Pam Zerba

It was a barbeque, late July, several summers ago. I had found some shade away from the crowd and was sitting in a rickety metal lawn chair by myself. Mandy walked over and set up a chair across from me.

I didn’t know her well. The barbeque was sponsored by a political group to which we both belonged. We were both among the less radical (less crazy, we would have said) edge of the group, and found ourselves in agreement on issues and potential activities. Still, we hadn’t taken further steps into a real friendship. Her appearance underscored her common-sense approach to life: sensible, short dark hair, no make-up, plain shorts and top, tennis shoes. Her large, Hershey brown eyes were her most appealing feature.

We chatted casually, the weather, the food, the group, who was there, who wasn’t. Nothing serious, desultory warm weather conversation.

Somehow my hometown, a large city in the Midwest, came up. “You’re from there?” she asked, surprised. “I didn’t know that. I am, too.” We quickly compared notes: neighborhood? high school? college? We laughed when we realized we had none of these touch points in common.

“Well, it is a big city,” I pointed out. “It would have been odder, statistically, if we had grown up two blocks away from each other.”

Mandy nodded. She paused, a quizzical look on her face. “When did you leave?” she asked. “Were you there in 2005?”

“Yeah, just. I graduated in 2005, moved out here that fall.”

She took a sip from her drink, still regarding me. Clearly she had something she wanted to say. Normally I hate that, when somebody tries to make you coax it of them. But her manner, the still way she was sitting, the odd look on her face, kept me quiet.

“I lived there in 2005, too,” she said. “You remember the murders – the Breton murders? In February?”

“Sure,” I said. “It was just like on TV. ‘City paralyzed by fear.’” Two elderly people had been murdered, viciously stabbed, in their own home, during the day, in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. It dominated the news for weeks. Lots of people thought it caused the Mayor to lose a primary that March, because people were concerned about crime.

“That was my husband,” she said softly, staring steadily at me.

The shock was visceral, a jolt to the end of my spine. It’s like being married to Charles Manson, I thought. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but it’s an indication of how evil the murderer seemed.

She told me, I thought to myself. She must want to talk about it. I had no idea of what to ask – or rather, I had so many questions, I didn’t know which one to pick. “How,” I began tentatively, leaning forward.

“We were divorced by then, actually,” she said, her voice so soft I could barely hear it. “Why,” I asked.

“He -” Mandy paused, swallowed hard. “He had problems. Nice guy, sweet guy. I never saw anything else.” Her voice hardened. “He was always gentle.”

I stared at her, my mind barely able to process this. Sensible Mandy, vicious murderer. Sweet guy.

How can you say that, I wanted to ask. What happened? How could you not know? The details came back to me. The police had been closed-mouthed during the investigation, as editorials blasted them, neighborhood associations had mass meetings, politicians ranted. The arrest came about eight weeks after the murder. He stabbed his grandparents to death, the police said, because he wanted money for drugs, and they wouldn’t give it to him. I didn’t remember his name.

I took a deep breath. What was a safe, non-judgmental question? “What does the family think?” I asked her, keeping my voice level.

Mandy sighed. “His mother told me, he went over to their house, his grandfather was beating his grandmother, Matt stabbed his grandfather. “ Her fingers tapped nervously on her glass. “His grandmother said, if you killed him, kill me, too. So he did.” Her look was challenging, daring me to disagree.

Really, I thought. You believe that? You think that’s what happened? “I don’t know, Mandy,” I said quietly. “The grandfather, maybe. But his grandmother…” Did she want me to agree with her, to say, yes, that sounds right to me? Did she want support?

Mandy looked away, with an almost imperceptible shake of her head. “I know.” Not ten yards away, people were drinking beer, eating hot dogs, playing volleyball in the warm summer sun.

I’ve tried to write about this a few times, but I’ve never been able to do it. I can’t penetrate the mystery, the darkness, that is at the heart of the story. How could he do it? How could she not know? I don’t know.

Mandy excused herself a moment later, and took off, in her prudent Volvo. She came to fewer and fewer of our group’s meetings. Within six months, she never came at all.

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