Bested

“Bested” received an honourable mention in Storyteller Magazine’s Great Canadian Story Contest in 2004.




BESTED

By

SUSAN CALDER


88 Chev Celebrity Eurosport, s/wagon, 201,000 km, good mech cond, cruise, new paint, 4 new tires, blue, $1500  …

Bess dips the Bargain Finder ad into the bowl of distilled water to protect the newsprint from turning yellow with age. She lays the damp paper on the dining room table and opens the scrapbook. What a time-consuming project – selecting and cropping photographs, choosing photo frame colours and background patterns, fiddling with page displays.

            She lifts up her glasses and rubs her stinging eyes. “Damn progressive lenses.” Her daughter, Margie, talked her into buying them. What was the problem with bifocal lines when you’re into your seventies?

            Bess dabs water on her eyes and studies her scrapbook page arrangement of three photographs, taken shortly after her husband, Ted, retired and they bought the Eurosport station wagon, which was so much roomier than their old Corolla. The cropped front and rear shots of the Eurosport highlight her sons’ retirement gifts: Davey’s “I’m spending my children’s inheritance” bumper sticker and Rick’s decorative license plate that reads “BESTED.” 

            “It’s your names together,” her oldest son explained. “Bess-Ted.”

            For Rick, this was surprisingly imaginative. The plate jump-started several interesting conversations with strangers they met on their trips.

            One of the children took the focal shot for the first page of the scrapbook: a side view of the Eurosport, with Ted grinning from the window and Bess leaning forward, her chin grazing his shoulder. Oh Ted, don’t we look like grey-haired newlyweds? They were a mere sixty-five and sixty-two years old when they set off from Calgary to the Grand Canyon, featured on the next two pages. How many hours you spent, Ted, photographing that gorge, while I stood on the rock contemplating its astounding depth.

            Bess wipes her eyes. She leafs through scrapbook pages portraying later trips and arrives at the summer of ’92: Ottawa: The Rideau Canal boat cruise, Parliament Buildings, Peace Tower and Ted still looking handsome and fit. The photo blurs. Bess closes the binder and looks out the front window. The station wagon, which Rick washed yesterday, gleams in the driveway. As she watched her son scrub the blue metal she thought, how like his father he is, so meticulous.

            Later, Rick found her inside, crying. “Mum,” he said, “you don’t have to live here alone. There’s plenty of room at our place.”  

            Live with Rick and his even fussier wife? Live with divorced Margie, who would use Bess as an excuse not to look for another man? At least Davey never nags her to move to Vancouver and intrude on his singles’ lifestyle. And Ted, I’m far from ready for a senior’s home.

            The telephone rings. Bess blinks and hurries to the kitchen.

            The young woman says, “I’m calling about your ad in the Bargain Finder, you know, the station wagon. Could I come by to see it this afternoon?”

             Bess massages her strained knee and glances at the calendar. Her doctor’s appointment is at 2:30 and Rick and Margie want her to restrict buyers’ visits to the evenings, when they can be present. But this female caller isn’t likely to attack her. This is also the fifth week of trying to sell the car and Ted, who spent his working life in sales, always said you have to meet your customer halfway.

            “One o’clock?” Bess suggests.

Wouldn’t you know it, she fumes. The girl is late. Young people today have no sense of courtesy. Bess fusses with her pearls and finally grabs her car keys, intending to leave, when the doorbell buzzes.

            “Hi. I’m Leah.” The woman’s blond hair has a blue streak trickling over her exposed bra strap. She is flanked by two young men, one bald and well over six feet tall. The other has a jockey’s build and like Bess’s Davey, he sports that unshaven look so popular these days. Even on holiday, Bess made Ted shave so his bristles wouldn’t scratch her when they kissed.

            Leah, who is tall for a woman, introduces her friends. Bess doesn’t catch their names. The three of them face her like a side view of stairs. Their staggered heights remind her of her own children when they were little, although the bald, Rick-sized one is Australian.

