Barbara inherits a dark and insidious curse that threatens to bring her life to ruin; by Matt Duggan.
During one of her drop-offs at the shelter Barbara sat at the trunk of her car and waited for the two gentlemen who always unloaded her latest donation. This time it was an old tube television. Nearby, Barbara noticed a very frail elderly woman struggling with a walker as she sifted through a garbage bin. She turned and looked at Barbara. Barbara averted her eyes and quickly checked her iPhone. When she stole a glance back the elderly woman was making her way toward Barbara.
Barbara panicked. She stood up from the trunk and looked past the homeless woman to the shelter's back entrance, hoping the two workers would appear.
Come on, Barbara, no biggie, she calmed herself as she settled back down against the trunk. You legitimately have no change to give, she thought as she rummaged through her pocketbook.
All you carry are credit cards.
The elderly woman's hair was stringy and thin and black like soot. Her ragged sweater and ill-fitting dress were both covered in muck. She labored to a stop in front of Barbara who was now stiff and very uncomfortable. A stench of body odor and excrement overwhelmed Barbara and nearly made her gag. But the old woman suddenly clutched at her own heart and closed her eyes with a groan. Sweat sprung from her brow and her face crinkled like parchment clenched in a fist. Barbara stammered, "Should I call someone? Are you OK?" as she looked around for help. The old woman forcefully grabbed Barbara's shoulder then opened her now bloodshot eyes and tightened her grip. Barbara grabbed the the old woman's veiny hand but her nails dug in like claws. The old woman pulled Barbara an inch from her face as they locked eyes. Then the old woman whispered:
"Turley works behind the counter at the shelter. Bald white man with crusty hands. He's old like me and his memory shortens every day, and his limp is from the Korean war. Turley steals from the shelter. He's a rotten man. His wife left him twenty years ago and he's been alone ever since. Ask Turley where the ring comes from that he wears on his left thumb. His son made it for him. Southwestern jewelry artist, the son made rings and necklaces. Killed himself four years ago with a shotgun. Turley rubs that ring all day and all night. Compliment him on it and Turley will cry like a bleating lamb."
The elderly woman let go of Barbara as her eyes fell away. She stood upright and stretched her bony left arm up to the sky. She looked invigorated; her cheeks became flushed. She smiled broadly as she touched her chest and held her palm over her heart. She smiled.
"Thank you for listening," she said to Barbara.
Then she muttered, "Sorry," and awkwardly ambled away, leaving the walker in front of Barbara.
The encounter seemed surreal to Barbara and left her feeling dizzy.
She took a couple of meditative deep breaths, then shook her head and shrugged as she thought, Venice.
She waited ten more minutes but soon frustration welled up. It was a nice television and Barbara didn't want to part with it without a receipt for a tax deduction. She clicked her tongue, locked her car and walked toward the shelter, her mind preoccupied with the list of errands she still had yet to do.
Barbara walked inside the back entrance and tumbled right into Turley. He threw out his hands and caught her, "My goodness, I'm sorry ma'am..." he drawled sweetly, "...we just realized no one came out to help you. I do apologize about that. Miscommunication."
Barbara saw the sterling silver and turquoise ring on his thumb as she replied, "It's my fault. I shouldn't have rushed in so quickly."
Turley unloaded the television set and waved goodbye as Barbara drove away with her eyes glued to his image in the rearview mirror.
The entire ride home she thought about what a horrid person that old lady was. "Mean old bitch," Barbara hissed.
Two days later Barbara began suffering from stabbing pains in her chest. At first the aches felt almost like heartburn. She assumed perhaps it was from the bread she ate at the restaurant. But the pains grew longer and more severe.
"It feels like something is squeezing my heart," Barbara tearfully explained to Tom in the kitchen, "like metal pliers squeezing it." She cried and the pain increased. "Tom!" Barbara uttered as she fell into his arms. He rushed her to Urgent Care that night.
