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  Bridge Bum Buddha

By Ginny Wray

My first lover (although I use the word loosely) was an older man, twice my age of 15, a lapsed law student with violet eyes and kohl-black lashes, and a bridge bum, not the kind who sleeps on railroad embankments, but one of the obsessed who sits at a table all day and night, holding 13 cards in his smoke-stained fingers, driven by a passion to bid on his future at ten cents a point, eating watercress sandwiches on thin-sliced white bread with the crusts pared away, sipping Turkish coffee in doll-sized china brought to him on a tray by a limping Lithuanian with a penciled-on mustache and a black bow tie, a wraithlike presence casting eerie shadows in the dim demi-monde, a man as threadbare as the brocade curtains at the windows of the always overheated Kings and Queens Bridge Club off Lexington in the lower fifties. Mother said my boyfriend was a lousy bidder, "like most Republicans," but since I swore that I would never learn the game, I didn't know if this was true or not, and I never found out since he skipped town with the five hundred dollars (all I had in the world) that he borrowed "until his luck turned," which of course it already had.

My mother, also a bridge bum but a Grand Master with diamonds at her neck from a previous marriage, had charmed an acquaintance named Mrs. Leroy Whitney (Margot to her friends), who dressed for dinner every night, her husband wearing patent leather pumps with bows, to sponsor her at the Regency Whist Club in its stately townhouse on 67th and Madison where she played with Egyptian princes, venerable anchormen and fat cats of all sizes, once called industrialists. I would meet her there for a lunch of scrambled eggs, which was all we could afford between big wins. Then I would stand behind her chair and marvel at a language all the grown-ups spoke that I would never understand: "Two no trump, three diamonds, pass, pass, double." Someone was the dummy, every once in a while, letting his partner make their tricks, a tricky business, with much math involved. Mother married three of her partners but eventually left them all, after arguments loud enough for the doorman to hear having something to do, if I remember correctly, with how they could possibly have finessed the queen when they were vulnerable (or the queen was), which was ample grounds for divorce, in her opinion. The lesson I learned from all this was never to marry a man whose main goal in life was to make enough at the tables to cover his bar bill.

One day she brought Billy (once William Carlton Bennett III) home from the Kings and Queens.  Mother said he "came from money," which meant, in his case, that it had come and gone.  Billy was a spindly man, too old and frail to sleep with; he was her only friend, I think -- at least she didn't marry him -- gentle, nearly a giant at 6'3" who couldn't have weighed over 140 pounds, disappearing into his $15 charity suit which he bought, at Mother's urging, at the Lenox Hill Hospital Thrift Store, if memory serves me.  It was a dove gray cashmere blend, its label not too carefully clipped out, and I imagine Billy walking through the aisles of cast-off alligator shoes, espresso-stained clutch purses whose clasps would never close again, and Grandma Moses reprints framed in cardboard ("glass missing") of pussy cats and tiny people down on the farm, letting his hand pass, with some nostalgic longing, over a floor-length peach ball gown, size eight, with an ever so slightly frayed and graying hemline. The first time I saw him, he was sitting cross-legged on our living room floor like a starving Bodhisattva while Mother tried to feed him Campbell's Pork and Beans with a slice of toasted, buttered pumpernickel, but all he really wanted was to smoke another cigarette and add up his score. He picked me up from school once to walk me home, and taught me how to field strip a Camel, a skill that I have never tested, as it turns out. But we didn't know him very long. When he stopped answering his phone and didn't show up at the club for a week, fearing the worst, Mother woke the super, her heart in her throat, to unlock the door of Billy's one room walk-up on 61st and Third, finding him still at the table, clutching the full hand of spades.

Ginny Wray's work has appeared in 3ammagazine, Absinthe, Big Bridge, Carve Magazine, Eclectica, Eyeshot, Hope Magazine, Linnaean Street, nycBigCityLit, Pindeldyboz, PoetryBay, PoetryMagazine, and Samsara Quarterly. Ms. Wray passed away in 2004.

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