By Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
May 16, 2020
Las Vegas. The name conjures visions of neon, sounds of one-armed bandits, the rainbow of stacked chips. No one notices the ramshackle houses and boring people who set alarms, brush their teeth, and go to work serving all-day breakfast to all-day drunks. The woman sitting in the darkest corner of the diner sucking the life out of a Pall Mall knew what it was like to epitomize plainness in a town that thrived on glitter and glam. Sometimes she thought she was invisible.
She believed her life had gone wrong because her mother named her Bertha. She remembered how nasty-boys called her “Bertha Butt” and rubbed up against her in the halls, growling “Bertha Baby Bump My Boner.” She envied cheerleaders whose names held the secret of blondeness and sensuality. She remembered the summer at her aunt’s in Oklahoma City—she told everyone her name was Mary Ann, like the girl from Gilligan’s Island. It seemed everyone was kinder to her. It seemed she laughed easier and told better jokes. Her facade collapsed the day her aunt called to her across the street.
“Bertha, will you be home for dinner?”
Bertha tried to pretend the woman in a faded housedress with pink foam curlers in her hair was calling someone else, but her aunt strode across the street yelling “Have you gone deef, Bertha?”
The girls she thought were friends laughed cruelly. As they walked away, Sally told Misty and the others that if Bertha lied about her name, she probably lied about everything else. The last ten days of that summer were spent in her room. She cried as her eight track played “Alone Again, Naturally” and “At Seventeen.” A hollow ache welled up in her gut and Bertha stumbled to the pea-green bathroom to throw up. Shame always made her throw up as if she could flush her self-loathing down the toilet.
The shame Bertha felt that summer never went away. In high school she was pretty but no one mentioned it. Bertha got straight A’s but none of her schoolmates appreciated that, either. The few times boys asked her on dates, they took her straight out to the lake, expecting Bertha to put out. She usually did, faking orgasms on Naugahyde bucket seats, finding cold comfort in the thought that her body was desirable. Her dates never took her where someone from their school might see them—no drive-in movies, no dances. The sucking vacuum surrounding her heart repulsed everyone. In her senior year, she learned to drink and drug with the heads, found the place she belonged. Getting wasted was the primary purpose of life among Bertha’s circle. No one noticed her darkness and her need. Sometimes even Bertha didn’t notice any more.
Bertha met Sam during a wild party that lasted for days until the coke ran out. Sam drank some, but didn’t get stoned or coked up, so Bertha wasn’t really interested. But Sam called and called until at last she agreed to go out with him. The night of their first date they ran off to Vegas to get hitched in atacky marriage bungalow next toa potholed highway. They never went back home.
Bertha didn’t sober up and realize what she’d done until three months later. At the same moment, she realized Sam was gone more often than he was home. She went straight to the bathroom and threw up. She took a three-hour bath and scrubbed with a loofah until her skin was red and sore. She washed her hair three times and brushed and flossed three times. She put on her makeup and the dress Sam liked best.
When Sam rolled in at 4:00 a.m., drunk and smelling of cheap perfume, Bertha was sitting on the couch, waiting for him. Her sultry pose excited him and they made vicious love right there on the couch until he passed out. Bertha was sure she’d won him back. In the following weeks, Bertha wore party dresses every day and Sam started coming home earlier.
A month later to the day, Sam didn’t come home at all. While Bertha waited for him on their second-hand love seat, she began to hear things. Mocking laughter from the refrigerator. The creak of Sam’s dress shoes in the closet. Bertha covered her ears and cried out in a frenzy for the sounds to stop. Finally, she made herself a stiff gin and tonic and slipped into oblivion after the sixth one.
That weekend, Bertha asked Sam to take her out partying. He was surprised but also pleased the old Bertha was back. Bertha hovered around the edges of the party and tried to look like she was having fun. It was unnerving to see how many women wrapped themselves around Sam, calling him Sammy and sharing stories she wasn’t privy to. The worst of it was their names. They had names just like those city-summer girls.
