Sunday, October 17, 2004

Felice Orwell

"Oh, God, let's quit fooling around," Dogger Gatsby panted.

"Hmm?" she murmured.

"Let's get naked and make love."

"Mmm! I'm in favor of that!" Felice Orwell said in a throaty voice. She grinned shyly and shook her clean dirty-blonde hair. "Let's do it!"

Dogger Gatsby grinned at her helplessly for the hundredth time that night. He felt like he had grin-itis. He loved to hear her talk. He'd never liked a West-Texas accent very much, but that accent of hers was so pleasing, it almost sounded musical to him. They'd been wrestling slowly, tenderly with one another for ten minutes or so now. It was the first time they'd ever really touched one another, and they were having a great time, although they were getting very agitated. They were sprawled across her unmade bed, so they were in the right place for it. His feet were still on the floor, which made him feel a little like some censorship-bound screen-lover from a forties movie. The rest of his body, however, was half on top of the slim girl, and he had one hand under and all the way up her skirt. Which was a little more representative of a young man of the early seventies trying to get in his girlfriend's pants.

"Mmm," she sighed again as they hurriedly undressed one another. "Don't stop kissing!"

Dogger kissed her, happy to be of service. He loved that soft sound of gratification she made in her throaty West-Texas voice. He had always disliked strong accents, but hers had utterly charmed him-was, as you will see, about to charm the pants off of him. Everything was happening quickly, everything was going well. He couldn't have been happier or more surprised.

Felice Orwell had been his neighbor for two or three months now, living in the apartment above him with her sister, Melody, who was one year younger. The sisters were both students at the nearby University of Texas. It was the Christmas season, and he'd been very busy with business, so that he'd barely spoken to either of the sisters, except in passing. Until tonight, of course. He came home late that Saturday afternoon from selling on the Drag, excited about how well sales had gone. He'd been selling leather goods in the crafts market across the street from the UT main campus for years now, and Christmas-time was the only time of year he made really good money. He'd made eight hundred bucks that day and could hardly believe it. He felt rich and very much in need of a celebration. After bathing and changing into some new clothes he'd bought on the way home, he'd felt refreshed, definitely ready for something. He just didn't know what.

"I need to spend some of this money!" he thought. He sat by the phone and speculated about whom he might call. "You got to share," he thought glibly. He was in a better mood than he'd been in ages.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door; it was Felice, the tall slim blonde from upstairs, and she was dressed to the teeth. He couldn't remember ever seeing her in anything but corduroy pants and old shirts, and he was certain he'd never seen her hair fixed like this. She must have been conscious of it, too, as she was grinning awkwardly and looking a little jittery. Dogger thought she looked handsome and flushed and wonderfully alive. He almost wanted to lick his lips.

"Hey, boy!" Felice said, a little too loudly.

"Hey, girl," he answered her softly, smiling at her nervous exuberance.

"Ha! I do sound idiotic, don't I?" she said disarmingly. "Uh, hey, look, I was just wonderin' if you had plans tonight? I don't have any plans myself, but I sure want to do somethin'! I've been studyin' my butt off all week for these finals and I'm just about to bust!"

Dogger laughed softly. Her directness was charming, but it was more than that. He'd thought about her several times these past few weeks. It was odd how much he liked listening to her voice. He couldn't remember when he'd been more pleased to see anyone.

"Uh, I'm not butting in on you, am I?" she asked. "Are you getting ready to go somewhere or something?"

She had spoken more softly, he noticed. Also she was suddenly pronouncing all the letters at the ends of her words. He wondered if that meant she was getting less nervous or more. More, perhaps, for she began to glance repeatedly at the empty hallway behind her as if afraid she was blocking someone's path.

"No, absolutely not," he smiled. "Come in." Felice took a single step across his threshold, still grinning, still looking flustered and flushed.

"Well, you wanna go out with me?" Felice said. She'd blurted it out hastily, apparently still trying to be dead honest, to spell out her intentions. Dogger smiled. He didn't understand how they'd come about, but he'd already figured out her intentions and was pleased with them.

"Sure, I do," Dogger said. "This is great. It's exactly what I was trying to figure out. I had a great day on the Drag and I absolutely need to celebrate."

"Oh, that's good," she smiled. She began to look a little less likely to turn and run back upstairs. "Yeah, I see now; you're kinda all dressed up too, huh?"

"All dressed up with no place to go!" he declared with a self-conscious grin.

"I've heard that phrase somewhere before," she beamed at him, glancing down self-consciously at her shiny dress."

"That's very pretty," he told her. "It looks good on you. Is it new?"

"Oh, thank you!" she said, clearly relishing the compliment. "It's not new, though."

"Still pretty," he said. "What color is that? Some kind of pink?"

"Pale rose," she said, glancing briefly at her reflection in the mirror above his artificial fireplace. Felice took a few small, almost prancing steps into the room and let him shut the door behind her. They looked at each other appreciatively and smiled.

That was how it'd begun, just a few hours ago. He'd never expected to be so intrigued with her. He'd certainly never expected her to share the intrigue. But that was how all his new affairs began; it never failed to surprise him when a woman liked him. They started by going to Castle Creek, a small nightclub in downtown Austin. A large woman folk-singer with a strong husky voice and straight brown hair that hung to her waist was playing that weekend. They agreed she looked a little like Cass Elliot, except that she wasn't nearly as big.

"She's still a pretty full-figured woman, though, isn't she?" Dogger teased Felice, leaning close to her in the dim light and half-shouting to be heard over the amplified music.

"Sure is," Felice hollered back. He barely heard her and looked at her questioningly. "She's one of those women that makes me feel like a refugee from a concentration camp!" she half-shouted. Just then the music ended and Felice looked chagrinned, wondering if everyone in the room had heard her.

"You're just deliciously slim and paranoid, like a lot of women," he told her. "On the other hand, she'd probably worry you make her look like a cow," Dogger laughed.

"She's fat and paranoid, huh?" Felice grinned.


"You sound like you know all there is to know about fat women and skinny women," Felice pretended to pout.

"No, not exactly. There's no explaining the opposite poles of women's vanity, though, I know that."

"Lucky for you men that you aren't bothered with such things, huh?" Felice laughed.

Dogger looked slightly abashed and patted his large stomach and shrugged. "Yeah, we're lucky that way."

"A man of wonderful intelligence!" Felice kidded him.

Dogger sipped his drink nervously. Maybe it was just the alcohol, but he began to worry if she understood that he was just kidding.

"In the meanwhile, buddy," she added, putting her hand firmly on his leg, "you gonna get me drunk or what?" He sighed with relief.

They spent a lot of money on drinks that night. Still, it didn't seem to be the liquor that made them drunk. They left Castle Creek and drove around the hills on the outskirts of Austin for an hour or more, talking and laughing and looking at things together. The longer they looked around, the better things looked. About midnight, he took her home. Since she lived upstairs from him, it felt very strange. He was "home" too. Parking his car in back, as usual, he took her arm and they walked slowly toward two doors at the back of the building. The door to his kitchen was to their right, the door that led up the back stairs to her apartment was to their left. They stopped to kiss between the doors, then hesitated.

"Well, maybe I ought to go on to bed," she yawned, stroking his nose lightly with her finger.

"Oh!" he whispered. He looked confused. Felice giggled at his expression and kissed him briefly on the lips. He pulled her back toward him and kissed her twice more. "Nice kiss," he sighed.

"I think so, too," she laughed softly. Without another word, she turned toward the door on her left and was gone. Dogger unlocked his door and stepped into his kitchen, still hearing her feet tripping lightly up the stairs overhead. He winced as he flipped the wall switch and was blinded by the overhead light.

"What just happened?" he asked himself irritably. "What am I doing here? What, what?!"

He was in love and in lust, totally aroused and wide awake. And totally confused.
Ten minutes later he was tapping at her back door. She'd removed her dress and was wearing a bright blue dressing gown over her long white slip.

"You forget somethin'?" she grinned.

"I feel like I did," he said, feeling foolish.

What if she thought he was a jerk? Maybe she'd really wanted him to leave her alone. Maybe she'd had her fun, her drinks, her little kiss, and that was the end of it? Maybe he hadn't been nearly as charming as he'd thought or as she'd hoped. Damn, why was it always so hard for him to tell what women wanted?! Although he didn't particularly feel drunk any more, he leaned tipsily against the door frame as if he was, beamed at her, and sighed.

"You wanna come in?" she asked him.

"You wanna let me?"

"I asked you first," she laughed.

"I want to come in," he said.

"Yeah, well, I want you to," she said. "So how come you're just standing there?"

"Inertia, I guess," he said. "Or else so happy, I just can't move."

"Unlikely story," she said, shaking her head and reaching for his hand.

Her long slim fingers felt cool as they caressed, then intertwined and locked with his fingers. She pulled him inside. He began to feel vaguely like a dancer from one of those romantic old movies, for, without taking her eyes off of him, she had given the door a shove with her free hand, simultaneously swinging him away from her in a wide arc, then bringing him back toward her as she herself turned. He sucked in his breath, feeling light on his feet for once, moving toward her in a slow smooth curve, at the end of which he found himself in her embrace, his lips pressed firmly, thrillingly, against hers.

"You're a smooth operator, aren't you?" he sighed a few moments later.

"No, I'm not!" She looked embarrassed for a moment, then shrugged and grinned.

"Very smooth," he said, kissing her on the cheek.

"Well, it's nice of you to say so, but I'm sure I don't know what you mean!" she chuckled. "I suppose you hadn't thought about this, either, huh?" she added.

"Not in detail," he sighed. "Just repeatedly." He grinned as she nuzzled her forehead against his chest and wrapped both arms around his waist.

"Mmm, you're big," she said softly.

"You're thin," he answered as he lovingly carressed her back and sides.

"Yeah," she purred. She took his hand and led him quickly to her bedroom.

"Watch out for the doggie papers," she said. "I've got a new puppy."

"Oh, okay," he said, skirting the dirtied newspapers. "Where is the dog?"

"Sleeping like a log in the living room," Felice said. Without looking back, she gave her bedroom door a hard push and it swung closed. She sat down on the edge of the bed and Dogger sat down beside her. She looked slightly embarrassed as she nuzzled her cheek against his, then pushed her hand between the buttons of his shirt and slyly began to caress his chest.

"Falling in love's such fun, isn't it?" he whispered, lifting her face and kissing the side of her nose.

"It makes life New again," Felice murmured. "Like music you haven't heard in ages," she sighed, beginning to nod her head rhythmically.

She closed her eyes. She wanted more of those kisses. She made a noise—a deep-throated "mmm" that he began to think of with some amusement as her "signature" sound. Then she leaned back sensuously on the bed. Dogger shifted slightly to accommodate her as she lifted her legs onto the bed, then leaned down and fervently kissed her, pressing his upper torso firmly against hers. Thus they'd reached the point mentioned earlier where he'd decided to try to get in her pants and she'd decided to let him.

"Don't stop kissing!" she gasped as they began to remove one another's clothing.

Dogger was eager to please. Nonetheless he was having an awkward time of it as they tried to kiss and undress each other at the same time. At last, they were nude and he tumbled into bed beside her. Before long they were both panting.

"Oh, Gawd!" Felice shivered.

"What is it?"

"Let's do it, dammit!" Felice giggled.

"Don't be so anxious," he told her.

Starting at his neck, she moved her hand downward, dragging her fingers across his chest until it went over the edge of his belly and disappeared from sight. "Oh! Mmm... I see you're not far behind me!"

"You better hope not, anyway!" he smirked. "'Cause I'm certainly ready to try it!"

"You sure?" she asked, holding his face gently between her small hands. "We don't really have to hurry. I was just...teasing know?"

"Honey, don't worry; I've never been more ready! I'm thrilled, I'm engorged, I'm very nearly salivating and masticating!"

