Power Play

by Charlene L. Amsden

“Mattie Jacks.” Everywhere you go you hear her name. Whispers behind your back. The Country Club luncheon. Wednesday night bridge at Evelyn Johnson’s. Even Sunday morning in the vestibule as you greet the Bishop.

Mattie Jacks. Mattie Jacks. Mattie Jacks.

“Matilda.” That particular whisper belongs lo Clarise Houston. “He introduced her as Matilda. His fiancée.”

“Bobby Christensen and Mattie Jacks? You’ve got to be kidding.” Even Vera Thompson, your supposed best friend has something to say. “Does Elizabeth know?”

“What do you think? She’s over there talking to the Bishop. If she knew who her son was marrying she wouldn’t be showing her face in public.”

“Maybe someone should tell her,” Carolynn Busey suggests. The other women back away. You smile at the Bishop, ask him to dinner Thursday night and mentally eliminate Carolynn and Frank from your guest list. The woman has no couth. She is an excellent example of what Corwin Hill Society considers “tainted blood.” A secretary. Mistress material certainly, but never a wife.

Mattie Jacks.

You’ve heard the rumor one too many times and when Bobby doesn’t come home you lay awake knowing it must be true. So when the sun comes up you put your navy dress on like you’d put on a mood; don’t even bother with having breakfast, just walk right over the morning paper on your way out the door.

You pass the Volvo and go straight for the Lincoln. A power symbol you know she will understand. The tires scream as you spin out of the driveway, but within a block you have your speed under control. Contained.

You turn off the boulevard onto First Avenue, righteously averting your eyes from the K-Mart sign. Tract homes side-by-side, some of them smaller than your garage. Each one like the other except for the paint.

Another turn onto Mill Street and you are in the heart of the west side. You know this neighborhood. The Holy Trinity Women’s League, the year you were secretary, hired couriers to deliver food baskets here.

Mongrel children, barefoot, play on weed lawns. They stop to stare at you in your golden Lincoln as you roll past. For a moment you feel guilty, but shrug it off. You learned as a child: the curse of the wealthy is to be envied.

Junked cars and dandelions clutter yards. Cracked sidewalks, boarded windows and listing porches. Shabbily dressed clotheslines. Sunken roofs. Beer bottles and wild roses. Images reluctantly gather as you search for the Jacks’ house. It is purple, you remember from the news.

You wonder what Bobby could possibly see in the girl; the daughter of a Peck Street whore, fathered by who in the hell knows. Sex, of course. Didn’t Mother Christensen warn you this would happen?

But you are certain a little economic pressure will help set Bobby’s priorities in order. Besides, if the threat of immediate disinheritance doesn’t sway him, you know it will dim the love light in Mattie Jacks’ eyes.

The house looks different in daylight. Without the eerie blue, white, blue of flashing police lights it is more lavender than purple. The police tape is gone. You knew it would be, but are surprised that no tell-tale evidence of that night remains. No blood stains on the sidewalk where the bodies fell. Nothing to proclaim this as the place the infamous Madam, Joy Ann Jacks, was murdered in a jealous fit by her ex-lover, ex-pimp, Parnel Lampitt. Shot dead in her own front yard alongside her john, a married bank manager from Eldridge.

You turn into the driveway and park behind an aged gray Buick in surprisingly good condition for this neighborhood. You wonder who the car belongs to, thinking it too sedate for a woman like Mattie Jacks. You pause to consider the wisdom of coming here, wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to arrange a meeting al Evergreen’s, where Mattie Jacks would be out of her element. Supposing, of course, that the concierge would even allow her into the hotel. You smile at the thought even as you realize this is the best way after all. Had you arranged a meeting, Bobby would have insisted on being present, and that certainly wouldn’t have suited your plans.

You pat your hair, check your lipstick, adjust your pearls, then tuck your purse under your arm and step from the car. As you walk toward the house the front door opens and you get your first look at Mattie Jacks. She is everything you expected, yet nothing at all like you’d imagined.

Her hair is red, as was her mother’s, but unlike her mother’s it is a natural hue, with soft blond highlights. She is petite in stature and unfashionably full-figured, but lush rather than fat. Exactly the type Bobby’s father fawns over.

She is dressed in navy blue. A slim skirt that just touches her knees, a white tuxedo blouse with navy buttons and a matching, tailored blazer. Evidence, as far as you’re concerned, that Bobby purchases her wardrobe. Still, you are unwillingly impressed. She carries herself with style.

“Mrs. Christensen?” She crosses the porch, her navy pumps clicking on the steps. You notice her legs, tan, slender, outrageously bare. A thin gold chain circles her right ankle. She stops on the bottom step, smiling, and offers her right hand. Her nails are short, well-manicured, buffed to a sheen, and you let her hand hang there between you until her smile falters. Then, with deliberate reluctance, you brush your fingers past hers.

She laughs. “You’re everything Bob said you would be. Well, come on in and we’ll have your little chat.”

She isn’t going to make it easy, but you’ve paid off plenty of Robert Senior’s lovers and have no doubt you can prevail against Bobby’s little playmate as well. You allow her to usher you into the house.

