Fealty by Bill Tope

Marilyn resents her writerly husband, and wonders if her best friend Elise's negativity is rubbing off on her.

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"I guess it all depends on what you're willing to accept, Marilyn," said Elise pointedly. The women sat on Marilyn's sofa, cups of coffee on the table before them.

Marilyn looked up from her crossword, annoyed with her friend of nearly forty years. "What do you mean?" she asked with a little frown.

"Well," explained Elise with relish, "If you're okay with Robert taking a private vacation, then well and good. But it seems to me that as long as you stay at home and work, then your husband ought to keep you company. What's good for the goose," she concluded, "is good for the gander." Marilyn and Elise were both school teachers at the high school.

"Robert is a writer," said Marilyn for the umpteenth time. "He has to do research, gather background for his novels. It's not a pleasure trip, it's work."

Elise only smirked, which drove Marilyn to distraction, as Elise had known it would.

"What?" demanded Marilyn, exasperated now. "What is that look?"

"Marilyn," said Elise with exaggerated patience, "no one likes to go alone on a vacation. Are you certain that Robert is going by himself?"

"Of course. I'm driving him to the airport myself."

Elise rolled her eyes. "I don't mean, is he traveling alone. Is he meeting up with someone while he's away?"

At this, Marilyn grew quiet. She hadn't really considered this before. Did Robert have a little side piece hidden away? Some younger woman with whom he would meet up in New Orleans, the supposed backdrop of his new novel?

"Well?" asked Elise archly, enjoying the moment. Marilyn refused to meet her gaze, so Elise allowed the thought to simmer and made her departure. "I'll get out of your hair for now, Marilyn. I can't wait to read Robert's book, dear." And Elise stepped to the door and let herself out.

Marilyn stewed.

"What's the title of your new book, Robert?" inquired his wife of twenty-five years.

"The Big Easy," replied Robert, bustling about the bedroom, gathering his things together in preparation for his trip.

"Hasn't that already been used?" asked Marilyn, folding Robert's shirts and slipping them into a suitcase.

"Many times," said Robert. "It's only a working title. I'll come up with something when it's finished. Or the publisher will," he added.

"Tom Eastwood," said Marilyn, referencing a writer friend they both knew, "bought one of those new word processors. He said it's much faster and easier to use than a typewriter. He said you can delete and insert and he can write twice as fast, and with half the mistakes. Do you think we ought to buy one?"

Robert waved the idea away. "I've been using my Underwood manual for more than twenty years," he remarked. "It hasn't let me down yet. Besides, I'm not good with those electronic gizmos. What if the power goes out?" he asked. "Some things are best left as they are."

"When your book is finished, we can celebrate with champagne," said Marilyn with a smile.

Robert screwed up his face. "You know I hate champagne," he reminded her. Another conversation they'd had many times.

She shrugged. "Okay. It was just a thought."

"Let me do the thinking," he advised, patting her bottom and then hefting the suitcase.

"Do you know when you'll return?" asked Marilyn, standing at the gate with Robert, watching planes land and take off.

"A week, at most," he replied, slipping a red capsule between his lips and drinking from a bottle of Coke. Not for the first time, Marilyn wondered what meds Robert was into this time.

"Call me when you get to your hotel?" she asked.

"Uh huh," he said, handing her the empty bottle and walking away toward the waiting plane without another word.

No kiss, she thought unhappily.

While Robert was away, Elise kept Marilyn company almost every day. The two had known one another since grade school and remained close. But sometimes, thought Marilyn, her best friend seemed to enjoy her discomforts, her problems, her annoyances. Marilyn recalled the time that she'd purchased a sporty car, to celebrate getting tenure. When Marilyn took her best friend for an inaugural spin, another car had pulled out in front of them. Acting quickly, Marilyn abruptly downshifted. The engine roared and Elise had said gleefully, "You're going to blow your engine, Marilyn, and throw a rod." She laughed way too happily, Marilyn thought. She shrugged. She was probably being too sensitive, she told herself. Although she was very pretty, Elise had never dated much, even in high school, to the point where others had clandestinely speculated that she was a lesbian. But again, Marilyn shrugged this off; Elise had never made a move on her, at least, or on anyone else she knew. Besides, it was none of Marilyn's business. She looked up at Elise's signature rat-a-tat knock at the door. She rose to her feet.

"C'mon in, Elise," invited Marilyn, sweeping wide the door.

