Reading #3 from “When The Roll is Called a Pyonder: Tales from a Mennonite Childhood”

Birthday month rolls on, and here’s another short reading to celebrate!  In this segment, learn about the danger that geese pose to little girls, discover my brief drumming career and find out how I resolve the dilemma of which is worse:  risking going to hell for having stolen something, or getting spanked for confessing it.

 

The Laundry Experiment

From The Summer of the Riotous Walls, a work in progress

Before we even ran out of clean underwear or decided something had to be done about the bedding, the kitchen towels presented a problem. At least to me they did. How do you clean up a mess with something that’s dirty? Believe me, I tried. But no matter how careful you are, you only make the mess bigger. We started the summer with three towels, but there were only two left since Sheila accidentally set on one fire. They had to double as hot pads for removing boiling pots from the flames of our gas stove—an excellent way to set their little fringes ablaze, burn yourself, nearly set the house on fire, and destroy a perfectly good kitchen towel.

A coffee spill or two, cooking oil that missed the pan and has to be mopped from the stovetop, milk that landed outside the bowl, then a quick rinse in the sink, and soon the dish towels were crusty, molded, greasy rags, unrecognizable as anything intended for use near food. The classic trip through the washer and dryer wasn’t an option. We didn’t have a washer, nor had we received the revelation that we were living practically beside a laundromat. And yet something had to be done.

Finally a thought pecking at the back of my brain hatched itself into daylight and I knew what to do. The obvious is everywhere you look. Laugh all you want. Nothing I could do was going to make it worse.

In Los Rios, where I woke up on sunny mornings a few weeks ago, my mamá Hilda didn’t have a washer. She had soap, water and a cement wash sink against which she scrubbed our clothes to a fierce cleanliness never produced by an agitating tub of suds. I clicked off the list in my head: I didn’t have laundry soap, but I had various other kinds of soaps. I had water. No cement wash sinks anywhere, but there’s a cement slab at the base of our wobbly steps. Why wouldn’t that work? I filled a bucket with water, and grabbed a small plastic bowl to use as a scoop. I never did this in Los Rios. My mamá did it for me. But I watched, and how hard can it be?

“What are you doing, loca?” Beth asked when she saw me heading toward the door with my bucket of water and supplies.

“An experiment.”

“What kind of experiment?”

“A laundry experiment.”

“I hope it works!”

“Me too. These towels are terrible.”

“Can I watch?” Sheila asked.

“Sure. Don’t laugh. I’ve never tried this before.”

“Did you learn it in Costa Rica?”

“Sort of.”

I had to fetch the broom and sweep the dirt from the cement slab before anything had hope of getting clean on it. I dumped a scoop of water on it to wet it, then spread the immoral dish towels out and poured water over them, too. I squirted them with a generous amount of dish soap. Then, I commenced scrubbing them back and forth against the rough cement, which—of course—produced more mud, even though a minute ago, it had appeared clean. I rubbed and scrubbed, slopped and scraped, dumped more water, squirted more soap.

“Cool!” Sheila admired.

Not terribly. Two of my knuckles were bleeding. My mamá’s knuckles never bled, whether because they were so toughened by the constant necessity of repeating this task, or because she had learned to do it without scraping them on the cement, I can’t say. I had to keep washing the blood away so that I wouldn’t make the towels worse, instead of better.

Getting the soap out was the hardest part. I had to send Sheila up to the kitchen for another bucket of water and I was making an enormous mess. I somehow managed to soak my shirt, and a puddle of mud had formed around my bare feet. I wrung and rinsed, twirled and twisted, beating the suffering towels up and down against the cement with one hand while attempting to pour water over them with the other. Mamá made it look a lot easier than this. If I had to wash bath towels and work jeans this way like she did, I think I would cry.

The dish towels looked a heck of a lot better, believe it or not. They weren’t exactly white, but they were a lot less brown. Sheila had to get me another bucket of water to wash my feet, and then I walked up the steps and draped the dripping towels over the banister in the sun.

“There,” I said, when I walked back inside.

Beth looked up at me over top of the book she was reading.

I shrugged my shoulders and went to look in the medicine cabinet to see if, by chance, we had any band-aids.

