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devotion; or, the ballad of elizabeth cooper

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verse one

Betty sits cross-legged in the grass, turning the pages of her favorite book. Her sister jumps rope beside her, then falls onto her back, giggling. Her sister, called Polly, has blonde hair and blue eyes. So does Betty, though Betty’s eyes are green sometimes.

“Let’s blow bubbles in the breeze,” says Polly. Betty puts a red bookmark between the crisp pages. Her sister chases the bubbles, and she chases her sister. The bubbles float around their heads, up and up and up. She sees a twinkling light among them and opens her hand to catch it.

Her mother scolds, “No, Elizabeth!” Elizabeth is her grandmother’s name. It is a reminder. Elizabeth is whom she is supposed to be. She is called Betty, because Betty is not enough.

Later, she watches a red-haired boy in his bedroom from her bedroom window. He opens his window, and she opens hers. He leans out and says, “Call me Archie.”

He invites her to scramble along the banks of the Sweetwater River. He leads her to a boy with hair as black as the ink in her favorite books. This boy wears a crown like a prince, though the other children say he is a jughead.

Archie says, “We will be the Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all.” They slice their palms and shake hands to share the blood. Betty looks at the red on her hands and smiles at the proof of their devotion.

verse two

Her mother teaches her which fork to use, how to pen cursive, when to beg pardon. She orders her to be the the cleverest, so Betty reads and reads. She lifts her palm high above her head to share the facts she knows. The teachers call her a smart cookie. Her mother orders her to be the prettiest, but Betty cannot make herself the prettiest. The red-haired girl holding court on the playground reminds her.

Her father teaches her to take apart the engine of his baby blue convertible. Betty follows orders. She puts it back together, better. She washes the black oil from her hands, then softens them with lotion. She wants to take herself apart, then put herself back together, better.

“At least,” she thinks, “I am one of the Three Musketeers. At least I have my sister.”

verse three

Betty leaves to read her favorite book among the sunbeams. When she comes back, her sister is gone, and the red-haired boy her sister loves, not-Archie, has washed up on the banks of the Sweetwater River.

Her mother looks at her, but sees Polly’s face and sees her own. Her father looks at her, sees his mother’s face and sees his own. Betty says, “I am Betty!” If they do not see her, nor know her, can they love her?

At home, alone, she makes the mahogany bed posts gleam. She ices cakes she will not eat, blanketing them in pink flowers. She watches the red-haired boy in his bedroom from her bedroom window.

Good ol’ Archie is still there. He won’t leave. But he does not see her, nor know her, nor love her. She watches him sit in the diner, sharing a milkshake with a prettier girl with hair as black as her silk and lace dress.

Betty asks, “Why am I alone? Where is my sister?” She digs her nails into her palms as proof of her devotion.

verse four

Betty leads the ink-haired boy into the school newspaper office. He calls himself Jughead now. He says the storyteller is the same no matter his nom de plume. The story is the same without its cover.

Betty squares her shoulders and tells him, “We have to be the heroes.” They will be Nick and Nora Charles; they will be Nancy Drew and Ned Nickerson; they will be Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. They’ll be intrepid detectives like the ones in her favorite book, and they will find her sister.

They find her locked in a stone cell. Polly’s face is round, and her belly is round. Betty cries, “I will save you!” but her sister doesn’t believe her, so she jumps from the window into the sugary forest. She leaves and comes back and leaves again, heedless of Betty chasing her.  

verse five

Jughead climbs in her bedroom window and kisses her, gentle, among the pink flowers. (Betty has never kissed a boy before.) He touches her squared shoulder, reverent. She smiles, floating up and up and up and up into the bubbles and the twinkling lights.

He says, “I know you, Betty, and I love you.” She runs her fingers through his ink-black hair. He opens her hands and kisses the bloody slices there. She is enough.

verse six

Jughead’s father is locked in a stone cell. Jughead says, “I’ll need a new family.” Betty hears, “Not enough.” She clutches him with her bloody hands and begs him to stay, but he pulls away, walking through glowing neon light to boys in leather jackets.

Letters arrive, letters from an enemy, in code from her favorite book. Her enemy says, “I will take apart your sister, your ink-haired  boy, the pretty girl in the black silk and lace dress. You must leave them.” Betty calls, but Jughead does not answer.

She follows orders, crying, though no one sees her, so no one knows.

She watches Jughead sit in the diner, sharing a milkshake with a prettier girl with pink hair and a leather jacket. She thinks, “He doesn’t miss me and my bloody hands. His aren’t red like mine are.” Good ol’ Archie offers to vanquish her enemy with her, so she kisses him, gentle. He says, “Betty.” She hears, “Not enough.”

 

Jughead comes back. She climbs a stage in the glowing neon light so she can wear a leather jacket. She unhooks her black lace bra. She takes herself apart for him. The men are a blur of graying stubble and leather, and they smack on the bartop with their open palms. They flex their hands and finger their belt buckles. They laugh and jeer. Jughead is quiet. He frowns and says, “You don’t belong here. I have to leave to be your hero.” She hears, “Not enough.”

verse seven

Betty will prove her devotion. She will be an intrepid detective. She will be a hero.

When a bad boy in a letterman jacket hurts her sister, Betty squares her shoulders. She blackens her hair, puts on black lace, and she makes him cry.

When her sister cries for her lost red-haired lover, Betty squares her shoulders. She tells the world who killed him, and his killer swings from the rafters of his gothic mansion.

When her ink-haired boy longs for his father, Betty squares her shoulders. She orders the regal red-haired girl to unlock his stone cell, and she makes her cry as she frees him.

When her mother cries for her lost son, Betty squares her shoulders. She finds him. And when he is not her lost son, and there is blood on the white carpet, she washes it and offers him up to her enemy.

Betty chases her enemy so she can vanquish him.

 

Jughead comes back with blood on his hands and says, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” He unzips her pink lace dress with its ruffle hem as she kisses him, gentle, then not so gentle, and her moans echo in the empty trailer. He murmurs, “You are enough.”

He opens his hands. “Mine are as red as yours are. We will be heroes for each other.”

verse eight

Her enemy is her father, who wanted to kill her. Betty sits in her bedroom among the pink flowers, alone. She springs open her lover’s silver switchblade to slice the code from the crisp pages of her favorite book. She springs open his father’s silver lighter to burn the pages.

Her father, the killer, who wanted to kill her, is locked in a stone cell. Betty goes to him to ask why there is blood on his hands.

He asks her, “Why is there blood on yours?”

“It is proof of my devotion.”

He nods. “You understand, then.”

Betty straightens her shoulders. “My eyes are not so green.”

He says, “But they are, sometimes.” He smiles. “You are a Cooper, and you belong to me.”

“I will not be a Cooper, then,” she tells him, “I will be a Jones.”

Betty will wear a leather jacket; she will ride on the back of her lover’s motorcycle. If they have to, but only if they have to, they will toss the limp bodies of their enemies on the side of the highway. They will kiss, gentle and not so gentle, and press their red palms together as proof of their devotion. And when they die by the switchblades they lived by, at least she won’t die alone.