The Game I Played

by Irving Greenfield

 

Father Peter Bannon shared a small house with Father Miguel Charvez, located on Ridge Avenue in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. The house was in walking distance of the St. Agnes where they had served the last years of their priesthood.

Father Bannon — a still tall, broad shouldered man, whose blue eyes sparkled with boyish mischievousness — was in charge of the daily chores needed to maintain the house. Together, they gardened. Father Bannon tended the apple and cherry trees, while Father Charvez took care of the vegetable and the flower beds.

A slightly built man with a wrinkled face the color of dark leather, Father Charvez was a better cook than Peter and took this task upon himself without introducing it as a topic for discussion. Both shared the marketing. Though Peter preferred red meat to chicken, fish and vegetables, he allowed Miguel to make most of the choices.

Of the two, Father Charvez was the more intellectual and the more devout. When he had been younger, he had contributed articles on a variety of philosophical issues to Catholic journals. Now, though he sometimes wrote long into the night, he made no attempt to publish his writings.

Father Bannon never wrote a word he didn't have to. He was an ardent sports fan, always rooting for the home team. In his youth, he'd been a devout fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But when the team deserted Brooklyn, he switched his allegiance to the New York Mets. Peter spent a greater part of each day in front of the TV watching everything from sporting events, talk shows and old, late night, movies.

Neither of them had any friends. Those they did have had died. The priests who served where they had, were more acquaintances than friends, which was why Peter was surprised by the phone call that came while he sitting in the big easy chair watching the five o'clock news.

Miguel picked up the extension phone on a small table against the wall at the base of the steps that lead up to the second story where the bedrooms and the bathroom were.

"It's for you, Peter," Miguel called out after a moment.

Because Peter had suffered auditory nerve damage during World War Two, Miguel was forced to shout in order to be heard above the voices coming from the TV. But even after calling several times, Peter still didn't hear him.

"If you hold on for a couple of minutes, I'll get him," Father Charvez said to the man who spoke with a distinct English accent.

"I'll hold," the man answered.

This time Miguel went directly to where Peter sat and tapped him on the shoulder. He pointed toward the phone. "You have a phone call," he said loudly.

"Who is it?" Peter asked, looking up at his friend.

"He didn't give his name. He just said he wanted to speak to you."

By grasping the ends of the chairs two arms, Peter pulled himself out of the easy chair.

"I'll lower the TV," Miguel said.

Peter made a quick upward gesture with his right hand, which of the years had come to mean do it.

"Father Bannon, here," Peter said, lifting the phone from the table.

Silence!

Father Bannon reiterated his greeting.

"You don't know me," the man said.

"It would help if you gave me your name," Father Bannon said testily. He faced the TV. He was missing the weather forecast, a part of the news he enjoyed watching almost as much as the sports coverage.

"My name is Thomas Hopper," the man said.

Peter heard him speak but the words became garbled because his attention was focused on the TV. "Say again," Peter said.

Thomas repeated his name.

"I don't think I know you," Father Bannon said, trying to jar his reluctant memory which quickly forgot what had happened yesterday or even that morning. But it could remember with exquisite detail events that had occurred when he had been a child and then a young man. He could easily slip back into the past and often did. But it was very dangerous, especially when he was driving.

Thomas chuckled. "I don't know you either, Father. But it has taken me a while to find you, and —"

"Find me? Find me? Why would you want to do that?" Peter shouted, disturbed that some one had been looking for him.

Thomas ignored the priest's question and said, "I'd very much like to meet with you."

"When?"

"Say, about seven o'clock this evening," Thomas answered.

"But "

"I fly back to London tomorrow morning," Thomas interrupted.

"You're a Brit.?" Peter questioned. He didn't like the British either singly or en mass. He also felt that way about the Germans and the Russians.

"I'm a Brit., as you put it," Thomas laughed.

"Hold on," Peter said. Cupping the phone's mouthpiece with his hand, he shouted, "Miguel, this Brit. wants to come here about seven o'clock tonight."

