A CAMELOT STORY
This story originally appeared in Dr. Saunders’s “Counter Space” column in Game Times, a publication of the American Game Collectors Association (now the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors), of which he is a founding member. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the author, who is an amateur historian of table games, most notably of Selchow & Righter’s (now Hasbro/Milton Bradley’s) Parcheesi.
By Wayne Saunders
George Harris had always thought of Julia Sheffield as a gift. He had received her in the form of a blind date while they were college students in Tucson, had married her that night in Mexico on a dare, and had never found a good reason not to keep her on as they traveled the Arizona highways looking for life. When they settled in Flagstaff in the early 1920s, it was because Julia had found a job in a high school there teaching English, and because George had not really minded finessing his engineering degree into a one-man furniture-making shop in the basement. They couldn't have known then that they would be doing the same things in the same places thirty years later, only much better, of course, as time generally improves what is done with love. They had grown to love each other, too, not because they felt committed to the institution of marriage or had never shaken off the patina of first infatuation, but because the fire of adventure (“Romantic imagination,” she had thought) burning in each of them had spirited them into each other’s path so often that they had grown accustomed to seeing each other there, had waved to each other until it was no longer necessary, had resigned themselves to walking together until their paths should happen to divide again. Who could know?
She, early on, had seen past his verbal clumsiness (she did the talking for both of them), had marveled at the poetic grace of his tables and wardrobes, wishing that her own crude poems could mesh words and meter as well as his furniture did its grains and curves. He, on the other hand, had felt beyond her physical awkwardness to the magic of her words, how they rose above the dumb hulks of things to a world of their own, how they changed from mere tools, some interchangeable with others, into personalities as different from each other as people are. What he would have given to say something just right, as she often did, more like giving birth (they had no children) than turning the screw on a vise for the ten-thousandth time. And so, traveling together, they turned round and round each other, he donating his hands and eyes, she her ears and tongue, to a single creature that had found more than convenience in cleaving together rather than in cleaving apart. They sat in his chairs and read her books, and that was more than enough life for them both.
The reader will perhaps find us cruel for killing off half of this delicious organism so early on. But the story can be told in only one way, and this one has need of a ghost, for which Julia is so much better suited than her husband. We shall not let her linger: a couple of relatively painless months in the local hospital will be enough to avoid the histrionic but not so long as to court tedium or fatigue. George, who was used to working with Julia on the project of a home, now found the project to be Julia, though there was less and less of her to make a project of, and eventually none at all. Yet, even as he saw her in those last days, she continued to do the talking, he contributing only the nods and embraces that let her know he was there with her, listening and waiting. The wind of her death had blown away the aura of youth in which spouses see each other and which makes them ageless in each others eyes—though not to strangers or recent friends, who never knew them early on and are always surprised to see them in old photographs. She, of course, looked about the same as she did before, only he was staring at her now instead of working in the room next to her at home—a room away was the best distance—and the proximity left no room for memory. She, too, felt the strangeness of their situation and was glad when her voice could fill the air with its old tropes and rhythms—like a third person there to talk to instead of George with his face of wonder and concern. She died one night after visiting hours.
And so began the odyssey of our hero, whose life had begun when he met Julia and began again when he lost her. And yet this isn't a simple case of loss, in which one can give an account of what he had before he lost it, because George had never been clear about who Julia was or, for that matter, what she was to him. He had never needed to know about her while he was with her and the end of her was still nowhere in sight. Only now that she was gone were his instincts gone, too, and he craved the consolation and direction of understanding—the Tree of Knowledge that saves Paradise instead of losing it. But it wouldn't come. He appreciated the interest his friends showed in him, but he privately despised the maudlin and gimmicky advice that bubbled from them like artesian springs. He did not feel like crying. He was not consoled by the prospect of seeing her again in the next world. (Like many physicians, who also address a world that yields to the pressure of their hands and instruments, he had no feelings for what he couldn’t see.) He felt like a host responsible for entertaining his well-wishers and even considered cultivating some sense of grief and sorrow just for their need for spectacle, though grief was not what he felt, nor could he find sorrow anywhere in the vacant blackness his life had become. In the end, he admitted to himself that he did not, could not think of Julia at all, and though he could not say why he couldn’t, that thought at least protected him from a self-duplicity for which she surely would have rebuked him. At least in this small way he could be faithful to her.
