Murder, Suicide, and a Playgroup

Jessica Smartt Gullion

“Ok, suppose you and the Wiggles were the last people on Earth,” Carrie said as she put together the train tracks for the kids. “Which one would you hook up with?”

Laura laughed. “I’ll pass on all of them. Just promise me they won’t sing.”

“Not me,” I said. “I’d make them all into my personal slaves.” Which they would willingly do after my brutal yet oh-so-satisfying murder of Captain Feathersword.

Carmen breezed in, her toddler on her hip. Her gauzy skirt swirled in a rain cloud around her. Black sandals clicked across the hardwood, and then were silenced by the playroom rug. “Did y’all hear the news?” Her face was grave, her voice low. This was not Good News.

I mentally sorted through recent Bad News, but I didn’t know whether to say yes or no. Fighting in Iraq? Category Five Hurricane Hits Mexico? Scandal in US Attorney’s Office? Maybe it wasn’t News; maybe it was news. Someone was getting divorced. Someone’s kid had cancer. I hoped it wasn’t cancer.

Laura saved me. “I don’t watch the news. It’s depressing.” She expertly whipped off her little girl’s wet diaper, rolled it into a neat ball, and replaced it with a clean one, properly adorned with Elmo. Personally, I like the diapers with Dora the Explorer because I hate her and the fact that Brycen poops on her makes me laugh. Immature, yes, but, whatever.

Carmen set Roger on the floor. “Astrid Hanigan. From my street. She killed her baby, her husband, and herself. It’s all anyone is talking about.” She pulled a bottle of spring water out of her Kate Spade diaper bag and took a sip.

I remembered now. Local Woman Kills Family, Self. I didn’t realize she lived by Carmen. Those houses are amazing. Probably 4,000 square feet. My house is small. I hate it when it’s my turn to have everyone over. I don’t even have a playroom. I have to pull toys into the living room. Carmen has a playroom and a media room with surround sound and one of those giant flat plasma screen TVs. She also collects expensive knick-knacks. These fabulous antique Dedham plates hang on the wall of her kitchen. No toys in the living room—it looks like a magazine. Actually, her whole house does.

“Oh, yeah, I did hear about that. A friend of mine knew her from church. Heard she was crazy as a loon, really mental, that one. Supposedly, she cries a lot during service, but if you ask her what’s wrong, she never says, never admits to anything bothering her. She barely combs her hair, let alone wears makeup, and her clothes are wrinkled all the time. She organizes the Wednesday dinners. My friend said she’s like a Nazi about those, ordering everyone around. Gets mad if you bring a salad instead of a dessert, like really mad, yelling and all. They didn’t care much for her, but, you know, they are glad she was saved,” said Carrie. She sat in a rubble of wooden train tracks, snacking on a baggie of Goldfish crackers. A bit of one stuck to her bottom lip. None of us said anything, but we all watched it bob up and down when she talked.

“She killed her baby?” said Laura, her face contorted in horror. “What on Earth?”

“Shot her in the head,” whispered Carmen over Roger’s head. She gave him a kiss. The large platinum hoops dangling from her ears shook violently back and forth. I admired her bravery for daring to wear them around small children. I wouldn’t. “Fortunately she was asleep, so the last thing she saw was not her mama killing her.” Her voice was syrupy.

“How does anyone do that?” Laura replied.

“I don’t know,” said Carmen. “I just don’t know.”

None of us knew Astrid, not really. We somewhat knew of her; it’s a small community. Carmen had some street cred for living three doors down, but she never actually spoke with the woman. She had seen Astrid several times, even waved at her once as she loaded her baby into a maroon SUV. She told us that Astrid’s front yard was perfect; of course, she did have a service. They planted new flowers each season, always color coordinated. A couple of months ago all the beds were full of bellflowers and columbines, with delphiniums around the trees and a cluster of daisies by the mailbox. We fed on details, we inspectors, trying to make sense of it. Carmen noted that Astrid recently lost a lot of weight, and we agreed that was an important fact.

“The weight loss, that is a clear sign of depression,” said Carrie. She rescued Thomas the Train from Shelby’s mouth.

“I wish I lost weight when I was depressed. I eat ice cream,” I joked. Actually, I drink beer out of a chipped juice glass, but ice cream is more PC with the mommies. It is a delicate balance, how much we share.

