Theo Green­blatt

Soli­taire

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

‘Hey, Miss. Is it okay to pet that cat?’

I looked up at her over the alu­minium porch rail­ing. She stood on the side­walk, one arm looped around the chain-link pole, kind of swing­ing back and forth, with her hands jammed into the pock­ets of a pink hoodie. She was wear­ing shorts and those clompy-look­ing fur boots even though it was still warm out. The front of her blonde hair was dyed pink, darker than her sweat­shirt, kind of sexy-look­ing, but her face was still chip­munkcheeks and braces.

It was odd to be ad­dressed as ‘Miss,’ partly be­cause I’m not ex­actly young, and partly be­cause kids just don’t do that any­more. ‘Sure,’ I an­swered.

She came up the short path then and sat down on the third step, where Dora was stretched out in a block of sun­light. She scratched be­hind Dora’s ears and the cat arched her neck up­wards. The girl’s hand snapped back fast. ‘Hey, what’s the mat­ter with his eyes?’

‘Blind,’ I said.

‘How’d he get blind?’

‘She. I don’t know,’ I said, ‘But she is.’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Dora.’

‘Like Dora the Ex­plorer, on TV?’

‘No, she’s named af­ter my aunt who died. A blind ex­plorer? That would be ironic, no?’

She shrugged, fin­ger­ing the woven leash that was hooked onto Dora’s col­lar and snaked across to the rail­ing. I guessed she didn’t know what ironic means.

‘So she just lies here? She don’t mind if she can’t run off? Chase birds?’

‘She can’t see the birds,’ I said, shrug­ging my­self. ‘They’re just mu­sic to her.’

I started lay­ing out an­other hand of soli­taire on the lit­tle ta­ble I have there on the porch, the fold­ing kind. The girl just sat there, stroking the cat. ‘You wait­ing for some­one?’ I asked, af­ter I got the cards set up.

‘Kind of.’ She looked at me a lit­tle shifty then and pulled her phone out of her pocket, and started tap­ping on it. She had pur­ple sparkly nail pol­ish, but it was chipped and her nails were bit­ten to the quick. ‘Right, I gotta go,’ she said, jump­ing up from the step with the phone still in her hand.

Next time I saw her was on the TV news a few days later. ‘McKen­zie Pletcher’ was the name scrolling across the bot­tom of the screen, with a pic­ture of the same girl, only in a school uni­form, yel­low blouse with a plaid vest, hold­ing up a book. Catholic school girl, ex­plained the ‘Miss,’ I thought.

13-year-old McKen­zie Pletcher still miss­ing from her home on Siebert Street, now thought to have left will­ingly with the sus­pect, 42-year-old Frank Willis of Jer­sey City, New Jer­sey. Po­lice are fol­low­ing a tip from a lo­cal bus driver who saw Pletcher en­ter a car with Willis on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon in front of the Gi­ant Ea­gle su­per­mar­ket on East Whit­tier Street. Author­i­ties spec­u­late that Pletcher met the sus­pect on­line.

Wed­nes­day was the day she was by my house, I thought, so that’s why she acted funny when I asked her if she was wait­ing on some­one. She was on her way to meet this Frank guy up at the Gi­ant Ea­gle around the cor­ner a ways.

A few days later, they found her at the El­do­rado Mo­tor Inn in At­lantic City and brought her home. On the news they showed pic­tures of them tak­ing the guy out in hand­cuffs. He looked younger than 42, but not scrubby, more like a down-and-out busi­ness­man type. All I know is, that El­do­rado place didn’t look too invit­ing, and At­lantic City is a long way to go from Colum­bus with a guy you met on the in­ter­net when you’re only thir­teen.

It was maybe a week af­ter that, on a Satur­day, I looked up and there she was, hang­ing on the fence pole, again. Same pink hoodie and boots, dig­ging her toe into a weed-filled crack in the path.

‘What’re you do­ing up there?’ she asked me, her chin lifted, try­ing to see past the curlicue rail­ing onto the porch.

‘Soli­taire.’ I beck­oned her for­ward with the cards in my hand.

‘Seen my mom play that on the com­puter,’ she nod­ded, mov­ing up the ce­ment steps. ‘Not with real cards, though.’