The truth was, George had not so much lost Julia as he had lost himself. Julia had been so much a part of everything he had done that her removal had simply cut like a knife through the web of habits and expectations that was his life. He had not so much lived for her as with her. (And despite the pleas of ideologues, we choose our “fors” with an eye on our “withs,” which we know are more real.) It wasn't that he couldn’t manage—he had always helped with the cooking and cleaning anyway, and the rest he could figure out if he had to. But nothing was spontaneous anymore, everything had to be rethought from the beginning, only there was no beginning, since each axiom on which he sought to base some conclusion was itself tainted with Julia’s ghostly presence and so had to be rethought as well. His soul, engulfed as it was in infinite regress, had simply shut down. He couldn’t sleep, and when he slept he couldn’t wake up, and when he woke up he couldn’t get his “blood to going,” and when his circulation was in order he couldn’t figure out what to do, and when he knew what to do the time for its being done was past. He was like a railroad system that was systematically behind schedule. And though his customers grew to expect him to be late and adjusted their own schedules accordingly, he caught on to their adjustments and slowed down even more, so that eventually, some time in November, he closed up his basement shop and stopped working altogether.
It was April before George realized how critical his situation had become. He and Julia had lived frugally, and the small bit of insurance money from her death (“blood money,” he called it) had succeeded too well in camouflaging the slow leak in his bank account. But his life was hemorrhaging on all sides, and he could see he wouldn’t make it to another November, maybe even through the summer, unless he could close up the leaks in his soul and build up his life force again. Dishes filled the sink, unwashed laundry the closet floors, unopened mail the letter basket. He had taken to watching the television set—a recent acquisition—in his underwear, and had given up all hope of finishing any of the several books he had started since the funeral. He could not even come by the few words needed for a gravestone (but he was no wordsmith like her, he thought). Finally, one evening after a supper he had cobbled together from leftovers, he stood in the doorway of the kitchen, staring blankly into the now useless dining room and humming softly to himself as he swayed back and forth to the rhythm. He didn’t know why he was standing just there, but he could find no good reason for being anywhere else, so he remained there, listening and thinking. He had known all along it was Julia’s death that had sickened him, but in the ensuing months he hadn’t been able to diagnose how, or to prescribe a cure. Life was winding down now, coming to an end, and in the peace that precedes all calamities he could feel himself growing more alert and reflective. He no longer thrashed about in the vain attempt to meet a deadline but in calm resignation looked out onto the gray horizon to see what it was, after all, that had reduced him to this.
Who was Julia, anyway? The question fell stillborn from his mind; he knew he couldn’t figure it out now any better than he ever had. Well, what had she to do with him? He bowed his head reflexively to think. That question might have an answer, but one that wouldn’t be at all easy to come by. Apart from their money jobs, they had done hardly anything regularly, much less together. If the garden had needed working, it had been worked by whoever was free at the time. Cooking meals and paying bills had likewise been traded back and forth, and even the few friends they had had were divided between them, so that house parties weren’t in the picture. Of course, they had eaten together, and made love... He knew these had lost some regularity in the last years, as his and Julia’s schedules had become more and more independent, and conversation at these meetings no more than timely and efficient. But in one sense they had always done everything together, because what they had done had benefited them both and always took both of them into account, a division of labor codified by habit and instinct rather than legislation. They had seemed to dance around each other without touching. And yet the dance had been one and not two, hadn’t it? It must have been, or he wouldn’t have stopped moving when she did. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to pity her or even to mourn for her, and without a feeling of loss he couldn’t explain how there could be one.
