In my role as an associate editor for the highly respected Allegory E-zine, I’ve read hundreds of short fiction submissions over the years, and used to write quite a few short stories myself until creating full-length fiction became my top priority. In any case, here’s one of my earlier stories from my eBook entitled, A Collection of Givers and Takers. It’s about Barney Davis, a disgruntled husband, who plots the perfect escape from his needy wife LaRue. Read on to find out who will prove the stronger in this test of perseverance.
Givers and Takers
Barney Davis pressed his fork into the soft fold of yellow and released a delectable ooze of melted cheese onto his plate. No short order cook within twenty miles could make an omelet better than LaRue, not that he’d ever paid her such a bullshit compliment. She was hovering over him, steadying her shaky hand to fill his favorite coffee mug, the one imprinted with Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
He lifted the omelet’s edge, checked underneath, and spoke without looking up. “The butter got a tad brown.”
“And the bacon?”
“It could’ve been a little crisper. Did you change brands?”
LaRue didn’t answer, not that he expected otherwise. She’d already moved on to her personal apothecary of assorted prescriptions and over-the-counters, tossing back each pill with a gulp of water. After regrouping the bottles for her noontime intake, she sat down to dissect a slice of dry wheat toast into four diagonals, three of which were destined for the garbage disposal. When she expelled her customary not-one-more-bite sigh, Barney speared the remaining triangles, applied some jelly, and popped them in his mouth.
“Whew, I’d better get this filthy mess cleaned up,” LaRue said, easing her stooped frame out of the chair. After covering her wispy hair with a shower cap and slipping surgical gloves over her hands, she pulled out a wire basket of supplies from the cabinet.
Barney buried his face in the morning paper so he wouldn’t have to watch the methodical show she performed Monday through Friday. By the time he’d finished perusing the Post-Dispatch, including classifieds, stock reports, and international weather forecasts, she was still sanitizing countertops and applying a high sheen to every inch of stainless steel. “For god’s sake, LaRue give it a rest,” he finally said. “If those appliances shine any brighter, we won’t need to turn on the lights this evening.”
She stopped to smooth out wrinkles from her velour outfit and pick at lint too small for any eyes except her own. “A tidy house reflects a tidy mind,” she said. “Leastways that’s what Mama always told me, and Mama never lied. I miss her every day of my life, don’t you?”
No more than a nagging case of shingles. “Your mama was a piece of work,” he said, pushing back his chair.
“Don’t even think about leaving, mister. You know how I depend on you.”
“Yeah, yeah, give me ten minutes. First I gotta see what’s happening around the world.”
“Now, Barney. I don’t have all day. For a change would it hurt you to put my needs before yours? It’s not like I ask for much, considering all the sacrifices I’ve made for you during our forty-three years of marriage. And before that the devastating courtship that nearly cost me my life.”
Blah, bla-h, bla-a-h, bla-a-a-h, bl-a-a-a-h. Her squeaky voice sawed into his raw nerves until he gave in and followed her into the bedroom. She handed him a package of bed linens, 400-thread imports according to the wrapper.
“Another pricey set?” he said, pulling off the plastic cover. “How many sheets do two people with a top-of-the-line laundry setup need?”
“So maybe I care about appearances. And what the neighbors might think. You just never know when …”
“Stop it, LaRue.”
“I’m the realist. You’re the dreamer. That’s why we make a good team, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, LaRue. Without you, life wouldn’t be the same. Now let’s get this bitch made.”
They worked in tandem, squaring the top sheet corners over the bottom sheet with the hospital precision LaRue had learned during her years as a nurse’s aide. After they fussed over centering the quilted spread just so, she fluffed a half dozen pillows and he bent over to collect a bevy of stuffed animals lounging in the corner. “Don’t bother the pets,” she said. “I’ll take care of them later.
“I say let’s drown the whole bunch.”
Barney braced himself for LaRue’s defense of her prized menagerie. Instead, her brow had wrinkled into furrows as she held up a trembling hand, particles of minute dust clinging to the forefinger that inspected her nightstand. “Tsk, tsk.” She shook her head and spoke with tired resignation. “Looks like I’ve got another busy morning ahead of me. Did I tell you Charlene’s coming over?”
“Again, so what else is new? That busybody’s a one-woman show desperate for an adoring audience. And I ain’t about to oblige her.
“Don’t bother on my account. You need anything while I’m out?”
“No, but you need a haircut.”
“For crying out loud, LaRue, it’s only been two weeks.”
“And don’t forget to pick up your suit.”
“My suit’s at the cleaners again?”
“I asked Charlene to drop it off. You know how I feel about proper attire showing respect for the deceased.”
