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 19, 2013

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

She begins working the longer days, and on Saturday she sleeps late. Foster has been gone for hours. He is quail hunting with the mayor of Valhia somewhere on the mayor's farm. Foster doesn't like him, says he's the kind of man who'd shoot quail on the ground if he thought no one was watching. It's business, he told her.

At some point during the day she will need to check on her father, but that can wait until later. She showers, slips into jeans and a green blouse that's cut a little lower than what she usually wears. She puts on her make-up, careful not to apply too much, and then touches more perfume to her neck and behind each ear than she would for a social occasion. When she looks in the mirror a final time she knows she appears attractive for a woman in her late forties, but she can't say she's happy about what she sees, and the scent of her perfume smells like some flower that's maybe too common to be valued.

She thinks of calling first, or even coming up with a pretext that would bring him to her house, but either would scare him. She will have to go there, curious parents or not, and hope, again, that he's home or shows up soon.

After crossing the bridge over the Back Fork, she drives onto the low ground of her girlhood and remembers who she was and knows she's about to call on a part of that old self who must be in her still. But she has a deeper understanding now, a clearer judgment of what she is and isn't capable of, what she should and shouldn't do. Or maybe words such as understanding and judgment are poor substitutions, she thinks, for what is really a more studied shrewdness. It may be she's not changed at all if she can set out on such an undertaking as this.

She knows she could simply leave her husband, walk away into a life of her own, and one that she could own, no matter the cost. But after twenty-five years of marriage she feels she's earned a larger due, and maybe most important is the right to know if she married a man who can take aim at another man and kill him as if he were a deer trying to survive hunting season in stark November woods.

As soon as she turns off the Loop, she sees his truck parked in front of his trailer. She doesn't honk her horn the way some buddy of his might, someone like Russell. Instead she climbs the steps and knocks on the door. He doesn't answer, or won't. The day is clear but windy and cool, and she wants to close her jacket but needs him to fully notice her, to be surprised by what he sees standing at his door, wanting inside. She knocks again.

Then she hears her name called from a distance, the sound of it reduced by the wind, and turns toward the voice. Dale stands in front of his parents' house, waving her over. This isn't what she expected. She's unsure what to do, but she knows his parents, can make conversation with them.

The wind ripples the pond's surface, and roan-colored cows stand beyond it. He waits patiently as she approaches and doesn't seem surprised to see her, though he must be.

"I was beginning to wonder if you were anywhere around," she says. "Are your parents inside?"

He shakes his head at first, as if he doesn't want to speak. "They went up to Tuscaloosa to see Alabama play Ole Miss." The wind blows his hair and she sees how fine it is, streaks of it a lighter brown than she realized.

"You didn't want to go?"

"I'll listen to it on the radio after a while. Where's Foster at?" he says, and she can tell the question isn't as casual as he'd like for it to sound.

"I'm just over to see about Daddy, and Foster's quail hunting."

He looks around like he's not sure what to do next. Then for the first time she sees his eyes stop on her and take in her figure. He asks if she wants to come in and get out of the wind.

She's never been inside the house. The living and dining rooms are better furnished than what she expected, and there's a graceful sense of design and muted color. Then she notices a table filled with family photographs and sees, for the first time in more than twenty years, a picture of Bruce. It makes him real for her again in a way she couldn't have guessed. The image of the smiling, bearded young man only a few years out of high school forces her to remember the way he felt up against her body in the cold cab of his truck, his trimmed beard on her exposed skin. He isn't just gone away, she thinks, disappeared. He's dead, still, with holes torn all over his face and chest.

"Sometimes I look at that picture too," Dale says, standing beside her now."I forget it's there." He pauses a moment. "Then I see it all over again."

The way he says it makes her wonder if he means something more than the photograph.

"That happens to me with pictures of my mother," she says.

He nods. "I was about to make a sandwich in the kitchen when I saw you through the window."

"I'll make one for you," she says, impulsively, "if you'll get everything out." She can see that he's not sure what to make of her offer. And she knows he's waiting, like before, for her to say why she's come.

He leads the way into the kitchen and goes to the refrigerator, hands her packages of lunchmeat and cheese, a jar of mustard. She takes off her jacket and begins working at the counter and can sense him behind her, watching. She wonders if he's imagining that this is what it might feel like to be married with a home, a caring wife taking time for a simple task to please her husband. She wishes he had that. Then wishes she did, that she could be that kind of wife again, to someone.

