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July 15, 2024

Shame Squad

By Terry Petersen

Alexandra Berch gave Lawful Corner publicity the devil would deny the summer and fall of '62. At least that's what the town claimed. She branded it home of that dangerous, crazy woman. The local gossip biddies talked about her for months after she got carted off to the station, then eventually what they called the nuthouse, always with either a raised eyebrow or circle at the ear. "Should have been fried," my parents said. Folk wanted Mrs. Berch punished. No doubt about it.

No one asked what I thought. No kid with any notion of consequence broke the "children should be seen and not heard" rule. It followed with "spare the rod; spoil the child." I had no intention of finding my backside bruised.

We lived next door to the Berch family. Mrs. Berch spent as much time in her garden as I did in ours. I never let Mom know I liked tending beans, peppers, and tomatoes. I even tolerated bugs. A garden starts with seeds no bigger than a freckle. It breaks through dirt to grow into something better. Kind of a sacred thing. And I didn't have to sit through the preacher's ranting about the terrors of hell to see it happen. Besides, play wasn't fun when the only other twelve-year-old girl in our neighborhood found a new taunt every time she saw me: spider hair, sausage legs, shoe-box foot. I felt safer around the yellow jackets that pollinated my plants. At least they had reason for their stings.

Mom never stopped me from working. She bragged about what a good job she did raising such an industrious child. She had this notion that life needed to be hard. She called card playing, dancing, anything frivolous, hell's invention. She said that beauty belonged to the divine and should never be sought for its own sake. I planted flowers nice enough for an angel to steal, but I started mine from seed. My mother figured that God made pretty, but he would let you create it if you wrapped enough dirt and struggle through it.

Mrs. Berch didn't mix with Mom and the other women. She only got talkative alone in the back yard. At least that I saw. But she didn't use a normal grownup voice. She sounded like a little kid stuck inside a grown-up body. When her husband and kids showed up, you would think she was deaf and dumb. She didn't even try to speak. She just stared and looked as scared as a rabbit cornered by a fox.

Seems meanness came packed with the boxes and furniture when the Berch family moved into the house last winter. The three boys fought like they were getting into the last lifeboat with only one space left, and the other two would drown, or maybe should. When Mr. Berch hollered at his wife I would not have been surprised if he pulled off a branch and switched her. Never saw it, but wondered why I never saw bruises. My face got red, even though he never gave me a second glance. I could hear his gunshot command from any spot in our huge yard. He looked like a tank made of pale skin, immense. Mrs. Berch hunched her shoulders, as if she could evaporate into the air.

Mrs. Berch reminded me of an autumn sapling, with uncombed red hair that stuck out, sort of leaf-life, with a twig-skinny torso and dry-kindling legs. Mr. Berch reminded me of a wood cutter, one who didn't need an ax. He could cut her down without it, gnawed around her edges with his sharp tongue. Her insides were already hollowed out. Least that's what I figured later.

She had all kinds of conversations with nobody. She waved her arms, wagged her finger, even cried. Never acted like she saw me. I kept busy digging weeds, getting to the roots; they come right back if you don't.

Sometimes she sang off-key chants. Peculiar. I heard from the grown-ups that she had a fourth baby just before they moved next door. He didn't live long. Mysterious. I figure that's why Mrs. Berch acted so strange. From gosh-awful grief. Maybe she sang some bizarre lullaby because of it.

"No, no, no," she shouted, the right word if Mr. Berch had stood there with his whip tongue. But when he came home from work, and then hollered about how his dinner tasted like manure, and she didn't set the fertilizer right around the roses, she didn't make a sound. Not even a squeak.

Her bent-over shoulders made me want to kick him. Long and hard.

He sang in the choir at church every Sunday. Would have thought he had a microphone when he didn't: "A mighty fortress is our God." He belted it out, shoulders back, head straight, like the mighty fortress sang bass at the Lawful Corners Christian Church. His wife sat in the back row with the boys. She rocked sometimes, back and forth and back and forth, eyes set on nothing in particular. Least that's how it seemed. Though I only saw her when I came up the middle aisle. She always got there early, probably since Mr. Berch practiced for choir then. The boys pushed and shoved one another, and giggled at the preaching. Mostly it warned about hell, sin, and things I wanted to shake out of my head as soon as possible.

The biddies gossiped at the pot luck picnic afterward. I called them the Shame Squad.

"Those Berch boys are destined for reform school."

"Better believe it. She has no control. No control at all over them."

"Shame isn't it? A real shame."

"That Alexandra could sure use a decent meal now and then."

"Likely a tapeworm. Sure is one peculiar gal."

"Shame she had to go to a clinic for poor folk when her baby got sick."

"Then died. That's the real shame."

"While her husband buys a bigger house with money he says they don't have."

"The things folk do."

"Shame ain't it? A real shame."

I bit into a tomato, somehow wanting to apologize for breaking its tender skin. Nonsense. But, I couldn't shake the feeling.

The next time I saw Mrs. Berch alone, sometime around late August, I had this urgent sense that I had to talk to her. Then. But I didn't have much experience talking to grown-ups, and none talking to social outcasts. I looked around my garden for something to give her. The only thing that seemed possible was my baby's breath. Dried they lasted a long time. None had been planted in the Berch yard. Maybe she would know how to save them. I snipped some, then made the bold step into her yard.

"For you," I said.

She looked at me like I had fallen out of her rose bushes.

I felt silly as the flowers dropped out of her hand. She didn't move. I gave them to her again. She slid her fingers along the stem of one, and then rubbed her thumb across the cut edge. She frowned, and looked at her hands as if the tender green nicked her.

"Beautiful. But dead now," she said. "Thank you anyway."

She looked into my eyes as if she saw somebody else. My throat closed. The silence between us smothered me.

"Good bye," I said, in a little-girl voice that came out without my permission and embarrassed me.

She sat on the grass and stared at her hands.

A few months later, after everything in the garden had finished growing, the police came next door while I ran an errand for my dad. Apparently, Alexandra Berch had poisoned her last baby, a little at a time. The voices in her head told her to do it. The story hit national news.

The Shame Squad worked overtime.

When fall tinged its first leaf red, I got up early and made a bouquet of the last of my summer flowers, bright colors cut from their roots. I carried them to the only cemetery in town. It took a while, but I found baby Berch's grave.

I stood there, not certain about what to do or say. None of the prayers I heard in church, even the psalms I'd memorized in Sunday school, seemed to fit.

"Sorry your mama couldn't make it," I said aloud. I lay the fresh cuttings on the stone. Then walked away. Ceremony over. Chances are one strong wind would scatter my gift north, south, east, and west. But for a moment, yellow, red, and white reflected the sunrise as the last pink of dawn dissolved into morning.

Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-11-24
Image(s) © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
4 Reader Comments
10:02:01 PM
Bittersweet and very touching!
Beautifully recalled and expressed!
11:22:29 PM
Disturbing and thoughtful.
Sue Neufarth Howard
11:47:20 PM
A very moving and heart-rending story, expertly written with passion.
Anne Becker
01:53:34 AM
A poignant and haunting story.
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