"Oh, good! In that case, I wasn't teasing at all!" she declared with a grin that seemed to stretch from ear to ear. She rolled over, settling herself flat on her back, and reached up for him.

"Boy, you're pushy. You sure you don't wanna get on top?" he teased her, holding back from her.

"Good grief!" she giggled. "We'll do it that way later! Just get on me!"

Just as he settled down on top of her, he heard a scampering and scuffling on the floor.

"Oh, fuckin' hell!" Felice sighed. "The puppy woke up, and I left the door open!"

"I could get up and close it," Dogger said.

"You won't, though!" she chortled, wrapping her arms and legs around him tightly. "You stay right where you are!"

"Mmm," he sighed. He wiggled himself around very carefully on top of her, making no forward movements whatsoever yet. The puppy continued to scamper around the room, intermittently sniffing at the edge of the bed. It wasn't quite tall enough to reach them or even to see over the edge of the bed.

"Mmm, that's good, Dogger," she sighed.

"I thought so, too," he said. He had his hands flat beside her, supporting most of his weight with his arms. Then he leaned down and licked her ears as he slowly began to move himself inside of her. As his body slid slightly downward, his toes stuck off of the bed and he felt something lick them.

"Felice, your dog is licking my toes," he said tensely.

"Ignore it!" she gasped. "Keep doing what you're doing!"

The dog jumped up on the bed and sniffed noisily at Dogger's bottom.

"If that mutt licks my butt while I'm doing this," he muttered in her ear, "I'll..."

"You'll what?!" she said, huffing and puffing, beginning to move herself passionately against him, hoping she could ignore the whole thing.

"At the very least, I'll get the hysterical giggles," he said, snickering slightly even as he said it. "Or I might get so aroused that I bang you to smithereens. Accidentally screw you to death, you know?"

Felice opened her eyes wide and smirked uncertainly. Her cheeks filled with air, then her lips vibrated as she expelled a blast of air, creating a clamorous noise that subsided into a hysterical fit of laughter. Her body quaking violently beneath him, he gasped as she pulled him against her, squeezing him so hard that he could barely breathe. Dogger had a sudden vision of suffocating on top of her in his aroused state; losing control, he began to laugh helplessly too.

"Oh, G-G-Gawd!" she gasped loudly, trying to talk through her laughter and to be heard over his. "I want you to make love to me so bad right now and y-y-you're just making me laugh! Don't do that! You will kill me!"

Dogger's breath was coming in gasps as she loosened her hold on him and he began trying to catch his breath, stifle his own laughter, and regain his sense of direction all at once. He was still very aroused. Beneath him, Felice had stopped laughing and he looked at her face. She didn't look like she'd giggled herself out of the mood yet, either.

"Just keep doing what you're doing!" she panted sharply. "The dog won't bother us. You can't kill me; this feels too good!"

"You sure?" he grinned.

"I won't die, I promise!" she snickered, losing control of herself all over again. He watched her with a bemused look as she began to furiously slap the sheets with the flats of her hands, tears pouring down her cheeks.

"I thought it was only dogs that got locked into positions like this," Dogger said drolly.

"Oh, Gawd-in-heaven, shut up!" she shrieked.

His remark didn't help Felice at all. It was just too comical. She beat the sheets even harder. The puppy ran forward to investigate her noises, made the supreme effort to jump up onto the bed, and then licked repeatedly at their faces. Felice thought the dog's activity the most hilarious thing yet and gave a bronx cheer right in the puppy's face. The little dog blinked his eyes and sneezed once, then licked his face repeatedly.

"Do you feel as much like a pervert as I do?" he asked her.

"I think I do now!" Felice cackled, giving the dog a gentle but firm push, brushing it off the bed. "Stay down, you little twerp!" she said. "Stay down!"

"You're not speaking to me, are you?" he asked her, trying to keep a straight face. "There's quite enough danger of that as it is!"

Felice threw her head back and roared. Dogger thought she was pretty funny herself, the uninhibited way she laughed. And pretty, too. It wasn't every woman, he felt, who could look so appealing under such circumstances. Felice looked as good to Dogger when she looked ridiculous as she did when she didn't, and his desire for her, like his erection, hadn't flagged one iota.

"Jesus, if I laugh any more, I'll die, I swear I'll die!" she sighed. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tightly, suffocating him again.

"F-f-falling in love is fun, is-is-isn't it?" he stuttered, unable to hold back his laughter.

"This fucking's not so bad, either!" she howled tearfully.

They held onto each other tightly and kept quiet for a long while after that. Why the dog didn't come back, they never knew, but eventually Felice spoke up in that straightforward West Texas voice of hers.

"Listen, Dogger, we gotta get serious, don't you think? We got to screw."

"I'm ready," he told her, though he couldn't for the life of him have explained how. She began to kiss him again, this time wearing a very serious expression and mostly keeping her eyes closed. They finished making love without further interruption and Felice didn't die. Or, if she did, she lived to enjoy it. So did Dogger. Before they made love again, however, he searched the room carefully, closed the door and shoved a chair against the doorknob.


4th draft: 02/10/07
©1990 Ronald C. Southern


Monday, September 13, 2004

Fire With Fire

"Honey, if somebody wrote a story about us, what would they write, d'you think?"

"That's a funny question!" she smiled gently.

"I know, I know," he sighed. "Things have been funny lately, Darla. Don't you think?"

"I guess they have," she answered. "Are you feeling bad again, Roger?"

"No, no. I'm all right."

"Well, then we're all right, aren't we?" Darla asked. She was trying to sound bright and cheerful; in fact she sounded desperate and miserable.

She couldn't stand it that Roger had been so depressed. He'd been like this, off and on, since the baby was born.

"Well, listen, I'll see you later. I'm going down to the creek to shoot some cans and bottles."

"But first you have to drink 'em, huh?" she grinned, still trying to be cheerful. Actually she wasn't all that happy about how much beer he'd been drinking.

"Hey," he grinned, "somebody's got to empty 'em! That's part of the fun."

"Well, don't have too much fun, buckeroo," she teased him. Every so often they liked to be silly.

"I ain't no buckeroo, little toodle-oo," he answered in that peculiar teasing language they'd developed while they were dating. His voice sounded dull, though; his heart wasn't in it.

"You gonna be long?" she asked.

"Maybe. I might go see Jenkins after I shoot the bottles."

"Oh? Well, okay, have a good time," she told him as he opened the screen door and walked across the front porch.

"You too, toodles!" he called back over his shoulder.

"Oh, don't be mushy!" she grinned. He was outside now and opening the car door. She pushed the screen door open and caught a glimpse of his face. He looked haggard, kind of ashen, she thought. Impulsively she shouted, "Hurry back, Roger!" at him, but he'd already closed the car door and started the engine. "Oh, hell," she sighed, "I guess he didn't hear me."

"What does he want to go see Jimmy for?" she wondered.

And what about all this target-practice he'd been doing the past few weeks? She supposed it helped him get something out of his system, that he needed the time alone. Both of them had always been loners, and everyone who knew them soon knew it. They were friendly, even helpful, to their neighbors, but never really anyone's friend. They were polite to everyone, but never overly encouraging. It was said that they were the same at the places where they worked; efficient, well-liked, friendly, and yet—nobody's friend. They had always been like that, they admitted; they preferred to spend their time alone or with each another. Their Pineville neighbors had kidded them at first about not having children yet, but soon learned to let it be. No one forgot later how the couple had freely admitted—almost as if they were bragging—that they didn't want children, that it would just be an invasion of their privacy.

"It's a wonder two hermits like us got together at all, isn't it?" he whispered to her one night in bed.

"It's a wonder," she'd answered happily. That had been in the good old days, of course, when their solitude hadn't bothered them. They hadn't needed anybody then.

"He's been carrying it too far lately," Darla thought. "We both have, I guess. And all because I..."

Her mind closed down when she reached that point. She didn't like to think about all the trouble they'd had this past two years. It'd all started, she guessed, when they found out that she had that brain tumor. For months, both of them had been scared to death that she would die. It hadn't been any picnic. In the hospital, every procedure had been painful or embarrassing or both. She'd always hated hospitals, and now she hated them even more. But she'd survived it somehow, as well as the other thing, and now maybe they could begin to—suddenly she heard a noise.

"What was that?" she muttered, jumping up. It was a sharp, distant sound. She couldn't quite tell where it came from, but she thought it might have come from the bedroom. Quietly, quickly, she entered the bedroom and looked into the crib. Her little girl, Justine, looked as if she was sleeping soundly.

"Little brat," Darla thought affectionately. "She's got a talent for making noises in her sleep!"

She felt better, standing over the crib and watching. She always did. As she had so many times this past 7 months, she felt that if she could just stand still long enough and concentrate on her small beautiful daughter, she wouldn't feel so worried about Roger and herself. In a way, it always worked; the little girl was magical to her. Still, Justine was part of the problem, too. Roger never talked about it anymore, and most of the time he was marvelously sweet to Justine, but Darla knew he'd never stopped wondering whether the child was really his or not.

"I gave him reason enough, I guess," she sighed.

For her part, she was convinced that the child was Roger's, it couldn't be anyone else's. Jimmy Jenkins, the young man she'd had the affair with, couldn't possibly have produced such a wonderful child. Her face flushed, thinking about Jimmy; she didn't want to think about him. "But I wouldn't ever have fooled with Jimmy, if Roger hadn't—!"

She didn't want to think about that, either. She looked back toward the front of the A-frame house. Not counting the bathroom, they only had two rooms: a bedroom at the side and a single large room in front for everything else. If they needed to get away from each other, there was the enclosed front porch for her and a wooden work shed out back where Roger kept his tools and sporting goods. She wished now that Roger had only gone out back to fiddle with his fishing gear or the rolls of fencing he was always bringing home from work. One of these days, he'd actually put the fence up, she guessed. Right now, though, she didn't care if he ever did; she just wanted to be able to run to him and tell him—what? She wasn't sure. She just wanted to speak to him. She was curious about his wanting to go see Jimmy, but she knew they couldn't talk about Jimmy. Not that Roger would get angry; he didn't get angry any more. He would simply have shaken his head and walked away. She hated that, and hated it even more when she thought of it as being her own fault. There'd been a time when they'd been happy together.

"It used to be the world and us," she thought. "Now it seems like there's nobody here but me and Justine..."

It was funny about Jimmy, though. No matter how angry he got at her, Roger still seemed to get along so well with the young man. He liked Jimmy as well as he liked anyone, even now.

"Oh, Roger," she muttered dejectedly, "why did you have to leave?"

It was at a Christmas party last year that Roger had met her. That damn "girl", as Darla termed her. The "other woman", as local society liked to call them. Of course, Connie Rae Callie wasn't a girl at all. She was only 5 or 6 years younger than Roger and herself, Darla guessed—about 30 or so. Connie was a history teacher at the local high school, and the granddaughter of old Sylvester Callie, one of the few loggers in Pineville County to get rich and stay rich. The old man was still the chairman of the Pineville School Board, as he had been for twenty years. At the high school where she taught, Connie almost always wore the same kinds of outfits; staid black or gray business suits with heavy skirts over a white or beige blouse. Not even an occasional scarf to add a splash of color, just a small black string tie sometimes. Darla had laughed bitterly later, thinking how some of the local women had always worried that Connie might be a lesbian because of her severe clothing.

"Well, the slut sure wasn't a lesbian!" Darla thought, walking restlessly through the house and out onto the front porch. Calling her a slut wasn't fair, and Darla knew it.

"She was a very respectable young woman, I guess," Darla sighed, walking back into the front room where she stood and brushed absent-mindedly at the nap of the corduroy sofa. "Was, anyway, before she decided she couldn't leave my husband alone!"

