Complexion of the Game

by Nancy Ford Dugan

Artwork by Alexa Gaffaney

Jill was slowly changing out of her business suit. She was down to a black slip and skirt. Harry had been home a few hours already, tucked into his terry-cloth robe and eyeing ESPN.

He watched his wife, admiring her shoulders and the post-Pinot Grigio grin that accompanied her monthly book club afterglow. She was still in shape, still graceful, while he was bald and sagged in places, where he had once been muscular.

“Why am I aging and you are not?” he asked Jill.

She laughed slightly. “Honey, it’s just genes. And good clean living. What have you been up to, as if I have to ask?”

“Mets game.” Harry was lying on the bed. “Did they like the book?”

“I think mainly yes. We actually discussed it, which is rare.”

“Wow. I may need to read it. Why are your shoulders smooth and lovely and mine have hairs growing out of them? Why am I grosser?”

“Yes, you’re a grocer. Can I please have two tomatoes?” She headed to the bathroom.

Harry heard the water running in the sink. Outside the window a neighborhood dog conducted its nightly barking concert. The motor of the FreshDirect truck provided a steady beat, as wheelies scraped and bumped along the gritty sidewalk. Harry settled in, comforted by the familiar sounds of the street and Jill’s wash-up rituals.

Just as Jill’s head appeared in the doorframe of the bedroom, the piercing ring of their doorbell shattered Harry’s peaceful oasis. In New York City, no one unexpectedly rang your doorbell unless it was an emergency. Robed Harry and sexy-black-slip Jill stared at each other with surprise and terror in their eyes. What was going on? Jill put her fingers to her lips to shoosh him before he spoke.

He mouthed, “What the hell is that?”

Jill mouthed, “I don’t know. Stay still.”

The unspoken plan seemed to be to make no sound or movement in hopes that whoever rang the bell would simply go away.

“What if it’s a terrorist? Should I call 911?” whispered Harry.

“I doubt they ring first, and stop whispering. You are too loud even when you whisper.”

“Oh really? Since when?”

“You have a sibilant S. They can hear you in New Jersey. I wish you could mutter,” said Jill. Her eyes were now steely, no longer scared. The refrigerator hummed loudly from the kitchen, just steps away. Why was that appliance so noisy, Harry wondered? And why had he just noticed it?

Jill took two shoeless steps toward him.“What should we do?” Harry asked, leaning into her ear.

“I’m going to quietly and very slowly walk toward the front door. To look through the peephole and see who it is.”

“No! What if they barge in and kill you? I’m the man. I should go.”

“I can do it quietly,” Jill said. And Harry knew that was true. Those childhood ballet lessons made her very light on her feet. But the floor tiles! They popped in humidity, some creaked, they had never been replaced in the thirty years they’d lived in the apartment. Harry worried as they aged someone would eventually stumble, trip on a tile, break a body part, rendering one of them useless and the other a permanent caregiver.

Stepping away from him, Jill dramatically flung herself against the bedroom wall as if facing the firing squad.

Harry smiled and said, “OK, but I am going to follow and watch you.”

Artfully, Jill tiptoed. She carefully picked the tiles she landed on, hovering one-legged before selecting those that squeaked less and tended not to buckle. She moved down the darkened foyer as if on a carpet of tic-tac-toe. No further sound came from the hallway, although its bright light narrowly oozed below the door.

As Jill approached it, she shockingly called out, “Who is it?” in her late mother’s stern and heart-stopping deep voice. Harry almost fell to the ground. What was she thinking? The plan was to remain silent and hope the evil bell ringer disappeared. During sporting competitions, his father used to say “the complexion of the game is changing” when something unforeseen happened, altering the course of human events. What was Jill doing? Did she think she could intimidate a murderer with a theatrical voice and a shoulder-baring black slip? Her shoulders were magnificent but still… God forbid, she opened the door.

“It’s Pam. Your neighbor.”

Oh God, crazy Pam. Who had a PhD and an obsession with seersucker. Whose meds sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Who trapped her neighbors in the lobby or the elevator with long, complicated stories that seemed important to her, causing a sense of obligation to listen while longing for them to end. “Poor soul,” Harry’s mother would say. How in God’s name did she know their apartment number?

“Pam, are you OK?” asked Jill, still in her mother’s voice.

“Yes. I’m fine. I was just wondering. Do you have any DVDs?”

Jill turned back to Harry, holding her hands out in the dark as if to say, “What the fuck?”

“No, I’m sorry. I don’t think we do.”

“Oh, I really wanted something to watch tonight,” said Pam.

Helpfully and in her normal voice, Jill called out, “I think the Duane Reade on the corner may sell a few DVDs. Though they are really hard to find nowadays.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea,” Pam said. “Thank you. I will check that out.”

* * *

Jill wandered down the foyer on any old tile, and Harry grabbed her in his arms. They both chuckled, hearts racing.

“It was all so film noir,” said Harry. “Damsel in distress. Black slip. Danger.”

“Yeah, big guy in a robe watching Damsel be the action hero. Should we get the blood pressure machine out?” asked Jill.

“No. Hopefully Pam’s search for DVDs didn’t give either of us a ministroke.”

“After I told her we didn’t have any, I remembered we used to have a couple of DVDs somewhere. Didn’t we?” asked Jill.

“Forget it. Even if we do, we are not going to look for them, much less give them to her.”

“I think we have a Bridget Jones. I won it in a holiday raffle.”

“You’re kidding.” The dog on the street had finally stopped barking. Harry considered if they should get a dog. It could have barked the bejesus out of the doorbell ringer. But no. Either the dog or the tiles wouldn’t survive. He and Jill would be de-floored or de-dogged, bereft in either case.

“Can’t Pam watch PBS? Or CUNY? What about streaming?” asked Jill.

Harry sighed. Jill would spend the next twenty minutes searching for a solution to Pam’s entertainment quest, while Harry clutched her. Then, hopefully, above the fray and the flawed tiles, they would finally get under the covers and go to bed.


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