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All that pent up terror and rage

Dodie Bellamy

Plague Widow

Published: 17.08.2021

Driving to the Castro, Bee Reaved feels hyper emotional, as she often does in the car, Nick Cave’s Ghosteen on repeat, and she thinks—this is what it’s like to live without hope. Six months after Kevin’s death, friends left her to fare for herself. Other widows warned her this would happen, that everybody would disappear before she was ready. One widow she no longer talks to said, “Wait and see, you’re going to have a total breakdown.” Now, with the terrible isolation of lockdown, Kevin feels even more dead, a thudding suck-all-the-light-out-of-the-room dead. Reality is crumbling for everybody, and no one believes the old world is ever going to return. Instead of providing comfort, the ghoul in the White House feeds off of chaos, inciting it wherever he can—more homeless more starving more corpses conspiracy corruption, racial antagonism through the roof. It’s no surprise protests erupt into riots. Rip it all the fuck down. Bee hates vicious righteousness. A stupid tweet by a nobody, meant as a parody, somehow goes viral and the internet offers up death threats. Canned Mexican beans, you are over. Racist woman walking your dog without a leash, you are over. On The Daily Show, host Noah Trevor jokes that the only thing not to have been canceled is the coronavirus. Since Bee herself was once canceled, she is mesmerized by public shaming. She spends hours piecing together the full story—how things have been taken out of context, twisted, lied about. The searing unfairness arouses within her a twinge of stalker love for the accused. Bee cries in her car but longs to scream, to shout out something vile, to spin her head around like a possessed Linda Blair.

The cat leaves a lumpy brown puddle on the bedroom floor, enters the living room and shits on the rug beside the bags of clean laundry that Bee digs through for things to wear rather than putting the clothes away. The cat then shits in the threshold between living room and kitchen, and finishes with a flurry in the middle of the kitchen floor. Luckily, Bee doesn’t step in any of it. That evening, as Bee is slipping into bed, exhausted, the cat looks at her and leaps off, spraying urine mid-air across the bed. Bee cleans it up, googles cat euthanasia, and texts her misery to Donna. Donna suggests she cover the bed with a waterproof camping tarp, and she sends Bee an Amazon link.

Dream: Kevin is excited about helping Bee sort out her life. He says he will take on this big pain-in-the ass project of hers—a project she can’t imagine him capable of handling. He’s right there, so real, she could reach out and touch him. Then she’s alone with a phone to her ear. He’s still excitedly talking through the receiver, but now she remembers he’s dead, and she thinks—he can’t do anything to help me.

Bee gets up in the morning and the camping tarp has slid down the bed, onto the floor. She steps barefoot on the crumpled heap. It’s sopping wet—cat urine. She bundles up the tarp, carries it to the bathroom and throws it in the clawfoot tub. She plugs the drain, runs cold water, squirts in some lingerie wash, and swishes the tarp. She turns off the faucet, leaves the tarp to soak, and starts her coffee. That afternoon as she walks toward the living room window, she steps in a pile of cat shit. She wipes the remaining shit off the floor with a tissue, sprays the spot with lavender and mint scented pet stain remover, scrubs it with a paper towel, sprays it again with Zero Odor, which Donna recommended. Then she flushes the tissue down the toilet and tosses the paper towel in the kitchen trash. She remembers the tarp. She empties the bathtub, shakes as much water off as she can, retrieves two lengths of rope—white with red speckles—steps onto the back porch, which is three stories up and windy. Bee drapes the tarp over the railing. She threads the ropes through the grommets in each corner of the tarp and ties it to the railing. Stepping back into her home office she notices a stench and finds shit encrusted on the bottom of her clog. She takes the clog to the clawfoot tub, runs hot water over the sole and scrubs it with a grout brush, sprays it with “natural multi-surface cleaner,” scrubs and rinses until all the grooves in the sole are clear, then she sprays the sole and the brush with lemongrass citrus disinfectant. She puts her clog back on and washes her hands the covid-recommended twenty seconds, singing “Happy Birthday” twice, to mark the time. When she gets to “happy birthday, dear—,” she always sings the cat’s name. They’ve been together for fifteen years.

