BAD BETH & BEYOND
Pitchfork Battalion strikes again. Todd Dills is the editor of THE2NDHAND; his first novel, "Sons of the Rapture," comes out in Fall 2006. C.T. Ballentine puts out the Aftercrossword Special zine. Susannah Felts is a regular contributor to the Chicago Reader and other publications.
Beyond, the seminal Charlotte News editorialist and author of the prophetic work of philosophy and cultural criticism The Mind of the South, took his newly betrothed in the twilight (though he mightn't have thought of it as a twilight at all) of his life on a journey of epic proportions. Beyond, minus the perfect eyesight he enjoyed as a child, likewise any sort of hair covering the crown of his old head, was to deliver the commencement address at the University of Texas, Austin, and Bad Beth, that oh-so-semantics-inclined wife of his, was feeling ill. The both of them had moved past, or "beyond," indeed, the need to justify their chosen names. Beth was bad. Bad as in naughty, as in -- well, it was 1941, the Germans were fighting with their erstwhile allies the Russians, single-word names were very much in vogue (take for instance the press's penchant for calling Hitler, Hitler, and Hitler's hounded glory in the moniker), and "bad" had yet to take on the particular connotation that might be said to have led to Michael Jackson's late-80s masterpiece. Bad Beth was in a simply bad way, coughing up yellowy phlegm streaked with blood on the train all the way from New Orleans. Beyond was beyond comforting her despite the fact that they were just married. In fact, it would quickly become clear that Beyond was, if not beyond, then certainly nearing the very edge of a great many things, sanity among them.
In the humid night, the diminutive old "Mencken of the South," as he was sometimes known, took to the stage on the steps of the University Main Building, the sea of graduates before him, and hammered absurdly at the podium for a moment before intoning, "Not long ago I read a very fine novel by Marcus Goodrich, called Delilah, the story of a destroyer at sea in the Philippine Islands just on the eve of the last war. The thing -- I found the whole book very moving and interesting -- but the thing that moved me most in the book was a short, incidental section on the defense of the Alamo." Groans issued from the Texan audience. Bad Beth coughed loudly, slumped in a seat in the front in a special row off to the side reserved for the author and his wife and their hosts, chief among the last the young Texas congressman who'd invited them to stay a night in his house. The congressman was drunk.
Behind the podium adorned with the UT insignia and the royal blue of commencement ceremonies, Beyond attempted a smile, but the crown of his balding pate flushed red with the fuel of his embarrassment. Beth coughed a series of barks again -- bringing to Beyond's mind the barks of seals he'd heard during a long-ago sea adventure. In spite of all, he went on, rambling about the Alamo, insisting he brought it up just as means to an end, to get to the very idea of tradition, of "our great Southern tradition," he said, and the graduates couldn't hide their shame -- the groans redoubled, and Beyond was forced to pause as Bad Beth herself doubled over in her chair. "Are you OK, darling?" Beyond benevolent, kind, concerned. There was no answer but more groaning from the audience and Bad Beth's coughing. The drunk congressman, head tilted back, right hand nuzzled into a gap between two buttons of his white shirt, seemed to be dealing with the developing situation only by retreating into the comfortable haze of his inebriation.
Light flashing off the frames of his glasses, Beyond turned a questioning glance to the dignitaries at his back -- deans, presidents, student body reps -- then looked serenely over the coughing of his betrothed and out across the expanse of uncomfortable graduates. "Nazis," Beyond muttered to himself, then to the students: "Of course there's the tradition of the Southern aristocrat. We've all heard of them all our lives and a great many of us even now and then claim to be descended from them. Well who were they?"
But he would get no farther. Carried on the waves of her coughing, Beth rose from her seat only to falter and fall, Beyond then looking the very gallant aristocrat himself as he left off and rushed around the podium and arrived at the side of his heavily breathing betrothed, Bad Beth splayed wheezing on the ground in front of her seat and at the feet of the young drunk congressman, to whom Beyond took a moment to hand the text of his speech. "Oh great South!" Beyond wailed over his wife. "The Nazis are on their way."
Almost in spite of her beau's melodrama, Bad Beth rallied, and she and Beyond moved along the edge of the crowd to a waiting car. The congressman, for his part, was not so drunk to have missed the journalist and thinker's last words here, nor to have carried off Beyond's grandiose, rambling speech in at least modest impersonation. Nor was the congressman much surprised to learn of Beyond's end, reading two weeks on of Bad Beth's convalescence in a Mexico City hospital and Beyond's untimely death. Convinced he was pursued by Nazis, on a frenzied night of flight between a number of rooming houses, Beyond hung himself in the third. Bad Beth coughed her way through a statement to the reporter covering the untimely happening. It ended, "To those who knew him, he was Beyond."