Miguel, who was standing near the easy chair watching the weather forecast, turned toward his friend. But before he could answer, Peter shouted, "He said he wants to meet me. He's been trying to find me."

"Who?" Miguel asked.

"This guy on the phone. Thomas Hopper."

Miguel shrugged. "We haven't had any company for a long time, Peter. It would be a nice change."

Peter nodded, and he removed his hand from the mouthpiece. "All right. Can you be here about six-thirty?"

"I'll be there, Father," Thomas said.

Peter heard the click on the other end of the line, put the phone down, and asked, "Now what  does a Brit. want with me?" He had looked forward to watching TV after dinner, not speaking to a total stranger. "I should have told him I was busy," Peter grumbled as he walked back into the living room.

"Call back and tell him that," Miguel said. "His coming only means more dishes to wash."

"I don't know where the he is," Peter answered. "He could have called from the damn moon, for all I know."

"In that case, I better cook up more spaghetti and another vegetable," Miguel said calmly.

"I don't like Brits. ," Peter grumbled. "I don't  like them at all."

"Few Irishmen do," Miguel answered.

Peter looked at his friend for a few moments. But despite the expressionless leathery face he saw, Miguel's coal black eyes were full of flashing lights, full of laughter that made him smile. The next instant two of them guffawed.

       



Peter returned to the easy chair and turned up the TV's volume. But he lost interest in the news, switched off the TV altogether, and sat looking at the blank screen. By inviting Hopper for dinner, Peter felt as if he'd trapped himself. He didn't want a Brit. or, for that matter, anyone else upsetting his schedule. His seventy-four years gave him the right to live the way he wanted and that included keeping his own rhythms. Launching himself out of the easy chair, Peter stalked into the kitchen where Miguel was happily whistling while working at the stove.

"I was going to ask you to set the table," Miguel said.

Peter knew that Miguel meant the dining room table and growled, "We can eat in the kitchen, where we always eat."

"But not when we have company," Miguel said as he prepared to steam several stalks of broccoli.

"I don't like it," Peter groused.

"What don't you like?"

"A stranger coming here, an unexpected guest.

Miguel shrugged. "In a way it's exciting," he said.

"Exciting? Peter exploded.

"There's no need to work yourself up into a state over this," Miguel said.

Peter didn't answer.

"Think of it as a mystery," Miguel told him. " You received a call from a stranger who said that he wanted to meet you but didn't tell you why. And, to complicate the mystery, the stranger isn't an American."

"He's a Brit.," Peter practically shouted.

"Brit. he may be but that only adds to the mystery," Miguel answered.

It's not a mystery; it's a  nuisance."

"Ah, Peter, Peter "

"You're the poet, the writer. But I'm the guy who has the bad feeling," Peter said.

"What bad feeling?"

"I have a bad feeling about this whole thing, this dinner," Peter said.

"Go say your beads," Miguel counseled. "It will relax you."

Suddenly, Peter was angry . . . The beads hadn't meant a damn thing to him for years. For years he'd gone through the motions, even at mass, because he was afraid to go somewhere else and didn't know how to do anything else.

"If you're not going to do that, then start setting the table," Miguel said with undisguised exasperation in his tone.

Peter turned and went into the dining room.

Miguel utter a deep, ragged sigh and followed his friend. "I'm sorry. It was a stupid thing to say," he apologized.

Peter didn't answer.

"I said I was sorry," Miguel said.

"That Brit. isn't even here yet and look at what he has done," Peter complained.

"Somehow we will get through this," Miguel said and put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "He's your guest, Peter."

"He's my guest," Peter agreed.

"You've lived through worse situations than having dinner with a stranger who also happens to be a Brit.," Miguel said with a smile.

"I have and I have survived," Peter said.

       



The two men sat in the living room waiting for their dinner guest. Miguel read the previous Sunday's New York Times Book Review section, while Peter made every effort to concentrate on the last half hour of the six o'clock news. But his stomach was churning, and he already had heart burn. A bad sign!

"Smells good," Miguel commented, sniffing the air and putting the book review section down. "I popped a small pot roast in the oven just to be sure there would be enough food."

"There would have been enough without it," Peter answered sourly.

