The Bridge Club by Robert Boucheron

The bridge club met every second Friday at the Silver Spoon. The roster had evolved over the years. It shrank in numbers, and younger women replaced their aging mothers. Still they met to splurge on lunch, trade news and recipes, and hone their card-playing skills. An occasional newcomer tried out. Once in a great while, she was accepted as “fresh blood.”

Louisa had been in the club all her adult life. For her, it was a habit. Mavis Puffenbarger had the afternoon off from her job as receptionist at Town Hall. No one in their right mind would try to conduct official business after twelve o’clock on a Friday. Margaret Howe was a Poindexter faculty wife in her forties. With interests in architecture and preservation, she was active in the Historical Society. Irene Hammer, like Louisa and Mavis, belonged to Brickfront Methodist Church. She was several years older, a link to the previous generation.

In those days the game was universally popular, and the club filled two tables for duplicate bridge, with women watching eagerly from the sidelines. They had met in private homes in rotation. Recently, they had switched to the Silver Spoon for convenience. Who had time to prepare a proper spread these days?

Despite the hectic week, or because of it, Louisa looked forward to the bridge game. In any case, where would she find a substitute? She joined the other three women at the table in back, ordered the fried fish platter, and tuned in to the ongoing discussion.

“My husband Denny can’t sit still for a minute,” Irene Hammer said. “Have you heard of restless leg syndrome? Where your leg twitches something awful while you’re trying to watch television or just lying in bed? I swear that man has restless leg in his whole body. He’s always trimming bushes or mowing the grass or putting up a bird feeder where squirrels can’t get at it. The latest project is a statue.”

“What kind of statue?” Margaret Howe asked.

“A standing figure in a robe. It’s supposed to be Jesus, but it’s kind of abstract.

“Does your husband have any training in art?” Louisa asked.

“None whatsoever,” Irene said. “He says he has a feel for it. He worked as a welder at the foundry before retirement. He bought some stone-cutting tools at an auction, then got it in his head to carve a block of granite. He bought it at the cemetery, a headstone that someone ordered and never paid for.”

“Some people have no shame,” Mavis Puffenbarger said.

“Where is the block of granite?” Margaret asked.

“In the garage with all his other projects. It’s so full we can’t park the car there anymore.”

“What is he going to do with the statue?” Margaret asked.

“Beats me,” Irene said. “He says he’ll figure it out later. Meanwhile, it keeps him out of trouble. I just hope he doesn’t get any ideas about setting up that stone Jesus in the front yard. Our house faces First Baptist, and I hate to imagine their reaction.”

“Reverend Jesse King would not take kindly to a graven image,” Louisa said.

“Oh, I know it!” Irene said.

“Maybe he would denounce it,” Mavis said. “That would be something to hear. He’s famous for calling down the wrath of Lord.”

“Controversy can be difficult to avoid,” Margaret said. “For the Historical Society, I attend meetings of the Town Council when a matter of preservation comes up. People get up in arms over the least little thing.”

The conversation continued through lunch, with more on the activities of Denny Hammer, Floyd Puffenbarger, who in trying to eliminate a creaky board managed to tear up half the living room floor, and Brent Howe, who when not teaching political science to the young women of Poindexter College, indulged a passion for geraniums. As a widow, Louisa was unable to contribute current anecdotes. She listened, nodded in sympathy, and laughed with the others at the folly of menfolk. It was good to get her mind off business.

Over dessert, they broke out the cards. Good form required that they draw blind to see who would partner with whom, as well as who would deal. Mavis partnered with Irene, who would deal the first hand.

“Bear with me,” Irene said, as she shuffled. “This tremor in my hands is giving me fits. If the cards fly all over the table, you’ll know why.”

Once the deck was shuffled and cut, she dealt in her usual way, so rapidly that the cards were a blur, landing in neat piles in front of each player.

“How do you do that?” Louisa asked.

