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 12, 2013

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Late that afternoon, she hears them in the drive, but Dale and Russell don't come inside. Foster carries both of his guns, each in its case, into the kitchen, where she stands to greet him. She isn't certain why she's there this time. In the past she was always waiting to see his face at the door, to determine at first glance if something had happened, again. She felt she was the only one who realized tragedy isn't limited by chance or by anyone's measure of the odds.

He tells her he killed a six-point, that they field dressed it, and took it to a processing place out on the highway for butchering. Some of the meat will be ground into sausage. She doesn't say it, but years ago, he would never have gone to one of those places, if they'd existed then. He took more pride in his hunting.

She asks about Dale and Russell, and when she hears that Dale killed a spike she feels a sense of disappointment whose depth surprises her—disappointment for him, and maybe in him.


Then it's mid-week, late enough in the afternoon that the light is beginning to disappear, like the memory of a day not worth keeping. Too many days like that, she thinks, and turns onto the Loop Road, a narrow, gray-surfaced county road lined by barbed-wire fences, trailers and shacks, the occasional brick house. She follows the road to the far side of the Loop to avoid having to pass her father's house on the highway. After a few more minutes, she travels through a stretch of thick woods and tries to create an abstract vision of color out of their density, but she's passing too deep into the trunks of water oaks and the green fans of palmettos. They are all too close and starkly real.

Finally she sees, beyond a small pond, the brick house where Dale's parents have always lived. And not far from the pond, farther down, sits Dale's trailer, its sides still in good shape, not dirty or in disrepair. She knows she's cutting the time close, that he'll be home only if he left work right at quitting time and didn't stop anywhere. She is hoping to spot his truck, but it's not there, and after easing to a stop on the thin gravel, she decides to wait on his front steps.

Soon headlights sweep off the road and toward her, and she realizes just how quickly darkness is approaching. He parks beside her car and seems reluctant to get out of his truck, as if she must be waiting with bad news.

"I guess you didn't expect to see me when you got home," she says when he approaches.

He looks toward his parents' house a moment, then at her, and smiles. Maybe it's only a nervous smile, but she's glad to see it and leans to the side so he can walk up the steps beside her.

"I was over visiting Daddy this afternoon," she says as she stands, "and thought I'd stop by. When I come over I never take the time to go see anybody. Seems like nobody visits anymore."

"I reckon not," he says. "Don't have many visitors here, anyway."

"Can I come in, Dale? There's something I want to ask you about." She knows no matter how nervous she might make him that he'll let her in, and she knows why. The same wanting she sensed in his brother.

"The trailer's kind of a mess. We can sit out back," he says.

She follows him inside. A pile of clothes sits on the sofa, beer cans line the coffee table, and tools cover the kitchen counter. He opens a sliding glass door, turns on an outside light, and they walk onto a wooden deck. She understands now why he wants to sit outside. It isn't so much because of the mess inside. She can still see his parents' house from here, and they can see her if they care to keep watch and not wonder what a married woman might be up to in their son's place.

"I hear you killed a spike the other day," she says and sits in an old metal chair.

"Yeah." His tone is almost apologetic, and he doesn't look at her. He's waiting, she knows, and he won't make small talk, doesn't know how and doesn't want to learn. She admires this.

"You don't really like to hunt, do you, Dale?"

He looks at her now as if she has learned a secret he thought he'd kept well hidden. "Maybe not as much as some people. And maybe I'm just not as good at it."

The light that shines above him is from a yellow bulb, and it casts him in a pale hue that makes him appear jaundiced and, she's afraid, colors her perception of him. "Hard to be good at something when you don't like it," she says.

He only nods, not in agreement, it seems, but in recognition of why she's speaking to him as she is.

"You've always been smarter than you let on."

He smiles again, appears to appreciate the compliment.

"Dale, I know about the hunting accident," she says quietly and lets the words sink in. "I know what happened."

His smile leaves with the last of the natural light. "You're going to have to tell me what you mean," he says and looks away.

"I know y'all were playing war."

