Game Time - Adam Restinow

            Not the best unit in Green Meadows, not the worst, just the one Barbara can afford. Standing in the doorway of #212, she remembers nights spent in above-average motels. But there are incongruities.
            The door cannot be locked. Instead of a keyed doorknob, there is an aluminum pull bar. Anyone can enter this unit at any time. The pictures on the walls of living room are not motel pictures of dogs playing poker and coastal sunsets. No, scattered on every wall are black-and-white photographs of people with their names boldly printed on the bottom edge – a police lineup of smiling faces. Too, there is a bathroom with a walk-in tub, a bedroom containing a single bed and no kitchen. No piece of furniture has a sharp edge or a squared corner; smoothness and roundness prevail. Of greatest significance: every room has a blinking, ceiling-mounted camera. This is not an ordinary motel suite.
            As Barbara enters, a man sits at a walnut-veneer desk facing a window overlooking a swath of lawn edged with wild flowers. This man is Andy, Barbara’s husband of fifty-one years. He is playing a game of concentration with eight face-down cards: two aces, two kings, two queens and two jacks. At the moment he cannot remember where the kings are.
            “Good morning, Andy.” Even though Andy is barefoot, unshaven, and wearing stained pajamas, she adds, “You’re looking good. I hope you slept well.” Barbara always starts her visits, which are every day, positively; her goal being to feel good about trying. Her therapist has repeatedly told her to focus on small achievements; there is no benefit in regret and anger is your enemy.
            Andy, accustomed to what seem to him random visitors, stands, turns and says, “Why, hello. Good to see you. How have you been?” He extends his hand, they shake. In this instant they are ordinary people. Indeed, given their financial straits, their unfulfilled hopes, and their acceptance of sacrifice, they are as ordinary as corn flakes.          
            Barbara sits in the room’s other chair, a black leather recliner which smells of lemon. An attendant has been here recently. “Andy,” she says, in a rush to do good, “why don’t you sit back at your desk? That was your desk from home. Would you like to play a memory game?”
            Andy blinks twice as if signaling to himself to say something. “Sure, let’s play. You go first. A woman should always go first, that’s what my mother taught me. What are the rules?”
            Barbara sighs, bows her head so that Andy doesn’t see the tear. Lifting, she smiles and says, “Well, I tell you something I remember then you tell me something you remember that somehow matches my memory. For example, if I remember eating bananas for breakfast, then you tell me what you remember having for breakfast.”
            “Who wins?”
            “That the best part. There are no winners. We just play for the fun of it.”
            Andy sits and says, “OK. I think I can do that.”
            “Great. Here goes. Remember when we were in sixth grade at St. Sebastian’s?  You were short for your age so the nun put you up front. That way you wouldn’t block her view of the rest of us. She always sat behind her desk – first line of defense, I guess. Threw pieces of chalk at kids, usually boys, who misbehaved. Anyway, I was in the last row. Back then I was the tallest girl in the class. I was so embarrassed. Kids thought I was some kind of freak. Called me Queen Kong. Now you tell me something about St. Sebastian’s.”
            Andy is silent. A minute passes. His brow furrows, and beads of perspiration appear on Barbara’s forehead. Then, suddenly, he speaks. “I remember our uniforms. Girls wore green and gold plaid skirts that covered their knees and white long-sleeved blouses. No jewelry. I wore dark blue pants, a white shirt and a black tie. My mom hated white shirts ‘cause they showed the dirt from recess. Always yelling at me to stay off the grass, stay on the cement. She took pride in personal appearance. Never left the house without her makeup on. Anyway, dad would tell her that never-ending laundry was punishment for having a boy but her reward would be a man who would take care of her when my dad died. Then she’d say something about his punishment being three nights in a cold bed and that his reward was the hand she didn’t slap him with. Then they’d laugh. I remember the laughter.”
            Barbara wants to hug him. Success! Victory in sight, she continues. “And when we were sixteen, do you remember walking to the library together? I lived a block over from you, and we would meet on the corner. The library was a mile away but we didn’t care. That walk was our time with each other. Other kids, especially girls, would see us walking and giggle and whisper. We knew what they were thinking. And they were right. We may have been young but we were connected. I still feel that connection, Andy. Remember then?”
            Andy’s face, especially his eyes, and his body dissolve into blankness. He disappears. “I don’t remember walking anywhere. I think I rode my bike a lot, and I think I had friends when I was young.