"That's still not right," Darla spoke aloud.

Connie Rae was just the kind of intelligent, pretty woman that Roger liked. Oddly—and even Darla knew it—the young woman didn't look that different from Darla; her hair-style was different, but a stranger might have mistaken them for sisters. It had only added to Darla's bitterness, once she knew the truth about Connie.

"I shouldn't have let Roger go to that party alone," she told herself furiously, even after all this time. "Oh, hell, why do I keep thinking about that, anyway?"

Yet somehow it was easier to think about that than the other. Her "revenge". She didn't like to think about that at all. As much as she hated to think of how her husband and that woman had looked when she found them naked together, even that was easier to remember than Jimmy.

"Poor Jimmy," she thought, then shook her head. "I just shouldn't think about him, I shouldn't!"

Still, she couldn't help it sometimes. Jimmy Jenkins was a nice boy who lived down the street; she had always thought of him that way, even though he was a grown man. He wasn't retarded, it wasn't anything like that. He just wasn't what she'd always thought she liked in a man. He was quieter than anyone she'd ever known. He would talk, of course, but he didn't go on and on like so many men did. He was good-natured nearly all the time, and never seemed to quarrel with anyone—which Darla found remarkable. It wasn't that she and Roger fought very much, or that Roger was particularly bad-tempered—it was just that Jimmy excelled in his lack of masculine vices. He would have made anyone seem quarrelsome. It made him very easy for Darla to take, and they became good friends.

Though she admired Jimmy's virtue, she knew what he was like. Part of his boyish quietness was his shyness, and that charmed her. But another part was simply that he had nothing to say. He didn't think much. He wasn't as intelligent as Roger, she knew that. But that was a relief sometimes, and besides, he didn't need to be, because she always had Roger. Jimmy was an agreeable neighbor, and he'd been a godsend sometimes. When she'd had to stay at home so long after the operation, for instance, Jimmy had been very nice about checking up on her while Roger was at work. It had barely entered her mind that he might be a man on the prowl for his neighbor's wife—particularly since she felt so ugly with her head shaved and sliced and bandaged! Indeed, there had been no sign at all that he was up to anything. He'd been a great help to her while she recuperated, just a friendly young man who found her pleasant, ran errands for her, and broke the terrible boredom.

None of it had mattered very much until one day, months later, when she came home unexpectedly and thought that she heard voices in her bedroom. Though she didn't quite believe it, the thought crossed her mind that it might be thieves. Walking warily, she moved a step or two into the dimly lit bedroom, but immediately stopped. She sucked in her breath and stepped back against the wall. She stood there frozen, staring at the bed; it wasn't burglars. It was her husband Roger, stark naked and squirming around on top of Connie Rae Callie. Both were moaning, whispering, giggling, oblivious. Neither of them were aware of her. Not yet. Darla shook her head, blinking back tears; she wanted to see everything, no matter what.

Connie Rae was still dressed, though just barely. She was incredibly disheveled and wrinkled, and her honey-blonde hair was a mess. The jacket of her stern brown business suit was flung wide open, and her stylish blouse and brassiere were pushed up into an uncomfortable-looking wad of cloth above her breasts. Roger's hands were frantically shoving her heavy skirt up high around her waist, and Connie was pawing passionately at his naked back. It seemed to Darla an awful lot of overwrought movements and noise, but then she'd never watched anyone having sex before. She hadn't imagined it as quite like this! In the dim light she could barely keep track of whose pink flesh was slapping or sliding against whose. The noises it made were audible enough, though, she didn't exactly want to see it too clearly. She glanced away. On a crooked lamp-shade halfway across the room hung a crumpled piece of pale turquoise cloth.

"Oh, Goddammit, her panties!" Darla thought with a shiver. "And they don't even go with what she's wearing!"

The phrase "what she's wearing", when Connie was hardly wearing what she was wearing, struck Darla as ludicrous. She was afraid she was going to laugh out loud, and she tried to concentrate very hard on the figures on the bed and what to do about them. She wondered if she just sneak away. "It'd sure be easier," she thought. She sighed, then sucked in her breath and held it. Had they heard her?!

"Goddamn it, I'm acting as if I was guilty of something," she thought.

Judging by the signs of disarray in the room and sense of haste on the bed, she concluded that their decision to couple had been a sudden one. With a sinking heart, Darla wondered if perhaps she'd caught them doing it for the first time. She began to fret that she might have prevented the affair entirely if she'd only been a few minutes earlier.

"What if they're really in love?" she worried. "Maybe I could have stopped the whole thing if—."

What difference did that make now, though? She could hear the intimate noises they were making; it was a done deal, she realized. They were going at it like animals. She forced herself to look and saw that her husband was indeed no longer just squirming; his muscular pink buttocks were rising and falling rapidly, rhythmically, between Connie's legs while Connie Rae made every kind of noise imaginable with her mouth, throat, and respiratory system. That son of a bitch Roger was screwing the shameless girl's brains out now! The lovers pressed themselves together over and over again, kissing each other so ardently, so wetly, that Darla felt she was going to be sick. The sounds of their lovemaking were ordinary sounds, of course, but in the otherwise quiet room and under the circumstances, everything was amplified. The sounds swamped her senses, swarming around in her head like a cloud of angry bees.

"God, they're noisy!" she thought disgustedly.

At the same time, though, she imagined herself to be perfectly indifferent.

"This must be what watching a porno film is like," she thought.

Yet, because of Connie's resemblance to herself, she had an unnerving sense of watching herself in it! She backed up against the dresser and put her hand on top of it to steady herself. Her hand encountered a thick unopened newspaper, still rolled tightly. Darla's hand closed over it and hefted it experimentally. All at once, her eyes full of tears, she rushed forward.

"Youbastard, youbastard, youbastard!" she screamed.

Wielding the newspaper forcefully, she smacked her husband's behind as hard as she could, pounding him noisily again and again and again. When Roger, in total confusion, jerked aside hastily and rolled off the bed to dodge the blows, Darla landed a few of them on Connie's chest and abdomen. Darla's eyes opened wide and her face turned redder than ever as she got her first good look at Connie Rae's nakedness.

"Oh, Jesus! Her breasts are bigger than mine!" Darla thought. Though she would never have expected it of herself, she lifted the newspaper again and began to hit the other woman twice as hard, this time targeting her breasts. Connie Rae screamed and, much to Darla's amusement, so did her husband.

"Jesus save us!" Connie Rae shrieked.

"Jesus Christ, stop it!" Roger bellowed, stumbling forward and snatching the newspaper out of her hand.

Darla stopped and grinned slightly. Even as angry as she was, she felt their reactions were sort of funny. What did they think this was, an attack of the banshees from hell? She hoped so, she fervently hoped so!

"You fuckin' whore, nobody's going to save you!" Darla snapped grimly, snatching the newspaper back from Roger and lazily throwing it at Connie's crotch. Connie flinched as it struck her knee, then reached down and grabbed it, clutching it tightly as if to keep Darla from coming after her with it again.

Oddly, the moment she'd hollered at the girl, Darla felt calm again. She barely knew what she meant by such a statement. She didn't particularly mean to do anything, really, but she was perfectly willing to give the bitch the fright of her life.

"God damn it, Darla, you scared us to death!" Roger muttered, clutching the sheet in front of him.

Darla, going in and out of her anger faster than she'd ever imagined possible, became instantly incensed. It didn't matter what he'd said. She doubled her fist and swung at him with all her might. It wasn't the most practiced punch in the world, but she'd swung her arm so far back and it was coming with such force that Roger could see he wouldn't be able to dodge it or just step back. He did the only thing he could think of—he fell to the floor with a thump and rolled away from her. She missed him, but now he was lying on the floor with a bruised butt.

"Goddamn it, will you please calm down, Darla?"

Darla, who had turned back to stare malevolently at Connie Rae, turned toward the sound of her husband's voice, meaning to give him an equally unpleasant look. Instead, she laughed. Roger, muttering and cursing, was lying of the floor with the sheet twisted around him. He looked like a revivified mummy. He was watching his wife so carefully that he was barely able to untangle himself and get up. Finally he rose, jumping awkwardly several times like a contestant in a sack race as he tried desperately to keep his distance from his wife and keep the sheet in front of him at the same time that he was extricating himself from it.

"What are you so embarrassed about?" Darla sneered. "She's seen it. I've certainly seen it!"

"Yeah, well," Roger said uncertainly, finally standing on both feet. He didn't know what to say to her. In all his schemes of passion, he hadn't even thought about this! Afraid to look her in the eye, he found himself turning and staring at Connie Rae, who was still sprawled awkwardly on the bed, her mouth agape. One arm covered her breasts and the other was holding the newspaper, now spread out, firmly snuggled against her crotch.

"Wuh-wuh-wuh!" she muttered noisily. Her eyes were rolling around and she looked very strange. Roger swallowed uncomfortably, wondering if she'd gone insane. She sounded like an idiot.

"Listen to her," Darla said pensively. "Did you give her that good an orgasm, that she's lying there still having it?"

"Oh, for crying out loud, Darla, don't be so cruel," Roger sighed.

"I'm not cruel. The remark may be crude, but it's not cruel. If she's having an orgasm that lasted that good, don't you think we ought to admire her for it? Or should we admire you?"

"Oh, for God's sake!" Roger moaned, shaking his head.

"Don't talk to me about God!" Darla snapped at him. "You don't even believe in God, and I sure don't want to start hearing about it now!"

"All right, all right," he said, waving his hand at her as if to dismiss the whole issue.

"I certainly admire her," Darla sneered. She wasn't about to stop if it annoyed him this much. "I envy her, in fact. How come you never gave me a wonderful orgasm like that?"

"Hush, please, Darla!"

"I—i—it's not what you say!" Connie gasped, her face red as a beet. She looked awful, but at least she'd found her voice. "I, uh, I was just, uh, hyper-ventilating! That's all! You frightened me to death!"

"I screwed up your orgasm, too, I think," Darla smirked. She walked over to the bed and pushed at Connie's shoulder roughly. "Didn't I?!"

"Yes, yes!" Connie panted, still gasping for breath. "You don't have to be—uncivilized about it!"

"Jesus, listen who's talking!" Darla snapped. "You voracious little whore, you screwed my husband and now you expect me to be civilized? That's good, that's really good!"

"Leave her alone, Darla. It's bad enough."

"I'm glad to hear you think so, anyway," Darla said flatly.

"I'm sorry, Darla, I'm really sorry."

"Sorry you were caught, you mean. I know that."

Their argument went on like that for some time. Eventually, Connie Rae got her senses back as well as her breath and remembered to pull her clothes back around her. While the other two argued, she buttoned up hastily and flung her skirt down over her legs without getting out of the bed. For some reason she felt it was safer there than anywhere else in the room. Once she was covered up, she lit a cigarette and wondered why Darla looked like she was angrier than ever at her. Darla turned toward Roger and stared daggers at him. Roger glanced up at her and wrinkled his eyebrows.

"What? What, goddammit, what?"

"You see?"

"See what, for Christ's sake?"

"She's smoking in my house! You never let anybody do that before! I thought you couldn't stand smoke any better than I can!"

"Well, I may not like it," he told her irritably, "but anybody can stand it better than you can."

"Well, thanks a lot!" she snapped. "I sure am glad to know that!"

"Jesus Christ, I'll put the damn cigarette out," Connie Rae exclaimed. "I didn't mean to start anything."

"Oh, no, of course you didn't," Darla sneered. "That's why you let my husband get between your legs, you didn't want anything to start!"

"Oh, good grief, you people aren't ever going to talk about anything!" Connie said, getting up off the bed. "I'm getting the hell out of here, this isn't going anywhere!"

"Nice of you to think of it," Darla muttered.

