He would rather do anything else than play cards. He would rather get drunk, he would rather get stoned, he would rather dive off the CN tower in a parachute or without one. He hadn’t bet a penny in fifty years, ever since his first wife left him. He hadn’t even had the dignity to be homeless and make her sorry for him. Instead, he’d served his time for embezzlement, and when he got out, educated and suited (even if the suit was borrowed from his twin brother), he got a decent enough job, then a better one, and finally he’d become president of the company.
Frank didn’t much care about that now. At eighty, his accomplishments felt less relevant than his blood pressure. His wife, his second wife, a spry seventy-one year old, was inside the cabin, preparing snacks, while he sat at the camp fire with his grandson’s friends.
They wanted to play for money. He didn’t want to play for match sticks. But he couldn’t resist looking cool for his grandson. When he shuffled, the cards danced in his hands, they flew in the air and came back to him like birds, they spread and reassembled, the way they always had, as if his hands weren’t old hands, as if his kunckles weren’t swollen, as if his fingers had no twist in them. Oh, yes, the cards loved him. But would his grandson?
He played the way he always had, he couldn’t play any other way, with an intensity that made him feel more alive than when he survived the bank robbery. Frank dealt, the boys—they were hardly boys at thirty, Elena would have said—admiring the way the cards fell into their laps. They joked, they smoked, they said they’d take it easy on the old man. But Frank knew, to his shame, that he wouldn’t take it easy on them. He would take them for everything they had because they were boys, because he was serious when he played, because he hadn’t played for fifty years and as soon as the cards were in his hands, all the old feelings came back.
They stopped joking. Frank knew he ought to say it was just a game, the bets weren’t real bets, he’d forgive them all, but he couldn’t. They kept playing, trying to recoup their losses, throwing in their iphones, their motorbikes, even a car. And they lost. Frank knew that they would lose. It was in the nature of cards to seduce you with a big win. There was nothing the cards would like better than to get him back in bed, to make him pay for his long absence. And the cards were so beautiful. They shone in the light of the fire. They winked at him. He’d always had a soft spot for spades. He loved the shape, he loved the pure colour, the no colour, of black ink. And today spades loved him back. He’d never been one for three of a kind, not even four of a kind. A flush, a royal flush, that had always been his hand, even when it buried him.
The night was clear. It was late in the season. The leaves were starting to turn, the nights cool. The sky was an inverted starry bowl. Frank loved the smell at this time of year, the burning wood, the pines and cedars. Leaves would fall soon. Then the earth would smell of mulch.
They were all silent when they went back inside. The boys had nothing left to give. Jason stayed back, not saying much, just “Hey gramps, good game.” He was waiting for Frank, even now, to say he didn’t care about the bets. But he couldn’t. Not even when Elena looked at him questioningly. The boys weren’t hungry. They grabbed their sleeping bags and their air mattresses, and headed outside to sleep under the stars. Frank was ravenous. He ate everything on the table, his portion, the boys’ portion, even Elena’s.
“I never told you about my first marriage,” he said to her.
“No, you didn’t.”
“Maybe I should.”