            “We want to drive down the coast before he goes home at Christmas,” Leah explains. “That’s why we’re interested in the wagon.”

            Bess peers around Leah’s arm, which has a daisy tattoo. “Is that your car parked across the street?”

            “It’s my mother’s.” Leah tucks the blue streak behind her ear, which is pierced about six times. Her cropped T-shirt reveals a sparkling navel.

            Bess winces at the ring in Leah’s eyebrow. She follows the threesome to the Eurosport. 

            “Why are you selling it?” Leah asks.

            “Doctor’s advice,” Bess says. “My reflexes aren’t what they used to be.”

            The boy with the Davey-like beard runs his fingers over the tires, which were purchased two years ago, after the blow-out in LA., when Ted miraculously steered the out-of-control vehicle onto the shoulder.

            A few days later, Ted suggested they return to Calgary. “The car can’t take any more long distance travel,” he said, although they really came home because he felt bone tired. “Let’s spruce up the old girl with a paint job in addition to her new shoes.”

            The next month, the doctor diagnosed Ted’s cancer. Their final trip last summer was a short one to Regina, a city they had bypassed on their longer journeys.

            Leah points at the Eurosport’s side decal. “It’s only four cylinders?”

            Last week, another prospective buyer questioned the car’s driving power. Ted and Bess had bought the four, rather than six, cylinder model to save gasoline.

            “Back in the 80s, people cared more about the environment,” Bess told that buyer.

            “I’d say we care more about the stinkin’ environment today,” he said.

            “What about all those gas guzzling SUVs?” Bess was pleased with her speedy retort, even though she forgot, momentarily, what SUV stood for.

            Rick, who had come over that evening, told the man that the four cylinders pumped plenty of power, “unless you’re wanting to attach a trailer.”

            “Or drive up hills,” Bess added, remembering the engine’s struggle through the mountain pass west of Grand Teton National Park.

            “Next time, Mum,” Rick said after the man left, “leave the talking to me.”

            Now Bess squints up at Leah. “The four cylinders are cheap on gas, although you might avoid driving up high elevations, especially when the car’s fully loaded.”

            Which it would be on a lengthy trip with these three young people plus their luggage and possibly camping gear. Bess wonders about sleeping arrangements. Leah doesn’t act girlfriend-like with either of the boys. Perhaps, they’re all just friends. Davey, when he calls from Vancouver, talks about hiking and sailing with friends who are as likely to be female as male. How do young folk today manage these mixed gender friendships? For Bess, even the most casual male-female relationship has always held a flicker of sexual interest.

            “Would you mind if we take the car for a test drive?” Leah says.

            “Could you come tonight?”

            Leah glances at the red Mazda across the street. “My mother works evenings.”

            Bess figures, Leah’s mother is responsible enough to hold a steady job and own a decent car. She asks to see Leah’s driver’s license. Should she let these strangers drive the Eurosport alone? How will she make it to the eye doctor on time?

            Rick and Margie are going to kill her, but “You could drop me off at my doctor’s office,” Bess says, “and bring the car back here, leaving the keys in the mailbox. I’ll take a taxi home. Give me a minute to lock the house and get my purse.”

            She returns to find Leah in the driver’s bucket seat.

            Bess tells the Australian to take the front passenger side. “You need the leg room.” She also doesn’t want the boys poking a gun in her back.

            Sitting with the Davey-like boy in the rear seat reminds Bess of her teenage evenings spent parking on the ridge in her home town. Davey’s smile meets hers, although he’s certainly not thinking of double dates. He would see her as a white haired old lady which, of course, she is.

            Leah turns the ignition. “The wagon’s mileage isn’t bad for its age.”

            “I’ve hardly driven it this past year,” Bess says. “Before that, the car wasn’t used much in the city, mainly for holidays. Long drives are good for cleaning out the engine.”

            “Where did you go on holiday?”

            “All over. As far east as New York City and south to Los Angeles and Houston.”

