Marlin Barton is from the Black Belt region of Alabama. His most recent book is a novel, The Cross Garden. Barton's collection of stories, The Dry Well, received the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for the best first volume of short stories published that year. Other books include a novel, Broken Thing, and a second collection of stories, Dancing by the River. His stories have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and The Best American Short Stories.

He teaches in, and helps direct, the Writing Our Stories project, a program for juvenile offenders in Alabama. He also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.

Playing War

posted Feb 5, 2013

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The Alabama Black Belt in late fall is an abstract painting. The rusts and yellow-browns of broom sedge across a hill are merely the sure sweep of hard brush strokes, the pines and cedars thick smears of green paint. Twists of gray bones rise into shapes that might be oaks, sweet gums, and maples. Creeks are dark, narrow lava flows. And when Carrie Fuller drives slowly down the blacktop of a county road and sees this landscape, it seems timeless but removed from her somehow, not a part of her world. The vision always, finally, fails her, though. She knows too well what happens in the woods.

It isn't that the seasonal killing of deer bothers her—she's lived among hunters all her life—but pulling up behind a pickup with its tailgate down and seeing a buck lying slack in the bed, its antlers and head twisted at an odd angle, its pliant tongue hanging out, kills the abstraction she wants, the abstraction that protects her from images worse than those of dead deer.

She crosses over the muddy current of the Black Fork River, having left her father's house in Riverfield, and soon passes into the city limits of Demarville. She pulls into her driveway and feels the small sense of surprise that still comes on her when she looks up at her own home. It's as if the house isn't really hers; she's allowed to stay here but isn't sure if she should. The house is two-story and so much larger than what she grew up in, or ever dreamed of calling home. Her husband, Foster, tells people it was built with asphalt, meaning the paving company he started from scratch paid for every square foot. What little money she makes doesn't count for much now, it seems, but early on it fed them.

He's home, somewhere; his truck is parked in the drive. Once in the bedroom, she slips out of the white uniform she wears at the dentist's office and pulls on a T-shirt and jeans over the good figure she's struggled to keep. She's tired, even though she works only part time now. Foster has told her for years that she should quit, but he hasn't mentioned this lately. She looks out the window at the yellow leaves of the sycamore in the backyard and wonders what this means.

She finds him in his workroom at the back of the house. The smell of gun oil permeates the air. It is the very smell of fall for her, and of so many of the men she's known. Foster has always hunted, often with other boys who are grown men now, middle-aged, but weren't when they first took to the woods together and stood at deer stands, waiting to prove their worth and have their shirttails cut to mark a first kill, their faces bloodied.

He's sitting at a table sighting through a detached barrel, checking, she knows, to make sure the bore is clean. He's always taken care of his things. There have been times in their marriage when she's felt taken care of, too, but now the meaning of that phrase has changed, as if she's become a chore to him, a thing that has to be kept up, repaired. The last time they were intimate, two months ago, his every move was mechanical, a means to an end maybe less satisfying to him than the sight of a smooth bore and a well-blued barrel. And not any better for her.

"Are you all right?" he says and smiles. The smile makes him look boyish, despite his thinning hair and the lines at the corners of this mouth. There's something genuine about the smile. Maybe he's happy playing with his toys, she thinks, and then decides that perhaps she's being too hard on him.

"I'm tired," she says. "I don't know why people wait so long before they come in. Looks like some of them would rather have their teeth fall out than actually get help. And the ones that come in regularly think you're their shrink, and they want to tell you every secret about their lives."

He merely nods at first, his way, she knows, of reminding her that he's heard all this before. "Lucinda called a little while ago," he says. "She won't be coming home this weekend."

Their daughter is in her last year at the university in Tuscaloosa, and she's grown in ways Carrie couldn't have imagined. She's learned not one but two foreign languages, traveled overseas, and matured into a confident young woman.

"You were probably planning on hunting all weekend anyway," she says, backing away. "Who all are you going out with this time?" She hears the tone in her voice, but it's too late.