‘It’s bet­ter with real cards,’ I told her. Be­cause you han­dle them and shuf­fle them, and they have a cer­tain smell – well, I didn’t tell her that be­cause it sounded weird, but the cards do have a smell like old waxy pa­per and probably your own hand-sweat. It re­minds me of li­braries. And there’s some­thing com­fort­ing in the sound they make, that whis­pery slap as you flip them and lay them down. Also you can have dif­fer­ent decks for dif­fer­ent games, al­though I have my favourites I al­ways use.

I wanted to ask her about the Frank guy and why she’d go off with him like that, but I fig­ured she’d probably been asked more times than she wanted to answer al­ready. So I showed her how to set up and play a ba­sic game,

in­stead. A row of seven, each pile with one card more than the one be­fore it, top card on each pile face-up.

‘Just like on the com­puter,’ she said.

‘Only not, yeah.’

‘’Cause you like to set them up your­self, right? In­stead of the com­puter does it?’

That was smart of her to think of that. Maybe that is part of why it’s bet­ter. And then I ex­plained what to do with the re­main­der of the deck, pulling off three cards at a time, or­der­ing the cards on the ta­ble from kings down, al­ter­nat­ing colours, when you can move a pile. There’s some­thing mes­meris­ing and ad­dic­tive about it. I didn’t say that. I said it was re­lax­ing. She nod­ded, look­ing very se­ri­ous, one chewed-up but un­pol­ished fin­ger­nail wedged be­tween her teeth.

The next time she came was a week­day and she was wear­ing that uni­form like in the pic­ture; yel­low blouse, only I saw the vest was ac­tu­ally a pinafore type thing, at­tached to a skirt of the same plaid fab­ric, which was hemmed up pretty short. She had red high-top sneak­ers with stuff magic-mark­ered on them. It was well be­fore lunchtime, so she should have been in school. Maybe they had a half-day or a saint’s day or some­thing, like those re­li­gious schools have, I thought. None of my busi­ness, so I didn’t ask her. I brought out an­other TV ta­ble – I have a set of four, they stack into a frame, and each one has a dif­fer­ent pic­ture on it, moun­tains, rivers, and so on. I un­folded it next to mine, and moved my mag­a­zines so she could sit on the bench, next to me. And I brought an­other deck of cards. I have a col­lec­tion of them. Once peo­ple know you like some­thing they start to give it over and over. My mother gave me a deck every year un­til she passed. I found some Ger­man ones that have cats on them that look a lit­tle like Dora, and handed them to McKen­zie.

‘Hey, these are cool!’ she said. ‘All the kings and queens are cats, too! Look

at their lit­tle crowns!’

She laid them out care­fully, lin­ing them up just so – you kind of need to do that be­cause the ta­ble is only so big and you’ll run out of room if you spread the cards too far apart. I watched to see if she was get­ting the hang of it. Her hands were shak­ing a lit­tle but she had it down.

Dora came and sat on the bench, squeezed be­tween us. If she’s not in the sun, she likes to be in places where she can feel the edges. Every so of­ten McKen­zie would just put one hand on top of Dora’s head for a few sec­onds, as if to say, ‘I’m here.’ Not sure which one of them she was re­as­sur­ing. Up close like that I saw there were dozens of knife-thin scar lines run­ning across the back of her hand and up her arm.

We didn’t talk, just sat there play­ing. The cards flipped and whis­pered and slapped in their gen­tle way, lin­ing up in or­der some­times all at once, some­times not for long breaks. There’s a rhythm to the sound: flip, flip, flip, as you pull the cards off the deck, a pause while you scan the ta­ble to see if you can use the top card, and then a soft snap as the un­used cards go to the back of the deck. Or, like a lit­tle dance, there might be sev­eral quick move­ments, cards align­ing, shift­ing, be­ing whisked to­gether and fanned out again. It was quiet, ex­cept for here and there a quick in­take of breath, a mut­tered “shit,” or click of the tongue. There’re only so many pos­si­bil­i­ties in soli­taire, though.

McKen­zie heaved a deep sigh as she gath­ered up all the cat cards af­ter her third or fourth set-up. ‘How of­ten d’you win this game?’ she asked.

‘Not too of­ten, just enough to make you be­lieve it could hap­pen any time,’ I said.

She took that in, her brows pinch­ing in the mid­dle for a se­cond, while she shuf­fled her deck a few times. Then she started lay­ing out the cards for an­other game. ‘You know about me?’ she asked with­out look­ing up.

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