Every evening after dinner, Zach gets a nap. Kris and I have about 45 solid minutes together, broken only by crib whimpers where one of us rushes to replace the pacifier before the boy really wakes up.
In our time together, we play a card game or a board game, eat some vanilla ice cream with melted peanut butter and hard chocolate chips, and talk. For the first eight months of our marriage, the game was Rook with a smattering of cribbage nights. For the last six months, every night, we play Settlers of Catan.
I build on the wheat and rock numbers, the sixes and eights, and buy too many development cards because I’m more concerned with my ice cream than winning the game. Kris is methodical with her tree and brick, threes and ports, and pulling the intricacies of my day at work from me.
Zach interrupts at inopportune times, breaking my concentration. If it’s Kris’s turn, I run to his room, turn on his mobile and run back. If it’s my turn, we wait until I’m done so I can check on Zach.
Two nights ago we played. I finished my ice cream and talked about the case I was prosecuting. Untold minutes later, Kris finished hers and told me about the ESL class she’s teaching at church. I had already replaced Zach’s pacifier twice and he was fussing again.
I was four-and-a-half when my mom taught me cribbage. I learned to add by counting the spots on the cards. My dad taught me poker the following year. I played Monopoly, Parcheesi, and Life with Jeffrey, Jamie, Jean, and Jake.
But it was the end of ’84 when my card skills blossomed. My grandpa had a stroke. He couldn’t use his right side and couldn’t live alone. He moved in. He brought his small tv, his green and red striped chair, and his Belizean nurse. I loved the new tv.
At first, I’d only go to grandpa’s room to watch football games. Grandpa sat on the side of his bed, slouched and hard to understand. I sat in his wheelchair, practicing wheelies. We didn’t talk much, just about bad calls the refs made or missed fieldgoals.
As the football season waned, I spent less time in his room. On one weekend, late in ’84, I went in to his room to watch a game and saw he was playing solitaire. I knew the game he was playing. I pointed out a move he didn’t see. He acknowledged, made the move, and still lost the game.
He asked me, in his mumbling, grumbling way, if I wanted to play a game. I got the cribbage board and came back. I dealt the first hand. He had a hard time separating his cards with his left hand, but counted the points better than I could. He was ahead.
He dealt the second hand. I shuffled for him and gave him the cards. He held the deck in his left hand and tried to push each card out with his left thumb. His thumbprint, smoothed down from a life of use, couldn’t separate the cards without a good layer of spit. He licked his thumb, dealt two or three cards, and licked it again. When he set the deck down, I had eight cards to his six. As he was picking up his cards, I placed my top two cards back on the deck. He won that hand, too.
He told me, “I used to play this game as a schoolboy. I rode a horse to school. I named him ‘Bird.'”
By the end of the football game, we had played four games of cribbage. Grandpa won all four and he learned that I had Mr. Schaeffer as a teacher and that I liked a girl named Angela.
I had learned to deal for him.
Cribbage turned into gin and gin into pinochle by the time I left for the Air Force. Grandpa learned to walk again some time in our cribbage phase. He forgot again while we were playing pinochle.
But during that time, I learned all sorts of things about electric razors, teletype operators, and the 1961 All-Star game. He learned all sorts of things about Shirley, Heather, Jennifer, Jenny, and all the other girls I never talked to.
Somewhere around 1987 or so, I started beating him, or he started letting me win. And somewhere around 1992 or so, I started letting him win. We played thousands of games and, in the end, I’m pretty sure we each won around half.
I got up to give Zach his pacifier again, but he was too awake, smiling and ready to play. I picked him up and brought him back to the game where Kris and I were playing and talking.
It was about time he learned to play.