Bridge Night: A Fairy Tale
Who, she thought, would kiss her awake?
It was bridge night. Elizabeth’s parents and the Thompsons were sitting around a card table in the living room, under the chandelier with crystal globes. They were sitting in proper bridge partner formation, like points of a compass: Bill Thompson on the south side of the table, his partner Elizabeth’s mother, Nora, to the north. Elizabeth’s father, Ted, sat on the east by the card shuffler, Peg Thompson, his partner to the west. By their elbows were bridge tallies, decorated with colored leaves to celebrate the season, and leaf-shaped dishes of bridge mix. They were drinking coffee and eating Nora’s chocolate torte, made of graham crackers and chocolate pudding, having what Peg Thompson called “a Methodist evening,”—their little joke—because even though Methodists didn’t approve of playing cards or drinking coffee, by the early 1960s, no one really cared.
From the other room, Elizabeth heard the sounds of guns and hoof beats as Dale, the Thompsons’s sixteen-year-old son, whose spikey blonde hair was visible above the lounge chair, watched “Bonanza.”
She stood at the edge of the bridge table, eating butter mints and watching the grownups sort their mysterious cards—one deck edged silver and decorated with blue birds, the other blue with silver-edged cards—as they turned up spades and diamonds, sinister one-eyed jacks and lonely queens.
As she scooped up a third handful of mints, her mother rested her hand on Elizabeth’s. “Enough,” she said quietly. “Time for bed, kid.”
Elizabeth said good-night and pulled away from the table with great sadness. Peg Thompson patted her on the cheek. Her dad gave her a playful swat on the bottom.
As she headed up the stairs, she sat on the top step to spy on the living room. Her father leaned back in his chair, his cards fanned out in front of him, one leg crossed in front of the other.
With one eyebrow cocked, he was asking Bill Thompson, if the state could elect a Republican for governor, why couldn’t the damn country.
Bill, the history professor who reminded her of Abe Lincoln with his stiff formality, drawn-out sentences and cold hands (Elizabeth realized later she always assumed Abraham Lincoln had cold hands). “The Republicans ran right into the ghost of FDR,” Bill said deliberately.
Elizabeth tried to imagine Republicans running into ghosts.
Peg said, as she held out her fan of cards, arranging them with great finality, “Well at least our state—“ she shoved a card into her deck— “was its usual schizophrenic self.” Plucked a card, shoved it somewhere else. “Republican governor, Democratic house.” She snapped her cards down on the table. “You gotta love it.”
Elizabeth’s father crossed the room and stood in front of his bookcase of records. He selected one and gently pulled it out of its sleeve. Elizabeth knew exactly what it was: Glen Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Her father loved big band music and had it all— Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Artie Shaw—kept in carefully alphabetized stacks that she was forbidden to touch. But his greatest love was Glen Miller: “In the Mood,” “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” “Stairway to Heaven.” As the horns, trombones, and trumpets began their ebullient swing, he stood still, directing the speakers, his face flushed, beyond reach.
Her mother leaned over and looked at her. “I know you are up there, Elizabeth. Go to bed.”
Elizabeth took one long look back at that room with its oriental rugs, the shining piano stacked with music, her father and Ted laughing, and Peg scribbling something on her bridge tally, then she trudged on up the stairs to the dark landing.
Her mother followed her to make sure she went all the way to her room, opening the covers to her bed, like an envelope to hold her, patting them around her. She kissed her. “What you need now is sleep,” she said, “Sweet dreams.”
Words were replaced by wind, freight trains along the river, and the neighbor dog, barking, always barking.
At night, Elizabeth made up stories. There were loud bangs from freight trains in the Milwaukee rail yard below the house. Elizabeth imagined gun battles, two men stalking each other alongside the freight trains, gunshots, bodies curling in the dust. Someone had found a bum once, dead, in the ditch below their house. A lost prince, of course, who had been coming to find her, to have her let her hair down and join him to run away, but instead was caught in the deadly thicket of thorns around their house, like so many princes before him.