They sit at the kitchen table, framed by a large picture window that looks out on a broad pasture. Sunlight pours in, and she knows what the light does to the sheer fabric of her blouse. They are mostly quiet while he eats, and then she gets up to pour more sweet tea in his glass. She walks up behind him and slowly leans over his shoulder with the pitcher, the scent of her perfume strong enough still so that she sees him take a deep breath and hold it. She imagines his eyes are closed.

"Does this house still feel like home?" she says when she sits down.

"Mostly. I come over here a good bit, and eat here a lot. But I've lived in town, too. I just like it better out here."

"Is it about money?" she says. She watches him closely. He stops chewing for a moment, then swallows.

"It's cheaper, if that's what you mean." He takes a drink of his tea, keeps looking at her over the top of the glass. "I don't have to pay rent for a lot to park my trailer on."

"Do you still owe on the trailer?"

He looks out at the pasture. "I guess you been talking to your husband after all, huh?"

"No," she says, suddenly not sure what to say; the way he said the words your husband sounded strange. "Not about what we talked about, the shooting, I mean. But . . ."

"About my asking him for a loan. I'd asked him before for help. So I asked again." He stops talking and shakes his head, and she sees more hurt than anger in his eyes and face. "I would of paid it back," he says, and now she hears, sees, only anger, and it seems to run deep, as if its real source lies buried within him.

She decides to remain quiet about what she learned from her father. She'll let Dale think what he will. "Things are a little tight," she says but doesn't tell him that Foster will soon lay off some of the people Dale works with. She feels, in her silence, a level of disloyalty toward him.

"I'm sorry," he says, though she's not sure why he's apologizing. "I'm caught up now. It's okay."

She nods, doesn't ask where the money came from but imagines his parents. Or it could have come from her father, she realizes. He wouldn't have told her that part if it had.

He finishes his sandwich and she takes the plate, carries it to the sink and cleans up. When she's finished she turns to him, sees that he's been watching her. "I'm going to go find a bathroom," she says and walks out of the kitchen.

"Down the hall," he calls from behind, and she keeps walking as though she has been here many times before and knows already where it is.

She finds it, takes her time, and checks her make-up in the mirror that Bruce must have stood before long ago and sees then a glimpse of the girl Bruce had finally known. She turns away, not satisfied with what she saw of herself, but resigned.

He'll come looking for her in a few minutes. She's farther down the hall, figures the master bedroom is at the far end. And of the two rooms across from each other, where she's now standing, one of them has to have been Dale's. She spies a large desk through the doorway to her left, metal file cabinets beyond the cluttered oak desktop. Then she walks to the doorway of the other room. A double bed, neatly made, hugs the far wall, a dresser sits next to it, two model jet planes on thin pedestals look as if they are arrested in the midst of take-off. She imagines Dale dreaming of mid-air adventures as a boy, and the teenage fantasies of local girls, including herself, that followed.

She hears his quiet footsteps on the hall carpet but continues looking into the room and out a window. A lone pickup travels the Loop, its muffler too loud. He steps inside the doorframe, so close that her body feels aware of him. He doesn't speak.

"I was curious," she says. "Do you mind?"

"Curious about what?"

She turns to him, and though she felt it already, is still surprised by his closeness to her in the narrow space. "Curious about the house, the room you grew up in," she says. "Do you ever sleep here?"

He looks at her as if puzzled by the question. "No," he says, but she isn't sure that he doesn't.

"Did you make those model planes?"

He laughs quietly. "Fighter jets," he says. "They're not exactly models. Me and Bruce used to build them from kits. They're the only two left. Mama kept those, said we couldn't tear up everything she bought us. We used to put them together, then go out and fly them, shoot each other down and crash them into walls, or the ocean." He smiles. "No telling how many are still laying on the bottom of that pond."

He's describing pleasant boyhood memories, smiling, but what she hears is something different, as if his words are altered by the time that's passed since those planes fell and crashed. "Playing war," she thinks and realizes she's said the words aloud.

