Arc Digital
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Arc Digital

Population: 4

Arc Digital presents short fiction

Credit: Cam Barker (Getty)

William Angus Reid, read his name in full on the divorce certificate.

Mutual Consent: tidy, if fallacious.

“Why are you doing this?” Bill demanded. He was hunched over the burners, scouring madly. I wanted very much to shrug and say something like, “eh,” then go about my day. But a quarter century of marriage seemed to call for an explanation. Oh, but the kitchen was alarmingly clean! The children are safe at school, I remember thinking. The children are off the premises. If he kills me — right here, right now — he will also be sure to tidy up the mess before they get home; after all, kitchen duty had always been his territory. “Well?” he continued. “What the fuck, Louise?” The coffee-maker cleared its burnt throat.

A beautiful trail winds through the woods behind our house where I used to take my jogs. How many years had I traversed that path, with its pop-eyed hydrangea, patchwork fern blankets, and knobby root systems I’d learned, over time, to step across? Then one day, for a reason that could not quite be particularized, I tired of the old way and tried a new route out the front door instead of the back. This new course led me to the shoddier parts of our neighborhood where I kept tripping over the buckled sidewalks littered with broken glass. The drivers were crazy, I came back with cuts, I felt the eyes inside jacked pick-ups linger on me. Who knows what could happen? I thought. One of those trucks might roll up beside me, the driver point a gun and order me to get in. Then nobody could want something from me ever again.

But what can a woman say. In my calmest voice, I claimed it’d been too long a run. I said, you deserve better — a partner delighted to welcome you home. And when he told me that’s bullshit Louise — for, bullshit it most surely was — I went for a more surefire tactic. I told him I’d been sleeping with Frank.

‘Ha!” Bill spun around clutching his scouring sponge. “Ha!” he repeated, ripping off bits of rough green. “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

A small lawn flaked to the floor.

And I was reminded of the brillo-y plains of Tiny Town.

Of Bill’s many hobbies, the model trains offended me least. Sure, our basement was off limits when the kids were small and it would annoy me to have him holed up down there all weekend just to come up occasionally so I could make him a grilled cheese, but this was in the era I call, Before I Got Fed Up. Thus, all was forgiven when he brought the three of us downstairs to reveal the newest iteration of the place he was forever building. Despite the mass of plastic people frozen in medias this or that, a little sign made from a matchbox always read: Tiny Town: Population 4. The children, Bill, me. Each version of the town was the same enough and different enough: a rotating cast of post office, water tower, gas station, corner store, schoolhouse. But my favorite thing was when a forest crawled in from the east. Or when a span of corn cropped up stage west. Or when a river of lacquered azure craft paper cut through the town and a bridge had to be raised to reach across it.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Get out,” Bill said.

Sometimes, swimming through the river, a school of tiny fish my husband painted. I never learned his trick to make them shimmer.

We agreed to try out alternating weeks for the summer. If that worked for the children, we would continue this arrangement through the school year. Soon enough both kids would be in college and we wouldn’t have to alternate anymore. Bill would retire from his in-house position and maybe set off to sea in all linen. I would lie on my cold, hard floor in starfish position whenever it happened to please me. We would have little occasion to see each other ever again.

When it’s my week I take the children to the pool. Even on overcast days, even when the skies are stratified shades of lead, we go. Mostly they do not protest. They are excellent divers.

When I look around, I notice children doing the things in which their parents, too, have excelled. Or sometimes the opposite is true and children are compelled to transcend their parents’ failures which is perhaps why spelling B’s were invented. But in my youth, I neither succeeded nor failed at diving. I could manage back jumps and leggy front flips at our community pool, though it was without grace. I liked the whipping-around part, but doubtless resembled one of those inflatable tube men dancing outside of car dealerships. I much preferred sitting in the cool depths, watching the kicks of anonymous legs. And while the children’s father always shined in that cannonball way of plump pool dads — delighting loungers, sunburnt kids, and lifeguards with the garish spray particular to self-important men — in all of our years together I don’t think I ever saw him attempt a proper dive. It makes me chuckle to think about it: Bill and his soft belly attempting an inward tuck. He would of course be surprised — furious, even — to learn that he still brings a smile to my face.

Stacked within reach on the writing desk I barely use: Whitman, Emily Post, Laugh Out Loud — Jokes for Kids.

My children find my apartment sterile and strange and they prefer the familiar landscape of our pool. At my place they just sit on the couch straight-backed the way I taught them to sit for guests, the way they sit in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s. I sit across from them with too much air between us. I wonder what bridge might span that distance. I look for proof of myself in their faces, they look for evidence that they are mine around my white-washed interior. But there are no piles of bills mixed with their graded papers or artwork. No palate fixed to the fridge of long-passed invitations, Christmas cards, snapshots affixed by the alphabet magnets. No progression of school portraits proceeds down the carpeted stairs where once they slid on cardboard boxes. In fact, there are no stairs here at all. Thinking of my age, I chose a well-appointed building with an elevator lined in wall-to-wall mirrors that I must forever take great pains to avoid.

Because none of us really knows what we might end up needing for our trips to the pool, I purchased one of those wagons the other, more organized mothers pulled behind them to little league games when the children were small. Because of the wagon we can bring everything: a cooler packed with sandwiches, flavored seltzers, Cokes, and cut melon. We pile in extra t-shirts; a range of SPF lotions including one called Sport Face that claims to be Breakout Free; the tangle of decade-old goggles; stacks of soft, thick towels fresh from the department store. These towels are far superior to the threadbare rectangles decorated with Garfield in sunglasses or the Star Wars one the children used to fight over. The new ones are enormous, striped, identical. The children claim to really prefer them.

“I’m coming!” Frank thrusts, as I fight the impulse to cheer. Almost there.

