It took Ted a long time to get to his office through the throngs of people. The cold was deepening in the first dark of evening, or else he never would have made it past all the happy families and townspeople hurrying to the warmth of their cars instead of lingering to talk. Once safely seated at his desk, Ted grabbed the phone and dialed Jill’s cell. He’d never carried one himself, calling them “electric leashes”.
“Hi, this is Jill. I can’t take your call…” Ted hung up, not wanting to leave a message. He could only imagine how she was feeling, being left hanging like that. He popped up from his chair, pulled his heavy coat back on and headed out to his own car. He usually didn’t feel the cold that much, but something about this wintry chill went right to his bones, and he shivered, cranking up the heater of his old Civic. Pulling out of the school lot he headed for Old Mill Road and the home of John and Brenda Ward.
It was just after seven, the autumn darkness illuminated by a waning three-quarter moon, as Ted navigated the long, packed-dirt drive to the big 18th-century farmhouse where Jill’s parents lived and she had grown up with her brother. It was one of the great old houses in Stockbridge, three floors of oddly-shaped rooms and crooked hallways, set well back from the road. Behind the house were a barn and paddock for the three horses the Wards kept, and several acres of woods. Ted gave the barn a wide berth – horses made him nervous. Unlike the Gray family, the Wards were fairly new to Stockbridge, moving to town when Nat was a baby. John was a successful real estate lawyer in town, and Brenda was a part-time receptionist at the hospital.
Jill’s black Volkswagen was in the driveway, and Ted parked behind it. Halloween was in four days, and the rising stone terraces leading to the front door were covered with cornstalks and pumpkins, a light layer of white frost forming on everything. Ted rapped on the glass front door, and Brenda Ward appeared. She was a solid, graying woman in her fifties, with warm brown eyes and a face lined by decades of care. She greeted Ted with a familiar smile and hug.
“Oh, Ted, you’re freezing. Can I get you some hot cocoa, or coffee?”
“No thanks, Mrs. Ward,” Ted demurred. “Is Jill…?”
“Downstairs, in the den with Abby and John. I think they’re playing cards.”
John Ward was an avid poker player, and hosted weekly games with some of his professional friends. His den included a six-sided, felt-topped green poker table, and it was there Ted found him seated along with Jill and Abby. All three had cards in their hands and short stacks of chips on the table in front of them.
“Call,” Abby said cheerfully, bouncing on top of the phone books stacked beneath her. She laid her cards down with a broad, gap-toothed grin. “Full house!”
“Nice hand, honey.” Jill put down her cards. Just a pair of jacks for me.” John laughed and tossed his hand down, a mere ace-high, as Abby leaned forward to scrape the small pile of chips in the pot towards her. As she did so, she saw Ted at the bottom of the stairs.
“Ted!” She hopped down from her porch and ran over to give him a hug. “I’m winning!” Ted had to laugh at the pint-sized card shark with her tiny arms around his neck as he crouched down to receive her embrace.
“Hi.” Ted picked Abby up and carried her back to the table. John, tall and thin with green eyes and vestiges of bright red hair at his temples, waved his hello, but Jill shuffled the cards in silence, not making eye contact.
“Mommy, deal Ted in for this one!” Jill looked up, first at her daughter and then at the man holding her. There was a mischievous twinkle in her bright emerald eyes as she began to deal out four hands.
“Five card draw, nothing wild,” she said. “Ante is five.”
“The red chips are five,” Abby announced as Ted deposited her back on her pile of books and made his way to the seat opposite Jill. The three Wards flicked the thin red plastic chips into the middle of the table. As Ted sat down, he noticed no stack of chips at his place.
“No chips, Coach Gray?” asked Jill.
“Oh, here, let me get some,” offered John, but as he started to rise from his chair he caught a look from Jill and hastily sat back down, studying his own cards intently. Jill fixed her gaze across the table on Ted, a sly smile playing on her lips.
“What have you brought to wager, Coach?”
Ted wasn’t exactly sure what game Jill was playing, but he sat down and tapped the facedown cards in front of him with an index finger. After a moment he fished in his coat pocket and brought out his keychain. He worked his spare apartment key off the ring and placed it on the table, pushing it across the felt to join the three red chips in the pot.
John stared at the key for a moment, glanced at his cards, and laid them facedown in a neat pile. “I – uh – I fold.”
“But Grampy, you haven’t even gotten any cards yet!” protested Abby.
“Two, please asked Ted politely, sliding two cards to the discard pile, never taking his eyes off Jill.
“I want three!” Abby declared, and Jill dutifully gave her daughter the new cards as she had done with Ted.
“I only need one,” she murmured, making the exchange. “Ted, the bet is to you.”
Ted stared at his hand, pairs of tens and sevens with a queen. Decent, but who knew what Jill was sitting on? He suspected that it didn’t matter, that the more pressing issue was that he had nothing to up the ante with. Struck with inspiration, he walked over to a small side table where a phone sat next to a pad of paper. He jotted a quick note on the top sheet, folded it into a wad, and deposited it in the pot.
“What does it say?” Abby demanded. Ted shrugged.
“Could be nothing. Could be something cool, like a promise, or an answer.”
“I wanna see!”
“Then you’ll have to see the bet,” Jill replied. “It’s too bad you have to fold, honey.”
“What? I don’t want to!”
“Sweetie, you fold,” John instructed, and Abby dropped her cards with a pout.
“I didn’t have anything anyway,” she muttered, folding her arms over her chest and slumping back.
“To me, then.” Jill pushed all of her chips into the middle of the table. “Call.”
Ted laid his cards face up in front of him. Jill did the same, revealing her hand. Straight, jack high. “I win,” she breathed.
She reached forward, scooping the pot toward her. She pushed the chips to one side, and briefly touched the key with a look at Ted. Then she picked up the little ball of paper, carefully unfolding it.
I love you, too
Tears welled in her eyes, and she got up and moved around the table. Ted rose in time to take her in his arms, crying and laughing.
“I’m just glad your father folded.”
That night Abby stayed at the Wards’ as Jill and Ted went back to his apartment above Stone’s. They made love for the first time, passing an unspoken boundary they had previously established by mutual consent. For Jill it was her first return to intimacy since Ed Kendall, nearly seven years before, and while Ted had known more recent sexual encounters, the experience was equally as overwhelming for him. After, they lay entwined naked in Ted’s bulky red comforter.
“Ted,” Jill asked, propped up on one elbow, face inches from his. “Do you think you could be happy here?”
“Who wouldn’t be happy here?” he joked, cupping one of her breasts in his hand and kissing her neck. She giggled.
“I’m serious, you idiot. Here in Stockbridge. Is it big enough for you?” Ted settled back against the pillows, folding his hands behind his head.
“I gotta tell you, Jill, right now, maybe for the first time in my life, I’m happy now. I always looked beyond today, at how things could be better tomorrow or next week, and had a hard time enjoying what was happening at the moment. When I look back at all the things I should have cherished more, but sprinted through like traffic lights to somewhere else…” he drifted off, then smiled at her. “I want to win two more games with this team I have now. I want to enjoy my friends and life here in Stockbridge now. And I want to make love to you again, now.”
They dived back into one another with a surprising hunger and ardor, as if there would never be another night together. And the question of Ted’s happiness was forgotten for the moment.