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Games


ISSUE:  Summer 1989

Belle McGuire lay on her back in the hollow of her side of the bed. Her arms were thrown above her head, her body collected, at the instant of opening her eyes, with a sense of return. She felt landed, after an upward sweep, an aerialist stepping deft and sure from the bar to the platform. Her body attentive to the need to lay still, the composure of her limbs reflected the grace of the memory. Touching her face, she felt the tears.

She moved not a muscle. The dream was a gift. In it, she saw a wedding ring at the bottom of a glass of champagne, then turned back and looked into Paul’s face and knew it was going to happen and was made happy in the dream, with its effortless congruence of want and fulfillment. She was happy still. The house was quiet. John and the children had made their racket down the stairs and in and out of the kitchen while she slept. The inexorable diffusion of consciousness seeped into her mind like a tide on the turn. Her mother would remember Paul, and their talk would be the needle hooking the random thread into the pattern of things.

She called and the phone rang and rang as the possibilities ran through her mind: out walking, shopping, getting the Times, dead in bed. Lottie Devlin, for 30 years now the widow of the late Patrick J., answered on the tenth ring.

“I was in the kitchen,” she said. “I thought I heard the phone ring.”

“Mother, can we have lunch today?”

“What day is today?”

“Monday.”

“Monday. Yes.”

“I can’t wait to see you. I’ve got something to tell you.”

“And what is that?”

“About a dream.”

“A dream? I have such dreams.”

“I know. My dream is about the old days too. My old days. I’ll pick you up at one o’clock.”

“What’s that?”

“One o’clock.”

“Oh. Are we having lunch?”

“Yes.”

“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”

Belle drove along Plaza Street, one of the curved perimeters of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. It was a bright cold day, but the branches of the cherry trees in front of 36 were knotted with buds. Lottie would remember Paul. Phil, Belle’s brother, had been there for dinner on that Sunday, the day Paul left for Korea, but Phil would not be interested in recalling the past. It was an old romance Belle wanted to talk about and for that you needed another woman.

Lottie stood under the canopy, vexed. Belle was 10 minutes early, and therefore late, instead of 20 minutes early, and on time. Belle leaned over to open the door. Lottie backed into the front seat, pulling the skirts of her heavy old Persian lamb coat in around her.

“God, it’s awful to be old,” she said in greeting. They clasped hands and Belle kissed her mother’s cheek.

“How do I look? Not bad for an old lady?”

Belle took her in. Lipstick, powder, eye shadow, gloves and a hat with a veil. A faint hint of Quelques Fleures. A good day.

“You look like a million bucks.”

“Hamburger,” Lottie said, as they drove across Vanderbilt Avenue toward Snooky’s and lunch. “French fries, and lettuce and tomato salad. Nice big beefsteak tomatoes, none of those hard little apples. It always tastes so good when you don’t have to cook it yourself. What would I do without you, Belle?”

Lottie in her 80’s had lived to prize the qualities in her daughter that in earlier years had done nothing but exasperate her. Belle’s young traits, her steadfastness (you’re stubborn), her patience (no pep), and her good humor (anyone could walk all over you, my dear) had endured to become the terms on which she carried on her own life. They had not failed her and now they sustained her mother’s old age, as something must.

“What would I do without you?” the old woman repeated.

“I don’t know.”

“And now, do you know what day today is?”

“March 12th?”

“It’s the anniversary of the day I met your father, March 12th, 1925. All those years ago. And I love him today as much as I did then.” Tears brightened her eyes, but the next thought, the second in this sequence, made her smile.

“Did I ever tell you, Belle, how I met your father?”

“Yes. But tell me again.”

“I’ll never forget it. It was a rainy day, a Tuesday, and rainy days were lucky for me. Tom Hughes, old J.J.’s son and the best of the lot, said, come on, Lottie, I’ll walk around to the subway with you. I have an umbrella. We left the Woolworth Building and walked down South Street. When we got to the corner there was a big ice truck stuck in the street, jutting out from the pavement, so we had to walk around it. Tom held the umbrella over me and I held up my skirt and walked out in the street because the gutter was running with rain.

“I had on my black two-piece suit from Bonwit’s, with a fur piece around my neck and a bunch of violets, here.” Lottie floated a hand in front of her chin. “And a rose-beige velours hat with an aigrette on the side and a face veil. As Tom and I came around the side of the ice truck, there he was, your father, standing in the window of a restaurant, talking to a policeman. Both of them just looking out at the rain. The minute he saw us, saw me, he was smitten, smitten. I could tell by the expression on his face. He knew Tom, it turned out, and he ran out, never mind the rain, and asked us to stop in. But I had a date that night to go dancing, and I wasn’t a bit interested.”