She was nine, in bed, in her red flannel nightgown. Now her father was playing “Tuxedo Junction.” She heard the rise and fall of laughter as her parents played cards. Something seemed to tap itself into her brain as she listened to the patterns of their voices: the bursts of laughter, the pockets of silence, followed by the nervous welling-up of conversation.
“Deal, would ya, Ted!” she heard Peg cry out.
“I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying, Peg,” her father laughed. “Thirteen cards takes a while, you know. We’re not all as quick as the Butte Irish.”
Elizabeth’s mother laughed. It was a nervous sound, a laugh that didn’t get much exercise.
There was a creak of shoe leather on wood.
Cloth rubbed against cloth.
Elizabeth’s heart froze.
She waited, pinned to the bed. Her bed had a rounded headboard in which, during a nap once when she was five, she scratched a story with the butt of a toy gun, a story about a little girl who climbed over a tall mountain on her way to her grandmother’s house.
One of her favorite stories was the one her father told her about the cat’s paw the hobos drew on posts to let the others know that her great-grandmother was an easy mark. They came up from the tracks to knock on the back door and her grandmother gave them things: overcoats, pants, shoes, bread. Elizabeth imagined that one of these hobos might be a princess in disguise, like the Goose Girl. Elizabeth would look out her window and see her standing at the back door in ragged clothes, herding geese, unbinding her long, golden hair, saying,
“O wind, blow Conrad’s hat away,
And make him follow as it flies,
While I with my gold hair will play,
And bind it up in seemly wise?”
The door creaked open. The voices downstairs grew louder. Peg said, “Damn you, Ted, don’t you dare trump my ace!”
He is standing in the door, his body dark, outlined in light from the hallway, the thatch of hair illuminated. “I came to say good-night.”
“I said good-night,” Elizabeth said.
No. That story wasn’t right. She was the ragged princess at the back door. Nearly dead with cold, she was lighting matches to keep warm. A king looking out the upstairs window saw her unbinding her long chestnut hair and recognized her. “She is no mere goose girl,” he said to the others. “She is a princess. Look at her fine fingers.”
“This is your room?” he whispered. He took two steps inside the door, stepping from heel to toe on each foot very slowly. He tiptoed over to the window. “You can see the trains from here.”
“I know that,” she said. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“The Milwaukee Railroad,” he said. “They call it the Silk Train because it carries Chinese silk from Seattle to New York.”
“So?” Elizabeth said.
“So, we could walk down there and hop that train and in a few days we’d be in New York. That’s so.”
“I don’t want to go to New York.”
“They bang together every night.” Elizabeth said.
He smiled. “They call that coupling,” he said. His teeth were very even. Very white.
The racheting of a zipper. How he wanted her to touch it and she didn’t want to, but she did too, and the head of it was smooth, the rest of it bumpy, reptilian. Never tell, he said. Just like a spell. Never, never, never.
What she remembered was how quietly he slipped out the door. And how quietly, the next time, he slipped in.
Wrong again. She was the princess in rags at the back door. She was the one who walked in to the house, her dog’s head nailed to the wall, that said:
“Princess dost thou so meanly fair?
But if thy mother knew thy pain,
Her heart would surely break in twain?”
She crawled in an iron oven and told her story about the boy who comes in her room and made her touch him until he shuddered, but she can’t move, because her parents have so many troubles—the aunt who shot herself, the grandmother who is in and out of the mental hospital—and there they are in this circle of light, laughing. With these words she, the child, would tap her wand and this bubble of laughter and friendship and happiness would disappear and they would be back to their usual diet of pain and grey and cold dinners, so instead, she decided to heal herself. As she says all this to the iron oven, the woman who hears her says (she finds out later), “Thou has spoken thy own doom.”
There are other bridge parties. Elizabeth in her nightgown, Dale’s hands sullenly shoved in the pocket of his letter jacket. She’d go upstairs to her room and he’d part for the television, while the adults made coffee and settled around the bridge table laughing and she’d lie in bed and listen for the squeak of leather on wood. How it became like penance, a spell, some grim endurance. They went through the Nixon years. Watergate, the beginning of Johnson’s years in the White House, then Dale went off to college, and Elizabeth started babysitting.
