My parents’ poker game starts in Brooklyn on Friday nights. I fall asleep to poker chatter leaking into the bedroom I share with my sister: Pair of deuces. Possible flush. No help. One poker night, I’m the one who needs help, awakened by excruciating stomach pain. The doctor comes over and examines me in the best light, on the card table, then drives me to the hospital for an appendectomy.
The game continues after we move to Long Island, now once a month. The players arrive about nine:
Marvin and Sylvia. Marvin is a shoe salesman with thick glasses whose eyes get progressively worse over the years, until he needs a magnifying glass to read the cards, and then special cards. Sylvia is small, always joking and cracking her gum, saying “denks” for “thanks.”
Sidney and Phyllis. Phyllis is large with a lusty laugh, and Sidney a rotund, balding door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Our dog, Duke, greets him effusively as Sidney calls him “Bootchie-Bootch” over and over. Sidney leaves Phyllis and their two teenaged daughters for another woman, and I overhear my father talk about his mean streak. I am disappointed in Duke for falling for the “Bootchie Bootch” routine—he probably tells that to all the dogs.
Molly and David. They lived across the street from us in Brooklyn. The happiest I ever see David is after he takes his first ride in a jet plane. “You’re strapped in there and the thing takes off and you feel glued to the seat as the ground disappears. I tell you you’ve never felt anything like it.” Their son gets leukemia and is dead in three months. I overhear Marvin tell my father that David came into the shoe store and wept, “My boy, my boy, they took my boy.”
Stu and Burt—who join the game in later years—are bachelors who go on vacations together and buy new cars every couple of years. My mother says it is because they are single and have no families to support.
Many years later, my father and I visit my mother’s grave in the vast complex of Jewish cemeteries on Long Island, with an empty plot next to hers, reserved for him. He gestures yonder and beyond, and says, “Out there is our poker game.”