Who’s good or bad depends on your point of view. Bully, for instance. A man with massive shoulders, muscular arms, a beer belly, smile wrinkles at the corners of his blue eyes, a big moustache, and a deep but soft voice. He got that nickname because of his close resemblance to President Theodore Roosevelt. Both were cut more or less from the same bolt. Men who weren’t afraid to act, who were comfortable in their own skins.
Picture Bully sitting on his couch, three telephones arranged before him on the coffee table. His white poodle, Max, is snuggled beside him as he takes bets, sips from a shot glass of Seagram’s 7. He keeps his eye on three television sets tuned to the games. He never writes anything down, he doesn’t need to. It isn’t because he’s afraid of leaving evidence, because every six months or so the cops come by the house for their cut. It’s like the numbers during The Depression.
To Betty, Bully is the greatest. But to Betty’s ex-husband, Mike, Bully is scum of the earth. His words. Mike had been married to Betty for five, six years. Betty would say Mike is the opposite of Bully. Bully is a powerful man and Mike is a skinny runt. She’d tell you that Bully is kind. On the other hand, Mike is moody, touchy, demanding, impatient, quick to raise his hand to women, or to threaten violence with his blazing black eyes.
Bully sips his whiskey, and one drink lasts a long time.
Mike, once he begins, cannot stop until he slurs, staggers, vomits, pisses himself and passes out. That’s why Betty left Mike, and married Bully. And she and Bully have been together ever since.
Looking back, Betty might have handled her ex’s boozing, but she sure as hell would not tolerate his cheating. While Betty was sitting with her dying mother at hospital, Mike brought a barmaid into their house. While she watched her mother die, Mike was screwing this woman—in Betty’s own bed. When she got home she found the stained sheets, the hairpins. Mike didn’t even try to hide it. He just got angry and threatened to beat her up if she didn’t watch her mouth.
Despite what he did Mike could not believe that Betty walked out on him. It was the most devastating thing he ever experienced. No, that’s not quite true. He was there when his father fell down a flight of stairs and died of a heart attack on the landing. His brother, John, died screaming in an insane asylum. Then his other brother, Stanley, died of a bowel obstruction. One funeral after another, a succession of betrayals and abandonment. And now this. The woman he really and truly and deeply loved turned her back on him
Picture Mike at the bar at the Irish League of American Veterans. He hunches over his glass. He draws deep on his Camel, blows the smoke out in a poignant sigh. The woman sitting next to him is drawn to the pain she sees in his dark, moody eyes.
“So you’ve been through a lot, huh Mike?” she says.
“Yeah,” he says, punching out the cigarette. “A lot.”
That wounded-little-boy routine is what always gets some women. The fixer-uppers of the world. Sweet souls who go out of their way to help guys like Mike, no matter how bad it gets.
“I don’t know why I even think about it,” Mike says squinting.
He squints when he’s saying something that he thinks is profound. Like it’ll seem less profound if he says it with his eyes wide open.
“She’s just a whore, that’s all,” he finally says, and then sighs again. He’s got the sigh down perfect. Not too much, not too little. Just right. Just a whore, he repeats to himself. Betty has to be a whore because she left him, and then hooked up with a small-time bookie. Bully. What a dumb name.
“Hey, Marty! How about another round here?” He turns. “And bring toots another one too. Whattaya say? Huh?”
But all that was years ago. Ancient history.
Betty doesn’t think of those days very often.
Mike? Well, whenever he gets a chance he lets people know what a bitch his ex-wife is, and what a scumbag she now is married to. Bully. A low-life. A worthless piece of shit.
* * *
Betty walks into the kitchen. Stops. Looks around. Jesus. She came in here to do something, but it just slipped her mind. What was it she needed to do? It was something. Right! Take a few lobsters out of the freezer. Bully had brought a big box of them, two, three dozen, frozen solid. He liked to dip big chunks of sweet lobster tail in melted butter, hell yes. So did she. Bully was like that; he always got the best and in great quantity. Those lobster tails cost, what? A lot. Bully liked corn on the cob, with more melted butter and a generous sprinkling of salt, to go with the lobster. Then he might as well have a medium rare fillet mignon, too. Surf & Turf, that’s what they call it.
That big lunk!
“Hey!” Betty shouts later that afternoon. “Make yourself useful, and go to the store, you bum! We need some milk. Get some soda while you’re at it.”
Bully grins. Gets up, finds his keys. Max follows him, yipping, breathing fast, but then goes back to the couch when he knows he’s not going for a ride this time.
Bully climbs into his brand new caddy, slowly eases out of the driveway of the house, and heads for Wegman’s. He does not go over 30 miles an hour, even though some jerk is tailgating, tapping his horn to make sure Bully knows that he’s obstructing traffic flow. But 30 miles an hour is all Bully will go. Not because he’s afraid of getting a speeding ticket, hell no. Because all the cops know him, and even if he sped they wouldn’t pull him over anyway. Bully just likes to drive that big white shiny car slow. That’s just the way he is.