“The next day, as soon as I got to the office, Tom said, say that fellow that owns the restaurant, Pat Devlin, wants to meet you and I laughed and said, I’m not a bit interested. But he called me that afternoon and we went out to dinner. The Central Park Casino, my dear, never anything but the best. And that was that. There was never anyone else after that.”

Belle thought: That’s one of the stories I was raised on. Yet when I came home from Shelter Island that summer with the same kind of a story, she turned her volume of Barchester Towers over on her crossed knee and asked one question.

“Is he serious?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then you’d better snap out of it.”

Odd the way things were coming together today. My dream, March 12th. Things always happened in threes.

They walked into the abrupt darkness of Snooky’s, Lottie with her arms outstretched.

“God’s sake. Why can’t they put a light on in here?”

“Hello, girls,” said the bartender.

“I ask you,” Lottie laughed. “I’m a long way from a girl.”

Lottie’s old face was lean, Her gray hair was thick, and curled around her head. Her blue eyes were clear and, when she thought about it, smudged in violet. Her nails were strong and brightly polished and her figure thinner than it was 20 years earlier. She had elegant feet that she was vain about. Stretching out her ankle, she would roll her eyes at John. “Not bad,” she’d say. She liked to dance, to drink, and to go to parties. She was tough. “Read Trollope,” she told her children. “Read Studs Lonigan and the others. Read Dickens. Read Tolstoy. You’ll find out what you’re trying to find out.”

She and Belle settled themselves into a booth.

“What was it you called about this morning?” Lottie asked. “You did call, didn’t you? But first I want my wine.”

The waitress brought two glasses. Lottie raised hers, the diamonds glinting in her wedding ring.

“I don’t touch it otherwise. There’s not a drop in my house.”

She raised her eyebrows to show she was making a joke. She took a swallow that half emptied the glass.

“I’ll have another,” she said.

“Not so fast,” said Belle. “I want to talk to you first.”

“What about?”

“My dream.”

“Oh, yes. I knew there was something.”

The Devlins loved their dreams, loved to talk about them, searching out meaning, cosmic as well as personal.

Belle leaned toward her mother.

“I had the strangest dream last night. About Paul Hennessy. Remember him?”

“Now let me see,” said Lottie. “Was he the farmer?”

Belle laughed. “No. The farmer was college. Paul came later.”

“How much later? The old mind isn’t what it used to be.”

“Later. Two years later. You should remember Paul. You cooked Sunday dinner for him the day he flew to Korea.”

Lottie tapped her forefinger on her pursed lips. “I have it. Him. I never liked him. But you, you thought the world of him.”

“Yes, well, that’s neither here nor there now. But I want to tell you about this dream because you’re the only one who will remember him.”

“Did he die?”

“No. I don’t think so. If he had, there would have been something in the paper.”

“What was the dream?”

“I dreamt I saw him. I saw his face, clearly. He turned left, toward me, and smiled, and nodded. I smiled, too, because it meant yes.”

“Yes? Why yes?”

“Because he was happy and so was I.”

“And then what?”

“Nothing. I woke up. There were tears on my face. I was extraordinarily happy.”

“That’s not much of a dream, my dear.”

“Well, message more than plot.”

Lottie had picked up the thread. “He married another girl. It’s all coming back to me now. You thought he was going to marry you and then he wrote you that letter from Korea.”

“A Dear John letter.”

“A what?”

“A good-bye from a safe distance.”

“I never forgave him for that. Who did he think he was? The nerve of him.”

“Europe helped,” said Belle. “I learned how to travel. I got that much out of it anyway.”

“Well, isn’t that what they say in the novels? An ocean voyage for a broken heart? Does the trick, my dear.”

“Oh, yes,” Lottie went on. “That one. A soldier. All tricked out with a knife in his boot. I remember him well. Came to the house, then flew off, just like that. Didn’t talk much. And then that letter.”

“It was hard for me to be sane. It was a terrible time for me.”

Lottie signaled for another glass of wine.

“Yes. And that’s why I tore up the other one.”

A deepening silence lay between them as the seconds passed.

“I took the letter that came for you when you were in Europe and I threw it away.” Lottie swallowed the last of her first glass and upped her chin at Belle. “And I’d do the same thing again. I didn’t want you starting up mooning about him all over again. Then I forgot about it and so did you. And then you married John.”

Belle stared at her mother.

“Don’t look at me like that. I never meant to tell you. It just came out. You shouldn’t have brought him up.”

“One question. Did you open the letter?”

“No. That would have been wrong. Anyway, what difference does it make now? It’s all over and done with.”

Their cozy affection had turned to bile. Belle could not even begin to sort out her feelings. Lottie was angry because her nice outing was ruined. They finished their meal quickly.

