We’re gathered in the big room with its hefty stone fireplace trying to keep warm. It’s a long time ago. We’re all young and hormonal and insufferable. Upstate New York, atop a mountain called Claymoor or something pretentious that ends in moor. Lots of them around, uppity mountains I call them, each pinnacled by a gargantuan fortress. Mansion is the word – this one has about fifteen bedrooms, the whole thing constructed of heavy stone dragged up from the river. Who did the dragging? Sammy says in the past they were financed and lived in by robber barons and tycoons. Sammy owns it now after his father dropped dead at forty-two.
Impressive as hell. Nobody believed Sammy’s boasts back at school when we were undergrads at Tulane. But it’s cold and drafty and we’re all constantly carrying in new logs, stoking the kindling, adding sweaters, bunched together on the three sofas arranged in a semi-circle around the flames. You can literally walk into the fireplace – it’s that spacious. The old 1920s radiators in each room stay icy to the touch even when set at full blast.
We’re still in college or just recently out. One of us is edging through law school now, Rick. He’s here with a girlfriend he will marry in a few months. Sammy, our host, bides his time. With money you can do that. Rick used to be my best friend, way back before college, before I’d even met Sammy. We three belonged to the same fraternity, though I couldn’t stand it and dropped out after the first year. It’s law school that killed me and Rick. His first year and he’s talking about how much power he will have.
Sammy’s father sold historical calendars to the big breweries as premium giveaways. Just think up some catchy theme – like relating each day of the year to, say, a milestone in women’s liberation – do a calendar, make millions. He should have known better than to fiddle with time.
Some others here too, like my current girlfriend, Rachel, who will fly home next day or so while I spend a few more days with Sammy. It’s an off-on deal with some minor violence thrown in like bitter salad spices. I keep my eyes open. Then the jerk of a law professor, one of Rick’s teachers, trying to stay hip with long, sandy hair, caved-in cheeks, wire glasses and endless plastic sandwich bags full of marijuana. Very good weed, though I regret giving him any credit at all. His wife, Vera, I think that’s her name. Another law professor. Same stringy hair and glasses, long hair, thin sallow face. The two look like male-female clones of each other. Hands-on, hungry, sarcastic jaws working their way up the rungs. He’s debating over teaching versus private practice in D.C, where he says he’ll make a lot more dough.
There are others too, friends of the lawyers, but I can’t remember them. No interesting women except maybe this one called Whitney, a grad student somewhere up here in the Catskills. This is not my territory. I’m deep south, tropical, in grad school myself on a fellowship. Living month to month on the paycheck. The hand I was dealt, so I don’t think about it much aside from occasional spasms of envy and regret.
Sammy, always the mover, likes gathering people together. He stands
back and watches the intermingling and secretly, I think, enjoys a good
personality clash here and there. Or maybe he sincerely hopes to nurture us,
bring us all together as some loving, happy family. He’s the common
denominator, a behind-the-scenes auteur. And a natural host, providing top-
notch booze and food – lots of caviar, pate, deli sandwiches, egg nog, ham
and turkey roasts. He drives down to the market every day for supplies. And
let me tell you, the road is treacherous, what with snow blanketing the earth.
It’s the Christmas holidays after all. Sammy’s battered old station wagon
slides all over the place. The other day he wound up in a ditch with a cracked
axle and had to call towers down in the valley.
The truth is there’s not much to do around here. Can’t get back to
Manhattan, only a two-hour drive usually; can’t spend much time outdoors
because of below zero wind chill; can’t roam the house because you’ll freeze
to death inside; can’t watch television because Rick doesn’t believe in them
and there’s only a tiny set in one of the bedrooms, an old ten-inch black-and-
white with no reception. So we all spend a lot of time reading and trying to
make small talk. The first few days or so we got into serious discussions
about the big issues, clashed, learned to distrust and steer clear of each
other. It’s as if war is about to erupt.