Miguel started to read the book review section again. After a few moments, he stopped and said, "Peter, you're over reacting, when in my opinion there doesn't seem to be anything to react to."

"That's your opinion," Peter snapped and bolted out of the chair. "Your opinion only. If there's nothing to react to, then why do I have a heart burn? Why is my stomach one huge knot?"

"I wish I knew," Miguel sighed. He closed the book review section, folded it in half, and placed it on a nearby end table.

Peter began to pace, stopped and said, "I don't like surprises and I don't like changes in my  "

The bell sounded.

"He's here," Miguel said.

"Yes, he's here," Peter echoed through clenched teeth.

The bell sounded again.

"Are you going to the door, or do you want me to?" Miguel asked.

"He's my guest," Peter said already on his way to the door.

      



Wearing a white uniform, Thomas Hopper stood on the stoop, framed by the doorway. He was a tall, thin man with a weather-beaten face and piercing blue eyes.

It took Peter a few moments to realize that his guest was a high ranking naval officer. Parked at the curb was a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce with the British flag displayed on the vehicle's right front fender and the UN's flag on the left front fender. Two of Peter's neighbors Mr. Foyle, whose house was to the right of his and Mr. Calluchi, whose house was directly across the street were outside looking at him and his guest; and a group of teen age boys in front of the house were scrutinizing the Rolls Royce and the young naval officer at attention.

Smiling and with his right hand extended, Thomas Hopper asked, "Do I say Father Bannon I presume?"

Awed by what he saw, Peter remained silent. Though a chaplain with the rank of Captain during World War two, he had the enlisted man's distrust and dislike of officers especially if they were high ranking.

"You are Father Bannon?" Thomas asked.

"Yes, I am," Peter said, grasping Thomas's right hand and shaking it. He realized the man held two packages in the crook of his left arm: one rectangular and cylindrical.

Thomas smiled, released Peter's hand. He made a half turn toward the Rolls. "I am in the right place, Leftenant," he called.

The young man saluted. "Enjoy your dinner, sir."

Returning the salute, Thomas answered, "And you, yours."

"I will return at twenty-two hundred, Admiral," the Leftenant said.

"Very good," Thomas replied and faced Peter again. "Good man, Leftenant Reed. Attached, here, to the UN."

Peter nodded, invited Thomas into the house, and stepped back to allow him to enter. But Thomas made a sweeping gesture with his right hand to indicate he would follow, not lead his host.

       



  Father Charvez waited for them in the foyer, just beyond the vestibule. Thomas immediately offered his hand to him, "I'm Thomas Hopper," he said.

"My very good friend, Father Miguel Charvez," Peter explained, gesturing toward Miguel.

"I brought something for after dinner," Thomas said, handing the cylindrical package to Peter. "Brandy. I hope you like it."

"I'm sure we will," Miguel responded, as he took the package out of his friend's hands.

For several moments, the three of them stood silently rooted to the place each occupied.

Peter realized that he and Thomas were doing the same thing each was taking the measure of the other. Peter tried but could not match Thomas's features with anyone he knew. Yet, there was something vaguely familiar about him. Around his intensely blue eyes!

Finally, Miguel broke the silence. "Peter, why don't you and Please forgive me. I'm not familiar with the designations of rank "

"He's an admiral," Peter explained with more than a hint of acerbity in his tone.

"Please call me Thomas," he said graciously.

Miguel smiled. "Why don't the two of you go into the living room while I get dinner ready?"

Peter nodded and with Thomas in tow, he started for the living room.

        



The time spent at the dinner table was less fractious than Peter had imagined it would be. Though Thomas never mentioned his reason for being there, Peter was not about to broach the subject.

Thomas turned out to be a wonderful storyteller, and he had many to tell. Not only had he been the Deputy Commander of Naval Operations during the war between England and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, but he was also a Viscount. He had been a fighter pilot in the Naval Air Arm when he was younger. For the past twenty-five years he was married to the same woman whose name was Diana.

In Peter's opinion, it was an uncommon occurrence these days to remain married for anything more than a few years.