Your first glimpse of Joy Ann Jacks’ den of iniquity is so surprising you stop for a moment to assess your tabloid mentality and decide you have to put a stop to your maid’s constant scandal prattle. Contrary to what you’ve heard there isn’t a single flock of velvet anywhere. The floors are bare wood, worn, but polished. The occasional tables don’t match but the lamps do. The walls are white and adorned with framed photographs. The furniture is covered in blue floral chintz. You find it shabby but serviceable. And, thankfully, clean.

You hold yourself stiffly, legs together, purse clutched close to your stomach and mouth the words, “How . . . nice.”

Mattie Jacks smiles, choosing not to respond. Her serenity is tangible.

Apparently she anticipated this conversation. However, as the two of you stand there in silence, Mattie Jacks waiting patiently, you come to realize that expected or not, she isn’t going to help you begin.

Mattie Jacks obviously has a few intimidation skills of her own, but you have no intention of being so easily quelled. If the little chit thinks forcing you to speak first will put you at a disadvantage, you have no aversion to teaching her otherwise.

“Is it customary for you to keep your guests standing in the hall?”

“Generally?” She shakes her head. “No. But I didn’t realize this was a social call. Since it is I guess you can join me in the kitchen. I was just finishing breakfast. Would you like some tea?” She asks the last over her shoulder as she walks away, leaving you little choice but to follow. To the kitchen. You refuse to acknowledge that you’ve lost any ground.

“Tea would be lovely, thank you.”

In the kitchen a bright copper kettle sits on the range. Mattie Jacks picks it up and waves toward the table. “Have a seat. This will just take a second.”

You approach the table cautiously. It is yellow. Formica. The chairs are aluminum with faded plastic covers. You pull one out and inspect it carefully. You glance at Mattie Jacks to see she is sifting tea into an infuser. Obviously Bobby taught her to make tea properly. You watch, one hand on the clasp of your purse, as she pours steaming water into a fat china teapot, adds the infuser and places it on an enameled tin tray beside two mismatched mugs, a glass sugar bowl, two spoons and a carton of non-dairy creamer. She picks up the tray and turns around. You pop the clasp on your purse and pull out a handkerchief, spreading it carefully over your chair before sitting down.

“What a good idea!” Mattie Jacks places the tray on the table and grabs a tea towel from the cupboard door. “The cracks in the plastic are always ruining my nylons. I should have thought of this myself.”

You watch as she covers her chair and sits. The girl is about as slow as Robert Senior’s Maserati. You decide to end this game of conversational chicken and reach for the bank envelope in your purse.

“Now,” Mattie Jacks says while pouring the tea. “I’ve never had anyone try to buy me off so I’m not familiar with the procedure. Do I try to come up with some small talk while we drink our tea or do we get down to business first and have our tea after?”

“I beg your pardon?” It isn’t her savvy or sense of humor you find disconcerting. She is much too self-possessed. “Are you suggesting that you can be bought?”

“Isn’t that why you’re here?”

More games. Mattie seems no more willing to commit herself than you are. You need to know her power base. What if her intention all along has been to glean money from you? Then your very presence here grants her a sense of victory, in which case you can’t just pay her off. So you ask, “What makes you think I came here for any other purpose than to get to know you? After all, you are engaged to my only child. That seems reason enough to me.”

“Yes, that does sound plausible, doesn’t it? But wouldn’t it have been easier to have Bob bring me to your home?”

Mattie thinks she scored a point with that, but you realize that in doing so she exposed a hole in her own offense. “Yes, that would have been easier. Had Bobby ever mentioned you to me.” You sip at your tea, awaiting her reaction. Mattie Jacks just stares at her cup. You wonder if she grasped your implication. “Now don’t let that worry you, dear. I’m certain he could come up with a suitable explanation if you asked him to.”

“I don’t have to ask him, Mrs. Christensen. Bob was tying to protect me. He doesn’t understand that you can’t hurt me.” She stood and began clearing the table. “But you can hurt him. You should think about that on the drive home.”

“That’s funny, he says I remind him of you.”

“I was trying to spare you living my life.”

“That’s what Mattie said.”

“Disinheriting you would probably be the kindest thing to do.”

“It wouldn’t keep us from marrying.”

“Then when is the wedding to be?”

“Are you going to attend?”

“I’m hoping you’ll have it here.”

“Here?”

“In the garden. If Mattie agrees.”

“Are you giving us your blessing?”

“Yes. Yes I am.” You smile. “I’m having a dinner party here next Thursday night. I’d like you and Mattie to attend.”

“Forgive me for asking, Mother, but are you doing this to welcome Mattie or prove she won’t fit in?”

“I plan to welcome her, Bobby. And I don’t want you to misunderstand this, but I hope for both your sakes that Mattie never learns to fit in.”

He nods his head, kisses you on the cheek, and stands. “Thank you, Mother. Good night.”

As he leaves you reach for your address book and the telephone. “Hello. I’d like to speak to Mrs. Busey, please. Carolynn? It’s Elizabeth. I’m having a very special dinner party next Thursday night and I would like you and Frank to attend. Cocktails at seven. Fine. See you then.”

You dial again. A nasal voice answers. “Althouse, Turnquist and Bracciano.”

“This is Elizabeth Christensen and I would like to make an appointment with Mr. Althouse, please. This week if possible. Yes, thank you. No. No, Thursday morning sounds line. Yes, it’s about changing my will.”

Power Play was originally published in the Fall 1996 issue of, The Talking River Review.

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