when we say “all in” we are bluffing

My grandpa and his second wife cheated at cards against my father, his middle son, and my mother, who regarded them all with a coolness I could never replicate. Cool the way the linoleum was cool in some kitchen in Alabama where my grandfather’s second wife was a girl. She said she would lie bare-skinned there, seeking reprieve from the long southern heat. She repeated that anecdote until the word ‘linoleum’ sounded like poverty to me and I studied our kitchen floor and wondered if we were also poor. Though I’d started to sense there was a lot of difference between our little, which we spread thin, and her having nothing.

In the winter, reading comic strips and standing on heat vents, I was such a lonely goat. Slow to rouse in the summer, wearing a bathing suit I’d begged for but felt shy in. I was prone to languor. Every day of my teens spent inventorying the things I’d lost or misplaced while all those things I’d maintained just sat there hoping to be numbered. Until one day it dawned on me, if one of the things I’d lost had been my ability to number the things I had not lost then surely all would have been lost. Yet it wasn’t. And I woke up a little. Maybe not all the way. Maybe not yet. But something stirred in me and stretched lazily towards actual gratitude

My grandpa’s second wife looked like she was from Alabama. She had that knife-like prettiness dulled only slightly by need and watchful silence. So my mother condemned her dry pork chops and burnt bread. Before she’d send us out to their trailer in Concho she’d wonder out loud how we’d survive with nothing to eat. That woman was the only grown up I was allowed to call by her first name and every time I used it my belly knotted up a bit, complicit in her condemnation. Before I could put it to words I felt all the blame for my grandmother’s pain falling like rotten petals exclusively on her shoulders and at her feet. Beautiful but putrid. As if my grandfather had not also been a cheat.

As I grew I started to wonder. Do we just lie here and take it then? Is that our lot, like Lot’s wife or his daughters? Like Eve with that dolt, Adam. Is it always our fault? And I got it. I got it. It’s not like I didn’t love my father’s mother fearfully, with her thimble pie and pear butter and brittle rage. With her house that smelled like it was about to fall down, smelled like perm solution and wet adobe. The concept of loyalty was driven early into me. But now that there’s a flower covered cross in the bend of the first treacherous hairpin turn of each love I’ve been in, I’m starting to think perhaps we could have been kinder.

If a person cheats at cards, they’ll cheat at this life. I learned this young, watching my grandpa and his second wife with their series of complicated tics and gestures, all memorized to lead trumps and take tricks. We are what we are and only as much as we are capable of imagining ourselves seen. Predictable. Isn’t this how God came into being, simultaneously awe inspiring and tedious, yawning arrogantly like an author whose characters never take him by surprise? Much later, while I struggled to remain unaware of the arc of my own narrative, my grandfather’s wife stole money from her dying sister. So my granddad left her, too, and lived for a while in his truck by the river.


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