Then he remembered. He had packed a box of Julia’s things to throw away, but it had become, like everything else, something he hadn’t gotten around to finishing. He went to look for it (pleased to have a project again) to see if it held any clues for him. Embroidery needles and scraps of yarn, a couple of knockabout outfits too seedy to give away, a harmonica. And a board game. Well, that had belonged to both of them, really, but it was no good for one person by himself, and he had played it with Julia only because she had pulled him into it oh he couldn’t count the times. He stared at the box. The cover read “CAMELOT” in big red letters, then “The Greatest of Modern Games, Quickly and Easily Learned, Parker Brothers Inc.” flanked by two knights facing each other, the one on the left mounted on a horse clad in blue, the one on the right (with whom George identified) in red. He had owned something like it as a kid, only Julia had bought this later version for both of them and rather insisted—he had never asked her why—they play it Friday nights at the dining room table (a rather formal setting for a game, he thought, which would have been more relaxing in the living room or den). He was amazed, and a little ashamed, that something as trivial as a game could be what he and Julia had done together most regularly. Surely this box of equipment, or rather its disuse, couldn’t be the cause of his malaise. Of course, what we liked as children often disappoints us as adults, and George had played the game only as a favor to his wife, who had not had the disadvantage of owning it when she was younger. He thought she had maybe understood his lack of enthusiasm, though if she did, it had not deterred her from sponsoring their weekly sessions. And now that he looked at the game, he remembered her sense of quiet urgency that he could associate with nothing else she had done. It obviously had meant more to her than to him. How, then, could not playing it have upset him so?
Well, he was not one for solving mysteries (Julia had been much better at that), and he didn’t see what he could hope for by looking more closely at the thing. But this was the first time in these sorry months that he, like Archimedes, had had a firm place to plant a lever by which he might move the world. He was glad the clue was of the physical sort (he understood such things), and though he didn’t see how it could help, he felt it might, and that was more to him than a theoretical calculation of the odds for him and against. It was a sign, a message from another place. He picked up the box and set it back down. It was heavier than he remembered it, or was that merely because he was staring at it as he had at Julia-in-the-hospital? He picked it up again and carried it into the dining room.
George plumped the game down on the table and lifted the lid. He was surprised by the familiarity of the action, as if it had been only a week instead of half a year since he had seen the inside of the box. He opened up the board and thoughtfully set the pieces out on their prescribed spaces. He had always liked the pieces best, wooden as they were, and he could have played with them as a boy does with wooden soldiers, had the box from which they were taken not reminded him of the seriousness of his mission. For along with the pieces were packed a sheaf of booklets and fliers, all part of the original game, explaining the rules and providing the basic and advanced strategies useful to any sort of player. Another George, George S. Parker, had apparently enjoyed making the game as much as Julia had enjoyed playing it. But George Harris had never bothered to wade through the literature, and anyway, Julia had enthusiastically volunteered for them both, even adding to the stack with a typescript of passages she had made from a chapter on Camelot in a book from the Flagstaff Public Library. She had written at the top of the first page: “Mrs. Warren Prescott, Games for Two (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1930), pp. 106-24.” George had always thought she had copied the information out of a sense of academic duty, though now his suspicions gravitated toward the part that was underlined. Had she gotten the game for them because she had learned about it from the book with an appealing title? Was the entry a message for him rather than a note to herself? If it was, it had been lost on him. He had always seen the game as furniture, whereas she had read it, literally, as a book of rules and strategies, first principles that showed what the pieces can do. For him, Camelot had existed only while they played it. For her, any particular game session was a mere expression of The Game Itself, the eternal preconditions of the universe of all possible sessions. Were there, then, two Camelots and not one? Was the gulf between them wider than the table that had separated the players for all their years of Friday nights? (Wider, even, than death?)
And yet Julia had pushed the pieces about just as he had, in fact had insisted he push them—never that he read the rules. Theirs was not a literary club, but a war on a field of battle. He stared at the armies, each lined up in two neat rows facing the other. Instinctively, he “cantered” a red piece from his back row over a similar one in front and into the nearest of two empty rows separating the red army from the yellow. He recognized the move as his favorite opening. After all this time, he thought, the game had the power to force his hand. But what now? It was Julia’s impossible turn, but no soldier cared enough to advance from the gruesome yellow formation. He sat awhile, unconsciously expecting to see the familiar fingers lifting one of the knights from its space at one end of the back row and decisively banging it down, Julia-style, on the empty square in front of it. But the fingers did not appear, and George began to grow impatient at the project he had never had any reason to believe would work out anyway. His own fingers drummed rat-a-tat on the tabletop. He didn’t know whether his frustration came from not knowing what to do, or rather from being at the mercy of someone else whose turn it was to do something. He called out, “Julia—JULIA!” Though he knew she wouldn’t answer, he wouldn’t have been surprised if she did.
