Brother parsed helpings of turkey into plastic yogurt cups as Uncle washed the dishes. With the roasting pan soaking in the white enamel sink, he spread the glass tumblers out to dry, their gold-leaf lips pressed into a folded tea towel. Father herded chairs in from the library, banging his shins on their struts and muttering curses. Mother lifted the Lazy Susan from the center of the table, its circling, painted stripes enclosing a dusty African violet, wax candle pilgrims and cut crystal sugar dish into a diagram of a minor cosmology. Grandmother rocked by the fire, her steely eyes following all. When the last of the dishes had been cleared away and the soapstone woodstove stocked, Grandfather made his exit. In perennial khakis and white dress shirt, he would pause on the threshold of the glowing porch like Don José in Velázquez’s great picture, a lone hand held aloft in silent adieu.
A chair squeaked in the kitchen as Brother dealt out two decks of vinyl cards over the table’s oily grooves. Shadows danced, eyes squinted to sort cards in the low orb of light cast by the lone hanging lantern. Scores from the last game were read aloud to nods of appreciation and Grandmother took the lead in schooling the new initiates in the rules of play. Others shouted out the nuances.
“Aces high, deuces low, no jokers.”
“Always follow suit!”
“If you can’t follow suit, you can trump.”
“The aim is to take exactly as many tricks as you bid. That way, you get your bid plus ten.”
“But cards can cancel!”
“Because there are two decks, two aces of spades could be played in the same hand; the second eliminates the first. In that case, the next highest card played in the suit led would take the trick.”
“Unless it has been trumped!”
“And that’s why they call it ‘Oh Hell.’”
Father became positively rosy when bidding a hand at Oh Hell. An off-suit jack-ten combination, a singleton queen: those were pure gold. Staring at a hand cut in alternating patterns of black and red, he carefully selected a comment from the slim repertoire of accepted, card-table wit: “Are you sure these cards were shuffled?” Or: “Who dealt this hand? Thank you!” Then the bidding began. With an initial ten cards dealt to each player, Uncle would record a sequence of ebbing, low-ball undulations that built in height with tidal proximity to Father. The bid’s audacity never lost its effect for being expected. “Four!” he might shout gleefully. Once the silence of play descended into the rhythmic thrum of vinyl cards on the wooden table, Father’s plan would quickly unravel. His jack would be taken by a trump six. That string of low trumps and off-suit face cards on which he had pinned his hopes would go missing entirely. Ambushed in a palace coup, his queen would return as a widow with but one trick leaving Father recounting just how difficult his hand had been—how that unexpected and perfectly foolish play by Nephew had shattered his strategy.
Father bred a game of big bidding and bigger talk. Egged on by Grandmother (who never let her reputed maternal instincts get in the way of success at cards), he made bold estimates. He took wild gambles and loved the tell of his losses nearly as much as his rare victories. When he died, and when Grandmother followed him to the grave fourteen months later, the shape of play caved in upon itself. Then, the shadow game began.
At first, its presence was nearly imperceptible. For, Brother and I had long haunted the darker recesses of play, moving unobtrusively beneath the glaring, spot-lit boasts of the elders. Ours was a topsy-turvy world of stealth and intrigue where disposal rather than accumulation was the objective. Twos and threes held sovereign. There, face cards carried all the taboo danger of a royal body. They were to be flushed out when the play turned safely off suit or jettisoned into the milky wake of Grandmother’s inevitable trump leads. Risky nines and even jacks had to be wedged into cross-cut thickets. Cards were to be cancelled whenever possible. “Zero” was our standard bid and the horizon of our thoroughly pragmatic calculations. Nonetheless, one of us often won. “And the meek shall inherit the earth,” Uncle liked to say with a grimace.
With the chairs now gathered and the cards dealt once more, we could feel the familiar spaces inside the game changing. Brother cut to Uncle, Uncle dealt to the grieving couple who had joined us for Thanksgiving dinner, and the rules of the game recited. Once proud kings and their suited entourages had opened broad avenues of play as Grandmother’s thrust and Father’s parry entertained encircled crowds with their ritual violence. Banners hung, gauntlets thrown, and all eyes turned to the spectacle in that public square, Brother and I could steal down alleyways, pinching pockets and turning tricks. The lips that had pursed—those earnest brows that had furrowed over clutched cards—were bent to build spectacular edifices high on show, sharp in scorn for careless play, but long with shadows. Without that billowing tent of big-top bidding, ours had become a low-rise, almost subterranean dwelling. A landscape of single resident occupancy bed-sits spread now before us populated by bids in digital increments of alternating ones and zeroes.
Cousin moved into Grandmother’s house after she died. Mother looked at her meager options in Town after Father’s death. With some repairs and much-needed insulation installed, she lived on in the adjoining barn house. But, if the houses could be filled and the buildings repaired, the architecture of the game had collapsed like a house of cards. What do you do when you can’t build back up? Instinctively, we built down. Once a furtive act done to eliminate dross, discarding became an art-form. Irrelevant to official play and impotent for the game’s acquisitive aims, a six of diamonds played under a spades lead and clubs trump begot bejeweled responses. We built intricate runs of syncopating patterns, aligning diamonds in numerical order and its reverse, all off-suit and immaterial to play. Symmetries abounded; a discarded three called for another three to be played. As we all now bid zero, ours became an age of cancelling. Tricks were taken by that lowly lead of a five of spades, which nonetheless stood alone—after all the cancelling and off-suit matching—as the only valid card left in play.
It’s not that our shadow game broke the rules of the old game, exactly. We all still followed suit; we made bids. Some won, some lost. It was more that the encircling play mandated by those rules had come to render visible the spiraling vortex that had opened before us and between us. Unmoored from the chairs that now sat empty and indifferent to the proud aims that had once filled them, the game showed us that shape of darkness. And we ran through it, like children chasing fireflies.