He looks up, not smiling now, in recognition of what lies behind her words and tone. He puts the barrel down on the table. "We haven't had this conversation in a long time."

"No," she says, "I guess we haven't."

He continues to gaze at her, as if he's curious about why she would approach the subject now. There is a reason, one she can't stop thinking about, but if he asks, she'll have to pretend otherwise.


She suspects he's had affairs. It would be easy enough for him, traveling from one job site to another in every little town within a forty mile radius: Linden, Greensboro, Demopolis, Livingston. Too many to name. If so, he's been smart about it, and chosen the women well. None have ever made their presence known to her in the subtle ways that would elude most husbands. All she knows for sure is, at some point he began to check out of their marriage. He became less attentive, less affectionate. She'd like to think that the change came when Lucinda moved out, but she knows better. His turning away began much earlier, as he became more successful in his business and the money started to accumulate. At first he grew sure of himself in a way he never had been. She was happy to see the change, and was glad her money no longer had to feed them. But he grew beyond confident. He bought more expensive clothes, his truck no longer looked like a truck owned by a working man, its paint job too pristine, and his shotguns and rifles bore engraved silver plates. The real difference, though, was in his touch. He became a different man, and she knows, thinks it now as she begins to prepare supper for the two of them, that any new man always wants a new woman's touch. Of course, his wanting may not have led to anything. She doesn't know for certain. She has no proof. Just as her father had no proof to offer weeks earlier when he told her what had really happened in those woods on that luckless November morning so many years past when her husband and the other young men with him decided to play war.

She and her father had been sitting on the back porch looking out at the overgrown pasture, and the far line of woods beyond held all the grays and browns and greens of brush strokes, but they did not transform themselves into anything more than they were, evergreens and hardwoods, not then.

"I don't know that he's going to leave you," he said, "and you don't neither. You want him to leave you? That what this conversation is really all about? You want him to do it so you don't have to?"

She couldn't answer. Maybe she did. He looked at her and she turned away from him and from the pasture and woods. She noticed the ornate planter by the back door, the one her mother had bought, held nothing but dirt, and cracks grew in its sides.

"If he's walked outside his marriage, it don't mean that has to be the end." He said this quietly, hesitantly. She knew why. It was the first time he'd ever come close to talking about what he'd once done to her mother. They had all known about it, as had most of Riverfield, and she'd watched her mother slowly forgive him. She wished now for her mother's strength, enough of it to make some kind of choice of her own.

She sees her father every other day and either cooks a meal for him or brings something she's already prepared. After her mother died from cancer three years ago, his health began to turn. He retired from the paper mill finally and the arthritis that had crept into his ankles and knees, like some damn thief he said, was the biggest reason. He could no longer stand on the cement floors long enough to complete a shift. When the stiffness and pain found its way into his hands, she took him to the doctor, and they found his blood pressure was so high that he had to be hospitalized. She saw, for perhaps the first time in her life, a look of fear in his features; not even when her mother died and he'd had to realize he would be alone, and probably for the rest of his life, had she seen such an expression.

During this period, though, their relationship had slowly deepened in a way she never would have expected when she was young. He had always been so distant from her, and often as cold as some November morning. It was her mother she'd continually turned to for comfort, reassurance. The loss of her mother left her feeling exposed to the world in a way she'd never imagined possible, and while she could now talk to her father, glad for the change in him, she found it ironic that he also appeared physically transformed into a man who only resembled his earlier self; even his very bone structure looked altered by his arthritis.

"But if he leaves me," she continued, not sure what she wanted to say. "You hear stories from women about husbands hiding their money. I don't know what his business is worth, what he might do or not do. I don't have to have the house, and I can work full time. But I don't want to be left with nothing. Sometimes I feel like he's a ghost around the house. He's already left me and all I see is what little of him he wants me to. It's like he's always had some secret. Now that Lucinda's grown and away at school, he wouldn't even have to pay me child support."

