Fiction: Barbara

By Jon Doughboy

My demented mother kept asking me to ask Barbara or Berbera or Berbia, her new Jamaican home health aide whose name neither of us could pronounce, if Mossad sent her.

I said “Mom, Mossad didn’t send her but if they did send her, if somehow Mossad recruited a middle-aged Jamaican woman from the Bronx to make sure some old Lebanese lady didn’t burn down her apartment when she started sundowning, do you think she would tell us?”

“I thought she was from Haiti.”

“Does that matter?”

“I thought we could speak French.”

“She doesn’t. She’s not here for conversation anyway. She’s here to make sure you take your pills and don’t fall in the shower.”

“Ask her.”

Just then Barbara came in from the kitchen with a cheese plate she’d whipped up from the nubs of ancient brie and Jarlsberg and baladi that had been molding in the back of my mom’s fridge for a decade and a tube of Ritz crackers from God knows where. “Ok. Barbara, I have to ask you something because my mom is nuts.”

“She’s not nuts,” Barbara responded, tapping her temple, “it’s a condition.”

“Did Mossad send you?”

“Mossad? No, I took the 7 to the M. Forty-five minutes.” She took a bite of chalk that may have once been cheese, grimaced, but kept chewing. I was beginning to like this Barbara.

“The 7?” My mom asked, perking up. “Where did you come from?”

“Flushing,” Barbara said, bravely selecting her next cheese roulette.

My mom turned to look at me. “You said she was from Jamaica.”

We all had a good laugh at that and the next, the last, eighteen months of my mother’s life were a little less miserable with Barbara in it. She didn’t earn much given all that she did to keep my mother not just alive but comfortable—fed, bathed, clothed, medicated, laughing—so as a sort of final bonus I got her on the lease of my mother’s rent-controlled apartment. She moved in and invited me over for New Year’s Eve. Dinner and fireworks. We had a goat stew, brown and spicy, then smoked a spliff with her sister on the balcony waiting for the year to end.

Her sister, who spoke with the barest Jamaican accent, said, “Amelia, don’t smoke the whole thing. Share.”

“Amelia? Your name’s Amelia?”

Barbara/Amelia nodded, reluctantly passed the spliff to her sister.

“Not Barbara?”


“So why did you let us call you Barbara for two years?”

“I thought it was some Arab thing. Like a word for ‘dear’ or ‘nurse’ or something.”

We both started laughing and coughing and rubbing her eyes and it was like my mother was there too, for a second, a fraction of a second, like the room was full of her, of every version of her, the young girl in Lebanon worried about Israeli tanks rolling in; the young immigrant in New York wondering why English had so few sounds as if the language were stunted somehow; the tough, confident middle-aged woman I remember raising me; and the frail woman who had sat on this same balcony not too long ago trying to remember when and where and who she was. They were all there with us, there in the laughter.

The first round of fireworks started. Not the official show but a crackle in the alley below us.

Amelia’s sister was scared at first. “Fuck. I thought they were gunshots. I’m really high. Do you think they’re gunshots?”
Amelia shrugged and started to roll another spliff. “Maybe,” I said.

“Gangs? Should we call the cops? Who is it, you think?” she said.

Amelia and I locked eyes, smiled, and answered at the same time: “Mossad.”

Jon Doughboy works for the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer in little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea. This is his 118th publication.