LOVE AND THE FALL OF BARBARA PEPPER
Bill and Barbara Pepper were the perfect couple. Bill with his keen business sense, and Barbara with her twenty-six-inch waist. We were all envious watching them in action with their pet names for each other. Barbara affectionately calling Bill “Puss,” and Bill returning the favor by nicknaming Barbara “Barb.” Barb might seem like a simple nickname, but Bill would say it with a smile and add, “On account of her biting wit.” It was enough to make a person sick, but then the sickening feeling would blossom out into admiration again. Folks often pretended to guess why Barb would nickname Bill such a vulgar name. But Barb was just being Barb.
They were the picture-perfect family. All white picket fences, pristine curated front flower beds, and lattice crust apple pies cooling on the kitchen windowsill. On a typical Saturday, you could drive by the house and find Bill washing the car while little Cathy pushed her ball around the yard all by her lonesome. Cathy was Bill and Barb’s only child. The town had prayed so hard and so faithfully for little Cathy’s safe arrival. Then our prayers were answered. Folks would wonder aloud why Cathy didn’t have any siblings. Barb would say, “Puss and I feel so blessed to have found little Cathy. She completes our family, and we worry that another would throw us off balance. What if a new arrival had even more problems?” We would all inhale deeply trying to swallow our judgment of such a selfish statement. A sibling for little Cathy couldn’t be anything other than a blessing.
The day little Cathy arrived was marked as if it were a national holiday. We even had a parade to welcome her. Bill and Barb were the glue that held the town together, so any child of theirs was royalty. Little Cathy was from the Congo, so her journey had been a long one. A long one riddled with paperwork, trips through customs, and uncomfortable plane rides. Little Cathy was an orphan, and Bill and Barb had taken this untethered child and lavished her with love.
On the day of the parade, Cathy impressed us all. Barb had prepared us as best she could. She spent the first half of Bible study explaining what it was going to be like for Cathy to acclimate. But no one could have prepared us for little Cathy seated on the back of a red convertible wearing the most beautiful white eyelet dress you had ever laid your eyes on.
She was tucked in tight between Bill and Barb, new parents with beaming smiles. So proud of their little Cathy. We were all certain Barb had bathed little Cathy before her debut, and yet she kept scratching and picking all around that eyelet dress. When the crowd would wave, little Cathy would lift that pristine dress right over head. Her belly button right on display for all to see. But it was only natural that little Cathy was scared and acting out. Our community was a big change from where she came from. Bill and Barb were downright saintly for taking her on.
Cathy became quite the fixture at church. She would arrive dressed impeccably. Barb should have bought stock in the Polly Flinders dress company for all the smocked adorableness that she dressed little Cathy in. But Cathy would never keep her patent leather Mary Janes on her feet. She’d whip them off, put them on her hands, and clap while hooting and hollering, disturbing even the peaceful heavens above. Bill would shift uncomfortably in his front row reserved pew, but Barb would put her hand on his knee and whisper, “It’s alright, Puss. Leave Cathy be. It’s just her nature.” Our disapproval would dissolve from our faces, and we would all nod and smile.
As Cathy grew, so did her personality. She had no verbal skills to speak of. The best she could do was make grunting noises and purse her lips as if trying to blow you a kiss. And when Cathy was mad, well, folks just steered clear. Little Cathy could destroy a room in under sixty seconds. There wouldn’t be a surface left untouched. Barb would smile and say, “Cathy has some leftover emotional issues from losing her birth mother so young. She just needs more love.” Still, it was awhile before folks felt comfortable enough to let Cathy attend the children’s Sunday service without Bill or Barb.
Oh, did little Cathy blossom when given freedom. She found her confidence and the ability to let others know exactly what she wanted. Some of us were surprised by the children’s acquiescence to the situation. There were rumblings from folks that Cathy’s so-called confidence was simple dominance over the other children. But Barb paid them no mind. She would smile as little Cathy crawled up the front of her dress and settled on her hip.
The French family joined our church on the coldest Sunday in January. Such a sweet family with their youngest, little Davy, rounding out the six of them. Folks didn’t expect little Davy to lift the veil that Bill and Barb Pepper had placed over the town’s eyes. Indeed, he did.
Little Davy didn’t submit to Cathy. After many Sundays of having Cathy grab at his clothes, steal a toy from him, and bonk him on the head with it, he’d had enough. The mothers had arrived for pick-up, and the kerfuffle was already in full swing. Little Davy was in the middle of the room with his hands placed firmly on his hips, and Cathy had attached herself to the drapes and was climbing and swinging. It was in this moment that little Davy turned to the crowd of mothers and children and announced, “Why do you people treat her like she’s human? She’s a dang chimpanZEE!”
Katy Goforth (she/her) is a writer and editor for a national engineering and surveying organization and a fiction editor for Identity Theory. Her writing has appeared in The Dead Mule School, Reckon Review, Bright Flash Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her first job was being the Easter bunny at her local mall. She peaked early. She was born and raised in South Carolina and lives with her spouse and two pups, Finn and Betty Anne. You can find her on Twitter at @MarchingFourth and at katygoforth.com.