Thomas had three children. The oldest, Harold, was a resident doctor in the London Hospital. The two girls were twins: Susan and June. Next year both would be entering Cambridge University.

The more Thomas spoke, the less ill at ease Peter became. Once, when he and Miguel were in the kitchen for a few moments at the same time, Miguel took the opportunity to ask, "Now, aren't you glad we have a guest for dinner?"

"He's affable, all right," Peter answered.

"He's a charming man," Miguel responded.

Peter shrugged and said, "I guess he's that."

        



Dinner finished, the three men moved into the living room. Thomas carried the rectangular box which had remained on the floor next to his chair throughout dinner.

Peter opened the bottle of brandy and poured two fingers worth into three different snifters.

"What a wonderful aroma," Miguel remarked partially rotating one of the snifters between the palms of his hands.

"It's private stock," Thomas said matter-of-factly. "The bottle was probably put down a hundred and fifty years ago."

Astonished, Peter raised his eyebrows.

"It would have been drunk sometime, and now is as good a time as any,"

Thomas said with a smile. "Besides, this is something of a special occasion." He tapped the box that rested on his lap and added, "My reason for coming here tonight Peter is to return whatever is in this box to you."

Too startled to move, Peter remained motionless. He felt as if he were suspended over an abyss that had suddenly opened in front of him. The good feeling that pervaded him, which had been reenforced by the delicious warmth the brandy produced, suddenly vanished. It left him numb, inwardly cold, and so frightened he could hear the roaring of his own blood.

"There's a bit of a story attached to it," Thomas said.

"A good one, I hope," Miguel responded concentrating his attention on Thomas and unaware of his friend's reaction.

"When my mother died, this sealed box with a letter taped to it was among her personal belongings. The letter was to me. In it she requested the box be returned to Father Peter Bannon, a Catholic Priest, who was probably located in the New York area."

"When did your mother die?" Peter asked in a faint voice.

"Three months ago. You know, she wasn't British. She was an American. Her maiden name was Catherine Weber. During the big one, she a nurse with the Second Division in the Ardense sector. My Father met her when he was wounded and somehow wound up in her care."

Peter extended his hands to receive the box.

"In my mother's letter to me, she said she won the contents from you in a Poker game," Thomas said.

"It was a game," Peter answered dryly. Though he had trouble keeping his hands steady, he began to unwrap the package. He knew he was sweating but there was nothing he could do about it. Finally the plain brown wrapping paper was off, revealing a box made of highly polished oak.

Afraid to open it, Peter stared at the box.

"Aren't you going to open it?" Miguel asked.

Peter looked at his friend, then at Hopper. Their attention was focused on him. There wasn't any way he could refuse. Slowly, he lifted the lid. Inside, set out on black velvet, were the medals he'd been awarded, several faded newspaper clippings, including one from the US Armed Forces newspaper Stars and Stripes that described in detail how he'd made seventeen trips "under murderous enemy machine gun fire to rescue wounded American and Belgian soldiers."  A white envelope with his name on it was taped to the inside lid. He used the blade of his pocket knife to slice through the tape that held the envelope to the lid. Then he handed the box to Miguel, who looked at its contents while Peter reached over to the end table where he always kept his glasses. He put them on, unfolded the deckle edged sheet of white linen paper, and silently read:

"These are now back in their rightful owner's hands.

Always Yours,

Catherine"

"You did something quiet remarkable," Thomas said. He now had the Oakwood box on his lap.

Peter folded the letter. He cleared the knot in his throat by coughing several times. "I was a very lucky man," he said.

"I'll drink to that," Thomas responded raising his snifter.

"So will," Miguel added, as he raised his glass

Peter lifted his glass. "Yes, I was a very, very lucky man . . . And, thank you, Thomas, for making a special effort to see me."

Thomas smiled. "Was my mother really a good Poker player or did you loose to her because you're a gentleman?" he asked.

"She was the best . . . But then the game I played with her was my first and my last," Peter answered softly.

Thomas smiled. "Yes, Father, in a war it sometimes happens that way," he said gently.

 

The End

 

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