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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Cuckold
by Alex Baratta

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John remembered when, as a boy on his sixth birthday, he had been banished to his bedroom for having pulled one of his female guests' hair, making her cry. It was a sorry situation to be upstairs alone in your bedroom while hearing your own birthday party happily continue without you downstairs. It was after some tears of his own and a fifteen minute imprisonment that his mother and father came into his bedroom and made him apologize to Linda. Having done so, with all of his heart, he resumed his rightful place as the birthday boy, but with a slight caution borne out of recognizing who was really in charge. Not the one who had been born six years ago on this day, but the ones who created his life in the first place.

Well, that was fifty-four years ago. Now, a greyer and hopefully much wiser John Kelso stood outside a restaurant in Zürich. Unfortunately, he was once again that six year old boy. Once again, he had been confined to his own prison. Once again he was on the outside looking in, this time quite literally. Unlike his six year old self, however, he could not simply break down and cry. Children can. Adults can't. Certainly not in public places.

But John couldn't retreat inside the restaurant to seek refuge, for there was no refuge to be found. No, he had to carry on for now, for inside the restaurant against the back wall was the source of his current confinement. His wife and her lover, a Swiss man named Gumbold. No one else need know about this of course. But standing outside a restaurant, even with the clever disguise of pretending to read a street map, would sooner or later raise suspicion of some sort. Or draw the unwanted attention of a friendly Swiss person only too eager to give directions to this lost Amerikaner. Occasional glances behind him into the restaurant had confirmed that his wife was enjoying a sumptuous meal, too enthralled with her steak and her lover to even notice her husband. Then again, neither Catherine nor Gumbold knew, or even seemed to suspect, that they had been followed.

A memory took John back to twenty six years ago, the first time he had ever questioned his wife's faithfulness. It was a co-worker of Catherine's named Doug who aroused John's suspicions. Catherine seemed to be a tad too chummy with him when John would arrive to pick her up from work. Then again, John's desire to collect his wife after work was reinforced by such shenanigans. Granted, at that point, it seemed nothing more than mere flirting, at least to John. But that's how it all starts. John dreaded the day when Catherine would suddenly tell him he needn't collect her from work anymore, a sure signal that something was afoot. But that day never came. Instead, John waited until they arrived home one night and finally confronted Catherine. After much fighting on both sides denial on one, accusation on the other John nonetheless believed that his timely accusations had stopped a potential affair from coming to sordid fruition. But that was all. Ultimately, John truly felt that he would never be able to suppress his wife's possible desire for other men in the future. Catherine was very attractive, and there would no doubt be other men who would seek to come between Catherine and John. But worse, John could not rely on Catherine to brush them aside, this having been confirmed by the incident with this man named Doug, who thankfully transferred to another department a few weeks later. In time though, John made peace with the fact that an undoubted secret kiss between Doug and Catherine had at least not progressed any further, not to the best of John's knowledge it hadn't. But John had wanted much more. He had wanted Catherine to tell the truth about her desire for this man, not to deny it and try to sweep it all under the proverbial carpet. But it was what it was, and John could never quite shake the suspicion, buried deep inside himself, that one day his worst fear would come true. And in Zürich, it finally had.

After Catherine and Gumbold's plates were cleared, John had decided to move indoors and continue his spying from a coffee shop that lay opposite the restaurant. Inside the coffee shop, John sipped a bitter espresso at a bar, which lay heavy on his already agitated stomach. He could now only imagine the love affair that had been his marriage to Catherine. He had met her when they were both in their early twenties. The time: the 1960s. The place: the University of Delaware. The two of them were married after graduation and raised two healthy children. The rest is not really of any consequence, involving the usual round of buying a house, settling down and planning for retirement; the so-called real world duties which, though seemingly dreary, were in fact the things that all couples hope for. After all, married men and women want to lead boring lives. To have a four bedroom house - white picket fence optional, 2.5 kids, safe jobs and throw the occasional party. No sudden upsets. No excitement. No unexpected curve balls thrown from above (except for the incident with Doug).

