This story won the Random House short fiction contest in its first year, 1999.


By Roger Angle


          I knew she wouldn’t marry me when I asked her.

          That’s what I think now, as I look back on it.

          I looked up, and the leaves were sharp and clear, like a painting by Vermeer, like theatrical backdrops, like cardboard cutouts against a painted blue sky. So beautiful, I had never seen anything so beautiful.

          She smiled and took my hand. “You are an ignorant son of a bitch,” she said.

          “Why do you say that?”

          “Because otherwise you would know how I feel. I shouldn’t have to tell you.”

          “And how is that?”

          “It’s too much, I can’t take it, it’s not good for me.”


          “I can’t. I would scrub the floors every day, down on my knees. I would cook your meals and darn your socks and….” She shuddered.

          “Darn my socks?”

          “I can just picture it. I would starch and iron the sheets every day. I would wash your underwear out by hand. I would be a fool. And I couldn’t help myself.”

          “Sounds great to me.”

          “Of course. That’s why I can’t marry you.”


          “You’d let me do all that for you. You wouldn’t stop me.”

          “But I….”

          “You wouldn’t love me as much as you love yourself. My happiness wouldn’t mean as much as your happiness.”

          “You’re saying I’m a selfish bastard.”

“Exactly right.”

“You hate me.”

“No. Like I said, I love you.”

“Why? What do you love about me?”

“That you always put yourself first, without feeling guilty about it. I wish I could be like that. I think of you as Attila the Hun and myself as Honoria, the woman who loved him. You could rob and murder and pillage, and it would just make you feel sexy. And that would make me feel sexy, too.”

I flexed my muscles. I could feel my manhood rising. “The idea of war is sexy,” I said. “The idea of revolution.” I reached out to touch her, but she pulled away.

“I know,” she said. “See how you are. ‘Take the prisoners and slit their throats.’ That’s who you are. I love you for that. But I couldn’t be married to that. I would be just another casualty of war.”

 “Maybe we can work something out.”

“Like what?”

“I could pay you for sex. I could support you, and we could have a deal.”

“So much sex for so much support.”


“Three nights a week in return for rent….”

“And two nights a week in return for food.”

“You want a lot. Maybe you want too much. You probably want me to smile, too, while you’re doing it to me.”

“You seem to like it.”

“I do like it. Especially with you.”

She leaned forward, and we kissed. I stood, and she flung herself into my arms. I carried her to bed. I felt strong and whole and powerful. I was Attila the Hun, and she was my Honoria, my wild devoted woman.

We made love like tigers, like mad dogs, like inmates at an asylum set free for the night, like satyrs and nymphs, like Attila must have loved his woman 1500 years ago.

I could hear flags snapping in the breeze. I could feel the cold wind from the Alps that stuck its nose into the tent and nuzzled my leg. I could hear soldiers laughing outside as they drank the sweet tart wine of victory. I could hear the wounded moaning in the distance. They weren’t quite far enough away. And yet they made our lovemaking all the sweeter as we realized we were surrounded by the dying.

In the morning, I awoke and she was gone.

I called out for her. “Sweetheart,” I said. “Sweetheart? Where are you? Are you in the bathroom? No-no-no-no.” I sang the words, to the tune of “Little Yellow Basket” by Ella Fitzgerald. “Are you in the kitchen? No-no-no-no. Are you in the living room?”

Somehow I knew she was gone.

She left a note on the piano, where we always left notes. “If I’m ever going to become my true self, the woman I was meant to be, I have to leave you,” the note said. She signed it, “Your little Petrushka.”

“P.S.,” the note said. “Remember that I will always love you. Goodbye.”

I sat awhile on the couch and thought about what she said.

I played my guitar, plucking at random. I was getting pretty good. I wondered if I would ever be good enough to join a band.

I thought I might, if I practiced long enough.




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