The two hover in the thick syrup of early exposition in a mostly fictionalized, unauthorized biography: "Criminal Couple: The Bad Beth & Beyond Story." Beyond has been instructed to urinate on the wall of a gas station while Bad Beth explains an ingenious plan to rid the neighboring town's only bank of the vast majority of its financial holdings.
Bad Beth has been finding mostly tedium and disappointment in the life of crime suggested by the biography's author. Frankly, she would much rather find a group of likeminded friends and start a completely self-sustaining commune somewhere in rural Iowa. Beyond, being fairly intoxicated, is altogether satisfied with pissing against a brick wall.
The real-life Bad Beth, on whom this character is loosely based, was perfectly content with her and Beyond's life of crime, up until its end in a televised and oft-discussed shootout with the FBI two years prior. The real-life Bad Beth thought self-sustaining communes were for jerk-off hippy shitheads with granola where their balls should be.
Also, she did not drive a gray Volvo.
But this Bad Beth is a character in a book and has a life of her own to do with as she pleases, and no one, not the real-life Bad Beth, not the author of this highly fictionalized, unauthorized biography, can live it for her. Mid-pace, Bad Beth begins outlining to Beyond the major selling points of life on a self-sustaining commune in rural Iowa, along with potentially suitable cohabitants listed in declining order of desirability.
"I'm very serious about this, Beyond," says Bad Beth, stopping near the Volvo's hood. "I need a change."
Beyond finishes urinating.
She's getting married. It's about fucking time. She's 48 years old. Her husband-to-be is larger than her, substantially larger, which was a key criterion she gave the online matching system. But who needs to know that his fat ass is a comfort? That's nobody's business but Beth's. In the past, when she was much younger, before the long drought spell with Paxil and Zoloft and vacations spent at writers' conferences and poems about women with thick ankles -- back before all that there was the spate of skinny young men in t-shirts, young men with mustaches and long, lustrous hair. Was it really lustrous? It seemed that way to Beth at the time.
The song fades out, too soon and too fast. She wishes for more Steven Tyler, a Twofer Tuesday. What day is it, anyway? It's Thursday, goddamnit. Beth wants to hear that song again. Or maybe some Elvin Bishop -- "Fooled Around and Fell in Love," that great last-call number -- or some AC/DC, a little Highway to Hell. She wants a cigarette to dangle just so from her mouth, for her eyeliner to be smeared, just so; for her underwear to have been put on hastily after a rendezvous, inside out and damp. Beth understands now why men leave staff meetings to jerk off in bathroom stalls at the office. She turns onto her street and hits the gas.
When then they make contact, she's slung forward and back again. It's one of the ninjas, the hooded boys. He's slung in a splash of headlight before her, tangled up in his bike, not moving. Beth puts her hand to her mouth. Then she thinks, Look at me, I'm putting my hand to my mouth.
Get out of the car, Beth, she thinks next. You must deal with this. Do the right thing. She thinks of that black director, the one with the chip on his shoulder.
Why the hell is she thinking about that director? Where is the big, heavy fiance when she needs him? He is off with his redneck brother, watching a TiVo'd game of sport. Beth's biggest fear of late is that she or the fiance will be fired, or suffer some other financial calamity, which will end in them moving in with the redneck brother, who just so happens to have a bedroom to spare across town.
Correction: that was her biggest fear. Now she fears that she's killed the ninja. But he's stirring, rolling onto one side, pawing an ankle. He's not dead yet.
Beth has the car door open. Where is the comforting chime that you should hear when you open a car door? Her car doesn't make a peep. She turned it off, removed the keys, but she doesn't remember how. The other ninjas are rolling up, full of shocked vulgarities. Their voices are reedy, like the voices of the skinny boys that used to make Beth feel like a porpoise when she fucked them.
She is afraid to get too close. Where are the cops and sirens, the signals to say everything bad is being handled as best it can be? Not here. Just Beth and the young ninjas, in the dark, in the cold, on the street where she lives with the large man. She emerges from the car.
She tries to ask the kid not to die, but the words are clotted with phlegm, stuck in her throat.
His sweatshirt has risen up, revealing a tattoo at kidney level: the word BEYOND, two arrows pointing in at either end, as if suggesting that "beyond" is in fact not somewhere distant, out there, to be discovered; it's right here, it's in this kid. He is Beyond. He is beyond Beth, bad or otherwise. She understands this as he squints and shields his eyes to get a look at her. What does Beth imagine, later, after the kid has limped away with his friends, after she's safe in bed with a leg thrown over the fat man she will marry -- what does she then imagine that this kid Beyond saw? A halo of frizz, a lumpy sack of face suspended above him, her work ID badge hanging off her blouse: old lady, bad lady driver, bad lady, Bad Beth.
And what Beth knows is that even with the large husband beneath, above, and beside her, her life won't stop being sad and unquestionably small, but that she is for sure safe.
The first section of "Bad Beth & Beyond" samples text from remarks made by W.J. Cash to graduates of the University of Texas, Austin, on 2 June 1941.