The one thing we wind up doing a lot is cards, mostly poker, because,
well, what else is there? I never play cards, shudder at the very idea of table
“games,” haven’t handled a deck since I was a kid. But my old grandpa
taught me a thing or two about poker. Back then I had no idea it would ever
come in handy. The lawyer and his wife must have memorized Hoyle’s
because they know all these fancy, weird gambling games and want to show
off. But the rest of us protest and finally prevail because without us, it’s
Solitaire, not poker. We wind up with five card draw or seven stud, easy no-
brainers. The lawyers and Rick, of course, have lots of money to bet. The
rest of us don’t. I can’t afford to lose one penny.
So I decide to make a little spare change.
The lawyer, Dave, had taken instant aversion to me and vice-versa. I don’
t like his snotty arrogance and wire glasses. He hates me because I don’t
want to fuck his wife. He’s one of those guys – there are lots of them around –
who wants all other men to want to fuck his wife. It must make them feel
macho and giant balled. He doesn’t really want anyone fucking her, he just
likes it when they yearn to. And I’ve made it pretty clear that I have no interest
whatever. Guys can always tell when other guys are sniffing. It’s all in the
eyes, the joshing, the feeble compliments and enthusiasm. In effect, I’m
telling Dave that his taste in women sucks. Thus he’s peeved and seeks
Or maybe I’m distorting the issue altogether. I am, after all, telling the
tale. Dave is long gone on one of the byroads of history, and so is his wife –
though I heard later that they divorced. Maybe Dave can’t even remember my
Mostly it’s Rick, Sammy, Whitney, Dave, Trudy (his wife), this guy Mark
and I shuffling the cards.. Rachel and I aren’t getting along. I’m feeling pretty
low. We’d replaced one of sofa’s end tables with a proper game table near
the fire. The other guests join in every now and then, but their hearts aren’t
in it. Mine isn’t either, but I want to make some money and I’m pretty sure I
can. Anyway, the games become serious after a day or so and now often last
Whitney makes a point of letting us know that she’s one of those
embittered feminists who hold men responsible for all evil. She presents
herself as such but I can’t decide if she’s genuine or a party-liner. Anyway,
during the games, the conversation drifts to the difference between men and
women, and, bingo!, every time I say a word she jumps all over me. As if
there aren’t any differences! But that’s exactly her position: society alone,
male-dominated of course, creates the differences.. Otherwise, we’re all be
“That’s preposterous,” I declare.
So we get into hormones, anatomy, the extra Y chromosome . . . all of
it. But we’re antler-locked because nobody’s willing to yield an iota.
Meanwhile, Dave baits me at every turn with trivia questions. He must spend
his nights memorizing them for occasions such as this. Historical stuff like,
What’s Herbert Hoover’s middle name? He thinks I’m a smart ass and wants
to outsmart me. He’s paying only minimal attention to the Whitney situation,
though Trudy chimes in often enough on Whitney’s side. Rick and Sammy
won’t help me out. They hardly say a word but every now and then exchange
glances. I could use an ally.
The more I drink and toke the better Whitney looks, but she’s fierce,
hostile, poisonous. I wish she’d take off the wire rims. Blue eyes, long blond
hair almost to her waist, she’s wrapped in layers of wool. But there’s a
disconnect between the sweet Heidi looks and all that rage, so I pull the switch
and withdraw from the games – not the poker, just everything else that’s going
on. Dave keeps passing joints around and I’m feeling all right, comfortable
but withdrawn. Herbert Hoover, every second word from his mouth. I just sail
into a sea all my own, with special background music: Herbert Hoover to the
tune of the Hallelujah Chorus.
I’ve won practically every hand. After a while, when he’s lost another
twenty-five bucks, Dave looks me in the eye and says flatly, “You’re good.”
Not good, Dave, just severe.. The simple, dumb secret of poker is
bluffing. Bet high and reckless and keep raising the stakes even if all you
have is a pair of deuces. Keep a straight face. And never show your cards
even after the game’s over. Nobody can stand a straight face, and most drop
out after a few rounds and you’re left with one die-hard who thinks he’ll
clobber you with his mighty ace of spades. That die-hard is always Dave.
Whitney’s one of the first to fold every time. Then Trudy and the rest of
Maybe the simple, dumb secret of life itself is bluffing.
