Authors: Irene Pence
Jerry Kuykendall stood on his porch one morning as Betty drove up. “You know, he said, “this old Wayne of yours is probably as nice a person as you’d want to meet.”
Betty smiled at her husband.
“No, really,” Kuykendall continued, “my whole family thinks so. Besides, he’s an outstanding employee to boot. I can understand why you two get along so well. You both look very happy with each other.”
Wayne Barker insisted on seeing his sons from his previous marriage. They were fourteen and sixteen now. Betty resented the time he spent away from her. The boys had been over to the trailer a few times, but Barker found it lessened tension if he arranged to meet them at the local McDonald’s, or a park; anywhere that Betty couldn’t interfere. He especially liked having them for an entire weekend, but taking the flak from Betty made him question if it was worth the trouble.
When Betty confided to her children that Barker began slapping her again, they suggested that she divorce him.
She told them, “Not yet. Let me handle this in my own way.”
Her children liked Wayne. He was always nice to them, but just as they saw Betty become two different people, they wondered if Wayne Barker had been cut from the same cloth as she.
On a rare, crisp evening in October 1981, Betty collected branches that had dropped from the hundred or so trees covering her large lot.
The year-round residents enjoyed this time of year. Summer crowds were gone, having shied away from the colder lake water. However, with fewer visitors, restaurants and stores were nearly empty.
Betty stacked the branches safely away from her trailer and struck a match.
“Let’s hope this takes off the chill and keeps away the bugs. They’re the only bad thing about living near the lake.”
Her daughter, now Shirley Thompson, nodded in agreement, remembering seeing curtains of webs spun over windows and doorways. She always hated to walk near the outlet to the lake that was at the rear of her mother’s property because spiderwebs smothered the area. Lake authorities disallowed insecticide spraying over the water for fear of harming fish, so insects reigned supreme. Shirley watched a fat-bodied spider scamper off a branch as the flames threatened it.
Smoke curled upward and the wood crackled and popped. Shirley stretched out her hands toward the flames. “That feels good. I’ve always loved a bonfire and the smell of burning wood.”
Except for Shirley’s voluptuous figure, she looked nothing like her mother. She possessed her father’s dark coloring and wore her straight black hair in braids, tied with tiny ribbons. She had driven down from her house in rural Van Zandt County to talk with her mother about Barker, hoping she would listen to her. Finally, she said, “Mama, what are you going to do about Wayne? I just hate to hear how he’s treating you.”
“I’m going to kill him,” Betty said stoically.
Shirley laughed. “No, don’t talk silly. I mean, really what are you going to do? You’ve got to leave him or he could really hurt you.”
“So you think I want to take this shit?” Betty asked.
“Mama, you’ve got to divorce him. That’s all there is to it.”
Betty remained silent for a moment, then said, “Hell, I can’t do that. The trailer’s in his name. If I divorce him, he’ll get the damn trailer and I’ll be stuck with an empty lot. What good would that do me?”
“Then buy a trailer. You told me you made good tips at the Cedar Club. If you start a little nest egg now, in a few months you might have the down payment. In the meantime, you could get a restraining order against him.”
“I don’t relish getting put out in the damn cold with winter coming.”
“Of course not. But you don’t mean you’re really going to kill him. What if you got caught?”
“I won’t get caught. Hell, I’ve planned every detail enough to see to that. Look over there,” Betty said, turning to an open space in the trees behind them. “See that hole?” Betty pointed to a mound of loose soil that had been freshly turned.
“What about it?”
“That’s where he’s gonna be. No one will ever find him.”
“You dug that yourself?”
“No. Of course not. I was talking real nice to one of the construction guys who was fixing the street in the next block. I told him I was building a barbecue pit and needed a hole dug. I said, ‘I bet it wouldn’t take you but a few minutes to dig something about four feet deep with that big backhoe of yours.’ He said he guessed it wouldn’t, and offered to come by after work. I told him I’d have a cold one waiting for him. ’Course like most men he said he was hoping I’d have something warm waiting for him.” She laughed and gave Shirley a little jab with her elbow. “I couldn’t risk a toss in the bed, not with Wayne coming home about the same time. So I thought, what the hell, I’d pay him twenty dollars. I didn’t want to get messed up with anyone else right now.”
