PART TWO of the short story inspired by “Black Betty” by Leadbelly and Ram Jam
I had hired a live-in nanny to be with her boy while she was away. Turned out the nanny also liked to drink to excess in the evening so that night when she put the boy down to sleep and he kept waking up she rubbed some of Betty’s powder on his gums to make him sleep. The child went wild destroying the room at the Chelsea. He was so enraged and uncontrollable that she brought him to the hospital.
When I arrived the boy was on sedatives after having his stomach pumped. He was awake but groggy. Doctors told me that the boy kept asking for his father.
“Hey Champ,” I said, taking a seat next to him.
He won’t look at me. He stared out into oblivion.
“Why are you here?” the boy asked.
His words cut like knives.
“Your mom is at an event she can’t miss.”
“Says you?” he asked.
“Well, Champ, it’s a big event in Manhattan. A lot of important people are there.”
“More important than me, I guess.”
“No, Champ no one is more important than you to your mom.”
“Don’t say that.”
“It’s true. Your mom wanted to give you a better life. She’s working hard to get you everything you want. She got that new train set you wanted, didn’t she?”
“How did it break?” I asked.
“I threw it against the wall.”
“Why did you do that, Champ?”
“I wanted my father.”
“I understand that. It must be hard not having a father in your life.” I said. “My Paw worked in the coal mines. Depending on the season, I wouldn’t see him for days at a time. I know we’ve only know each other for a few years now but I’d like to you to think of you of my son.”
“I already have a dad.” The boy said.
“This is true and I won’t come between you and your daddy.” I said. “Do you know where he is? Is he back in Birmingham where your mom was from?”
“Do you know where he is?”
“He’s at a big event in Manhattan.”
“Your father is in town?”
“Yes” said the boy with a dry wit.
“Is he with your mom? I’d love to meet him.”
“You have met my father.”
I rattled through my memory of any man that Betty introduced me to that could have possibly been the boy’s father. She never said anything to me. She silenced the conversation every time it was brought up.
“Where did I meet your father?”
“At the Black Hat.”
“Now, Champ, I’m not sure if I have the best memory but I don’t recall meeting—“ the boy cut me off before I could finish.
“You call her Betty, I call her dad.”
The room went silent. I could hear the only the hum of the hospital equipment and the breath of Betty’s son. Not wanting to know the answer I feared, I asked the question, “Betty is your father? Betty was born a man?”
“That thing he’s become took me from my mother, dragged me to some of the most unfit places and now,” the boy gulped, “and now has made me blind.” Rage built up in the boy as he sat up and screamed at the world, “I’m blind!!”
The boy kept repeating the words. I tried to calm him. I reached for his arm but he pulled away.
“I want my father!” he’d yell. “I want him to see what he did to me!”
I paid every nurse I saw to keep quiet on anything the boy said about a father. I assured them it must have been the drugs. The money would make sure that it was about the drugs.
I hailed a cab and rushed to the gallery where I had left Betty. This couldn’t be true. It must have been the boy’s delusions or perhaps a mean rumor to spread to ruin his mother’s good name.
In the cab I tried to recall anything that would add creditability to the boy’s story. I keep my dealings with Betty strictly business. Sure Betty would come on to me but nothing ever came of it. I thought of the men she had been with, how they all seemed to give her whatever she wanted but they rarely ever saw her again. She’d always have a new piece of jewelry or furs sent to her the next morning from a suitor, but never a marriage proposal or ask to see her again. Could this be why? Did she threaten they would be ousted for propositioning a man if they didn’t meet her requests. Was Black Betty everything I thought she was?
When I reached the gallery I was sweating and frantic. I asked everyone for Betty. Few had seen her. One waiter said he saw her sneak into the kitchen with the owner of the gallery.
In the walk-in freezer, I found them. The owner was nibbling on her neck when I burst in.
“Betty, I need to talk to you.”
“Mr. Paris, I do ask that you give Mr. Armstrong and I a minute. You seem to have caught us in such a peculiar state.”
“Mr. Paris, is that any way to talk to a lady?” Betty said.
“Betty, that’s exactly why you need to come with me now.”
Betty eyes shot daggers at me before giving Mr. Armstrong a kiss on the lips. “To be continued,” she whispered.
I dragged Betty by the arm to a supply closet. I made sure no one else was in the room or in the hall.
“Joseph, you’re hurting me.” She said. “I never thought of you as the jealous type. If you wanted me all to yourself all you had to do is ask.”
“Stop the game, Betty. I talked to your son.”
“Oh darlin’ is that what all this is about, my son? I know I should have gone to the hospital with you but—“
I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to cut her off. “He kept asking for his father.”
“Huh.” Betty replied.
“And by father, he meant you. Now Betty as your manager I’ve put a lot on the line for you and if you’re keeping from me what I think you’re keeping from me… I’m gonna need you to explain” I demanded.
Betty brushed the lapels of my jacked and started to fix my tie.
“Joseph, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Betty, you’re hurting more and more by the minute if you don’t tell me the truth.”
“Will you stay with me if I tell you the truth?” asked Betty.
“That depends on your level of honesty.”
Betty leaned against the sink of the supply closet and tucked her arms into her chest. “My parents had no earthly idea what they were doing when they named me Robert Sinclar.”
My heart skipped a beat. I didn’t want it to be true.
“But Joseph, you have to believe me, that I wasn’t put on this earth to be a man. I was meant to shine as a woman.”
“So our whole relationship has been a lie?”
“Lie, what lie?” She retorted. “You use me to be pretty for photographers and designers. Don’t mistake me Joseph, I am pretty. I am what men like to look at and what women want to be.”
“But you’re not being honest.”
“I’m as honest to myself as it comes. Why else would I have a doctor go snip-snip?”
I cringed with the thought.
“I am living the life I was meant to live and am the person I want to be.” Betty said with pride/
“Your son doesn’t think so.” I hated myself as soon as the words came out of my mouth.
“My son. My son. You’re going to bring my son into this?”
I saw the same rage in her boy grow inside Betty.
“My son’s mother died at birth. I have been everything to my son. I may not be the most normal mother but I have worked to give my son a life that Alabama would have never been able to give him.”
“He need you, Robert. He needs his father.”
“Do you need me Joseph?” Betty asked.
“No, Betty. I’m sure I’ll hate myself for it later but I can’t help keep or expose your lie. This is your choice, your fight. I can only urge you to see you son.”
I turned to the door and opened it slightly before I heard Betty ask, “Joseph, back at The Black Hat, what did you see in me that you didn’t see in the other girls?”
“Oh Black Betty you’re so rock steady and always ready.” I said. “But it turns out, I’m not ready for you. Goodnight, Betty.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Paris”