MUSED
BellaOnline Literary Review
Poppy by Carol Dandrade

Table of Contents

Fiction


Order in the Game

Rebecca Duncan

Haydon doesn’t think much of Shelby—my last single friend—so when he’s away on business, she’ll come over for the evening. She’s not the least bit intimidated by his things. She’ll open his humidor and sniff the cigars. She’ll pick up an ’89 Malbec like it’s a family size white Zin and slosh it around just for fun.

When she leaves, I do my best to restore order. Haydon’s a little picky about his stuff, so I’ve learned where everything belongs. Once he found his Congolese figures piled in obscene positions on the shelf, and he said, “Tell your friend those are worth more than her new Audi.” For now, though, I follow my friend through the house and breathe in her courage.

“He told me I was his second wife,” I tell her, “but it turns out I’m his third.”

“How’d you find out?” She pretends to stab her neck with a silver letter opener that she finds on Haydon’s desk. “Augh! Augh!” she says, and I give her a weak smile.

“The real second wife died the other day,” I say.

“What are you – reading obituaries now?” She puts down the weapon, which I return to its proper angle.

“I heard him talking about it on the phone.”

“Where is she? I mean, where was she?” She surveys the space and finds nothing else to disturb.

“Columbus, maybe? I’m not sure.”

We pause on the staircase landing. “Is that new?” she says.

“Yeah, it’s etched glass. Don’t touch it.” She puts out a finger just to mess with me and pulls it back.

“You know what you do with information like that?” she says. “You save it up and use it when you want something, or if he gives you a hard time.”

Shelby’s advice can be amusing on a regular day. Not that she’s a love expert or anything; she picks over guys like they’re a pile of marked-down sweaters. She has no sense of being in sync with someone or sticking it out no matter what.

Still, she keeps some part of me alive, a spark that might easily die in this place--my cage of comfort, she calls it. And so we get together and laugh like a couple of middle-school girls, and eventually Haydon comes along with a satin-lined box of something nice and tales of the dragons he’s slain, and it’s all good.

But this is not a regular day.

“Do you think maybe Dave would hire me back?” I ask. “I could do inventory or payroll while I get up to speed with the tax law.”

“What, are you nuts? You would leave this?” Her eyes drift over the gallery.

“I can’t stay here with a liar.”

My voice cracks, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She flips on the track lighting and studies the artwork, stopping in front of a photograph of mine. It’s a black and white gel print of a crumbling crosscut log. “Hey, what’s this?” she asks.

My face flushes. “He hung it after the show.” I don’t tell her it won a juried exhibition and Haydon had to bid up for it, or that Maris Furnishings has commissioned me for a series for its corporate headquarters.

“So you made the wall!” She gives me a high five. “You’re up here with the big guys. Way to go!”

Shelby finally cues into my lack of enthusiasm. She puts an arm on my shoulder as we head into the kitchen. “Besides,” she says, “I hear they’re laying off next month.” She laughs. “Pray for me.”

She’s brought Doritos and beer. In the family room we try a few remotes and get the TV on, but we can’t bring up any sound. We sit with our bare feet on the coffee table and watch two hockey players tug clumsily at each other’s jerseys. “Canes and the Redwings,” she says. “Cool.”

We’re both in baggy sweats, our unwashed hair pulled back--no makeup. This could be one of our girls’ nights at college; only our feet tell a different story. Shelby’s do-it-yourself pedicure has chipped, and her heels are rough and callused. I’ve put in my time at the spa; I’m buffed and rosy in all the right places. For the first time in ages I sort of envy her, though, and I wonder if I could ever live on my own again.

“I wish the players wouldn’t fight,” I say.

“Yeah, and you wish men were shiny knights, too.” She points her beer at the screen. “They fight to keep order in the game.”

I try to picture the mystery wife sitting in a room like this, Haydon off in some distant city for days on end. I wonder if she had a Shelby to talk to, and why the marriage ended, and what she looked like. Why Haydon, who loves to share his youthful adventures, has kept her a secret. And, my mind churning, I wonder which of the objects all around me hold the memory of her touch.

Shelby brings us another beer and barks instructions to the goalie. The alcohol calms me a little, and we fill each other in on news of our friends.

At the second intermission, Shelby stands up to leave. “Well, the honeymoon had to end sometime,” she says. “What’s it been, how many years now, and you still think he’s God’s gift?”

She has a way of turning things around on me. If she keeps it up, I’ll be defending him, and that’s the last thing on my mind tonight.

Shelby stuffs a beer into her purse, kisses me on the cheek, and heads out, saying, “Life’s a bitch. Might as well be one.” Her car door slams shut, and just then the garage door starts to hum. The timing couldn’t be worse. Haydon wasn’t due home for another day.

I think about going down there to mediate, but I don’t want to hear them dig at each other under a guise of gooey politeness or watch Haydon search for tire marks on the lawn. He’ll find them, even at this hour. They both love a conflict, that’s for sure.

Hearing no sign of trouble, I take a swipe at the Dorito dust on the sofa and stuff our empties on a pantry shelf. Something feels off about Haydon’s movements. He usually calls ahead, especially when his plans change. With a little notice, I can fix myself up and have something ready for us to eat, but there’s no hope of that tonight.

