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Clinton came from good quarreling stock. William and Macie Slade’s bickering, arguments, and barbed debates were the stuff of local legend. After one infamous fight in which his mother had thrown a whole roasted chicken at his father’s head, Clinton had asked his father why he didn’t just leave and marry someone he could get along with. William had backhanded his thirteen-year-old son so hard that Clinton’s jaw momentarily disengaged, and blood spurted from his lip—the only time his father had ever hit him.
“I took a vow before God!” his father growled, voice full of venom. “’Til death do us part.” William shrugged off his anger like a wet coat, swiped the blood from Clinton’s chin with a flick of his finger and winked. “Besides, why would I leave the devil’s daughter, only to marry his sister, instead? All women are wicked, son, but it’s a blessing to marry one, and a duty to stay with her.”
Clinton sucked his bleeding lip, wondering if marriage was God’s blessing or His curse. He was too smart to ask.
That night, Clinton counted out the months between his parents’ anniversary and his birthday, discovered they must have conceived him in a fit of passion. He was William and Macie’s only child. Their love child.
A smile now tugged Clinton’s lips at the twisted memory.
“Stop smiling, Clinton. It’s not funny,” his wife Paula said from across the kitchen table. “I can’t stand their constant warring. We should drive into town and get a room. I can’t put up with it all weekend. I told you this would happen.” She huffed. “We should have made a reservation before we left home, like I said.”
Clinton glanced at his mother, then closed his eyes. Didn’t Paula realize she sounded just like them? Is that why he’d married her, the familiarity of conflict?
Macie yanked the dish towel from her shoulder and threw it onto the Formica tabletop, where it knocked over Clinton’s nearly empty coffee cup, spilling the dregs in an ugly brown stream across the table. “William, turn down that blasted television! I can’t hear myself talk.”
The Ben-Gay commercial spouting from the living room quieted a decibel. “That ain’t stopped you yet,” William yelled.
Macie slid the Bundt pan onto the wire rack, slammed shut the oven door hard enough to vibrate the table. “Shut your trap, old man!”
Paula’s over-plucked brows formed severe angles as she leaned again toward Clinton. “You know they’re miserable. Do you think they’d get a divorce if we paid for it? Maybe they just can’t afford it.”
“For God’s sake, Paula.” Clinton yanked the damp towel from the table, carried it to the kitchen sink, rinsed it and draped it over the lip of the sink. His parents’ relentless bickering was the one thing he could count on. He had no idea why or when they’d started arguing, but it had gone on for as long as he’d been alive. Sometimes he’d caught them grinning at one another during a heated fight, as if they enjoyed it. Nearly fifty years of marriage, and their relationship never changed. He’d be damned if he’d be the one to change it.
Paula’s answer to everything was to walk away. She’d walked away from her ex-husband the night of their first anniversary, from her final semester at college two months before graduation, and from three jobs since Clinton had married her. His marriage was a waiting game—him waiting for Paula to leave him. Maybe he was tired of waiting. Maybe he’d leave, first.
“I don’t do drama, and I don’t do fighting,” she told him on their wedding day. Said nothing in life was worth fighting for, anyway.
Now he stared out the window at the leafless oak, picking out the last few rotting boards that had once been his tree house, his refuge from the brawling. He didn’t know how much longer Paula would stay with him before leaving, but he knew he’d never ask her to stay. Maybe he couldn’t live happily ever after with his wife, but he didn’t want what his parents had, either. It was only after he and his wife moved away from Hillsville for one of Paula’s new jobs that Clinton realized he’d made a life of doing things he didn’t want to do. Holding on to Paula wouldn’t be one of them.
About The Book
Winner of the 2019 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, the characters in these emotionally charged stories deal with loneliness, loss, greed, and guilt. They, like all of us, wrestle with the people, places, and memories they cling to, belong to, and run from, learning (sometimes too late), that these experiences remain with them forever. The nine stories in The Lightness of Water and Other Stories are bound by a strong sense of place—Appalachia and the South—and prove that no matter where we go, there’s no place far enough to leave home behind.
Article originally Published in the February/March 2020 Issue “Short Stories”