PLAYING WITH FIRE
By Ruth Zavitz
After old McLeod died, his granddaughter, Anastasia Benton, came to live on his farm. She sold the land to Jock McLaughlin and reserved the house and yard for herself. She worked at the Post Office in Cedarville, driving back and forth every day in her brand-new 1923 Chevrolet coupe.
"I don't know what her parents can be thinking of," said Ethel Jones to Freeman as she peered out through the sitting room lace curtains at Anastasia driving by. "Letting a young girl like that live all alone. She should stay at home with her parents until she has a husband to make the decisions and take care of her. It's not safe. Especially the way she flaunts herself--driving her own car and dressing like that. I like to keep up with the fashions but her short skirts are as lacking as her morals, in my opinion. And cutting her hair. She looks skinned. She's going to get into a peck of trouble; you mark my words."
Freeman approved of the short skirts but when he heard Ethel telling Mrs. Martin that Anastasia wore a band to keep her bosom flat, he too thought it was going a bit far. Naturally he didn't say so. He hadn't been married to Ethel very long, but he had learned that much.
Freeman was fairly competent with female cows and pigs and chickens, but human females were a mystery to him. He hardly knew how he had managed to get married to Ethel--and sometimes wished he hadn't.
"It's for your own good," said Ethel when she criticized his shortcomings.
He kept a low profile in the interests of peace and was largely ignored by the female population of Clear Creek. Consequently he was astonished when Anastasia asked if she could be his euchre partner at the euchre and dance at the Community Hall on Saturday night. Ethel was punching scorecards and wouldn't be playing.
Gallantly, but with some private misgivings, he said, "Thank you, Miss Benton. I would like that."
"Oh, call me `Stasia. Miss Benton's too formal."
Freeman was ordinarily a cautious player, but when Anastasia made trump with a nine, ten and queen, he was able to supply the missing high cards. They took all the tricks and he was elated with his luck. With Anastasia egging him on, he became reckless with his bidding, and didn't even notice the frowns Ethel cast his way. As a result he won high men's prize for the first time in his life and Anastasia won first prize for most lone hands.
"We make a good team," said Anastasia, squeezing his arm as they went up to the stage for their prizes. He was about to return the pressure when he caught sight of Ethel looking at him from across the hall. He quickly pulled his arm free and gingerly took `Stasia's elbow to help her up the steps to the stage. He hoped such gentlemanly conduct would appease his wife.
His prize was a bottle of aftershave and Anastasia got a pink glass candy dish. He helped her back down the steps and then, mindful of Ethel's glares, excused himself and hurried to help the other men store the card tables under the stage and arrange the chairs in back-to-back rows down the length of the hall and around the walls.
Men were expected to sit with their wives for lunch but, as Ethel was helping serve, he just sat down by himself in the corner. Anastasia came over and took the next chair. He didn't know what to do.
Ethel would disapprove when she saw them, but it would be rude to get up and move. He began to sweat a little and moved to the next chair to put a little distance between them. Anastasia immediately took the one he had just vacated.
His sweating increased as he looked around for Ethel and his starched white shirt chafed his neck.
"I'm so glad I asked you to be my partner. We should play together all the time," said Anastasia.
He didn't know what to say. It would be nice, but Ethel would never let him. "Well, I- uh..."
"You're a real champion player."
Well! Ethel was always criticizing the way he played. It was nice to have someone appreciate him, he thought. Gradually he relaxed but pointedly ignored Anastasia whenever Ethel came near.
The members of the lunch committee came down the rows of chairs carrying platters piled high with sandwiches: ham, egg salad, and salmon. White and chocolate cake, thick with icing, and cookie tins full of butter tarts followed. The men on the committee were delegated to serve the coffee. Henry Green carried a blue-speckled enamel dishpan full of white crockery cups and winked at him as he held it out for Freeman to take one.
Freeman felt his ears get hot. He wasn't a philanderer like Andy Anderson--he wasn't! Steve Palmer, following behind Henry, filled his cup from a white enamel jug of coffee that had been brewed in a wash boiler in the kitchen. Freeman hoped he hadn't seen Henry's wink.
"Wow! That'll put hair on your chest," said Anastasia, taking a sip of the strong concoction.
"Oh, don't be a fuddy-duddy," said Anastasia, patting his cheek. He ducked but not quickly enough.
"Uh, I have to go and help put the chairs away."
"Aren't you going to finish your coffee?"
"Uh, I--uh, no, you're right. It's too strong."
In the washroom Freeman gulped down his coffee and splashed water on his hot face. Although he had been embarrassed at `Stasia's attention, it had made him feel more reckless than at any time since he had courted Ethel. When he had regained his composure he returned to the hall, put his empty cup in a passing dishpan, and helped the men stow away the excess chairs. A single row was left around the walls for the ladies to occupy between dances but only a few old women were sitting. The young ones were in the washroom primping. Neither `Stasia nor Ethel were in sight. Freeman relaxed.
Ed Carter and his orchestra were setting up their music stands on the stage. Ethel was still in the kitchen helping with the dishes. When the music began, Freeman noticed `Stasia standing near him. He stretched his neck to relieve the pinching of his shirt collar and asked her to dance. The hell with Ethel.