The Social Worker In The Blue Dress

(A flash of short fact/fiction)

The social worker in the blue dress is not about to be bitten by small dogs today. She came to see you because her boss asked her to, to make sure that you haven’t killed yourself yet, that your baby is getting fat, and that your two-year-old is wearing clothes.

The social worker in the blue dress thinks the evil-spirited pack of chihuahuas is yours. She thinks you have done a particularly terrible job of training them but she doesn’t blame you, having two babies to take care of and a complicated husband. She scurries from the gate into your one-room apartment behind the main house, receiving only one slight sharp-toothed nip to the heel.

You convince her that you’re doing alright. You apologize for the mess in the kitchen. She didn’t exactly call to tell you she was coming, or ask if it was a good time. It’s not a good time. But you don’t exactly have a phone, because your husband takes it to work with him. She’s nice enough and she ignores the mess, points out to you that your baby is really good at following things with his eyes.

As she’s leaving, she asks you to call off the dogs and you tell her that they aren’t your dogs. They are the landlady’s dogs. And the landlady isn’t home.

The social worker in the blue dress walks to the door and the menacing pack of furious chihuahuas is nowhere to be seen, so she steps out into the sunshine of the yard. She is halfway to the gate when they see the intruder, and come snarling at her, needle teeth bared. They take turns lunging at her while she shouts and tries to frighten them.

They aren’t frightened. Each lunge comes closer to her ankles and their camaraderie emboldens them. You scream at them uselessly from the safety of your doorway.

The social worker in the blue dress doesn’t have much time to think, but there is one thing that she is sure of–that she is not about to be bitten by small dogs today. With complete disregard for her dignity, she breaks into a dead run, headed toward the rickrty wooden fence. She won’t have time for the gate. She isn’t even running toward the gate. She hits the top of the wooden fence with both hands and vaults. There is the flash of pink polka dotted panties in the sun.

You stare at the social worker in the blue dress who is suddenly standing on the other side of the fence, panting, safe, looking surprised and a little sheepish. The stunned chihuahuas fall silent for a moment.

“Alright,” she says breathlessly, patting her hair and straightening her blue dress.

The chihuahuas find their voices and leap at the fence.

You don’t quite know what to say to the social worker in the blue dress who just jumped over your fence. She doesn’t seem to know quite what to say to you.

“Sorry about the dogs,” you offer.

“No problem,” she answers, and then giggles a little, accidentally. “Sorry to run away.”

“Oh,” you say, because you can’t think of anything.

“I didn’t want to get bitten,” she says.

“Yeah,” you reply.

She gets into her car and drives away. The dogs look at you disappointedly and begin sniffing her footprints in the yard.

You turn around and go back into the dark, dirty apartment where your two year old is pouring milk on the floor beside a cup. But instead of yelling at her, you sit down on a chair and laugh for the first time since you can remember.

Remember Barbara (section 5 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova
1979-2010

Chapter Three, continued

*****

Where are your teeth, Barbara?
Where are your bones?
In the brackish muck of an estuary, delivered by the tide?
On the bottom of the deep?
In the belly of a shark, a crocodile, a worm?
Are you resting near the coast you loved, enshrouded in the makeshift stolen coffin?

 I know you are in the ocean you loved, in the country of your dreams.
The warm touch of the sun is your fingers, the brush of the wind is your breath.
In the thunder, I hear your crying and feel your tears.

*****

None of it makes any sense.

Her family didn’t go to look for her.  No one.  Surely the sister speaks English and could have pressed Jim, if she had gotten there in time.  They could have pressured the police.  They could have raised holy hell, like the parents of the young man who disappeared two years before.  All of us know his name and recognize his face, even if we’ve never seen him alive or dead.

Ivan took everything, even her clothes, and left.  I don’t understand.

Why did they prevent the police from checking her phone, her computer and the rest of her things?  Could they not have realized this would be the result?

Who is Ivan?  Did they really call him?

Why would Jim have left her things untouched in the first place?  Shouldn’t they have disappeared with her if we were supposed to believe she was traveling?  The board bag was big enough.