Her father looked toward her as if he had something to say. Often he didn't. So when she saw a tightness in his face, she knew to wait and listen. "There is something I don't guess he's ever told you. Never told me neither, but I heard about it from somebody who knows. If I was to tell you, I guess it would give you something, an advantage maybe. But maybe not. You might be afraid to use it. Maybe wouldn't want him to know you knew."

"Daddy," she said, tension, or fear, building within her, "go ahead."

"When that Tilghman boy was killed . . ."


He nodded. "It didn't happen the way they all said. It wasn't a hunting accident."

"What are you telling me?" she said. She remembered Foster had come home that day dressed in camouflage, eyes downcast and dark beneath the shadow of his cap.

"They didn't see any deer at all that morning. So they decided to play a game, the six of them. They picked teams and made the rules."

She didn't follow him, wanted to interrupt, but made herself keep quiet, her body becoming more tense even, like a small woodland animal about to spring and run.

"Said they'd aim high above each other's heads, that they'd yell out killed before they pulled the trigger so each one of them could take turns falling down and playing dead, laying below the spray of buckshot. It was supposed to be just a game of war."

She sat in disbelief, recalling all that Foster had ever told her about that day. Four hunters, including Foster, had lined up on stands down in a creek bottom, maybe thirty yards apart, and the other two, Bruce and his younger brother Dale, had been the drivers. They'd come down through the bottom, yelling and hollering to scare any deer past the standers ready with their twelve-gauge shotguns. A buck had broken at the very last when they all thought nothing was in there. He moved so fast, and they all shot. Then another broke through the brush, a doe probably, and they kept firing, all six of them at the two deer, only one wasn't a deer and nobody knew or could say who'd shot Bruce in the chest and face.

But this wasn't what happened.

"They walked to the top of the creek bottom," her father said. "Three of them up one side, three up the other. Then they started toward each other. Whoever got to the top of the other side first, won."

"How were they going to know who got there first?" she asked, and then realized the question had no point.

"They had flags that they made up. It was whoever captured one of the flags first."

"Flags made out of what?"

"Their orange hunting vests."

Because they didn't want to be seen, she thought. They all took them off.

"Then there was a lot of shooting and yelling, and before they knew it, Bruce was down and wasn't getting up."

He stopped the telling then, but she wanted him to keep talking and somehow explain it in such a way that made things right. "Who did it?" she asked, quietly, afraid of the answer but finally having to ask.

"I don't know." He spoke the words so simply.

This wasn't what she'd expected to hear. "Who told you this? How did they know any of it?"

"Dale told me, years ago. He used to work with me at the paper mill, before they fired him that is and Foster gave him a job. I think he was having a hard time with it still, what they'd done, how they'd all agreed to cover it up."

"You don't think it was him, do you?"

"No, but I think he knows who. He wouldn't say. That was the one thing Dale kept to himself, said he had to. They all swore they would."

She looked toward the woods again and imagined men standing just inside the tree line with guns in their hands and blood across their shirts, their stares all on her. She squinted her eyes and that was when she was first able to see the trees as smears of color that transformed the world around her beyond anything she wanted to recognize.


As she drives to work early Friday morning—her uniform freshly washed, all her sterile instruments waiting on her, the monotonous music that has become a trial to her probably playing in each examining room—she keeps asking the questions that have been in her mind for weeks now. Could it have been Foster who shot Bruce, and was it his idea to play war? Was one any worse than the other? There's another question, too, one she first asked long ago, and keeps asking, and for which she's never received a satisfactory answer. She doesn't understand how Foster and the others can continue to carry guns into the woods and shoot what moves obscured through brush and trees, and that might fall into a human shape. This was the conversation Foster didn't want to have when she found him looking into the detached barrel. She thinks she has an idea now, though. Each was afraid after that awful day that if he quit hunting, he would look like the guilty party. And once they made that decision, they kept on, maybe hating to carry a gun into the woods. But Foster doesn't seem to hate it, she realizes—which could mean that he knows without doubt that he isn't the guilty party. The other alternative isn't one she wants to think about, but she does.