He had never danced with `Stasia before. Married men weren't supposed to dance with anyone but their wives unless their spouse had another partner and Ethel seldom did. With her busy in the kitchen--out of sight--he had an excuse. He felt quite elated.
It was a little embarrassing, though, the way `Stasia sort of draped herself over him. She was almost as tall as he was but she just seemed to melt into him. Then she started tickling his left ear. It made him blush and duck his head. Ethel always put her left hand lightly on his shoulder, not all the way around his neck the way `Stasia was doing.
"You're so handsome," murmured Anastasia.
He was startled. Ethel had never said anything like that to him, not even when they were courting. "Uh... do you think so?"
"Absolutely. You've got the darkest blue eyes I've ever seen and I love that cleft in your chin."
Freeman tightened his arm around her. This was some girl. They moved in a cloud of Evening in Paris and he had trouble keeping his mind on the music. He stumbled a couple of times but `Stasia didn't seem to notice and didn't lose step. She was really a good dancer. She was singing in his ear, the one she wasn't tickling, along with the band: "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," and her voice was all trembly. He began to sweat again and was both glad and sorry when the set ended.
As he was escorting her to an empty chair, Ethel came out of the kitchen. He hurriedly thanked `Stasia and went to take Ethel out on the floor for a waltz. On the dance floor `Stasia kept fluttering her eyelashes at him over her partner's shoulder but he tried to ignore her. What was the matter with her? She'd have everybody in the hall talking about them if she didn't stop. He glanced around but nobody seemed to be noticing, thank goodness. A woman shouldn't be so forward. At the same time he felt like the cat that swallowed the canary, having somebody as popular as `Stasia pay attention to him. He decided he'd ask her for another dance no matter what Ethel thought.
When Ed called a square dance, Freeman moved to the back of the stag line. Ed was having trouble getting enough couples for the last square. Freeman watched idly. It didn't concern him.
"Come on fellas, grab your sweetie. Just two more couples. That's it, Andy. Just one more, now."
Freeman used to like square dancing before he was married but Ethel would never go in them. She hated to get hot and sweaty and out of breath.
Suddenly Anastasia came running across the floor between the squares and grabbed his hand. "Come on. They need one more couple."
She dragged him out on the floor before he could think of an excuse. He was completely buffaloed. Women didn't ask men to dance. It was supposed to be the other way around but he couldn't do anything about it now. The music had started. He kept his eyes on the dancers, afraid to look around for fear Ethel might be watching.
He soon forgot his nervousness in the pleasure of the figures. By golly, he hadn't forgotten how to do them. He even returned `Stasia's hand squeeze when they met in the Grand Chain, and she winked at him.
He was quite out of breath and could feel his shirt sticking to his back under his suit coat. When the set was over he escorted `Stasia to her chair and thanked her while she twinkled at him. A lot of the men were shedding their suit coats but he didn't think that was proper and went outside to cool off.
"Whew, it's hot in there," said Anastasia, coming out the door after him.
Freeman's heart began to hammer as she joined him under the yard light where a few early moths were circling. `Stasia sure was beautiful, he thought. Her hair was smooth and shone like the water that fell over the dam at the millpond and her dress, made out of some filmy stuff, floated around her like fog. It would be nice if a breeze sprang up and blew the fog away. Freeman was startled. He shouldn't be thinking such things. He was an old married man.
`Stasia was twinkling at him again. He didn't know how she made her eyes do that. "It's nice out here," she said, stretching her arms out. He could see her armpits shining white in the light. Funny, she didn't have any hair under her arms like Ethel did. He wondered how come?
"Uh, yeah..." They stood quietly for a few minutes, breathing the cool night air, while Freeman racked his brain for something interesting to say.
"Oh, the mosquitoes are out, already," said `Stasia, slapping her bare arm. She moved close to him and slipped her hand in his suit coat pocket. "Let's go sit in the car for awhile. The mosquitoes won't bother us there."
Shocked to the toes of his Sunday shoes, Freeman jerked away from her, tearing the corner of his pocket. How could she make such a suggestion to a married man, he thought, while some imp in his brain was saying: go on, it might be fun. Oh, no! Ethel's right. She is a hussy.
Magically, as if his thought had produced her, there was Ethel, standing in the open Hall door. "Where are you, Freeman? Oh, there you are. What are you doing out here?"
"Just getting cooled off, Ethel." At the moment he felt anything but cool.
"Well, come on. They're playing a waltz."
"Coming, Ethel." Without a backward glance, holding his arm against his torn pocket, he followed her into the Hall. Dependable, predictable Ethel. His wife.
As the door closed behind him he thought he heard `Stasia laughing. He shivered and hurried after Ethel.
Playing with Fire © 2004 by Ruth Zavitz
Ruth Zavitz grew up on a Southern Ontario farm and writes short stories about the characters she knew then. She is working on a historical trilogy about the little people, the bystanders, who were victims in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Though a senior, she doesn't go back that far. Much as she loves writing fiction she is better known for her gardening articles. She currently writes a weekly column for The Londoner and her book, High on Grasses, Ornamental Grasses for Northern Climates is slated for publication in the spring of 2005. Wearing her other hat, she grows the plants she writes about, specializing in rare indoor flowering types.
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