“So somebody knows you had a hole dug?”
“Yes, but he’s not the type to put two and two together. If he does, I’ll just have something warm waiting for him.”
Shirley stood looking out her living room window, awaiting her mother’s arrival. She could picture her taking off in her orange-and-white Chevrolet pickup with Bobby, her youngest brother, in tow. By now they’d be bumping over the two-lane road to Shirley’s house.
When Betty and Bobby walked through her front door, Shirley felt disappointed. She’d hoped her mother would have changed her mind. After Betty confirmed that Bobby would be spending the night, she took off for her trailer after staying only an hour.
The rest of the day, Shirley thought of nothing other than her mother’s plan. She still wanted to believe it wouldn’t happen.
Betty stood outside in the hall, listening to Wayne’s quiet snoring. She entered in the dark and went to her nightstand where she kept her loaded .38-caliber Colt revolver. Its antique-ivory handle had darkened with time, making the intricately carved design harder to appreciate.
She plucked her gun from the top drawer, then pulled back the sheet and quietly climbed into bed. The couple belts of Jim Beam she downed earlier helped toughen her resolve.
No houses adjoined her yard, but the Bensons lived two lots away, and she didn’t know if they were light sleepers. Hell, she hardly knew them at all.
Betty tried to think how she could stifle the sound of the gunshot. When she plumped her pillow, she had the solution. She picked up the pillow and held it over the gun now aimed at Barker’s skull. The gun felt heavier than solid stone. Her hand shook as she took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. A blaring, ear-splitting eruption exploded into the bedroom. The surrounding metal of the trailer made the noise even louder, making it sound as though she were inside a steel drum. Wayne’s body jerked as if in shock, and she realized that the pillow had only thrown off her aim. Barker let out a sharp groan, making Betty afraid she had merely awakened him. Quickly, she recocked the gun and fired again. His body momentarily stiffened, then relaxed on the mattress. She fired a third time, and waited.
After the ricochetting sound of the explosion dissipated, the trailer became as quiet as a tomb. A warm sticky liquid cascaded over Betty’s fingers, and the stench of blood and gun powder filled her nose. She touched his blood-soaked neck to check his pulse.
Shirley laid in bed unable to sleep. She didn’t dare tell her boyfriend, Larry, about her mother’s plans. She wished she had someone she could trust to discuss her mother’s intentions. Were her sisters also involved? Had Mama talked to them about killing Wayne? Her curiosity consumed her until she finally decided to find out.
She pulled back the covers, tiptoed out of the bedroom, and headed toward her apartment’s small kitchen to call her oldest sister, Faye.
The phone rang several times before Faye’s groggy voice answered.
“What’s going on?” Faye asked, yawning.
“Have you heard from Mama lately?”
“Gosh no, not for weeks. Three at least. What’s wrong?”
“Then why did you wake me at two in the morning to ask?”
Shirley could visualize her sister’s blue eyes widening in disbelief, but she resisted divulging anything about the murder in case her mother had been only bourbon sodden and later changed her mind. “Forget it,” she told Faye. “I just had a bad dream about Mama. I dreamt something awful happened to her.”
Faye asked, “Since when do you hold any stock in dreams?”
“You’re right,” Shirley said, “dreams don’t mean anything.” She hung up, not surprised that her mother hadn’t confided in Faye, who was known as the stalwart of the family and had never done drugs. Faye always generously opened her Mesquite home to siblings in need of a bed or a home-cooked meal.
Shirley dialed her other sisters. Connie grumbled because Shirley had called so late, but Phyllis hadn’t gone to bed. All three sisters gave identical replies. None of them had talked with their mother in weeks.
The fact that her mother had brought over her brother Bobby, now sleeping in the next bedroom, made Shirley realize that Betty wanted him out of the house so he wouldn’t be present when she murdered his stepfather. Her brother Robby lived with their father and Shirley knew better than to involve that household with her problem.
It worried her to realize that her mother had confided to no one but her, and she had to ask herself, “Why?”