Feeling grungy and confused, I head up to my loft, a small nook above the breakfast room that harbors what’s left of my life before this one: a love seat we’ve had redone in embroidered denim, a wooden rocking chair, and a double-wide ottoman that opens to swallow the clutter. I’ve brought home some proofs and sketches from my studio; a dozen mat board samples are strewn around the floor. I leave the mess there, a little rebellion to keep myself angry. Shelby could be right; maybe marriage is a dance of manipulation and deceit. Maybe I’m in too deep and have too much to lose. But this wife issue is cutting me up like nothing before. So I sit and wait for my chance to confront Haydon here on my own little turf.

Anger has exhausted me, so I close my eyes and listen as he moves through the house. From my open perch I can hear almost everything and guess the rest. The suitcase rolls into the laundry room, full of dirty clothes, of course. Next, the wooden door of the wine cellar creaks open on its iron hinges and in a few seconds closes again. He must know just what he wants in there. Footsteps touch the stairs; a wine bottle clinks on the kitchen counter. A hand sifts among metal objects in a drawer; the corkscrew is found. Then stillness, silence. “Carrie?” he calls out.

“Up here,” I say.

“So you’re a hockey fan now?” he asks. I must have left the TV on—a tactical error. What now? Go down there or stay put? My plan feels flimsy and contrived. I start down the stairs, and he meets me halfway. I know we’re off script when he folds me into a tight, warm hug.

“How are you?” he asks.

“I’m okay.” I slide down and sit on a step while he tugs at his tie. His eyes are red, but he doesn’t smell like he’s been drinking.

“Sorry I didn’t bring you anything. Tight connections.”

“It’s all right.” I look down at my faded sweats. “Sorry I’m such a mess.”

“You look sweet. What are you doing?”

“Shelby stopped by for a little while.”

“Yeah. I passed her driving in.” He shows no sign of annoyance. I’m truly baffled.

“Let’s go watch, he says. “I think the Canes are up.”

I rush over to rub out the heel prints on the coffee table glass. He changes into sweats himself and brings in two mugs of golden beer, instead of the wine. He unmutes the sound and then mutes it again. We sit side by side, and he laces his fingers through mine, high school dating style. The Canes are ahead four to one in the third, but their limbs look heavy and tired.

“How was the meeting?” I ask.

He blows out a sigh.

“That bad?”

He puts his beer on the coffee table, still pressing his hand into mine. He looks into my eyes and says, “I stopped by the field office for a while, but the truth is I went up there for a funeral.”

I lower my eyes and pull my hand away. A kind person might ask who died, but of course I know that. All I can spill out is “Okay.”

He nods and then nods some more, the way he does when he’s buying time, gathering strength. I’ve sat with him at dinners when he’s closing a contract; he’s damn good. Timing is everything, he says, like with a good joke.

Minutes pass; the Canes keep missing shots and losing control of the puck.

We sip at our beer, and he says, “Did you ever. . .” and pauses. “Did you ever . . . wander into something so strange you didn’t know what hit you?”

Unsure he’s really asking for an answer, I tuck my feet up under me and watch him bite his lower lip, so hard he makes a dent.

He says, “She called it love, but the whole time I was just stunned. That’s the only way I can describe it. Stunned.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Overwhelmed. Defeated. Call it whatever,” he says. “You know I don’t like to lose.”

He takes my glass, sets it on the coffee table, and reaches for both of my hands. We look like we did for our wedding vows: elbows bent, fingers curled, his over, mine under. But this time my head feels light; I begin to smell the English roses that overwhelmed the church. Blooms as big as teacups lining the altar, sprays tied with satin ribbons to every pew. He saw what my mother and I had planned and bumped it up to his pay grade. I look at his still-boyish face, those brown eyes that usually shine, and I see real sadness. At some level below the surface of reason, I know he thinks he can tell me this story and that I’ll understand. My focus drifts to a far corner of the room. My fingers go limp and return no affection or promise.

He narrates a romantic fantasy that I have to melt into abstraction or risk losing my mind. Together, he says, the courtship and marriage lasted nineteen months. Ornery and rich, she practiced catch and release romance in a town her father nearly owned. There were sports cars and private aircraft, rock stars and after-parties. “And just like that,” he tells me, still gripping my fingers, “she was gone. I know it sounds crazy, but it was like she couldn’t figure out who I was, or what we were doing together. She got so quiet and distant, and nothing I said could hold her attention. And then one day she summoned her attorneys, or maybe her father did, and that was it.”

Now it’s my turn to be stunned. I sit for a minute, thinking Haydon may cry, wondering what I should do if he suddenly starts sobbing. This is all new territory, and I struggle to decide which is more urgent: his despair or my indignation. Of all the strange things to say, I come up with, “Please don’t tell me her name.”

“Fair enough,” he says. Shelby would want to know; she would make silly rhymes with it - or something cruder.

While he’s been talking, the Redwings have tied up the score. The game is headed into overtime. We settle back on the sofa, our shoulders touching, our heads thrown back into the buttery leather. I can feel Haydon’s exhaustion as if it’s my own. As for the other thing, time will tell if I come to feel it or think it, and which will matter more, and where it will land between us.

The Redwings score in sudden death, and while the goal is contested, a fight breaks out. Helmets fly; refs skate in and push the players apart.
Haydon says, “I wish they wouldn’t fight. It ruins an otherwise graceful game.”

Shelby’s calm, sure logic comes surging back, and I start to shape a statement on keeping order in the game. Something stops me, though, and I put my hand firmly over his and say, “I was just thinking that, too.”





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