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The micro “Three-handed Bridge” is adapted loosely from an unpublished novel of the same title.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.

Read Three-handed Bridge by Christopher Allen

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.

  1. Robert Vaughan

    I recall this from 52/250 and remember reading this story the first time here, how much I loved it then, and then…and still do, today. I loved “eavesdropping” on your conversation, felt like we were hanging out in Village and you guys were right there, at the same table! (okay, a little fantasy of mine). Any chat about relationship dynamics used in fiction draws me in like bees to nectar. Love the term grass widow. You are brilliant, CA, and Susan brings out the best in any writer about their work.

  2. M.J. Nicholls

    Excellent insights! I could read pages and pages of this sort of chat. More please.

  3. MaryAnne Kolton

    Chris, love this more each time I read it. Susan, welcome back and what a wonderful, laid back chat with Chris.

  4. susan tepper

    Robert, we were at the little table in the Village, but not during this chat! We had a different, “secret” chat. Tee hee.. & glad you enjoyed this chat!

    MaryAnne, so happy you liked Chris’ story and the chat!

  5. estelle bruno

    such a sad story, children with no toys, only adult bridge.

    You have both done a good job of telling this as it was.

  6. Julie

    wonderful insights into the work of one of my favorite writer-friends. thank you!

  7. Martha

    Ouch, the theft of childhood, told in a very spartan way. No toys. I’d not read this before, very chilling & very well done.

  8. Foster Trecost

    Excellent installment of the best series on Fictionaut. Great banter between you two – the interview comes across more like a “chat” between friends, which makes it such a joy to read.

  9. Jo Lamb

    Great interview and what a powerful story Chris, brilliant!

  10. Alyson

    Thanks Chris. Enjoyed the story and the interview.

  11. Marcus Speh

    it’s fascinating chris, to hear you talk about that novel & the story (whose strength is a strong argument to get that novel published) & see you step away from the comical curb for a moment. your particular mix of talents shows how comedy really is always the strongest when it is fed from a serious place where sadness mingles with wit. thank you both.

  12. susan tepper

    Thanks to all who’ve commented so far on Chris’ chat. As Foster pointed out: it comes across more like a chat between friends. I love that– because it is a chat between friends. Chris was in NY during summer and we met and had a nice long chat at a cafe. I have also met Foster, and many other f’nauts when they come into town. Recently met Kathy Fish, Heather Fowler and Ethel Rohan at the Sundaysalon reading hosted by Sara Lippman and Nita Noveno. Lou Freshwater and Sean Ferrell and Julie Innis were in the audience too. As nice as it is to be online friends, it’s really cool to actually meet in person. And of course I wrote a book with Gary Percesepe, so that’s really extending the online borders. Sorry to talk so long but Foster’s comment got me going………….This is a great community of spirited and caring writers. I’m happy to be a part.

  13. James Lloyd Davis

    I remember the term ‘grass widow,’ one that brings back some remembrance of my own childhood, resentful of a father’s absence at critical times, knowing the reasons, but resentful just the same. Wonderful scene, Chris, in a fine story

    Great interview, Susan.

  14. Christopher

    First, thank you to all of you for your generous and varied responses to this conversation. This scene is one of those pauses after one character smacks another, when we all look back and wonder how we got here . . . searching for the perfect man. When I started the novel Three-handed Bridge I set out to write a story that was not my own, but it surprised me.

    Susan, let’s do it again. In the Village. Or Cinque Terre.

  15. susan tepper

    Chris, definitely in Cinque Terre. Hugs!

  16. Robert Vaughan

    Count me in!

  17. Linda S-W

    Fantastic chat. Chris, really loved the peek into your head and the context of this little gem. So hope to see the rest of the story. Peace…

  18. Christopher

    Do I feel a fictionaut jaunt to Cinque Terre coming on?

  19. Michelle Elvy

    Wonderful story to read again (loved it the first three or four times), and how good to read this chat with you two. Excellent to come back to after being away and offline for a few days. I really liked hearing how you came to write this, Chris. Very interesting indeed!

  20. Christopher

    Thank you, Michelle! And thank you for having the story at 52/250!

  21. Jennifer Bower

    I am with Mark (MJ) on this one, I could read this kind of chat for days. I am totally piqued, not only to read the short but, to beg the author to reveal the novel as well. Christopher writes with such poetic economy and emotional clarity that I can see his stories in moving pictures. His words travel beyond their confines.

  22. Gloria Mindock

    I also love the term “grass widow.” Great interview here.
    Really interesting. Brilliant you two. Thanks for the great read.

  23. JP Reese

    You’re done it again! Hooked on another Chat (albeit late once more). Going to read Chris’s work. It sounds deeply compelling. Thanks, Susan and Chris.

  24. susan tepper

    Jennifer, Gloria, Joani~ Many thanks for your good words on Chris’ chat and, yes, read the story, it’s wonderful.

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