Sunday, July 7, 2013

Week 27: House of Cards

   Sometimes a story plays out with certain themes that reoccur over and over. Using recurring themes can be a great way to organize the material within a book... so for this book, instead of chapters I used card games. The book-of-the-week for this week is titled House of Cards and is a description of a family based on the card games they play. It's written in the first person to give it a more realistic effect. The pages are real playing cards that have been attached with flexible mulberry paper in a very loose accordion style so they can be manipulated into a real house of cards. The text was printed on an inkjet printer and affixed to the playing cards.
Cover and title plate of House of Cards...
When opened, the book really is a house of cards! This is the story inside...and outside.. and...

A House of Cards...
Go Fish
 I am young...

It was my first card game. I was four when I first learned.. I had just learned to count to ten, and I’d peer at my fist.. all seven cards askew in my tiny hand, and ask Donnie or Wyatt for some card I had... I’d ponder that card... which one? My brow would wrinkle, my ponytail would feel tighter... then I’d hold my breath and choose one, “Do you have any fours?” I always suspected they cheated. If he didn’t have the card, my brother would trumpet, “Go Fish!” and I’d reach for the pile of cards in the center and take a card...adding it to my already overflowing hand. If he had it, he’d grimace and hand it over. Then I’d remove my card from my fist of akimbo cards and carefully stack them on the table to make a book. 

Rook: Grandmama Sadie
Grandmama Sadie

   Rook was the card game we played at my grandmother’s house. I remember her little clapboard house on the edge of Roxboro, North Carolina... slightly leaning... and smelling of Ivory soap, furniture polish, and petunias. Donnie and I would lay on our stomachs on her living room rug... its big maroon cabbage roses inches from our noses.. and play the sleepy afternoon away with game after game of Rook. I remember the black Rook card... the best card to have, but a bit ominous our grandmother. Grandmama Sadie was a force of nature and a bit of a maverick in her sleepy little southern mill town. In 1928 she and my grandfather adopted my dad.. and in the 50’s she went to work selling encyclopedias when she was widowed at 54. She learned to drive a car... and drove all over Person County selling Britanica Encyclopedias door-to-door. In the 60’s she took a job as a substitute teacher and worked until her mid 80’s. Her little house was simple and clean and she always had a batch of wild kittens she fed off her back porch. She had a box of our toys she kept at her house for our visits and a bookcase full of books for us children.
   She was a church-going Baptist.. a blue-haired, Sunday-hatted matron who eventually moved from her little clapboard house beside the railroad tracks to share the rambling farmhouse of her sister. My dad called her “Mama” and my mother never called her anything but “Mrs. Walker.” Mom and Dad both had a strained relationship with her...but she loved her four grandchildren and we adored our Grandmama Sadie. 
Looking inside the house of Casino

   Casino. That was OUR game. Mom’s and mine. Mom and I played it for hours. I was a teenager and she was newly retired after twenty years working as the chief cashier of a stock brokerage. She had her stock brokers license.. the first in North Carolina to be awarded to a woman... but said she gave it up years before “for the family.” Now, we had just moved to Greensboro and neither of us had made many friends yet. So we turned to each other to pass the time. She was my best friend. As we faced each other night-after-night against the space of cards laid out on the kitchen table between us, I wonder what she thought of me. I still remember the point cards... Little Casino was the two of spades worth one point, Big Casino was the ten of diamonds worth two points, all the aces were a point each, having most spades was a point... and so it went for a total of 21 points earned each game. We’d deal out our hands and lay four cards face-up across the space that separated us...the cards we’d match and build on. When we could pick them up, they were called books. If you couldn’t pick up a card, you had to draw from the deck and discard one card face-up to the table. The strategy was to not discard a card the other player might use to make a book or win a point. When we won a book, we’d place it on the table in a column of fan-shaped triplets of cards. I’d chatter and rant about all the stuff that bothered me... things I’d learned, things I wondered about, things I wished for. A seventeen-year-old’s world.  Mom would play her cards and listen. I wish I’d asked her more about her life. Six years later she died of cancer.

Looking at the House of Cards from above...
Gin Rummy: 
What Does 
Your Daddy Do?

   When I was in elementary school I always knew I was to call Dad when I needed something during the day. Mom was at work  and couldn’t be disturbed...if I called her she would just say Dad was the one I was supposed to call. So I knew to call The Elks Club. Anytime I needed something during the day, I called Dad at The Elks Club and he’d be there ...playing gin rummy. 
   Back then, every school year started with the question, “What does your father do?” I dreaded that question. This meant what profession was he in.  My friends would answer, “He works at so and so company” or “He’s a such and such...” When I asked my mom, “What does Daddy do?,” she said he didn’t work at the Elks Club, she said to say he worked at Aetna Insurance Company. So that what I always said... But when I needed something or there was an emergency, I knew to call The Elks Club... and he was always there, playing Gin Rummy.