Barbara's condition worsened. Tom took her to numerous cardiologists and one after the other came back with only good results. Barbara's heart was strong and healthy; as fit as the heart of an Olympian. At Tom's request, more and more tests were done until finally the last cardiologist suggested that Barbara's affliction might be psychosomatic, perhaps the product of simple old-fashioned stress.
Barbara became so weak that she couldn't get out of bed. Her extremities swelled and turned blue. She developed symptoms of peripheral arterial disease. Her hands and feet lost their sense of touch because they weren't getting blood.
Barbara cried and when she wasn't crying she slept. Her breaths shortened and her lungs struggled for air. One morning Tom brought in the phone and quietly said that Barbara's best friend Susan was on the line, and would Barbara like to speak with her? Susan was concerned and wanted to know how Barbara was doing. Barbara nodded as she reached for the phone and waved for Tom to leave her. Barbara hugged the phone as she sunk back into the comforter's folds and described the hell of her undiagnosed condition. Barbara confessed to Susan that she felt suicidal. Tom was losing his hair he was so worried and there seemed to be no answer to her problem. Tom was missing work because he was now Barbara's fulltime caretaker.
After an hour-long conversation Barbara hung up. Tom walked in with a full glass of water. He sat down on the edge of the bed and delicately brushed Barbara's cheek as he softly said, "I love you."
Barbara's eyes set on Tom's eyes. Her expression was so intense that it frightened Tom. Barbara shifted wearily and moved slightly up as she faintly pleaded, "Come closer." She stared into Tom's pupils as he leaned down an inch from her lips and their eyes locked.
Barbara whispered, "Susan is so selfish and self-centered. I tried sharing everything and all my suffering but she interrupted me twice. She apologized but then whined that Rick is cheating on her and that she needs to confide her anguish in me because she has no one else she can talk to. They're getting a divorce. She asked me not to say anything, not even to you."
Barbara's eyes narrowed into blades as she continued, "Rick has flirted with me since the first day I met him. He hits on every woman he meets. He's a dog. But Susan will never leave him. She's too weak. Her mother was weak. Married an alcoholic. A whole lineage of weak women."
Barbara's low vehement voice stunned Tom but it didn't end there. Barbara went on for another five minutes, revealing secrets and judgments about her best friend that she'd kept locked away for years.
When she finished, Barbara straightened up and felt the pulse on her wrist.
She took a long, deep breath and then exhaled. Her eyes glistened as she looked back at Tom, "Honey, let's take a walk."
On that day in their bedroom Tom listened with a shocked expression on his face, but his heart soaked up every word.
About a week later Tom's heart experienced the same stabs of pain that Barbara had experienced. Tom called the physician and scheduled an appointment for the next morning but after he hung up the phone Barbara walked into his office and quietly stated, "I might know what's wrong." She leaned against him, "Don't think I'm crazy. Instead of going to the doctor I want you to play golf with Jerry tomorrow. Talk with him about Rick. Gossip." Tom started to protest but Barbara cut him off, "Please Tom. Just do it. I think I know what's happened."
"OK," Tom murmured, "OK."
Barbara slid down and curled herself into Tom's lap. She looked scared. "Just don't look him in the eyes. Not once."
On the golf course the next morning Rick's cheating and broken home life and other salacious tidbits accompanied every hole. Tom made a point to emphasize how surprised he was to learn that Rick and Susan were in the process of getting a divorce.
By the 10th hole Tom's heart was beating like a teenager. He felt like a new man.
Tom returned home as dusk spread like spilled oil. Barbara was in the kitchen waiting with an opened bottle of wine. Tom walked in and they looked at each other and they both already knew. As unexplainable as it was, they both knew. They could feel it crawling around inside them.
"It's a curse," Barbara murmured.
"It passes through the eyes. And gossip is the only relief from the pain." Barbara broke into tears, "I didn't know at first. I didn't know. I'm so sorry." She went to Tom who tightly held her.