He likes to take me from behind for the better view of my fleshy, still-ripe ass. I like it this way because I don’t have to see him seeing me and also because his bedroom window looks out onto the over-landscaped backyard and it entertains me to imagine the bizarre series of choices that went into its development. Take, for example, the sprawling water feature swimming with coy and punctuated by an island built for an especially obese cement Buddha whose pleased expression reminds me of Bill with a fried blooming onion before him, offering up the crispy part I like. Take, too, the gargantuan boulder nestled into a bed of pebbles that looks straight from a New England quarry until you distinguish a Fleetwood Mac or Journey anthem issuing from the speakers set within its hollow guts. The one authentic element of Frank’s yard is the mature willow tree slammed up against the fence. Its sloped shoulders express the most honest, majestic, giving-up.

“You good?” Frank asks, taking a pull from his Skittles-smelling vape device. I like the soft white smoke feathers that envelop me. “You bet,” I say.

I think of Frank as my in between — an amusing segue to exultant loneliness.

He’s an inexpert lover, with all the dexterity of a Chimichanga. When we go out for Mexican his slips right through his fingers onto his collared Titleist shirt.

Frank and Bill used to occasionally go a round of golf together at our club when pickings for partners were slim. One of Bill’s talents has always been identifying a person’s celebrity film or television counterpart. Frank, he described as Thomas Haden Church, equal parts Wings and Sideways. When I was being a pill I was Meryl Streep in The Giver but could rise to Streep in Mamma Mia! after hubs and I shared a huge, bloody rib-eye and a bottle of Malbec at Marty’s, a true joint we walked to from our house. Bill identified as Craig T. Nelson in his role as Coach — in Coach — because Bill was always honest with himself.

“Definitely,” I say, moving through mist to collect my garments and go back to my apartment where no one waits.

When it’s Bill’s week I am stupefied by silence. I take note of the kitchen appliances — the few I have, the ones I have yet to acquire. I consider the pros and cons of things, like carpeting the master bathroom. Maybe it’s foul only if a man exists to piss on the floor? I think of the long, hot bath I have been planning, my tired feet upon some extra softness. I consider the vacant walls, in my mind arrange and rearrange ghost objet d’art. Bill always had the better eye, could anticipate the space most efficiently occupied.

When it’s Bill’s week it’s one endless afternoon of writer’s block with dabs of Frank when I feel like it. When I tire of my apartment I go to the coffee shop and sip black Americanos and flip through magazines and watch the participants of a CrossFit class parade down the street with kettlebells raised above their heads. I eat a cherry scone or a biscuit filled with gouda, chives, and bacon. Caffeinated, satiated, I peruse the booths of the antique shops in my new, urban neighborhood: Good as New Antiques, Forget Me Not Antiques, Times Remembered. In these shops, I appreciate that each booth is its own self-contained unit, mottled but restrained. One booth is mostly tea-cups and the wicker and porcelain structures that support tea-cups. One booth touts various opaque glass shapes — coke bottles, cylindrical vases, used Ball jars — with nettled fishing floats placed purposefully around. There is a vintage dress booth. A booth full of accordions, kazoos, dulcimers, and other strange instruments. There is a sports memorabilia booth: card tables fanned with baseball cards and stacked jerseys.

I expect someone to squeal right along with me the day I happen upon the booth that is all things equestrian, an explosion of my girlhood dreams. Gently worn saddles drape quaintly over wooden barrels; I see a springed riding pony like the one from our playroom; there is even a set of dinner plates with fence painted in a circle around the edges, each one branding a different breed: Appaloosa, Arabian, Belgian, Mustang. But it is the series of horsey oil paintings that would solve all of my problems. I can picture with clarity the close-up of the waxy thoroughbred, a prize above my bed. The hunting scene with the pursuant outfit in red and green would be spot-on for the kitchen. I imagine the eight or so remaining paintings galloping across my walls — ah, veritable stampede of filling up space!

It is on my race to the register to inquire about delivery options that I notice the booth that is everything trains.

“You’re early,” Bill says. He looks good. Slimmer. Close-shaven. Less Coach, more Sam Malone in this particular moment. I go to apologize again but he’s already ushering me in. “They’re in the basement,” he says. Recessed lighting now illuminates the staircase that leads us below. I feel in my purse for the gift I have for him — a pre-war brass windup steam engine complete with two passenger cars — but it doesn’t seem the right time. I see the children bent over one section of Tiny Town — Bill’s sprawling new version. To his former, singular platform, he’s added whole tiers of new engines along with their accompanying tunnels, terrains, districts. A mountain sprouts from the horizon. I see a bank, a factory, the beginnings of something mirrored and shiny. “This one’s their idea,” he says, “already used up two rolls getting it right.” One kid stretches a layer of plastic wrap tight over a plain of flat, blue-painted foil while the other hot glues scrabble letters onto a dowel to form “Natatorium.” I stare hard and sure at the faces of my children to avoid checking to see if the population sign has already been changed. What Whitman says about all that we contain.

When it’s my week I like to swim laps in one half of the pool while the children practice their dives in the half beside me. Through clouded-up goggles, I see their shapes torpedo into a sapphire depth that always catches them. With no help from me at all they find the surface. For the best view I have to sink down, down, down.

Lauren Goodwin Slaughter is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and author of the poetry collection, a lesson in smallness. Her stories and poems appear or are forthcoming in Image, RHINO, Pleiades, Kenyon Review Online, and New South, among other places. She is Editor-in-Chief of NELLE, a literary journal that publishes writing by women. Find her at and follow her on Twitter @lgslaughter2.



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Lauren Slaughter

Lauren Slaughter

Poet, proser, professor. Editor-in-Chief of NELLE.