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How We Play the Game in Salt Lake and Other Stories
By M. Shayne Bell
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HOW WE PLAY THE GAME IN SALT LAKE AND OTHER STORIES. Compilation copyright © 2001 by M. Shayne Bell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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First eBook Edition: 2001
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Mrs. Lincoln's China
The Shining Dream Road Out
How We Play the Game in Salt Lake
Homeless, with Aliens
Bright, New Skies
The Thing about Benny
With Rain, and a Dog Barking
The Sound of the River
Soft in the World, and Bright
MRS. LINCOLN'S CHINA
So I stayed in the crowd across the street from the east gates to the White House. My son Cyril, he'd said to me, "Mama, I know how bad you want a cup of Mrs. Lincoln's to drink your coffee from, but stay back from those gates. If you're pressed up next to them, you're liable to get crushed before they give way. You don't have to be the first one in the White House to get a cup. You just come along when you can."
I figured there was some truth to his words. Three years before, my daughter Lydia Ann, who was just sixteen years old at the time, went early to some rock concert because the seating was open and she wanted to sit up close. She liked the drummer, and if you sit up close and take binoculars you can see everything there is to see about a man sitting onstage in front of you, down to the kind of socks he's wearing, but a crowd formed up behind her and started shoving forward and my Lydia Ann thought she was going to suffocate in the press of people before security opened the gates, and even then six people got trampled to death when everybody rushed forward, so I looked at the crowd outside the White House gates and thought to myself, Georgia May, you want a cup of Mrs. Lincoln's because you love her husband and a cup of theirs would make you remember all the good he did, but there's no sense in risking your life, even for a cup President Lincoln might have drank coffee out of, so I took my Cyril's advice and hung back.
Besides, I figured I had the advantage over most folks in that crowd: Most of them had come just to take whatever they could get because they'd gone without for so long, and to maybe in the process scare the folks in power into running this country like it was meant to be a place where people could live a decent life. But me, I was going in with a plan. I knew just what I wanted to take from the White House. I'd toured the White House two years before and seen the China Room, and I'd looked and looked at Mrs. Lincoln's china and thought how she and the president I loved had eaten off those dishes, and when I started to see how things were going to go in this city and what was likely to take place with or without my blessing, I made up my mind to be in the crowd that would sweep into the White House and pick it clean, but I'd go there looking for one thing: a cup from Mrs. Lincoln's china — oh that, and maybe the saucer to go with it and a plate or two if I could get them, which explains the two sacks I'd brought along to carry the dishes in and the old dish towels I'd brought to wrap them in to keep them from chipping, but I would have truly settled for just one coffee cup.
It was a hot late-August day, and about noon the crowd quieted down. It was hard to keep up the yelling and screaming when you were so hot you could hardly stand it and sweat was making wet tracks down the front and back of your blouse and all you could think of was how you wanted a cold drink of some kind, maybe a Coke with lots of ice.
Some people tried to keep up the screaming and meant to rouse the rest of us to it, but it wasn't working. Only a few people yelled along with them, and I certainly didn't, not then. I started to wonder if we'd get in the White House at all or if we'd give up in that heat and go home, then try again in the evening or later at night, but I hoped we wouldn't have to rush the White House at night, because I didn't want to rush it in the dark. Storming a place like the White House seemed scary enough without adding darkness on top of it, when suddenly the marines guarding the gates just walked away and disappeared inside the East Wing. Everybody in the crowd was trying to see what was happening, standing on tiptoes and looking, and suddenly it made sense to me: they were giving up. They were opening the place up to us without bloodshed. We were going to get in the White House after all, and in the broad daylight. The president and everybody inside were probably gone already, out tunnels in the basement, whisked off to Camp David or who cares where.
The gates were locked, so people started climbing over the gates and the fence and walking a little warily up to the White House, almost like they were going to buy tickets and take a tour. Two nice young girls gave me a hand up to the top of the fence, and we all three jumped down together onto the grass on the other side and made our way up the lawn toward the doors of the East Wing lobby. The doors were swung wide when I got to them and shoved my way inside, but some folks were already trying to shove their way outside, their arms full of figurines and paintings and the like, no dishes yet. I saw a lot of people just standing around looking at the rooms and the things in them and at each other, amazed that we were inside like this and that nobody was trying to stop us.
