Burt Baum, whose work has appeared in a number of print and online publications, is a retired chemist who is striving to become the “Grandpa Moses” of literature.
FAULTY BRIDGE (MAY, 2015)
My husband Maurice rises from the table, his face purple-red and full of crevices like an overripe strawberry. “Goddamit, can’t you count to thirteen? We could have set them and gained more points. Is your head in some kind of cloud?”
My head is in a cloud, floating high in the sky away from all the tedium of the game and the desperate people who measure their worth in bridge points, but best of all, away from Maurice. His ranting brings me down to earth, but only temporarily. I smile, but say nothing—knowing this makes him even more furious—and ascend to the heavens again.
“What’s the matter with you? Aren’t you going to say something?”
Back to the bridge table. “It’s break time, I’ll get you a big cup of ice water.”
I walk to the rest rooms and water fountain. All the bridge players in the club house stream toward the refreshment table as if it is their last chance on earth for some food—which in Golden Glen is always more than a remote possibility.
I go into the ladies room and pat some cold water on my face. I am startled by the old woman looking back at me. Her eyes are red and there are tiny tears in the corners. How did I wind up in a place like this? All these bent over people, the walkers and canes, the women with colored hair, the men—much fewer in number—all gray and balding, hearing aids and eye glasses everywhere.
I didn’t particularly want to live here. Maurice talked me into it. He wanted to be near his children, so we moved to California. He loves it here. It has bridge and golf. What more do you need? I’ve been struggling with the idea of leaving him, but I am alone-—no relatives and few friends (thanks, again, to Maurice). I have little money and he does support me. What’s really strange, though, is I know that, despite his bluster, he would fall apart without me.
I go over to Maurice who is stuffing himself with pretzels and hand him the water. He grabs the cup—he never says “thank you”—and gulps the contents down. Maybe this will cool him off, but I doubt it. I used to try to figure out why he was so mad most of the time, but I gave up. He lost his brother a few years ago which seemed to upset him, but it has to be more than that. After all, at our age we all go through losses. My Bob died about five years ago, and I still miss him. I was bitter for a while but I got over that. Life goes on. But for me it goes on with Maurice, and Maurice keeps going on fueled by anger.
“Now try to pay attention. Watch my leads and discards. We can still earn some more points.”
I say nothing. If I did, he wouldn’t listen. I use to like bridge—social bridge—not duplicate. In fact, that’s how I met Maurice. Back in New Jersey, Bob and I and three other couples use to meet once a month to play bridge. Once, when one of the couples couldn’t make it, Maurice and Sandy filled in. After that they sort of became permanent substitutes. Maurice was much calmer then, although he did occasionally display a temper. When he and Sandy split up, he disappeared from my life until Bob died.
The break is over and we begin the next round. Fortunately we get poor cards for the first three games and Maurice and I just play defense. In the fourth game Maurice gets the bid at three no-trump, and I sit out as dummy. This makes me happy. I’m never eager to play a hand with Maurice as my partner. He makes four no-trump and is overjoyed.
“You noticed how I held onto my ace so they couldn’t run their diamonds,” Maurice says to me as the east-west couples move for the next round. “Yes,” I say. This is enough encouragement for him to lecture me on the best strategies to use in playing no-trump. I married Maurice three years ago for companionship, not love, and since then I’ve received little of the first and none of the last—but loads of pontification.
His drone is like a narcotic. I am drifting. I think back about how this all started. Bob died suddenly and I wandered around our house for a year, wondering what hit me. Then slowly, very slowly, I resumed a social life—nothing extraordinary—movies, lunches with the ladies, museums, an occasional play. Finally, the old neighbors invited me to dinner with Maurice the only other guest. How pleasant and agreeable he seemed.
I remember sensing that he was as lonely as I was. We began to do things together. No romance—he was nearly ten years older, and I didn’t feel that a slightly overweight, fifty-six year old widow had much of a chance in that department. We were just fulfilling some mutual needs. Things drifted along like that for quite a while until Maurice suddenly announced he was thinking of moving to California.
“Want to come along?”
“Why would I want to do that?” I said
“Because it’s warmer.”
When I still seemed hesitant, he said in words that will go down in the annals of epic proposals, “OK, then we can get married, I guess.” So we got married, I guess.
The Wilkersons, who seem to live in the bridge room, sit down at the table. They nod to us. I’ve never heard Mr. Wilkerson talk, but that may be because his wife never gives him much of an opportunity to practice speech at home. We pull out the cards for the first game from the tray. I look at my hand quickly—two jacks for two points. Good, with that low point count I won’t have a bid. I look over at Maurice. I can see his eyes bulge and his hands start to quiver slightly. He obviously has lots of points, but there’s no way I can help him. He puts down the card showing a bid of two clubs. Mr. Wilkerson passes and without thinking I pass.
Maurice springs out of his seat. “You can’t pass. I bid two clubs. That’s a strong 2, an artificial bid. The rule is you have to bid.”
“There’s no rule that she has to bid. That’s her response—pass,” Mr. Wilkerson, who has suddenly found a voice, responds.
“No,” Maurice screams. “She needs to bid.”
In a tone that must have been used by the passengers on the Titanic as it began to sink, Mr. Wilkerson shouts, “Director!”
Midge Ruhlander, the director for our game, a tall, thin woman with very erect posture, strides over. “What’s the problem?” Midge asks, in a manner characteristic of a prison guard.
Mr. Wilkerson shows her the bidding cards on the table. Maurice points at me. “She has to bid.”
“No she doesn’t,” Midge says. “It’s a convention, not a rule, and she passed. Keep playing.” She turns in fine military style, and walks away.
Maurice springs to his feet again, like a jack-in-the-box gone berserk. “You see what you’ve done? I need a partner who knows how to play bridge.”
“So you do,” I say. “I hope you find one.” I get up and grab my pocketbook under the chair.
“You can’t leave; we’re in the middle of a game. Where are you going?”
“Somewhere where they don’t play bridge. Good-bye, Maurice.”
I walk out the door and feel the sun warm my face. That’s the only thing I’ll miss about California.