Connie Rae grabbed her shoes, stockings, and belt, and hurriedly shoved them into her purse. The purse was small however and the items ended up more out of it than in it. Connie didn't care. She swung the long purse strap over her head and around her neck while she grabbed her overcoat off a chair. The sleeves of her jacket rode up as she jammed her arms forcefully into the overcoat, but she didn't stop to fix it.

"Goddammit, I'm going!" she announced, slamming her small white hat on top of her head.

Roger and Darla both turned toward her and stared at her as if she was an apparition. Her hair, on which she'd used so much hair-spray earlier in the day, had gotten twisted in every direction while she was on the bed and had stayed that way. With her skirt askew, her blouse and jacket buttoned to the wrong buttons, and the jacket material bunched up under her overcoat, she looked like Popeye the sailor man disguised as a bag lady. Roger smiled and Darla laughed out loud.

"Christ, you look like a banshee!" Darla giggled.

You do look like—I don't know what!" Roger grinned.

"Jesus Christ, Roger!" the girl cried. She looked like she was going to stamp her foot at him. "Whose side are you on?!"

Roger wiped the smile off his face and went toward her. Putting his hand around her shoulder, he guided her steadily toward the door.

"I don't know whose side I'm on, dear," he told her. "Except that I'm on my own side, of course. The rest remains to be seen. But you'd better go now."

"But, Roger-!"

As he opened the door he leaned down and whispered, "Please don't pout, darling; as you can see, I've got to fight with my wife now."

Roger, still holding the door open, even though Connie Rae was gone, glanced over his shoulder and said, "I'm sorry, Darla, I really am."

"Oh, yes, I know you are," his wife replied coldly.

Roger sighed and closed the door.

They hadn't gotten any sleep at all that night, and not much sleep the next night. They both called in sick at work and stayed home to talk. For the most part, they simply fought. They called a truce and went back to work.

The next week Roger went hunting, and while he was gone Jimmy Jenkins came by for a visit. He didn't have a chance. If he'd been biding his time all along, waiting patiently for this chance to poke his neighbor's beautiful wife, then he was a happy man indeed that day. He barely had to do anything, of course; he didn't have to be charming or romantic or athletic. All the real work of the seduction had been done before he got there to do it. It had only needed his presence. Jimmy was ecstatic; he'd never had better, and he knew it. What's more, it'd been a long time since he'd had any at all, which had given him a wonderful enthusiasm, as well as a very blind eye. When he left later that afternoon, he was as proud as a peacock and head over heels in love with Darla. Darla hadn't anticipated that.

"Well, I fucked him, all right," she thought guiltily. "Fucked him up, too, probably."

She felt good because now she had something with which to hurt Roger; she would have her revenge. But she also felt bad, because she knew she was going to hurt Jimmy. If one didn't make her a monster, then the other one would. She'd lost whatever moral superiority she'd started with, and she knew it. But she had to fight fire with fire.

It hadn't taken long for Roger to find out. But when he did, it didn't seem to matter any more. The next time Roger mentioned Connie Rae, that was it. Ashamed and proud at the same time, Darla had thrown Jimmy in his face. Roger's face turned red and he did something he'd never done, not with Darla, not with anyone. He hit her. Darla fell back against the sofa and slumped down onto the floor. She looked up, expecting him to say something, yell or something, but he just kept staring at her with his face incredibly red, his expression twisted into an awful scowl.

"I was leaving anyway," he said in a choked voice.

Was he, she wondered? Roger packed his bags and left immediately. Darla heard later that he'd quit his job at the mill and that Connie Rae Callie had quit hers the next day. One of Connie's cousins told Darla she'd heard they'd gone to Austin. Somebody at the beauty parlor whispered that her husband, who also worked at the mill had heard they'd gone to Colorado Springs.

"Rumors are such wonderful things," Darla had sighed. She wondered how much else about her life, accurate or otherwise, was being bandied about behind her back.

She'd gone on with her life, though. She'd had to. It wasn't that long before she realized that she was pregnant. It hadn't even started to show yet though when Roger showed up again. He'd been in Montana, he said, with her, just nodding his head, not saying Connie's name. In fact, he never said her name in front of Darla again. They hadn't gotten along, he said. And he'd missed her, and he wanted to come home. Darla thought briefly of being "strong", but decided instead to be herself. She wanted him; she wanted things to be like they used to be. Roger came back, then the baby came. Justine had seemed to pull them together at first, but it didn't last. Roger, who had always been reclusive, now seemed more so than ever.

Darla heard the baby waking up, went into the bedroom, and picked her up. She came back into the living room and sat down, talking to Justine in a low sweet continuous murmur. "Daddy'll be home soon!" she said, and the child cooed. "Yes, he will, sweetie!" Then the telephone rang.

"Hello," Darla said, still distracted by the child.

"Uh, is this Miz Conway?"

"Yes, it is. Who is this?"

"This is Jackson Hardegree, Sheriff of Pineville County, Miz Conway. I'm afraid I may have some bad news for you."

Darla closed her eyes and waited. She didn't want to ask, "What?" She didn't want to know. But she knew.

"Uh, Miz Conway, you still there?"


"We have a man who's shot himself down here at Crookman's Creek. His identification says his name's Roger Conway. Is that your husband, ma'am?" "No, no," Darla whimpered. "It can't be."

"What's that?" the sheriff asked. "I'm sorry, Miz Conway, maybe our connection isn't so good. Are you sayin' you think this is somebody else?"

"Nooo," Darla whispered slowly, drawing the word out. No, she wasn't saying that at all.

"Now, I've sent a man for you already, Miz Conway," the sheriff's rough voice was saying gently. "He'll be there before you get off the line with me. I guess—well, I think you better just come down here."

"Nooo," Darla repeated. She put the telephone down and picked up the baby. She heard the sound of fast-approaching automobiles outside in the driveway.

"You there?" asked a distant voice on the phone. "You still there?"

Someone was knocking on the door, though somehow it was barely audible above the other noise. There were voices, distant voices. Darla couldn't make them out. She couldn't make herself move. She saw a man in uniform step sideways and glance in at her through the window. Another face appeared beside his; it was Jimmy Jenkins. His mouth was moving; he was saying something, but she couldn't tell what. There was an awful, awful roar in her ears and she wondered what it was. As the door was forced open and two men came in, her vision blurred and she realized suddenly what the noise was. She and the baby were crying.


Current draft: 03/02/03
©1988 Ronald C. Southern


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Red Harry

"Aw, hell, Red, we known each other too long for that," Ellie Martonak said in a reluctant, sweet, but very certain tone of voice.

Harry Redcliff was in his early fifties, Ellie was in her forties. They were sitting at a small shaky table in the semi-darkness of the Lost Anchor Tavern on the outskirts of Port Arthur. It was a small dark bar that all the major highways had turned away from as if in disgust, leaving it in the middle of nowhere. It was a cozy, dirty little place where anything might happen, but usually didn't.

Nor did the couple sitting slumped toward each other now in the dim light, balancing their elbows precariously on the table, as if waiting to see who'd go off-balance first, have any reason to be surprised about things like that-things that didn't happen. They grinned at one another with a sort of friendly chagrin; they weren't all that romantic, and both of them knew it. If there'd been any doubt about it at all, Ellie had just reminded him of it. She was looking at him now in that disconcertingly friendly way of hers and it made Red feel funny. It was hard to understand. Even when she was telling him "No," she was nice about it. Considerate. But he still felt awfully uncomfortable.

"Hell, now I kind of feel like a creep," he shrugged. She shook her head and shrugged back as if to say, "No need for that."

Harry put his cigar back in his mouth and sighed, then nodded. He could read "body language" as well as the next guy, he guessed. He'd always been able to get along in the world, as long as everybody else wanted to. He knew how to fight-you learn that quick enough on board ship-but he'd always hated it. He preferred to accept things as they were, more or less. So he was ready to take her word for things. But then Ellie screwed him up all over again by reaching out and touching him. While he stared at her, wondering what was up, she lightly patted his round beer belly a couple of times, then briefly placed her hand on his and gave him a shake.

"C'mon now," she said pleasantly.

She was shaking, very slightly, the kinky blonde hair that Red always found so pretty and always wondered why. His face flushed now and his hands felt warm and sticky. He felt funny all over, all over again. He pulled his hand away from her and made a big show of relighting his cigar.

"Oh, lord, God!" he thought. "Women have got such strange ideas about how to soothe a man!"

Ellie's actions so far were having an effect quite opposite to her intentions. It'd been like that with women all his life. There was no way around it that he knew of, no way of getting them to do it any differently. He sighed and shook his head. "Ah, well, gotta be strong," he thought, "unless you want to live without friends." He made himself sit up straight in his chair. He sucked in his stomach.

"Hell, I'll get over it," he grinned at her. "Gimme a minute or two."

"I just couldn't think of you like that," she explained. "I'd always keep rememberin' all the good times you and me and my Ed had together 'fore he died, and it'd depress me, you know? Hell, I'm sorry, Red, okay?"

She sounded sincere enough. Indeed, he knew she was.

"Oh, yeah, sure, that's okay," Red nodded, fidgeting with his thick red mustache. "I can understand that, all right. I just thought, you know, we been pretty good drinkin' buddies, and friends and all for so long now, and we always get along so well, uh... I just-well, you know. But, anyway, yeah, it's sure all right."

It was all right, too, pretty much. He didn't think he was really in love with her, not like you're supposed to be. He was only getting sentimental and lustful over her because they'd gotten so damn drunk tonight.

"Still," he thought, "she's awful nice, and not bad-lookin', neither. Even if she is past forty now. 'Course, so am I-way past."

"Lemme order us another couple of beers," Ellie said, a little more heartily than before.

"That'd be good!" he said spiritedly.

She was trying to cheer him up, he figured. Trying to make light of the pass he'd made at her. Of course, all he'd done was kiss her. "That's too personal a kiss!" she'd said sharply, and pushed him away from her.

He guessed it was all right, but he wished that he hadn't done anything at all. They'd known each other too long, they were supposed to be buddies. He couldn't imagine what the hell he'd been thinking when he kissed her that way. He was getting older, that was for sure, maybe even a little desperate. He'd been married once to about the only woman he'd ever met who'd put up with him, but she'd died of a heart attack five years ago. It had been totally unexpected.

"Like poor ole Ed," he thought. "Can't get more unexpected than that!"

Ellie's husband, Ed, had been a friend of Red's since they first met in the Merchant Marines 15 years ago. Three years ago Ed had died when the ship he was on ran into a Greek ship. The other ship had drifted away with fairly minor damage, but Ed's ship had begun exploding on impact. First a small one, and then BOOM BOOM BOOM!, one goddamned explosion after another, had shaken the ship, and no one had escaped alive. Officials had never admitted just what Ed's ship had been carrying, but a rumor had gone around that they'd been carrying some secret cargo for the Navy. It was all very hush-hush. It was bad enough that Ed was dead, but it turned out to be even more complicated. Somehow, though Ellie had been too distraught to understand it, none of the ship's records had been filed anywhere when the ship blew up. Since nothing except huge scraps of metal had ever been salvaged from the wreckage, the ship's papers were utterly lost. This meant that the records of who had been on board were somewhat faulty. Thus Ellie, like the wives of several other men whose bodies or body parts had never floated to the surface, was in the process of waiting seven years for the settlement money. The insurance company said there was just no proof that their husbands were dead. Some of the wives had tried to get the local TV stations interested in the affair, but nothing had ever come of it.

In the meanwhile, Ellie did pretty well raising her two kids. She'd gotten a job running after parts and doing paperwork at Heartfield's Garage where her husband had worked one summer when she'd gotten so mad and threatened to leave him if he went back to sea. She went out drinking pretty often, though, like tonight with Red, or sometimes with the mechanics from Heartfield's. Sometimes she'd get way too drunk and a little too morbid. She was doing it more and more lately.