As she sits at her desk writing this piece, she can hear the tarp flapping in the wind. She imagines the sail of an ancient boat—like in a poem by Robert Bly—and her life moving forward over choppy waters towards something or other. She hates Robert Bly. Sexist asshole. If she could cancel anybody, it would be Robert Bly. The next morning her downstairs neighbor complains that water from the tarp dr=ipped down to her porch, and Bee loses it.

Dream: She says something unkind to Kevin and there are tears in his eyes. When she wakes she can’t quit obsessing about the thousands of unkind things she said to him over the 37 years she knew him. In her living room, boxes are stacked precariously up to shoulder height, filled with books and archival material. They’re heavy and she can’t generate the energy to haul them three flights down to the basement. Because of covid, no one will come over to help her. The clutter makes it difficult when she smells cat shit, to find it. No one will come over. She spends her days talking to a screen. It’s like living in Future World, except instead of sexy spandex space suit she’s wearing yoga pants with a frayed crotch and a sweatshirt. The Zoom psychic tells her the energy in her left leg isn’t running freely because she’s holding a lot of Kevin’s energy there. The psychic says Kevin’s full name out loud then begins to clear out his energy. Afterwards she says that as soon as she said his name, Kevin appeared and she said to him—you’ve left your energy in Bee’s left leg, and he said—yeah, I know.

Bee gets up to pee. The bathroom waste basket is spilling over with empty toilet paper rolls. Flash to childhood, putting a tube to her mouth and going “Rooty toot toot.” Walking back to the bedroom she steps barefoot in a small bit of shit, hobbles back to the bathroom, scrubs her foot with a disinfectant wipe, cleans up the splat that remains on the kitchen floor, washes her hands. Then she slathers luxury sanitizer on her hands and feet. The scent of rose geranium and rosemary is divine.

Somewhere there’s shit, somewhere close, but Bee can’t find it. She turns on the flashlight on her iPhone, lies on the floor and looks under the bed. Nothing, but then she sees it, a foot from her head, a huge splash of diarrhea all over the bramble of cords plugged into the surge suppressor next to the nightstand. It takes her 15 minutes of patient wiping and spritzing to clean it up, all the while fearing electrocution. There are still shit specks wedged in the crevices of the textured usb cables. There’s shit and piss all over the place, it’s useless. Bee is barely able to manage a shower, to organize, take her clothes to the wash and fold, feed herself, get anything done. She found herself bragging to Donna that she changes her underpants every day. She feels old and irrelevant as the characters in the final episodes of the French TV series A French Village (2009–17). For five seasons their town was occupied by Nazis. Life as they knew it was over. They were doing their best, and then comes the liberation and they’re condemned as collaborators. They walk through a France they no longer recognize, wearing really bad old people make up. That’s how aging feels to Bee—like she’s a young person trapped beneath sagging prosthetics. TV assures her that dying never means the end. Through the pornography of flashbacks, Marcel is no longer executed by a German firing squad; Marie is no longer lynched in the town square, her body left hanging in the tree as a warning to other mouthy women. When they were alive, Bee would huff at how irritating Marcel and Marie could be, but when they return from the dead, her love for them is unstoppable. It’s been over a year and Kevin’s ashes remain on the floor of the living room closet, in the package they arrived in, unopened.

When the cat shits on the kitchen table, next to her food dish, Bee googles cat dementia. The symptoms are all there. Before Bee started giving her CBD, the cat’s anxiety was through the roof. She was turning feral, pacing around the kitchen emitting wails that started at a low tone then slid to a full-throated high pitch, extremely loud—like nothing that ever came out of the cat before. It was horrible. A cat psychic said that because of her colon cancer, the cat was stuck in her lower chakras, in survival mode. The psychic said the cat was freaking out over her body’s betrayal. The resonances with Kevin’s personality changes at the end are too poignant. No matter how many times Bee googles “frontal lobe tumor,” she’ll never know what was stress and what was metastasis. Kevin died too soon. She was supposed to care for him, but he died too soon. Two months later the cat got sick. When the cat dies there will be no one left to care for, and Bee fears her humanity will shrivel like an unwatered plant.

