July 28, 2016
She climbs out of her car, portable oxygen tank in her left hand and tubes up her nose. Her white hair is tightly rolled into blue, pink and yellow curlers. Her face is a road map of deep wrinkles. She walks heavily toward the fruit and vegetable stand, her steps wooden and deliberate, as though she were on stilts.
She orders cantaloupe, tomatoes, green beans, and a half peck of peaches, all of which I offer to carry to her car. She puts the portable oxygen machine, which looks like a small black briefcase, on the counter.
“This is Betsy,” the old woman says. “My doctor named it that.”
I tell her I have a guitar named Betsy, and she opines as to how the girl Betsy must have been special.
I sing: “Wednesday night at Cedar Lake, I fell in love with you/You were lying on the beach at sunset, watching for the moon/And I put my arms around you, babe/Betsy you know I love you/Betsy you know I care.”
“Oh my,” the lady says, walking beside me to her car. “Well, my Betsy is tethered to me for life, which won’t last much longer. I had a cardiac arrest on a plane from Phoenix to St. Louis a year ago. First a veterinarian come to my aid, then a nurse, and finally two doctors run up and helped me. We was in the air so long, I had permanent damage.”
I load her things into the back seat of the hot car. I want to adopt her. Wanting to adopt people is a daily occurrence for me. Had I adopted all the needy kids I met in theatre residencies over the year, I’d have needed a block of houses in which to shelter them.
“You are a kind young man.”
She pats my hands, closes the car door and drives off. Purple hairstreak butterflies sail down to her tire tracks and flap their wings with a coating of dust.
Betsy and I fell in love in Minneapolis. I saw her standing in a fountain, her hippie dress pulled up around her waist, sheer pink bikini underpants, a yellow headband holding back her long, lustrous hair. She had heard me sing at a local coffeehouse, she invited me into the fountain. We would have an on again, off again affair for several years, Minneapolis to Chicago every weekend. I hitchhiked half of those long commutes. We would get engaged then unengaged. Her mother hated me.
Betsy was a potter, a good one. To this day, I have three pieces of hers, beautiful cups. I watched her make a vase, once. She was sitting at her potter’s wheel, naked. She set the piece aside, slathered wet clay all over herself and pressed her soft body into mine. We were so dirty.
She disappeared, turning up months later in a cabin in northern Minnesota. She sent me a letter: “I love you but I can’t love you.”
And that is how I feel now: I love me, but I can’t love me.
I turn back to the fruit and vegetable stand, ready to help the next customer.