After the OIJ made contact with Barbara’s family, a terrible silence fell over it all.  The family asked the OIJ not to talk with her distraught housemates, who were facilitating the investigation, and the OIJ asked the housemates not to talk with anyone else.

Barbara’s uncle in Prague sent private investigators to Costa Rica.  They trudged around frowning, sweating, asking questions and taking notes; then they were gone.  Why didn’t he come with them?  Why did a massive search for her body not ensue?

 

I see there is more I don’t know about Barbara than what I do know.  More I don’t know about Jim, too.  It didn’t matter until now.   We were all expats from somewhere—all of us—with families left behind, the stories we told and the ones we didn’t.  It didn’t matter, then.  We were friends and that’s all—eating together, laughing and playing volleyball on the beach on hot Sunday mornings.  Nothing mattered but us, here and now.  Until, suddenly, everything mattered, and it was too late.

What stories did you not tell us, Barbara?  Could they have saved your life?

 

*****

I talk to my husband about it.  He calms me, saying it was surely an accident.  A strong man like Jim, with a precisely or poorly aimed blow to the temple, could kill a person, large or small.

“And the blood?” I ask.

He says she could have fallen unconscious to the floor, causing her head to bleed.  We all know head wounds bleed a lot.

But that much?  Enough to fill a closet and leave a trail to the door, then into the trunk of a car?

“And the saran wrap?  And the duct tape?” I ask him.  I can’t help it.

“Drugs,” he says, as if it were obvious.

I should have known he would say that.  Strange behavior, in his mind, is always the result of dealing in drugs.  He says that if you need to pack up drugs, presumably marijuana and cocaine, you wrap them in layer after layer of saran wrap with things like coffee grounds and oregano leaves in between.  If you’re good, you can even fool the dogs.

“So Jim had drugs to pack before he left?”

“Sure,” my husband says, shrugging.

I don’t know.  I don’t see it.  I don’t see it at all.  Of course, I wouldn’t.  No one saw any of this.

“Why do you think her family didn’t come?” my husband continues.  “And why else would Ivan take all of her things and made them disappear?”

He thinks there is some dirty family business going on.  I know he does.  Jim’s dim past, Barbara’s obscure job, and the family with money who gave every appearance of squelching the investigation…  He’s Italian, and can find the shadow of the mob behind every bush in the garden, if he looks long enough.

I’d like to argue with him.  I like think I’m being fair.  I’d like to have something to say in their defense, but when I open my mouth, I have nothing.

Of course there are dangerous sexual practices that can result in death.  Nothing about Barbara leads me believe that she was voluntarily asphyxiated, accidently past the point of no return, but how would I know?  Each possible scenario is more preposterous than the last.

And I insist like the refrain in a song sung by devils: what about all the blood?  Or whatever it was that left a trail from the closet to the car.  Something happened in that room that has not been told.  If Jim is innocent, then why did he run away?

 

We lost two friends.  Barbara is somewhere turning into sand, her bones in the deep or in the bellies of estuary crocodiles.  Jim turned up in Texas again, but I haven’t exactly wanted to stop by.

I hope it’s all a scam—an elaborate, indecipherable scam to delude everyone who knew them—that Barbara and Ivan are living somewhere on their own paradisiacal island, bought for her by her family with dirty money that was somehow laundered in her supposed murder by her lover Jim.  I hope it was all a setup.  I hope to God that Jim is innocent, and that we have all been cunningly outwitted.

I would love to apologize to him on my knees.

I don’t expect to.

*****

 

They are still together among my photographs, embraced, smiling.

 

*****

I remember you, Barbara.  I insist.
Everything is not alright.
May your lover be brought to justice for betraying your life.
Where can he hide from what he has done?

 In my dreams, one day, perhaps very far, Interpol will knock on his door and they will drag him away with metal around his wrists and make him tell what a wicked thing he has done.
I want to see his face in the newspaper, hear he has been captured.
I want terrible men to make him say what he did to you.
I want him to say it, whatever it was.
I want to wring this secret from him with my bare hands.

Haunt him, Barbara
Haunt the ocean.
Look up at him from beds of kelp that wave like your hair.