The sun had long since set, and he could no longer see the board. When he got up to switch on the light, he found that Julia’s chair on the other side was pulled back from the table, doubtless where she had left it before she had gone to the hospital. George went around to Julia’s side, put his hands on the chair back to push it in, then hung motionless while he surveyed the scene in front of him. There was something peculiar about the board he hadn’t caught before. Had he missed it when the room was dark? He sank unthinkingly into Julia’s place and studied the battleground with renewed interest. It was exactly the same as before, of course, no miracles here. And yet the board was completely, unexpectedly different. Julia still had not moved, but George could see now—from her seat—how she might have moved, might still move, now that it was her turn. He could see his own move, which, when he had made it, had been no more than a hopeful sally into the unknown, now become a monstrous threat which Julia had learned in the past to fend off any number of ways. He could imagine her cowed by such an opening the first time he had tried it on her, and yet her perseverance had won for her more and more games over the years—and his respect, too, as he could now see firsthand her courage under fire. Firsthand? He pushed the yellow end knight forward one space, for her sake.
It was his turn again. He had a lazy Susan and thought about fixing it under the board to save him from the countless trips he could see himself making around the table. But the point of the game was not just to play two sides, but to play his side and hers, and that surely could not be done, he saw, by sitting in one place. The game was possible at all, in fact—he remained calm as this truth sank into him—only because there were two ways of looking at it.
And so our supplicant (we are not too far wrong in calling him this) began the pilgrimage, which, though around a table, carried him into the center of the game and the night which held it. He was surprised, and then he was not, at how fair he could be in playing both sides. For if he were tempted to make Julia’s turn to his own advantage, he would be forced, upon resuming the opposing seat, to reevaluate the move in light of disadvantages which became plain to him only from his side of the board. And as his peregrinations grew more rhythmic between the poles of the room, the room itself began to shrink, the lighted expanse grew darker at the edges, the clock on the china buffet ceased to express its opinion, and all the physical signs that one man was making the rounds became as absorbed by the game as he was. There were only the player in one seat and the player in the other, and if one of them was George—well, then who was the other? All personal history, all feelings of elation and regret, were lost in the moment of play, so that the players were who they were only insofar as the game enabled them to be. The game was the tree and they were the branches. The game was the third thing—and so it was the first. If George should happen to look up across the table at the empty chair, the effect was spoiled, for it was plain then that only one person inhabited the room and the house and the world that mattered. But when his attention was directed to the board, and to the pieces of both players—as it almost always was in that endless night—the illusion of two players was perfect. Only, it was not an illusion, was it, if no evidence appeared to the contrary, if, in fact, the only evidence was a board and two armies of continually moving pieces.
Only one event that evening threatened to break the spell. As George planned the next move from his “own” chair, he was startled by something cold and wet in his dangling palm and looked down to find the nose of his Scottish terrier, Scrabble, begging for a walk that was long overdue. The dog had been named after a new game that had caught the couple’s interest for a while, until Julia realized she couldn’t get George to play it anymore and so proffered Camelot instead. (Games, like all rituals, bring their own worlds with them and cannot tolerate each other without sacrificing something of themselves.) As the two creatures hurried out into the dark, George remembered how he and Julia would joke about Scrabble’s local amorous adventures by referring to him as “Hardscrabble.” It wasn’t much of a joke, now that George thought about it in the cold spring air, but that was just the kind his buddies at the shooting range would have liked the best. Only, he had never told it to them, thinking of it as joint property with Julia and so not his to give away.
Scrabble was clearly visible now among the trees and bushes of their large front yard, though no street lamps shone within miles, and the light from the dining room could only just be made out between closed blinds. George looked up to see a yellow gibbous moon singing light from the cloudless sky. He remembered what he had read recently in Scientific American about how the common idea of a moon moving around an unmoved earth is factually—because physically—impossible. Since all objects attract each other gravitationally, the moon must have considerable effect on the earth, even if we don’t think to talk about it. In truth, the earth and moon revolve around each other; only, because the earth is so much more massive than its companion, the point around which they both turn is inside the earth itself, over a thousand miles beneath the surface. Scrabble seemed to hear the moon’s complaint about her second billing, for he began a low-pitched howl, to which George surprised himself by providing the tenor counterpoint.