Bingeing on 72 episodes of A French Village, Bee expected all the French she took in college to suddenly kick in and she’d understand what the villagers and Nazis were saying, but it didn’t happen until the court case. The lawyers with their over-enunciation sounded like the recordings she listened to ad nauseum in Language Lab. The violence and humiliation those occupied endured—their resistance, their living off of soup and chestnut puree, their grief and passionate sex with the wrong people—all that remained subtitled gibberish, but the lawyers’ denatured bureaucratic French anybody could understand. She washes her face the YouTube-aesthetician-recommended sixty seconds, singing the Alphabet song twice, to mark the time. They’ve recently changed the rhythm of the Alphabet song. Instead of “elemenopee,” it’s now “L. M. N. O. P.,” each letter enunciated as distinctly as a French lawyer. One guy complained, “They changed the ABC song to clarify the LMNOP part, and it is life ruining,” and his tweet was liked 105,000 times.

Sometimes when she’s shoving cancer pills down her throat, the cat will pee on Bee’s leg. The cat has weaponized her cute little body. The cat shits under her desk, and almost daily in a doorway, where Bee is most likely to step in it. The cat’s placements are beginning to feel purposeful, ritualistic. Like a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign. The cat misses the doggy pee pad and sprays urine across the bottom dresser drawer. As she’s typing this, cat shit fumes assault Bee. She is reminded of the 1950s movie gimmick, Smell-O-Vision, in which odors paired to what was happening on the screen were released into the theater using a system of tubes called a “smell brain.” Bee sets aside her laptop and hunts for the mess. The cat is leaking everywhere. The more Bee tries to hold it all together, the more life feels like a reverse motion cartoon where the painting unpaints itself. Jewel-toned spray bottles improve her morale, purple for stain remover, hot pink for odor eliminator.

She and Kevin laugh and play and argue, it’s wonderful. Then as always, reality slips in and she’s bummed with him for pretending to not be dead, for deceiving her. When she wakes up, the cat’s trying to squeeze in beside her. Bee turns over and says, “Come here you little pisspot.” Pisspot—where did that come from? Her mother called her that when she was a small child. “You little pisspot.” A working class endearment. Another pang of loss arises. Bee imagines a long series of memories sputtering behind her—dead memories, their hyper-saturated color fading to black and white then flipping to negatives, their decaying emulsion misting into air. Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat when so many have gone down in the storm—Robert Bly.

Bee walks from room to room, eyes fixed on the floor. Nothing. Then she checks her office. Underneath her desk is a box of beans—from her bean club—that has been sitting there for several months. Across a cellophane bag of green lentils, she spies a blotch of runny shit. She picks up as much as she can with a tissue, wipes off the green lentils with a paper towel and throws the lentils in the trash. She wipes off a smaller blob on the edge of the Rio Zapes, opens the other end of the bag and empties the beans into a bowl. The other bags seem to have had minimal contact. She searches for 5 empty quart Mason jars, finds three clean ones, one dirty, and she empties out another containing musty flaked coconut. She washes the two jars, dries them with a towel, blasts them with her hairdryer. Then she transfers the rest of the beans into jars. Yellow Eyes. Black Caviar Lentils. Wild Rice. Vaqueros. She thinks of Psyche, separating the lentils from the beans and grains. One of many tasks she performs after sputtering the lamp oil on Eros’ thigh. There’s more cat shit on the sisal rug, more shit packed into one of the complicated wheels of her Herman Miller chair. Bee fetches a scrub brush and a bowl of warm water. The more she wipes, the deeper the shit burrows into the sisal fibers. Bee can’t remember what happens to Psyche when her tasks are completed. She gets something that she is now worthy of, but what is that?

