Friday, May 6, 2016

Chapter 3, Bad Novel

There was something strange about her, something I had never seen, or especially felt.

The way she grabbed my arm, for example—it was as fast as a snake bite, and the grip was super strong. Where did it come from? She was, after all, over 70; I’m in my teens. But I swear, once she grabbed me, she wasn’t going to let go. And that glare, as she plunged my hand into the toilet bowl! She was completely certain that she had me in her grip, and she was right.

“It’s something we’ve all noticed,” said Sister Barbara. “My, I declare she could pick up a car, if she’d a mind to. And she never does a thing to stay strong. She just is, and will always be….”

The stories about her were legendary. Born in Transylvania, she had come to the United States as a young girl, accompanied by her mother, who was a spiritist.

“A spiritualist?” I asked Sister Barbara, who could talk for hours about the Blessed Mother.

“Don’tcha let her hear you call her that,” said Sister Barbara. “A spiritualist is a fraud, according to the Blessed Mother. No, a spiritist is the woman with the real gift, not some huckster who tells you that you will meet the man of your dreams or find a great treasure. No, a spiritist will tell you the truth—that ill health awaits you, that a death is close to you, that business will go bad before it turns good again. She’ll warn you of the dangers in your path, not tell you about some imaginary rosy future….”

“You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“Mighty strange things happen when she’s around,” said Sister Barbara. “Haven’t you noticed that there’s something about the way she looks at you? It’s like you can’t look away. And then, you start telling her things you don’t mean to. Not lies—just things you’d never say to another human being. First time I met her, I told her all about my brother, who died from the measles, combined with pneumonia.”

“That must have been hard….”

“That’s the thing—I hadn’t never told anyone about it. Mostly because it was my fault—I’d gone off to school, and come back home with the measles. Mother told me not to go near my brother, said she was scared to death he’d catch the measles. But I didn’t pay her no mind. And when my doll went missing, I knew just who was responsible. So I charged into my brother’s bedsroom, and demanded he give it back. And he just laughed…”

“So what did you do?”

“I told him I knew he had it, and he denied it. So I sat down on his bed, and told him I wasn’t gonna move ‘til he gave it back. So he just kept laughing, and then I noticed that he was guarding his pillow. So I asked whether the doll was under that pillow. He said no, and I said it was too, and we got into a fight, the way kids do, and I was wrestling with him to take away the pillow. Well, we were pulling and tugging at the pillow, both of us, and our faces were just about touching. And then, my brother stiffened and just stared at the bedroom door.”

“What was it?”

“It was my mom, who’d just returned from the dump. She’d taken all the sheets I’d used, and the towel, and my rag doll to the dump, ‘cause she was terrified that they were all infectious. So when I missed my doll, it was she—not my brother—who’d taken it. And now, there I was in his room, all but coughing on him. Never forget the look on her face….”

“What was it?”

“She was madder than hops. She just took me by the arm, marched me out of the room, and like to have thrown me into the bed. Then she slammed the door, and I knew better than to ask to come out. Well, I waited there, crying my head off, and then Papa came in, and brought me dinner. Didn’t say a word, just sat by the bed, and watched me. Well, I was hungry, but I couldn’t eat—my stomach was all in knots. Finally, he said something….”

“What was it?”

“Asked me why I done it, and I couldn’t tell him. He said, ‘didn’t your momma tell you to stay outta the boy’s room?’ And I just started crying harder. Told him I was sorry, but he just kept lookin’ at me, and askin ‘why, Barbara? Why?’”

“Then what happened?”

“Well, he got up, and said, ‘now I’m going to leave you,’ and he went to the door, turned off the light, and said ‘goodnight.’ ‘Course, the moment he left, I wanted to run after him and tell him the truth, tell him that I hadn’t realized momma had taken the doll, tell him I never thought that Jeb, by brother, was so sick. Just didn’t think. But I couldn’t, and the next day, I got the news that my brother had broken out with the measles. Had all the sign—the fever, the rash, the weakness. Well, by then, only poppa was coming into my room, since momma was taking care of Jeb. So he came, gave me food and water, but never stayed, and never said much. I stayed in that be for three or four days, and then I heard my mother scream, and my father come running down the hall to Jeb’s room, and then the door slamming, and the car racing out of the driveway.”

“Then what happened?”

“It was quiet for the longest time, and then I heard my mother scream again, and then she was comin’ down the hallway, and she flung the door open, and she started screamin’. Screamin’ terrible things, terrible things, so I took the pillow and put it over my head, to get her out of my sight, and then I felt her take the pillow, and she was pushin’ it down hard. So I was going under, but still I heard her screamin’, and I knew what she was sayin’, and that made it worse.”

“What was she saying?”

“That I had killed my brother, and she had lost the only thing she’d ever loved, ’cause she’d never loved me, and wasn’t about to start. ‘Specially now, now that I’d killed my brother. So I was going under, and I thought I was gonna die, and I didn’t much care. Wasn’t no use living, and then all of a sudden, from far away, I hear more sounds, and it’s my father, come back home with the doctor. And that’s when they saw my mother, pressin’ the pillow against my face. Poppa said another minute or two, and I’d ha’ been dead.”

“Oh, my God!”

“Yeah. Well, they said they didn’t know what to do about momma. Doctor wanted her put away, but poppa wouldn’t allow it. But the doctor said it wasn’t safe for me, there in the house, alone with momma. Said she could turn in a single moment, and what would I do? Nearest neighbor 120 acres away—that’s a a long way to run, for a little girl. So the doctor said we should just talk her over to Topeka, put her in the state loony bin. Said they’d keep her safe, at least, and me as well.”


“Poppa wouldn’t hear of it. Told the doctor he’d send me over to my aunt, his sister, and he’d look after mother. Well, the doctor wasn’t happy, but there wasn’t much he could do, and at least I’d be safe. So I went to my aunt, and she was good to me. Think she knew I felt bad, and think she felt bad herself.”

“Then what happened?”

“Finally, Poppa came to visit. Said Momma had been taken to the hospital after all, and that she was getting’ good care there. They’d found a new drug—thorazine—and it was helpin’ plenty of folk. She could come home for a visit, and I should be there when she did. Poppa promised not to leave me alone with her….”


“Well, she came home, all right, but she weren’t nothin’ like what she’d been. Moved real slow, and was very stiff, and she was shakin’ like a leaf. Looked down a lot, and drooled outta the corner of her mouth, and father she sat there, with his head in his hands. Looked at me, looked at my mother, and back again. Finally just left the room—though he said he wouldn’t—and walked out to the barn. I followed him, and found him drinking straight from a bottle of rye he got hid there.”


“I asked him what was gonna happen, and he just said, real slow, that Momma was gonna go back to the hospital, where they could take care of her. And that it was best if I didn’t stay either, but go back to my aunt’s house. He’d stay on, and if things got better, he’d send for me. But I knew that wasn’t gonna happen, and it never did. And then, six months later, we got the news. Poppa was dead—shot himself in the head out back of the barn. All the neighbors said he’d been drinkin’ harder and harder. Finally, he just snapped.”

“Wow—I’m so sorry.”

“So I tell Mother all this, and she’s just lookin’ at me with that look of hers, and then all of a sudden I come to the end, and she doesn’t do nothin’ but then she grabs me and she rockin’ me in her arms, and she’s singin’ and I’m cryin’ so hard I can’t stop. Though I don’t want to, and then I realize why I’m sobbing so hard, and it comes like such a shock that I’d like to have died.”

“Why? What was it?”

“Blessed Mother is singin’ the song my momma used to sing when I was a little girl, and…”


“…never met no one who knew that song.”