Just as I knew it would have been of no use for a Jew in Nazi Germany to refuse to wear the Star of David.
"Just take her back to where you found her," he said.
The voice of authority had spoken. And even if it was that of a bigoted, self-hating, and trigger- happy man, I had no choice but to obey.
But it had always been this way.
At twenty-two I had stretched my newly-sprouted fledgling wings for flight into the heavens. But my sister and her minions, sensing the promise of a glorious future for me, barged in and clipped those wings. And when they had made absolutely certain that I would never fly again, clapped me into a series of cages called drudge jobs, where the fires of enthusiasm and creative energies of youth were siphoned off in the service of employers who, sensing my low sense of self-esteem, timidity, and eagerness to win the approval of my own family had withheld from me, exploited those failings to get the most out of me.
"You're always going to be under someone," Mrs. Eastham, my boss at the Martha Bilbo Museum had once said to me.
Not if I can help it, I thought. The only being under whom I wanted to be under was a loving, forgiving, and merciful God.
But the people under whom I had worked were far from loving, forgiving, and merciful. They were carbon copies of my own family members. Loud, booming, money-minded men like my father. Domineering, loud-mouthed women like Diana. Mild-mannered secretaries who were as afraid of their supervisor as my mother and sister Jennifer were afraid of Diana. The pattern unfailingly repeated itself. And I, of course, was forced to resume the role I had played in my own family - that of the quiet, shy, withdrawn little boy with whom the other family members continually found fault and teased, ragged, intimidated, and humiliated.
Years went by, and I grew older, but nothing had changed. I was still a little boy, in a grown man's body.
Now I was in exactly the kind of situation that my fear of Diana wanted me in - as a sales discount clerk in a food company. Its president, Jerry, was just as my own father had been - pragmatic, money-minded, and had a special affection for Maggie, my immediate supervisor who, though fourteen years my junior, talked down to me as if I were a child of six, and Jerry, as had my own father, let her do it. Then, there was the secretary, Tabatha, Maggie's girlhood buddy. Like my sister, Jennifer, she both loved and feared Maggie, just as Jennifer had loved and feared Diana. Together, they ragged and teased me whenever they could. If Diana could have been there to watch them, she would have danced the same jig of joy that Hitler did when he viewed, through a telescopic lens, the ruins of Warsaw.
Excerpted from Portrait of Betsy by Betsy Howard Leland William Howard Copyright © 2011 by Betsy Howard and Leland William Howard. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.