Barney didn’t stick around to prolong an argument he couldn’t win. He drove to Al’s Clips and negotiated a reduced rate for a trim that could’ve waited another two weeks. Afterwards, he circled through the park and stopped at the lagoon to feed the ducks stale bread. He settled back on a bench and warmed his face to the autumn sun, but when an old hen kept pecking at his shoes, demanding more than Barney cared to give, he pelted the bird with a handful of rocks. “Dammit, I didn’t come here for your amusement,” he yelled as the duck waddled off. Barney got back into the car and peeled onto the paved road, leaving a trail of scattered gravel.
At Wal-Mart he greeted the clerks, checked out the sales bins, and directed a first-timer to Housewares. He knew the store better than most employees and took pride in sharing his knowledge. More than once the manager had suggested part time employment but forty years on the assembly line had earned Barney the right to refuse. In sporting goods he ran into his cousin George.
“You hungry?” George asked, tapping his watch.
“Only if you’re buying.”
Porky’s Sty claimed to produce the best barbeque east of Kansas City and north of Memphis, a boast Barney and George considered exaggerated but never bothered challenging. They grabbed the last empty table, ordered Porky’s special, and exchanged barbs with the regulars until Zoe brought their food. Barney couldn’t help but notice how the recent divorcee leaned into George’s shoulder when she positioned two racks of ribs on the table. George kept right on talking and never gave her a second glance.
“Can I get you anything else?” Zoe asked, her lips brushing against his ear.
“Maybe later,” George replied with a wink.
As soon as she sashayed away, the cousins loosened their belts and converted thick paper towels into practical bibs. Like mirrored images they hunched over the table, their elbows angled at forty-five degrees. Not one word passed between them as they gnawed and chewed and sucked meat from the bones, pausing only to lick sauce from their fingers.
George burped first. He leaned back to extract bits of pork from his teeth before throwing Barney a tempting bone. “Deer season starts next weekend.”
“Tell me something I don’t already know. You gonna eat that last rib.”
“It’s yours.” George shoved his platter across the table. “Me and Sonny rented a cabin in the boonies. We got room for one more ugly cuss. Just say the word.”
“You know I would if I could.”
“So, how is LaRue?”
“About the same. Living each day as if it’s her last.”
George shook his head. “Back in high school I had this huge crush on LaRue, but homecoming queens don’t date benchwarmers.”
“Right, they get screwed by star quarterbacks.”
“It’s a pity you two never had another kid.”
“I got no complaints. Doc said if LaRue didn’t have me to baby, she would’ve bought the farm long ago.”
“Just what is her problem?”
“Problems. And once she sinks her teeth into a perceived symptom, she ain’t about to turn loose. Her current afflictions range from colitis to arthritis, hypertension, acid reflux, and psoriasis. But mostly she thrives on hysteria brought on by a bad heart. Her bad heart’s the only ailment I’m for sure is real.”
“Bad as in unhealthy or unkind?”
Barney answered with a shrug.
“So maybe deep down LaRue’s looking for an exit,” George said. “A painless way to end her miserable existence.”
“So maybe you oughta hang out your shingle and get paid for dispensing baloney.”
“Hey, don’t get your bowels in an uproar. I’m on your side. Just remember: nothing in life stays the same. Eventually, the givers become takers.”
The discussion ended with Zoe refilling their glasses and rubbing against George again. When she left, Barney followed her with his eyes. “Zoe’s got a nice swing on her back porch,” he told George.
“Yeah, she keeps inviting me to sit on it.”
“Damn. What she sees in you, I don’t know.”
“Me either, but for now she’ll just have to wait her turn.”
“I ain’t shitting you, Barney. Ever since the wife passed, I’ve had my pick of widows and divorcees. Women I hadn’t seen in years showed up at Dorothy’s wake and funeral. Those I don’t recall ever meeting before—and, trust me, I never forget a pretty face—counted themselves among her best friends. Not a week goes by that I don’t get bombarded with casseroles and sweet potato pie or invitations for home cooked meals—fried chicken, pot roast, meatloaf.”
“And these lonesome doves, what do they get in return?”
“My best, Barney. And they keep coming back for more. Some want the whole shebang. Some just want to cuddle or take in a movie.”
“Don’t it get a little tiresome? You know, that constant demand for your attention.”
“What more could any man want: I pace myself; I answer to nobody but yours truly; and next week I’m going deer hunting.”