"Did I interrupt something?" asked Elise, bustling through the portal. "I must have knocked for five minutes! I thought maybe you were wrapped up in your boyfriend."

Marilyn rolled her eyes. Leave it to Elise to find trouble where there was none. "No, he left hours ago." Elise looked up sharply. Marilyn smiled at her own joke.

Seeing Elise's pensive face, Marilyn asked, "What's wrong?"

"Mom's sick. I've got to fly to Florida."

"Again?" said Marilyn with concern. "What's the matter with Deidre this time?" Elise's mother, like her daughter, was a bit of a pill, but Marilyn held great affection for her. She had led a hard life, being married to a serial cheater, who'd then died and left her all alone after the move to the east coast. And these days she was forever ill, requiring her only child to repeatedly trek to her bedside. "Is it serious?" Marilyn asked.

"She's developed Type II diabetes," revealed Elise with a sigh. "And you know Mom; I have to go down and help get her regulated, monitor her medication and plan her meals and everything. You know how Mom likes sweets."

"How long will you be gone?"

Elise shook her head. "I don't know. "I have to meet with her doctor, a dietician, her endocrinologist. He's put her in the hospital for a few days. Her blood sugar was almost 500 - and he put her on insulin, it was so bad." Elise looked wretched.

Marilyn came forward and gave her friend a warm hug. "Give Deidre my best, okay?" Elise nodded, teared up a little.

"Pray for us, okay?" she asked. Marilyn nodded.

The next day, Robert returned. Marilyn had to work, so he took a taxi from the airport. When she breezed into the living room, Robert was tap-tap-tapping away at his latest manuscript on his trusty Underwood.

"Hey," said Robert, looking up. "Where's your shadow?" He smirked. Marilyn frowned. In all their years of marriage, Robert had never warmed to her best friend; possibly, she thought, it was because she'd known Elise longer than Marilyn had known her husband. Unaccountably, Robert felt threatened by Elise.

"She had to go to Florida," said Marilyn. "Her mother is sick." Robert nodded, opting not to be as snide as he might ordinarily have been, in light of Elise's misfortune.

Get all your research done?" asked Marilyn, changing the subject.

"Most of it," he acknowledged, turning back to the keyboard. "But I'll have to go back."


"Over Christmas," he said.

"Oh!" said Marilyn, dismayed. "I was hoping we could do something over the holidays, maybe take a trip." Christmas was just two weeks away.

"Sorry," said Robert indifferently. "The plot of the novel takes place at Christmas and I need to get the feel for the city during that time. This book is due in April," he added, "and if I don't get off my ass, then it won't be done till next Christmas." Marilyn nodded, disappointed to face the loneliness of another holiday by herself. The couple had never had children, and all Marilyn's relatives were deceased or lived far away. She'd been an only child but, still, was not happy being left alone.

That night, as they lay in bed, Marilyn turned to face her husband. "Robert," she whispered, "do you still love me?" He made no reply. She repeated her question, a little louder.

"Huh?" he said, as though he had been asleep. Somehow, Marilyn felt he was faking it.

"I said, do you still love me? Did you ever love me, Robert? Are you having an affair?" She lay immobile, fearing his answer. Robert was her whole world. She recalled with trepidation the time she suspected that he was having an affair with his one-time editor, Patrice. Thinking to surprise her husband, she had appeared at his hotel when he was researching a book set in Chicago, which was just three hundred miles distant from their home in St. Louis. There she'd found Patrice, in his room, having drinks, and Marilyn had become ashen and hurriedly departed. She drove the whole way back in tears. Later, Robert had assured her that the two of them were only working, and eventually Marilyn got over it, but it still sometimes made her wonder. Robert had gotten a new editor, and they'd never spoken of it again. That had been ten years ago.

Robert turned over, making the box springs shriek. "Where is that coming from?" he asked suspiciously. When she said nothing, he added, "Sounds like your shadow speaking. Is that bitch putting ideas into your head again?" he demanded. When she still didn't say anything, he blew out an exasperated breath and said impatiently, "Of course I still love you. And of course I'm not having an affair."

Finally Marilyn spoke. "Well, Elise did say that you're at that dangerous age, when men look outside their marriage for companionship... and sex."