It’s late Christmas Day and Dave, Trudy and their troupe are leaving in
the morning. They’re upstairs packing, making a lot of noise and endless
phone calls. Rick and his fiancee have already left. So has Rachel. Sammy’
s down in the valley getting more food and supplies. I’m sitting alone by the
fire, about seven hundred dollars richer. But I feel a little hollow and groggy
and decide to take a walk outside. Behind the house there’s a gentle slope
full of white birches, one of my favorite trees. Much of the snow has melted
and you can trudge through the stuff without chunks of it sliding between the
boots and socks. And it’s a little warmer than usual.
So I’m just hiking a bit with a long branch to keep my balance. I stop a
moment to take in the beauty surrounding me, breath in the cold, crisp air.
From here you can’t see any houses or signs of civilization or people. Kind of
nice. I figure it’s all over between Rachel and me finally — and that’s ok too.
We were lonely and sad with each other. How stupid is that?
I hear a swoosh from one of the white capped burning bushes and out
flies the reddest cardinal I’ve ever seen. Crystals of snow explode into mist as
the stems fall back into place and silence resumes. The cardinal
disappears.. Everything is white and cloudy. I’m surrounded by white birch
and burning bushes. It’s so peaceful and spectacular that for the first time
since arriving I’m glad to be here. Delight, that’s what I feel. I figure that the
only people who know much delight these days are little kids.
But my toes start to freeze with numbness and I’m hungry, so I start back
for the house. The wood smoke smells good. Sammy uses only hickory.
Hungry too for some of that leftover ham and pineapple. Just as I ram the
staff into a soft spot of ground for bearing, I’m suddenly knocked face down
flat into the snow as if stuck from behind with a hundred or more pounds of
dead weight. At first I think maybe it’s a falling branch, but no, it’s got arms
and legs that clutch my body like adamant vices. I’m on the ground, spitting
out snow, cursing, crying out. The arms and legs ease a bit and I manage to
twist around for a glimpse of what’s assailed me. Whitney! She’s wearing a
heavy military looking surplus jacket and thick wool cap. She just stares at
me, specks of snow dotting her cheeks. For the first time I notice she has
“Jesus!” I cry. “What the hell are you doing? Were you following me?”
She doesn’t say a word, just keeps staring with what I take as pure
hatred. No expression on her face at all. She looks like the snow.
I wriggle loose from her body and stand up and brush myself off. She
now squats on the ground gazing at me.
“What is wrong with you?” I roar. “You could have broken a bone!”
My face is scratched from scraping against some twigs as I went down.
There’s a little blood.
Whitney squats, saying nothing, like some animal on the hunt.
“You’re crazy,” I say. I snatch up my staff and thrust it back into the mud,
limp away fast. The fall twisted something in my left ankle. All I’m thinking as I
ascend the slope is, “Hell, this is going to hurt.” I spot the woodpile and
Sammy’s station wagon. He’s back with more food. I don’t even look back to
check on Whitney. She can crouch out there forever for all I care.
And that’s the last I saw of her. She never returned to the Sammy’s, not
even for her bags and luggage. For a while we thought maybe she had
wandered off and frozen to death. Sammy and I searched some, then called
the police. But later Dave phoned to say she’d hitched a ride with them to the
airport. So at least she didn’t die.
It’s many years later and sometimes I still think of Whitney. Mostly she’s a
blur except for the freckles. I see them clearly, like tiny, scintillant specks of
time. She’s just some random woman I happened to encounter back in the
days. I’ve tried to figure out why she attacked me, but every time I think I’ve
nailed it one way or the other, I change my mind.. None of the options are
good. I have no idea why she attacked. She didn’t lose that much money.
An odd sexual game maybe, but not the kind of approach that kindled my fire.
I saw no ardor or interest in her eyes. Only blank ferocity.
A few days later I too flew home to face varied strains of music and
Sammy returned to the city. I left him a hundred bucks to help with the
expenses, stuffed it between two books on the mantle above the fire, one of
them Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. I don’t believe anyone
else left a dime of gratitude. But surely the rich have learned by now that it’s
better to give than receive.
Louis J. Gallo’s work has appeared in American Literary Review, Glimmer Train, New Orleans Review, Missouri Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Portland Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Rosebud, Amazon Shorts, storySouth, Paradigm, Clapboard House, Raving Dove, Flash, Rattle, Babel Fruit, Oregon Literary Review and many others.