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Today's Story by Liz Betz

She reaches deeper into her bag of blame for more.

Trumps A Spade

“Your boy Robert just phoned.”  Anna said, catching me off guard.  Normally she’d not even tell me that our oldest son had phoned.  The wife and I raised two sons but in her pride it’s always Larry, and then your boy Robert.

“So..”  I begin cautiously, “What did Robert have to say?”

It doesn’t seem Anna will answer, her face a camp of concentration as she irons and folds tea towels, the smell of heated vinegar wafting around her like a personal perfume.  I see my Sunday shirts that are starched within an inch of standing on their own.  Starching is a sin; a rigid, unfriendly, way to do laundry, when no-iron clothing is so readily available.  She presses the final corner of the linen as she speaks.

“He’s taking us out for lunch.  Larry is going to be there too.  Said we needed to have a family meeting.”  Her voice has flattened out and she shoots me a look.  “I suppose you know what this is about.”

“I haven’t a clue.”  I say, but that’s a lie because right away I have my suspicions. Last week, when Robert took me to the fall supper at the school, he mentioned the senior condos were selling fast.  And then later, he mentioned how some people we knew were really looking forward to moving out of their house and into the condo.  It’s big news, these condos in this town with a population of just under 4000.

The business of the tea towels has brought Anna to the kitchen drawer as she places the crisp cloths inside.  Then that duty behind her, she tackles the phone call again.

“I’m surprised that Robert would stoop so low as to sit at the same table as ‘the corrupt town mayor’.  That’s what surprises me.  Him being the high and mighty editor of a two bit newspaper.” she says, straightening herself up, little winces of a stiff back crossing her face.

The brother battle that the two are engaged in, Larry as mayor and Robert as newspaper editor, is fodder for all the gossips in town.  Both our sons are just doing their job, but maybe they could pull in their punches.

“They’ll ride it out.  Blood is thicker than water.”  I say to her but the reassurance is for myself.  They’ve always had two different examples of how to treat people.  Anna calling a spade a spade, and like a spade she’s often cutting and hard.  I’m more willing to let people come to their own conclusions.  Spades are only noteworthy if you call them trump.

“It’s public, Irv.  They’re not doing this in the backyard, like they did as kids.”   I think of the backyard and those days of rumble, tumble boys. Now there’s nothing enjoying the backyard unless it’s the neighbor’s orange tomcat on his daily prowl and he can’t enjoy Anna turning the hose on him.

“I wish it were otherwise.” I say, admittedly this public quarreling has made our lives difficult.

“Yes.  Mr. Irving Pitts.  You wish.  Another wish upon a star.”

Brothers shouldn’t be ‘pitted’ against each other.  Many of my cohorts viewed it as a game between the two.  But the newspaper has pointed out that there could be something wrong with the number of people the new mayor has replaced, the librarian, the head of the public works department, three of the town office workers.  Plenty of people were worked up, even before Robert’s news items.  Larry may well be the next one replaced, next election.

But lunch it was.  With both boys.  No mention had been made of their wives or the grandchildren, but in the middle of the day it would be hard to get us all together.  But I smile at our sons.  Plotting together to help us make up our minds about moving to the condos, a welcome hint that we are still family.

At lunch, I watch Anna.  Her mouth is pursed over the pizza that her and Larry are sharing.  She hates pizza, and it’s showing, but her boy Larry suggested it, so of course she agreed. Robert is pushing his fries around his plate.  Our waitress has seemed decidedly unfriendly, almost as if she is punishing us with her service, our plates dropped down, her huffily refilling our water glasses.  And there are interruptions. Our friends, the Fletchers said hello, eyebrows raised at the four of us at one table, then someone approaches with a sidewalk concern that Larry responds to.  Anna seems enraptured with Larry’s words but when a person approaches Robert about a coming event that should be covered by the paper, Anna all but shoos them away.

“It’s hard to get a mouthful down.”  Anna said.  “People have no manners.”

I wince at her loud pronouncement and hastily signal for the check.  I’ll ask the boys what they wanted to talk about in the parking lot.  It’ll be good that the subject of condos is raised by them.  Wouldn’t I surprise them all, if I announce that I have already decided to move?