For a minute, it seemed as if the spirit of the place settled over us: here we were in the mansion where the great and powerful presidents of this land had lived, some of them good people, and it didn't seem right, somehow, to just tear into the place and start taking things or breaking them right away. But somebody outside threw a rock and busted out one of the front windows, and somebody inside started yanking down the drapes, and I knew the craziness was starting. I made a beeline for the China Room.
And who should I find standing in the doorway but my own son Cyril.
"What kept you, Mama?" he asked.
I was about to explain the fence I'd climbed, which I didn't find as easy a thing to do as I used to, when he grinned at me and held up a cup of Mrs. Lincoln's white china with a gold edge around the top and a purple border below and the eagle that represented this country. The cup looked so regal, yet fragile, in Cyril's hand, while the breaking and the shouting grew and grew all around us. Cyril put the cup in my hands. It felt cool and clean. It wasn't dusty at all. Someone had taken good care of this cup.
"I want a saucer, too," I said, while I wrapped the cup in a dish towel and put it in my sack. "Wasn't there one with it?"
Cyril stepped back so I could walk past him into the room, which was empty of people. Cyril's friends, Randy Lewis and Vincent Henry, were standing in the other doorway, and they grinned at me — they were holding back all the people to give me first chance at what I wanted.
"We can't hold back these people long, Mama," Cyril said. "You've got to hurry."
So hurry I did. I went straight to the Lincoln china on display in its china cabinet. I knew right where it was. All the china was displayed in order of the presidents, starting at the right of the fireplace with pieces from the Washingtons' personal china and stretching around the room to a place setting from the present president's set. In the spot for the Lincolns' china was a display of just eleven pieces from Mrs. Lincoln's first set, including the saucer that went with my cup. Most of the 175 pieces of Lincoln china left were kept up in the president's private quarters or down in a basement storage area which I wouldn't have time to find. I opened the cabinet door, took out the saucer, wrapped it quick, and put it in my sack.
That's when the lights went out. It being the middle of the day, plenty of light still came in from the windows, but the riot was clearly getting worse. I started wrapping and packing as quick as I could: a dinner plate, an ice cream plate, a teacup and saucer. I'd pretty well finished wrapping the Lincoln display — water mug, three fruit baskets, custard cup and everything — when the shooting started, away off by the East Wing lobby. Cyril ran up and took my arm. "You've got to go, Mama," he said.
People had rushed into the China Room once Cyril left the doorway, and they started smashing the dishes in the cabinets and tearing at the paintings on the walls and breaking out the windows. I grabbed up a few more dishes and shoved them in my sack. I decided to chance the chipping, since I didn't have time to wrap them. It wasn't safe to stay here any longer. Cyril took my other sack and ran around the room shoving dishes into it, I didn't know then from what services, and he came back and pulled me toward the door. I kicked the cabinet door shut behind me on the off chance of saving what we left behind.
The crowd was going wild, breaking and tearing at anything they could. "Stop it!" I wanted to shout. "These are good dishes — take them home and use them." But nobody would have listened — nobody could have heard me in that noise. Some fat man tried to kick my sack of china, but I swung it out of the way, and Cyril punched the man's face.
"Come on, Mama!" Cyril shouted.
"I'm coming!" I shouted back.
But I couldn't help it. On the way out of the China Room I picked up an unbroken bowl thrown down on the rug and two wine goblets from I didn't know which services and stuffed them in my sack. Cyril helped me out of the White House through a back door and across the lawn to the fence, which surprised me. I thought he'd spend all his time in the White House having the fun he'd come to have with his friends. But he helped me over the fence, then handed me my sack of Lincoln china and his sack of odds and ends. I ran off down the street toward my apartment, and he ran off back toward the White House. I didn't see Cyril again for three days.
I lugged my china home and got it up the dark stairs to my door. The lights were out in the stairwell. I still managed to get my key out of my pocket in the front of my skirt and open the door by feel without having to set down the china and chance chipping it anymore. I carried the sacks into the bedroom and carefully set them down on the bed. Then I opened the drapes to let in the sunlight and looked out the window.
There were fires everywhere in the city, and smoke rising up from one point of the horizon to the other, not to mention the shooting and the deeper sound of what must have been cannons over by Annapolis. Seeing and hearing all that made me sick at heart. I started to wonder, what if they come to burn the building I live in? I thought maybe I shouldn't unpack the china in my sacks. If I had to run, I could pick up those sacks and run with them.
