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Arthur - short story

Darla Jones leans over the sink, washing the dinner dishes. She's still wearing the black skirt she wore to work. 

Darla's husband, Bill, whom she despises because of his belly and stanky breath, sits at the kitchen table watching her, just sitting there, saying nothing. He’s been doing this lately, ogling.

Bill sells vacuum cleaners door to door. Otherwise, he works on his car. His fingers are perpetually grimed with grease; his clothes smell of motor oil. It bothers Bill that he's not attractive to his wife, to anyone, but he's not doing anything about it. Doesn’t much care anymore. When Bill was a kid, he’d wanted to be a wrestler. He’d gone out for the team. Got cut the first day. “Too fat,” the coach told him. “This isn’t Sumo wrestling.”

       Bill has all but given up going door to door. He goes out after breakfast as if going to work, but detours to the city park and sits in his car, watches a certain mother and child who are always there at that hour. He doesn't care much about the child, but the mother wears spandex lycra, has runner's legs. He considers masturbating there in the car, but hasn't yet. When he's certain Darla has left for work, Bill returns home, where he broods, watches wrestling and drinks beer. He fantasizes about the spandex mother.

What bothers Bill most, is Darla, the clothes she's started wearing to work, her recent fitness craze. She's lost twenty pounds. He suspects she's fooling around, that she'll leave him for someone better, someone lean, handsome, and with better prospects. 

Slimed down, Darla’s become a looker, and her sexy, slender attractiveness pisses Bill off. He's anxious about her all the time--where she is, what she's up to, why she wears short skirts, dresses so sexy. There's no children holding her in the marriage. Bill wanted children. It hurts Bill when, going door to door, he sees a father return from work to the waiting open arms of his kid.

                                                                                                  *  *  *

Men flirt with Darla. She likes it. She’s joined a gym. She think herself sexy. Uses Bill's word in her head--a 'looker'.

In the file room one day, she overhears Freddie Martin say he likes the way 'her ass sits in her skirt'. Kyle Porter, the other guy in there, says, “Hell yeah, Darla’s a fox, has legs past the countertop.” Darla's not quite sure what he means, but takes it as a compliment.

Darla doesn't have money for fake breasts. But although she's smallish, her nipples protrude like the top third of your little finger, get hard like the eraser on a number two pencil when she's aroused. So Darla wears tight blouses, thin bras. She finds some excuse to walk through the cubicles, saunter around as if to borrow something from one of her coworkers, getting murmurs from men, glares from women. The more the men stare, the slower Darla walks, the more she shows, the more she feels heat in her nipples.

She renews her membership at the gym. Does some tanning. Such things happen when a woman, like Darla, lives with a man like Bill, a vacuum cleaner salesman with dirty fingers and no prospects. Her skirts get shorter, her hair better tended, her blouses open at the collar. One less button buttoned.

Bill's become quiet around his wife. He ogles her from the time she gets home until, properly drunk, he goes to the garage and works on his car. Sometimes, he just sits behind the wheel sipping bourbon and listening Jack Buck on the St. Louis Cardinal's broadcast. He'll get a paper towel and sit in the car with his computer for hours. Darla's opened the garage door a couple of times, looks disgusted, but never says anything.

Neither Darla nor Bill would ever use the word ogled. Bill and Darla aren’t avid readers, don't have big vocabularies. More the television types. Magazines on the toilet are about it, Vogue or Popular Mechanics. Lately, Guns and Ammo and Penthouse Forum.

Darla senses when Bill stares, even when he isn’t. It’s disquieting. These days, Darla rarely looks at Bill. They don’t talk. They have sex about once a month. Their bedroom antics--the slapping she demands when almost there; other requests that seem urgent in the moment, but which later repulse her.

Bill's become mean. When he drinks, he gets meaner. When Darla doesn't come right home after work, his hand shakes as he sips his drink. He switches from beer to bourbon. In the garage he throws wrenches, picks them up, throws them again. Darla claims she's been to the gym. He's doubtful, despite her sweaty appearance.

It’s a Saturday, supper time, and Bill is tight even before they sit. Potted roast with carrots and potatoes and brown gravy. The way Bill eats disgusts Darla, his head bent forward, his face almost in his food, working his fork like a scoop.

When Bill finishes gorging he gets up, fixes another bourbon and coke, sits back at the table, and begins his vigil, his watch.

Vigil would not be Darla’ s word for this, any more than ogle or disquieting would be. She’d say Bill got weird and that this upset her.

“Quit staring at me, Bill. Go off somewhere. Watch the news or something. Read the paper. Quit farting. You make me nervous when you stare like that.”