Serious Business...

   A few nights a week Mom and Dad would play Bridge. Dad was a whiz at cards... could remember numbers like some savant.. and hated sloppy playing on the part of his partner.. or anyone at the table!. If someone made a stupid play, he’d rant and rave, enraged at the slip-up of some insignificant, thoughtless choice of cards. To Dad, playing Bridge was SERIOUS. 
  They had several couples they alternated playing Bridge with... a fact I thought was a small miracle. It showed that Dad was excellent at picking friends. Though, only the kindest people would put up with him. The LeBeaus, the  Connors, the Batagelis.. they all were OK Bridge players. No stupid bids After dinner our folks would leave us kids at home and head over to their friends’ house for a night of Bridge.
   Around the time I was twelve, I asked my dad to teach me how to play Bridge, it seemed like a good way to have friends... He explained all the nuances of the cards, how to lead, about The Dummy, and Slams and Grand Slams and the point system. The first time we played he got pretty mad when I forgot and just played a card without the special clues he had so carefully explained... We never played again..

 Second Parents...

   Every couple of weeks Mom and Dad would go over to the Gunnersons to play Pinocle. I don’t know how to play Pinocle, but heard it’s pretty fun. After learning how to play Bridge, I never had the nerve to ask my dad how to play Pinocle. But Pinocle was the game my folks played with the Gunnarsons. Charlie and Helen had moved to Raleigh from Iowa and lived in the duplex across the street. Their midwestern graciousness and wholesome  goodness was a warm and comforting part of our lives.  They were Lutherans. One summer they even took me and my brother Donnie to a week of bible school with their three boys! Charlie was scoutmaster for many years to my two older brothers and countless other boys. Helen... tall, fair, and slender, was a domestic goddess.  A wholesome Swedish replica of her Greek namesake. A former elementary school teacher, she loved being a housewife in the 50’s and 60’s. She kept their little house immaculate, kept tabs on the boys, and made her own yeast rolls! She was one of several second moms to us kids... keeping me on days when Martilla was home sick and Mom was working. I always think of Pinocle as fun and wholesome and somewhat unattainable.
Poker: Girls Night In
Girls Night In

   Tuesday nights were Dad’s Poker nights. For about seven years... from 5th grade until we moved to Greensboro in 11th grade... Tuesday nights were Dad’s Poker night. I loved Tuesday nights! Dad wouldn’t come home until late, so we could do whatever we wanted. We didn’t have to tiptoe around or watch westerns on TV... or have to get stuff for him like his ashtray or whatever. And we could eat pizza!  Mom, my little brother, Paul,  and I would be the only one’s home. I’d make a Chef Boy-R-Dee pepperoni pizza...from the box. It was so good! Later that night Mom had her girlfriends (Betty, Sug, and Undine) over for Scrabble. They’d play Scrabble and for the whole night would talk about their lives... giggle and laugh a lot and cry a little.. and I would sit rapt at the table... just listening. 
   One year Betty learned to make velvet-covered egg ornaments. Betty was the artistic one.. Mom asked her to share the process of egg decorating with the others. So Tuesday Night Scrabble Night became Tuesday Night Egg-decorating Night.. and the dining room table was covered in cartons of hollowed-out egg shells, cards of gold braid, strips of velveteen in a rainbow of colors, and gold spray-painted plastic miniatures of angels, drummer boys, Mary, and The Baby Jesus. Then Dad’s Poker Night became Tuesday Night Therapy Night... or just Therapy. Which is exactly what it was.. And, my Christmas tree still is hung with those long-ago handcrafted velvet and braid ornaments...a reminder of my coming-of-age time spent with the women of my youth.... Betty, Sug, Undine and Midge, my Mom.
The Inheritance

     I’ve known how to play Solitaire since I was little. Dad taught me to play a couple versions.. First, when I was very little, he taught me the kind where all the cards are laid out on the table in four columns and then are moved around. Next he taught me the more concise style, where seven piles of cards are laid across the table and one-by-one cards from the deck are turned over to be played on the seven piles. One summer vacation we played Double Solitaire. Nice. And he taught me the version where a card from the deck is turned up every three cards and played on the upturned cards on the table. He said they play that in Las Vegas for money!
   As adults we’d come home for a visit and find Dad sitting cross-legged on the den floor playing this version... by himself... for hours... while the TV played Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune... and we tried to make conversation. Solitaire had become his drug-of-choice. The rages and braggadocio were replaced by the dealing and slapping down of cards... the careful concentration and quick recognition of a move. Putting the cards in their proper order was his refuge... his meditation. Now that I am older.. kids grown and moved out, goals met and life slowing.. Solitaire is sometimes my own drug-of-choice.

The End

A House of Cards
All folded up, the House of Cards is a bit messy... but still beautiful... like all families.
all folded up...