This is a sample of a story from "The Stones of Riverton," a collection of linked stories published by Down East Books. The stories are inspired by cemetery markers in a small Maine town.
Wilma Stoddard French
“I’ve missed you terribly”
The well was deeper than I would have thought, deep enough that I had time within my descent to consider my future, or rather the lack of one. And it was drier. Only a small puddle in the corner—most likely the result of a recent rain. That tiny splash of mud was the third to last thing I saw. The second was the red ball, still bright with its yellow specks, rolling into the darkness of the well’s edge. Then there was the very last: my wife’s face, pale and without expression, as she regarded me from above.
I can’t say that I blame her even if she had done it intentionally, which is a reasonable assumption. I should take partial responsibility, at least. If I had done what I knew very well that I should, we would not have been in the situation that we were. If I had put an end to our miseries on the multiple occasions when I had the opportunity, we would never have made it that far. But I didn’t, and we did, and now I am where I am.
Relationships can be unpredictably volcanic. There were years of livable cohabitation, decades of peace between the eruptions. But the length of passivity only intensified the explosions. We each would pass our days during those stretches of quiet in the way that one waits for the inevitable storm. The longer the calm, the more certain we were of the downpour.
The first time Wilma tried to kill me was on an ordinary Sunday in May, thirty years before she finally succeeded. We were doing the New York Times crossword puzzle as we always did on Sunday mornings: tangled around each other on the soft couch that we had purchased shortly after our marriage the year before. She was wearing a wine-colored robe that was made of fabric so soft and fluffy it brought to mind memories of teddy bears and baby blankets. It was loosely tied at her waist, exposing the curve of one pale breast. Each time she reached across to consider a word, it slipped out and rested on my shoulder as she counted the spaces. I was in my usual Sunday attire: boxer shorts and a tee shirt. We rarely dressed on Sundays unless company was expected, which we did not encourage. Our Sundays were special and full of intense love making followed by long, replenishing naps.
The eruption was ignited by a word. Two words, actually. Languor and malaise. The horizontal word was frantic, and the clue for the intersecting word was despondency.
Wilma leaned over me, allowing her breast to do as it was accustomed, and began to pencil her word without discussion. We’d generally say the word aloud, testing it for approval before assuming its legitimacy. But this time she was so sure of herself that she ignored our process. She got to the third letter when I pushed at her pencil.
“What are you doing?” I said, ignoring the nipple that gazed up as if to challenge.
“It’s obviously malaise,” she said. “It fits and it makes perfect sense.” She tried to continue her entry, but I pulled the paper aside.
“Not necessarily. It could be…languor, possibly? Yes, that makes much more sense to me. We should work on 34-down before we decide.”
“Don’t be so gutless. Crossword puzzles are about certainty and risk.”
“What are you talking about? Risk of what?” Since she was oblivious to her exposure, I closed her robe for her.
“The risk of being wrong, a condition with which you should be quite familiar.” With a defiant gesture, she tore open the top of her robe, airing both of her neatly composed breasts. Now there were two pink nipples judging me.
“My dear,” I said with as much condescension as I could muster under the gaze of those perfect orbs, “If risk were an asset in crossword puzzles, I surely would be a master. I’ve risked quite a lot; don’t you think?”
The insinuation was clear. When I had ignored my parents’ disapproval and had gone ahead with the marriage, I had lost a lot of financial backing. Wilma was not of what my mother referred to as “the right stock.” They didn’t disown me exactly, only secured the purse strings.
“The risk has been all mine, my dear.” She reached for the pencil sharpener and slowly turned it over the lead. “The only risk that you have suffered has been that I might get bored with your lack of it.”
And there she had a point. Wilma’s adventurous and sometimes devil-may-care lifestyle was what had attracted this riskless moth to her fire.
“Are you bored?” I asked.
“Not at the moment.”
“Well, I am,” I said, attempting for the upper hand. “Your flagrancy is boring me to death. Cover yourself for god’s sake.” I will admit that I pulled the sides of her robe together a bit too violently.
There is smoke before flame, and smoke is what I saw the second before Wilma thrust her pencil into me. I drove to the nearest hospital with three inches of Yellow No. 2 jutting from my chest.
The sex that night was careful but satisfying.
You may think that an incident such as a stabbing would be a stepping stone to divorce or at least separation. Not for Wilma and me. We rise from our ashes, nearly as good as new. At least until the next eruption. And that one, I must admit, was all my doing.
It was a celebration of our third anniversary. Per tradition, we spent it at our cottage on Pinnacle Pond in Riverton. It was where Wilma had lived out her impoverished youth, and her parents had willed her the dilapidated cottage and several acres. Once we had made it livable, it became the getaway where all of our most important occasions were enjoyed, or at least happened. This particular occasion held less enjoyment than happenstance.
Our anniversary was in late June, and during our drive up from Manhattan, the natural evidence of the season changed from sweltering summer to spring. The private road to the cottage was inspiring in multiples: lush greenery, the purple and pink lupine that lined the drive, and the hydrangea bushes that banked the entrance to our summer home. It was a joy to be there, at least initially.
The conflict rose too quickly to avoid. I had unloaded the car and set everything in the appropriate rooms: liquor in the bar, food in the kitchen, clothes in our bedroom, sex toys in the special room in the basement. It was the latter accoutrement that started this eruption. I had no idea how much my toys meant to me until they were not there. If I had packed myself, or if I had set Wilma’s needs aside to be sure that mine had made it to our summer destination, what happened later could have been avoided. Yes, it is all my fault. But still, my wife of several years should have known. What else is a bond such as marriage if not a mutual understanding of our specific needs?
We had dinner. I cooked. It was a recipe I had learned from a chef in the city: angel hair pasta with shrimp, tomatoes, basil, red bell peppers, fiddlehead ferns (which we had purchased in the town’s center), and a plethora of garlic. It was delicious, and we ate it with a bottle of luscious Chianti. After small glasses of Fernet and a reasonable digestive period, we went to the basement.
“Where is my toy?” I said, as I rummaged through the massive bag of objects that held promises of dubious pleasures, at least for me.
“What toy?” She fumbled with a mechanism that seemed to have lost its power. “I packed it all.”
I scanned the floor that was now littered with everything from small-and-supple to ridiculously rigid. “It’s not here!” I screamed. “My special toy is not here!”
“Yay,” she said. “It was just a button problem. Now, what’s wrong?”
“Where is my fucking toy?” My volume was louder than it should have been. For that I also take responsibility. But it was my favorite toy, and it was Wilma who was responsible for the packing. She surely shares the blame for what happened next.
“We have plenty of toys,” she said. She sighed and gestured to the array of objects strewn across the shag rug. There was so much dismissiveness in her tone that I could not control my rage.
“YOU have plenty!” I couldn’t believe how little she cared for my needs. Our years of marriage flashed before me, a sequence of giving and taking with me on the worst end of it all. I scanned the floor again, taking in all of Wilma’s pleasures, all of those objects that had satisfied her in ways that I could never. My eyes landed on one. It was my nemesis. I hoisted it, feeling the familiar heft in my palm, and aimed it at her. The weight couldn’t have been more than a pound, but its flexibility surely made it stronger.
She countered with a riding crop we had only used once. We had both agreed that it was more painful than we’d been in the market for. But there she was, brandishing the thing like an epee complete with lunging stance. So I returned her challenge with my vein-riddled, ten-inch weapon. We circled each other, lunging and connecting, often with satisfactory results. We battled like that for nearly an hour until the blood and the bruising became too painful.
There was no sex that night, with or without embellishment. We agreed to return to New York the next day after we were released from the hospital.