A Shred of Decency by Kate Bergquist

In between wracking coughs and long, thirsty swigs of Jim Beam, Bessie takes a good hard look at Burt’s face. “That storm. It’s brewing again. In your eyes,” she says, craning her neck to study his mixture of dark blue twisted with gray and green; changeable eyes that reflect his mood. Somber, with a pinch of angry.

“You can’t hide it from me.”

The look of her neck irritates Burt. It’s repulsive: goose-long and reed-thin with multiple folds of loose, wrinkled skin.

“Wouldn’t even try, Mother,” he says flatly. Burt hasn’t been to The Allenton Home in Dorchester in over two weeks, and he only stopped by today because of insistence of the nursing home administrator, Mrs. Howland. The woman actually had the gall to call him and admonish him for not seeing Bessie more frequently. He wanted to tell Mrs. Howland the truth: that he’d hoped his mother would be long dead by now. But she just keeps on keeping on, like a clock that slowed down but doesn’t know how to stop ticking, despite a softening of the brain, a rotted liver and paper-thin lungs. 

“A woman could get lost in that storm,” she says, wiping a bit of drool from the corner of her mouth. “Sooner or later, they’ll see there’s no sunlight behind those dark clouds – just a whole lot of nothing,” Bessie continues, shaking her head sadly, “a giant vacuum of empty space. They’ll be sucked into all that nothingness and never find their way out.” Then, after a long pause, “Thank God, Ellen divorced you. She figured out what I’ve always known. You’re no good. You don’t have one shred of common decency.”

“Yeah? Well, I only have you to thank for that.” Dear old Bess. Pernicious to the very end. Never offers a compliment without twisting it into a curse. Burt owes her nothing. Decency? Burt bites his bottom lip as memories of his childhood punch their way into his mind like fresh hematomas. That bedroom closet, where he spent countless nights, locked in darkness without even a pillow. He’d wedge himself behind the hanging coats and dresses, barricade himself behind the racks of high heels. Don’t you dare make a noise; you hear me? They can’t know you’re in there. Don’t cough, don’t sneeze, don’t even breathe. He made himself small and silent as he listened to the relentless squeaking of the bed springs and the drunken groans of desperate men. Burt mashed his hands against his ears, but sounds slipped through the cracks between his fingers. Afraid of the dark, he’d focus on the thin lip of light beneath the door, and lifted his feet so that he didn’t step on the shadows.

One night, one of the more aggressive men pushed his mother into the closet door. “Slut!” He heard the man yell. She giggled in return, “Aw, honey, let’s see what you got,” and then Burt heard some slapping noises and the sound of clothing being ripped.

And then…a muffled scream. Burt shot upright, knocking his head into some hangers.

They clanged to the floor. A loud intake of breath as the closet door slid open. A sweating monster loomed above him, reeking of tobacco and stale beer.

“Bessie, what the —?

“–ignore him, Harry. He’s nothing. Shut up and get back in there, you little creep.”

That night, as punishment, she withheld Burt’s supper. He was supposed to have his maple-flavored oatmeal, his favorite, and his belly was grumbling. Instead, she said she had a long needle and she was going to extract all of his blood with it and fill his veins with paint. She went so far as to actually show him the needle, and press it against his skin. She told him that when the paint started to dry, all of his veins would explode.

The next day, Burt found a can of black paint in the back of the closet.

Without knowing it, he had been sitting on it for the past several nights.

He was afraid to go to sleep after that. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he shone a flashlight to his wrist and made tiny cuts just to make sure his blood was still liquid.

Burt has already strangled three older women in the city. Four, if he counts the sweet old gal who crumpled dead from fright as soon as he touched her neck. He follows them home, introduces himself, offers to carry their grocery bags up the stairs. Once they feel safe, you’re such a nice young man, you remind me of my son, they usually ask him in for a cup of tea. He is soft-spoken with them, courteous. They are kind to him, gentle. He likes being near them. They never expect his sudden rage, and neither does Burt. They will be having a pleasant chat about the weather, or right in the middle of showing him photographs of their own grown children when Burt suddenly realizes he is no longer standing there; he is watching a violent tempest from above. Afterwards, when the winds are calm again, and he gets a close look at what he has done to these women — horrific, vile things, things no man should ever do to a woman – there is no peace, there is no release.