"I just know damn well he's dead," Ellie said suddenly, apropos of nothing, tearfully shaking her head.

It was an hour later in the same bar. The guys from Heartfield's Garage had come in and joined them. Red had been relieved to see them, for they were always loud and talkative and he felt he could count on them to dispel the tension between him and Ellie. In fact, they had, until Ellie spoke up like that.

The others glanced up at her curiously. They'd been talking about something else entirely, but they knew what she meant. She'd said it often enough in the past.

"How's that?" Don, the black mechanic, asked her in a kindly, slightly blurred, voice. He was a new guy and had never known her husband Ed, but he was sympathetic, anyway. He was a nice guy in general, and at the moment was just as drunk as she was.

"Wouldn't nothin' keep that mean bastard from rollin' home dead drunk and wakin' me up at two in the morning for a poke if he was still alive!" she snapped. "Nothing!"

Don nodded at her knowingly and tried not to grin. Red and the others smiled. Yeah, that was Ed, all right. Soon, however, the men had forgotten about her outburst and gone back to their conversation.

"Yeah, I seen another one of them stories on TV the other night!" Robert exclaimed. "Just POOF! and then burn right up!"

"I've heard about these spontaneous combustion people before," Jason, the quiet one, laughed. "What's the deal on it, though?"

"They just bust into flames!" Don said in his soft blurred voice, shaking his head. Red frowned slightly, wondering why these guys could always sound so awed by such silly subjects. They were all at least ten years younger than he was, but he didn't feel like that quite explained it.

"One guy'd had it happen to him the same way over and over again," the head mechanic Mike Patterson drawled. "Three or four times, anyway. It was his hand; it'd just bust into fuckin' flame! They showed it on television one time. Baby, it was weird, you know?" The others nodded and murmured. They were impressed, they believed it. "It'd just burnt that motherfucker's hand up, boy!" Mike added with a chortle. "Hell, it just looked awful!"

For some reason, everybody laughed. Red grinned, too, but was still perplexed by their attitude. They said it was awful, but sounded as if they thought it was wonderful.

"Airline crashes, hurricanes, and earthquakes," Red whispered to Ellie. "Other people's tragedies make great entertainment." Ellie shrugged. She figured she knew what he meant.

"Yeah, and I read this other story about a baby that'd burned up in its crib overnight," Robert said, shaking his head and still speaking with that curious tone of reserve. "Man, there wasn't nothin' there but ashes the next morning!"

"Sounds more like gypsies to me," Red laughed. "You know, snatch the baby, leave a handful of ashes. Fool the fools."

"No, no," Robert insisted, "this was real! They proved it. You hear about it all the time!"

"That's right," Don said firmly, "it's been on TV, in magazines, everything!" Red shook his head and grinned.

"Old Red Harry over there doesn't buy this shit," Jason laughed quietly. Red was surprised to hear Jason speak again so soon. The young man was always pretty quiet, but he was dependable, and everybody liked him.

"Hell," Mike grinned, "ole Harry doesn't buy much shit at all, if you get right down to it. He's an intellectual, he don't believe in nothin'!"

"Well, maybe it's aliens or somethin'," Red chuckled, standing up and stretching. "Anyways," he announced, "I'm going to the bar for some peanuts, boys. I'm sure you can get along without me believing this weird shit for that long, at least. But one of these days you boys gonna have to figure out what you talk such goddamn nonsense for."

Robert looked puzzled and the other mechanics nodded at Red as if to say, "Yeah, sure." When he'd been gone a minute Mike looked around the table appraisingly, then said, "Ole Red's pretty strange, isn't he?"

"He sure is, to me," Robert agreed.

"Aw, Red's a good man," Don said. "Ain't no need to call him strange!"

"He sure can be bad-tempered sometimes, though," Robert said, shaking his head. "It's his damn red hair showin', is all," Mike smirked.

"No, it's not; it's his bad disposition," Ellie said suddenly, sounding pissed off. "Goddammit, you lay off of Red, okay? All you dumb bastards are strange, if you ask me."

"Aw, hell, we was just talkin'," Mike said soothingly. "We didn't mean nothin' by it."

"It's better to just not talk about all that stuff," Ellie said. "That's what I think."

"Damn, those boys are weird!" Red thought as he stood at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice him. Spontaneous combustion, hell! Of course, it was always possible that all that stuff was true. In which case, he reasoned drunkenly, maybe the devil was alive and well and dancing a jig right here at the Lost Anchor Tavern! He turned around and looked around the room carefully, expectantly, looking first at his friends, then at the dance floor where a few couples were dancing. Red was thinking that if anybody did burst into flame like that, he'd sure like to see it. But he wasn't going to believe stuff like that just because somebody started talking about it. Red tried to get the bartender's attention again, but the man was busy with other customers. He turned around and watched the dancers again.

"They look so comfortable with one another when they dance," he thought. "As if each one owns the other one and nobody minds it." He wondered if it was real.

"I'm so tired of all this Goddamn waiting," he muttered to himself, glancing at the bartender. "Dog tired."

Just then, Ellie came over and dropped down exhaustedly at a nearby table. She lit a cigarette and looked depressed.

"To hell with the peanuts," Red shrugged and sat down beside her.

"Those bastards just talk, that's all," Ellie mumbled. Red looked at her blankly. "I can't hardly fucking stand it, you know?" Ellie said insistently.

"What're you talking about, anyway?" Red asked her.

"I don't know. I think I'll just go throw myself in the fuckin' river, that's all," Ellie said in a miserable tone of voice.

"Christ, you've threatened to do that plenty of times before and you're still here," Red told her irritably. "It's getting to be mighty old hat, you know?"

"Well, to hell with you, too!" Ellie snapped at him in a fervent voice.

Red and Ellie spoke in low, increasingly argumentative voices while the mechanics at the other table were talking more and more loudly about the fire situation. Red was vaguely aware of Robert saying something about gasoline tanks.

"You just can't get one empty enough or dry enough to really be safe. You weld around it and, hell, one day BOOM!, it's got you! I've seen it happen, boy!"

Red forgot about them and began to get mad. He realized just how sick and tired he was of Ellie's whining and threats. He was vaguely aware that they were both drunker than they ought to be, but he didn't care, she'd complained one damn time too many.

"Well, hell, why don't you just go on and do it then?" Red asked her in a disgusted tone of voice. He'd had it with all this crap.

"Well, goddammit, I will!" she declared, jumping to her feet. "Don't think I won't!" She leaned against the table and swayed slightly as Red jumped up, too.

"Well, that's just fine with me! Hell, I'll even drive you there!"

"Well, just come on then!" she snapped. She sounded like a woman whose integrity had been questioned one time too many. She grabbed Red's coat sleeve and half-dragged, half-led him out of the bar.

Outside they got in his car, a beat-up old Volkswagen bug. Red drove-none too well-until they got to a small dark bridge suspended a few dozen feet over the river. There were light poles all along the bridge, but most of them were out. "Probably shot out," Red thought, for some reason annoyed with the darkness. "Nothing but a bunch of fuckin' cowboys around here when the sun goes down!" Toward the center of the bridge he slowed down, not really intending to stop, but just to show her he was ready to stop. He figured that any minute now she'd back down. She'd laugh or cry or something and then they'd go on. Before he even came to a full stop, however, she'd opened the car door. He glanced over and saw her drunkenly, casually, taking a step out of the car.

"Hey! Hey, wait!" he hollered.

It was too late. She was already out of the car. He didn't know whether to stomp on the brakes on not. He decided he'd better let the car roll a little bit clear of her. By the time he'd stopped, taken the car out of gear, and jumped out to look for her, she was on her feet again, though looking pretty battered. She was in the middle of the lane, directly under one of the few telephone poles with a light still on it, kicking off her shoes one at a time and watching them carefully as they flew upwards toward the light. The shoes turned end over end in a graceful arc, then plummeted down onto the road. As the last one struck the pavement, she suddenly began tearing at her blouse, all the while swaying and weaving across the highway, constantly moving away from him. It was clear to him, though it wasn't clear why, that she was headed toward the rail on the opposite side of the bridge. Why didn't she jump off of the near side if she was going to jump, for God's sake? As he stared at her, wondering what the hell to do, Red realized that something was moving beside him. His car, its engine still running, had begun to roll forward.

"Oh, hell!" he yelled, and ran to catch up with it. The car door was still open and he slid in on his knees, leaned forward, and jerked the emergency brake. He turned the ignition off, grabbed the keys, and threw them on the floorboard angrily. "I can't believe this!" he roared as he turned sideways again and slid out of the car. He stood up too quickly though and hit his head on the door-frame with a resonant thud. He saw stars for a moment.

"Oh, God!" he moaned, grabbing his head and holding it. If there was anything in the world he hated, it was stumping his toe or bumping his head! Suddenly he became distantly aware of Ellie's voice again.

"Don't think I won't do it, 'cause I fuckin' well will!" she was screaming, still thoroughly engrossed in her own drama. Red groaned. It didn't matter if his head hurt or not; he still had a suicidal woman on his hands!

"Goddamn, shit, hell!" Red screamed at her incoherently.

He'd meant to tell her something sensible, something intelligent and kind and reassuring, but his head hurt so bad, that those were the only words he could get out of his mouth. He hadn't thought she was serious from the beginning and he wasn't absolutely certain that she was serious now, but she was thoroughly scaring the crap out of him. What was he going do if this crazy woman really did jump off the bridge and drown? By now Ellie had one arm out of her blouse and was tearing furiously at her brazierre with one hand and the buttons of her skirt with the other. She was crying loudly and her tears were streaking her makeup. He'd never seen her look uglier.

"Crazy idiot," Red thought as he raced toward her, "she keeps tryin' to do two things at once!" If he didn't get a move on, though, she might finally succeed in one of them, and he sure didn't want to explain all this to anybody! He could hear it all now: "Uh, yeah, officer, I brought her down her so she could jump, and then she jumped. I helped her all I could." He'd be in the slammer in a minute flat.
"Stop it, Ellie, stop, stop!" he yelled frantically, running as hard as he could, harder than he'd run in years.

"The hell I will! I'm goin'!" she hollered. "I've had it, once and for all!"

Just as she got the top button on her skirt loosened and her brazierre half unsnapped, he finally reached her and grabbed her in a tight bear hug. By then, she was pretty near the rail. Despite how scared he was, he knew he wasn't a bit more sober than he'd been back in the bar. He wasn't sure if he could actually handle this or not.

"God, she's a hellcat!" he thought.

He was having a terrible time hanging onto her. She was madder than he'd ever seen her, fighting, kicking, and clawing at him with all her might. He remembered picking up a cat when he was a little boy and not putting it down quickly enough. He'd paid for that mistake. Ellie's attack seemed worse than the cat's somehow. By now, he knew enough to put a cat down, but he couldn't make himself turn loose of Ellie even though she seemed determined to scratch his face off.

"Shitfire!" he thought. "How you supposed to go and decide to just let a woman drown herself, anyway?!" He needed a straighter mind and more time than he had this night to decide that little problem. His brain felt like it was about to burst and his heart was pounding. If she didn't calm down soon, he might just let go of her and let her jump!

A car came down the road at a high rate of speed. Red Harry, perhaps thinking that help was at hand, accidentally loosened his grip on Ellie and she jerked out of his grasp and ran toward the rail. Inexplicably Red jumped out in front of the oncoming car as if to wave them down, but they were too close. The driver jammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt, but not before it'd struck Red a glancing blow and flung him aside like a rag doll. Ellie, standing on the rail, half-dressed and ready to jump, looked back and screamed Harry's name. She covered her face with both hands for a second, then looked with horror at the stopped car.