They parted on a handshake and Barney’s empty promise to reconsider the hunting trip. He stopped back at the park to feed the ducks his leftover cornbread from lunch. The pesky hen he’d run off earlier lay sprawled out at the water’s edge. She looked at him with glazed eyes; her heart pounded through a matting of stained feathers. He picked up the defenseless creature, petted her until she calmed down, and then he crushed her neck. “Rest in peace, you pathetic little pest.”
After stopping by the drycleaners, Barney cruised around town until he got bored and went home. No cars in the driveway meant he wouldn’t have to deal with Charlene, LaRue’s designated replacement, as if he had no say-so in the matter. He pulled into the garage and walked around to the front entrance—LaRue preferred he use the back. As soon as he stepped inside, the familiar odors of lemon oil and ammonia invaded his nostrils. Every surface capable of shining obeyed: furniture, floors, windows—even the houseplants. Fresh vacuum tracks crisscrossed the plush carpet. “LaRue!” he called out. “How many times I gotta tell you: too much vacuuming wears out the rug.”
She didn’t answer so Barney tiptoed down the hall to their bedroom. He found LaRue stretched out on the quilt, surrounded by the pets, and positioned in her if-I-should-die-before-I-wake mode: eyes closed, arms folded across her chest, and face made up like a movie star’s. Between the pink satin pajamas with matching mules and the Marilyn Monroe wig, LaRue could’ve passed for thirty-six, same age as Monroe when she gave her final performance.
His wife’s shallow breathing reminded Barney of the injured hen at the park. LaRue needed help too, and he’d neglected her far too long. He watched her fluttering heart for a few minutes before determining the most effective remedy. From the pile of pillows he selected a king-size. He held it above her face, waiting for some sign to continue. LaRue’s eyes flew open but she hadn’t come out of her stupor yet. Time was precious. He pressed the pillow down, closing it over her head as he started counting. “One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven.” She stirred. He pressed down harder. “Nine-six, ninety-five, ninety …”
When he got to eighty, a shrill vibration erupted from the living room. “Yoo-hoo, La-a-Rue!”
Barney jerked back. He broke into a sweat as he returned the pillow to its rightful place.
“Sorry I didn’t get back any sooner,” Charlene was yelling. “I stopped by to visit with George and one thing led to another. LaRue, are you okay? Answer me, honey!”
“Rest in peace,” Barney whispered. He’d jumpstarted LaRue’s entry into the next world; now she was on her own to complete the journey. He backed out of the room, closing the door as he crossed the threshold.
At the end of the hallway stood Charlene, wearing too-tight jeans and a puzzled look. “Is everything okay, Barney?”
Barney shushed the busybody with a finger to his lips as he hurried toward her. He didn’t even see the throw rug that sent him into a skid over the newly polished floor. His feet shot forward and his head flew back. His body elevated a good twenty inches before he crashed with a thud. Drifting from Technicolor to hues of sepia, he braced himself for overwhelming pain that failed to deliver. Instead he found the blessed relief of floating on gentle waves—alone, since LaRue feared any body of water bigger than a bathtub.
Barney had no idea how long he’d been drifting at sea. He cranked his eyes half way and saw a blur of white on white. Looking over the blanketed outline of his toes, he could make out a picture hanging on the wall, a boat sailing on blue water. He figured he was in a hospital, without LaRue. He must’ve set her free. Himself too. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But as soon as Doc released him, Barney would make sure his wife got a proper send-off, the kind she’d been anticipating for years.
He’ll wear the proper attire—for sure, his dry-cleaned suit—and after the funeral friends and neighbors will drop by the house. They’ll comment on LaRue’s fine housekeeping and encourage him to get on with his life. He’ll nod and make a show of fighting back tears. With any luck Barney figured he could still make the opening of deer season.
He tried to sit up. He tried lifting up on his elbows, turning to his side. He tried willing his hand to ring the bedside buzzer. Nothing worked. Not his arms. Not his legs. Not even his head. He stretched his mouth into a thunderous yell. And croaked out a garbled “La-a-R-u-e.”
“Oh, my God!” she squealed like a schoolgirl. “Charlene! Did you hear what I just heard? Barney finally woke up. And the only word he spoke was ‘LaRue’. See, I told you so: he really does need me.”
LaRue was hovering over him; her face zoomed in on his. She flashed a smile he hadn’t seen in years. He saw his hand wrapped in hers, but he couldn’t feel her dry, scaly palms.
“Oh, Barney, I’m so-o sorry. Doc said spinal cords can be a bit tricky so it’s hard telling when you’ll walk again, if ever. But don’t you worry about a thing ’cause we’re still a team. And I’m here to take care of you, for as long as it takes. But just in case God should call me home before you, Charlene has promised to take my place, just like I always said she would. Right, Charlene?”