After their first week in lockdown, her friends were already feeling bored and lonely and (even though they didn’t admit it to her) afraid. They were texting her day and night, and the flakiest among them was urgent to make a Facetime date. When it comes to aloneness, they’re such amateurs. Whereas Bee is a pro. Widows are the prima donnas of aloneness. She wants to tell these masked babies—don’t worry about it being more than you can endure—because if that happens you’ll go into shock—and when you’re hit with unendurable loss, shock is the most wonderful gift. Reality/your feelings/memory/the horror of your situation are on the other side of this long narrow tunnel. You couldn’t reach them if you tried. All that muck is replaced by calm. Behind your stumbling words and confusion and even your tears, there is calm. And erasure. She wrote in her journal those early days—“that Kevin ever existed is harder to grasp than his loss.” With everyone alone, the aloneness of her mourning is violated. She’s the one who’s supposed to be wearing the widow’s weeds, the special one who’s set apart, who receives and banishes visitors, capricious as a queen. The plague is stealing her thunder. It’s as if Bee’s grief has seeped out and filled the world. Her isolation is now the human condition. She watches the end of the world, wizened, hunched over, doing whatever it takes—foraging mushrooms and berries, squeezing sustenance out of a mere strip of bark. She places the empty toilet paper tube of American culture over her mouth and chants, “Rooty toot toot.”

For everything Bee wrote since the early 80s up until the week he died, Kevin was the first reader. He was perfect—adoring, but ruthlessly honest. It wasn’t always easy. Once when his changes went on and on and on, she shouted, “If you think my writing is so fucked up, next I’ll just give you my notes, and you can write it yourself.” Sometimes she was softer, interrupting him with: “I need a compliment.” As she writes now, it’s like he’s still there, his brain racing with ideas. She finds herself reworking passages with edits he would have made. Derek McCormack told her that after his horrific experiences with cancer, the way he wrote beforehand no longer made sense. He had to figure out a new way of writing. Bee thinks about this at least once a day. Is the same true for her? If she started writing in a manner Kevin wouldn’t recognize, would she lose her last connection with him? Derek underwent an arduous surgery in which hot chemo was sloshed throughout his abdomen. Bee googled the procedure. Its slang term is “shake and bake,” “shake” for the swishing and “bake” for the heat of the chemo. The cruelty of the epithet shocks Bee. This is the humor of someone who has seen too much, too often, someone who is struggling to maintain their humanity. All that pent up terror and rage, it either explodes inside you or is ejected in a burst of uproarious spittle. To laugh at chaos is to fuck chaos.

Bee walks into the living room and says, “Why am I here?” She’s talking out loud to no one, and her aloneness slaps her. This sort of aloneness destroys people, yet most of the time she hardly registers it. This is not living, she thinks. This is afterlife. The cat squats in the doorway and lets out a runny shit. When Bee finishes wiping it up, since she’s already on her hands and knees, she does a few cat-cow stretches. Her body is so aroused it’s unendurable but she feels no desire, not even a smidgen, so she ignores it. The body won’t stop. I’m here, it shrieks, I need need need need love need touch need some fucking attention. The body is unrelenting. She lets it go for another day or two, then slides a vibrator up and down its clit until she finds a spot inflamed and tense as a zit that’s ready to burst. When she comes, the cat—who’s been sleeping at the foot of the bed—is suddenly beside her, all purrs, rubbing herself against Bee’s arm. Bee laughs and says, “Get away from me, you perv.” Vibrators give the worst orgasm—beneath the rumbling of the buzzy machine, quakes of tender flesh barely register. Kevin was so good with his fingers, she called him a virtuoso, playing her body like a violin. Long, flat and bendable, the vibrator looks like the lovechild of a tongue depressor and a stretched out wad of Silly Putty. It’s mint green with ten speeds and patterns. She washes it in the kitchen sink then takes a photo of it in the dish drainer to text to Donna.