Inside the house again, George resumed his place at the table and in a moment had forgotten all about his nocturnal excursion. Not since before Julia had died had his attention been as focused. Sometime hours later—he could never say when—as he looked from Julia’s chair at the red soldiers now threatening to breach the yellow, he was afraid. Was it because the red soldiers—his red soldiers—were close upon winning the game? Was it because he feared for Julia, whose position on the board he could clearly see collapsing on every side? Was it Julia’s fear for herself? Or the fear both of them had that the game would end soon with a loss for one and thus a victory for neither?
George by now was in a state, a state in which he wished to remain, but which he knew would end with the game at hand. Then it struck him. The game! The game had come in a box, and a box can be taken off the closet shelf and set up any time he liked (especially Friday nights). Clearly the game was magical, a talisman that could summon Julia’s ghost whenever he needed a fix. He lifted his gaze from the board like a crane and lowered it again to the box that had been lying unseen nearby since he had first opened it hours ago. He dug out Julia’s annotated insert and turned the first few pages until he read: “Camelot presents the unique feature of personal encounter on the battlefield. The opposing forces meet like small medieval armies... so close, in fact, they could see the whites of each other’s eyes.”
His own eyes now began to water. He did not want the game to end. It was not the conclusion of the game but the playing of it that mattered. As long as he had the game, he could have Julia whenever he wanted. He stood up from Julia’s chair, not to change sides, for Julia hadn’t yet taken her turn, but to stand outside the battle, to take it in from a nearby hilltop as generals did in Napoleonic times, he knew, to enjoy the battle without the risk. For he risked hurting Julia by beating her (it had never bothered him before), or else he risked making her disappear by letting her win. He thought of her again, remembered all the games they had played with this very board and these very pieces, and wished he had known then that the board had another side. He would have told her, truthfully, how much he enjoyed playing with her, he would have consoled her upon her losses and regaled her upon her victories, he would have encouraged an exchange of strategic wisdom to their mutual benefit, he would have played to win (though not to beat, and not to get it over with). Because Julia had done these things herself, he surmised, she must have known about the board’s other side, had wanted him to know it too. And he had come to know it, and would tell her so whenever he took out the game to play it with her.
By now, George was crying softly to himself. But he was tired and leaned forward to rest his hands on the table. Tears kept him from seeing clearly as he smashed flat one corner of the box.
He looked down at the wounded cardboard under his hand and stared. He would have cursed his stupidity had he not been weeping the moment before, but as it was, the two emotions canceled each other out, and he found himself unable to act on any feeling at all. For a few seconds he swayed back and forth as he had in the kitchen doorway hours earlier, when he had first confronted the inertia of his indecision. He thought he had found a way to preserve—to embalm—the life that Julia had so freely given him. Only now the shrine had been desecrated, the life force (he was thinking again in physical terms) bled from the torn and crumpled comer. Still, he didn’t want to renounce the epiphany he had just lived through. He looked again at the table. The box was hopeless, but the board and pieces lay confidently where he had left them. The game of Camelot may have given up the ghost, but this game, whatever it was called, with the red and yellow forces scattered just so, had not yet lived out its life. He could see that the yellow army was depleted and blocked and had little chance of reaching victory at the red fortress opposite. But Julia had always preferred losing the game to not playing it; letting her lose was the least he could do for her. And anyway, what else was there left for him to do? Without emotion, he reclaimed Julia’s chair and, after several minutes of reflection, eased a yellow man up the side of the board. It was a hopeless diversionary tactic, he knew, but better than the alternative.
He couldn’t have said how much longer he played. Sometime later that night the game was over. Julia had won. George honestly didn’t know how she had pulled it off; he certainly hadn’t thrown the game, had in fact tried desperately at the last to rally his forces, and was even a little miffed that he had so underestimated her powers. But what of it? He was glad it was over. He had done his best, but the deadness of his feelings for the game, for Julia, for life now made a liar out of the promise he thought the game had made to him. What was there for him now? But the question that had suddenly condensed on him evaporated just as quickly. The game hadn’t lied—he had asked too much of it. He had tried looking through it as if it were a windshield, whereas it was really only a rearview mirror. The question of his future had no answer, and he no longer cared that it didn’t.