I rise and meet the waitress as she crosses the floor.  I give my credit card to the cashier, as Anna and the boys rise to gather their coats.  Just then, the waitress intercepts Larry, standing in front of him looking quite fierce.

“You think you’re so perfect.” she begins, “There’s people’s lives being ruined here.  Those people you’ve fired. What do you think they are going to live on?  Air?  Or maybe your ‘regret at their termination’?”

Her finger is pointed into his chest and it makes short stabbing motions to emphasis her words.  Larry colors deep red and he flusters a response.

“It’s my job to run the town and that includes hiring and firing.”

A little smile plays on Robert’s mouth.  Like he’s just gotten a good scoop.  He wouldn’t report this.  He has enough sense of family for that.

Then I notice Anna, her eyebrows furrowed, looking exactly like the mama bear of hiker nightmares.  She has to be stopped.   I’ve seen this public war of words escalate enough, without her making a rash play.  I reach the group and not knowing what I’ll say I open my mouth.

“Hold on.  Anna. This isn’t the place for this.  Just calm down.  Anna?”

But Anna isn’t about to calm down.

“Listen Missy, you are a poor excuse of a waitress, and I should get you fired.”  Anna’s bitter face is only an inch away from the waitress.

The waitress pales and mutters her apology, her anger seems washed aside by fear of unemployment, as she skitters back to the kitchen.  I feel sorry for her but what can I do?  Anna all but sticks out her tongue at the retreating woman.  Meanwhile, something like relief washes over Larry, cooling his face back to a normal shade.  When he speaks, Larry’s voice is firm.  He’s too much a politician to be fazed for long.

“It’s been crazy, but I stand by my decisions.”  His mother nods her total agreement, while Robert and I exchange a look that asks ‘What can you do?’ as Robert helps his mother with her coat.  She jams her arms into the sleeves and buttons it fiercely.  I move to guide her outside, but she sweeps past me and through the doors.

“Come by the house for coffee, we haven’t talked yet.”  I said, in the parking lot as we stand beside Larry’s low slung convertible.   Anna is getting into the passenger seat and Larry opens his door too.

“I don’t know if Larry has time and this hardly seems the place…”  Robert begins, but Larry interrupts, frowning.

“This is Robert’s idea.  He thinks you need the heads up about the Human Rights Commission complaints that have been made.  Guess he plans to sell a few more newspapers by raking me over the coals, over that.”

“You’re in trouble Larry?” Anna reaches over to touch Larry’s shoulder.

“It’s nothing.”  He shrugs.  “Hey, enough of this.  Let me take my special lady for a spin.” Doors shut, the engine roars and they depart.

Robert watches them leave then suggests that we walk the two blocks home.

We head to the sidewalk in silence.  His features in the soft light of the overcast day look very much like my mother and I wonder if that is part of why I love him.  His brother Larry takes after Anna’s family.

“You kinda surprised me.”  Robert said and I wonder what he’s meaning, but he gestures towards the restaurant that we have left.  “Handling the little scene back there.  I know Mom got worked up anyway but it could have been worse.”

I nod.  “ It’s been rough for your mother and me, lately.  You are both doing your job but it’s…” my thoughts interfere with my speech for just a moment.  It’s not what I wanted to bring up at all.  I begin again.

“Your mother thinks that it’s time for me to straighten you out.  She thinks that you’re both behaving like a pair of schoolboys.  I know it’s not that.  It’s just circumstances, really.”  At this I stop, my voice is giving way to the emotion in my throat.  I can’t believe how I’ve choked up but I blink back my tears, swallow and ask.  “That’s all it is, isn’t it?”

Robert takes a moment before he speaks, his eyes straight forward as if he hasn’t noticed my emotional state.

“Have you been reading my reports?  Larry is headed for trouble over this, legal trouble now.  That’s what we needed to talk about.  It’s going to get messy and I wanted you to hear it from us first.”

Oh.  That’s what this is about.  Suddenly I wish -yes, wish upon a star – that all the boys wanted from us is to encourage our move to the condos.  That their concern for us had prompted them to pull together.  But it’s not true.

