Third place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2017.
"Self-Help" by Paul Skenazy
We were sitting in the parking lot outside the restaurant buckling ourselves in, my wife and I, when she said,
"I almost forgot the story I've been saving for you."
She did that sometimes, my lawyer wife. Held stories in reserve. Used them like patches at the knees of our worn relationship. Shared a story about how the day's, week's, month's accumulation of abuse, rape, burglary, 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 sadly about what we needed to say to each other but couldn't, yet. The food was tasty––black bean soup and blackened lamb chops for me, artichoke soup and scampi for her. We could still claim enough joint territory to let us laugh at other couples at other tables. The beautiful 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 picked up a book, called Poison Parents. The book explains how some parents abuse their children, belittle them, berate them, make them feel they are doomed to fail. It shows how this kind of toxic childhood remains in the blood, contaminating every action and feeling on into adulthood. The solution the book proposes is to confront the parent, talk it all out. The book talks about the abuse as like hardened arteries; the confrontation is supposed to be like an emotional bypass."
"Nice metaphor," I said.
"Barbara told me her dad would yell and hit her when she cried. He left her and her mom when she was five, never returned. Her mother swore at her, blamed her for her father leaving, slapped and spanked her, sent her to bed without meals, threw food at her if she wouldn't eat it then made her clean up the floor. She told me she was in tears when she read the book, every line a revelation. I've seen her copy of the book. It's marked up, underlined, the corners of pages turned down, some pages water-stained.
"When she finished the book she decided she needed to tell her mother how bad it has been for her all these years. She lives in Fresno, her mother's up here in Sunnyvale. She's got two young kids of her own, no man around. She gets a neighbor to watch them, gets in her car and drives up to Sunnyvale."
"Doesn't call?" I ask.
"No. Wants to surprise her. Just goes, walks in on her mother and dumps all this anger, this hatred and pain, at her mother's feet. About how she's suffered, how she is haunted by what her mother did to her."
I'm driving slowly towards home. I glance at my wife once or twice. She is looking at me while she talks, 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 and told her 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 wanted to kill her mother. So she turns the car around again and starts driving back to Sunnyvale. It's two or three a.m. by then, but she says she's not a bit sleepy. Just clear about what she needs to do.
"She parks her car across the street from her mother's house and rings the doorbell but no one answers. So she sits in her car waiting for her mother to come home. "She was always a slut," Barbara told me about her mother, out all night, waking Barbara up when she came home drunk.
"Barbara said she fell asleep. She wakes up about six and sees her mother just getting out of her car, slamming the car door. She watches her drop her house keys, then slip onto the ground trying to get hold of them. She watches her mother pull herself up and walk slowly to the front door. At that point Barbara rushes across the street, pushes her mother into the house and starts beating on her with her fists. Her mother falls to the ground. Barbara sits on her, wraps her hands around her neck and strangles her. Doesn't say a word. Then she gets up, walks out of the house, gets in her car, drives to the police station and turns herself in."
We're 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'm turned 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 charges 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 in the car, 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. And in that way, we made it through the front door. The sitter told us how our son Benny 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. My wife was waiting up when I returned. We shared a leftover piece of cake.
Paul Skenazy grew up in Chicago on overcooked vegetables and the failures of the Chicago Cubs. After four years at the University of Chicago, he moved on to Stanford, better weather, and the Sixties. He taught at UCSC for three decades, wrote critical books, articles and book reviews, and raised three children. For the last decade he has been writing novels, stories and essays while resigned to the failures of the Oakland Athletics.