Betty Barker’s nightgown clung like Saran Wrap as sweat and Wayne’s blood ran down her body. She lacked remorse or guilt over Wayne’s murder. In fact, she felt relieved to be rid of him. Now, no one could take her trailer.
Crawling out of bed, she turned on the light. The entire room glistened blood red. The sheets were crimson, blood had splashed on the walls, dribbled down the headboard creating ruby stripes, then puddled onto the floor. The back of Wayne’s head held matted hair, but blood poured though the open star-shaped wounds of burst skin.
She went to the bathroom, eager to wash the smell of Wayne’s blood from her hands. Gun powder smudged her right hand. Hiking up her nightgown, she took it off and stuffed it in the basin of cold water to soak, then threw on an old T-shirt.
Back in her bedroom, she headed for the closet. Pulling out two sheets of green plastic that a new chair had come wrapped in, she tried to tuck the plastic over and under Wayne’s body until the blood stopped seeping through onto the sheets. Then she hauled out a blue canvas sleeping bag and fully unzipped it. Little by little she rolled Wayne’s body onto it. His weight made everything take much longer than she had anticipated. Once his body lay encased in the bag, she zipped it and slowly rolled him to the edge of the bed. It was like moving a massive chunk of blue granite. She inhaled deeply to give herself strength, then gave him a healthy push. He tumbled off the bed and landed with a thud.
Nervous energy fueled her. She tossed clothes and shoes out of her closet, then inch by inch dragged him inside. She pushed and shoved, sticking him back far enough so she could slide the door shut.
She took another look at the room and groaned, then began spraying Lysol generously on the headboard, walls, and floor. Not wanting the blood to set, she scrubbed all the surfaces quickly and thoroughly. She spent much of the night washing sheets, towels, and night clothes. Repeatedly, she rinsed blood out of towels until the water ran pink, then threw them into the washing machine. With everything finally cleaned, she stood under a steaming hot shower, trying to scrub away every last trace of Barker. Now both mentally and physically exhausted, she went to bed and fell soundly asleep.
After making all the late phone calls, Shirley slept until noon. She awoke to find a note on her pillow from Larry telling her that on his way to work, he would drop Bobby off at a friend’s house to spend the night.
She strolled into the living room and was shocked to see her mother lying on the living room sofa.
Without moving, Betty said, “It’s over. I did what I told you I was going to do.”
Shirley couldn’t believe her mother’s nonchalance. They might as well have been exchanging recipes. Shirley stood frozen, and unable to speak.
Betty stoically related every detail of the murder from her problem with the pillow to stuffing his body into her closet.
Shirley’s mind dashed back to the recently dug hole in her mother’s backyard. She had actually noticed it a week before her mother had told her about it. At the time, she wondered why it had been dug, but wouldn’t have imagined Betty’s reason for its being there. Somehow an unwritten rule hung over the family that you didn’t question Mama. Betty had the knack of giving a look that said, “You better obey.” She loved her mother, but she feared asking questions that would make her angry. Lately, it didn’t take much to set Betty off into one of her strange moods.
Shirley tried to rationalize Betty’s actions by remembering her mother’s stories about Wayne Barker abusing her. Maybe a judge would consider killing a wife abuser self-defense. But what if he didn’t? What if Betty got arrested and went to prison? Shirley couldn’t consider such horror.
If I don’t help her bury the body, wouldn’t Mama be more apt to get arrested?
In a small voice, Shirley asked, “Have you figured out what you’re going to do?”
“Somehow I’ve got to get his body into the barbecue pit,” Betty said wryly, with no humor in her voice.
“By yourself?” Shirley asked.
“How else? He’d be awful heavy for me to carry, but I suppose I can drag him. I’ll figure something out. Don’t worry about it. It’s not your problem.”
Shirley already felt tangled in her mother’s web and worried how the petite woman would get Wayne’s big, heavy body out to the grave by herself.
“Mama, I’ll help,” she said, suggesting the last thing she wanted to do.
Betty sat up and turned around to look at her. “You don’t have to, you know. In fact, I’m not sure I want you to.”
“I couldn’t stand for anything to happen to you.”