His smile fades and, even though the hall and doorway are dimly lit, she sees him more clearly than she did in that circle of jaundiced light on his back porch. His eyes are narrowed in a painful reflex, and she guesses his sight has turned inward, aimed on a moment so deeply real that he could never have imagined it. Her questions leave her mind; she doesn't want his answers now but simply to place her arms around his shoulders, around the boy he was, and to offer him more than she ever gave to Bruce. She touches him, whispers I'm sorry. The fabric of his shirt smells like broom sedge that was carried on the wind, and she feels as if she's at the edge of some other, abstract, place.


When she arrives home, Foster is in the backyard cleaning quail. He will fry them for supper, fix a whole meal for the two of them. The thing she will most dislike about eating the quail is biting into the small pellets of birdshot and dropping them beside her plate.

Later, he'll reach for her in the dark and she will turn away.


The next days pass quickly with her longer working hours and the shortening of time that always comes with late fall days, robbing the afternoons of their light. One evening Foster tells her he has let go two employees, both young men who are single, uneducated, but shouldn't have a hard time finding other manual labor. Then he surprises her. "I thought about letting Russell go too," he says. "Wish I could." He tells her Russell doesn't work as hard as he used to, that he sometimes doesn't show up for work, says he's too unpredictable. Someone younger would work harder, and cheaper. "Why didn't you let him go?" she asks, ready to weigh his response. He doesn't offer any other reason than their friendship. And she feels now the friendship is bound together by an artificial means that Foster can't explain without damning himself.


The long dirt road is rutted, in worse shape than she ever remembers. The ruts shake her car until she feels the vibration within herself and slows. She crosses a set of railroad tracks and sees open fields on either side, then large sections of closely planted pines growing toward harvest, and finally thick hardwoods. Long ago, she most often traveled this road late at night.

Her phone had rung that morning, and when she saw the name on the ID screen, she wasn't sure what to think. Dale asked if she was driving over to see her father since it was a Saturday, said he'd like to see her. His voice was halting and he told her his parents were home. From his long pause afterward she knew he wanted to meet somewhere other than his trailer.

From the top of a rise she sees the muddy Tennahpush and the cement boat ramp that angles into it. One truck with an empty trailer behind sits parked in the asphalt lot. This time of year The Landing is usually deserted. Instead of parking she turns right and weaves her way through the trees on the narrow road that is asphalt now also but wasn't when she was a teenager. Foster's company did the work. She passes camping spaces and catches flashes of the river through the woods. Finally she reaches the sharp point of land formed between the Tennahpush and a large creek that empties into the river. Dale's truck sits at the farthest camp space.

He walks over to the cement picnic table and she joins him there, sits down next to him on the table top. They don't speak at first. She looks at several camp spaces on the other side of the turnaround and knows that one of them was where she told Bruce to take her. She wonders if Dale knows this.

"I didn't know if calling was the right thing or not," he says.

"It's all right. I'm glad you did."

They are both silent again. The only sound is the wind threading through the trees after passing over and catching the chill off the river. She waits for Dale, and keeps waiting.

"Doesn't look like I have much to talk about," he says.

"Dale, tell me something. Did Bruce ever tell you what happened between us?"

He looks out at the water, as if he's trying to remember. "No, he didn't. But I always knew he had a thing for you."

She isn't sure she can believe him, but she doesn't push. "Guess I've said too much then."

"It's all right. If you mean what I think you do, I'm glad he had that. I mean you. I mean . . ."

She touches his shoulder and he quietens. "I know what you're trying to say. Thank you." She sees then the tilt of his head and a certain tension in his face. "It was before I got married," she adds, anticipating him.

He nods, and then surprises her. "But were you already seeing Foster?"

The question doesn't sound mean, but she wonders. "You could say that. Yes."

He seems to study what he's heard. "You didn't want anybody to know. Didn't want Bruce talking about it."

"No, I didn't." Now she pushes. Believes it's finally time. "Do you think he did? You think he might have told somebody? Maybe . . ."

What she sees in his expression might be surprise or mock surprise. "You're afraid he told Foster. That's what you're worried about. Or you think Foster found out and . . . Lord."

They are both quiet again. She turns toward the woods and half closes her eyes, looking for some pattern of odd shapes or colors into which she can disappear for a moment.

"Do you think Foster could have shot Bruce on purpose?"

