From the story When Murray Met Helen

For Helen, the highlight of Monday was that neither Renard nor Harry Michaels were badly injured hauling Murray’s six crates down to her basement. They were obviously struggling with the heavier pieces and still persisted even when she implored them to stop so that she and Rick could at least finish the job.

“What is it about the greatest generation that it refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer?” she asked.

“Chivalry,” Renard replied curtly, as he wrestled to keep crate number four on the dolly.

“Men,” Helen thought to herself, assigning the word its seventh meaning, as in ‘hopeless.’

When they were finished she mercifully served them cocoa before they departed in the now ten below zero weather. Then she hurried to get dressed and catch a bus for what turned out to be her fruitless job interview with the securities lawyer.

Tuesday she woke up with a cold and called to cancel her only appointment. Given the numbing cold it was as good a day as any not to go outside. She built a fire from the logs Rick had brought in Sunday night, made a pot of lemon tea, and sat by the fireplace reading a small stack of New Yorkers. She couldn’t quite solve the question in the back of her mind about whether Rick was being too thin-skinned or whether she had provoked him by denouncing Shakespeare in Love. Part of her still wanted to ice him to see how he handled it, and the other part of her wanted to console him with a hug or at least a phone call. Her mother had a saying. “Just because you take a shine to a guy, it doesn’t mean that you still don’t have to break him in.”

But, really, who the hell knows about love and courtship? she figured. And how could something so silly as an impetuous quarrel over a movie become so complicated?

It was at times like these that she missed a game that she and Murray would play across his backyard picnic table on long summer evenings. It was a fast-paced exchange of confessions, of things they would binge on, but then grow tired of and not revisit for months, or years even.

“Smoked almonds,” he’d start.
“Ice cold tomato juice,” she’d reply.
“French onion soup,” said he.
“Tuna casserole with sweet peas and French fried onions on top,” said Helen.
“Kilbasa,” said Murray.
“Toll house cookies,” she said.
“Snickerdoodles,” said he.
“Clam chowder.”
“Sun dried tomatoes.”
“Pillsbury crescent rolls.”
“Baked potatoes with real butter, sour cream and bacon bits.”
“Fleetwood Mac,” she chimed in.
“Mac ’n cheese,” he volleyed back.
“Dutch apple pie,” said Helen.
“Lionel Hampton,” said Murray.
“Eggnog,” said Helen.
“Crab cakes,” said Murray.
“Peanut M&Ms.”
“Ham loaf.”
“Ham loaf?” Murray asked, “what the hell is ham loaf?”

“It’s something my mom used to make, like meatloaf, you know, only with ham and pork shoulder.”

“Like Spam?”

“No, much better than Spam and, by the way, you lose,” she declared in a sing-song voice.

“Okay,” he’d said, “double or nothing. Zucchini bread.”

“Pickled asparagus,” she answered.

And so on, into the evening, sometimes sharing beer, sometimes lemonade, sometimes peppermint schnapps, and always long past the hour in which stars would become visible above them.

A little after three in the afternoon Helen went downstairs to the basement and grabbed a claw hammer. She sneezed twice while she pried open the first box, and even with her cold she could detect its epochal smell, musty with odors of white pine, wool, and old papers and the glue from book bindings. On top were a couple hundred-year-old saws for cutting ice. Beneath an old leather jacket with a fleece lining she found an album. On the cover, someone had written: “Butternut Lake/Minocqua 1933-’34.”


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