We continue to walk down the sidewalk as we turn the corner into our cul-de-sac.  The neighbor’s orange tomcat meets us on the sidewalk and I kneel down to pet him.  It serves to hide my face, my disappointment and the tears that are close.  Robert stops while I stroke the cat.

“That the same cat, that Mom used to chase out of the yard with the hose?” he asks.

“No.  It’s a different cat.  But he gets the same old treatment.”  I give the cat one more stroke and stand up straight.  I hear the hum of tires on the rain wet streets, and realize that Larry is returning with Anna.  He opens the door for her and when she’s out on the street, he gives her a hug and gets back into his car.  The gears shift and if he nods his head in our direction, I miss it.

“Nice.”  Robert muttered.  I glance at my son as he continues.  “Listen.  I should get back to work myself.  Are you going to be okay?”  His eyes dart towards his mother’s disappearing form.

“Nothing new here.”  I say.  “I’ll be fine.”  I add as we go our separate ways.   I continue alone to our house.  Whenever your children have problems it makes you look at what you might have done differently.  Maybe Anna was right, all along.  Maybe the boys needed to be stopped when they fought.  Maybe there wouldn’t be this mess right now, if they’d been disciplined harsher.  But their mother was harsh and I was trying to balance things out, so I went easy on them.  Was I wrong?

Robert really tried to do the right thing here. I decide and Larry?  Well, Larry is a busy man with important things to do.  More important than talking to his parents.

By the time I enter the house, Anna’s face has a dangerous set.  I wonder what version Larry has fed her.  I know soon enough. She starts talking.

“We need to help Larry out.  Lawyers are expensive.”

I’ve seen that look on her face before but it never seemed so wrong to me.

Well I’m not buckling under, but I know that Anna will only slow down if I can present some sound arguments and I haven’t thought this through.  I stall for time.

I said, “I’d like to think about this.  Before we do anything at all.”

“What’s to think about?  We need to help Larry out.”

“I want some time to think about this.  Is that too much to ask?”  I’m glaring at her now and she takes a step back.

“You’ll see.”  She clears her throat.  “You’ll see Mister Irving Pitts.  It’s the right thing to do.  Larry needs our help. And we don’t have the time to dilly dally, either.  End of story.”

Damn her anyway, she’s not the only one who has opinions.

My voice is louder and more sure, I can hear its strength myself. “It’s not ‘end of story’.  It’s we haven’t heard the whole story.  It’s a Larry is all grown up and has got no one but himself to blame ‘story’.”

She reaches deeper into her bag of blame for more.

“You never did stand up for Larry, and this time you are.  With some of your hard earned money. And I don’t care if it puts us onto the streets.  I just don’t care.”  Anna rises then and grabs some plates off the table, her face both harsh with anger and weakened by tears.  Her anguished moments always translate into household duties and I know to stay out of her way.

But she isn’t making sense.  It’s our retirement money, our take life easy money she’s talking about.   I follow her and listen to the water gushing into the sink.  She usually wouldn’t get this worked up.  But then she normally would have her own way by now.  I’ve thrown her for a loop, I realize.  Well good for me.  And I’m not sorry either.  But despite my brave thoughts I am wholly sorry.  I’m behind her but I stand back from her elbow strong movements.

This silence kills me.  I try to speak reasonably.  “It’s not our business to fix his life.”  I said, then pause as I realize that I’ve got the right to think out loud.  “What makes you think that we have to rescue him?  He’s forty five years old, for Christ sake.’

“Forty four.”  She mutters.  And I just shake my head. Then I realize that if she’s picking on some inconsequential detail, it means that the tide of the game is about to turn.  That perhaps spades are trump and if they are, I have a powerhouse hand.

“From what Larry told you, it’s all before the Human Rights Board. Do they even use lawyers?  I don’t think they do.”  I pause, Anna’s face is still hard. I continue.  “And besides we could throw our entire savings behind Larry and he could still lose the next election.  Then he won’t have a job and we won’t have a penny to our names. So how would that be  the right thing to do?”

She holds up her dripping hands and turns.