We didn’t know how she did it, how she pulled the trigger, the gun pointed at her sleeping baby girl’s head. We were much more understanding about the husband. We could all come up with reasons: he cheated, he drove them into bankruptcy, he left his dirty socks on the floor just one too many times. She shot him in the garage. Maybe he spent more time in there than with her.

The problem for us, of course, is that if another mommy could snap like that, maybe we could too. I mean, I understand how child abuse could happen. Not that I would ever do it, of course. Brycen has colic. Sometimes he cries and cries for hours. Nothing I do can get him to stop. Sometimes I just set him down in his crib and go take a hot bath. The water falling into the tub drowns out the sounds of his crying. Sometimes I almost let it run over the top, I hate to turn it off. Still, I would never shoot him. I love him.

He was on a fuzzy blanket on the floor, pawing at the baby gym positioned over his belly. He occasionally managed to swipe one of the toys and it sang “London Bridge is Falling Down,” blending in with all of the other electronic music-makers going off at irregular intervals in the playroom. I picked him up and cuddled him, feeling guilty. “If you guys ever see me going crazy, please intervene,” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Laura. “We all need to watch out for each other.” Out of all of us, she’s the most likely to flip out. She doesn’t believe in letting her kids watch TV. Not even videos. I don’t know how she gets anything done.

“I bet there’s more to the story than we know. I could see how, if Bill cheated on me, and like, got some other woman pregnant or gave me AIDS or something, I could see shooting him,” she said.

We all laughed.

“And my kids,” she continued, “I wouldn’t want them growing up without parents.” She twirled a lock of blond-highlighted hair around her fingers, considering this. “Well, you know, I could see someone doing it if they were already mentally unbalanced. Of course I wouldn’t do it. I’d go to therapy.”

“And we’d help you,” said Carmen, patting her on the leg.

“Or take meds, I mean come on, get a prescription for Prozac or something,” I added.

“Seriously, I wouldn’t get through the day without my 75 milligrams of Zoloft,” Carmen replied.

“I am so glad we have this group,” said Carrie. “I never thought it was going to be this hard, being a mother 24/7. I don’t know what I would do without you guys.” She brushed cracker crumbs off her ample chest, and repositioned her large legs around the toys. She was attempting to sit criss-cross-applesauce, but her body doesn’t fold like that.

We all nodded in agreement and paid homage to the original inventor of the Play Group. If we were drunk, we would hug and tell each other how much we loved one another and that if we were lesbians we would definitely hook up. But we have small children and none of that is appropriate.

“Ok, I wasn’t going to say anything, but,” Carmen made a dramatic pause, we all leaned in closer. “I heard that she had S-E-X with a guy down the street. He’s divorced. Has a 10-year-old son who comes every Wednesday and every other weekend.”

“That’s awful,” said Carrie. “Bouncing your child back and forth like that. Kids need stability.”

“Not as awful as murdering them,” I piped up.

They all looked at me, stunned. Brycen babbled. Carmen laughed. We all joined in with relief. No one thought it was funny though.

I pulled a bottle out of my enormous blue diaper bag. Laura watched me. She was totally into breastfeeding, breast is best and all, but it just didn’t work out for me. Two weeks of sore bloody nipples did me in. Brycen is healthy; the pediatrician says he is fine. Besides, I was bottle fed, and I turned out ok.

“If she was the one cheating, why would she kill everyone?” I said.

“Guilt?” said Carmen.

“I could see that,” said Carrie. “Crazy woman couldn’t take the guilt of it. Maybe her husband found out. So she killed him before he could leave her. I don’t understand people who cheat. Is it really worth it?”

I held Brycen over my shoulder and patted him on the back. His burp was loud. He looked startled.

“What a sad story,” said Laura. “A sad life.” She stared at Brycen’s baby bottle. I packed it back in the diaper bag.

Roger hit Shelby with a Weeble, and she cried. Carrie scooped her up and showered her with kisses. “I’m going to pray for them,” she said.

“Next week at Carmen’s house, right?” asked Laura. We all began packing up our diaper bags, gathering all the supplies we tote around with our children. It wasn’t. It was my week, but I didn’t say anything. We all wanted to go to Carmen’s. So we could see where it happened.

“No one go crazy in the meantime,” I said, holding Brycen on my shoulder. I kissed him on the side of the head, inhaled his baby smell.

“My writing has appeared at the Mother’s Movement Online and in the forthcoming anthology Mama, PhD. I have also published quite a few academic research articles.” E-mail: Jessica.Gullion[at]

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