George got up to go to bed. As he made his way into the living room toward the banister, he knew something wasn’t right, but only when he passed the sofa was he able to distinguish this problem from the one he had known at the table. His body felt funny, heavy-like, unequipped for climbing the stairs and gaining the herbal remedies of his medicine cabinet, or the downy bandage of his bed. Still full of Julia’s ghost, he half-facetiously addressed his ailment as another person: “Advance and be recognized!” But no one hailed him back. Only after a couple of minutes did George remember that this was what it was like to be truly tired, as in the old days, when he worked hard and played hard, when sleep came upon him as a trophy instead of a consolation prize. He had just enough time to pull the lamp cord down before benign fatigue sat on him and pushed him into the sofa.
Then he woke up, thinking to pull himself up the stairs after his few brief moments of weakness. He was unprepared for the sunlight that was so bright he could see it through his eyelids. What had become of the gentle transitions he had grown up counting on, the more natural transformations of night into day, life into death? He hadn’t awakened after dawn since, as a college student, he had worked his lucubrations until heavy slumber would call his bluff. And even then he couldn’t afford the luxury of sleeping through the hours of his morning classes. He had always thought of late risers as indolents and ne’er-do-wells, though now, as he peeked over the back of the sofa at the kitchen clock, he spied new wisdom in the old wisdom of not casting stones. Twelve thirty! Only the ageless rites of bathroom and kitchen put him right again, and he was soon able to wander into the room that had held him prisoner all the long night before. It, too, was full of light, and the game, sitting where he had abandoned it just a few hours earlier, no longer pretended to be more than the turned wood and printed cardboard he could see it really was. (Shakespeare, he remembered, knew well the horrible and wonderful powers of the night.)
George recoiled at the box corner he had bent with his hand but now saw, in the light, how modest was the damage he had done. He bent the crumpled cardboard back and forth with his fingers until it rediscovered its old shape, then applied a bit of library paste to the sundered corner, not forgetting what his kindergarten teacher had so patiently explained to him about not putting paste where it wasn’t needed. He cradled the corner in his hands until it set, then examined his work like the craftsman he was. “Shows the use, not the abuse,” he told himself, quoting an old saying often quoted by furniture restorers. Then, satisfied with his work, he carefully repacked the board and pieces, booklets and typescript into the box, which he carried to the hallway closet and deposited safely in its customary berth on the lower shelf. He wasn’t thinking now of when he would play it again, but only of clearing the table for guests, whom he was surprised to find he thought he might have over. He could not have known that he would play the game more than five hundred times yet before his own death, and without once having to trade his seat for another.
As the light continued to melt into the house like butter, George could have sworn it streamed directly through all the windows at the same time. And since no difference remained between inside the house and out, he joined Scrabble for a short walk around their few coniferous acres. The scent of pine rose from a thick bed of needles and drifted down from a canopy of limbs, so that the yellow dog-tooth violets that dotted the path seemed to have no fragrance and had to work their surprise by color alone. He had once cut down a pine on the property—an extra, by his reckoning—from which he had made some of the furniture for the house. (“No one can make his bed as good as me,” he had boasted, jokingly.) But now he picked only the violets for a center display on the table. The house loomed before him rather sooner than he expected, and he threw the flowers in some temporary kitchen water while Scrabble went on to chase wood nymphs. Again the liquid light worked its magic, and George found a chair on the front lawn from which to view the house. “Good old house” he mused, though he had mixed feelings about what had been, in turn, a home and a cell. Now it seemed only to need something from him, but what it was eluded him like a ritual once practiced by a lapsed Catholic. He sought inspiration in the outshed, grown dank with disuse, and returned to the steeply-pitched roof with an extension ladder and a bucket filled with tools. The heavy wooden ladder sported a bracket stay, which George leaned high up against the side of the house to keep the ladder itself from denting the gutters. (His father used to lay a board across a section of the gutter for the same purpose, but George had never cared for the bother of moving two things around the roof instead of one and preferred working between the ladder stiles on the part of the gutter right in front of him, which his father’s board would have obscured. The father, of course, had no life but the work he found to do, the son no work but his life.) He fished a pair of work gloves from the bucket, which he carried up to attach near the top rung with an S-hook. He replaced a putty knife and whisk