Scott BakulaJohn Milas
Betty switched off the old RCA television during the CBS Tuesday night promo reel and then watched Clifford’s reflection in the blank screen. Her husband glanced up from his seat in the dining room and then returned to his important business. These were their typical interactions after dinner. Betty would sit in her recliner with a show on in the background and fill out daily crossword puzzles while Clifford built models. He had spent the past ten years of their retirement together building models, sitting silently at the dining room table behind her, gluing together tiny boats and airplanes, their wet paint dripping onto her old newspapers.
He was painting a model of the Scharnhorst, a great big ship that sank during a great big battle a hundred years ago. At least that’s what Betty remembered from Clifford’s explanation. When he first brought the model home she had nicknamed it the USS Charlie Horse, which made her laugh, but Clifford grimaced and explained that the ship wasn’t American, so the prefix “USS” made no sense. He told her the little battle ship was one-seventy-second scale, meaning the wreck lying upside down a thousand feet underwater was seventy-two times larger than the model in his hands. Betty imagined all the little sailors like mites marching around on the plastic deck, seventy-two times smaller than grown men.
She folded up the newspaper on her lap and waited for Clifford to say something, anything, but he let the awkward silence persist. She didn’t know what to do with him. These Wednesday nights were especially boring and played-out. First the late service at church, then eating whatever she made for supper, then sitting with Clifford and ignoring whatever was on TV for a couple hours before turning in. Tomorrow would be about the same, but Betty felt like having a conversation with her husband, visiting at least, speaking. She pondered what they might talk about, and then what they would never talk about.
“If you could let anyone have their way with you, who would it be?” she asked. Clifford cleared his throat and asked what she had just said.
“I know you can hear me,” said Betty. “The TV’s off.”
“And will you turn it back on, please?”
“How about you put your boat down for two minutes. Let’s not be boring for once.”
Clifford sighed at her. He was always sighing like characters in the mystery novels she used to take out of the library, before holding a book made her fingers sore, like opening a medicine bottle or folding laundry or doing ponies in her granddaughter’s hair.
“Please ask me something else,” Clifford said, and then, “Can’t you just turn the TV on?”
Why was this so hard for him? Men were always looking around, even men like Clifford. He had claimed to Betty that she was his first on their wedding night, but that didn’t mean he no longer had eyes on the front of his head. After Betty waited a while, Clifford slouched in his chair and finally said Elizabeth Taylor, and after some hesitation Ann-Margret part of the time. Betty scoffed at him.
“Obviously,” she said. “But I mean nowadays, not back when you were diddling yourself at thirteen.”
“Good Lord,” said Clifford, “Is this about something I said this week?” But Betty sat without turning to face him. For someone who spent his retirement building and painting things, Clifford sure wasn’t very creative. Any man his age would have said Elizabeth Taylor and Ann-Margret part of the time. What was that supposed to mean?
“Just tell me,” Betty said. She watched Clifford scrunch his face in the TV screen and set the Scharnhorst down on the newspapers.
“At this point,” said Betty, “I just want to hear if you can answer a simple question.”
“Fine,” he said and thought about it. “How about the girl from that street racing picture you had on the other day.”
“That doesn’t help,” said Betty. She turned in her chair to look at Clifford directly, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes, looking down at the table instead. She knew he was worked up. His whole head had turned red.
“I don’t know,” Clifford said. “One of those newer ones, with that bald guy from Saving Private Ryan.”
“No, that doesn’t mean a thing to me,” said Betty.
“There’s more than one of them,” Clifford said. “It’s the sequel I’m talking about.” Betty considered the last time she’d seen a racing film since watching Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo with her grandchildren. She didn’t remember.
“Who’s the bald guy?” Betty asked.
“I don’t know exactly. He has a short name,” Clifford said. “Van.” He snapped his fingers. “Vin Diesel. That’s him.”
“I have no idea who that is,” said Betty.
“It’s that Fast and Furious deal,” Clifford said. “I remember. The second one. Part two.” Then she remembered something from TV with close-ups of women’s bottoms and quivering car-engines and quite a bit of money and guns and drugs. She’d forgotten the actors.
“But you don’t know this girl’s name.”
“You’re putting me on the spot,” Clifford said.
“Oh, please,” said Betty as she waved her hand at him. “How can I put you on the spot in your own house?” She faced the TV again, the family portraits and vacation landscapes in the lamplight framed on yellowish paisley wallpaper. “If you can’t remember her name you can at least tell me what you’d let her do to you.”
Clifford clasped both hands to his face. “What the hell has gotten into you?” he said.
“Come on. This would be easy for a lot of men,” said Betty. She wanted to remind Clifford of how often it had been easy for him to at least call her pretty when they started going steady, but then she realized these moments didn’t exist anywhere in her memory .
“I don’t see what’s so important about it,” he said.
“What’s the harm in telling me?” asked Betty. “I’m not looking for reasons to leave you.”
“Longer marriages have ended over less.”
“Oh really,” said Betty. “What marriages?”
“I give up,” Clifford said. “Eva Mendez. And Michelle Rodriguez in the same one. And Salma Hayek, alright? I’d let them tie me up and do anything. Whatever they wanted. Is that good enough?” Betty watched Clifford in the TV screen. Eva Mendez, Michelle Rodriguez, Salma Hayek. She knew them. There seemed to be a common denominator though, which she did not fit.
“There appears to be a common denominator here,” she said, but Clifford ignored her. He’d gone back to work on the USS Charlie Horse, poking at the model with his little paintbrush, painting patches of rust and oil streaks seventy-two times smaller than real grime to give the ship its dirty and used look.
Betty switched on CBS and sat through the promo for their Tuesday night lineup again. Clifford spoke up during the spot for NCIS: New Orleans.
“Hold on a second,” he said. “Now it’s your turn.” She picked an actor from one of the commercials and said his name in her head over and over again, ready to speak it aloud for Clifford, but the true answer sat at the tip of her tongue. That younger man from next door, jogging through the neighborhood, grilling in his backyard on Sundays. He wore pink polo shirts and took his kids to school in a Ford Windstar. Betty sat for a moment and then turned up the TV volume. She knew better than to tell one man what she would let another man do to her.
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