Should Have Played Poker by Debra Goldstein (Excerpt)

Chapter One


“The first time I thought of killing him, the two of us were having chicken sandwiches at that fast-food place with the oversized rubber bird anchored to its roof.”

“I know the one.” I hand a cup of coffee across my desk to a woman I have not seen in twenty-six years.

With her free hand, Charlotte Martin pushes back a gray strand escaping from her ponytail. “It didn’t seem like the right thing to kill him in a place they close on Sundays. Besides, Carrie, being a lawyer, you can understand I didn’t want to do prison time. I decided it would be better to divorce your father.”

In all the ways I’ve imagined reconnecting with my mother, I never thought it would be on a Sunday morning in my office discussing why she once wanted to murder my father. Stunned that this blue-jeaned woman carrying a large plastic bag knew I worked at Carleton Industries or that I’d even be here today, I put my coffee down on the brief I was drafting.

Until she spoke and I had a faint recollection of the lilt of her voice, I had no idea who she was.

I rummage in my desk for a packet of sweetener, wondering why anyone, especially my mother, could ever think of killing my father, the former minister of Wahoo, Alabama’s Oakwood Street Church. Rather than ask, I wait. One thing I learned before I washed myself out of the police academy to go to law school is that there’s no reason to rush. You can often learn more from silence than by asking endless questions.

My hand trembles as I pour the last of the coffee into her mug. “So, you walked out on him instead?”

“Not quite. I went home that Saturday night promising myself I’d be a dutiful wife, but as we lay in bed with him snoring and me seething, I again felt like killing him. When I found myself debating whether to stab him, beat him with the bedside lamp, or wait until morning and poison his oatmeal, I knew I needed to leave.” She chuckles, letting me see laugh lines etched into her face.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she says. “Little things kept getting to me. Things like the way he left his black socks next to our bed every night for me to pick up. Or, how he sprinkled as much Gold Bond powder on our bathroom floor as on him.”

She leans forward in my client chair—as close as she can get into my personal space—

* * * *

She rummages through her bag until she pulls out a well-handled envelope. Before I can ask what it is, she stands so that she is looking down at me. I stand, too. She holds the envelope out, but I keep my hands down by my sides. “It won’t bite,” she says, putting the envelope on a stack of file folders on my desk. “We divorced once I was back on my feet. By then the congregants had stepped in to help him and you, as I knew they would.”

“But why come back now? That’s what this afternoon’s discussion is about, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” She picks up her bag. “I promised him then I would give you this. I tried to keep my promise for many years, but until now, I’ve never had the courage to honor it. Maybe,” she says, already standing in my doorway, “when you read that letter, you’ll understand what kept me from being his wife.”

“Or my mother,” I whisper—but she is no longer there.

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