"You didn't know, darling," he comforted her, "you didn't know."
Gossip consumed their lives. It had to. Whenever Barbara or Tom held their tongue, their heart became pinched and squeezed. Their blood flow decreased and they fell ill with complications. But one good long whisper and they were back on their feet.
As the months passed and the seasons changed their friends became fewer and fewer.
The invitations to wine parties and social gatherings ended. Tom was excluded from the golf groups. Barbara was asked to leave the yoga studio. The couple became ostracized. The Board of Directors at Tom's company fired him after several allegations against Tom turned into lawsuits. His reputation as a strict but fair, honest, no-nonsense leader vanished and was replaced with a reputation as a liar and gossip who poured poison in the waters and endangered the integrity of the company.
Barbara and Tom's world began to crumble around them.
But no matter how many slings and arrows were fired at them Tom and Barbara never broke their one rule: They never looked anyone in the eye. A window to the soul and an open heart were all the curse sought; yet Tom and Barbara steadfastly refused to pass it on to others.
When Claire, their own daughter, disowned Tom and Barbara, splinters began to form in their bond. Claire's decision hammered a steel spike through both their souls. They hadn't realized how much their lives had affected the girls. But it had. Tom scoffed daily at Claire, who was living at home while job-hunting after graduating from college. He talked openly about all of his own parents' failures, claiming that he had parents who never amounted to anything, and forced him at an early age to be the family bread-winner. Whenever Lillian wasn't around Tom talked about what a disappointment she was, as well. Lillian let idealism and a lack of focus weigh her down. Now she had graduated from college with no job and without a career path set before her. Lillian had entered the working world a disadvantaged nomad and Tom and Barbara expressed their disappointment often and in sharp tones.
Claire cursed at her father to stop then screamed: "What do you say behind my back?"
She hastily packed up her clothes and charged back down the stairs, crying out that she couldn't take it anymore and that her mother and father had become monsters. Claire vowed that she would never see them again and through hot tears she said that she hoped they both would die alone with their black hearts.
Barbara silently watched the back of Claire's head, her thick hair the same color as Barbara's, as it bobbed and waved in a violent rush out the door. What have I done?
Barbara experienced brief periods of lucidity where she grasped the devastation she and Tom had caused. In these moments her heart filled with a different type of pain. It was the shameful acceptance of awful things done, irreversible choices made and the ruin caused as a result. But then the sickness would return, the loss of feeling in the hands and feet, the loss of vision and hearing. The slow approach of death. All that was needed to keep death at bay was a good whisper. So Barbara picked up the phone, or visited the church, or stopped by the grocery store, ready to gossip to anyone who would listen.
Barbara and Tom had to cancel their cable service, then their cellphones, then they had to let go of the gardeners, then the housekeeper. Soon they were unable to pay their mortgage, so they lost their house, with the new flat-screen TV and the renovated great room.
Tom and Barbara rented an apartment and promised each other over and over that they would turn their lives around. Somehow they would bind their tongues and they would survive. They tried and they lasted for several weeks before the devil wrapped his stony hand around Tom and Barbara's hearts and squeezed until the whispers returned.
Tom died at the end of that year. During one of his own moments of lucidity he had realized that he'd lost his two daughters. He'd destroyed his family. The damage was irreparable. Tom sat alone in the unfurnished apartment and felt his heart, black and heavy as coal. He got up and walked out the door. He didn't leave a note.
A month later Tom was found dead in a dusty roadside motel in Banning, California. According to the site manager Tom had checked in and then never left his room. He was found sitting propped up on the bed. His heart had stopped. His hands were shriveled and blue; his bare feet black with rot. He died blind and deaf, his mouth full of sores, his tongue missing. Cut out. The coroner couldn't understand why a man who was suffering from such ghastly ailments and excruciating pain didn't call for help.