            “You know they have a library here. It’s probably not as nice as the one you’re talking about but I go there once a week. I don’t take anything out ‘cause I might lose it. Instead, I sink into one of the chairs and page through the National Geographics. Some of the pictures of African woman make me blush, and I’m careful not to let anyone in the room notice that I’m looking at them. But the pictures of animals are wonderful, especially the ones of wolves. I’ve aways liked wolves. Did you know dogs are descended from wolves? So, seeing them reminds me of the dog I had when I was ten. Don’t remember his name. He had curly gray fur and big eyes, didn’t weigh much. Used to leap onto my bed in the mornings and lick my face until I woke up. My mother would complain about the dog hairs all over the furniture. But my dad was the one who gave me the dog, telling my mother that he’d train it. ‘Course he never did. I had great days with that dog; got my exercise chasing it in the park. But that dog would bark and bark at anyone who came to the house, scared my sister’s dates half to death. And then one day that dog disappeared. Dad told me he took it to an old dog’s home.”
            Resentment sweeps away restraint. “Now, Andy, you never had a dog or a sister. And there wasn’t any park in our neighborhood. Are you sure you’re not thinking about some TV show you just saw? There’s a lot going on here, new people, new food, new room. Maybe all this newness is causing you to mix up what is with what you wish had been. God knows we had our good times and bad, and I wasn’t the best person to be around. Whining about stuff that really didn’t matter. And I’m sad about that. There’re nights I can’t sleep just thinking about what might have been.”
            “Well, you might be right about what’s real and what’s not. But I’m real, and everyone here is really nice to me. There’s this one guy, Ray, who brings me meals, three times a day. He sits in that chair you’re on, and we talk while I eat. He even cuts the roast beef if I can’t manage it. You know there are days when my hands seem to have a mind of their own; I just can’t figure out how to control them. But Ray always knows what to do. Tells me about his family: wife, two sons and a daughter. Hopes to send them all to college but knows that means he and his wife work two jobs. Loves his children just as much as I love my son Pat. How is he? Haven’t seen him in a while.”
            “Oh, Andy, Pat’s our daughter. She was here two days ago, told you she was pregnant. You hugged here and told her that if it was a boy to name him after her father-in-law; you didn’t think you were the best role model. Said that if it was a girl to name her after me. Don’t you remember her?”
            “Why sure I do. She must have been that woman in the white dress who visits me once a day, gives me some pills to take and checks my blood pressure. Didn’t recognize her as Pat but that must have been her. I remember when my wife was pregnant. She was so excited, ran up and down the block telling all the neighbors, people she didn’t even know. That baby was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
            Resentment surrenders to anger. “That baby died a week after being born. Saddest day in my life. Didn’t think I could or would have another. But you insisted, wanted someone to carry on the family name. Told me we had a responsibility to procreate. I was amazed that you had that word in your vocabulary. So, we tried and tried. Got down on our knees before we got into bed and prayed to a God I didn’t believe in. How I hated you for being so optimistic. Now a day doesn’t go by that I don’t relish Pat. She changed me, made me consider someone other than myself. Probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.”
            Andy stands and walks over to Barbara. Placing his hand on her shoulder, he says, “You seem like a considerate person; it was good of you to play this game with me. And it sounds like you’ve suffered. But everything will be fine. Did you know that when I was in sixth grade at St. Sebastian’s that I was one of the shortest boys in the class? And did you know that there was a sign above the blackboard that read Fear not, for I am with you? Well, despite being small, I was never afraid of anything or anyone. And I’m still not. What’s there to be afraid of? What’s the worst that can happen?”
            Barbara stands and wraps her arms around her waist. “I’m afraid of my future, Andy. You’re leaving me, and I’m leaving you. The real you will just be a memory.”
            Andy awakes. He takes her hands. “Barbara! How are you? Come to visit your favorite husband? So, tell me about your day. Been shopping? I could use some new shirts. Have to look good when you go dinner here. Breakfast is adequate, lunch is mediocre but dinner is great. You know, I was just thinking about you, and here you are.”
            Later, crossing the parking lot, Barbara, former high school English teacher, remembers the first stanza from the Emily Dickinson poem.

            Success is counted sweetest
            By those who ne’er succeed.
            To comprehend a nectar
            Requires sorest need.

            Closing her car door, she texts her therapist: small achievement.     

Adam Restinow, a peripatetic wordsmith, shunned degreed creative writing programs in favor of attending to what people actually said and did. He learned that simple things, a word or a gesture, are at the heart of a good story. He also discovered that home-cooked meals cure many ailments, that true love is possible, and that listing prior publications is false pride. Adam and his wife live in Savannah, GA; but that could change if the wind blows cold.