The mechanics from Heartfield's jumped out of it, all hollering and asking questions at once. Jason and Mike reached them first and pulled Ellie away from the rail while Robert and Don ran to Red Harry and dragged him out of the road, leaning his back against one of the nearby telephone poles.

"Is he alive? Is he alive?" Ellie cried.

"Yeah, he's alive!" Jason said. He didn't sound very sympathetic.

Red, looking up at his friends, was dazed, confused. All of them except Jason and Ellie looked so angry! They looked like they wanted to beat him senseless!

"What the fuck's goin' on, Harry?" Mike hollered at him.

"She-she was gonna jump in the river!" Red gasped, sinking to his knees. "I was... I was just trying to stop her." Even as dizzy as he was just then, it seemed to him that his explanation sounded fishy. That must be why they looked so angry.

"Is that right, Ellie?" Jason asked. Ellie nodded her head and started to cry.

"Oh. Jesus, Red, we're sorry. We thought you was-up to something! Are you all right? Are you hurt?"

"I don't know," Red said, frowning slightly. "My leg might be broke."

"Oh, God damn it, I can't believe this!" Mike said, shaking his head. He felt terrible; he was the one who'd been driving. Red suddenly grabbed his shoulder and grimaced.

"Christ, what's the matter, Red?!" Mike asked. "Your face looks awful! Are you dizzy?"

"I think I'm havin' a heart attack, boys," Red said. He sounded calm as he slid sideways off of the telephone pole and all the way to the ground. "I never felt so awful in my life."

"Oh, no!" Ellie screamed at the top of her lungs. "Oh, God, I've killed him!" She tried to pull away from Jason, but he restrained her forcefully. He had no way of knowing if she meant to run to Red's side or simply finish her jump in the river.

"Oh, Great Christ, what've we done?" Mike said, his face turning white. He hadn't liked Ellie's remark at all; he didn't want to hear anybody talking about having killed Red!

Jason pushed Ellie toward Mike and said roughly, "Here, hold her!", then ran over to the fallen man. Robert and Don helped lift the older man up while Jason took off his jacket and put it under Red's head. Ellie sounded like she was choking as she desperately tried to stop weeping.

"Christ, Mike, take Ellie and get back to the car! Use the CB to get the police. Have 'em send an ambulance, quick!" Mike took off running like a scared rabbit, dragging Ellie behind him. Behind him, Ellie looked just as frightened.

"Well, this'll make 'em a good story," Red Harry thought idly as he felt a cold numbness move down through his body.

"God, we're sorry, Harry!" Jason said quietly, leaning over him.

"Me, too," Red whispered, for some reason staring straight at Robert just before he closed his eyes. "It's not as good as, as..."

His voice trailed off and the rest of his words were inaudible to Robert. He stepped back a little from Red. Jason leaned closer to him. Robert, afraid of getting any closer, thought that Red seemed to be making a terrific effort to speak.

A few seconds later Jason stood up and sighed.

"W-what is it?" Robert asked.

"He's dead. Jesus, he's dead."

"Goddammit!" Robert said, nervously running his hands through his hair, then hurriedly lighting a cigarette. "Jesus in hell!" Jason looked at him curiously then and frowned, almost as if he was looking at a bug. Robert got more nervous than ever. He turned away and walked quickly back toward the car, muttering "Somebody's got to tell Mike, I guess."

Later, all of them waiting together for the ambulance or the police or somebody to show up, they'd mostly calmed down. Even Ellie, though she'd never stopped crying, was quieter. Suddenly Robert cleared his throat and spoke.

"Listen, Jason, I been wonderin'. What was it Red Harry said at the end?"

"What, you mean he said something?" Mike asked, looking uncomfortable.

"Yeah," Jason sighed. "Something..."

"Well, what was it?" Mike asked nervously. "I'd kind of like to know. I mean, I know it probably don't matter, but still... Lord, I don't think anything's ever gonna make me feel any better for a long time. Red was a good man."

"He sure was," Don said.

"What the hell do you keep saying that for?" Robert asked him irritably. "You didn't even know him, least not as much as the rest of us. We known him for years."

"Well, that's true, I guess," Don nodded. "I guess it's just I'd say the same thing about any of you, you know. I'd hope somebody's say it about me, too. If I was dead, of course." Robert frowned, wondering if Don was getting on his nerves on purpose or by accident. He shook his head and walked away from the group a little.

"Well, sonofabitch," he muttered under his breath. "What the fuck you supposed to say about a dead man, anyway?"

"What was it he said, Jason?" Don asked.

"I don't know what he said, that's what's weird. Or I didn't understand it. It sounded like he was saying some kind of damn thing about 'spontaneous combustion', of all things! Now does that make any sense to you?"

"Not much!" Ellie sobbed, starting to lose control again. "But I tell you one thing; I'm never going back to that goddamn bar again! Never, do you hear me, never!"

"Shit, me, neither!" Robert growled.

"I ain't never even gonna drink again, I don't think," Mike said weakly.

"I hear the ambulance comin' now," Robert said, turning toward Don.

"Yeah," Don yawned, rubbing his eyes with both hands, wondering what time of the morning it was. He was tired, desperately tired, but trying not to show it.

"Yeah, I hear it, too. I think maybe Ellie needs it more than Red Harry does, though," Don said.

"I think maybe I do, too," Mike said.

His voice sounded shaky, and when he sat down on the ground suddenly, the others ran over to him to see what was wrong. He looked up at them stupidly, his head wobbling slightly as he sat there in a semi-faint. Nervously, weakly, the others began to laugh. They didn't know what else to do.


6th draft: 07/23/03
©1990 Ronald C. Southern


Saturday, June 19, 2004

Shooting A Dead Possum

Evelyn Victor was in the kitchen with a bad case of nerves. It was midnight and her husband Adam Victor was in the back yard, chasing a possum with an old police flashlight and a brand-new rifle. That stupid Irish setter was out there too, barking loudly and driving her crazy.

For more than a week now, she'd been taking medicine for a head cold, but not taking the medicine for her head. She was afraid of taking too many drugs at once, but now that she felt a little better, she wondered if she shouldn't start taking the anti-depressants again. Every so often she could hear Adam outside, cursing as he stumbled in the dark. She hoped that it was only tree-roots and not the children's toys.

"He gets so mad," she thought and lightly sucked her thumb. Somehow it was always her fault when the kids did something wrong. Evelyn glanced at the clock and sighed.

"Midnight is always my worst time," she told herself.

When the rest of the world had gone to sleep, she'd wake up so completely that she didn't know what to do. She was used to it, as she was used to so many things, but it looked as if tonight might be worse than usual. Her husband didn't stay up this late very often and the possum in the back yard was making him mad as hell, she was sure of it.

Evelyn started searching through the kitchen cabinets to see what was there. She'd decided to forget about Adam, the dog, and the possum. Maybe they'd all just go away. She reached into the cupboard and pulled out something that Adam had bought, some sort of expensive quick-fixer dish from Rice-a-Roni. Adam was always buying things like this for the new microwave, spending money to save time-he never listened when she insisted that they had more time than money. Evelyn's eyes skimmed quickly across the back of the box: in small black print it said, "CREAMY PARMESAN, HERBS, BASIL, LONG GRAIN RICE".

"Hmmm, sounds good," she admitted to herself.

"TRY IT WITH CHILDREN," the package said.

"No," she said, smiling to herself and looking up at the ceiling, "I don't think my children would like being served with long grain rice, thank you."

She shook her head and read it again. What it said was:


"Oh, well-that's a relief," she snickered. She decided she'd rather have eggs and sausages, anyway. Evelyn usually ate whenever she felt like it. She was extremely slim and never had to worry about eating too much.

"You're too skinny!" Adam complained, but she always shrugged. There wasn't anything she could do about it. Some of the people she'd met at the hospital told her that their medications made them gain weight, but it never happened to her.

"Powerful metabolism," she snickered to herself again, removing the sausages from the skillet. She then scrambled her eggs in the greasy pan, a habit that disgusted her husband and two sons.

"I don't fix your eggs this way," she told them mildly, "so don't bother me about mine. You don't have to eat it."

She sat down at the table and took a few fast bites. Outside she could hear the dog still barking and Adam saying something angrily to the dog. "That witless, worthless dog," Evelyn thought. It made her nervous. She went to the window and peered out, but couldn't see much. Only a patch of weedy ground which the dog kept semi-bare and dusty with his constant digging and fidgeting. Grass didn't have a chance in her yard, though the nutgrass did all right.

"I wish Adam would come in," she muttered. She sat back down and glanced at the Bible on the table; just before he went outside Adam had gotten it out, as he often did, to prove or disprove some damn thing, but she hadn't really been listening. She pulled it toward her now and it flopped open to where Adam had marked it in the book of Matthew.

"And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.

His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men."

"Horsefeathers," she said, pushing the Bible aside. His preoccupation with resurrection was morbid stuff, she felt. She slouched forward and stared idly, poking at the sausages with her fork, rolling them around on her plate as if inspecting them for some purpose other than eating. When she was a little girl, Evelyn's Aunt Heather used to tell her that her posture made her look like she was pouting.

"You shouldn't sit like that! You'll never get a husband that way, you know!"

But that was years ago. Now she was grown up and her Aunt Heather was dead, unable to tell her how much worse it looked on a woman of 26.

"I just hope I won't have to get involved with any of Adam's silliness tonight," she thought. What's more, she hoped that the possum would get away. For a moment she closed her eyes and clasped her hands in front of her as if saying a blessing over the food. Perhaps she was praying for the possum.

"Why can't he just leave it alone?" she asked herself aloud. "So what if it makes the dog bark? You can't kill everything that makes the dog bark!"

Suddenly, savagely, Evelyn speared a sausage, thrust it in her mouth, and laughed. She was picturing Adam stomping around out there as if he was some sort of intrepid woodsman.

"Drugstore cowboy is more like it," she thought. She looked pensive for a moment, then grew melancholy. "Glorified Wal-Mart shit-kicker," she sighed. She knew he'd never been hunting very much and suspected that if he'd ever killed anything, it was probably something like this-something foolish and demented in the dark.

"I just hope he doesn't shoot up the neighborhood," she thought. "We don't exactly live in the middle of nowhere. There's people all around us. The kids are asleep too, and God Knows they were hard enough to put down tonight." Just as she'd decided to think about something else, Adam came storming into the house and went past her in a rush, his eyes full of fury.

"What is it?" she asked, suddenly frightened.

"That goddamn animal!" Adam answered hoarsely over his shoulder and kept on going. From the hallway that led back into the bedrooms she heard him repeat, "That goddamn animal!"

Evelyn got up from the table quickly and followed him. She couldn't imagine what had happened. Had the possum bit off his finger? Had it killed the dog? She couldn't be sure, she didn't know much about possums or anything else around here, for that matter. She'd never understood why Adam had moved them to Vidor in the first place. To her, Vidor was a partly pleasant, partly awful place, half-in and half-out of the wilderness. She couldn't get used to that patch of deep woods immediately behind their house and felt as if the house itself would always remain strange to her. Part of the reason she felt that way was because Adam had bought the house without even asking her. He didn't even seem to realize how insulting that was. It was a new house that someone had built and then hadn't been able to afford to move into. She hadn't yet understood how they were going to afford it either, and it made her nervous. It made her nervous too that every pickup truck going past their house had a rack full of guns in it, but it just made Adam go out and buy a gun.

"It don't hurt to fit in," he'd told her.

Evelyn caught up with Adam as he turned the corner at the bathroom and went into the children's room. Their oldest son, Jasper, was six; the youngest, little Jimmie, was two and a half.

"Get up!" Adam whispered insistently as he knelt over Jasper. "Get up and come help daddy!"

"Oh, Christ!" Evelyn thought. "What a twisted son of a bitch!"