He waits, as if silence might erase what she just said. "How long have you known?"

"A while," she says and won't let herself say more.

"Why'd he tell you? He wasn't supposed to."

It takes a moment, but she understands that he's talking about Foster, and isn't sure if it's best to let him think this way or not. She wants to keep her father out of this, but Dale might decide to say something, ask Foster why he talked.

"He didn't tell me everything," she says. "And I couldn't bring myself to ask what I wanted to know. I didn't even know what to ask at first."

"I can guess what it was, but I can't tell you."

"You know who did it, though, don't you?"

"I didn't say that."

"Whose idea was it in the first place? Tell me that much at least."

"Why's that important? It was a stupid idea, but we all went along with it. We didn't know what was going to happen. It was an accident, maybe not like we told the sheriff, but an accident just the same."

He's looking out into the dark, as if it might provide some further answer that will satisfy her. The shape of the pond is just barely visible, but can't be mistaken yet for anything other than what it is.

"I don't think you believe that," she says. "You try to tell yourself it's just the same, but you know it's not."

"What are you wanting here, Carrie?"

"To find out what happened."

"Then talk to your husband. What I think is my business. He knows more than me."

"What does that mean?" she says and feels for the first time that maybe she can learn something from him. "Was it Foster's idea?"

He doesn't move or speak, but she can tell how much this is taking out of him. She hears a cow lowing at the edge of the pond, calling for her calf.

Dale finally leans forward. "It was Bruce's idea."

She wants to believe him, even thinks through the possibility, but knows it's a lie. She can't believe anything he tells her, not now. He needs time. She's surprised him too much, pushed too hard. She reaches out and takes his hand, holds it, feels its warmth, a workingman's strength in it. "I'm sorry, Dale. I'm not trying to do anything to hurt you." She gently squeezes his fingers. "After all, we've known each other all our lives. I've always cared about you. You know that."

He looks down at the boards beneath them and nods his head the way a boy might. She realizes what he wants her words to mean. A part of her counts on this, and another part truly does care.

"I know thinking about Bruce hurts. You must still miss him, and hate what happened."

He looks back up at her. "What about you?" he says and drops her hand from his. "I know you cared about him too, didn't you?"

Now he has surprised her, if she hears his words right and his question isn't a question. She looks toward the pond, and its still surface looks like an oddly flat section of pasture that cows might graze upon. "Of course," she says. "Everybody around here did. That's the way it was back then. People cared."

"Yeah," he says, "a long time ago. They'd spread rumors too, though."

"I guess they would, Dale," she says and thinks about her father and how public his affair became. She can only guess at the rumors Dale is hinting at, and she isn't going to ask. She's too afraid of what he might know, what Bruce could have confirmed for him. "Please don't tell Foster I came by. You're right. I need to ask him for answers, but I don't know if I can or not."

He doesn't answer her, or respond in any way she can see.

"Please, Dale. Don't say anything."

He finally nods. "Okay."

Stars begin to show themselves, and for a moment she feels as if their reflection on the water's surface has now turned the pond into an upside down night sky full of sharp-finned fish.


At the end of the week she works until closing, then goes to see about her father. She avoids the subject of Foster, and her father seems relieved at his absence in their conversation. She says nothing of her visit with Dale.

When she returns home, she's grateful to see her daughter's restored '65 Mustang sitting in the drive. She finds Lucinda and Foster in the den, both of them on the sofa. Foster's back is to her, and Lucinda doesn't notice her at first. They seem to be discussing something important, and when Lucinda finally sees her, she stops talking in mid-sentence, as if the conversation between them can't be shared. Their bond is something that Carrie has always envied.

Lucinda rises, smiling, hugs her tightly, and she feels such relief in her daughter's embrace, in the very scent of her child.

"Mama, you've got to help me with Daddy," she says and stands before Carrie with a determined look, the same one she's shown the world since she was a toddler wanting a toy beyond reach. Her dark hair has grown longer, and what strikes Carrie most is how much more her daughter looks like a grown woman than the teenage girl who left home almost four years ago.

