A Hearthstone Party

The Hearthstone Party was held in a township hall a few miles from Nicolet City. I’d received an invitation in the shape of a teacup covered with the names of door prizes from two women I’d gone to high school with.

After three bingo games played with Indian corn markers in Blue Bonnet and Parkay Oleo tubs, a peanut butter pail with paper was passed around. I got one penciled VANITY and received a Pepto-Bismol pink plastic grinning Buddha sprouting spines to hold jewelry, and duly smiled when the women around me said, “Oh, isn’t that pretty,” “My, aren’t you lucky, “I can just see that on my dresser.” After more bingo, the peanut butter pail was passed again and I traded it for cookie cutters with the woman who’d said, “I can just see that on my dresser.”

I pictured the mice scurrying in the walls behind me dressed in pastels like the Beatrix Potter books I read to the kids. The mice were getting ready to sit down to dinner at a mushroom cap table spread with woven grass. The boy mouse wore blue overalls held by string suspenders and the girl mouse had pink thread apron strings. The smiling mother mouse in a lace trimmed apron placed acorn shells of corn on the table, but I was interrupted by a little girl who bumped the corn markers from my hand running to reach the piano before some friends. I studied the patterns on the remaining orange, black, yellow, brown, maroon corn; each kernel was different and felt solid between my fingers.

After another set of games, the three sponsors picked up the markers and cards. Catalogs, order forms, pencil stubs were distributed and it was announced, “The lady having the highest order will win their sponsor a Hearthstone Inner Circle Prize!” The three sponsors standing in a row shifting from one foot wringing their hands with embarrassed smiles made me hum Gilbert and Sullivan’s, Three Little Maids from School.

In my catalog I saw a man and woman in a gondola with the words, “Escape to paradise, become a living legend. Make him follow you anywhere when you wear Legend of Romance.” The woman, in a red evening gown, was gracefully trailing her hand in the moonlit water; the hovering man in a tuxedo extended red roses. I recalled being with Dr. Schackmann after he kept staring at my wedding ring when I’d said, “I think love’s only one percent physical.”

“It’s not even that. I’ve had difficulties in the past in extending myself in love but with your background it’d be dangerous.”

“I think I’ve loved on my terms and only around the edges before.”

“I’m available to you any time. You’re innocent and I’m trying to get you across the road like a snail without being smashed and yet not wall you in a shell.”

I looked at the woman until the scent of roses and lapping of waves made me cry. Relieved no one had noticed, I turned to the cleaning supplies and ordered laundry detergent.

When I’d left after coffee, moths were milling around the outside light and the newly mowed dew covered grass and Queen Anne’s Lace stuck to my sandals. It was quiet enough to hear fireflies, a silence only broken by a passing car, which, after it passed, made the silence more intense, the night more inky, the stars brighter and closer, until I became one with the earth spinning under my thin sandals. Standing very still, peering at the sky not obscured by trees, I willed answers to questions I didn’t even know how to form. And remembered Prometheus bravely taking fire from the gods, and forgot his punishment. Lately I was realizing how deep darkness was - what I didn’t know: that it was just the narrowness a lamp makes at night. I felt the presence of other women who’d striven to be one with the earth under their feet - knowing it was too much to understand the stars - wise enough to know it.

When I got home, Cal was asleep with the television on and the kids were in bed. I made some tea and watched the end of a television program showing Vietnamese Buddhist monks torching themselves. Earlier I’d heard names like Thuan Yen, Phnom Penh expertly pronounced by newscasters like Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the 6:30 nightly news (I never could decide which I liked best - the classic blond good looks of one or the distinctive delivery of the other) made the war familiar but at the same time as strange as the Buddhist monks torching themselves. The news had concluded our soldiers weren’t winning because the jungle made the enemy impossible to see.

A neighbor’s son had recently returned from serving in Vietnam and was afraid to leave his house. Cal had diagnosed, “He’ll end up in a loony bin,” and then read the letter to the editor by a businessman who sold America, Love It Or Leave It bumper stickers.

When I turned the television off, Cal opened his eyes and told me to turn it back on. I sipped my saffron amber tea in wet sandals.

  • Excerpt from Lily’s Odyssey, a novel, published with permission by All Things That Matter Press; its first chapter a Short List Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award for Best New Writing.