If Bette Davis was Punished, I Should be Too

I looked out the window of my downtown Duluth, Minnesota apartment, and squinted as the bright sunlight bounced off the solid white of the snow that covered everything. For a moment I thought that it was buried under last night’s snowfall, but it did not take long to realize that the car was gone. “What the fuck?” My expired plates had been obscured by snow and ice for weeks, and I had been shoveling around the vehicle since the heavy snows had begun to make it look like it was being used. The car hadn’t started since Fall. I’d lost my driver’s license when I had been arrested for DUI the Summer before. I began to feel relief moments later. I did not deserve to have the car anyway, and the universe was settling up. Karma.

This was like the Hays Code of Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s. Bad people in the movies had to pay for what they had done. In the 1940 film The Letter, based on William Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play of the same name, Bette Davis ultimately pays for murdering her lover. Not so in the original play. The film begins with shots being fired. We then see a man stumble down the front stairs of a Malaysian rubber plantation home. Davis follows him out of the house and empties the revolver into the man, leaving him dead. She coldly relates the events of the evening to the authorities, then to her husband and his best friend who will become her attorney. Her story never changes. She states that the man, a mere acquaintance of Davis and her husband, had come on to her and attempted to rape her. Davis claims she stumbled as she tried to flee from him, but she was able to retrieve her husband’s revolver from a drawer. She shoots and kills her assailant. Later, it comes to her lawyer’s attention that there is a letter in existence in which Davis had entreated the victim, actually her lover, to come to her home while her husband was away that night. The man, a Mr. Hammond, had recently married a native woman and Davis wasn’t having it. Davis appeals to her attorney’s affection for her husband. She admits her guilt but reminds her attorney what it would do to her husband to know the truth. Her attorney is persuaded to purchase the letter from Mr. Hammond’s wife. Davis’s character is acquitted, and though her husband must eventually learn the truth about what happened because of the amount of money required to procure the letter, he forgives her. She appears to have gotten away with murder. Later that same night, so that the movie will satisfy the Hays Code, Davis’s character is stabbed to death in her back yard by the wife of her lover.

So, the car had to go away. I had left Arizona and moved to Minnesota, vowing to take care of my Grandma Faith whose dementia had been getting increasingly more unmanageable for my Aunt Jane. I had told them both I would get a place for Gramma and I to live, and that I would take care of her. I lied. I drank almost every night, spent or lost all my money, and rarely went to see Gramma. I couldn’t do it. I made it all about me and how hard it was for me to see her the way she was deteriorating. Gramma had been such a proud, independent woman. She had never worn expensive clothes or jewelry, but she was always so well put together. Everything neat and pressed, never a hair out of place, with tasteful, barely visible makeup. She always smelled good too. Now she wore the same sweater nearly every day. I wanted to burn it. I noticed whiskers on her chin and sometimes her breath smelled. She was staying with her daughter, my Aunt Jane, who she now called Nita because she thought she was her sister.

During all of this, I had been driving her car—or what had been her car. She had given it to me, the useless drunk who had failed to help her. I did not do what I had moved there to do, and it was only one thing: to take care of her.

Gramma soon moved into Maple Manor, a nursing home. She had become too much for my aunt to handle—rummaging through drawers and cabinets all hours of the night and attempting to leave the apartment on her own. I had promised that nursing facility placement would never happen, yet there we were. For some reason, it was difficult for me to drive her car to visit her. I did not have trouble finding the bars and liquor stores with the red Oldsmobile. I made it to Maple Manor a handful of times. She would be wearing wrinkled clothes, and each time the whiskers on her face grew longer. She’d think I was my father and ask when she could use her car. I would leave in tears every time. I drank every day and hated myself for failing her. I hated myself for drinking every day. She died in Maple Manor, and I hadn’t been there to see her in months.

One night, intoxicated, I drove her car onto the sidewalk, in front of the police station. I deliberately mowed down a speed limit sign, tearing off part of the car’s exhaust system. I wanted the police to see me—to haul me in and punish me. They needed to make me pay for lying to my Gramma and failing to take care of her. I couldn’t get away with what I had done. I sure as hell did not deserve that car. As I drove back off the sidewalk and onto the street, I looked around. I waited for my just desserts. Where was Mr. Hammond’s wife now? I deserved that knife in my heart just as much as Davis’s evil Leslie Crosbie. As I drove home, the only thing behind me was the shower of sparks caused by the muffler dragging under the vehicle. No deputy’s sedan. No Hays Code. I arrived home safely. Months later, Gramma’s car wouldn’t start. I did not have the money to fix it, so it sat on the street. Until that morning when it was gone. Towed by the city of Duluth.

The car being gone was a relief. I didn’t even try to get it back. She should have given it to someone else. I was not worthy of the gift, and the universe had intervened. There would be no dramatic stabbing, but I no longer possessed a car which I had not deserved. The fact that I still hated myself and continued to drink was just Karma.


Todd Alan Sikkilä, a licensed practical nurse, is a senior at University of Louisville, majoring in English. He is currently a student editor/intern at Miracle Monocle.