Solitaire is the winning story from our 2018 Short Story Competition, written by Theo Greenblatt.
‘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 chipmunk-cheeks 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?’
‘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.
‘You mean the stuff on the news?’
She nodded, still laying down cards in precise order.
‘Yeah, whatever,’ I said. I didn’t think she really wanted to talk about it.
‘Cool. You got something to drink?’