Barbara eventually ended up at the shelter in Venice, homeless. She rummaged through the dumpsters out back and occasionally worked for the shelter whenever odd jobs came up. When she read in the newspaper about Tom she crumpled to the pavement and sobbed. She knew what Tom had done and she decided that it was time for her to put a stop to her malicious gossiping as well.
The next morning she woke up in her cot at the shelter a mute. She spoke not one word.
Like old enemies returning, the physical maladies took one form after the other. Barbara's heart weakened and the blood flow decreased. When she flexed her muscles and tightened her fists the blood barely reached her fingertips. The same numbness set in. But Barbara refused to whisper, let alone talk.
Her legs barely functioned. Barbara needed a walker to get up from her cot to go to the bathroom. But still she refused to speak.
She found a pair of tatty pink mittens that she wore to keep her hands warm. She also wore a black wool ski hat to keep her head warm. As each day passed it became more and more difficult for her to stay warm. Then she lost her hearing and her sight started to fade. Her body and her senses were shutting down.
Her mind was also affected. Days, mornings and evenings all jumbled together. One day Barbara was scrounging in a garbage barrel behind the shelter when a gentle hand touched her shoulder. Barbara turned to look at the person but sight for her these days consisted only of patches of pale light and nothing more. The stranger carefully removed Barbara's mitten and placed a warm styrofoam bowl into her hand with a spoon.
It was a hot cup of soup. Barbara gulped it down as she sensed and felt kindness.
Since Barbara couldn't converse with the stranger she called her "Angel." Angel guided Barbara away from the shelter and into a car. Barbara fell asleep in the back seat to the vibration of the car driving away. She woke up hours later and she was lying on a soft bed. Another hot cup of soup was gently put in her hands.
Angel cared for Barbara for the next week but still she slipped closer and closer toward death.
Barbara's appetite disappeared. She had arrived at the threshold of death and she was frightened. She wasn't prepared to die. She knew she had left behind a life of ruin and wickedness and she was not prepared to face whatever came next.
She had no choice.
Angel's soft hand was guiding Barbara's fingers around the hot bowl of soup. Barbara despised herself but she had no choice. She grabbed the stranger's forearms and pulled until Barbara's lips touched Angel's hair. Then Barbara whispered.
She set loose torrents of repressed and buried secrets about her family, her friends, her husband. Her deepest and most damning gossip about her uncaring and selfish daughters, so self-obsessed they had abandoned their parents.
Anyone connected to Barbara was included with each breath of hate that she exhaled.
As Barbara's grip tightened on Angel, her lungs filled, giving her whispers more life. And then diamonds of colored light sparkled before Barbara. Her sight was returning and it was all Barbara needed to feel alive again. She searched about and caught flashes of the chair she was sitting in, its black leather armrests and its tan wood legs. This encouraged her to dig deeper into her store of spite.
She shut her eyes and deeply breathed in.
In one final determined exhale she confessed: "And as for me, I never wanted to be a mother. Motherhood robbed me of my dream to dance. I was good, in my heart I knew I was very good. I had talent good enough to be a professional. But my daughters tamped out that spark of a dream before it was ever allowed to catch fire. I wish they'd never been born."
Eyes still closed, Barbara leaned back in the wood chair satisfied and unapologetic. She felt sated and it was a familiar feeling.
She had wrested one more day of life back from death.
At peace, she opened her eyes.
Looking down at her with the crushed heart of a compassionate soul was her daughter Lillian. Her face contorted with hurt, her eyes brimming with uncomprehending sorrow. Lillian placed her fists against her chest as she wept.
"I won't listen, Mother. I won't listen. I won't listen." Lillian whispered this over and over like a skipping record.
Barbara closed her eyes and covered her face as she was consumed with a shame deeper than she had ever imagined. All she had now was darkness, her own, or death's. There was no escape. Whether she spoke or not she was going to die alone with an empty heart hard as granite and black as a raven's eye, with Time her only companion whispering in her ear each day:
Tick, Tick, Tick.