“It’s the right thing.  Larry is just a victim of bad press.  And we know where that’s coming from.  Don’t we?”  And her eyes flash with a vindictiveness that shocks me.  How long has she had these resentments?  I hardly know this woman.

She takes a deep breath and nods as if she’s figured something out.  She speaks without meeting my eye but the quaver in her voice is gone.

“We need to sue Robert on behalf of Larry.  That’s what we should do. Larry’s political life could be ruined, by this.”

This has gone too far.  I take her by the shoulders.  She cringes at my touch, drawing back in fear.  I have never struck her, not even once, but I can understand how it could happen.  A little hands on guiding.  But I stop myself before it plays out that way.  Suddenly I see where I am to lead, the time is now, for surely Anna’s cards are weak.

“That’s not what we should do.  That’s not what our retirement money is for and it’s not what family should ever get involved with.  Robert has done nothing but report, and rather impartially I might add, about what Larry has done.  And Larry has acted in accordance to his conscious, and we raised him right.”  I can see a rebuttal forming in Anna’s mind but I am sure of myself and I might not be if I let her speak.

“As far as The Human Rights Board, they will rule as they see fit and we’ll move on.”

Anna is narrow eyed and mad and I can tell she hasn’t really heard a word I’ve said.  But I will tell her again.  And again, until she understands.  But it won’t be now, for she has turned away from me, dried her hands and pulled out the vacuum cleaner.  There will be hell to pay if I don’t take this signal to join the men downtown for coffee.

I grab my jacket not even trying to be calm.  I need to be outside to cool down.  I don’t even notice the speed I go down the steps, until I wrench my ankle slightly.  Damn it.  I look around thinking I might need help but Anna is busy. We could have a house fire and she’d vacuum until the flames took her down.  And I would be accused of being underfoot, unless there was something on my To Do list.  Even the lawn is on a schedule and October is look after the leaves month, and the gutters are due for their annual attention.  It isn’t right.  Suddenly, I don’t know if I can make it down to the coffee shop, and that has nothing to do with my ankle.  It’s fine, I realize as I take a few cautious steps.  But I’m tired of going the coffee shop and listening to episode after episode of “Pitted against each other brothers”.

Maybe I could stop in at the newspaper office and speak to Robert.  I could drop in at the town office and see if Larry isn’t busy.  But I want to do neither.  I stand still on the sidewalk, my legs refuse to move.  Can I go on, I wonder or should I go back?

There is a rustle from the hedge beside me and the orange tomcat wanders across the sidewalk and then looks for traffic before crossing the street.

“Pretty smart cat.”  I say and then I can notice the graying of its muzzle and the limp in its gait.  “You’ve gotten old.” The cat doesn’t look back at the sound of my voice, as I continue to talk to it.

“But you still want to cross the street and you do what you want.”  I say to his departing form.  Okay.  I could follow it and we could talk more, I think.

Now people will say that I’m losing it.  But I do need to follow the cat.  Not literally, but as an example.  I want… my thoughts pause.. I try again…I want…  I want to enjoy my retirement.  I try this out in my mind.  What would that look like?  My retirement? Well, I want to have friends in to play cards.  I want simple meals that I make myself, like a can of sardines with bread for lunch.  Cereal from a box for breakfast.  Anna fusses too much over food.  And no more lawn or down spouts or vacuuming daily.  No more feeling responsible for our son’s actions.  I put my hand on my chest and speak to my friend the cat.

“From here on, I’m ‘Pitted against’ anything that isn’t the ease that my retirement should be.”  I smile a little at my pronouncement.  I think of what this might mean to Anna.  Then I think that maybe even Anna could l earn to be happy with this.  Couldn’t she?

I spot the cat again.  He has positioned himself atop a fencepost close to a spruce tree, his full attention caught.  I can just make out a movement in the branches, probably a chickadee, this time of year.  The cat is still and intent on his prey.  I wonder what his chances are.  I lift my hand in a little salute.

“Good luck, old fellow.”  I said.  “Good luck.”

A bit of breeze picks up and the curled brown leaves rustle in the hedge and a few that have fallen, tumble onto the street.


Liz Betz works and writes from rural Alberta.  Her work has been published in various locales including a recent story in SNReview Autumn/Winter 2011.


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