Since the vibrator pic was such a hit with Donna, the following week Bee texts her a photo of the urine-soaked asphalt beside her car from when she went for a walk in the Castro. Because of covid, there are no toilets anywhere. When she returned to her car she had to pee so bad that right there, right in the busy residential neighborhood, she sat sideways in the driver’s seat, half in/half out of the car, pulled down her pants and pissed on the street. Donna replies that her urine photo is “the most superb text I have ever received in my entire life.” She particularly enjoys “the rogue drops of urine ON THE FOOTBOARD OF THE CAR!!!! Completely, utterly sublime. Bravo, madam. Bra-fucking-vo!”

Just as Bee is about to fall asleep she smells something. She gets up and follows the scent, but she can’t find anything. She turns on the flashlight of her iPhone, gets on her hands and knees, and looks under the bed. A pile of diarrhea. Even if she lies on the floor on her stomach she cannot reach it, so she frantically scans her brain for something, anything that can be repurposed as a long-handled scooper. By the time she’s cleaned it up (sort of) she’s so wound up, sleep is hopeless. She retrieves her laptop, logs into Hulu, and continues watching Season 5, Episode 12 of A French Village. Villeneuve has just been liberated and chaos reigns. A mob of townspeople accuse Hortense of being a Kraut whore. They spit on her, strike her, chase her barefoot through the street, haul her in a cart to the town square, where a chair appears for Hortense to sit in as rustic men hack away at her blazing red hair with scissors. It’s a carnival, everybody laughing and hooting and craning their necks for a better view, children included. Hortense sits tense and unmoving, bottling her terror inside. She wasn’t a whore; she was in love with her Nazi—the top Nazi in charge of the town’s occupation. In the midst of grim bureaucracy, they staged a grand, problematic love affair much more exciting than those of the repressed Party-first Communists. The fury of the townspeople is fueled by their jealousy over all the beautiful clothes, booze, and gourmet food lavished upon Hortense, when most of them were starving. The Nazi was charismatic and refined. He and Hortense were thrillingly vivid together. Great onscreen chemistry, Kevin would have said. Even after the Nazi tortured Hortense—he was never portrayed as a nice guy—Bee found herself longing for them to be together. The series often made Bee cringe at her own desires. Nothing is simple and everything is impure. The hair clipping is finally done. Hortense’s ragged bald head accentuates the gaunt angularity of her cheekbones. The camera peers in even closer, filling the screen with bloodshot eyes ringed with clumpy smeared mascara, rivulets of tears flowing downward. Medieval French proverb: “Dogs keep on pissing, and women keep on weeping.”

During the liberation of France, 20,000 women were accused of collaborating (aka sleeping) with the German invaders. Like Hortense, they were publicly humiliated. Some were kicked to death in the streets. Bee first learned of these women from the song “Shaved Women,” (1979) by British anarcho-punk band Crass. The lyrics to “Shaved Women” are minimal and repetitive, mostly “shaved women collaborators” and “screaming babies.” On the back of the record’s cover is a photograph of a shaved woman who is surrounded by a jeering mob as she walks through Chartres holding her German baby. Just when it seems obvious that the timeframe of the song is the 1940s, the lyrics dip into a more modern era: “Shaved women shooting dope/ Shaved women disco dancing.” Women who shave their bodies in order to conform to a hetero-normative dating aesthetic, is that too a form of collaboration? When Eve Libertine belts out “screaming babies,” she enunciates “screaming” at a normal register and “BABIES” as a shriek—screaming BABIES screaming BABIES screaming BABIES over and over, the words grow silly and frantic, a hysterical chant that fuses horror and comedy. The lyrics online read: “babies screaming” rather than “screaming babies.” If the online lyrics are correct, in Libertine’s rendition there is a weird pause between babies and screaming, an unnatural syncopation reflecting a world order that is out of whack. When Libertine shouts “shaved women collaborators,” it’s not clear if she is critiquing the torture of these women or if she’s assuming the position of someone in the crowd announcing their arrival, their shame. The song dips into multiple positions at once—and all of them are shattered. “Shaved Women” doesn’t need the extended melodrama of A French Village to create (anti)meaning. The song throws us into the heart of an irreducible frenzy that hails everything and nothing.