He appears genuinely puzzled. "Why do you want to think Foster did it?"

"I don't. I'm just afraid."

He remains still, looks into the woods as if they are a passage back to that time and place, then shakes his head. "I'm sorry. And don't take that to mean anything about Foster either way. You know, it wasn't just three of us there. It was six."

"Meaning what?"

"It could have been any of us, and we all swore we'd protect each other."

"Decided that none of you would talk about it, right? But Foster finally told me," she says, ventures the lie to see what it might gain her. "He broke the promise."

"I know, and seems like his being the one to tell you about it would tell you something elseā€”that maybe he ain't the one who did it. Because if he was, why would he bring it up?"

She isn't sure how to respond. The more they talk it seems the more difficult the puzzle becomes, and her lie didn't help. "You know, Dale, when I first asked you about this, I never said that it was Foster who told me. You just assumed it was." She pushes herself now. "The truth is, it wasn't him."

He looks at her as if he can't believe what she's said. "Who else could have told you? The other two who were there don't live anywhere around here. Gavin's down in Florida. Judson's in Memphis. They were the smart ones. They finally just got out."

She's about to tell him who else, but he looks away, remains silent. "You tell me," she says softly.

"I'd almost forgot." He still can't face her. "Your daddy?"

She doesn't want to embarrass him, make him ashamed. But she can't stop now. "So you're the one who broke the promise."

He shakes his head, not in denial but as if he can't believe what he did. "That was years and years ago. I had to talk to somebody. I couldn't sleep. Could hardly do my work."

"Dale," she says, "it's all right." She places her arm around his waist. "You were the youngest out there. It was your brother. You knew you could trust my father."

"So can I trust you?" he says.

She moves closer to him and slides her hand up his back and over his shoulder. "Of course," she says, her mouth close to his ear.

He's already turning toward her, and she sees such need in his eyes, so much that she feels a moment of panic for what she's done, about to do. He's closer now, his eyes closed. Then she feels his mouth against hers, the slight coarseness of his beard. She pulls away, pushes him back, not hard but with force enough. "No," she says, not sure if it's in true answer to his question or to his advance and need of her.

"Why not?" he says. "It almost happened when you came to the house."

"I know it did."

"Did you not want it to?"

She isn't sure how to answer. "I think I might have."

"And now?" he says

"It wouldn't be right, and would complicate everything."

"Then why did you come to the house? Why are you here now?"

"I just . . . Dale, I . . ."

"You just want to know what happened. That's all." He turns from her, stares out at the water. The wind picks up and she sees the side of his face harden against it, or against her. "You can't help it, can you? That's what Bruce told me. He forgave you. Said you just couldn't help yourself."

"So he did tell you," she says. "And he must have told you where, seeing as how it was your idea to come here."

He turns completely away now, shows nothing of himself to her. "Have you not changed at all?" he says finally.

She closes her eyes, shakes her head, and feels something drain out of herself, as if she's received an injury meant for her long ago but can't yet tell where on her body the wound has appeared.


Her mother is who she needs most now, and in some ways she still can't believe, even after three years, that her mother is gone from the world. At times Carrie can hear her voice, the warmth and softness of it, the two of them sitting in the kitchen in Riverfield while a roast cooks in the oven or her mother rests just before mopping the floor. Sometimes the conversations are remembered; other times imagined, as now, while she sits in her own kitchen. Do I leave him? she thinks, then hears, I didn't leave. The memory of ammonia in mop water is so real it stings her eyes and nose. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't.

And then comes the question Dale spoke and that keeps echoing in her mind. We all change, honey, her mother says from somewhere just beyond the open kitchen door, but not always in the ways we want.


Mid-week, and she's last to leave the office parking lot. After she cranks her car, headlights shine across her windows, truck headlights. She sinks inside, not ready to face him again, not expecting she would have to, not for some time at least. Then the muscles within her chest tighten, as though someone has burst into her vision from out of a nearby patch of trees. Russell is walking straight toward her.

She considers driving away. His truck doesn't have her blocked in, but she waits, rolls down her window. Maybe something's happened to Foster, but she doubts it.