So I spent the evening getting ready to run. I locked the doors to keep people out till I was ready to go. Then I tried to call Lydia Ann, but the phones were dead. So I wrapped the Lincoln china I hadn't had time to wrap, this time in my good dishtowels, and when I ran out of those in my good pillowcases, which I'd want to take if I had to abandon everything else. I didn't bother with Cyril's sack of odds-and-ends china because I didn't even know what was in there and I wasn't sure I had time. Once I'd squared away the Lincoln china and packed up some food and an extra change of clothes and took out the money I'd hid behind the fridge and stuffed it into the box of Shredded Wheat cereal I planned to take, I sat by the window in the bedroom and watched and listened to the riot and worried about Lydia Ann and Cyril.
When night came, the city was lit up by fire. The shooting never stopped till three in the morning, when it stopped all of a sudden for about twenty minutes, all over the city. I stood by the window then, looking out and wondering if the craziness was over so soon, but of course it wasn't. It started up again. I sat by my bedroom window all the rest of that night and into the morning, watching.
By noon, since I hadn't had to run yet, I figured I might not have to. So I pulled all the drapes and dragged chairs in front of the door to block it and took a nap on the couch. I didn't want to move the china unless I had to, considering the pieces I hadn't wrapped in the second sack and the chipping I'd cause, so I left it all on the bed.
When I woke up, it was dark. I tried the lights, but the power was still off. I felt my way into the black kitchen and pulled matches out of a drawer and lit a candle. I tried the phone to call Lydia Ann again and Cyril, but the phone was still dead. I tried to cook some supper, but the water was off, so I just made sandwiches out of the cheese and tomatoes in the fridge before they spoiled and drank some of the water I had left in a pitcher. Then I carried my candle into the bedroom so I could take a look at the china in Cyril's sack of odds and ends and wrap it.
I reached in and pulled out a plate with a blue border and gold stems of wheat painted in that border. The American eagle was pictured in the white middle of the plate. I didn't know which president and his wife had had such a plate. I reached in and pulled out a dessert plate that had a pretty white flower in the middle. The back of the plate said "Syringa," and below that "Idaho." I figured the syringa must have been Idaho's state flower, but I didn't know which president's wife had ordered this plate either. I pulled out the two crystal wine goblets that were the last things I'd taken. They were simple in design, but lovely.
I took the candle and went after the Margaret Brown Klapthor book Official White House China: 1789 to the Present which I'd bought after the White House tour I'd taken two years before and carried the book into the bedroom. I put the candle on the nightstand and knelt by the bed and started leafing through the book looking for pictures of china that matched the china and goblets I had on my bed.
The plate with gold wheat and the blue border turned out to be President Harrison's. Mrs. Caroline Harrison had painted the wheat herself, the guidebook said, back in the days when women did that sort of thing. I picked up the plate and looked at it again. The wheat was beautifully painted, and I realized that Caroline Harrison had been a real artist. Her work looked professionally done to me.
The plate with the flower in the middle was the Johnsons'. The guidebook said Lady Bird had ordered a service of china that pictured wildflowers, not the state flowers, of all fifty states and D.C. People used to go on tours hoping to see the wildflower from their state on display in a place setting from Lady Bird's china. I pulled two more plates from that service out of Cyril's sack. They pictured the California poppy and the Oregon grape, which meant I'd ended up with plates of the western states. I wished Cyril had picked out the plate with D.C.'s flower on it. I didn't even know D.C. had an official flower, let alone a wildflower. Maybe they'd used the dandelion or some other weed that grew up between cracks in sidewalks.
I started looking to see if I could match a picture to the wine goblets, when there was a burst of gunfire just up the street from my building. I blew out the candle and didn't move in the sudden darkness. I heard shouting and more firing, then running in the alleyway below my window. I was glad I'd pulled the drapes so no one could have seen my light before it was gone altogether. I knelt there next to my bed and smelled the smoke from the candle and listened to the shouting and the shots and thought of my Cyril and Lydia Ann, wondering what was happening to them. When things had quieted down outside, I reached out and touched the smooth china of one of the Johnsons' dessert plates: the people who'd ordered these plates were the people who'd dreamed of a great society. It hadn't lasted long. It hadn't even been many years before the ugly billboards Mrs. Johnson had had torn down all over the country were put back up and you couldn't walk down a street or take a bus ride anywhere without having gaudy billboards scream at you to buy this or that bit of nonsense. It was all tacky and cheap. Tacky and cheap was what too many people tried to make all of our lives and the world around us. But Mrs. Johnson had tried to fight that trend, and she and her husband had dreamed dreams, and worked as if they could make a difference in the world, and ordered china with delicate wildflowers on them. It had been a time when grace and beauty stood a chance.