And all in all, John and Catherine had lived a boring life. Jobs were never threatened, kids were well adjusted and for the most part, it all fell into place. Not too easy but never a real struggle either. But behind it all was the alliance of John and Catherine. One that John prayed would never be broken, despite his occasional fears to the contrary. Indeed, they seemed to have remained sweethearts all their married life. Until Doug, when the happiness was almost broken. Then back to normal again. Until now.

What had happened to cause Catherine to travel thousands of miles to be with her lover? What had caused the need for a new lover in the first place? And why Switzerland? Such questions had become an obsession. John and Catherine's children blamed John for this, for letting it happen. Otherwise, they stayed out of it. Only John could right this wrong anyhow. It had nothing to do with his children or anyone else. Just himself, his wife and her lover.

It had all started about three months earlier when Catherine had started chatting to Gumbold on the internet. One thing led to another, as they do, and Catherine eventually told John the truth about this new man in her life. And a month later, after the initial internet contact, Catherine had made up her mind to finally meet Gumbold. Upon hearing this John flew into a rage, the likes of which made Catherine long for the days when John had accused her of having an affair with Doug. That was nothing compared to this, though Catherine could of course understand John's reaction. But Catherine nonetheless did not need this right now so she moved out and stayed with their daughter. The last month before she left for Switzerland was spent trying to convince son and daughter why she felt the need to meet Gumbold. But no one could be convinced. Not the children and certainly not John.

'Can I get you another coffee?'

The friendly voice of the waiter, who had previously served John's coffee, shattered his private torture. John readied himself to answer this young man, whose only experience of true love probably ran the spectrum from drunken fumblings to a regular changing of the female guard. The young waiter's face registered a look which John recognized. The waiter was an earnest youth who was now gathering his linguistic resources in order to ask his question again, this time in an accent which tried to mimic a native speaker of English. He needn't have bothered.

'No, thank you,' replied John with a weak smile, in an attempt to match the outgoing demeanor of the waiter.

The waiter smiled and retreated to another section of the café, while John resumed his drinking, though only a bitter syrup remained of John's once steaming hot espresso. He was about to resume his focus on the current state of his crumbling marriage when once again, an intrusive force made itself known.

'Excuse me, are you American?'

The voice was unquestionably American, and came from a 20ish youth sitting two seats down on John's right, at the table which looked out across the street. Suddenly feeling that he had no pretense of cultural differences to hide behind, John felt compelled to answer in a voice which did not give away his current misery.

'Yes. Delaware. How about yourself?'

'Ohio,' came the reply, with a subtle desperation in the boy's voice suggesting a need to converse with another American. John was willing to oblige for as long as occasional glances to the restaurant across the street confirmed that his wife and her lover were still inside.

'I'm here traveling across Europe. This is stop number five.'

John had neither asked nor required this information. Oh well. Here goes...

'I'm here on vacation,' replied John.

'How d'ya like it?'

'Beautiful,' John said, with a voice that suggested John was the victim of too many beautiful cities. The juice of youthful discovery had longed since passed him by. This annoying boy from Ohio did not desist though.

'By the way, I'm Steve! Are you here alone?'

John knew that unless he acted fast, the boy's banter would increase, accompanied by the growing friendliness in his voice. A quick glance across the street confirmed that Catherine and her lover seemed to be in no particular hurry. John had decided.

'I'm John' customary hand shake 'and in regards to your question, it's hard to answer.'

The boy's countenance expressed an eager curiosity.

'You see, Steve,' began John in a tone which to the more worldly would have seemed patronizing, 'I'm alone but not alone. You see that restaurant across the street?'

A quick sideways head movement of John's alerted Steve to the restaurant. For Steve, this was all part of some game. For him, John's cryptic speech was rich, and the kind of experience that he would remember forever, the kind that is filed under 'O' for On vacation, you meet lots of interesting people. Steve could not wait to hear the punch line to this perceived linguistic game.

