let's call her Barbara
My wife and I were sitting in the parking lot outside the restaurant when she said,
"I’ve been saving a story for you."
She did that sometimes, my lawyer wife. Held stories in reserve. Used them like patches at the knees of our worn relationship. She would bring out a story about how the day's, week's, or month's accumulation of abuse, rape, burglary, and murder cut through her faith. How she reacted to the child killed crossing the street after looking both ways, the way her parents taught her.
We had had a hard dinner, with many lengthy pauses. It was a truce table, a breathing space between yelling at the kids and thinking about what we needed to say to each other but couldn't. The food was tasty—black bean soup and blackened lamb chops for me, artichoke soup and scampi for her. The view over the bay in the fading light provided an excuse to turn our eyes away from each other without shame.
"It's about a woman," she began. "Let's call her Barbara."
She's almost always Barbara in these stories. Mitch if it's a guy.
"Barbara read a book, called Poison Parents, about how parents abuse their children by belittling them, berating them, and making them feel they are doomed to fail. It shows how these toxic childhoods remain in the blood, contaminating the child's life on into adulthood. The book encourages the crippled child or adult or whoever is reading to confront the parents and talk it all out. The book describes the abuse as like hardened arteries; the confrontation is called an emotional bypass."
"Nice metaphor," I said.
"Barbara told me her dad would hit her when she cried. He disappeared when she was five. Her mother blamed her for her father leaving. She swore at her, slapped and spanked her, and sent her to bed without meals. She threw food at her if she wouldn't eat, then made her clean up the floor. Barbara said she was in tears when she read the book; she felt like it was a transcript of her life. I've seen her copy. It's marked up, underlined, the corners of pages turned down, some pages water-stained.
"Barbara's divorced, with two kids of her own. She lives in Fresno, her mother's here in Sunnyvale. She decided she needed to confront her mother. She found a neighbor to sit with her children, got in her car, and drove to her mother's house."
"She didn't call first?" I asked.
"No. She said she wanted to surprise her. She said she thought it would be easier for them to talk if her mother didn't have any warning. She just walked in on her mother and dumped all these years of accumulated anger and hurt at her mother's feet."
We were driving home. I glanced at my wife, who was looking at me while she talked, her hands in her lap.
"The book says that the mother is supposed to react to this information, realize something about herself. Give in or apologize. Say something that leads to a reconciliation."
"It didn't work out that way. Her mother let Barbara in, smoked a cigarette while her daughter ranted, then just laughed at her. She told Barbara to get the hell out of her house and never come back. At least that's what Barbara told me happened."
"Did Barbara leave?"
"Yes. Right away. She walked out the door, got back in her car and drove back to Fresno. She parked the car in front of her own house but she couldn't make herself get out of the car. She just sat there, she doesn't know how long. Then she decided she needed to let her mother know what a bitch she was. So she turned the car around again and drove back to Sunnyvale.”
"This isn't going to turn out well," I said, as I turned into our driveway.
My wife nodded.
“Barbara said she parked her car across the street from her mother's house and rang the doorbell but no one answered. So she sat in her car waiting for her mother to come home. ‘She was always a slut,’ Barbara told me about her mother, out all night, drunk when she would get home.
"Barbara said she fell asleep. She woke just before six. Her mother was getting out of her car. Barbara watched her drop her house keys, then slip when she bent to pick them up. She waited while her mother walked to the front door, then ran across the street and pushed her mother through the doorway and onto the floor. She says she didn't say a word, just began hitting her with her fists. Her mother fell to the ground. Barbara sat on her, wrapped her hands around her mother’s neck and strangled her. When her mother stopped moving, Barbara stood up and stared down at her. She heard bird calls, looked around, and saw the front door was still wide open. She walked out of the house, got into her car, drove to the police station and turned herself in."
We are parked at our house now, neither of us making a move to go inside where a sitter waits for me to drive her home. I turn to my wife.
"Did she confess? The whole story, including the book?" I asked.
"Worse. The cops get her to say she was 'lying in wait' for her mother to return home so she could kill her. That's the formal phrase that defines the murder as premeditated. If she had only driven two blocks farther and gotten to me or someone else at the PD's office we could have helped her turn herself in, gotten the charge down to manslaughter. Now God knows."
I couldn't hear the words "God knows" anymore without hearing our daughter ask me one night when I used the expression, "Daddy, how do you know God knows if you don't know there's a God to know?"
I decided it was time to kiss my lawyer wife. Not to heal anything, but because we were still sitting there, in the car, with our seat belts fastened. We sat that way another ten minutes, my hand around my wife's neck, hers resting on my thigh, and talked about whatever it is two people talk about after ten years married to each other when they don't know how much longer it's going to go on but do know it's not something to regret. What was it that time?—Barbara’s fate? Who would shop the next day? How worn my wife looked from stories—from events—like these? How we couldn’t continue to avoid talking about how little we talked nowadays?
And in that way, we made it through the front door. The sitter told us how our son had trouble getting to sleep and kicked her twice in the shins when she tried to put him back to bed. I drove her home, thanked her, apologized for Benny and paid her extra to make up for the kicks. My wife was waiting up when I returned home. We shared a leftover piece of cake.
PAUL SKENAZY grew up in Chicago and taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and was a mystery and thriller columnist for the Washington Post. He published books and articles on James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and other noir writers. 'Temper CA', a novel set in the California Gold Country, won the 2018 Miami University Press Novella Prize and 2020 Golden Crown Literary Society Prize for Debut Novel. He lives in Santa Cruz with his wife, the poet Farnaz Fatemi.
In a different form, Let's Call Her Barbara previously won a prize sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz.
(Image credit: The Labyrinth Village by Raphaël Biscaldi, 2017)