Adam liked to believe he had control of things, though where he'd gotten that idea, Evelyn could only guess.

"He seldom has control of anything!" she thought resentfully. "With the possible exception of me!" Evelyn had argued with him about his attitudes so many times now that his revenge-or his defense-had been to stop asking her for any goddamn help at all. It was all he could do at times to ask her to pass the salt.

"He's such a fussbudget," she thought. "He acts as if I'm the first person in the world to ever argue with him, but his sister Ruth has always fought with him. Of course, he can't hardly stand her!" Evelyn was extremely fond of Ruth.

Once, drinking tea at Evelyn's kitchen table, Ruth said, "He likes to make himself the head of the household in a fashion that he just won't admit is old-fashioned! He's too much like Daddy, I guess." Ruth paused, looking solemnly thoughtful for a moment, then laughed-a loud, clear, sudden laugh-and added, "And Daddy's a terrible old jerk! Lord knows I love him, but that's all there is to it!" Evelyn put her hand over her mouth and smiled. Sometimes she liked Ruth better than anyone else in the world.

"Hey, get up," Adam said, still shaking the child. Jasper woke up and whined that he was sleepy. Evelyn could hear the dog barking in the back yard.

"Oh, for God's sake, Adam, leave him alone and come on out of here. I'll help you."

Adam looked at her as if he'd only just noticed her. "I need someone to hold the flashlight," he said. He said it as if it was something that the boy could do, but that might be beyond her.

"Well, I can do that," she told him and walked toward the door. "Come on out and let the children sleep!"

Adam followed her, looking as if he were a bit dazed by the lights in the house. He'd been outside in the dark for a long time.

"All right," he said, "but hurry up."

Evelyn ran to her bedroom and pulled a pair of jeans on under her nightgown, then threw one of Adam's shirts on over everything. As she rushed to the kitchen and then out the back door, she realized that she should have just taken the nightgown off and gotten dressed.

"I probably look ridiculous," she told herself. "Well, no one will see me anyway at this time of the morning." Then she giggled, realizing that if that was true, she could just as well have gone out in her nightgown.

Her laughter was momentary however, for as she stepped into the darkness Adam suddenly appeared in front of her, said, "Here!" and thrust the flashlight toward her. She grabbed at it, but missed, and it struck her hard in the chest.

"Jesus," she grumbled, "my tits may be small, but you don't have to try to flatten 'em!"

"Huh?" Adam said distractedly.

"Nothing," Evelyn answered blandly. She knew better than to say such things out loud; sometimes she just did it anyway. "Hell, he's not listening, anyway," she thought. Of course, she couldn't be sure of it. He could be so mean sometimes.

Adam went on toward where the dog was barking, to all appearances having already forgotten that she'd spoken. When he did bother to listen, it upset him for her to talk like that. He thought it was all right for him, though. "They're the same damn words he uses in bed," she thought, "with his stupid face all red and his hands all over me!"

If she talked that way, though, he became sullen and tyrannical. She thought it was funny in a way, a sort of helpless way, and she wondered about it. It was as if the words had power over him in a way she never had. It made so little sense, she felt, in a man who liked to believe that he was always in control. In his view she had no power at all. Why then was he so squeamish when she used "those words"-words she'd learned, he said angrily, "from your trashy family and your goddamn trashy friends!"

He was awfully hard to live with. He didn't seem to know how to pull any punches. She loved him anyway, of course, though she couldn't explain why. Nobody'd paid her much attention until he did, that was part of it. And her family was sort of trashy, she thought. None of them seemed to know how to do anything, and she didn't either. Even if she didn't love him and if she had the guts to leave him, what could she do? She had no job skills. Maybe she could learn one, given time, but what would happen to her babies in the meanwhile? She'd never once threatened to leave Adam, but he always assumed she was on the verge of it. When they argued too long, he'd hit her in the face with it, smack out of the blue, threatening her with her own worst nightmare.

"You'd better watch out," he'd say. "If you try to get away from me, you'll have to leave your children too, you selfish bitch!" He knew just how to knock the breath out of her.

"What-what do you mean?" she'd gasp.

"I mean that nobody's going to award custody to you. You don't have a job. You can't even balance a checkbook. It's not your name on the credit cards! You were in the mental hospital just last year. They don't give custody or credit to mental patients, you know!"

No, she wanted to say, she didn't know! But that was part of the problem-she didn't know and didn't say. "It's crazy shit like this," she thought, "that starts all our worst arguments." Until he brought it up, their arguments were just regular fights, something that could be lived through, something you could get over. When Adam brought the children up, the stakes became more than she could play for. She tried to fight, but in the end she froze, she folded, she failed. Evelyn had never had many friends, but most of those she had insisted that she had to change things somehow.

"I really think you'd better get your name on the credit rating, dear," one of the ladies at church warned her.

Amy, a young mother she talked to sometimes while Adam and Jasper played miniature golf had whispered, "Get some kind of training so you can get a job. The only reason he can be so mean is because he knows that you're helpless."

Cathy, a patient she'd met at the hospital last year, had been exuberant about lawyers. "Get his balls in a vise and squeeze!" she'd said in a confidential tone. "That's what lawyers are for!"

Evelyn had thought that Cathy's talk was funny, but she hadn't been sure whether to show it or not. She was never sure how "natural" she was supposed to be with someone who was "crazy", even though she was crazy too. And surely this was too serious, anyway. Adam's sister Ruth had dropped by the hospital that day and Evelyn had tried to tell her about it.

"I don't know, but when you've decided you're crazy," Evelyn whispered, "it's hard to tell when you're acting crazy. I mean, almost everybody's a little bit crazy, so how do you know when you really are?"

"Maybe when they put you in here," Ruth answered gently, forcing a smile. She lit a cigarette and fidgeted, trying not to stare at the other patients in the day-room. She loved Evelyn, but she still couldn't get comfortable in these goddamn hospitals. All these people were so strange, including the doctors and staff!

"That's right," Evelyn said thoughtfully. "Only it was me that put me in here, not them, you know."

Evelyn felt she had no power or freedom except what Adam could be talked into letting her have. She wondered sometimes why he allowed her to go on seeing the shrink. In her worst moods she thought it was probably because he thought she really was crazy. He gave no signs though that he felt she could get any better and he didn't try to make her feel any better, yet he never actually discouraged her from going to the psychiatrist.

"Quit daydreaming," Adam shouted, "and hold the damn flashlight still! There, over in the corner!"

Evelyn moved the flashlight slowly. She didn't really want to see. She wasn't exactly afraid of the possum, she didn't know enough about them. But now that they'd found it, she figured Adam would feel compelled to kill it, and that frightened her.

"Hold the damn light still, Ev," Adam rumbled.

"Urrrr, don't call me that!" Evelyn said, grumbling to herself like a dog. She'd never liked pet names, but at the moment she was only trying to distract herself from what was about to happen. She wanted to close her eyes, but blinked a lot instead. In the glimpse she caught of the possum, it seemed like it was blinking too. It seemed like a long time to her before the rifle went off. Suddenly she jumped.


"Jesus! God!" she cried. The words jumped out of her throat.

"Goddamn it, hold the light still!" Adam snapped. "I can't see if I hit the damn thing or not."

He snatched the flashlight out of her hand and ran toward the corner of the fence. Evelyn felt dizzy, stepped back toward the fence, and let herself slump, thinking that the fence was close behind her. She was wrong, however, and felt herself keep going back, back, back. Her swoon ended in a hard thump in the dust of her one struggling flowerbed, two feet short of the fence.

"Damn," she said as she hastily rose and brushed herself off, "sometimes it wouldn't hurt to have a fatter ass!"

"I got it, I got it!" Adam hollered.

Evelyn felt depressed as she made her way across their new sparse lawn. Adam was standing now over a dark lump of something. Westmoreland, the big Irish setter, was yowling and running around the spot with frenzied energy. Adam was smiling like an idiot. Evelyn thought it was disgusting.

"Yuck," she said.

"What did you say, girl?" Adam said, giving her a hard look.

"I just said 'yuck'-you know, like the little kids say."

"Oh." Adam turned back to look at his big success.

"Jesus shit," Evelyn said, though very much under her breath. Sometimes Adam made her afraid to even breathe. She still didn't look at the dead possum, but stared instead at Westmoreland, idly thinking that while they were shooting things they ought to take care of the dog too.

"It-it's not dead," Adam said in a quiet voice.

"It looks dead to me," Evelyn said, forcing herself to look at it for the first time. Actually it didn't look like anything to her. It didn't look dead and it didn't look like it used to be alive either.

"I tell you it's not dead!"

Adam's egotism over killing the beast had begun to shrink before the notion that he might have to kill it again. The Irish setter continued racing around the possum in wild figure eights, yapping loudly and bumping against Adam's leg.

"That goddamn animal!" Adam exploded. Evelyn wasn't sure which animal he meant. Whatever he meant, Adam kicked the dog with all his might and the dog retreated to the other side of the yard in a trail of yelps.

Evelyn felt sorry for the dog at the same time that she hated it. She'd never cared for it. All the Irish setters she'd ever encountered had been somebody's house-pet, big bony balls of stringy flesh with too much energy and nowhere to expend it. She was vaguely aware that the breed was supposed to be used for hunting, and wondered if breeding them for sport had bred all the intelligence out of them. Certainly Westmoreland seemed stupid and incredibly high-strung to her, always knocking over furniture, running like sixty through barbed-wire fences, or bowling little Jimmie over and making him cry.

Adam shifted the rifle in his hand. Evelyn began to feel faint. She could not believe how long this was taking. Her heart sank and her pulse beat faster. Her nerves were completely shot. Just then her oldest son Jasper appeared at the screen door.

"Mommy, Mommy, what's that noise?!" he yelled.

"You woke up the children!" Evelyn said petulantly. "Hurry up and get this over with, Adam!"

Adam's head snapped around. His eyes were furious again, he looked like he wanted to spit at her. Her heart sank, if possible, even lower.

"This dumb mean bastard," she thought sullenly, gritting her teeth.

She turned in exasperation toward the screen door and yelled as softly as she could, "Dammit, Jasper, go back to bed! Everything is all right, just go back to bed, please!" Jasper opened the door and started coming toward her. She rushed toward the child, swept him up in her arms, and kissed him. "Come on now, sweetheart," she said, "I'm taking you back to bed."

"But what was that noise, Mommy?"

"It was just a big truck passing by, honey," she told him as she laid him back down on his bed, "and if it passes this way again, I want you to stay in bed, okay?"

"Okay," the boy said, yawning in the middle of the word. By the time she'd checked to make sure Jimmie was all right, Jasper was asleep again.

"Thank God for little favors," Evelyn whispered.

She didn't want to go back outside, but she knew she had to. She hoped that Adam would have dealt with things while she was gone, but when she got there she saw he hadn't done a damn thing. He was breathing heavily, staring at the possum and looking confused. Evelyn thought suddenly of some film she'd seen once, with John Wayne or somebody.

"Why don't you just knock it in the head with the butt of your gun?" she asked.

"This is a brand-new rifle," Adam said stubbornly. Apparently that explained everything, though it didn't mean anything to Evelyn.

In the dark, she squinted at the rifle's stock; she couldn't see it very well but she'd looked at it when Adam had bought it. It seemed foolishly ornamental to her. She wondered if the engraver meant to obscure or celebrate its true purpose with all those artistic flourishes.

"Then hit it with that long flashlight," she offered.

"No way," he said. "My uncle Martin gave me that. You know, the one who used to be with the highway patrol in Shreveport? He's retired now. It's high-grade aircraft aluminum, you know, really the best-."

"I don't care about that! What are we going to do?"

