On Spading

Monday, October 4, 2010

The sound of shuffling cards, meandering conversation, and Creedence Clearwater Revival float out onto the side porch of my home every Sunday. Homework is forgotten and phone calls are ignored as my family sits around the porch playing cards while our two dogs sleep under the table. Our game of choice is Spades, simple enough, perfect for a family of four.

Ever since I was old enough to hold playing cards in my chubby little hands, I have been obsessed with any card game: Goldfish, War, Hearts, Rummy—it didn’t matter. After my sister was old enough, we broke into our respective teams and have not changed them: Dad and I always play against Mom and Bekah. These partnerships were inevitable. I’ve always been a Daddy’s girl, following him around to his shop, watching him work on cars, reloading bullets and shells for his pistols and shotguns. Bekah would trail Mom in the kitchen, strewing pots and pans over the floor along with flour and meal. Bekah and I were barely able to see over the table and our feet didn’t touch the floor, but we could throw cards onto the table like pros.

After I’d been in college a year or so, I started to come home every weekend for Sunday dinner. Soon this evolved into an all-day card competition that ended with a feast of cubed steak and gravy, green beans, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, and homemade biscuits with peach jelly. While all my friends were sobering up from Saturday night’s events and doing last-minute homework, I discovered myself with each card that fell from my fingertips.

The porch is small and screened-in, and it comes off the living room. There’s only enough room for a patio table, four chairs, and the old, weathered wooden swing hanging from the ceiling. From our chairs we can see the road, the remains of the house next door that burned down, and an array of trees. A lot of days we watch rabbits, birds, squirrels, and chipmunks fight over birdseed that dropped from the lighthouse feeder hanging in an old oak tree. The sun sets directly in line with the screens, so Dad hung two shades that can be lowered to block out the light. Mom placed about six potted plants on the floor while three hang from hooks around the top of the screens.

It’s always the same. Dad sits across from me in overalls and a T-shirt, wiping at his bushy beard while his large green mug, filled with caffeine-free Diet Coke, sweats on the table. Bekah is to my right, her long hair falling into her lap as she pops yet another Jolly Rancher into her mouth and doodles on the score pad. Mom sits to my left and applies lotion, face cream, and baby oil in between smoking cigarettes and brushing her hair. We play until one team makes 500 and then start over again. Some days Dad and I prevail, getting hands full of spades and aces; other days it seems the card gods have left us with nothing but red cards and single digits. Mom always underbids, Dad and I generally overbid, and Bekah drives Dad mad by always spading higher. The rules come naturally to us. We don’t have to think about the game. Our hands automatically reach for the right card while our brain subconsciously counts cards and files away what’s been played and who’s out of what suit.

The cards are old and worn out. We play with the same two decks, blue and red Bicycle decks. The two of spades is bent in the corner, the back of the queen of diamonds has rubbed off from where Bekah spilled her juice, and all the edges are frayed. Mom always keeps powder on the porch to sprinkle over the cards when they start sticking and won’t deal out properly.

For years we sat at an old white, rusted metal table with a tablecloth thrown over to cover its imperfections. The chairs were a shade of weathered gray from one too many days in the rain and sun. The arms and backs were broken in various places, but we sat in them anyway. Mom placed pillows in each chair, but Dad hated his and gave it to me. I then had the most comfortable seat on the porch. Mom and Dad would wander around Wal-Mart and Home Depot garden sections and dream of buying nice patio furniture with matching cushioned chairs and an umbrella, but they were always too expensive for our tight budget. But at the beginning of one summer, they lucked up and found a patio set for under $100 – cushioned chairs and umbrella included. The metal table and broken plastic chairs were moved off the porch and replaced with the new, shiny furniture. Now we throw cards across a glass surface and sink our bodies into fluffy, floral print cushioned chairs. It is perfect.

In between trying to win tricks, we talk. Movies, music, religion, politics—nothing is too stupid or too controversial. Mom and Dad reassure Bekah by saying, “College is only a year off, then you can find new and better friends.” We commiserate with Mom and tell her, “You do the work of five people and don’t get paid for it. We know you can find a better job,” when she is in tears. I tell Dad that one day he will have another Harley Davidson and his mountain home he’s always dreamed of. And they all tell me, “Rachel, you were destined for great things, but you’re only 21. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Just be patient,” when I feel like I’m a total failure.

And we eat. Eat more than we’ve eaten all week long. Mom gets up and pops a bag of popcorn, passing it around until there’s nothing left in the large green bowl except kernels and salt. Dad returns to the table with cheese, crackers, and a glass of milk. Bekah brings back iced oatmeal cookies while I choose ice cream, usually Mayfield or Edys or whatever brand was on sale that week. By the end of the day, we realize we’ve consumed more calories than we’d like to think about, but that doesn’t matter.

For years, Dad talked about putting up a ceiling fan out on the porch. He hates muggy, hot weather, but playing cards inside on a nice Georgia summer day is out of the question. Over countless Saturdays of getting up at 7 to go to yard sales with Mom, Bekah, and me, Dad collected enough random ceiling fan parts to put one together. It took him an entire weekend to get everything together—the wiring, the fan itself, the braces in the ceiling. Then finally, late one Sunday afternoon, the ceiling fan was spinning around above our heads, and we sat down for a short game of spades to celebrate. Dad was happy because enough air was moving to disguise the sticky heat, and he could finally comfortably sit on the porch and play cards.

None of my friends quite see why I stay at home with my parents every Sunday, why I choose to miss out on a party or some other exciting outing. The answer’s simple: I enjoy it. I get to play cards, something I could happily do all the time, and figure out what is going on inside my head. Sharing my troubles and playing spades with my family gives me a sense of peace that nothing else could. Over those diamonds, clubs, spades, and hearts we have grown to know one another. We are no longer just parents and kids, we are people who understand where each other is coming from.

But to any normal person, we’re just playing cards.

Rachel Scoggins

Rachel Scoggins holds a degree in creative writing from Agnes Scott College. She taught high school English for three years, and is now teaching college English while pursuing a doctorate in Medieval literature. Her work has appeared in Pens on Fire and the Kitchen Drawer magazine. She lives in Georgia and is working on her first novel.

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In memory of Kurt Brown

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