“I don’t think about it,” Irene said. “After so many years, these things flow through the central nervous system. They bypass your brain.”

Louisa picked up her hand and arranged it by suit, as her mother had taught her. She looked up to see that she was the last to finish. All eyes were on her.

“Are you waiting for me?” she asked.

“Yes, partner,” Margaret said. “Irene opened with one diamond.”

“Sorry, I didn’t hear.” Louisa held no strong suit and few honors. “Pass.”

As the bidding proceeded, she scanned the faces of the other three women. They knew each other well and had played together innumerable times. It was necessary to keep a straight face. Still, personality played its part. Mavis, for example, was relatively timid, afraid to commit to a slam, always looking to her partner for clues. Margaret, on the other hand, tended to be bold and overconfident. If she held honors in all suits, she would bid no trump before her partner had a chance to say anything. Irene was conservative, but if she held the right cards she moved fast. She won the bid, played it expertly, and Mavis wrote the score.

The deal passed to Louisa. She was slower than Irene, and the cards did not accumulate in neat piles. At least they all stayed on the table. Again, she held nothing in particular and passed. Irene and Mavis won that hand, too, which gave them enough points to make game. Mavis dealt the next hand, which was again favorable to her team. Despite her hesitation in bidding, Irene won a daring contract for five spades, which she made.

“That gives us game and the rubber,” Mavis said. She conveyed the last spoonful of sponge cake to her mouth and savored it.

“It went by entirely too fast,” Margaret said. “Should we play another rubber? Do you have time, Louisa?”

“I told Walter Nickles I would meet him at the office later. Whose deal is it?”

“Mine,” Margaret said, as she scooped the cards toward her. “Ladies? Are you up to the challenge? Should we change partners?”

“Let’s stay put,” Irene said. “I’m too tired to move.” She did not look tired to Louisa.

“This way I don’t have to start a new score sheet,” Mavis said.

Margaret shuffled and dealt. They picked up their hands and arranged them, all at lightning speed. Once again, Louisa was the slow girl. This time, however, she held some decent cards. Margaret opened strong in bidding two spades. Louisa supported her by declaring three hearts. She won the bid in hearts, and Margaret laid her hand on the table.

Mavis led the play, and all went well for six tricks. As Louisa stacked them in a book, Mavis launched into an account of her son’s latest accomplishment.

“Marvin got a promotion with the farm equipment distributor in Front Royal. Sales are picking up, and he did very well last quarter, which you wouldn’t expect for the fall.”

“Maybe farmers had money in their pockets from the harvest,” Irene said.

“Or someone bought a tractor for Christmas,” Margaret said.

“Actually, it was a corporation,” Mavis said. “You know, an agribusiness. Marvin landed them as a customer, which was a big boost for the company. It put them in the black for the year. Plus it bodes well for the future. As a reward, they bumped him to associate manager.”

“Congratulations to your son,” Irene said.

Louisa knew without taking her eyes off the cards that Mavis was staring at her. She used these bulletins on Marvin as a way of nettling her. Marvin was obviously having more success in life than Galahad, whom Mavis considered to be a slacker.

The tactic succeeded. As Louisa strained her mind over the next trick, whether to take it from he own hand or the dummy, she accidentally played the wrong card and lost. From there, the hand was a disaster. Irene and Mavis exploited Louisa’s weakness in clubs, and she finished the hand without making contract.

Mavis gleefully recorded the score, while the other two women tried to gloss over it.

“We all make mistakes,” Irene said.

“It could happen to anyone,” Margaret said. “As dummy, I couldn’t touch the cards, so I sent brainwaves to you across the table.”

“Thank you for trying,” Louisa said. “We haven’t played the full rubber, but I should go. The newspaper editor is waiting.”

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About the Author

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com.  His stories, essays and book reviews are in Atticus Review, Construction, Cossack Review, Digital Americana, Milo Review, Montreal Review, Mouse Tales Press, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Niche, Poydras Review, Virginia Business, and other magazines.