There is one silence she has kept herself all these years, and now it speaks loudly inside her mind, even while she works in the wet cavity of someone's mouth with her instruments, latex gloves, and the mask across her face. On a winter night, a Saturday, weeks before her marriage, she had straddled Bruce Tilghman in the cab of his truck while country music played on the radio. They were parked in one of the campsites down at The Landing on the Tennahpush River. She did it because she knew she had the power to, because he had always wanted her, and because she was the girl she had become, needing more than what little her father could give her, more than just her mother's reassurance, needing and then rejecting the attention of boys, and hadn't yet become the woman she is now, married, older, a mother, responsible for more than herself, understanding how much there is to lose by any empty and pointless indiscretion. She'd lost her virginity at The Landing, too, and had broken that boy's heart, just as she knew she would do the same to Bruce. He'd kept quiet, though, Bruce had. She was sure. But now, so many fears run through her mind that she finds it difficult to concentrate on almost any task, and sleep is as elusive as the dream she had for her life: a simple home, children, a husband who adored her and whom she could trust. A girl's dream, maybe. At least this is what she thinks her dream was.

She lies beside Foster at night listening to his quiet breathing—he's never snored—and wonders at what she did with Bruce, and at what Foster might have done if he had learned about that night down on the river. After they married, Foster kept up his friendship with Bruce as he always had, and they hunted together, sometimes just the two of them. She wonders, though. Maybe he didn't find out the truth until later. Maybe Bruce confessed it to him at some point and begged forgiveness, which he thought had been given him.

Her biggest question now is what to do with all she knows, and all she doesn't know.


That afternoon, she makes a trip to Riverfield, and just as she is no longer the girl she was, Riverfield is changed too. Old houses she knew as a child have burned or been torn down; the country stores where she bought Cokes and candy bars and picked up items for her mother are closed, empty, some of their roofs falling in—only the Bait Shop remains open, though it's no longer called that; pastures where cows once grazed are grown up in briers or covered in catfish ponds owned by people she doesn't know. The community she called herself a member of is transforming itself beyond recognition.

She means to pass her father's house, her destination a little farther on today, but Foster's truck, silver and black, sits there, as out of place as anything else in Riverfield nowadays. She cannot remember him ever going to her father's alone, but perhaps there have been times she hasn't known about. In case they might see her pass and ask questions later, she pulls into the drive and parks.

Foster comes through the door, surprise registering on his face. "Didn't think you were coming out here today."

"Decided I'd see Daddy this afternoon and give myself a break tomorrow." This isn't true, but the words come easily enough. "So what are you doing here, Foster?"

He looks at her as if trying to understand her question. "I been in Valhia, and when I came back through and saw your father out in his yard, I stopped. Am I not allowed?"

There is silence for a moment. "I'm sorry," she says finally. "It's just strange to see you here alone."

He stands on the steps still, looking down at her. "I've stopped before. I've always liked your father. Thought you knew that."

"All right," she says. "You headed home?"

"After I go by the office."

He looks as if he wants to say more but thinks better of it. Instead, he steps toward her, and for a moment she thinks he's about to kiss her quickly on the cheek. He doesn't. He simply passes beyond her.

Once inside, she can't help but ask her father what Foster wanted. He sits at the kitchen table while she begins to heat a frying pan and mixes cornmeal into batter.

"He just stopped," her father tells her. "He does that every once in a while."

She slows in her movements. "You didn't . . ." She can't make herself ask what she really wants to ask.

"Didn't what, Carrie?" For a few seconds the only sound is the crackle of batter poured into the frying pan's thin layer of corn oil. "Didn't tell him what I've known about Bruce's death and never told him before? Or that you want to leave him?"

"No, neither one," she says. "I know you wouldn't say anything. But didn't he come for some reason?"

Her father gets up from the table and walks out of the kitchen, his movement slow, unsure, as if the result of some outward injury, and not the spread of arthritis within.