Haunt him, beautiful friend.
Find him in the country where he is safe because no crime has been committed.
No one wept at your funeral.
No one can prove that you are dead.

 *****

Everyone moved away.   In January, two somber couples moved out of the beautiful beach house that three entered.  None of them could bear, even in brightest daylight, the ominous quiet of the empty room.  At night they jumped at every shift and rustle of the breeze, glimpsing, from the corners of their eyes, the glow of blood.  They took Jim’s belongings and threw them away—all of them.  No one wanted any of it.  Randy adopted the dog.

No one is left at all.  Nothing remains to bear witness:  no monument, no marker, no voice speaking a name in the silence.

*****

 I remember you, Barbara.
I do not forget.

I feel your smile in the sun.
I hear your laugh in the rustling leaves of trees.
I know you are somewhere in the rain, evaporated from the sea.
You are in the mangrove tree, growing from the fertile mud of the estuary, where lies the crocodile who snapped your finger bones.

 I don’t know where you are.
You are everywhere.

*****

Read the “Afterward”
(additional information that I have learned during the writing of this story)

IMG_3412

Us (except “Jake,”) at Marco and Rebecca’s wedding, July 2010: Barbara, “Paige”, “Marco”, my husband, “Rebecca”, me and “Jim”

 

Barbara Struncova disappeared on December 5, 2010 and is still one of Costa Rica’s cold case missing persons.
All of the names of people and most of the names of places have been changed.
All of them except Barbara’s.

Remember Barbara (Section 4 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova
1979-2010

…I promised.
But I am not keeping secrets anymore.

Chapter Two, continued

There were traces of blood all over their bedroom.  The police sprayed their mysterious spray across the floor, and there, beside the bed, a bright puddle began to glow, its center radiating like a dark, terrible sun.  Small fluorescent smudges appeared.  On the wall by the bed, an unmistakable hand print shone clear ghostly fingers.

“Whose hand…?” I asked, not wanting to know.

“We don’t know.”  But there was more.  “And in the closet—   It looked clean in the daylight, but when the cops sprayed that stuff, it glowed.  Bright.  The whole closet.”

 

What the hell?

 

Maybe a worker hurt himself during construction. Terribly. Then he touched the wall. Maybe other renters once had a dog that lay there bleeding to death after a vicious fight. In the closet. A dog would like that.

“No, no,” the cops say. “Human blood.”

Is there a way they can be sure of that? What in God’s name happened in there? Is this fluorescent cop blood-spray even real?

I Google it. It’s real. Bleach activates it too, I read, and for a moment I feel better. Maybe it was just bleach. The cleaning lady spilled it.

Then I feel sick again. Who spills that much bleach in a closet? A floor mopped with bleach would have a uniform glow.

“The police think he kept her there for a day or more. They found one of Jim’s flip flops with blood on it and they took it to see if they can get a match from her family.”

 

 

Was it in a crime of passion? A fury out of control? Did he plan it?! Impossible.

Jim was as strong as an ox. He could have strangled any medium-sized adult with his bare hands, woman or man. He could have suffocated her with a pillow. Suffocation is quiet and, whatever happened, no one heard a sound.

But why the glow of so much blood? Or is it bleach? Does it make a difference? Even though Jim left with only a backpack, the pillows and bedding were gone from the room, and, in the bathroom, not one towel remained.

He made no secret of owning a gun but nothing suggested that shots had been fired. Did he stab her? Why, if he could so easily have suffocated her? Did her head crash against the cement wall or tile floor? Was she instantly unconscious? Why didn’t she scream?

Did he gag her first? Hold his hand over her mouth? No. He couldn’t have. He loved her.

And the saran wrap? The duct tape? Possibilities occur to me that are unmentionable. Maybe I watch too much TV.

What in God’s name happened to Barbara? Why?

 

 

The cops sprayed the blood spray through the common area and stood in stupefied silence as a glowing trail appeared, wide and solid, as if something heavy had been dragged out of their room, across the floor, around the pool, up the stair at the entrance, through the door and onto the front porch.  Then it disappeared.  The cops took their hats off, crossed themselves, and mumbled what sounded like, “Santa Maria.”