Stop. The script must be rewritten. The scriptwriter was menopausal and weepy and we had to fire her. This is the correct story. The princess walked up from the tracks to the back door. She knocked. No one answered. She knocked again. This time she decided to go in. Everything was just as she left it twenty years ago, but everyone was asleep: her father, mother, Peg and Bill Thompson at the bridge table, her father holding his bridge hand, her mother easing a slice of chocolate torte to the white Spode china with the delicate pink rose in the center. Prairie rose the pattern is called. Peg Thompson’s pencil was poised over the bridge tally, even the ticks on the dog are sleeping. There, at the foot of the stairs, is Dale. His foot is on the bottom step, his hand on the banister.
In this version of the story, Elizabeth kissed the girl. There is no prince. Are you kidding? Honestly. This is the twenty-first century. The nine-year-old screamed and the sleeping people came to life. The mother threw down the server, the Spode flew to floor and shattered. The father cried “What the hell is going on?” and jumped up and hit his head on the chandelier and broke not one crystal globe, but two, before he ran to her rescue amid the glorious sound of breaking crystal. Peg blinked as she turned her head about, looking at the candles sputtering to life, the flies stirring in the window casements. Her father comes thundering down the stairs and there are angry words among the adults and the Thompsons take their bad boy home and punish him soundly and send him to bed without supper.
But, alas, that is mere fiction.
Elizabeth saw Dale twenty years later at his father’s funeral, which was held in the Methodist church in Bridger. After the tributes and prayers, a group of old men known as the “Past Dues” sang “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” their voices wobbly with emotion. Bill Thompson was well-respected man, a pillar of the community with his civic duties and long career at the university.
After the service, Elizabeth stood in line to pay her respects.
He was a middle-aged man, overweight, dressed in a blue jacket too short in the sleeves. Her mother told her he lived in Spokane. She wanted him to be a car salesmen, so she was pissed when her mother told her he was actually a reporter.
A reporter? She thought. With a commitment to convey the truth?
She would shake his hand, tell him how sorry she was for his loss, see if there was a flicker, a shade drawn down across his eyes, any registration of what had gone between them.
He looked at her, fingering the button on his jacket. There were still comb marks in his grey-blonde hair. “Where are you now?”
“Helena,” she said. She wanted to go on and say, “I jail child molesters. I cut their balls off.” Instead she said, “I’m a prosecutor.” She shook his hand and took pleasure in the spider-like finger of hairs combed across his bald spot.
His eyes widened. He turned quickly to the woman behind her in line. “Mrs. McSweeney! How nice of you to come. My father was such a fan of your singing.”
She went on into the reception, drinking thin punch and eating cake that had spun sugar frosting, the kind that makes your stomach turn.
One more story. Fiction, yes, but who cares about fiction or nonfiction at this point.
Elizabeth arrives at her old room, painted blue, with the large Renoir print of the girl in the rowboat on the wall. She is there to wake her nine-year-old self. She sees herself lying in bed, her braids brown ropes across the white pillow, her round freckled face. She stands over the girl, clenching her fists and roars, two bitter tears rolling down her face. When they touch the girl’s eyes, her eyes flutter open and become clear, and bright, and blue, and she can see as well as ever.
Elizabeth lifts the girl gently out of the bed and carries her down the stairs, past Dale, still asleep, his foot poised on the stair, his hand on the bannister, to the living room where her mother, father, and the Thompsons are asleep, the brambles growing around them, and lets the girl see them one last time: all of them, kings, and queens, and hearts and knaves, trumps and no trumps, before she carries her out the front door and into the waiting world.
Caroline Patterson has published fiction in Southwest Review, Terrain, Salamander, Seventeen, Epoch, and Alaska Quarterly Review. She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and have won fellowships through the Montana Arts Council, the Alison Deming Fund for Women, and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She is currently working on a novel, The Stone Sister.