There is only shame.  

Burt taps his mother’s tight, spongy curls just a tad too hard. Plunks down a carton of Tareyton’s on the bedside table. Her favorite. Wrapped with gold paper and a big red bow.

Death sticks. Suck ‘em all down, Ma, as fast as you can.

“Happy Birthday, Mother,” Burt says. “And we can only hope, that with any kind of luck there will not be another.” 

Bessie waves him off. “Nice suit. Who’dya steal that from?” She picks at a fleck of green caught between her teeth. She coughs and spits into a hanky. She asks him to turn on her favorite soap opera.

She has been here a whole year, in this pricey dump. All those years spent on her back, for this? The only thing left now is the Beacon Street apartment, and he is a month behind on the rent. He was recently fired from his job as an encyclopedia salesman, after one of the women customers told his boss he was “strange.” But door-to-door sales is a tough business, especially in Boston, especially now. Getting women to answer the doorbell for a stranger just isn’t easy these days.

Not even for Burt.

As soon as she is focused on The Edge of Night, Burt slips his right hand into Bessie’s robe pocket and fishes out a wad of wrinkled dollar bills. And tucks it into his suit coat pocket.

She owes him everything.                   

As he turns to leave, a nurse bustles into the room to dispense his mother’s pills. He admires her swirl of dark hair, her high cheekbones. In her starched white nurse’s uniform, she’s one tight little piece; she sets her dark moon eyes on Burt. He feels an erotic shiver.

“Be a dear and hand me my pillow.” The nurse dutifully fluffs it, and gently hands it to Bessie, all the while studying Burt with unabashed interest.

“Hello. I’m…Burt.”


“Good to meet you.”

He feels her glittering eyes on his back as he exits the room.

In the hallway, Burt takes careful note of the Ademco wall alarm system. Top of the line and recently installed. I paid for that. Burt bows gallantly to Mrs. Howland before he strides out of the building.

He listens as she dutifully locks the door behind him.

A few hours later, sitting in his iridescent blue Impala, Burt drums his fingers on the white leather two-spoke steering wheel, watching the worn wipers whip back and forth, slapping fruitlessly against the rain. Crap. He should have gotten new ones when he changed the oil last week. He catches another whiff of nursing home smell on his suit. Urine with a side of Mr. Clean. Disgusting. He wasted a whole hour of his day in that blasted place.

Burt turns his attention back to the street. He is parked across from The Crawford House, in Scollay Square. Despite the darkening sky, it’s still early for burlesque and fifty-cent beers. But he wants to see Sally one last time. This area is always brightly-lit; usually jam-packed with sailors, party girls and drunken college men, but today the rain is keeping many of them inside.

Jazz music booms through the brick walls. Trombones and a smooth sax. Funeral music would be more appropriate, he thinks, since the whole bloody square is days away from the wrecking ball. A damn shame, too. Critics call this part of Boston a den of moral decay, but to Burt it is a special place. He has spent many of his happiest hours here in this deliciously seedy district. Now the politicians have decided to purge the so-called debauchery with their proposed “civic renewal.” What a joke. No doubt there will be real moral decay once the government moves in. After all, he thinks, when you get right down to it, politicians are the real psychopaths.

The rain slows to a mist and Burt kills the engine. He gets out of the car and strides across Cambridge Street. The damp wind slips into his suit and chills his skin. Burt can see Sally’s golden Cadillac parked in front of Crawford House, and he picks up his step. He can’t afford to miss her this time.

This is his last chance.