"So you're looking for an ally? Well, you should know I'm always on your side." She means to sound supportive, playful even, but when Foster looks up at her, she sees that he's heard it differently.

"Lucinda, go ahead and tell her," he says.

"Some friends of mine are planning a trip to Europe for the summer. A couple of them are the friends I went with before, and I want to go again. It could be my graduation gift."

Foster clearly isn't happy about the idea, which surprises Carrie. He has never held her back, always given Lucinda more than Carrie felt he should; it is a wonder that she didn't turn into a completely self-centered child, and Carrie likes to think she's responsible for her daughter's thoughtfulness. She was forever making Lucinda aware of other people's feelings, showing her how hard other families had to struggle. She couldn't stand by and let her daughter become what she had once been, though Carrie's own father had surely never done anything to indulge her.

A part of her wants to side against Foster, but she knows it's the worst part of herself. "That's an expensive trip," she says. "Most young people don't get to take trips like that right out of college. They've got student loans to pay and have to get right to work."

"I know," she says. "And I know I've already spent a semester in France, but since then I've learned both French and German. This trip could be good for me." Lucinda then adds that someone majoring in international business ought to go overseas, and not just to one foreign country.

When she hears her daughter name her accomplishments, Carrie is once again amazed and proud, and maybe what is most amazing to her is that she herself—who grew up sweating in her parents' garden, hoeing beans and picking peas to keep the grocery bill down, riding in pickups on dates with boys whose ambition was to farm with their daddies or get on at the paper mill or steam plant—a girl who never even thought about going to college, gave birth to a daughter who wants to see the world far beyond the pastures and woods that lie between the confines of the Black Fork and Tennahpush rivers.

"What you're saying does make some sense," she says and looks at Foster again. He shakes his head almost imperceptibly. "But your father and I will have to talk about it."

"All right," Lucinda says and then asks if she can help get supper ready.

"In a little while. You going out later?"


She hears a solemn note in her daughter's voice as it trails off, and while it may come, in part, from having her plans for summer placed in doubt, Carrie also knows coming home feels strange to her now, her old friends distanced from her by time and by her own choices, ones that Carrie never felt she had or at least hadn't recognized.


Lucinda leaves the house after supper, and Carrie feels a sense of uneasiness as the sound of her daughter's Mustang fades. She'll have to talk to Foster now and find out why he wouldn't explain his objection to Lucinda. After her second-year semester overseas, which she'd had to have for her degree, he'd even mentioned the idea of her going back after graduating. She'd been the one against it, maybe because she felt his biggest motivation was so he could tell people he'd given her such an extravagant gift.

He comes into the bedroom while she's changing into a nightgown, and she hurries to slip the gown over her body. He doesn't speak at first but walks into the bathroom. She hears water running in the sink, and when he emerges, he's taken off his shirt. His chest is still muscular and a portion of dark hair remains among the gray.

"So what's your problem with her going overseas? I'm the one who hated to see her little girl go over there."

"She's not a little girl anymore."

"Exactly," she says and sits on the edge of the bed. "And there sure aren't many fathers who'd say that."

"I'm different from most fathers."

"Maybe that's why she loves you so much."

He looks at her, smiles for a moment, but she can see he doesn't want to talk about this.

"I'm not saying I'm all for it, but it could be a good thing for her," she says, "help her get a job. You've even talked about it."

"I think maybe you're right. It's time for her to go to work." He pulls off his jeans and sits across from her in his boxers.

"That's not exactly what I said. There's something you're not telling me." She thinks then that there is a lot he's not telling her.

"It's just not a good time." He pauses, seems to search for the right words. "I may have to lay a few people off. I was going to have to tell you at some point, might as well be now."

"Why? Lay them off for good?"

"You know what the price of gas is like."

"What's that got to do with anything?"

He appears irritated now, as if he's about to explain something he shouldn't have to. "Oil has gone sky high. Asphalt's made from petroleum, and my costs are up something terrible. My bids on jobs haven't been low enough, and all the towns I've done business with aren't wanting to spend so much money on their streets. They just don't have it to spend."

