The Game of Life
"Ma? I told you not to do that."
"Not to double cards in the discard pile, or put down two cards to a run. It makes it too easy. Someone would only need one card to pick up?"
"I had to."
"You have nine other cards; you didn't have to."
"Are you saying I'm stupid. I'm 89 years old. I'd like to see you play Rummy when you're 89."
"Ma, I didn't say that. I said that it is not a good move."
She didn't answer, just gave me a look that half said, "Keep talking and I'll kick your ass," but also half said, "I just want to die sometimes. I'm so tired of everything about living."
I didn't respond to the look.We have had that conversation way too many times lately. I'd usually tell her not to talk like that, and she'd ask me why not. Then I'd come up with something to tell her. Sometimes though, it takes me while to think of a good reason. I don't mean because I didn't want her around, or think that life ain't worth living, or nothing like that, but sometimes I'd get so down myself and need my own reassuring. At such moments, I would resort to keeping it simple and say, "Just don't say stuff like that. It. upsets me, and besides it's not a Christian thing to do. We'd miss you."
She'd always stop and think about the Christian thing before she'd answer, "Sure you would. I'll be gone before you know it."
I really do admire old people; I think of them as People of the Weed. There's a story that comes with that title. Once I was in a pretty bad place after my wife left me. I'd admit that I was a little bit off and skirting dangerously close to the edge of things. Everything I saw was looking new and wondrous. I could see the artistic merit in shadows and trees and even in old abandoned cars. That was what tipped me off that I was a little off kilter. I was driving down the back way into Bakersfield to go to scout a couple of basketball games at the college when I came to a stop sign by a railroad track outside of Shafter. The wind was blowing pretty good and there was a little two foot weed growing by the side of the road. The wind would blow it down and when the wind died down, the weed would just pop right back into its original position. It impressed me how that little weed displayed so much character. A lot of people who I knew would have collapsed on the first gust and lay there until someone or something came along and helped them to their feet. Not that weed. It was wordlessly saying, "Fuck you, Gravity! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!" I know there are more than a few people who would have translated the silent conversation into something more like the weed was actually saying, "Ha ha! You can't keep me down! I'm Indefatigable!" But I was in mood that day, and resorted to the more poetic reading of the event. Just so you know, I don't want to be crude. I know better. Life just pushes my buttons sometimes and brings the Southside out of me.
Old people are pretty amazing though. We keep getting up from the ground in spite of all the stuff that tells us to just lay there and stay down. We void our bowels and wipe our asses everyday knowing full well that if we were anywhere near as divine as we like to pretend we are, we wouldn't have to do stuff like that. We'd shit pastel colored marshmallows that smelled like daffodils and roses and piss out lemonade and Vodka Crannies.
"Damn it, Ma! Quit doing that! You're just handing him points."
"I had to do it. He would've played anyway no matter what I threw down."
Usually I wouldn't bring things to a boiling point. I'd just grin and bear it knowing that nothing was ever going to change. She'd put her card down, frown when my brother picked up all the cards in the discard pile, and then stare out of the window into the dark. I don't know what she looks at when she does that, but I know, it ain't here and it ain't now. Sometimes she'd say something, and we'd have to guess where she was going and then guess some more to help supply the missing context to the story. On other occasions, she would snap out of a reverie and interject a question about what we we were talking about after one of us had just spent ten minutes making a point. It's hard at such moments not to just say, "Nothing." But she would get hurt and reply, "OK" with a sad look in her eye.
I often bring food, sometimes just snacks and sodas and play a music on my phone in an effort to spice up things a little. Whatever I would think about while I played the cards would often be predicated on what music I had picked to play. If I wanted her to respond, I'd pick some old Hank Williams, Patsy Cline or George Jones. She would still stare down our cards like a old mother eagle searching a grassy field for prey, but she would also tap her foot and sometimes absentmindedly join in the chorus. Sometimes we would all join in, and that would be pretty cool even though it never sounded anywhere as good as we pretended. Other times I would listen to someone like Al Stewart and remember the mix-tape I made from his albums and listened to everyday on my way to and from Fresno State. You don't find much music nowadays that you could listen to over ten times with wanting to poke your ears out whenever it came on. Al Stewart's music is, I mean, was, different though. He had a series of albums beginning with Past, Present, and Future that were so lyrically beautiful and meaningful that they would always take me into a different headspace. John Prine was like that too, and Bob Dylan. Elvis Costello could do it too. We often listen his song Allison and the hair always stands up on the back of my head when he pleads with the girl, "Sometimes, I wish, I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say."