“Take me home, please,” said Lottie. The wine has done me in and I want to go straight up for a nap.”

“Jesus God Almighty,” Belle said out loud as she slammed the car door shut at Plaza Street. At home she looked at herself in the mirror over the hall table, her face suffused with anger. Her bloody-minded old mother with her rose-beige reminiscences. Lottie had given her that mirror. “Take it, take it. It’s valuable. It cost a lot of money in 1926, the year I was married. That’s when your father had money. Nothing was too good for me. The sky was the limit. And then it was all gone. All gone in the crash. I told him, I told your father. . . .”

Belle spoke the rest of the passage. “But he wouldn’t listen to me.”

The clock rang the half-hour. Belle sat down in John’s leather armchair, her mind going in circles as a blindfolded child is turned in a party game before stepping out to pin the tail on the donkey, excited, uncertain, all eyes upon her. The clock slipped the minutes, ivory counters into an ivory box.

She closed her eyes. Mother, what do you think about when you’re alone?

My memories, my dear. I have such good memories. That’s all that’s left.

Summer, 1950. Shelter Island. A blind date. When they were introduced, Paul had smiled at her name.

“Pour la belle France?”

“No.”

“Belle Watling?”

“Hardly that.”

“What then?”

“A mother’s hopes.”

Words were from the first a sensual game. Words and looks drew eyes to mouths and to ardent touch. Wit gave them what he wanted, the tacit acceptance of the handy truth that the weeks between graduation from West Point and service in Korea were not the stuff of romance. But it was too late for Belle. She bore his imprint. They parted on the Island, but would meet again in Brooklyn before he left for California.

He came on a Sunday. After Mass, Lottie gave them dinner and afterward Paul helped her correct essays written by her honors English class.

“If this is their best work, I fear for the republic,” he said. “Let’s go out.”

They walked down to a little park at the end of the block. An equestrian statue of a Civil War general stood on the top of a small hill inside the railings, his sword raised toward the entrance to Prospect Park. They walked arm in arm. High winds swirled in the trees, showering leaves in clouds against the sky that was bright and pink with coming storm. An ending now would divide Belle’s life. Hope, lightheartedness would need to begin again. Music and memory would tear her apart. The wound would be deep, but with its bare history, hidden. She could mourn alone if she had to.

Belle drove him to La Guardia. They stood in front of the glass doors, waiting for the flight to be called.

“Don’t stay,” he said.

“No,” she said.

“I’ll write.”

She put her arms around his neck and her face against his face.

“I’ll wait.”

A month later she received the letter that told her that he “had met a girl in Oakland, the sister of a classmate. We are going to be married when I return home. This will come as a surprise to you after our talks and after you knew how much I came to value the closeness we had last summer. But I am helpless in the face of a fact that must be acknowledged and that must be told to you by me alone. I pray that life will be the best that it can for you, Belle. I will never forget you.”

She answered him. “You? Bouleversé? Well, if you say so. In the event that what you tell me is true, my congratulations. Long life. Much issue. And steady progress in the ranks. My best, which you have always had. B.”

But, oh, the waste of it, the waste, only now set right in a dream and almost wrecked in the slip of an old woman’s tongue. Could she be believed? It really didn’t matter, Belle found. You must always decide what to do next.

Children were playing in the street. School must be out. Belle went to the window. Giant steps. In the summers when she was a child, after dinner, she and Phil were allowed to stay out until the street lights came on. They played statues, she and Gloria, her best friend, her Mulcahy cousins and the Miller girls, Marilyn and her sister Petey with the hare lip. One swung the others around and then let go. The one released spun to a halt, keeping the pose she was in when the motion stopped. Statues was best played at dusk when light was present but fading in the slow exchange of day for night. The spinning children took on a suppleness that they did not show outside of play. With evening came ease, and sometimes they voiced fluting cries while they whirled. It was a simple game, favored by the girls. There was no skill involved, no talent, no strength, only docility and imagination and Belle remembered the warm air sliding along her arms and face, the rush of dreams and possibilities that would be the gifts of night and sleep.

The phone rang.

“Belle, darling,” said Lottie. “I just had a nap and when I woke up something was bothering me. Did I get out of line?”

“No. Not really. I was telling you about a dream I had and you told me something that upset me for a while.”

“What was that?”

“Something about a letter. A letter you threw away, years ago. A letter that belonged to me.”

“I did? Isn’t that peculiar?”

“I thought so. It made me think about things that happened a long time ago.”

“Did I upset you? I wouldn’t upset you for the world, Belle.”

“It’s all right now.”

“Oh, good. I knew there was something.”

“What are you going to do now?”

“Pay the utilities. They’ve been punished long enough.”

She waited. Belle did not laugh.

“I love you, Belle. Everyone does.”

“I know.”

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