"Why haven't you told me before now?" She watches his expression harden. "You don't think it's my business?"

"I didn't say that, or think it. Don't put words in my mouth."

"You just bought a new rifle. And the land you bought along the river? You don't mind spending money on yourself still."

"The rifle wasn't that much, and the land was before things started getting bad."

"How bad are they?"

"Bad enough where I'll have to say no to my daughter, and now I've got to fire people."

"Not Dale?" she asks and is surprised at how afraid she feels for him.

"No," he says and looks away. Then he adds, more quietly, "Never Dale." The inherent question calls her back to that creek bottom she never actually saw but from which she'd escaped for a little while when she first saw her daughter's car in the drive.


Early Monday morning, she drives just ahead of Lucinda, who is on her way back to school. After they make the interstate, they leave the Black Belt behind, and the landscape turns bland and monotonous. Carrie feels she could be anywhere. At first the feeling of distance is welcome, but finally she feels she is simply no place at all.

Her father is riding with Lucinda so they can visit. Carrie can't remember ever taking a trip alone with him, and she wonders what he and Lucinda talk about. It seems her daughter has always understood the men in their family better than she has. And maybe having a granddaughter who crawled into his lap as a child is what first began to open up her father to the grown daughter who gave him such a gift.

Last night she'd sat with Lucinda and told her she would talk to Foster again about the summer trip. "I'm not making you any promises. He may not listen to me. A trip like you want would cost thousands, and that might be too expensive right now. He doesn't want me to tell you this, but his business is down."

"Is that why things don't seem quite right between y'all?"

For a moment she was surprised by the question, but she knew she shouldn't have been. Lucinda had always been perceptive. "If things seem a little strained between us, that's probably why."

Lucinda looked at her with the kind of compassion that Carrie hoped she had helped create. "Then he's been having money problems for a long time now, hasn't he?"

She looked down at her daughter's open suitcase on the floor and was finally able to say no, but she offered no other explanation, and thankfully her daughter seemed to accept her silence.

Carrie pulls into the parking lot of the doctor's office now and Lucinda follows. Her grandfather has to take his time getting out of the small car, and Carrie sees him struggle to hide his pain. Lucinda hugs him—careful, Carrie notices, not to upset his balance. And despite the fact that Carrie visits her father every few days and knows the shape he is in, witnessing his physical deterioration yet again makes her feel unbalanced herself.

"Thank you, Granddaddy," Lucinda says, and Carrie guesses that he has slipped her some spending money. She wonders how much. Whatever the amount, it has to be more than he ever gave Carrie, but she's glad that her father can do this now. It's one of the few ways in which some men his age can show love to a daughter or granddaughter.

"When will you be back?" Carrie asks. The bright morning sun is in her eyes, and she has to squint to see.

"I don't know. I'll call." She hugs her mother good-bye, and, after a moment, Carrie watches her pull into the stream of morning traffic flashing past.

Inside, she and her father wait. He is here to see his rheumatologist. There are only two other people waiting, older women, and they sit near each other across the room. Like all doctor's offices, the place smells faintly of ammonia and beneath that the hard-to-define smell which somehow hints at sickness and age.

"I could have driven myself," her father says.

"You could have, but I know how hard on you it is to drive this far. I don't mind doing it."

They sit in silence for a few minutes, the only sound the kind of lazy droning music she hears at work while scraping a patient's teeth. She's trying to decide if she should talk to her father about Foster, and realizes that he is really the only person she can talk to about him. She wonders when her life became so shut off, when she stopped having friends. In a quiet voice she tells him what's happening with Foster's business and what Lucinda wants for the summer. He nods and doesn't speak.

"You act like you already knew. Did Lucinda tell you?"

"Yeah." He turns more fully toward her. "But I knew about Foster's problem before she told me."

"What? Why is it that you know so much more about my husband than I do?"

One of the older women looks toward her.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't feel right about keeping it from you. That's why I'm telling you now. But it was his place to tell you, not mine."