A small crowd is gathered around her fancy car. The door opens and a beautiful woman gets out, her platinum blonde hair erected into a bouffant. “Miss Keith! Miss Keith!” Burt can see that Sally Keith loves the attention. She’s fifty if she’s a day, but that doesn’t bother Burt one bit. She is one high-class broad.

Queen of the Tassels.

And he is finally going to meet her!

Burt first caught her show years ago, when he was a young sailor fresh out of the Navy, working nights as a dishwasher. Talk about God-given talent, Sally could make you dizzy with those tassels; her pectorals had the most amazing ability to swing those things this way and that way, back and forth, twirling and twisting your mind into a merry-go-round of burlesque pleasure. She danced in bright, beautifully plumed costumes and she had real class. And Boston loved her. Some of the crowd was from Beacon Hill, for Pete’s sake. Plenty of women in the audience, too, and if some blushed, none felt ashamed. Sally was comfortable in her own skin, and she made everyone else feel comfortable, too.

She is sexy, but not dirty. An important distinction, in his mind.                                                                                                                 

Burt steps over a large puddle swirling into a drain. He sets his shoulders square and focuses directly on Sally’s face. She catches him in her side vision, and turns to look at him. She gives him a long, slow appraisal, from his polished leather Florsheim tassel loafers (selected especially for this event) to his hair, trimmed short on the sides and full at the top, parted on the left side. He holds up his stolen Boston Globe press badge and smiles.

She parts her red bow lips and he catches a glimpse of white. He moves in on her with confidence and lust. He wants to take her all in, lift her to his nose like a bouquet, breathe in the perfume of her skin, her hair…he will tell her how much she has meant to him, all these years. And he can almost smell her, ground cinnamon and a hint of vanilla, when her right hand shoots up.

“Back off! Too close! Too close!”

Did she just…yell at him? A burly man lowers Sally’s umbrella, grabs his shoulder and cold-cocks him so hard that Burt loses his balance and falls backwards into a puddle. “Hey asshole, you want an autograph or a broken nose?” 

He is speechless. He wants to explain that all he wants is a few minutes of her time, just a little chat, just some time to say hello and goodbye and to tell her all the little special things he holds in his heart for her, but his mouth won’t form words. He can hear people laughing at him. He is back in the closet, forbidden to speak. His lips can only form a sneer. Burt gazes up at Sally and she looks down at him with disgust.

His hair is thrown sideways, the back of his coat and pants are completely soaked.

He can take a punch. But he didn’t see that one coming. I’ll kill the bitch. I’ll killkillkillkillkill. He gets up and brushes himself off; he wants to pummel the bodyguard’s head until his knuckles hit brain matter.

Out of the corner of his eye, though, he spies a patrol car turning the corner. Burt takes a couple deep breaths and storms back to his car.

He checks his face in the mirror. No blood, but he’ll have a good bruise for a few days. As he turns the key in the ignition, he hears a sharp rap on the passenger window. Burt glances over and glimpses his salvation: her head tilts forward, a veil of shining hair frames her face, her mischievous smile. He hesitates, then leans over and rolls the window down about half-way.

“Burt?” As she pushes her head into the car, her cleavage presses heavily against the glass. “Thought that was you!”

It’s her. The hot nurse from Allenton. He motions for her to enter, and she opens the door and gets in. He can feel a twitch in his upper lip; his anger quickly turning to desire. The blood rush makes him dizzy. She smiles demurely and offers a gloved hand. “Isabella.”

Burt takes a deep breath, starts to relax. “Yes, of course. Good to meet you…again.” And after a pause, he says, “She seems to really like you.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she says, suppressing a laugh. “Bessie can be an intolerable bitch sometimes.” Her dark eyes go wide. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I hope you—”

“—please don’t apologize. Believe me, I get it.”

Isabella giggles and blushes. Burt notices how creamy her skin is – luminous even in the drab light. Coffee with steamed milk. Short, but well-proportioned. Small waist, big bust. Slender neck. And she smells good, too. Clean. Really clean. Not a smoker. All the other nurses he’s known smoke and drink heavily. He pegs her at twenty-four, twenty-five tops. A shiver of lust works its way up his spine. God, she’s gorgeous. And she has that indescribable mixture of innocence and sexuality that makes him crazy.

