Barb moved in about a block and a half from our house when I was 16 and, because she was new to the neighborhood, slowly and shyly melded into our group of pals that included several other houses on our block.
We mostly hung out around my house because I had a yard big enough to play softball in or we just sat around and talked. Barb’s shyness didn’t stop her from having fun with us but she always seemed to be playing it a little on the guarded side.
She was very pretty, very sweet and also, seemingly, very fragile. Early on I didn’t know what it was that caused that fragility but I would eventually find out. We were friends at the start but, by the time my high school graduation rolled around, we started dating.
Somewhere in my head, I knew that our ‘all too young’ relationship would have a time limit since she would still be in high school when I would be going off to college in the fall. Whether we would progress beyond those months apart was speculation but I figured we would eventually drift away to our separate paths, and that’s pretty much what happened.
That summer leading up to my departure, however, we spent lots of time hanging out and she soon invited me over to her house and I met her mother who was as sweet and gracious as Barb but with that same odd fragility about her. That ‘fragility’ was really a profound sadness, but I didn’t get the full impact of it until I went to her house.
From the very first visit, there was something in that house that made me extremely uncomfortable, something unnatural and oppressive that made the very air feel confining. If I was there too long, getting out and walking home was a relief.
As far as I could detect, that ‘something’ turned out to be her father, whose only discernible interests seemed to be The Jackie Gleason Show, booze, and a police scanner that was on all the time. I’m probably missing a few of his other interests due to faulty memory or lack of discovery but, suffice it to say, booze and the police scanner were two of his principal passions.
When I say that the scanner was on all the time, I’m not exaggerating because he, apparently, had a need to know where and what might be happening in the world of crime and law enforcement at any given time. Even if it was a Saturday night and Gleason was on, so was the scanner and if there was something better on the scanner than the TV, then it was in the car and off to the scene of the crime.
In and of itself that didn’t account for what I was sensing in Barb and what I felt in the house, so I asked Barb about her father. She was reticent to say much because it was embarrassing for her, but what little she told me said a lot about why I always felt strange around her dad. Of course, I would see her dad in the early evening and by the time I left to go home there was still plenty of ‘family’ time left at her house.
According to Barb, her father often drank to exhaustion and, in the process, morphed from tracking police violence to creating his own homegrown variety. While her mother was the primary target, Barb was occasionally in the path of a kick to the shins as well, and then it all began to fall into place; the sadness that permeated the rooms of her house was fueled by the unpredictability of her environment.
It was a troubled home that smothered her gentle spirit and it pained me to leave her there with a mother who, at least when I knew her, appeared resigned to tolerating the disorder. Having gone through some of this with my own family, I had a good idea of what she was up against. Still, my mother had been more proactive in eradicating the offending party, leaving me with some breathing room, whereas Barb had no real peace.
Barb and her mother had each other but that hardly guaranteed their safety unless they were suddenly moved to pick up that scanner and fireball it across his sleeping cranium. Short of that, they were sitting ducks who went about their days with as much normalcy as they could find.
By the end of summer I was gone to college across the state and our dating was essentially over with the exception of a couple of visits back to the neighborhood. A new phase of my life was taking me out of my childhood for good and, consequently, away from Barb. I thought of her from time to time and just hoped her survival skills would keep her going until she could leave home and find her own way.
Maybe it was the culmination of an insecure home life or maybe just bad luck that put her in the wrong place at the wrong time but, less than a year later, my mother called me at school and asked me about Barb and “what was her last name” and so on. Then she read to me from the local paper a story about a young woman who left a bowling alley late one night and took a shot gun blast to the face from close range.
It was all unclear as to who did the shooting or why, but it appeared deliberate and Barb did not survive.
Had she latched onto something eerily similar to the situation she was raised in? Was she bred to be a victim, eventually slain by some horrible, irrational act? My heart sank after my mother finished the story because I knew what conditions had paved the way for her demise and it was a sad ending to a sad life.
Barb was too young and too vulnerable to have been left to such a twisted fate and, if there is some sort of an afterlife, may she have the comfort and care she deserved all along.