'Well in that restaurant is my wife. And her lover. A guy named Gumbold.'

For the first time in the conversation with Steve, John's face and voice had exposed his true feelings of anger and resentment, though somewhat subdued for the benefit of this well-meaning scamp from Ohio. Steve's expression fell into a lost look of sadness.

'Don't worry Steve. I'm on top of things. As soon as they leave together, I'm on their tail. I've been trailing them since they left Gumbold's place about an hour ago.'

'Oh, gee... look, I'm really sorry John... err, can I call you John?'

John ignored the unnecessary question. On the face of Steve was a look of such genuine pity and sorrow that John immediately realized that he had a true confidant and friend in this city. His only friend perhaps. A boy who could be his own son. A boy who probably used any excuse to strike up conversations with strangers, be it shared national origins, shared age or even hair color. Steve presumably had a business card at the ready, prepared to invite the whole of Europe, if necessary, to stay with him in Ohio.

This proved a bit too much for John, who turned to face away from Steve to stare back at the restaurant. This served to allow John to continue looking at Catherine. It also spared Steve the sight of an older man crying. But John's tears, brusquely wiped away, were all too noticeable to Steve, who didn't know when to quit.

'Hey, I truly am sorry John. I didn't mean to intrude. I...'

'It's alright Steve,' replied John with a reassuring calm, for both his and Steve's benefit. A moment of silence and the knowledge that the tears had stopped for now gave John impetus to continue.

'I'm sorry too Steve. You didn't really want to know about my mess.'

John then turned to face Steve and with a mischievous grin that took John back to his childhood, he added, 'But you did ask!'

Steve understood that it was safe to grin back, though it was actually another broad smile that he gave John.

'What can I say Steve? Somehow I've let her get away. I followed her out here after I discovered the truth. I confronted her last night.'

A slight pause and then, with a somewhat sly tone John said, 'So she knows I'm in Zürich.'

Steve, with a sudden sense of tact, knew it was time to shut up and listen. And John was a man who wanted to be listened to. John began detailing the events of the previous night to Steve, all the while keeping a close eye on Catherine and Gumbold.

The previous evening John had confronted Catherine in her hotel room, before she presumably left to meet Gumbold. His voice level rose in tandem with his inner feelings of love, jealousy and hate, an uneasy alliance very often experienced by betrayed spouses.

'Why Catherine, why?' demanded John, in the guise of a question.

'You know why John,' was the weary response.

'I can make you happy again just like before this started. I can be enough for you!'

This comment had inspired a brief pause from Catherine, long enough to see deep into John's damaged heart via his teary eyes. But reality resumed its rightful place.

'Nothing will ever be enough again John... I'm so sorry!'

There was a pause of another sort from John now, one which lasted long enough to prepare his counter attack, with full force.

'So you let this Swiss bastard end us? This is how it all ends? What about me? I'm your husband! Who is he anyway? You're letting him take you away from me... why? Why?'

Even in a country with four official languages, the Swiss were generally adept at English too, and with the added boom of John's voice, little was left to the imagination regarding this marital discord. Thankfully, Catherine's weeping signaled to John that it was time to take a longer pause from the fracas. He looked at his crying wife with anger, who was now lying face down on the bed. Then he had stormed out, seeking answers on the streets outside.

Back in the café, having finished his speech, John was now spent. There was nothing left to say. Certainly not to a post-adolescent stranger. Steve's all too earnest empathy had suddenly become tiresome, and John was now stinging with the embarrassment of his public tears, though only Steve had noticed. The only one who had cared enough to notice. John saw a way out though as Catherine and Gumbold finally began rising from the dregs of what had been a feast.

Still remaining locked in silence, Steve looked to John for guidance as to what he should say or do next. John's only reply was to rise up from his chair. He left a few coins next to his tiny white cup as a gratuity.