“Isabella. Beautiful name for a dazzling woman.”

“Aw, that’s sweet.”

“Here to paint the town?”

She laughs, showing her teeth. “Thought I might grab a drink. And get some food, too, I’m starving. But—I saw what happened over there, so I thought I’d come over to say hello.” She seems nervous. She hesitates, then says, “Actually, I live just a little way from here, over on Bowdoin.”

“Happy to drive, doll.”

“Oh, Burt, that’s swell. I hope you don’t think me terribly bold. I’m really not. But I thought you might want to…dry off or something.”

Her place is on the third floor of a stately brownstone. Burt is a little winded from all the stairs, and tries to hide it from Isabella. He catches his breath while he takes a little extra time removing his shoes. When she opens the door, he walks over to the bay window in his stocking feet and looks out at the street. The streetlights bleed rivers of light onto the sidewalk.

He looks around the apartment. She’s lived here a while, he can tell; there is an air of relaxation here. Must make a bunch of dough to afford all this, and then he sighs, realizing that she is a big part of the reason why there is almost no money left in his mother’s bank account. Everything is so…clean. So perfectly placed.

She locks the door behind them, slides the deadbolt. “Can’t be too careful, these days.”    

“Especially after inviting a strange man into your home.” Burt can’t resist. He smiles charmingly at Isabella. She thinks she knows me, through Bessie. She thinks I’m safe.

“Get you a drink? I make a mean martini.”

“Great. I take mine dirty.”

“You got it, Burt. I’ll fix us some sandwiches, too. The bathroom’s down the hall. Oh –” she turns and fixes her sparkling eyes on him. “–in the bedroom bureau you’ll find some clean scrub trousers. I think they’ll fit. Bottom drawer. My dad—he’s a physician over at City Hospital – he stays here once in a while when he’s too tired to drive home.”

Ah, so that’s it. Daddy helps pay the rent. Burt feels himself tense. Isabella sees the look on his face and laughs. “Relax. He’s in Bermuda with my mother. For a whole week. Celebrating their thirtieth.”

Burt unclenches his fists and crosses the living room, trying to forget the other man in her life. He notices some framed photographs on the walls. All black and white, all cityscapes of Boston at twilight. He stops.

There’s something unsettling about them. Something he can’t quite put his finger on.

“You take these?”

“Yeah, it’s a hobby.”

“You got…real talent.” Burt studies them a bit closer, noticing that she manipulates light in an unusual way. There’s a haunted look to them. And that’s when realizes that the whole apartment is furnished in white, gray and black. So stark. So…monochromatic. It’s very…soothing, he thinks. It’s…elegance, pared down to bone.

In the bedroom, he strips off his sodden pants and suit coat. He feels odd about wearing another man’s clothes, but he really has no choice unless he wants to walk around in his underwear.  He finds the scrubs, pulls them on.

They fit great. He is starting to feel comfortable here. Maybe Isabella will be my girl. Looks, brainsand money. She is everything he wants. When he returns to the kitchen, he sees she’s put together quite the spread. Meatloaf sandwiches, cheese squares and sliced pineapple.

“Hope you’re hungry,” she says, and hands him a martini. Her red lipstick is so bright against the white kitchen. He sees the pulsating spot at her throat and he wants to press his lips to it.

She brings the silver tray of food to the living room. They get cozy on the couch, and chat while they eat. He can’t believe how gorgeous she is. He has to ask. “Why would a high-class girl like you want to hang out with a low-life like me?”

“Low life? C’mon, Burt. Give yourself some credit. You’re handsome, smart–”


“You could get a new job tomorrow if you put your mind to it.”

“My mind is what gets me into trouble.”