"With all I've told you about the shape of our marriage and what I'm afraid might happen to it, you should have told me what you knew a month ago."

"I didn't know then."

Both the old women are now reading magazines, or at least pretending to. "When did you know?" she asks.

For a moment he doesn't answer. "The day you saw him at my house. That's when he told me."

"I knew there was something going on that day. But why did he tell you? It's not like you were going to loan him any money."

A nurse comes out and calls a name Carrie doesn't hear clearly. One of the women slowly stands and walks toward the nurse.

"That's not why he was there. I called and asked him to come by."

"For what?"

"It had to do with Dale."

"How is that?" she says. "Seems like everything here lately has to do with Dale."

Her father gives her a puzzled look. "Dale comes and talks to me sometime. Has ever since we worked together."

"He like some son you've always wanted?"

"No, Carrie. He just needs a little advice every once in a while. Sometime you can't go to family."

"So what's his problem?"

"It looked like he was going to lose his trailer. He missed some payments and didn't want his folks to know. So he asked Foster for help. Whenever Dale's needed money over the years, Foster's given it to him. And I don't mean a loan. He's given it, and pretty regular."

She starts to ask why, but the sick feeling in her stomach tells her she already knows, and it confirms all of her fears. "Foster wouldn't give it to him this time, would he?"

"No, he wouldn't. So I talked to Foster for him. He still wouldn't. That's when he told me things weren't going good with his business. I didn't know whether to believe him or not."

"But he went hunting with Foster after that. They were at the house together. Things seemed fine between them."

"Things ain't always what they seem. And he can't really tell Foster no, can he? Even if it's just to go hunting. Foster's his boss."

"Some people could say no."

"Well, Dale ain't one of them. And you know Dale well enough to know that much."

"Foster could have given him the money," she says. "The business may be down, but Foster's got money in the bank."

"I figured that. But maybe he doesn't have as much as me and you think, or figures he's paid Dale enough by now."

She's quiet for a moment. The soft music and her father's voice begin to fall away. How much would be enough? Just how large is Foster's debt? she wonders. Then her father's name is called. He stands and finds his balance. She's ready to rise from her chair and catch him should he begin to fall.


That evening, before she leaves work, she approaches one of the doctors, the older of the two partners. She knows that Diane, a woman she's worked with for several years, is going to take maternity leave; Diane and her husband are expecting a first child. Maybe she'll come back to work, maybe not. Carrie asks the doctor if he would consider letting her work fulltime, maybe permanently. He seems genuinely surprised by her request, as if he thinks she must have some great need for the extra money. She doesn't try to explain that the money is only a part of her reason for asking, that maybe just as important is her need to stay occupied, and to stay away from her husband.

At home, she's anxious about telling Foster. At first she tries to convince herself her anxiety exists simply because Foster will be irritated, say she's overreacted to the news about his business.

They eat a too-quiet supper, and then he leaves her for the den to read the paper or watch television. When she finally enters the room, he's paging through an old hunting magazine, either too bored with what it offers or unable for some reason to concentrate on printed words. She sits down on the sofa and tells him what she's decided, tries to make it sound as if she only wants to help cover the loss of a co-worker.

"So did you go and ask for the extra hours?" he says and closes the magazine, drops it beside his chair. "The business isn't in such bad shape that you've got to do this. You think I can't take care of you?"

"Who's to say I need taking care of? And no, I didn't ask. Hadn't thought about it, but when he offered, I thought why not?"

He waits a moment before answering. "You sure you don't have some reason of your own for doing it?"

Now she tenses, recognizes why she was so anxious. It wasn't because he might think she overreacted. She was afraid that her working more would show her hand to him too soon, let him know that she wants to separate herself from him, wants some way to provide for herself.

"Like what?" she says.

"Like coming up with some money for Lucinda to go to Europe?"

"No," she says, relieved. "I hadn't thought about that." Then it seems that maybe the thought should have occurred to her. But her own life is important too, she thinks, not just Lucinda's.

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