Spouse Jo Ann’s solicitousness in preparation for breakfast encouraged me to believe that the coast was clear. No more talk of reeducation camp or forced indoctrination into the ways and wiles of modern duplicate bridge. Would I like sausages with my waffles? Another cup of Joe to wash them down? Absolutely. Home free.
All’s well that ends well, I prided myself, inaudibly. No celebratory Snoopy-dancing or other outward displays of sweet success, of course. That would have constituted dangerously gauche hubris, tempting fate. “How ‘bout I come set up our trays for eating in the living room?” I volunteered, heading toward the kitchen before she responded, underscoring what a fine, upstanding solid team player I could be.
I entered a scene of domestic bliss. A mixing bowl of waffle batter sat alongside two preheating waffle irons on the side counter between the oven and the refrigerator. A jug of pure Vermont maple syrup awaited my decanting it into individual pourers for a thirty-second shot in the microwave. Jo Ann had already found the sausages and had them steam-warming in a covered stovetop pan. She was standing at the kitchen sink, with her back to me, as she cleaned and cored a quart of fresh strawberries.
The center island was graced with a translucent pale green Depression glass serving bowl cradling sliced bananas marinating in orange-mango juice. Alongside stood my great aunt Emma’s oversized, sterling silver salt shaker, repurposed to dispense cinnamon sugar. It was going to be a royal repast.
My heart took flight, soaring, sun-bound as a carefree Icarus. I honored her artistry with an expansive compliment: “Honey, you’ve outdone yourself. It’s perfection, isn’t it?”
Her reply shattered my illusions, melted my waxen wings, and precipitated a vertiginous plunge toward terra obstinata and oblivion. “We’ll be sitting at the table today, Good Fellow. Set three places. Contessa will be joining us. She’s so looking forward to it.”
I can’t attest to whether that’s the instant when I began to formulate my list of options. As sucker-punched as I felt, reeling inside with self-recrimination for having allowed delusional thinking to trump past experience, such a claim would be most improbable. But sometime that day, maybe even when Contessa was droning on about opening point count and hand evaluation basics, a few of them came to me, and I wrote them down.
They smiled at each other, did Jo Ann and Contessa, believing that their blank slate nestling was taking notes assiduously. I freely admit that many of the jottings were a form of letting off steam. Run Like Hell, for example, was a rant. Beg for My Old Job Back was equally strident, but not beyond the realm of possibility. Invoke Matters of National Security. I had no idea whatsoever where to go with that, but it was redolent of patriotism and noble undertaking. Would it fly? Alas, no. I’d used that one once before, to no avail, when trying to bail out of attending a performance of Tosca at the cramped, overheated, antiquated Lyric Opera House downtown.
Suddenly, I was hearing voices. Their voices, jabbing insistently at my thought balloons. They were tag-teaming me, asking if I was okay. “What? No. I mean yes. I – uh, I must have – tell me again, slowly, so I can absorb it better.” I guess they bought it, because the tutorial resumed where they thought I’d lost the thread. “Okay, got it,” I said, as the two of them took turns answering my question: “Why is Notrump a higher-ranking bid than any of the suits?”
“Nobody ever asked that before,” Contessa mused. “It’s simply one of the game’s structural elements – like passing Go in Monopoly and collecting two hundred dollars. Notrump’s superior, I’d say, because it’s harder to make a contract without having a trump suit to take tricks.”
She paused before resuming, waiting for me to finish writing that down, as I clandestinely scribbled two words – Chautauqua Institute. A time-honored tradition and citadel of learning by a Thoreauvian lake, situated in southwestern New York State. I could qualify as a featured speaker. Nine weeks on campus every summer. Hard work? Indubitably, but it would account for a full one-sixth of the escape plan. Nine weeks down and forty-three to go.
Contessa was saying something like, “So, that’s that.” She proceeded then to remove a boxed set of flashcards from her purse. Flashcards. My first recollection of them is from Mrs. Post’s first grade class at Arlington Elementary. I’m retrogressing. Contessa flips open the top and thumbs through the stack. Will she ask me to identify farm animals, as Mrs. Post did? I force a wan grin to mask the dread. Contessa has no way of knowing that I failed cut-and-paste and other simple tasks in first grade. Not even Jo Ann is privy to that dark secret.
Resonating in my head is the anguished entreaty voiced by the M*A*S*H television show character Charles Emerson Winchester, tape recorded by him at the end of an oral letter to his family back home in Massachusetts: Get me the hell out of here!
To Be Continued