Retreat (Hemingway imitation)

Travis dealt the cards out so that they had twenty cards each and three left in the kitty. Sue drank some of her water before picking up her hand. She was still exhausted from the walk here and from the pastor’s sermon. She had learnt that the rules were ten cards were left on the table in pairs, half of each pair face-down. The other ten cards became your hand. The cards were all well-used.

“Six hearts,” she started the betting.

Travis studies his prospects. He noticed the twos, threes and black fours sitting in the red cardboard case beside his tea with the elevens, twelves, thirteens and one joker.  Brandy was preferable to tea but he didn’t like being the only one drinking. Sue followed his glance and continued looking around the room. An old fan battled the summer heat from the corner. The only other thing to look at was the battered double bed by the window. Sue didn’t want to look at it yet.

“Misere,” said Travis.

“Are you serious?” said Sue.

“Yep, we should finish the game. Let’s play this hand and let that be all,” he said.

They began to play. When he got excited Sue thought he must have had more than two hands. Travis fancied Casanova was also good at card games. He lost all the tricks until he found the other joker amongst his face-down cards. They both threw down the remains of their hands.

“You won by over three-hundred points,” he said.

“Woo,” she said.

They stood up. Sue put the glasses away while he shuffled the cards back into their box. Then he began to unbutton his shirt. She stood there looking nervous so Travis kissed her as he had many times before. After a while he began to take Sue’s skirt off as he had tried many times before.

“I didn’t want to do this until we were married,” she said.

“I know. It’s strange there was only a double-bed left,” said Travis

Sue studied the bits of clothing spread across the dirty floorboards. With her foot she slid his pants away from an exposed nail.  Sue moved away and lay face-down upon the bed.

“I hate that smoke smell,” she whispered.

“Is it bad? I can’t even notice it,” he said. Travis moved and set himself next to her. He took one breath before he rolled onto her side to face her. She was beautiful. She was probably the most beautiful girl he would ever sleep with. He’d defiantly never spent so much effort on one girl.

“Look, you know we’ll get married. We’ve been a talking about it for a while. I’ll start looking for a ring when we get back,” he said.  She turned over and smiled at him. Then Sue ran her hand through his shabby hair. Travis came closer. Their lips were just not touching, like two cards separated by another. In this way he made her kiss him.

He turned off the light and they didn’t talk for a while. The pastor’s son in the next room scoffed and turned his radio up. Afterwards Sue felt no need for a blanket.  They were still too hot. The little fan would never cool the room down again. All it did was add its rattly tune to the orchestra of crickets outside. She fell asleep against his chest. He whispered that he loved her before nodding off himself.

Half way through the night Sue woke up to the sound of him putting his belt on.

“Where are you going?” She said. Sue sat up in bed.

“I desperately need a smoke,” said Travis.

“Oh.” Sue sank back onto the mattress. “Go on then.”

When he finally had gathered his things he looked back from the open doorway to see how she was.

“I’ll miss you,” Sue said. She could see the brilliance of his smile.

Outside he huddled under a lamp along with all matter of insects and parasites. The crickets were louder than the city traffic. Travis laid two papers in a stranger’s windowsill and sifted the tobacco in two neat files within them. After rolling them he put the paraphilia back in his pockets. There was something else in his left pocket. He withdrew the church bulletin and noted the highlighted gospel.

Mark 14:29 Peter declared: “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

But Travis knew how the story ended. He wanted to throw the paper to the floor but he folded it back into his pocket. He’d had been listening to sermons for three months and he still did not understand what any of it meant. He thought of Sue’s face, lying in their bed. Leaving one rolled cigarette on the windowsill he struck a match and lit the other. The smoke rose out of him, past the light and into the heavens. You could see the stars easily out there.

Travis stamped out the first cigarette and lit the second. After inhaling, he made an oval with his lips and puffed out in bursts, feeling a motion within his throat. The shapes that came out were flimsy clouds, a line, a tail but not a ring. He breathed in again. He tried to remember what his friend had taught him. At last he puffed what may have been considered circular and sacred. It was hard to tell in the light.

He was still smoking the last of the cigarette when he past the pastor’s son’s door. It must have been three in the morning but the man was saying Hail Mary after Hail Mary. Travis shook his head and crushed the cigarette in the doorway. The door to their own room creaked when he entered.

“I was afraid you’d never come back,” she said. Travis quickly removed everything he was wearing and lay down beside her.

“So was I,” he said.

He put his arm around her waist and held her close. Sue held his arm lightly. She stayed awake awhile just to feel his touch and listen to the crickets.


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