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Twenty One

My grandfather taught me to count with a worn deck of playing cards. Smoothed over with time and endless flips end-over-end, the cards ran like rain out of a gutter across the lacquered table top, often skidding onto the floor. He would hold me on his lap with a weathered hand cinched around my tiny waist, the other hand flipping through the cards like it had a mind of its own.

"One," he'd say pointedly, flipping a card off the top of the deck and placing it face-up on the table.

"Two," I'd say, taking a card from his hand and placing it gingerly beside the first. On and on this would go, all the way to fifty two. We'd skim the deck and talk about colors (red and black), numbers (2 through 10), and the hierarchy of a king's court (I always said the queen should be the highest card of all). He taught me how to drive a tractor and a stick-shift, how to bargain at a rummage sale for the best price, and how to format a resume. But what I will always remember about my grandfather took place on his knee as a toddler, smelling the sweet-spicy swell of pipe tobacco, Old Spice and sweat as it crept out from his shirt.

My older brother, Jack, was less enthused with these games, preferring to sit in the living room and look at picture books, or play with Lego blocks. "That's a baby game, Margo," he'd say vehemently if I ever asked him to play a counting game with us, or Blackjack as I got older and learned to do basic addition. "Go play your baby game and let me stay here, I'm busy."

I'm busy.

His favorite phrase, excuse, two-word combination in the world. Help me with chores? Cut this tag out of my dress? Help make cookies for the school bake sale? "I'm busy, Margo."

So it shouldn't have stung so much when I called to let him know the bad news upon our grandfather's death and his greeting was "What do you want Margo? I'm busy." I swallowed the golf ball-sized lump in my throat, double swallowed, and my reply came out like a smoker with bronchitis, sickly and harsh:

"He's dead, Jack."

Dead air hung there in the space between us - I stood in stocking feet in the apartment I shared with two of my girlfriends, a Junior in college, two weeks before exams - and took the phone from my ear, making sure the call hadn't disconnected. But it hadn't.

"Jack?"

"Okay, Margo."

"We need to go up there this weekend, help go through his things. With grandma gone, nobody else ..." I trailed off, mental images of straddling his lap on the riding lawnmower running through my mind like a sepia-toned movie reel.

"Okay, Margo. I have to go back to work." He was twenty three, very busy with his first job making $12 an hour right out of the gate, and had no time for small talk and pleasantries. I drove to my grandfather's home that night, fortified by a tall cup of black coffee and random bouts of tears to keep me alert.

I was knelt in front of the fireplace digging through boxes when Jack's shadow crept into the room before he did - tall, lean and full of nervous energy. I didn't bother to turn and speak to him, but instead motioned to the boxes and sideboard full of drawers across the room.

"Is there anything you want to keep? Otherwise toss it." I tried to keep the emotion from my voice, but I was almost positive it had betrayed me as I heard it quiver - I had run out of tears to cry by now.

I heard Jack cross the room to the sideboard and tug open a drawer, fluff a garbage bag open, and begin cramming old bills, weathered bank statements, little pieces of junk drawer detritus, inside. While soldiering through a stack of photos and deciding which to keep and scan and which to discard, I heard him straighten up quickly, and caught sight of him cramming something into his pocket out of the corner of my eye. I stood, knees creaking, and picked my way across the floor to where my brother stood, face a bit ashen.

"What did you find?" I asked, peering down at the sideboard, dragging my arm across the face and leaving a shooting star's path across my oily brow. "All I saw in there at a glance was just junk."

"Nothing important." Jack said hotly, turning back to the sideboard.

"What, Jack?" I pressed harder and he faced me again. I saw his jaw set, click into place.

"This. Are you happy now?" he said, and extracted a deck of world-weary playing cards from his pocket, holding them out to me in cupped palms. I felt the color drain from my face, and knew I must look absolutely ill.

"Those ..." I trailed off and my eyes worked their way to my brother's face. He locked gazes with me, his steely blue eyes narrowed, daring me to protest. "We used to play with those. Those should be mine."

"This is all I want, Margo. Now leave me alone so I can go through the rest of his trash." I felt my fists clench up as he shoved the deck of cards into his back pocket, turning to continue to go through the sideboard.

"This is not trash, it's his life. And those should be mine." I made a grab for the cards which were now poking out of his back pocket, taunting me. Jack pinwheeled around.

"Play you for it."

Without a word I plopped down on the ground cross-legged, and Jack followed suit. We cleared a space in the trash bags and scattered papers, sweeping away the dust. I sneezed twice in a row and Jack wrinkled his nose.

"Blackjack," I said. "That was our game once I was old enough to do math, he is on my side here. If I win this hand, you give me those damn cards." Jack shrugged and extracted the cards from his pocket, shuffling through them.

"Cut them?" he asked me, and I accepted the deck from his hands. It was warm, and the cards felt butter-soft under my fingertips. They bent to my will, shuffling and cutting, until I was satisfied and handed them back to my brother, who flipped two over in rapid succession. 7 of hearts, 9 of spades.

"Sixteen," Jack said, turning the deck over and over in his hand and laying down two more cards for the house: 3 of diamonds, 6 of spades. "And nine for the house." His eyes found their way to mine again, and his brow quirked up. "Hit?"

I did mental math, running through possiblities like a drill sargent. This should work. This had to work.

"Hit me."

Jack put down the next card and flipped it over, expressionless. 8 of hearts. 24. Bust.

My chest gave a heave and Jack scooped the cards up off the floor, neatly stacking them and squaring the deck, placing it gingerly back into the box and tucking the flap back down. He turned the box over and over in his hands, pensive. I felt bile rise in my throat, and stood, wobbling toward the door.

Jack's arm shot out past me, bracing himself against the door jam.

"House rules," he slipped the deck of cards into one of my hands and turned to go back into the living room. My ears were swollen with my own heartbeat's frantic thudding, but I knew I heard the next words clear as a bell: "and it's not such a baby game after all, Margo."

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