'It's time to go Steve. Duty calls!'

John turned and made his way towards the exit. Steve sat in shocked silence. He could not fathom the experience he had just been a part of. He had yet to experience a great many things.

John stood by the door, awaiting confirmation that Catherine and Gumbold had left the restaurant. When such confirmation had been received, he exited.

John followed his wife and Gumbold from a safe distance as they made their way from the restaurant, presumably to Gumbold's residence. John knew where that was. Having seen the house earlier had reconfirmed the identity of this new man in Catherine's life. 'Dr. Berndt Gumbold' was neatly engraved in black against a gold plaque affixed to a whitewashed stone wall which was where Gumbold lived.

No doubt their bellies were sated from expensive meat, washed down with fragrant wine, a flambéed dessert and the predictable cheese, crackers and coffee. John remembered that Catherine had never eaten such foods, especially expensive meat, the remnants of such no doubt being slowly digested now, this shared meal between herself and this Swiss bastard who was taking Catherine from her rightful husband.

A surge of anger demanded to make itself known, resulting in a brief glare on John's face which would have frightened any child. The thought of his only love, to whom he had given so much, sacrificed so much and (mostly) trusted, now in the arms of another man. John could also afford expensive meals and fancy vacations and though he reckoned Gumbold was about ten years younger than himself, John still had the passion of a man much younger, both inside and outside the bedroom. But apparently it wasn't enough for Catherine. Some kind of emotional crisis must have arrived later in her life and possessed her to take up with a new man, in turn bringing her, and John, face to face with this 'Gumbold' who was providing Catherine with something John just could not provide himself.

It gave John a kind of perverse pleasure to imagine his wife and Gumbold in the throes of passion, perhaps because it in turn justified the revenge he was going to exact on this man for taking his wife from him. Then Catherine would be next. Exactly what form John's wrath would take was not known to John at this time, but he tried to formulate a plan as he turned down a side street, though one still sufficiently busy to safely maintain his cover. Then again, John felt that he had become so obsolete to his wife that the thought of even looking over her shoulder to entertain the idea that she was being followed would not enter her mind. Maybe this was why she had come all this way to find a new lover. Maybe John had become too indifferent to his wife and not shown her the love and attention that a younger version of himself in the 1960s had promised to always do. Complacency forged by retirement had perhaps caused John to retire from his duties as a once loving and attentive husband.

But John had gone through this already, had he not? And the answer he had arrived at was not suggestive of a love gone cold or stale, or of a man who had suddenly taken his wife for granted. Therefore, logic had long since concluded that Catherine had been the one to decide that there were greener pastures to be found. John couldn't have imagined that they would lead her so far from home. Maybe Gumbold was less the criminal here. Maybe Catherine had presented herself as a widow to him as perhaps Gumbold was indeed a gentleman who would never take another man's wife and was ignorant to the fact that he was assisting in making a man a cuckold. All roads it seemed might just lead to Catherine after all she was the one who had initiated, instigated and was continuing this affair.

The end was now in sight. Straight ahead was Gumbold's house. John stopped to allow the two of them to cross the street, crouching down to supposedly tie a shoelace as his wife, then Gumbold, glanced behind them. John could see from behind a parked car that his wife's face suddenly betrayed an inner torment of her own. Guilt? Suspicion? This brought a momentary relief to John. Maybe he would win back his wife today, if he didn't kill her in a brief rage of insanity.

John was now by the door of Gumbold's residence. He could hear the voices inside. They came from the large window that was adjacent to the door. Living room no doubt. Gumbold spoke in thickly accented English, with a familiar New England frost signaling Catherine's presence.

'I am so happy to be here, really. I never tasted food so good. This city really hasn't disappointed me. I've waited all my life to be here, so many new things. The day has been almost perfect... thank you again.'

