The cards were nothing fancy

. Not bicycles with colourful jokers. Just some old deck maybe swiped from a hotel, like that book of matches on the mantel never struck. The pattern was mostly green, though maybe jade you’d say if you were fussy. Looked like a close-up photo of jewellery box draws. The card box itself was not conventional, as the familiar bicycle box with the flap tucked across the top edge of the deck. This was a rigid cardboard sleeve with red felt sides and a satin ribbon you’d tug to pull out a draw in which the deck sat. The colours of Christmas.

Charlie is six years old and Raymond is four days old. When I was six, Grampie and I would sit at the kitchen table, yellow Formica in a stainless steel frame with vinyl chairs to match, as though they’d decorated a diner more than a house. And we’d play Setback, or Pitch Hoyle called it in his book of rules. On a scrap of stenographer’s paper, with an old golf pencil I reckon he’d found more than I reckoned he’d filled out a tee sheet, Grampie and I would keep score.

A two-player deal, combined with well-defined rules, determined the course of events. Once the die was cast, your number was either down or up. But we played through the hands, applying rules, deciding the game as though anyone other than Fate was playing.

We shuffled cards. Dealt cards. Threw cards. We took tricks and laughed together at knock knock jokes and puns and riddles. This is what we had. All we had. Nothing fancy. Spending time.

Grampie’s dead now longer than the ages of some of my friends, and that’s how it goes, as simple as I can think of it. There’s coming and going, as sensibly as there’s tricks to take in a hand of Pitch.

And Raymond is four days old.

And he and Grampie are 106 years apart, and I can’t believe I span that far. My newest and oldest memories colliding, dancing together, twisting in an unlikely pairing. The one an ember, the other but a twig, kindling a fresh Winter’s fire.

It’s Friday, and that means Charlie gets three dollars. We popped in the two dollar shop today, right next to the supermarket where we were meant to pick up toilet paper and beer: the essentials. At the dollar shop, we poked through the kitsch. We considered the very nature of three dollars and all it’s worth in this world. The boy picked up a dinosaur with scales and spikes all up its back. And I couldn’t resist for myself, because it’s Friday: Jumbo playing cards, plastic coated. Not fancy bicycles. Just a stack of slick pictures and numbers, only ordered by the throwers’ impositional choices, a stack of potential until shaped by some rules unestablished by nature, and little more established than any other tradition.

A fire tonight. Charlie aflutter with Raymond new in his life. Here on the rug, at the fire, what I didn’t realise was: these cards were nothing fancy. Not bicycles with fancy jokers. Just some old deck. And I peeled off the cellophane and the two dollar price sticker. I flipped back the tab concealing the top of the deck. And I spilled out the stack and introduced Charlie, ace to king, to the meanings we give these piles of plastic coated ephemera, which wouldn’t even ash in the embers in that open fire.

This is you. This is me. And Raymond is four days old. His time will come, Charlie, but our time is now, my little boy. And now I am Grampie and you are me, and this grey rug a few inches back from the stone hearth and this fire, smouldering — this is our yellow Formica table.

And by the time Raymond is five days old, you’ll have won your first game of cards.


Age twelve: I dreamed I
About: "March 15, 1910..."