He leans down quickly, places both hands on the door, his thick fingers just inside her window. "Guess you went to him 'cause you thought he'd be easier to handle than me. You shouldn't of messed with him the way you did." She looks ahead, doesn't answer. He straightens for a moment, his crotch level with the bottom of the widow. Then he leans back down, his face closer to hers this time. "You listening to me?"

She doesn't answer.

"You really got him rattled. You think that was a good idea?"

"I only wanted to talk. I knew it wasn't easy for him."

"Now we're going to have to talk, but not here where people might see."

She thinks about driving off again but decides it would only delay the inevitable. So she follows him to the highway. The Mississippi state line is twenty-five miles away, but they're not going that far. Just past the city limit sign sits on old apartment complex. Number eleven, he told her. She doesn't think she knows anyone else who lives there, though someone could recognize her. She's glad it's dark, but can still see how rundown the buildings appear. She parks and waits for him to go inside. He doesn't turn on the light above his door, and in a few minutes she enters without knocking, which makes her feel strange, as if she's stepping into the familiar.

He's sitting on a sofa with a bottle of beer in his hands. The place is neater than she expected, but the furniture is as worn as the brown carpet that always seems to cover the floor of every cheap apartment she's ever been inside. He sees her looking around. "The ex-wife got all the nice stuff," he says. "Have a seat."

She takes a chair near his end of the sofa and holds her purse tight against her hip.

"I ain't said nothing about any of this to Foster yet. Maybe you can think of that as a favor to you."

"All right, I will," she says. "So what exactly did Dale say to you?"

"That ought to be pretty clear. You just need to leave him alone. He knows he best not tell you what you want to know. And if you keep taking yourself to him, you going to make things hard for him."

"Sounds like you're threatening both of us."

He shakes his head slowly, drinks from his beer. "You don't get it. I wouldn't ever do anything to Dale myself. I wouldn't have to."

"What's that mean?"

"Never mind. I'm trying to help him. That's why I'm talking to you. Truth is, I think you're a bitch for what you did, the way you came on to him."

"I didn't," she says.

"Yeah, you did. You picked him instead of me, and we both know why."

"And why's that?" She pushes farther back into the chair and wishes she hadn't sat this close to him. He's stronger than her, and angry. The door's not locked, she remembers, and tries to tell herself there is no reason to feel fear.

"'Cause I'd have your clothes off before you knew what hit you. And you know what would happen after that."

She stares at him, not surprised by what he's said but disgusted. "Not in a million years. And listen to who's coming on to the wife of his oldest friend."

He keeps his eyes locked on hers, lifts his beer, then turns away for the quickest of moments before turning back. "You know he's fucked around on you. Just like you did to him before you got married."

His words are a punch she wasn't expecting. She absorbs it and the hurt as best she can, but is most struck at how the truth of something she was already certain of could still be so powerful. "And that's supposed to make some difference here, between us?"

"I'm just saying."

"I know what you're saying, and it tells me what kind of man you are."

"What's that? The kind who could shoot somebody out in the middle of the woods? Or is that the kind of man Foster is?"

"You tell me."

He laughs, shakes his head.

A new tactic occurs to her. "Why'd your wife leave you, Russell? She figure out the 'kind of man' you are? She know some answers about what happened in those woods? Maybe I ought to talk to her."

He doesn't speak at first but lowers his head toward his chest, as if he's having trouble breathing and needs to regain his breath and some deeper part of himself, maybe say some kind of prayer and ask for strength. "Not only does she not want to talk to me," he says and drinks from his beer again, looks around the room as though for something lost, "she don't even want to talk about me, not with anybody." He looks up at her. "So if you're trying to threaten me now, you going to have to come up with a better plan than that."

"How long have y'all been divorced?" She's not sure why she's asking, unless it's some distant sadness on her part at the thought of any marriage ending, and her own so close.

"I don't want to talk about her anymore. She don't know about this. And you just need to stay the hell away from Dale."

"I know that," she says and waits for him to respond

"Maybe so, but my guess is you're going to keep on until you hurt him or somebody else even more. Mark my words. I don't know that I can live with that."

She stands and faces him. "Seems like you've already got more hurt than you can live with. All of you. Maybe somebody ought to tell the truth."

He glares back at her. "Just remember, it ain't yours to tell."

She almost responds but instead walks to the door, out into the cold night air, and thinks how true those words might be.

Read the conclusion