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

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