Slow Betty

Jason Shults

Betty swept the streets around ten each morning because of the community service sentence. She was sixty-seven years old and lived in a big old house just off Main. She kept bees in her backyard and grew marijuana in a dozen bright ceramic pots on her front porch. It was a regular jungle up there. Some thought the fact she grew it on the front porch was a sign of defiance, but those who knew her knew she wasn’t so much a rebel as a fatalist, who chose to keep her secrets on public view, since — in her experience, at least — they always ended up there anyway. The sheriff came by once every couple months to round her up.

Betty didn’t mind the community service. Sweeping left her mind free to roam. She kept one eye on the street, spying whatever came within the purview of her broom. She would often find things of interest. There were the normal things, of course, like Cheetos bags and candy wrappers, and more used condoms than you’d think a town could possibly expend, but also there were nice things too, things that stoked imagination. Once she found a note that said only, “I called you, what happened?” which set Betty on a fanciful swoon that lasted her the whole day. And once she found a medical bill from the abortion clinic over in Clarkton that, clear as day, had Sylvia Bunton’s name on it. Sylvia Bunton was the ugliest woman in town, both in looks and personality, and who in holy hell would get that woman pregnant was a mystery for the ages, Betty thought.

Today she’d found a wedding ring. It was a man’s ring, square and heavy and gold with a nest of diamonds on top. She pictured the man who’d lost it. He’d be heavyset and swarthy, tallish and a little mean-looking, someone who thought himself a pussycat at heart but wasn’t, since the heart he had couldn’t understand what love was or the responsibilities that came with it. She’d swept this same stretch only yesterday, and so the ring was new, tossed off within the past day, and she wondered if the man who tossed it belonged to the town, or was just some passerby who’d driven a week or more in a stupor, on the run from some injustice: marital, perceived, maybe real. She wondered if he’d happened upon the town as he was driving, happened upon Jimson’s Bar, happened to drink himself to a state of resolution, so that when he’d left the bar near two a.m. and walked back toward his car, probably right this way, he fiddled with the ring without thinking of it, had been fiddling with it all night, slipped it right that moment from his finger, felt the weight of it in his hand, too heavy to carry another step, and let it drop to the ground among the gutter-bound leaves where it now lay.

He’d be asleep, still, in his car. She could go find him. She could tell him that he’s better off, that his wife was better off, that people are a selfish lot, and it’s good he found that out. She might go do that, or she might not, but she wouldn’t give the ring back. She’d sell it at the pawn shop in Clarkton and buy a few new starters with the proceeds.

JASON SHULTS’s stories have appeared or are scheduled to appear in The Adirondack Review and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, among others. He has also been published in several anthologies.

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