Bee was too shy and anal for the San Francisco punk scene, but she envied the women. They got to be nasty—nasty as men, nasty as children. The daughter of a construction worker, Bee was raised to be nasty. Ribald, over-sexed, and under-classed, she came across as a Baby Boomer Wife of Bath. Employers and local literati alike recoiled from her. Her writing mentors, who were Marxists, told her that writing was a middle class occupation. “If you want to be a writer,” they said, “you need to learn to be more middle class.” Thirty-three years married to Kevin, fighting over his critiques of her public performance, she learned to behave herself. Mostly. When you stick a dog in a tutu a ballerina you do not make. A nasty woman never stops being nasty. She just ceases to bother.

I nil envye no virginitee; Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed, And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed; And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle can, Our lord Iesu refresshed many a man.

Instead of going to sleep, Bee sits up in bed with her phone and googles “Wife of Bath feces.” While the Wife of Bath makes more references to urine than any other pilgrim, she never mentions shit. Bee reads that Chaucer wrote her that way because back then “antifeminist traditions often represented females as liquid, dripping creatures.”

Listening to “Screaming Babies” on repeat, Bee imagines a reverse-engineered version of herself, a vulgar girl who no longer is ashamed, a girl whose words go BOOM BOOM BOOM their thuds so dense they decimate those who would straightjacket her. Bee has the leak of widowhood upon her. She goes forth impenetrable, one of those hard-edged women who having lost everything important to her, can now shuffle through adversity unfazed, like those old ladies in her childhood neighborhood, widows who fled the persecutions of WWII—“DPs” her father called them—the kind of widow who when her toilet is clogged, rolls up a sleeve of her housedress, plunges her arm in the bowl and roots out the impaction with her hand, an aproned widow who acts like she’ll kill you if you step on her lawn. A widow doesn’t care if she’s alone, doesn’t care if she’s fat and old and undesirable, doesn’t even care if she dies. The cat stops in the doorway and makes a sloppy balloon-popping sound. Crouching with her ass puffed out like a blowfish, her front legs extended, she releases an explosion of diarrhea then walks away. Bee’s senses are assaulted, over and over and over. Brute repetition replaces an entire system of meaning. That doesn’t stop Bee from reading messages in all of this. The cat is saying I’m an animal, I will not be personified, will not be contained by your bourgeois expectations, will no longer pretend that the institution of pet is not a form of slavery. That night Kevin comes to her. It’s one of those untranslatable dreams that instantly erase themselves. Bee cries out, struggling to stay inside the dream, his loss a leaden wedge spreading over everything. The alarm rings and she gets up and walks towards the back of the apartment. In the living room there is a main dump then a patch of smaller satellite dumps across the room. In kitchen a scattering of smooth brown drops are arranged like the petals of a flower masterfully stitched on a linen cloth. She just misses stepping in them. The solidity of the cat’s shitting pissing puking body keeps Bee from floating away. In the morning as she feeds her, groggy and irritable, the cat cries desperately. The cat throws herself in front of Bee’s feet as she walks to a cabinet to fetch a can of Mack and Jack. The cat has no sense of past or future, no logic, no patience. A ball of rumbling Id. The cat makes the slightest squeaky meow and Bee knows to turn the kitchen chair in the optimal position for her to jump on the chair then onto the table. As Bee strokes her with a soft boar bristle brush, the cat purrs wildly. She says, “I love you, my little poopy poo.”

Wife of Bath quote from Shawn Normandin, “The Wife of Bath’s Urinary Imagination,” Exemplaria, vol. 20, no. 3, 2008, pp. 244–263.

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Dodie Bellamy

Dodie Bellamy

is a novelist, poet, and essayist, author of numerous genre-bending texts focusing on issues of feminism, sexuality, in favor of vulnerable, broken people.