Bertha kept up with Sam for two weeks before surrendering to exhaustion. She was tired of faking pleasure. She was tired of being shunned. She was angry most the time, morose the rest. The few times he came home, Sam sneaked in before noon while Bertha was still sleeping off the previous night’s gin and Xanax. He grabbed a couple changes of clothes and dropped the dirty ones on the washing machine. He snooped around for loose money and booze. He left notes: “I was here . . . Sam,” and closed the door behind him, softly—he didn’t want to wake her. He didn’t want to hear her bitch about his absences.
In the hours Bertha was awake, she obsessed about her marriage. It was an empty bag; a game of craps gone bust. She hated the young women Sam slept with. She spent her days imagining their names. Rita, maybe, or Saundra, or maybe one of those slutty names women like Bertha spit out between their teeth. Names like Candi and Cheri and Bambi. Names that end with an “i” dotted by a heart. By Labor Day, the names became her chant of anger, her litany of loneliness.
The last time Sam and Bertha went out together, they invited everyone in the bar to a Labor Day party. The morning of the party, Bertha put on her best dress, applied her makeup, and pulled her hair back because people said she looked younger that way. She knew Sam would show up for the party. He liked for people to think of him as the ultimate host. She reached under the mattress and retrieved the pawn shop .45 she’d purchased a few days before. She cleaned and oiled it, leaving on it a trace of the perfume clinging to her fingers. Time slowed to the moments between the tick of the clock and the beat of her heart. Two o’clock might never come or at least not soon enough.
When the doorbell rang, Bertha startled and almost dropped Cassandra. Bertha was pleased with the name she gave the gun. She caressed the steely blue-black metal one last time before wrapping it in the slinky polyester nightgown she last wore on her wedding night. She rose, confident and clear, then went downstairs to stash Cassandra in the kitchen cabinet behind her grandmother’s mixing bowl. Putting on her best hostess smile, Bertha opened the door to the river of guests who came to drink her beer and call her “Bertie.”
Bertha moved through the party with a new walk, a confidence she never before experienced. Her guests whispered in on the back porch. Did she take a young lover, did she have a facelift, did she go to Weight Watchers? Her husband was late, as usual, so it was four o’clock before the charcoal on the grill was ready. Bertha watched him out of the corner of her eye. He laughed and flirted with all the women. He charmed the men with the same old stories she found obscene and disgusting. She wondered whose smell was on his hands and in his mustache. She wondered how she ever loved him. She questioned if it was love at all or only the relief of being the object of interest. Her mother had told her often that she couldn’t afford to be choosy. She was a plain girl, unlikely to attract a suitable man. Bertha knew her mother spoke the truth. After all, wasn’t she the one who chose the name to match the baby with big feet and no hair?
After the guests gorged themselves on hamburgers and corn on the cob, the evening mosquitoes drove them inside the house. Bertha could feel her pulse in her fingertips. She glanced toward the kitchen cabinet and silently acknowledged her friend Cassandra. Cassandra, with no last letter “i’” on her name. A friend who would never betray her. Prissy names of perfect women throbbed in her temples and her hostess smile straightened into a hard line. She waited for her husband to begin another one of his interminable stories. Lies. They were all lies. The guests turned to her husband like a flock of sheep, their backs to Bertha.
Bertha slipped off to the kitchen. Those women’s names rose like nausea; they pounded like a jackhammer. She reached behind the mixing bowl to retrieve and unwrap the pistol. Caressing Cassandra in her capable hands, she returned to the living room. No one noticed her absence or her return. She raised the gun, pointed the oracle of accusation at her husband. She saw him look into the barrel and his mouth drop open in surprise just before the bullet entered his brain. There were screams, but Bertha didn’t hear them. For the first time in years, there was no chanting in her ears. No names. No taunting. No ridicule. Only the sweet ringing of what sounded like bells.