Helene carefully washed, rinsed and dried her plate, knife, fork, water glass, and the Teflon pan. An omelet with mushrooms and fines herbes, fava beans, thin-sliced artisan bread from the new bakery made a satisfying meal: appetizing, nutritious, balanced and harming no living creature.
Assuring herself that her kitchen was spotless, she drew an upright chair to the broad living-room table for the evening’s project. Mixing three decks of cards was a tedious but necessary preliminary, like jointing a chicken in the days when she’d eaten the things.
She took up half the stack and dealt the first rows of the layout: thirteen cards face down, overlapping them with thirteen face up. A promising start: she moved cards, faced those exposed as a result.
Hobbes’ Patience, it was called, nothing to do with the philosopher-cynic. ‘Patience’ was what they called Solitaire in England, where The Paragon Compendium of Card Games was published in 1875: a date she remembered because she found the book, tucked into a back stack, on its centenary. An appropriate name for a game she’d played for decades but never succeeded in completing. Didn’t the rubric say, ‘Some authorities assert that this Patience is impossible of solution; others only that a man’s lifetime is scarcely long enough.’?
Helene had the luxury of living alone. In her youth, friends had said, ‘I don’t understand why a pretty girl like you doesn’t have a boyfriend. I mean, I know guys who’d jump at the chance.” She understood their concern for the proprieties, and if she’d met a man she’d honored and respected enough, she’d willingly have given herself to him, taken his essence into her being, borne his children. If – but a hypothetical loss only, no cause for repining. She’d been twenty-five when she realized she’d set those standards to keep men at bay. Hobbes had appeared almost immediately afterward.
Hers had been a fulfilling life, helping school students flummoxed by their science projects, anxious young men woefully ignorant of female reproductive processes, elderly would-be scholars whose theories – pyramidology, Atlantis – might not be so crackpot after all. You saw many sides of humanity in a public library.
She laid out the second two rows, carefully aligning them with the now-slightly-irregular first. Options presented themselves, and she calculated probabilities without thinking, placing card on card, revealing hidden treasure, or dross.
And a third, and that was half the cards laid out. Ritual demanded that she now make herself a cup of coffee, the Blue Mountain blend from the Ritz Deli on Third. As she waited for the drip to cease, she hummed to herself – a Seventies pop tune? She couldn’t remember the title.
Back to the – grind? No, in no way. Back to the discovery of the secrets contained within the hundred and fifty-six cards. It was at this point in the game that the first signs of an unpromising layout would appear, but tonight was propitious – so far.
The deal complete, she considered her strategy. The cardinal error was to commit cards to sequences which could not be untangled if necessary. Helene was too wise a bird to fall into those traps, but by definition, the further she went, the more she was treading ground for which her experience was no guide. She must take care. But tonight was charmed. After an hour, she’d reached a stage she achieved only every few months, after two hours one she’d reached fewer than ten times in forty-four years. The remains of the coffee, long cold, stood forgotten beside the increasingly-complex array of cards.
A breakthrough: whole piles of cards resolved themselves into patterns. Helene’s hand trembled as she rearranged them. Had she ever gotten this far before? And wonder of wonders, new opportunities revealed themselves, in turn providing clues to future moves.
Now, only one section remained in disorder. And now, she could count the number of unplaced cards on her fingers. A feeling of faintness made her grip the edge of the table. If that face-down card in the sixth row was the eight of spades…
It was. The last intricacies of the Gordian knot loosed themselves, revealing the solution in all its glory. She had defeated Hobbes, and the book’s author hadn’t known what he was talking about. She gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. The friends of her youth had boasted of their multiple orgasms, but this was real fulfillment.
Ordinarily, Helene would form the cards into a single deck and put them away in a dresser drawer. Not tonight. The evidence of her triumph would greet her in the morning. Then, it must be documented. She’d photograph it from all angles, in daylight.
Was it really after midnight? Sleep summoned her. In the bedroom she neatly hung up her daywear, slipped on her white cotton nightgown and toweling bathrobe. In the bathroom, she brushed her teeth and rubbed moisturizer into her face. People said she didn’t look a day over fifty-five. She drew a glass of cold water, took a sip and carried it to the bedroom. Lifting a corner of the covers, she slipped into bed. She was asleep in minutes.
Helene sat in an expansive garden, its palisade a row of playing cards. A kaleidoscope of multicolored flowers, familiar and unfamiliar: fountains playing, small waterfowl frolicking in ponds and streams. Birdsong filled the air. A gentle breeze bore the fragrance of jasmine, overlaid with sandalwood. A Persian kitten sprang into her lap and settled itself, purring.
This was the right place to be, of that she was sure. She stretched her arms, shook out her waist-length hair, golden once more.
“Lady Helene, my eldest son has long admired you from afar,” spoke the King. “Would it be your pleasure that he should urge his suit in person?”
Helene modestly inclined her head.
“Oh, wonderful!” gushed the Queen, adjusting her wimple. “I shall pray that his offer will be favorably received. Waldemar, we must tell him the good news.”
Helene caressed the kitten’s silky fur, soft as thistledown. Her heart filled to bursting.
* * *
Judith made the two-block detour to her ex-colleague’s apartment once or twice a week. The poor old thing must be so lonely! Not even a dog for company.
A chill prairie wind cut down the street. She pulled her raincoat more tightly around her.
She pressed the outside bell: no answer. Helene shopped in the mornings and was always home in the afternoons. She could have been invited out, but by whom?
Helene had given her a key in case of emergencies. Judith, fishing in her purse, prayed it wouldn’t turn out to be one.
In the lobby, she checked Helene’s mailbox. Two circulars, a letter from IRS. She hadn’t been downstairs today or she would have cleared her mail…
Cold fingers of panic seized her. Whatever was wrong, she needed help and support. She turned and almost ran to her home.
She found her husband stretched in front of the TV News, beer in hand.
“Something the matter, hon? You’re puffing like a railroad engine.”
“Jim, I’m worried about Helene. I can’t make her hear, and she hasn’t collected her mail. She’s not young, you know. I’m afraid… Please come back there with me, in case…”
“Must I? I had a hell of a drive from Wichita this afternoon.”
“Please? I don’t often ask you for things like this, do I?”
He sighed, got to his feet. “Let me get my coat.”
In the gathering dusk, Judith let them in Helene’s street door.
“Jude, you’re sure about this? We’re, I don’t know, invading her home.”
“Shoot, we’ve known each other thirty years! She’s like my older sister.”
The elevator delivered them to Helene’s floor. In the carpeted silence, Judith pointed.
“506, to the left. There.” She turned the key in the lock. “Jimbo, hold my hand.” Then, raising her voice, “Helene? Are you there, honey?”
No sound but the tick of a clock. It was Jim who noticed the cards.
“Does she tell fortunes? Like, the future?”
“No, she has more sense than that. But she’s a solitaire addict.”
“Mighty complicated, I’d say. Looks like it came out, though. See how the sequences go up, then down?”
She tugged his arm. “Come on, we want Helene, not her solitaire game!”
The bathroom was silent and still, not even a dripping tap. The kitchen stood in perfect order apart from one unwashed coffee cup.
“The bedroom,” whispered Jim.
“Oh, my God…” Judith pressed her hands to her mouth.
“She may be lying there sick. We can get her to the hospital if she needs it.”
Judith tapped. “Helene? You alright, sweetheart?”
Jim turned the door-handle.
Helene lay curled on her side, one hand tucked under her cheek. Her nightgown was disarranged, but not immodestly so. Judith’s gaze traveled to Helene’s smiling face, taking in its radiant peace and joy. Beatific, that was the word.
By Chris Morey