Adam gave her that hard look again. She wondered if his hatred was for her or for the possum that was or wasn't dead or for that son-of-a-bitch uncle who wasn't here to help them. Maybe he didn't know himself who his hatred was for. What difference did it make, anyway? This late at night, it didn't matter much to anyone, certainly not to her. If this went on much longer, she was going to shoot the damn possum herself. She'd rather shoot the dog than the possum-at least she had something against Westmoreland-but she knew that she probably wouldn't shoot anything. Still, she couldn't help thinking that probably it wouldn't hurt to shoot the possum, as long as she was sure it was really dead.

"Jesus, this is getting confusing," she thought. "If I have to be the one to shoot the possum, then I might as well shoot Adam too!" Evelyn was beginning to miss her medication.

"Hold the light," Adam said.

Yeah, sure, shithead, Evelyn thought. She wished she'd said it. She shone the light on the little creature, but didn't care to look right at it. She didn't want to be looking at it if it's brains and gore were going to be splattered all over the place. Adam seemed to be trying to find just the right stance. He hefted the rifle as if somehow it's weight or balance might have changed since he fired it a few minutes ago.

Evelyn felt nervous, but still she stubbornly wondered how a man could lose his nerve over shooting a dead possum? How could he want to do this so badly and yet not want to get it over with?

BAM! BAM! BAM! went the rifle.

"Ha!" went Adam.

"Rowf, rowf, rowf!" went the dog, as it rushed at full speed out of the darkness, bounced against Evelyn, and snapped noisily at the dead possum.

"Murdering Jesus!" screamed Evelyn, jumping back. Fortunately, Adam wasn't listening. In unthinking reflex, even as she was falling, she kicked the dog and hollered, "GET AWAY!"

"Ha!" Adam said again.

"What's the matter with him?" Evelyn wondered irritably and considered kicking that son of a bitch too. As she got up and stepped away, the dog made another scrambling kamikaze dash toward the corpse.

"A wonderfully brave dog!" Evelyn thought. It was snuffling at the dead possum, looking for its own proof of life or death.

"I hate Irish setters," Evelyn told herself, "I just hate them!" She thought about kicking Westmoreland again, but felt too guilty about kicking him the first time.

"Well, at least it's over now," Evelyn thought and sighed. Her relief gave her the courage to finally look at the dead possum, but there wasn't much to see. She'd expected it to look blown to bits, but the small still lump in the sparse grass looked pretty much as it had before to her. Maybe it was because the flashlight batteries had grown weak and she just couldn't see well enough.

"We've got to bury this thing, you know," Adam said, absent-mindedly patting Westmoreland on the head. For a moment she thought he meant the dog, and just for a moment it sounded like a good idea. Then she realized what he meant.

"You mean right now?"

"If we don't, the dog will get at it."

"Couldn't we just drag it in the garage and bury it in the morning?" she pled.

"It would stink."

"Oh." All her ideas were worthless.

"Go get some plastic garbage sacks," Adam said, "and some fresh batteries for the flashlight. And lock that damned Westmoreland up in the garage! He's driving me crazy."

"Pretty late to think of that," Evelyn mumbled as she led the dog away.

When she got back, Adam was digging a hole near the possum, but he wasn't making much progress-the ground was full of tree roots. Perhaps in daylight things would have been easier, but in the dark the earth seemed nearly impenetrable. Adam stopped digging for a few moments, slipped a bag over the possum, then held up the bag while Evelyn slipped a second bag over that. He put two twist-ties over the end of the bag, then went back to digging.

Evelyn shuddered, picked up the flashlight and held it for him. Jabbing again and again at the tree roots, Adam sweated profusely, which only reminded her how hot she was with all those clothes on. She longed to strip some of them off right there, but couldn't figure out how to do it while still holding the light. Besides, Adam was such a stickler for propriety; she didn't dare draw his attention to her odd costume. His insensibility was like a booby-trap; she never knew when she might step in it.

"Hold the light steady, willya," Adam said.

"Mmmm," she answered as if in agreement, but was actually thinking about bopping him on the head with the long flashlight. It was heavy enough, she thought. Maybe she could just dump him in the hole with the possum and-but no, she could see how much trouble it'd be to bury anything out here. Anyway, what would she do without him? She wasn't even sure if she was the beneficiary of his insurance policy. He might have left it to his parents; you can't trust a man who threatens to take your kids away from you.

"There's too much air in that bag," Adam told her. "You're going to have to squeeze it out if it's ever going to fit in this hole."

Squeeze the bag? Who, me?

"I can't do that," she said.

"Sure, you can," he said matter-of-factly. She hated it when he took that tone. It meant there was no arguing with him. It meant he had his head straight up his ass and it wasn't coming out again until he got his own way.

She loosened the top of the bag and began to squeeze it slowly. The first soft whoosh of air that came out carried an odor of death-or so she imagined-that nauseated her. As the bag got smaller and smaller, she decided that the smell was more familiar, more like that of the dog after it had been out rolling and tumbling in the woods behind the house. She felt the softness of the still body in the bag and dreaded to think what part of it she was touching. Somehow the little package looked smaller now that the animal had looked when it lay in the open.

"Do things get smaller when they die?" she wondered. She'd seen a rat last year in the garage of the house they used to live in and set a trap for it. When the trap caught it she'd been amazed at how much smaller it looked than when it had run past her. When she was still a little girl, her Aunt Heather had died and someone had made her look at the body in the coffin and Evelyn had thought her aunt looked deflated. For a long while after that she'd thought of being dead as having the air let out of you.

Adam stopped digging, tiredly and delicately pushed the deflated bag into the hole with his foot, and said, "Perfect fit!" Evelyn turned away in disgust and walked toward the house. Behind her the soft heavy earth was noisily being flung on the sack.

In the kitchen, the bright light seemed to stab her eyes; she turned on the small light over the stove and turned off the overhead lights. She looked at the plate she'd left unfinished earlier and thought about putting it in the microwave, but the gooey eggs somehow reminded her of the brain-matter that didn't splatter and she lost her appetite. She decided to take a shower instead.

"Now I know what eternity feels like," she thought as she headed for the bedroom, stripping off her jeans and shirt as she went. She stood in front of a small fan near the bed, gasping and letting the air cool her for a while before taking her shower. "God damn," she said tiredly. She paused in the act of lifting her nightgown over her head to let the fan blow on her chest.

She was standing there like that when her husband rushed in with another grievous look of agitation on his face. His mouth was open as if about to blurt out something important, but when he saw her he froze in the doorway. Evelyn froze too, the front of her nightgown bunched together between her breasts and neck. She felt exposed.

"This is crazy," she thought.

Adam's wide eyes had a clear view of her, but little clarity in his look. For a moment the two of them looked like a still photo from some implacable, inexplicable porno film. Adam's expression softened and his mouth opened wider and wider. Evelyn dropped the folds of her gown and gave him an impatient, quizzical look.

"He'd better not be thinking about sex," she thought.

He thought of it so seldom these days that she'd fallen out of the habit entirely. Maybe it was because she'd been "crazy" those months in the hospital and he'd become afraid of her and she hadn't ever bothered to straighten him out. She didn't care, it had been too big a relief to her.

"What is it?" she asked.

Adam was moving his mouth, yet saying nothing. Ordinarily he would have had some clear and extreme response to the sight of his wife's nakedness-either excitement or rancor-for he always had a neurotic interpretation of his wife's body, never an ordinary one.

"What is it?" Evelyn repeated.

"Uh-there's another possum out there," he said, his face turning red. He turned on his heels and immediately disappeared.

"Mysterious goddamn bastard, isn't he?" Evelyn muttered as she mulled over this new piece of information. Then, "Ha," she said, without emphasis, and started to smile very strangely. She sighed and went out after him, padding heavily, smiling more and more as she went. "This is too unreal," she thought. She wasn't sure if she could take it seriously any more.

Adam was in the side yard near the fence that separated them from their neighbors, Joe Bob and Aline Kisnet. He was slowly stalking something along the length of the fence. She came up close to him and spoke loudly.


Adam jumped.

"Jesus, don't do that!" he said in a hoarse voice. "Here, take the flashlight," he added.

Evelyn giggled and took the flashlight. Something rustled behind the viburnum bushes and Adam stiffened, taking aim at what he couldn't see.

"Wait a minute!" Evelyn said sharply, "You'll end up shooting into the Kisnets' house!"

Adam remained stiff. "Well, what do you propose?" he said coldly.

In the dim moonlight Evelyn could detect the sheen of perspiration glistening on his forehead. A large drop of sweat hung from the tip of his nose.

"He looks ridiculous," she thought. And yet it was exactly that look which made her realize that she had to take him seriously.

"Let me go around to the other side of the fence and see what's there, okay?" she said placatingly. She took a couple of steps, then turned and looked back. "But don't you dare shoot that gun while I'm over there!" Adam grunted. She assumed he was agreeing not to shoot her.

There was a place in the front yard where she could squeeze between two fence boards and get into the Kisnets' yard. As soon as she got through the boards, she tripped on a tree root and bumped loudly against the side of the house, right next to the Kisnets' bedroom window.

"Who's there?" a woman's voice asked querulously.

"It's just me, Aline-Evelyn from next door. I think there's a possum on the fence back there and I want to chase it away before my husband starts shooting at it again."

"Is that what I heard a little while ago? I thought I heard something."

"Yes ma'am. Is it all right if I go in your back yard?"

"Go ahead, dear," Mrs. Kisnet said sleepily, "but try to be quiet."

In the neighbors' back yard, everything became simple. She didn't need the flashlight to see the possum huddling on the fence near the viburnums. Perhaps, Evelyn thought, it was the other's mate. She felt sorry for it coming to such an unlucky place. She found a broom leaning against the Kisnets' utility building and poked the possum with it. At first the creature sank his teeth into the straw and pulled, but that only lasted a couple of seconds. Either because there was nothing to really bite or because Evelyn over-balanced it by turning loose of the broom, the possum turned, ran the length of the fence, then jumped down and disappeared into the dark woods behind the house.

When Evelyn got back to her own yard, Adam was still standing there, stiff and poised. The same or a similar drop of sweat dangled from his nose.

"He really does look stupid," she thought, then decided, "No, he looks like a demented squid." She didn't know what a squid looked like, but it sounded like what she meant. She was sure she wouldn't like a squid any better than she liked Adam right now. Ruth had been right-Adam was a jerk and that's all there was to it.

"What time is it anyway?" he asked.

"About two-thirty, I guess," she answered and started walking toward the house. As Adam followed along behind her, he stepped in the hole they'd buried the possum in and fell headlong across the lawn. There was a heavy thump, then silence. She turned around, wondering why he didn't start cussing about it like he did about everything else. Going closer, she saw that he was on his back now, making weird stifled sounds and incomprehensible gestures. The fall had knocked the breath out of him, that was all. In the darkness, Evelyn smiled broadly. She turned around and shone the light on the hole. It was empty now. No sign of the possum at all, only the torn, flattened bags lying on the ground.

"What is this?" she thought, shaking her head and scratching her hair vigorously with both hands. Was it some kind of weird goddamn possum epiphany or was she simply going nuts?

"Thank God, anyways!" she exclaimed, wiping her forehead.

She'd decided that she didn't care any more, she just didn't care. But why was she feeling like this, then, her heart pounding like sixty? She closed her eyes a moment and took a long deep breath, then headed toward the house. She moved quickly past the man sprawled as if dead in the sparse brown grass of their new lawn. She hated that dead lawn and she hated Adam and she thought there must be something she could do about it. Once inside the kitchen, she leaned back hard against the door and locked it.

"Oh, hell, it isn't over yet, though," she grinned wildly, then wondered what else there was to eat. Maybe she'd try that rice with Parmesan. There was a grumbling in her stomach and a terrible noise in her head. Maybe she'd just go to sleep.


4th draft: 06/18/04
©1988 Ronald C. Southern