"What did you say?"
"We were just talking something about a speech the president gave to today."
"Does he even know what he's talking about?"
"Some people say yes. Some say no."
"I don't think he does. What about you, Steve?"
Before he would answer, she would generally toss something like a three on top of a three. There would be another three at the top of pile, and Steve would greedily scoop up the cards and lay down a couple of trips.
She always knew I was mad and would say, "I had to. I didn't have a choice"
"Ma, you threw the third three down."
"I can't see I tell you. Hell, I'm 89 years old."
I can't help thinking sometimes though that she does it to annoy me. I've told her several times, it is not good strategy, and that the worse thing in Rummy is not splitting a pair, but in helping your opponent harvest the bounty of the discard pile. She doesn't care; to her the pairs in her hand represents certainty, and that's the one thing she wants more than anything else including winning.
Our little game has certainly evolved in the almost two years we have been playing. It started out as just a way to pass time with her while she was in lockdown. It's become so much more. We can not miss a day without noticing the affect upon her face, the greater spaces between her words, and added bitterness and mistrust in her attitude.
The game has assumed more of an existential nature. We sometimes sit in silence figuring out odds in our head and looking as grim as those three witches at the beginning of Macbeth who gloomily stir their caldron. I wonder when I think on what that metaphor says about us, if any of those decrepit ladies were thinking of the past while they stirred, about sunny days when they were younger and still hopeful.
We play now in order to survive and to show our little weed dance of our own. Where we once played with no concern over who won and recklessly discarded cards on rash impulse, we now take our time and slowly deliberate figuring out what the odds were that our opponents will play on what we discard. At least my brother and I do. Ma keeps her game simple, clings to pairs and two card runs with the tenacity of a wolverine. A lot of times, the strategy allows her to go out quickly and catch my brother and I with a lot of points. She wins her share of the games too, especially on those days when she doesn't give away all of her cards.
Sometimes I listen to Miles Davis in the background, and in between playing my hand, I'll imagine that we're playing cards on the tenth floor balcony of a Manhattan high rise with the sounds of the city rising from the streets and the music coming from a neighbor's open window. I'll think about all of the different possibilities of the setting and get lost and start nodding my head to the music. Out of the corner of my eye, I'll notice her looking my way, waiting until she can't handle it any more and have to say something.
"What are you doing, Danny? Who are you talking to?"
"I'm not talking to anyone, Ma. I'm just listening to the music."
"What is that stuff anyway?"
"It's called Jazz, ma. "
"Jazz? What's the name of the song?"
"It's called 'The Wind Just Blew My Ass Over and I Got to Get Up Again'.
"Stupid name for a song."
"Tell me about it."
I love my mom and it pains me greatly to watch as she deteriorates ever rapidly. I know that each game could be our last and that adds an added layer of importance. I can't remember the last time I walked out of a class at Mark Twain Elementary. I can't remember the last time walked out of the candy store on the south side of Corcoran never to return. Hell, I don't remember the last day my wife and I cohabited in the house I still live in. Something tells me though, I'll remember the last Rummy hand that my brother and my mom ever play and maybe just simply because I know that it will occur a hell of a lot more recently than those other events. But, prolly not.
Mom just wants and needs the company and a break from watching gameshows. I no longer know what Steve wants, he often talks about traveling, sometimes even to Mars. I, myself, just don't want to die within a mile of the place where I first entered the world (Corcoran Hospital I can see it's roof from my living room). I know that'd be a real waste of time and effort.
But for right now, I would settle for Mom not pairing up the cards in the discard pile, or expressing her desire to not exist at all.