Bully gets back from the store. He puts the bag on the kitchen table.
“Where the hell have you been?” Betty asks.
“Where do you think?”
“I looked all over for you.”
“Hey, you sent me to the store, remember?”
Betty looks at the stuff he’s getting out of the bag. Milk, a six-pack of diet Coke. A smoked ham he happened to see in the gourmet section. Plus a round tin of Russian caviar.
“Hey, Betty,” Bully says, picking up the tin. “Look at this. You have any idea of what this stuff costs?”
“Supper will be ready in an hour,” Betty says. “Don’t get lost.”
* * *
A month later one of Betty’s friends calls, just to shoot the breeze. Betty wants to tell her about that TV show she saw last night. “Christ, I laughed myself silly,” Betty said. “That host, what’s-his-name, he’s a riot.”
“No, not him. The other one.”
“No, you know who I’m talking about. That tall and skinny Irish guy.”
“Yeah! That’s him! Anyway he does a skit with his sidekick, that pudgy little guy. Shit. I can’t remember his name, but you know the one.”
“Anyway it was a silly thing where they shine a flashlight under their chins and they pretend to predict the future, and then this guy in the band sings in a high-pitched girly voice: ‘The Year 2000.’”
“Well, you had to see it, you know?” Betty said.
* * *
Bully notices something. The older you get, the faster time goes by. And not only that, you think you’ve seen it all, but some things you don’t see coming. Well, maybe you see it coming but you kind of put it out of your mind, figuring maybe you’re wrong, because after all who can really know what’s ahead?
Anyway, it was time for Betty to get a checkup.
He figured there’d be some sort of pill she could take. Something simple, that’s usually the way these things go. You worry and you worry, then you find out that it was nothing. Then you look back at how screwed up you got, and you laugh. Jeeez. I really thought she was in deep shit.
“Onset of dementia,” the doctor said. And so on. Medical gobbledy-gook.
“So how long does she got?” Bully said.
“That’s hard to say. The progression is highly individual. But it’s not treatable, and inevitably you’ll have to put her where she can be cared for under medical supervision.”
“Like an old folks home?”
“Yes. In the advanced stage of the disease, she’ll lose her ability to speak, and also she’ll lose control of bodily functions. Eventually, I’m sorry to say, she won’t recognize anyone, not even you.”
“I’m not putting her into a nursing home.”
* * *
Betty and Bully, and Max the dog. They all settle into a daily routine.
Bully gets Betty out of bed in the morning, eases her into the bathtub, and soaps her down. He dries her off with a big white towel, and then manages to get the diaper positioned so he can fasten the plastic tabs. Okay, now for the clean cotton housedress, which he slips over her head, and pulls down over her bony body.
Betty wants to drink the Johnson Baby Oil, so he takes the slippery plastic bottle out of her hand. He fastens slippers on her feet. Guides her down the stairs to the kitchen. He spoons oatmeal into her mouth, some of which dribbles down her chin and onto the napkin he’d tied around her neck. She swallows, he gives her another spoon.
“OK, Betty. Just a few more and you’re done.”
She shoves the spoon away.
“Come on, Betty. Be a good girl”
Bully puts her in front of the TV, and finds Jerry Springer. Then he takes the shit-covered sheets down to the basement laundry room. He carefully shakes the sheets out in the sink, rinses, and then puts them in the washer. In the dryer is a fresh batch, which he takes back up to the bedroom. He wipes down the mattress’s plastic cover, and then spreads out the clean, fresh sheets. He runs back downstairs to make sure Betty hasn’t wandered off or swallowed her tongue.
Max yips. Max is hungry. Bully opens up a can of Alpo super premium, gourmet, top of the line. Nothing but the best for that dog. Ding! The spin cycle is over; so now it’s time to go to the basement, put those sheets into the dryer.
* * *
Eight months later Bully knew he needed some help, so he called his sister. She told him she’d be happy to do what she could. But it was very clear that now was the time to put Betty into a nursing home. But Bully said no, he wasn’t going to put her away, and he didn’t trust these rent-a-nurses. He’d seen a hidden camera documentary on TV that showed one of those women slapping an old guy around. “No way I’ll let that happen,” he said.
She told him, “Okay, if that’s what you want to do. But one of these days, Bully, you gotta understand you can do only so much.”
She didn’t tell him that when she first came over she was shocked. She hadn’t seen him in a while, and now he looked like hell, honest to God. He’d lost a lot of weight, too much weight. Like he turned into an old man overnight, and he was only what? Sixty-two. Well, he’d been under a hell of a lot of stress, nonstop. She was worried about him. He really ought to see a doctor, you know? But Bully said he didn’t have the time.
* * *
At Betty’s burial Father Clandillon read St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. About the real nature of love. Love being patient, love being kind. As he spoke the priest looked right at Bully. There was no doubt who that priest was talking about.
Two months later, Bully died. Massive heart failure.