A short story by Chris Negron
Oscar wondered if that was someone else’s hand reaching out and turning over the next three cards. He squinted at the liver spots and wrinkled knuckles, the gnarled fingers that gripped the six of spades. Could this really be the hand Joanne once told him she loved, the one that had so gently caressed her shoulder when he stepped forward to open the door on their first date? The hand she had grown to fear on cold nights capping rough days, nights he had started in on the beer too early, switching to vodka when the flimsy cardboard case flapped mockingly empty?
Flap, flap, flap.
He closed his eyes, felt the smooth face of the card held between his index finger and thumb. Across the table, the kid was talking. These fucking volunteers, they didn’t shut up. He tried to remember where this one said he was from. One of those charities? Oscar lifted one eye in the boy’s direction – the intentionally messy, swooped bangs swinging above bright blue eyes, the matching powder blue Oxford. No, this kid was young, still in high school. He was here for so
me extra credit, an entry on his college resume, a life experience to inspire the essay that would get him into that Ivy League school.
“…parents used to play Pinochle with the neighbors all the time. I never really understood the rules, though. Did you ever play?”
The old man grunted. He dropped the six onto the seven of hearts, half-covering it, then slid a pile starting with the five of diamonds over, extending the fan. This freed an overturned card, which he flipped to reveal the king of clubs. He started a new pile with it.
Did he know Pinochle? Christ. How many times had Joanne coerced him into agonizing game nights with the neighbors? Every Friday, was it? Right up until the Petersons moved away.
“I don’t want to get too involved with new people,” he would tell her when she tried to continue the tradition, explaining how the Newmans on the right seemed nice, how big a Sabres fan that Jack Lebec on the left was.
“I bet he’d be fun to talk to,” she assured him. Oscar had never practiced the disapproving frown he sent back to her in these moments, but he knew what it must look like from his wife’s consistent response to it. “I’d like to get out of this house once in a while, too, Oscar,” Joanne would say.
Already out of his jacket and tie and into the grease-stained undershirt, he would make a show of snapping open another Labatt’s, grunt back at her. Answer enough. Joanne would lean into the doorframe between the kitchen and living room a moment, waiting – hoping – for a better response, absently wiping her clean hands on that same goddamned dishtowel. When he slumped into his recliner and turned the game on, the discussion was over. Time for her to hang her head and slink back into the kitchen, finish making dinner. Let her clang those pots in frustration, he thought as he turned up the volume.
The volunteer kid kept trying. “Now poker, that I know. We’ve got a weekly game in my buddy’s basement.”
Every week casino night had gotten bigger. New friends from college joined old friends from high school in…where had it been? Sikorski’s basement, that was it. Christ, years ago. Until the night Oscar slipped into that bad run, got in to that jerk from Lackawanna for two grand. Why didn’t they stop him? Hill? Sikorski? Hemmler? Because they weren’t his friends, not really. None of them ever had been. He met Joanne two weeks later, never looked back. Oscar was good at that, not looking back.
“We play Texas Hold ‘Em, usually.” The kid was pausing longer between attempts now, wondering if maybe he wasn’t leaving enough room for Oscar to respond.
Flap, flap, flap. Three more cards dealt into Oscar’s hand from the top of the deck. The kid actually started explaining Texas Hold ‘Em to him. It was the trouble with these volunteers. They treated like he was deaf, blind and stupid all at once. Oscar was none of these things. All he was was old.
Texas. Joanne’s funeral had been there, in Lubbock. He hadn’t planned on going but at the last minute…hell, do the honorable thing, right? So he had hopped a plane, rented a car, hovered around the church door in the only suit that fit him anymore – blue but dammit at least he was there – until her brother turned around and noticed him, started that fucking scene.
“This is him?” her new husband – Geoff with a G, what kind of pussy name was that? – he kept saying it – “This is him?” – his eyes wide, his fists raised. Like he’d ever punched anyone. Like he ever would. Oscar had stood his ground. “You know what you did to her?” Geoff with a G had screamed over and over as his friends held him back. “Do you know?”
“In the end, though, solitaire really is the easiest game to learn,” the kid said with a sigh, close to giving up now. “I mean, I guess. Right?”
For the first time, Oscar peered into those blue eyes. He tried to find the kid’s future. Maybe, if he could see it, he could warn him, tell him about…what? Nothing. Blue slowly turned to red and black, hearts and spades, diamonds and clubs, kings and queens, and Oscar looked back down, felt the dwindling deck in his hand, counted the cards on the table. This game was almost over. Thank God it was almost over.
He drew another three cards. The kid stood and crossed the room without looking back, started talking to the Dalrymple woman. Oscar shrugged. Flap, flap, flap.
Chris Negron graduated from Yale University in 1993, where he wrote for the nation’s oldest daily college newspaper, the Yale Daily News. He has been awarded the Literary Award of Merit by the Dawson Country Arts Council for a flash fiction piece that appeared in their Art of Food exhibition and has also placed in the Atlanta Writers Club’s Fall Writing contest for a short story excerpted from his novel in progress. His literary work is represented by Amy Cloughley of Kimberley Cameron & Associates.