            “Cool,” Davey says. “I’d like to go up in space.”

            “I’m dying to see Hollywood.” The Australian mumbles something that sounds like ‘brsuding lessglab’.

            Bess stares at the back of his shaved head, which is as bumpy as a gravel lane.

            Leah backs out of the driveway. “We’re hoping to get to Mexico, maybe the Panama Canal.” She shits the console gear into drive. “Hey, is that knob for air conditioning?”

            “The air hasn’t worked for a year and would cost several hundred to fix.”            

            “If we decide we’re interested in the car, could we take it for a mechanical inspection?” 

They actually brought it back, Bess thinks, as the taxi pulls into the driveway behind the station wagon. The keys are in the mailbox, with a note: We got a garage appointment for tomorrow at 1:00.  If that’s not okay, please call followed by a number Bess is tempted to phone out of curiosity to see who answers. Are the three of them living together? Or with Leah’s mother? Surely Davey is too short for Leah’s romantic interest, and the Australian’s head is too lumpy?

            Inside, Bess finds two answering machine messages, one from Margie saying she’ll drop by for dinner and the other from the seniors’ club, reminding her of the registration deadline for the Rocky Mountain bus tour. Margie is urging her to go, but she hates the thought of being shepherded through scenery she and Ted covered leisurely during the spring of 1996. She won’t tell Margie about the trip reminder or about Leah and the boys taking the car for a test drive and inspection. Since her divorce, Margie has become so suspicious of people’s intentions. She would worry that these strangers might steal the car, which is still possible. Perhaps returning it today was part of a plan to deflect suspicion. Bess takes out a tray of M & M’s cabbage rolls from the freezer. She slides it into the oven. You won’t believe, Ted, how busy it’s been. Too busy to bother with cooking tonight. While supper bakes, she’ll change into shorts and relax in the front porch shade, reading her Dick Francis novel.

The car rumble jolts Bess awake. A sedan parks behind the Eurosport. Why is Leah here? Is it tomorrow already? Margie emerges from her silver Honda. Now she remembers. Margie said she would stop by after work. She picks up the paperback that fell to the porch floor while she dozed.

            “You look cool, Mum,” Margie says as Bess rises to kiss her hello.

            Bess smoothes her Bermuda shorts. “Cool as in comfortable or cool as in hip?”

            “Which one do you think?” Margie laughs.

            Margie looks rather cool, herself, Bess thinks, in her floral print dress and hair dyed the honey shade it was when she was a child. The first few years after her divorce, her daughter looked a mess, although Bess was grateful she was rid of the bum.

            Margie glances at the station wagon. “Any nibbles on the car?”

            “No.” Bess rubs her eyes. “I saw the doctor today. He said the stinging is eye strain, probably from focusing too much on the scrapbook. He gave me some drops.”

            “Hi, Bess,” a man calls from the sidewalk. “Hot enough for you?”

            “You bet.” She smoothes her shorts as Jim’s dog tugs on the leash.

            “Gotta fly.” Jim trots after the terrier.

            “Who’s that?” Margie says.

            “You know the family that bought the Olsen house up the street? The grandfather lives with them.”

            “Hmmm.” Margie is so pretty when she smiles. “If you want to impress him, Mum, you outta dress a little fancier.” 

            Bess gazes down her San Francisco T-shirt to her knobby, occasionally arthritic, knees. “I thought you said I looked cool.”

            Margie sniffs. “What’s that you’re cooking?”

            “Oh my god. What time is it? I hope the cabbage rolls haven’t burnt.”