Over the next two days, I cataloged the china I'd taken: of the Lincoln china, 1 dinner plate, 1 custard cup, 1 fish platter, 1 regular platter, 1 water jug, 1 ice cream plate, 3 fruit baskets, a teacup and saucer, and a coffee cup and saucer; of the Johnson china, 1 plate, 3 dessert plates; of the Harrison china, 1 plate, one coffee cup and saucer; and in addition, 2 Kennedy wine goblets and 1 Hayes soup bowl with a crab painted on it. I wrapped everything in my best pillowcases and dishtowels and kept them in sacks at the foot of my bed, ready for me to pick up and run with if I had to. I also wrapped two green Depression-glass plates of my mother's and put them in the sacks. I'd want them, too, if I had to leave everything else.
Three days after we'd stormed the White House, Cyril came knocking on my door. I recognized his voice, of course, so I dared drag away the chairs and unlock the door, and there stood Cyril with sacks of food in his arms.
"I thought you might be needing a few things, Mama," he said.
I hugged him and cried a little, and asked him if he'd seen or heard from Lydia Ann, which he hadn't. I'd already decided I had to go and find her and help her if she needed it, but I decided to tell Cyril about that decision a little later. I asked him to tell me where he'd gotten the food, but he wouldn't say much about that. I made him stay while I cooked supper for us both. The gas was still on, and I'd dipped out all the clean water from the toilet reservoir, so I had water to boil with and drink. Cyril had brought me potatoes and a canned ham and all kinds of other canned things, soups and green peas, and even a jar of instant Taster's Choice coffee. I put the ham in the oven to heat through and set the potatoes to boil and decided to set the table with the Lincoln china.
I brought out my nicest white tablecloth and spread it over the table. The tablecloth had been my mama's, and it was way too big for any table I'd ever had, but I thought it was the tablecloth I should use with the Lincoln china. It hung down low, nearly to the floor, but it looked fine even so. I set the lit candle in the middle of the table. Then I unwrapped the Lincoln dinner plate for me and the fish platter for Cyril and set them out. They looked so pretty on my table, the dark purple of the border set off by my white tablecloth. The candlelight glistened off the china. I could imagine the president and Mrs. Lincoln hosting a state dinner, maybe for the ambassador from Japan who would have come dressed in a kimono for men or whatever it was men wore in Japan back then, and all of them eating in just the kind of light Cyril and I were going to eat in. I unwrapped and polished the coffee cup and the teacup and their saucers and set them out for the coffee. My shoddy old flatware looked sad beside all the presidential finery, but it would have to do.
Cyril stacked the furniture back in front of the door, then just sat at the table while I cooked, he was so tired. He told me he'd gone to talk to Randy Lewis, who had a shortwave radio and batteries to run it on, and that Randy had heard there was fighting and rioting all over the country. None of the networks were on, so we couldn't have gotten any news even if we'd had power to run a TV or radio.
The potatoes finished cooking, and I whipped them by hand with butter that hadn't quite spoiled yet and canned Sego milk, which works in potatoes when you don't have anything else. The whipping took a while, but Cyril and I both like our potatoes whipped, so I stuck with the whipping till it was done. I opened the canned peas and boiled them, then set water to boil for the coffee. When the ham was heated, I sliced it and made a gravy and we sat down to eat.
The food looked so good, and it smelled so good, and in the candlelight it seemed the shooting and the screams were far-off, somehow, though of course they really weren't. It struck me as a rare blessing that a mother and her son could sit down to a decent supper in times like these, and I was grateful to Cyril for his thoughtfulness to me.
I dished myself some potatoes and handed Cyril the bowl. "I'm going to walk over to Lydia Ann's apartment tomorrow when it's light and try to find her," I said.
Cyril looked up at me and took the potatoes.
"I'll go look for her after supper," he said. "Don't you go out yet, not even in the day. It will be safer for me to go in the dark."
I covered my potatoes with gravy and handed Cyril the gravy bowl. "If you go tonight to look for your sister, I'm going with you. I can't stand this not knowing about Lydia Ann."