“Well, stop thinking so much. We’re celebrating! Here’s to your next phase in life.” She lifts the martini glass and they clink. He drains his glass, then puts his arm around her shoulder and breathes in her delicious almond scent. He notices her fine silver locket, hanging from a delicate filagree chain. If things don’t work out between them, he’ll nick it from her cleavage. That one locket might bring in enough dough to catch him up on his rent. He is already feeling doubtful about a relationship. After all, what do they have in common, really?

Just one thing.


Isabella snuggles close and presses her head to his chest. “That’s better.” She takes his hand. “See? It’s not all that hard to relax with me.”

“I’m getting there,” Burt says, feeling warmth spreading into his chest. He reaches down to fondle her breasts but her skin feels oddly itchy beneath his fingertips. And the sofa…it’s just so incredibly comfortable. His eyelids are heavy and he thinks he might close them for just a minute. He lets his head fall back against the cushion.

“Another drink, Burt?” It sounds like she is speaking to him from very far away. He can’t suppress the yawn. She gets up from the couch and he can hear her rustling around in the kitchen closet. “I’ll just be a minute,” she says.

It seems like she is gone a long time. He wants to get up from the sofa but it keeps getting softer; or perhaps his limbs and muscles are getting heavier. Just as he starts drifting off, he hears a metallic noise, like metal scraping on metal. And a squeaking wheel.

He forces his eyes into a painful squint.

Isabella stands before him, lustrous hair swept into a bun, dressed head-to-toe in a white jumpsuit, with a starched white apron tied across the front. And a clear plastic rain bonnet wrapped around her hair. “Don’t try to get up, Burt. Just…rest.”

He can feel his sluggish pulse. He tries to stand, but he can’t move. He wants to open his mouth but he can barely part his lips. “Whuthf,” is all he can say; it sounds like he is passing wind.

Isabella bends over a steel cart, and selects various hoses and clamps. Her hands are clad in surgical gloves. He watches in horror as she wipes his right arm down with rubbing alcohol.


She smiles sweetly as she connects tubing to a second bag.

“It’s an infusion pump,” she explains, pointing to a second intravenous machine. “This one extracts the blood. And the other one pumps it in. Out with the old, in with the new. It’s very efficient, as you will see. My father invented it. It’s used for transfusions all over the country.” She is very clinical with him now. She sees his eyes screaming holy hell at her but it doesn’t move her one bit. She is cold, so very cold. When she meets his eyes, a hint of a smile plays at the corners of her mouth.

“This isn’t personal, you know. It’s just…something that needs to be done.”

Burt feels bile rise in his throat and he can barely swallow the burn. Why is she doing this? She slides something from behind the coffee table and pries off the tin-plated cover with a screwdriver. Taking care not to spill or drip, she carefully clips the paint can to the machine and squeezes the plastic tubing. He can see black liquid rising up into the bag.

“I’ve learned a lot from Bessie,” she says. “She might be old, she might be crochety, but she’s very wise. She’s the one who told me that there was something off about you. Something terribly off. So, I decided to find out for myself. I followed you. I watched you. I know who you are, what you do.”

He tries to plead with her through his slitted eyes.

“Think of this as a public service, Burt. An act of common decency. This is me, protecting the public from you. And trust me, if you stay relaxed, if you welcome it, it really won’t hurt very much.” She winks at him. “I’m very good at what I do.”

She taps the inside of his arm and sighs. “You’ve got such a lovely median cubital vein.” He winces as the needle punctures him, wide as a shovel blade. There’s a hot rush of pain as he feels his veins expanding with the viscous stream, the dark fluid filling up all his hollow spaces. He wonders if a light will lead him on this last voyage, but all that he sees are shadows.     

Kate Bergquist has an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier University in New Hampshire. Her work appears in Idle Ink, The Chamber Magazine, and Rural Fiction Magazine. Another recent story was included in the anthology Murder on Her Mind: Women who Kill, Volume 2. Kate finds inspiration along the Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs. She can be reached at firstlightkate@gmail.com.