Susan Tepper: Christopher, I’m a sucker for war stories, whether they take place at home or at the battle zone. Your story “Three-handed Bridge” is an unusual slant on the Vietnam War. It focuses in a pin-point way on this particular family of three. What prompted you to write this story?
Christopher Allen: First, thank you for inviting me to chat with you, Susan. I could chat with you for days, so this should be fun. I’ve played Bridge since I was four. I don’t remember playing three-handed Bridge—a game you play only when someone is absent—when I was as young as my little, smart-aleck protagonist, Anthony. He embodies a lot of my own experience; but in the end when I envision him, he’s not me.
The micro “Three-handed Bridge” is adapted loosely from an unpublished novel of the same title. In the novel, Anthony tells the story in the first person. He’s an elderly professor when he’s telling how he learned to play Bridge. The language of Bridge informs every part of his life—especially the delicate negotiation of relationships. He’s preoccupied with finding the perfect partner. The perfect man. (It’s hard for me to see the micro stripped of the larger story.)
Susan: I have never played Bridge. But I do know a bit about dysfunctional families. How interesting that this story is a flash-back to earlier times in your novel. You have set this story in a room which you describe: “… the walls in the army base apartment a fatherless beige.”
Army base apartment / fatherless beige. That brief description conveys a great deal. Plus there is a war going on. Well you got me hooked already in your first sentence.
Christopher: The bare, beige room is the way I see those early years. I’m not sure which came first: war or dysfunction. I guess that’s why both exist. But the effect war has on families has always troubled me. It forces spouses and children to deal with absence.
Susan: Tell us about the mother in your story. You describe her as “.. a cool-eyed grass widow.” What does this term grass widow mean?
Christopher: A grass widow is a woman who’s been left behind by a man who’s, say, gone off to war maybe. The mother in the story needs companionship more than she needs children. When I think of the mother in the story, I see a woman dressed for the bridge club, sitting on the floor with her boys.
Susan: Grass widow is a terrific phrase. The mother in the story clearly needs companionship. You tell us: “The mother was grooming companions.”
There is a deep sadness here with the two small children and the lonely “grass widow.” I’ve been in that room, myself, and can feel it all over again. Do you think war changes all relationships between spouses?
Christopher: Definitely. War changes everything. My parents have a very strong bond, but war challenged it. I think war has a great impact on children, who don’t understand where their father (or mother) is. Last year I wrote an unexpectedly emotional account of watching soldiers come home at the airport in Nashville. I broke down as I saw a father reunited with his three children. I cried like a baby.
Susan: When you say the mother in the story was “grooming companions” did you specifically mean she was on the look-out for men? For dates?
Christopher: I suppose one could read that into it, but I meant a substitute for her husband in terms of conversation, communication, interaction on an adult level. It’s possible that the mother is grooming companions because she’s afraid her husband won’t come back from the war. At any rate, the exercise of learning the adult game is robbing the children of their childhood. That’s what war does.
Susan: War is horrible at every level. And in books and movies, it is seldom dealt with from this perspective of children being hurt. The children suffering and being changed because of a parent gone to war. And, today, in our current war (s), sometimes both parents are sent away. That is morally corrupt.
But in this story, war of a sort is also going on in this small, rather innocuous beige room. The mother’s misery and loneliness takes a toll on the little boys. It’s as if they have become “little surrogate men” to fill the gap in their mother’s life.
Christopher: Yes! They certainly have. I think she’s taking control of them because she’s lost control of her husband. And she knows her husband is losing–but not giving up on–the war in Vietnam. She’s like a drill sergeant looking for a squad. That’s one level. The other level might just be that Bridge is the only game she knows–and she knows nothing about boys’ games.
Susan: I think I will go with your first: That the mother is taking control because she / her husband / the Vietnam War / the world – all that she knows is spinning out of control. Yes, she’s like a drill sergeant looking for a squad. It’s an unbelievably sad and powerful story told in a short span of story space.
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.