He took the gravy and shook his head.
"Don't tell me no," I said, serving myself a slice of ham. "I'm her mama, and I have to know if she's all right. If you say the darkness is safer, I'll go tonight in the dark, and I'll go alone if I have to."
He took the ham and didn't say anything. I'd told him about my decision to search for Lydia Ann in the same tone of voice I always used with my children to tell them the discussion was over and that trying to convince me to change my mind was a waste of time. He still recognized that tone of mine. We dished up some green peas and started eating.
"Is the water ready for the coffee?" Cyril asked.
I'd left it boiling on the stove. Cyril got up to get it and the jar of coffee, but the shoelace hooks in his boots caught the tablecloth and Cyril stumbled and jerked the tablecloth forward and the candle fell over and went out and I heard Cyril hit the floor and dishes shattering around him.
I couldn't move. I just sat there in the dark till I heard Cyril start getting up. I went for the matches then and another candle and bumped into Cyril and told him to stand still and asked if he was hurt and got a match and struck it and lit the candle and held it up. Cyril and I looked at each other, then at the table.
"Oh, Cyril," I said, but he didn't say anything, not "I'm sorry" or even "Well, look at that." He seemed too stunned to say anything to me then. The fish platter was on the floor and busted, together with the teacup and saucer and my old bowl I'd put the peas in — all busted. But the ham and the potatoes and my plate of food and the coffee cup and saucer were still on the table. He hadn't pulled off the whole tablecloth. I got the broom and dustpan and started sweeping up the pieces, and the sound of that china tinkling into my dustpan sounded like a judgment on us all and I started to cry, and Cyril said he'd finish sweeping so I handed him the broom, but I got out rags and tried to wipe up the mess off the floor, which wasn't easy considering how little water I had, and all the while I was crying. Everything was just too much for me then. When the mess was cleaned up and the tablecloth straightened, I sat back in my chair and just looked at my food sitting on a Lincoln plate while Cyril dished himself some more food onto a regular melmac plate out of my cupboard.
"What have we done, Cyril?" I said.
"The dishes would have all been broken anyway, if we'd left them sitting in the White House, Mama."
But that was not the point.
"Eat, Mama, if you want to feel up to going for a walk with me to Lydia Ann's," he said.
"Don't patronize me," I said.
I stopped my crying and stood up and got myself a melmac plate out of the cupboard and scraped my food onto it off of the Lincoln plate. Then I ever so carefully washed the Lincoln plate and didn't begrudge it the water. I wrapped it up in a fine dish-towel and put it and the unbroken cup and saucer back with the other dishes in their sacks. Then I hid the sacks in the broom closet, where thieves wouldn't spend much time looking, I thought, if they came in here.
The china I'd taken was a duty I had assumed. I realized that now. It represented a heritage not mine alone. The day would come when other people besides me would want to take a look at Mrs. Lincoln's china, and Mrs. Johnson's and Mrs. Harrison's. They'd want to look and remember the dreams we'd once had in this country and the kind of lives folks had once led. Till that time, I had a duty to safeguard what had become my charge. Wouldn't the people in power someday be surprised when I walked up and handed them the china and said, "Look here at what I've saved for all of us."
And I got other ideas. I sat back down to eat my cold food and told Cyril what I was thinking. "The minute it starts to look safe," I said, "I want to walk back to the White House and take a look around. I'll bet there's a cup or two that didn't get busted and maybe a saucer thrown on the rug that didn't break or get trampled. There will be things here and there that I can pick up and bring back to save and take care of. Maybe I'm being called to do this, Cyril, or maybe I'm calling myself. It's folks like me, I guess, who will have to make ourselves responsible for saving some of our heritage through this time."
He looked at me for a while, then finally started eating again. "I'll go with you to the White House," he said. "I don't want you going up there alone."
"I'd be glad for your help," I said, and I thought how saving things like a president's china would give us a purpose to get us through the troubled days ahead.
While I cleared off the table, Cyril told me how Randy Lewis had heard on his shortwave that they were talking about setting up a temporary capital in either Denver or St. Paul. "I imagine they'll fight now over which one of those cities gets to be capital for a while," I said.
Meanwhile, we had the living to take care of, and a job to do after that. Little by little, we'd put the world back right.
- On Sale
- May 15, 2001
- Grand Central Publishing