“I like them skirts you keep wearing to work. You look good with no hose. How’d your legs get so tan?”

“It’s the style these days.”

After a minute, Bill says, “I want some.”

“Not now. It’s not even dark yet.”

“I ain’t had any, and I want some. Right now. I want some.”

Bill gets up and comes around the table and nuzzles Darla from behind, grabs her tit and jams his greasy hand up her skirt.

At times, in secret, Darla will take off her panties, at work, even at the grocery store, sometimes in church. She gets these electric pulses in her loins when she's naked in her skirt. 

During a morning break at work, she enters a bathroom stall and slips out of her panties, puts them in her purse, and walks around the rest of the day without them. Being airy like that excites Darla as she walks around or sits at her desk with her legs crossed. Sitting this way takes her mind off work. She gets aroused. Darla wouldn’t say aroused; she’d say, going without underwear makes her horny. At five o'clock, she drives home with one hand on the steering wheel. She puts her panties on in the garage.

Darla isn't that kind of girl. She's been raised better. Then again, she married Bill, a lazy loser who fondles car parts and dreams of becoming a wrestler.

Now, Bill has his hands all up in there, prying at her with his his fingers like some grease monkey after a carburetor.

                                                                                                  *  *  *

That’s it, I decide. I’ve had enough of Bill’s shit. I call a halt to these proceedings. Instead of Bill, it’s me at the table. I’m Arthur. I freeze the action.

Suddenly, a big wind blows in from the open front door and Bill vanishes in a whoosh. Now, I’m in charge. Everything moving again.

“Well, who are you?” says Darla, looking startled.

Her hair is down, flanking along her shoulders. She flicks it with her hand now and then as she looks me over, pushes a cabinet drawer closed with her hip. A blue dish towel draped over one shoulder, she grins, and fiddles with a button.

There's things that Darla doesn’t know, things she should know, but only I know. 

For instance, the panties she's wearing are pink, reminiscent of doilies. Darla thinks they're powder blue, and they were last time she checked. But I've changed all that. I'm Arthur. 

Let’s work on this further. Maybe her blouse is completely unbuttoned and her bra shows. No... let’s say that she isn’t wearing a bra.

“Where’s Bill? Did you see Bill?” she asks me.

“Bill is gone,” I say. “I got rid of Bill. You’ll never see Bill again. Ever.”

“What? What are you saying? Who are you anyway?”

“Call me Arthur.”

“I’ve never heard of you or seen you in my life. How’d you get in here?”

She looks around, hurries past the kitchen table toward the open front door. She twirls the dish towel. She sticks her head out the door, looks around and shrugs, closes the door with a shove from her hip and spins toward me. Her skirt shifts with these motions, and exposes enough leg to stop a funeral.

“As far as you're concerned, I can come and go as I please, Darla. But that's none of your concern."

“What’s your last name, Arthur?”

“I don’t have a last name. Not in here, anyway.”

“Why don’t you tell me your last name, Darla? Tell me that,” I say, playing head games.

She gets this blank look, shakes her head. “I guess... it’s... I forgot. You’ve got me so flustered, I don’t even know my last name.”

“Perhaps you don't have one, Darla. Forget about it. You're quite the character. Do you want anything new for your house? I’m feeling generous.”

“Sure, Arthur,” she says, smirking, rolling her eyes, “what I need is a new car. How about a Buick Electra, Arthur?”

"How about a brand new Mercedes convertible?"

"Yea, right," says Darla.

"Darla, if you want the Mercedes, you’re going to have to be friendly, if you know what I mean." I leer at her and lick my lips, raise my eyebrows, nod toward her chest.

“Stand up, Arthur, and let me get a look at you, then,” she says. “Hey, how'd my blouse get unbuttoned? Where's my bra? What in hell's going on here, Arthur?”

I've decided to shed a few pounds myself, add a few inches here and there, subtract a couple of decades, just for Darla. I stand up and walk around the table, parade around a little: thirty years old, six foot tall, white teeth, thick black hair, and not an ounce of fat. Kinda the way I used to look, only taller.

“Wow,” says Darla. Her lips are parted and the tip of her tongue protrudes. Though she'd say, 'it's sticking out'. “I'll never see Bill again? You sure?”

 "Remember, Bill is gone. You can write him off for now. But I could bring him back with little more than a keystroke." I make typing motions with my fingers--midair.

A shiny black Mercedes sits in her driveway, a two-door convertible. I decide to wait before telling Darla to look out the window. See how things develop. I can always take it back, or make it a beat up Ford.

