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Story by Rusty Barnes (Read author interview) June 15, 2004

Mathilde knew that Warren wanted nothing more than to be feral, a slavering beastly man prone to sudden rages, a man who might chase down a kill with great loping strides like a wolf, neatly hamstring it, and howl his success to the stars. She knew this with certitude and no little anxiety, as women know things about their husbands that they can never touch or affect. Out there, just beyond their comfortable suburban home, their daughter Violet had gone to smoke marijuana with her friends, and Warren had caught her by the sound of her giggle when he had stepped into the woods to urinate after raking the leaves, and after chasing away her friends Bobby and Tito, had summarily disowned her and thrown her out on her teenaged rump.

Warren had not always been this way, never so quick to passion and short of intellect. Mathilde recalled him as she had known him for most of their twenty years together, a lanky man with a slight gut who could put a new clutch plate in the car at noon and watch an opera that same night. She recalled every detail of their five-year engagement, their eventual decision to have Violet—her name an obvious Verdi homage— and all the various and sundry elements of a life lived together, and generally lived well.

She could point to the spot where Warren had begun to be different, too—that day in June when his eyes changed; that night when he had made love to her with such force as to be brutal, and had rolled off her and began to weep into his pillow; that sudden need to be by himself late at night when she might have preferred to fall asleep on his shoulder while watching a late movie; all of these things she could point to but not quite understand; what was it she had done, after all?— but she could only watch him now, arms tightly woven across her chest—not daring yet to speak—as he put Violet out into the driveway like a rug-wetting puppy, tossing her suitcase behind her and throwing his fat arms up in what she imagined was a gesture of dismay.

Mathilde sobbed as she watched Violet leave in her raggedy Civic, yet could not think of how to stop her husband without ruining what little self-esteem he had remaining. She knew behind his eyes he thought of himself as another person now, and that Violet’s teenaged scheming and furtive rendezvous with those pimply boys in baseball caps and heavy gold chains at the end of their private drive signified something more to him than mere rebellion. Mathilde could see the life Warren wanted to live reflected in Violet’s actions, as if he believed that smoking pot would be only the first step in a long and sorry run of recidivism that in his suffering he actually wanted to share. Maybe in Warren’s mind Violet would end up in Sturgis on the back of a Harley-Davidson, swilling Jack Daniels, indiscriminately fucking, howling at a gibbous moon. And so it became Mathilde’s responsibility to save them both from what they wanted.

After he threw Violet out, Warren disappeared into the cellar, where he had installed a 54-inch flat-screen television as a joking reference to a midlife crisis. He spent nearly all his free time there these days. He owned a large number of operas and obsessively taped episodes of Big-Game Hunter and Killer White-Water and filed them in date-of-show order in the cherry cabinet beside the television.

Mathilde crept down the stairs in her slippers, expecting him to be lost somewhere in the Grand Tetons or deep into the opening of a Puccini or Verdi. She saw him sitting there in his undershirt, holding their phone in his hand, and she thought of how best she might accomplish a connection in his fragile state, and chose what she knew would appeal most, shedding first her housecoat, then her nightgown, now her slippers. Warren she could save.

Naked, she stood before him as a sob rose in his chest. She took the phone from his hand and lowered herself onto him. Even in his pain she could feel him stir beneath her, and it was no trick at all after so many years of marriage to put him deeply inside her with minimal effort, and less a trick to take his head and firmly press it between her breasts as he convulsed.

As her breath came harder so did his, and she let the phone fall from her fingers to the sofa and grasped his head again with both hands, lifted it and kissed away his tears. He began to laugh and cry at the same time, and Mathilde knew that she had managed to catch whatever spark of him had been about to leave her for something else, something more nebulous, and the phone rang.

Warren sat upright quickly, but she continued to move against him, eyes closed, continued to let the phone ring in spite of the cramp developing in her left thigh, continued for a long slow few seconds until she felt him begin to grind against her. She heard the telltale click as the answering machine picked up and she felt him tighten, then slump bonelessly. Mathilde was grateful that it had become their habit to turn the volume down after a certain hour. She felt Warren’s breath against her breast, and a knot of pain moved in her leg, and she kissed the top of his head and didn’t let herself wonder who had called, or what the mysterious caller might have said.

About the Author

Rusty Barnes co-founded and oversees Night Train, a twice-yearly fiction journal.

About the Artist

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison’s work here.

This story appeared in Issue Four of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Four

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