Six Card Games
Detail of The Card Players, Wouter Crabeth II, c.1630
by Rachel Howard
The first game was on his boat, or not so much a boat as a rusty, cozy dinghy harbored on the Sausalito Bay. This was the Fourth of July. I had met G– a week before, at a dive piano bar called the Alley where I sang open mic badly but (I hoped) charmingly, three or four nights a week. G– had come into the Alley with his Croatian friend, two lanky handymen, paint-splattered, all limbs and untamed hair — the Croatian’s ashy locks hung tattered, while G–’s blonde curls flared like a boy’s. They listened to me sing an old romantic song and bought two rounds and called me “Canary” and then G– explained that he couldn’t have another drink because his dog was in his truck and his dog didn’t drive stick. I laughed. How can anyone explain why one person strikes us as corny, another as sweet? I told him was a writer. G– told me he bought run-down properties in Oakland and fixed them up and rented them for a living. He told me all about how he had parked a vintage Airstream trailer on an empty lot and rebuilt the whole shebang as a garden courtyard apartment and I thought that was endearing, too.
So a few days after the piano bar we had lunch inside the refinished Airstream trailer and a few days after lunch we toured art galleries downtown and drank and walked to my apartment, and that night G– lay pale and naked on my sofa and said “I think we are very sexually compatible.” I didn’t like it, the boyish excitement in his eyes when he said those words. The night he said those words G– wore red-striped socks and maybe those socks are the reason I still picture G– and the Croatian at the bar, the night we met, as pirates come carousing to shore. They were in their fifties, though G– could have passed for forties. The Croatian had smelled of cigarettes but G–’s scent was of fabric softener and the sea.
And now at the tiny table of his rusty boat this laundry-scented boy-pirate was twiddling his long fingers. Finally he asked, “Have you ever played a game called Skip-Bo?”
Had I ever played Skip-Bo.
My grandparents played Skip-Bo with me, every time I visited, since I was six years old. I liked it because it’s simple — play the numbers in your pile out in order as fast as possible — but it does still involve some cunning. You could withhold a card to block the other person from playing, or you could play extra cards from your hand so that your opponent can’t get rid of his. The Skip-Bo is the wild card, and you want to save it for when you need it. On the scale of sophistication, Skip-Bo is more Go Fish than poker. But strategy still counts.
G– cleared our pizza crusts. The bay lapped the boat and the old pit bull snored as G– dealt. Within fifteen minutes I was down to two cards in my pile, playing every card I could every time, gloating, and G– still had a tall stack. He rose to pour more Beaujolais and I blurted, “So you’re 51, never married. Do you think you’d want a family?”
G– slapped down three cards in a row with a competitor’s smirk. “Interesting question, Canary,” he said. “Probably not.”
I was 34 and we were both well aware of that.
He tapped the cards in his hand on the laminated little table. “So much for your lucky streak,” he said with a cluck.
I couldn’t play that turn, or the next, or the next, and G– drew all the right cards and played out. “Skip-Bo!” he said. “Did I mention that I never surrender? Poor, poor sexy Canary. Gotta stay sharp when you’re playing this old pro.”
We heard a popping like toy explosions — the fireworks. We climbed from the bunker to the deck to watch. I liked the innocence of G–’s enthusiasms: dogs, vintage trailers, a goofy card game. I was remembering our lunch date, a bright square of sunlight on the tiny Airstream table as G– asked about my family and listened like an eager school kid. How we didn’t touch beyond a loose hug but I broke the speed limit driving home and got myself off as soon as I walked through the door. Remembering G– in his white painter’s overalls and thinking, we could be happy together, and coming.
Constellations of red hearts and white stars were sparkling over San Francisco. The boat was swaying. A skinny cold finger was creeping beneath my jeans, creeping deeper into a private crevice, probing. I thought of the juvenile mischief in G–’s eye when he said “I think we are very sexually compatible.” I was sad. The fireworks were still sounding, but already all you could see was thick smoke dirtying the clean black sky. G — kissed my neck. He pulled me down into the cabin, and swept the cards off the hide-away table, and unfolded the bed.
2 and 3.
We played two games at his house. This was an old barn on Stinson Beach, which G– was valiantly saving from rot. The whole foundation had to be rebuilt, and the house was up on blocks. There was a big open kitchen with a fire-red upright piano, pictures of G– with his parents and his brother wearing feathery hair and neon clothes, and a bed upstairs with mosquito netting clamped together by women’s plastic hair clips. There was a copy of Kubler-Ross on the bedside table, and a book by the Dalai Lama titled “Advice on Death and Dying.” G–’s mother had died the year before; his father had Stage Four cancer.
We took the dog for a walk on the beach in the last golden sunlight. I kept hoping G–would hold my hand, but he didn’t touch me. Back in his house, we ate a roast chicken, and then, fingers curling with anticipated pleasure, G– brought out the cards. “That first game was just a warm-up,” he said. “Now we’re keeping score.”