“Take your blouse off for me, Darla.”

“What, why should I do that?”

“Because I’m Arthur. If you don’t, I’ll bring Bill back.” I make the typing gestures again.

From somewhere in the background, I hear disembodied voices. Male voices yelling lurid suggestions.

“Come on Arthur,” says a gruff voice, “take her blouse off for us. Let's see her tits. Make her nipples hard. You said her nipples jutted. We didn’t get to see that part. You just told us about it. You need to work on that. Remember, show, don’t tell.”

Another voice chimes in, older and sounding familiar. “Fucking forget about the god damn blouse Arthur; fuck her, spread her wide on that table so we can see. She wants it. Ask her."

Men, left alone, become crude. I must ignore these voices. I'm not quite ready for a critique.

“So, Darla,” I say, “why aren’t you wearing a bra? Hmmm?”

“ I... I don’t know really. I think I put one on this morning. Maybe I forgot, or took it off at work.”

All my life I’ve been curious how women think about sex. Men, as far as I'm concerned, think about sex constantly. Our thoughts often turn to lascivious, lurid, rampant sex. Uncalled for kinds of things. I doubt women think this way. Let's find out.

I stop a moment for the voices, wondering what they might have to say about this.

“Right on Arthur,” one of them says, “Find out how women think. None of us has a clue.”

Another one says, “Have Darla grab your package.”

When I look back at Darla to see if she hears these voices. She’s holding her shirt open a little, rubbing herself. “Darla,” I say, “keep your shirt on. I want to ask you something first. Do you hear voices?"

"Like a crazy person?"

"No. Just now. Did you hear voices? Loud male voices in the background?"

"Of course not. We're alone. Is it Bill."

"Forget it. Just my imagination. Let me ask you. How often do you think about sex? And what is it exactly, that you think about?

She’s got her blouse pulled clear open now, her nipples pronged like toggle switches. She licks her fingers, then fondles her left tit.

The male voices cheer. Some want popcorn. A few need napkins.

“Well,” says Darla, staring at her hand on her breast as if she's not in control. “I do think about sex, although not like Bill does. Bill's an animal. But when I think about sex, I want to be held and cuddled and treated with compliments and candlelight. I like to take my time, you know, flirt, fondle. Let the heat build a little. Get the oil. Sometimes I get a little crazy when I think about it."

"You mean, like taking your panties off in church?"

"How'd you know that?"

I don't say anything, make typing motions.

She smiles wickedly and lifts the hem of her skirt with her middle finger. She has this cute mole about a foot above her knee. Picture that, the muscle there.

“I think you're getting turned on, aren’t you, Darla?”

“Well, now that you mention it. You got any oil? What are you, some kind of hypnotist or something? Next thing I know you’re going to be putting words in my mouth.”

She runs her hand through her hair, shakes her head as if she’s under some spell, her hair falling over one side of her face. Then she rips off her blouse and gives it a toss. It lands on the coffee maker. “Come here, Arthur,” she says, “and do me up good, right here up against the sink. Do me till my legs wobble. Hurt me, Arthur. Degrade me. Treat me like an animal.”

“Wait,” I say. “What about those other things you mentioned, the candles, the cuddles, the oil?”

“Don’t need ‘em. Don’t want ‘em. Don’t care. I want jackhammered.”

Cheers from the crowd. One says, “Not up against the sink, damn it. We won’t be able to see.”

Then a female voice intrudes, loudly. “Bill,” screams the voice, “get your fat ass out of that chair and mow the god damned lawn like I told you an hour ago. I am tired of doing all the work. Are you looking at porn again, Bill?” 

My wife grabs my computer. This is precisely what makes me so lonely, this attitude of hers. I think it’s why my hand shakes, why I’m fat.

The crowd disperses. Someone throws a wrench. The Mercedes still sits in the drive. Darla, in freeze frame, her mouth caught in a smile, waits beside the sink. Her panties are on the floor, her arm outstretched toward me like a lifeline.

                                                                                           * * *

As I mow the lawn, I watch Ethel as she waters her pitiful flowers with the garden hose. The fat of her arms flutters and flaps as she hoses, her ass wider than the seat of that riding lawn mower at Home Depot I wanted to buy. 

        I watch our neighbor, Dana, slide into her car with a bible in her hand, her short skirt showing far too much leg for church. As I push the mower over the yard, lost in my visions, an urge of anticipation runs through me.

I can change things, anything, can go anywhere, any time I choose. It’s only a matter of choice, of imagination. My escape.

Just letters on a keyboard.

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