Just before the fading cover of that night gave way to dawn, the OIJ knocked on Randy’s door, demanding to examine his vehicle.  Startled and stammering, he rummaged for the keys.  They filled the old Trooper with spray, and there it was behind the last seat:  the same eerie, nauseating glow.

Nobody’s dog died in Jim and Barbara’s closet.  Whatever was in that closet slid out the front door of the house and disappeared forever from the trunk of that car.

And then, after that, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Jim was gone and there was no sign of Barbara anywhere. Ivan took away her things. No sign, ever, of the long board bag charged to the Czechs.

The police, having a crime with no criminal and no victim, turned their attention back to chasing thieves.

 

*****

Remember Barbara
Part Three

I tell myself the story a thousand ways, asking her silent ghost which version is true, begging her just to nod or twitch a finger when I get it right. I have tried everything. She is motionless.

Surely it must have begun with a fight. Truly.

Give me that much, Barbara.
He left the bar early—tired, bored, and annoyed that even though you all speak English, you kept slipping into Czech as if he wasn’t even there.  Laughing hilariously, and him sitting there like stump.

You came home at 1:00 o’clock, early by Europe’s definition of a night out, late by Jim’s.  But the Czechs came every year, and every year it was the same.  Jim never seemed the least bit jealous.

I guess this time he waited up for you.

 

And what? Was he angry? Did he accuse you of cheating? Say you didn’t love him? Was he drunk? Were you? Did he ask you for money? Did you refuse? Say you’d had it with him? That you were sick of it? Did you tell him you couldn’t go one more day like this? But why would he kill you for that? Is there any way you are alive?

Did you know something about him and threaten to tell? Did you accuse him of something true and unspeakable? How did he become so terribly angry? Or was it anger at all?

Was he waiting for you in bed feigning sleep? Did you tiptoe in trying not to disturb, brush your teeth in the bathroom with the door closed and slip quietly into bed beside him, sliding a warm arm around his chest and kiss his ear? Did you think he would make love to you when he grabbed you by the throat?

Did he mean to kill you when you opened the door? Did you feel it in the air? Did you know something wasn’t right?

Did you know you were dying, Barbara?

 

What did he do to her, that beast? Press on her throat until she stopped thrashing? Hold a pillow on her face? Strike a deadly blow to her temple? Split her skull against the wall? Did he cut her with a knife, the animal? Why? What did she do to him but love him? What did he fear she would do?

Did he think we would believe him?  And we might have believed him longer, if his lies had been less absurd, if he hadn’t told them just before her mother’s birthday, just before Christmas.  When both came and went—and really, one was enough—everyone knew she was dead.

If he could have conjured up a sliver of concern, it would have helped. We might have thought for at least a minute that she really ran away, taking nothing, intending to return and perhaps somewhere in her adventures met with misfortune. We might have tried to believe he was innocent. He could have paced, called her sister, talked to the police, twisted his goatee, shed a tear. But nothing. Sneers, sardonic smirks and crazy bitch.

 

*****

I think if he’d meant to do it, he wouldn’t have done it there. He would have taken her on a trip somewhere to a rented room. He would have taken her alone on a boat into the sea. He would have had the car and the board bag ready if he knew he was going to need them. He isn’t that stupid.

I make up a story to believe because I need one. In it, they become angry and say terrible things to each other. Wine makes her bold. And in a blind rage, he doesn’t care. For one second too long, he doesn’t care.

Then he smacks her face and waits for her to come to. And smacks her harder but nothing happens.

Bitch, wake up.

Now what has she done?

He shakes her and her body lolls.  He presses his head to her chest where he can hear that her heart has stopped, and the flood of sorrow boils into pure rage at her pathetic weakness.

Now look what you have done to me. Got the last laugh. Died, you stupid bitch. Crazy bitch. Goddamn women, man.

cut 4

Barbara Struncova

Read the last section of the story 

 Barbara Struncova disappeared on December 5, 2010 and is still one of Costa Rica’s cold case missing persons. This is her story according to me, as close to the truth as I am able to tell it.
I call it fiction in a fading hope that it is.
Make no mistake: I will never stop hoping that everything I have supposed is wrong.
Everyone in this story is a friend I have lost.