The next day, while waiting for the Eurosport’s return, Bess studies her Regina photo arrangement. That last vacation turned out fine, all things considered. They won $35 at the Casino and managed an evening stroll around Wascana Lake, with Ted holding onto her for support. A fellow tourist snapped their picture in the Legislature gardens. Bess touches the photo. Ted, your face looks so thin, your body frail. She picks up the Regina scrapbook page, which shakes as she slides it into the protective plastic. Bess chooses blue polka dot paper for the final display sheet which will include the Bargain Finder ad and three photos: Front, rear and side shots of the Eurosport shining in the sun. From a distance, as Ted would say, “the old girl doesn’t look so bad.” The car’s windows are empty. No grinning Ted and Bess. Davey’s “inheritance” bumper sticker was replaced years ago by ones from Disneyland, New Haven and Montreal. The BESTED license plate is scratched and bent, but it survived those fourteen years.

            “You don’t need to give up travel,” Margie said last evening over dinner. “What about that senior’s Rockies trip? Is it too late to sign up?”

            “Me and the lonely widows.”

            “You could ask that gentleman up the street to join you.”

            “You mean, Jim?”

            “Mum, you’re blushing.”

            I might try the bus tour, Bess thinks, but inviting Jim would be too forward. A roar outside makes her look up. A motorcycle zooms down the street. Where are Leah and the boys and the car? They’ve been gone two hours.

“The garage kept us waiting and then they took forever with the inspection,” Leah says and shrugs. “I guess we could have called you.” She holds up repair estimate. “The mechanic says the car’s in fair shape for its age, but it needs a lot of work.”

            That’s the set-up to bargain me down, Bess thinks as she leads the trio to the kitchen table. They’ll try to advantage of a little old lady. Well, if they offer a low figure I’ll tell them I have to consult my son, even though Ted always said you should clinch the sale in the heat of the moment.

            “We want to fix the air conditioning” Leah says. “We aren’t counting that cost, since we realize you didn’t include the A/C in your asking price. Here’s a list of the other repairs.”

            As Leah explains the items on the estimate, Bess looks at the bottom line: $836.42. Subtracting that from the $1,500 asking price and bargaining down, as buyers always do, these kids will likely offer her $500. Rick would call that giving the car away. Margie would say, “Don’t let them screw you.” Bess wants the youths to have the car. The old girl should have her chance to tackle the highway again, make it all the way to Mexico and possibly the Panama Canal. Rick and Margie don’t have to know what she sold it for. She could tell them she got $1,000, not a terrible price when, after five weeks, this was the first real spark of interest.

            “A lot of this stuff is maintenance.” Leah takes a breath. “We were thinking, to be fair, we’ll offer $1,100.”

            “Eleven … ?”

            Leah glances at Davey and the bald Australian, who says, “We do want to get going right away and this is the biscuit we’ve seen.”

            Biscuit? Or did he say ‘best car’? Was it his accent or should she have her hearing checked? “Do you think you’ll reach the Panama Canal?”

            “We’re gonna try our best.” Leah tucks hair behind her ear. “How about we meet in the middle, $1,300?”

            “That sounds … fair.”

            Leah smiles. “Would you take a two-hundred cash deposit, so we can arrange for the insurance and registration transfer?”

            “Cash is fine.” Won’t Rick be impressed with this deal his old mother hammered out? “I’ll remove the front plate,” Bess says. “You won’t want to be driving around with BESTED on your car.”

            “Why not?” Davey says.

            The Australian nods. “We thought that plate was grwasger.”

            Grwasger? His accent? Her hearing? Some newfangled hip word?

            “If you’ll appreciate the plate, I’ll leave it on,” Bess says. “BESTED stands for … “

            She wants to take them to the dining room and show them the scrapbook, but they wouldn’t be interested and she shouldn’t act peculiar until the sale is concluded.

            After they leave, Bess rearranges her final scrapbook page: Bargain Finder ad; cropped rear shot with bumper stickers and front one with weathered BESTED plate; lonely side view of the car. No more Bess and Ted, smiling or otherwise. Her eyes sting. Bess touches the empty Eurosport window, smudging the photo gloss. Who cares if they think I’m strange once the deal is done?

            When the kids come to take possession of the car, she will bring out the camera and snap a replacement photo: Leah, the boys and the old girl setting off once more.

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