I played lazily and I lost. But I won the next round. “Tied!” G– announced, rubbing his long hands. “To be continued.”
He had put a lot of effort into the roast chicken, into showing me the pictures of his family and hammering out a few songs on the old red piano. When he kissed me and his hand crept, I did not resist. But in his bedroom, seeing the women’s hairclips, I tensed. I was remembering our night out at the art galleries with his nicotine-reeking Croatian friend. How G– had gone to get our drinks and the Croatian had said, “I found you at the piano bar, you know. So G– has to share.” I didn’t think this was funny but instead of outright objecting I laughed dismissively because I didn’t want to give the Croatian any reason to label me a prude or a shrew; I hated the idea of giving up power.
Now the bed enclosed by white mosquito netting was another small chamber, like the trailer and the boat. I was distracted by the books on death lying just outside. G– opened the women’s hair clip, clamped the white netting closed with the clip again. Had some other woman left those clips? The fingers crept down my back toward the crevasse. G– put his lips to my ear and said, “You’re tense, let me take care of you.”
Later, many deliberately unanswered messages later, I would call G– back and say I was too busy to play the tie-breaker game. “That’s not sporting,” he would say.
“We’re at different places in our lives and we want different things.”
“You don’t know that. I don’t know that. Can’t we just have fun together and see?”
“You’re not listening.”
And then, as though I were an exasperating toddler, “I’ve been hammering down here all day. I’m just trying to keep this rotting house from falling down and I’m tired.”
We played the fourth game back at the piano bar. A long game played on the defensive — I never laid a card if I thought it might give G– an opening. We thought we were hilarious on display there in the front booth. That goofy red and white Skip-Bo logo, G– calling out “Skip-BO!” every time he played the wild card. We gritted our teeth, we slammed our drinks on the table with gut-deep grunts, deciding our next moves.
G– laughed. He threw up his arms in a triumphant V and his blue eyes and his blonde hair flared. Then he looked confused for a moment, like a dog that actually caught the squirrel and now was at a loss. He shook his head and said, “I feel bad for you, sexy Canary. I know it’s not easy being crushed by the Skip-Bo master. So listen, I’ll take pity. We’ll play three out of five.”
“I want to sing a song,” I said.
We went and sat at the battered grand piano where red-faced Rod Dibble, the bar’s eternal pianist, had accompanied lonely misfits and lovers for more than 50 years. We waited our turn for the mic. I was thinking of how G– told me his married friends’ wives didn’t like him and the Croatian, because he and the Croatian were free and happy and the wives were jealous.
I sang my favorite Gershwin. “Someone to Watch Over Me.” No, I belted it.
There was a silence. I realized I had thrown the mic down. The other patrons stared. My heart was beating fast. G– coughed and said, “Well that was intense.”
I won the next game. This was at a restaurant on Lake Merritt, happy hour. We took over a big table like residents at the old folks’ home commandeering the rec room, and the young waitress thought we were cute. But I wasn’t sure why I was there. G–had just returned from two weeks in France, two weeks during which he had emailed or texted me every day and teased that he would crush me in Skip-Bo again when he got back. I had mostly not replied. G– had suggested that we get a drink with the Croatian and I had said, “Frankly, I don’t like being around your friend.” I’d thought this admission would give me an easy out, but G– said he understood.
The cards were going my way. “You know,” I said, after slapping down five in a row, “those married friends’ wives aren’t jealous.”
I won so fast G– didn’t even have time to drink half his beer. He said, “Now we each have three out of five, Canary. Tied again.”
Suddenly he lurched to bite my ear and I said, “You don’t understand. We’re not playing that game anymore.”
The night of the sixth game is the night I really want to write about. This night was warm and we met at an old bar on Jack London Square, an old bar with gas lamps aflame, and we drank warm brandy in snifters and we got out the cards.
I had not seen G– in three weeks. He had sent floods of text messages, all teasing about the card games. He’d been practicing, he said, the tournament must be decided. I was tired of long, patient conversations. Tired of telling him I wanted to get married again someday, when I found the right person, telling him I thought I would be a good parent, I wanted at least the possibility of a child. Tired of hearing that I was being unreasonable — “I never said I didn’t want a family, only said probably not!” I had to let us just enjoy ourselves, G — said, see where it goes. “The right person” was a ridiculous idea but we sure could have a lot of fun and if it had to end we’d be friends. Was it so bad to spend part of your life with someone and then be friends?
I was turning 35 soon and I had no intention of watching time go by with someone who would later be my “friend.”
I didn’t have another date that Saturday, and that partially explains why I agreed to the game. But it doesn’t explain why I wore a black skirt trimmed with lace, why I put on t-strap heels, why my hair cascaded down my back and my lips shone like ripe plums. What does explain it? That I loved G–? That I could have loved him? That even thwarted love, pre-empted love, must play to the end? But which of us was doing the pre-empting?