"What the hell does she know about it?" asked Robert irritably. "She's just a damn nosy lesbian!" Marilyn didn't argue the point; they had had this conversation about Elise many times before. "I'm forty-nine years old, the same as you - the same as your so-called friend. It's not a 'dangerous' age. She's always stirring things up. She's never happier than when you're stressed out, up in arms, upset." Robert had a point, Marilyn knew.

"But she's my best friend," she murmured uncertainly.

"You don't need friends like her," averred Robert. "Hell, if you're lonely, join a church!" And he turned over and went back to sleep.

Marilyn lay awake for hours, fretting. She had more questions than answers. Then she had unhappy dreams till morning.

At the airport the next day, Marilyn was moody. When Robert finally deigned to pay attention to her, he asked her, "What's wrong now?"

"I'm going to be lonely over the holidays," she moped.

"Your shadow still not home? When will she be back?"

"Her mother took a turn for the worse," murmured Marilyn. "She may not make it," she said sadly.

"That's too bad," said Robert, who didn't sound bereaved at all. "Look, I'll be back in a week, maybe sooner..." She looked up hopefully. "We'll do something when I get back, alright? Maybe dinner, a movie... okay?" He tipped up her chin. "I love you, Marilyn," he told her solemnly, and gave her a little kiss. She smiled wistfully. Then it was time for Robert to go.

Robert walked up to the front desk of the hotel, a single suitcase clutched in one hand, his encased typewriter in the other. He liked traveling light.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Willis," said DuSault, the front desk clerk, instantly recognizing his frequent visitor.

"DuSault," answered Robert, placing his credit card on the counter.

"Same room, sir?" asked the clerk. Robert nodded agreeably.

"There's so much to do in New Orleans during the Christmas holidays," the other man told his guest. Robert looked up interestedly. "Carols by Candelight at Jackson Square; a St. Louis Cathedral Concert; the Christmas show at the La Petit Theatre..."

Robert held up a hand to stem the tide. "Sounds good, but this is business, DuSault. I'm still working on my novel. I probably won't even leave my room for the whole week."

DeSault's face was shiny with skepticism. "Yessir," he said briskly, proferring the register. "Shall I send up the usual, Mr. Willis?" asked the clerk.

Robert checked his wristwatch. "In about an hour," he told him. "I had a snack on the plane."

Sixty minutes later, in his hotel room, Robert talked to Marilyn on the telephone. "I miss you," he told her, hearing her sigh with pleasure. Robert knew which buttons to push.

"When will you be home, Robert?" she whined plaintively.

"New Year's Eve," he told her.

"Goody," she said with a flare of excitement. "We can celebrate the new year together."

"Won't your shadow be there?" asked Robert, resentfully. "She always manages to tag along."

"Now, now, I told you; Elise will be in Miami through the holidays. She took a 30-day leave of absence. She'll be spending New Year's with Deidre."

There was a knock on the door. "Glad to hear it," said Robert frankly. "Look, my dinner is here. I'll talk to you tomorrow, alright?"

"Okay," said Marilyn, a little disappointed. It wasn't often that Robert was in this good a mood. "Love you," she murmured.

"Ditto," he said shortly, and they disconnected. For her part, Marilyn felt unusually warmed by the exchange with the man she loved above all others. She smiled.

Stepping to the door, Robert, opened it a crack and then pulled it wide, allowed room service to enter the room. The wheeled cart was laden with covered place settings, candles, iced drinks. The aromas of prepared food were heady. Signing for the delivery and adding a generous tip, Robert bided his time, checked his watch again. He hadn't long to wait, for just minutes later there was another knock upon the door.

"Come in," said Robert.

A woman entered, set her leather suitcase upon the carpeted floor and stood looking at him. "Looking good, Robert," she said huskily, stepping forward.

"Feeling good - now," said Robert, taking Elise in his arms. After the kiss, she leaned back in his arms and remarked, "Oh! Champagne!"


  1. As usual, Bill, your excellent prose is clean and engaging.. A twist in the tail and a surprise is fun. However, in this story, I don’t believe the characters and the ending. In your other stories, I always know what you think and how you feel about something. For this to work, I think you need to dig deeper.

    1. I guess I want to know why the husband is so cruel to his wife? Did the wife do anything to contribute to the situation? Why is the friend so false? Why is the wife such a tit mouse with her head stuck in the sand? Do the adulterers feel any moral guilt at all? Or are they just sociopaths? Does the wife put up with such emotionally damaging people because she is afraid of real intimacy? Why has this situation been going on so long?