These words seemed to say it all Catherine was a happy woman, and John felt that he could no longer inspire a similar sentiment in his wife.

'I realize though Catherine that you said almost,' came the undeniably gentle reply of Gumbold. 'You're no doubt thinking of your husband.'

Then silence followed in the room where Gumbold and Catherine were. There was also quiet on the front door step where John stood. The noise of the people going their own way in the city streets provided a silence all its own. A silence which revealed the apathy of people felt towards men whose wives are unfaithful.

Gumbold released the tight embrace that he held on a tearful Catherine as he rushed to investigate the source of the loud banging that had assaulted his front door. Once the barrier separating John from his new enemy had been compromised, leaving an entrance into the forbidden world inside, John's hands clutched the neck of Gumbold. With a last vestige of forethought, John pushed Gumbold back as he advanced his way into the hallway, kicking the door shut behind him. Now there was a level playing ground!

Gumbold screamed out in unintelligible Swiss German.

'Why are you taking my wife away from me?' John bellowed.

Then Catherine appeared from the living room.


Her cry was not a reprimand. Nor was it the embarrassed scream of a less than faithful wife caught in the act. It was the plea of a loving wife, who was about to witness her husband commit murder.

It took ten minutes or so for a series of events to occur which began with John releasing his grip on Gumbold and then apologizing to the frayed Swiss man. It hadn't taken too long to placate the shocked Gumbold, and John found him to be an affable and mild mannered sort. All the more reason for an unexpected pair of clammy hands around his throat to have caused so much shock. After this, John and Catherine paused for a teary embrace while a concerned Gumbold allowed his right hand to rest on John's back. Shortly after, John and Catherine retreated to an upstairs bedroom, in which they had all manner of complete and perfect solitude.

Catherine lay on the bed, complaining of a stomach ache, no doubt caused by the rich food she had eaten. Luckily, there was already a glass of water on the bedside table, with two large antacid tablets on an adjacent plate.

'I'm so sorry Catherine. I just wasn't strong enough to join you in the restaurant... it's just being in public with you... all those people.'

'I know John, and I don't blame you. You're here with me now and that's all that matters. I knew I'd see you today. I knew you would show up.'

Quality time spent reminiscing followed, with much crying, some laughter, and most of all, John and Catherine declaring their love for each other.

As John spent this precious time with Catherine he remembered so very well how the thought of his beloved wife ever being unfaithful had filled him with dread for all these married years. How the idea of his wife with another man had been enough to send John into a frenzied state. Yet shortly after arriving in Switzerland with Catherine just a few days earlier, John realized that being a cuckold was not so bad after all. And having become a cuckold, thus began a chain of events: his confrontation with Catherine in the hotel room, spying on her in the restaurant and coming close to completely breaking down in a café. Being a cuckold had served John very well though. Prepared him to say goodbye. John had thought that a cheating wife was the worst thing that could happen to any man. More than anything else. But John had learned all too well that there were worse things in life than being cuckolded. But it's better to be overcome with uncontrollable anger than overcome with uncontrollable grief.

John wished the pain in Catherine's body was the result of overindulgence, to which he'd normally reply That'll teach you! But the pain, which had wracked Catherine's being for almost a year, was slowly dissipating from the effects of the two large barbiturates which were gently invading her body. Yes, John wished he were a cuckold. He would then at least have a wife to try and win back. Make her come to her senses.

'I'm so angry at you that you're leaving me,' John managed to say, in a crumbling voice that suggested anything but anger.

Catherine had enjoyed a wonderful last few days in Zürich. She had always wanted to visit Switzerland anyway. Finding a Swiss doctor, who administered assisted suicides, had therefore served a dual purpose. She had always wanted to try Schnapps too. John had ensured she got her last requests. He had first made sure that she knew what she wanted. She did. He had spent what now seemed like just a moment of his life with this wonderful woman. And now, on her final day of life and with her only true love holding her hand, Catherine peacefully slipped away...

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