broom from this silver cornucopia with the needles and twigs he dislodged with them, and when he had worked all the gutter he could reach from the spot, he dismounted the ladder to move it a ways to the left (clockwise, as his father had) a distance he had memorized almost forty years before. Up, down, and to the side, he ratcheted his way around the house at a smooth, even pace that spoke of the joyful resignation with which he had assumed his charge. One would have taken him for a machine had he not occasionally bent down to sniff the pungency of the distilling debris. Then a trip down the ladder to empty the bucket and up again with the hose to wash the gutters clean. George noticed one spout regurgitating its water and made a hook of his fingers with which to catch the clog; but the needles were in too deep, and he had to undo the elbow joint to reach them from below. (Once, in his youth, he had shot a stream of water to force the mass through the entire spout and out at the ground, but it had lodged in the center instead, and he had had to spend the best part of the day gouging it out with a plumber’s snake. Years had taught him the gentleness his friends knew him by.) His inspection revealed no cracks in the gutter sections (these he would have repaired with metal flashing and roofing cement); but a joint between sections was leaking badly, and he found he couldn’t force sealant into the seam without first drilling out the pop rivets that held it together. Then he pulled the sections apart, removed the old sealant with the putty knife, sanded the edges smooth, and applied a new sealant bead before rejoining the seam with new rivets. After checking the tightness of the brackets which mounted the gutters and spouts to the house, he returned the tools to the shed and stood back a ways to take in his handiwork as a painter would his canvas.
In reality there was no difference. George had practiced his art until it was as much a part of him as anything was. Restoration was not really fun for him, but, then, the giddiness of fun could not have contained the deep satisfaction that came from moving his limbs the way they were meant to go, from feeling the textures of wood and metal and cloth and sealant yield to his touch, follow his lead without giving up their own powers to press against him. (He was a man and not God.) He had made his peace with the physical world, and it honored the treaty by consulting him before it had its own way. That’s all he had wanted, to be consulted, to be recognized—to exist—and the friendly trees and tools and house had been as liberal with their fidelity as were any of his human friends and neighbors. He could easily have been a hermit, he thought, if only his tools could talk.
George inspected his watch. Nearly four o’clock. He had been moving at a good clip, but now a stream of chores that was backed up for more than half a year flooded into his mind, and he almost gasped for air as he considered the improbability of his deliverance. The garden that he had yet to put in, both vegetables and flowers as always, demanded fertilizer from the feed lot. Years of neighbors’ complaints suggested to him a trip with Scrabble to the vet, who could in a few minutes remove the longstanding problem at the source. (Though even while he proposed this outing, he attended the young satyr chasing butterflies and knew he would never be able to take his almost-human companion where he himself wouldn’t go.) The overdue books piled in the den meant a long detour to the Flagstaff library, and maybe a word of apology to Miss Elmers the librarian, who he thought deserved better for the time she had spent realizing his wish list. And there was Julia’s gravestone.
George was scandalized to see he hadn’t thought of her the whole day until now. And scandal turned to enigma as he wondered to himself what verse or paragraph from what famous author would fit her stone because it fit her life. After all the years together and the months apart, he still couldn’t say what she was to him. What could he expect from a partnership that began with marriage, passed through years of dating, and ended in total and scandalous ignorance? He had done the whole thing backwards! And now his thoughts traveled back to the crisp autumn day when he had introduced his bride to his father, who afterwards confessed to never having seen anyone work so hard at saying the right thing and accepted this as the perfect gift from the daughter he had never had. George remembered the pleasure she took in lying close in their homemade bed, how she would steal time from her studies to pursue him in his basement sanctuary, how she sowed flower seeds in his vegetable patch to surprise and delight him, how she turned their Friday nights into a family time without a family. The game was just the last of her forays into his heart of darkness, and he saw she could have found no better tool to work her magic on him. She played for keeps, he thought, then, surprised at the aptness of his invention, he repeated aloud: “She played for keeps.”
George again glanced at his watch. He would swing by the feed lot on the way to the monument works. (He had often admired their skill, as they had his.) Then on to Flagstaff, where the librarian would just be coming on duty. April is a fine time, he supposed, for getting the blood to going, a splendid time for planting all around. And it was early yet.