Friday, October 16, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 16

April 28 Sunday

Very early. Coffee and brownies filched from last night’s croquet.

It is the weekend and I am luxuriating in a morning alone. All my mornings are solitary, yet it’s only when I’ve had a compliment of company that I can bask in it, selfishly stretching my legs along the length of this couch. The sun is mine, the smiling dog mine.. This empty page---ours. As I write I am one, but later, when I read this, I’ll be older, different, someone else. And who knows, someday I may have an audience.

Spent last night on the island of old friends, passport stamped, natives friendly. We played croquet, a game of war, survival and the complexities of a surface existence. Oops, I meant to write a social existence. Peter played at romance, I at love. Kate played possum. Jake played not at all. He’s an impatient man and a bit of a bully. I couldn’t live with him, but Kate has an inner pool of calm that draws angry people to her for sustenance, and perhaps their fire warms her.

Billie and Allen lived in their own made up world, reminding me of paper dolls from the 1950s or of the parents in an old reader. Dick and Jane’s parents. Physically alike and turned towards each other. As soon as I saw the happy couple emerge with the croquet set, I ran out to help. Then I ran back in again and changed. I’d put on a knee length dress with a low loose waist, but when I saw Billie and Kate in shorts, I changed into a pair of my own. This necessitated some thought as to a top. I’m past the age where the most comfortable T-shirts can be considered flattering or even passable. My best ones were in the wash, so I made do with a cropped white blouse. This gave me a slightly over-dressed look, but I realized I would probably be the only one to think so. I dithered over jewelry until the absurdity of being so nervous made me laugh.

In Atlanta I lived in a small apartment building and enjoyed knowing most of my neighbors. We’d admired each other’s balcony gardens; walked together to the bus stop or nearby museum. Listened to each other sing in the First Presbyterian Church at Christmas. Some of the old renters had been friends for years. I’d even loaned my apartment to a neighbor for her family’s use during a reunion. I fully expect to experience more or better relationships with this Tuscaloosa group. Yet, I’m aware (for the first time?) of seeming bit older and different. Of coming in on a crowd that was tight and intermarried. And face it, I was aware of an attraction to Peter that confused and excited me. In going out to meet him again among his friends I felt like an actress making an entrance into a play that had begun months or years ago. And in this play, I have a role but no script.

The croquet set belongs to Peter, who bought it "on impulse" at a garage sale, but it’s kept here with Billie and Allen. It is, as he was first to establish, a tournament quality set. Swedish. Since they’ve only had the set a week, the rules are agreed upon by consensus. Jake insists he’s the most knowledgeable because he’s played on a real one-hundred-foot course, or field. He calculated how long we’re most likely to play (two hours) and compared that against the skills of the participants (low).

“We should play teams with six wickets,” he said.

Peter and Allen over-ruled him immediately. His surrender was so graceful, I had to laugh. Something told me he was getting his own way after all. A wink from Kate confirmed that. Bad-tempered yet tactful. An interesting combo.

“My turn,” said Allen, winking at Billie.

“Let me go,” said Peter. “You took last night.” (Had they played last night? Where was I? What had I missed by shopping for tonight? Was this linen romper worth it?

“Tough,” said Jake. “It’s my turn.”

“Tonight we'll play with Jacob’s memories,” said Kate. She'd elbowed him away from the drinks table and was making gin and tonics for all with a generous hand. The brownies and deviled eggs were long gone.

“I’ve been chasing croquet memories for the last hour,” I said. “When Jake set out the course, my instinct was to correct him. As if whoever had taught me to play had to be right. “Maybe it’s only our childhoods that had to be right,” I said.

“They really do take turns,” said Billie.

“We could get the rules off the web site,” I said. "I mean, I already did. I downloaded them.”

“Oh, not you, too,” said Kate. “They’ve all downloaded the rules. They just don’t care.”

“They read them in secret,” said Billie, settling herself into the only lounge chair. She tightened the head of her mallet efficiently. "Have a drink before we start; there's plenty of time."

She was right. There was time to watch Jake and Peter argue over the measurements, rustle up more food from everyone’s kitchen before the guys finally had the field lined up according to memory and Association rules. Before Professor Sergeant and Astible arrived and joined Phoebe and Veronica on the verandah steps. “To watch,” he said. “Just to watch.” But I noticed he communed more with my puppy than with any of us and was never available for a ruling, though we called on him often.

The basics we all seem to remember and agree upon:

There are nine wickets set out in two diamonds placed to fit the space available. At Monnish Court this is practically the length of an official (100 feet) court, but not quite, so we adjusted accordingly. I'd never played on so large a field and had some trouble getting "out" of the start stake and the first two wickets. In your standard suburban backyard and playing with a child's set, there is only about a foot between the starting stake and the second wicket. In tonight's game, this length was about three feet. Our lawn is dry and only appears flat. It's actually full of stones and tufts, and, given the yield of my garden so far, bones and amulets. Play was uneven. But that's the game.

As with life and love, over time you get to know the terrain. Until then, every stroke yields a surprise.

Croquet details we all need to know:

· Hitting (roqueting) another player's ball brings choice.

· The order of play follows the colors designated on the two end stakes: blue, red, black, yellow, green and orange.

· It is war, played to win, to kill and to survive.

· To roach: to chase players, not wickets. Sign of bad sportsmanship or inebriation.

· Poison defeats its pursuers. Poison is what you are when you have played through and “won”. To win in croquet is not your goal, you must kill. The first person finished comes back into the game as “Poison” and tries to hit other balls.

· To be hit by a poisoned ball is to die.

· To hit a poisoned ball is to die. Once you finish the course and also become poison, you are safe to hit poisoned balls.

· The last ball is the surviving ball.

· Surviving is winning.

So. Just when you think you’re finished, you discover you are not. Just when you think you have won, you must play again. Just when you think you have lost, you have not. Because you might still win in the poison afterlife and so must continue. It’s as if the game itself is a form of life–and poison a form of hell. The game is over, but you are not over. Life ends with death, you end with hell. For in the end, we are all either poisoned, nourished, kept ‘alive’ with that corrupting elixir, or we are victims of it. The truly dead do not got through the final wicket at all, do not become poison, but perish on the field.

I have not found heaven yet, but the season for finding it has just begun. There is life in the garden. And that is what heaven really is.

Back to the game. Back to life. Croquet is about roqueting. Bumping into others and making a choice.

Roqueting yields a choice:

  • Player may take two bonus strokes


  • Player may place his own ball in contact with the struck ball in such a way as to send both balls in the desired direction.

This useful shot, called a croquet shot, was dubbed by Kate “lover's ball.” When Billie’s ball lay nestled near a wicket, Allen kissed his mallet head and roqueted her through the wicket along with his own. “Lover’s ball!” she cried. A little later, when Peter sent us both through the third wicket, she called it buddy ball. Whether lover or buddy, the striker has one remaining stroke. It’s a sweet, non-competitive moment used to keep everyone happy until the end, when corrupting influences take over the night.

And, finally, how to croquet:

Place your own ball in contact with the struck ball and place your foot over your own ball (rendering it immobile). Strike your own ball and whammo! Send your opponent where you will. Or, if you’re wearing sandals, where you can.

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