I didn’t touch my drink. I treated every turn like a game of chess. I was not going to make a single mistake. I stared at the silly Skip-Bo cards as though I could force them to my will. Within twenty minutes, an invisible knife was stabbing my right eye.
“Are you okay?” G– said. His forehead wrinkled. “Here, have some water.”
A wavering, pixilated rainbow at the edges of my vision made it hard to see the cards. I felt hot. I needed to throw up. “I have a headache,” I said. My voice was thin. I held my head with both hands.
“This game isn’t helping,” G— said. His eyes were flaring, like when I called out during sex, and he responded as though reacting to someone’s pain. “You need air. Let’s go.”
We walked through a cool, salty breeze along the Oakland waterfront. I had never noticed the cobblestones before. G– had his arm around me and was pressing me tight to his side, and my heels were wobbling on the stones, and my skirt was swaying. I could hardly walk without G–‘s help because of the pain through my eye, I could hardly stand up against the waves of nausea, but I distinctly remember G–saying, “You look very beautiful tonight.” He had called me many things — cute, hot, sexy — but never beautiful. I remember feeling This is beautiful — not myself as beautiful, but the sunset, the cobblestones, a man and a woman walking briskly, holding each other tight.
“I’m taking you to my truck,” G– said. “You need painkillers. Do you have any?” I shook my head. I had my palm splayed against my eye, my makeup was smudging. “Do you have any at your apartment?” I shook my head again.
“There’s only one kind that works,” I mumbled, and told him the brand.
And from there the night turned into an absurd ambulance ride, G– speeding in his truck from one drugstore to the next as I coiled in pain against the passenger-side window. G– rushing back to the truck, breathless, to report that this drugstore was no help either, G– tearing through traffic, lurching, speeding, and all I had to hang on to through the pain was the cool window against my temple, and G–‘s tight, terrified voice.
Finally, he was handing me pills. A paper cup of water. Stopping at a grocery store. Returning with a roast chicken. Carrying me into my apartment, taking off my shoes, smoothing the blankets over me, urging me to eat, just a few bites.
The world went black and when I came to, G– was curled around me. I smiled. The long fingers stroked my hair. “You’re back,” he said. “What a relief. Look, you’re back.”
There wasn’t a seventh card game. But really, there was. Because about two years after G– and I left the cards behind at that old bar with the gas lamps, I saw G– again, at the Alley. I was sitting at the piano with my husband, whom I had met just a few months after G– and I abandoned that last card game. I had met this new man and we had known very quickly that we wanted the same thing and we had married within months and moved across the country and now we were back for a short visit. We sat with our arms around each other at that battered grand piano as Rod Dibble played old love songs, and there was G– walking in. And I wanted to win. I still wanted to win.
I saw him see me, and I leaned into my husband and laughed, and I looked G– in the eye. But I never acknowledged him, never said hello. He wasn’t with the Croatian, thank God. Just a flash of his blond hair, a quick glimpse of the hurt on his face. He was with a group of people but he didn’t seem to be with a girl and I thought, I won.
One day, months later, back on the East Coast, I found myself alone with a small square of light on the kitchen table. I remembered G–, the last time I spent with him. That was a few days after our last card game; I had driven out to his barn on Stinson Beach again, I had slept badly inside that chamber of white mosquito net. Just after our sex, G– had asked me to go back on the pill. I had said I would not.
I remembered driving away, alone, down that curving narrow ribbon of Highway One. Steering tight into the turns and smelling the clean salt air and looking out across the shining endless water and feeling a peculiar kind of euphoria. It was the euphoria of absolute clarity, of inevitability faced and accepted. Now I wonder if that euphoria is what a good death might feel like.
Still, sitting in that square of light on the kitchen table while my husband was at work, I was haunted by something G– had said in his tiny ship cabin, after I asked him about wanting a family. I’d said, “I don’t want to be just hanging out in a piano bar fifteen years from now.” And G– had said, “Why not?”
I knew at the time that G– was right. Not right in the sense that I should spend all the rest of my days at the Alley, singing and flirting. But right that this life, moment to moment, is all we have, and the loss is ours whenever we fail to recognize that.
Sitting in the square of light, remembering G–‘s question, I remembered too, the white tomb of his bed, the white nets, the women’s hair clips — and the books on death on the nightstand just outside. G– had sent me an email shortly after I moved with my husband-to-be, wishing me well. I had never written back.
G–‘s father was now surely dead.
I had never asked, I had never sent a note of sympathy.
Whatever I won that last night I saw G– was no prize, and now I wish we could play another game.
About the Author:
Rachel Howard is the author of The Lost Night, a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder. She reviews dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, and is currently finishing a novel.