    2. You’re probably right, Rozanne. I don’t know if I got lazy, tired of writing, or just wasn’t clever enough with words. While I like flattery, I so appreciate when readers – especially writers – tell me where I slipped up. The only way to become better at what we do is to receive notice when what we do is good and not so good. Thanks very much, Rozanne.

    3. Hi again Rozanne. I believe we’ve all known emotionally damaging – or damaged – people. Like you said before, I provided little backstory on the characters and perhaps I was in error. Maybe I should have cited an incident in one or more of the characters’ pasts to give a clue as to what motivated them. Your questions are all reasonable, but sometimes I like to allow the reader to fill in at least a little of the info. This personalizes the story more. But like you say, I may have let the reader down a bit.

    4. Remember, Bill, this is only what was missing for me. Many other readers will not agree with me at all. You didn’t let the reader down. We both know that I tend to write long, drawn out stories that people find challenging to bother with online. Fleshing this story out too much could also make everything too muddled. I am glad the two of us can hash things out like the old married couple that we are.

    5. I agree it’s good we can discuss writing like two relatively intelligent human beans. And, like an old married couple, each of us want to get in the last word (Ha-ha). Thanks for your interest, Rozanne.

  2. Ohhhhhh! The evil man!! And the wife that can’t take a hint!!! What I love about this story is how one squirms all the way through. The friend’s ill-intentioned comments…and yet they stay friends. The husband’s not-even-Luke warm love comments. Then the denouement…the wife is blind….the husband is cruel…we knew it all along. My only question…why no divorce? Fantastic layered story with mixed messages and complex characters. Yay!

    1. Why no divorce? I dunno, divorce wasn’t as prevalent at the time the story took place – he was still using a manual typewriter – but I suppose that, after years, the MC grew used to so little. Perhaps she diminished herself. Maybe she’ll wake up and smell the coffee – or the champagne. Thanks for much for writing, June.

  3. I feel dumb for not seeing that coming, but total surprise. What a rotten couple of people. Weird note - the use of "pill". Something my Iowa born mother who was born in 1914 used. Is that an age thing or a regional thing? The dialogue was totally believable.

    1. The use of the word “pill” was maybe anomalous. Today everything is a tablet or a capsule or a caplet. I guess it was in the dark ages of my misspent youth that people used “pills.” Thanks for the comment, Duke.

  4. I enjoy relationship stories, and this is a good one with a skillful exploration of the complexities of love, friendship, and betrayal. The story's twists and vivid character portrayals made this a page-turner, (which I guess is a screen-scroller these days). The dialogue was sharp and revealing, and I thought the pacing was just right. Well done, Bill.
    -David Henson

    1. Thanks, David, for your kind remarks. As I mentioned before, I enjoy writing dialogue and generally begin my stories with a blurb of dialogue. Appreciate your writing.

  5. I enjoy the balance of detail and dialogue, characterization and setting, action and back story. Your stories, Bill, as always, are crisp and well-paced.

    To my read, none of the characters undergo any change or transformation, neither externally nor internally. Also, the theme seems to be people doing misguided behaviors and hurting one another? This is rather nihilistic…

    I’d love to see a final beat, a few more scenes, wherein Marilyn somehow discovers the deception? What would she do that is expected - leave Robert? - or unexpected - murder them? join them in a throuple? (there are several references to lesbianism as foreshadowing). How might her actions then change them and/or her?

    Thanks for a sharp story to start our new year!

    And Happy 2024 to everyone! :-)

    1. I think you and Rozanne are right: there is something missing and I think you’ve nailed it: a transformation in the characters, be it subtle or life-changing. I suppose it is a visceral feeling we get when we note the change, that is lacking. Thanks for your observations, Adam.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this and didn't see the twist coming. I wondered if there was a slight Raymond Chandler influence here - the author is named Robert and the working title is the Big Easy (The Big Sleep?). I kind of got that idea in my head and the style of the story had a slight Chandleresque feel to it.

    1. Thanks so much for both reading and writing, Paul. You paid me the ultimate compliment: Chandleresque. I adore Chandler, and all those noir writers. Take care.

  7. An enjoyable piece Bill. I appreciate the realism you grasp with description and dialogue. I'll be looking for more of your fiction.

    1. Thanks much, Ron. I’m glad you enjoyed my story. Thank for both reading and writing. Please take care.