She knew Foster would wake early, but didn't know that others would arrive before daylight. She hears them at the door, and is afraid there isn't time for her to make it back to the bedroom with her cup of coffee before Foster lets them into the house. She could remain in the kitchen, but she figures Foster will bring them in there where the lights are too bright and her nightgown thin, too revealing of herself.

She makes a choice and walks out into the living room, her arms crossed, the coffee cup in her right hand. Dale, always the polite one, looks away, and Foster doesn't seem to notice what she's wearing. Russell, who's worked for Foster for years, and was one of the six that day, looks at her as if she might begin to strip for him. She doesn't trust Russell, knows he's spent periods of time in the city and county jails for drunkenness, fighting. Finally he seems to realize that he's staring and turns away, though not as quickly as Dale. She is reminded of the power her body held when she was young, and of her willingness to use that power. Now she feels merely awkward, unsure how to move across the room, the way she should have felt, perhaps, as a teenage girl. Time feels reversed somehow, out of sync, as if these men in the room are still boys, two of them wanting her, one feigning indifference, and all of them capable of foolishness and stupidity to such a degree that no one can guess what they might do, least of all themselves.

"If you give me a minute," she says, "I can fix y'all some breakfast."

"I'm sure they've eaten already," Foster says. "And we need to load a few things and get moving."

Russell and Dale nod their heads, letting Foster speak for them, which is something she's noticed before but takes more note of now.

She goes into the bedroom and puts on her robe, closing it tight. She feels armored now and wants, or needs, to face the three of them again so she can stand there, no longer vulnerable. She quickly brushes her hair and wishes she had on make-up, but there isn't time, and besides, they've already seen her without it.

She enters the living room and hears them at the back of the house in Foster's work room. He'll probably take them through the kitchen and out the side door, closer to where his truck is parked. She walks into the kitchen, feeling the cold tile against her bare feet. When they come in, Foster and Russell are carrying leather and canvas gun cases.

"Thought I'd let Russell borrow my new Marlin," he says.

"You bought another rifle?"

"A few months ago. A .30-30."

Dale stands there holding a cooler. He looks at her this time. It occurs to her that he's now older than his older brother. She can see some of Bruce in his features and imagines what Bruce would look like if he had lived. He'd probably still be wearing a beard, and it would hold at least as much hint of gray as Dale's. His narrow brown eyes might be more squinted, the skin around them sun hardened worse than Dale's. She realizes she's staring and turns away before she embarrasses him.

"Old Dale only got one deer last season," Foster says. "We're going to try to get him another one today."

"Figure I just had some bad luck last year," Dale says.

"Either that or your eyesight's going. How many fingers am I holding up, Dale?"

He laughs, or at least makes the attempt. "Six?"

"That's right. I've always had six fingers on my right hand."

"Where are y'all going?" Carrie asks, though she doesn't really want to know. It's just something to say.

"Down on the Black Fork," Foster says, "to that two hundred acres I bought last year. I got half a dozen tree stands built on it. Permanent ones, almost like penthouses." He laughs.

This has always been his answer to the question she's asked. Since that day, they no longer hunt by driving the deer past standers holding shotguns. Foster either hunts alone, or they all use tree stands and no more than three of them go at once. The answer has never satisfied her, and now, after her conversation with her father, it's even less satisfying.

There is one thing for which she gives him credit. He doesn't bait fields by putting out corn or planting winter grass.

Foster opens the side door and they file out behind him.

"Good luck," she says, because she feels she has to. Usually she adds, "And be careful." But not this time.

Dale is the last one out the door. He turns back and his eyes dart toward her and away, like some animal not daring to venture close enough to be fed by a human. She understands he doesn't want to go, and that his eyesight has nothing to do with why he killed only one deer last year. He has probably killed just enough to remain one of them and never questioned why he would do such a thing. She smiles, and he turns through the door, banging the ice chest against the doorframe. If she told him she'd been on her way to see him the day before, she guesses he might have slammed into the door's glass pane so hard it would have cracked.

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