THE KEYHOLE

Hanging in pride of place in my grandmothers office was an aged poster print. It was a once popular poster that hung in fraternity houses and university boarding houses across the country. It shows a group of insouciant college boys playing poker. Though it was my grandmother Annies I somehow imagined it to be a depiction of my dad’s fraternity house days at Cal Berkeley. I thought he must have whiled away those idle hours passing the old pasteboards across a baize cloth covered table like the young men in the painting, killing time in the way young men do when the horizon is just at hand but not yet touchable. It seemed vaguely romantic when I was ten.

In the days before television people played cards. My grandparents played Canasta with Clayton and Cornelia Conrow every Wednesday night for decades. She had a little round table in her front room as they called it, stocked with decks of cards, pencils and tally slips always at the ready. The folding card tables even had a special deep closet in the entry hall where they lived between games. 

My grandmothers bridge club motored along for over fifty years. I knew most of them, I used to drive her to Mrs Brisco’s or Mrs Jatta’s house after she could no longer drive herself. As those old girls dropped away and the group got smaller, they still kept it up until they could no longer fill a table. Listening to them talk was a better way to get the news than the local paper.

My mother belonged to a bridge club too. Mrs Loomis, Mrs Taylor, Mrs Wood, Mrs Waller, Mrs Rust, Mrs Talley formed a rotating group of Bridge players who stuck with it for fifty years. In those days the women would dress in their best, hair done, makeup on, the good heels and when I was little, she still wore glovesto go out. . Putting her purse under her arm, mom would offer her cheek for the good bye kiss, saying. “Careful honey, don’t mess up my lipstick.”  She would be off for an afternoon of card playing and serious gossip. It had to be the gossip because my dad always said she never won a trick in fifty years. She was an artist not a mathematician. They played for fun but were very serious about friendship. When my mother was dying of cancer, they all came to see her and say goodbye. Every single one. 

When my parents first met, what do you think my mother was doing? She was playing solitaire of course, something she did almost every day for the rest of her life. When you visited in the morning, dad would be in the fields and mom would be sitting at the enamel kitchen table ensconced at her end, drinking coffee, smoking the first cigarette of the day and playing solitaire. 

In our family, card playing was a serious business, especially Poker. Not your namby-pamby wild card games or community poker games like Texas hold-em but guts-ball games of stud, draw and high-low. Fancy-schmancy games that made it easier for a novice to win were not only  discouraged but at the family table, forbidden. 

They started us early. After Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner the big kitchen table would be carried into my grandmothers office and chairs gathered from all over the house. The file drawer opened, the top drawer mind you, business files were relegated to the lowers. The the baize  table cloth was taken out and very carefully spread across the table. The walnut carousel with it’s genuine ivory chips was placed in the very center. Each chair got a coaster to protect the fabric, there was no eating during a game. 

My grandfather Jack sat at one end and my father George at the other. My grandfather had a view of the wild horse hatrack and my dad looked over the “Burning of the midnight oil.” They were the Stud Ducks at the table. Most of the others were also rans. My uncle Jack, a big bluffer, My grandmother Annie, serious but without deceit, my mother; well we already know what kind of a player she was. My great uncles Bob and John and their wives Marion and Eva played most years too. Uncle John with his big deep voice and hearty manner was a journeyman player, so was uncle Bob. Marian was very sweet, not an advantage at a poker table. My great aunt Eva was sort of fluffy and cackled a lot. As a poker player she was no-account, sorry aunty.

All three of us kids had a place too, even when we were very young. Cayce the youngest sat next to my mother. He was pretty little then and since he has not a mean bone in his body his refusal to use the “Skip and Draw Two” cards in the Uno deck tells you everything you need to know about how he played poker. My brother Jerry sat across from Uncle Jackie and being the oldest, I had the place of honor next to my grandfather. Being at the table with the adults was a real treat for us but as youngsters we were not very good players and our elders would have to slip us chips under the table when we were doing badly.  

The best games of all were when my dad’s poker club came to the house. They were another kettle of fish entirely. Many of them were college grads. Schools like Stanford, that was Vard Loomis and Berkeley, which was my dad and Oliver Talley. As fraternity boys they had learned to play for keeps. In my dad’s case, poker helped pay for his tuition. He said his fraternity brothers and the firemen in the house where he cooked and bussed tables were not that good and with the five dollars a month his parents sent him from his home in Arroyo Grande he got along pretty well with the skills he had learned at the family table. He also had a head for numbers which didn’t hurt either.

In the afternoon we would help my father move the kitchen table and chairs, slide in the leaf and spread the tablecloth setting it all up in the living room. Those guys didn’t eat while playing, just a plate or two of mixed nuts, sometimes right out of the cans. They did drink though. When they came in the house they brought bottles of their favorite, fifths of scotch, bourbon or whiskey right off the shelves of Kirks Liquor on Branch street. They sniffed at cognac, too upper class, wrinkled their noses at gin, too British and drank their whiskey straight in a Low Ball or Old Fashioned glass, no ice if you please. There was a sort of hierarchy to it all. None of those guys put on airs, they were dirt farmers or worked in businesses which served the farm and ranch community. Putting on airs was frowned on. If you had dared to show up with beer you might well have been sent home. That marked you as less than serious, a lightweight. Wine was; well I can’t repeat what they said about that! Even Scotch was given a little fish eye, un-American to say the least.

As a youngster I had little opportunity to see these men, my fathers friends, fathers to my friends, in their natural habitat. On most social occasions kids were to be seen and not heard. They didn’t talk out of school around children. They were kind of just there you know, like trees or buildings. They inhabited a world we weren’t privy to just yet.

But the poker club offered a rare opportunity, like going to a zoo where yo could see a wild animal in the flesh. There were no bars or fences to look through but there was a keyhole. 

Our little farm house was built by Thomas Records around the turn of the 20th century. Originally just three rooms, kitchen, living room and a single bedroom, it had been modernized off and on over the years and when we were growing up had an indoor bathroom and a second bedroom for the kids. My parents bedroom was right next to the living room and in those old houses the doors had old fashioned mortise locks with beautiful glass door knobs, each one with a large keyhole under the knob.

My mother would make herself scarce on those nights, fleeing the house and no doubt meeting the wives for some socializing of their own. Us kids would be trotted out to practice our social skills, saying hello and shaking hands with Ed Taylor, Oliver, or Don Rowe and all the others, but soon we were shuffled off to bed. Or so they thought.

We used that keyhole the way a scientist uses a microscope. They were right there, just feet away. They all talked at the same time, there were jibes, cross talk and comebacks, barks of laughter, they grimaced, they frowned and muttered under their breath when they lost a hand. They joked and took a slug of whiskey. Oliver lit his cigar, Dad a cigarette, Milt Nelson chewing on his pipe as always, all of it creating a shimmering cloud moving hazily around the room. Raise you five, pass, hit me, gimme two, call, the language of poker running just beneath the surface like a lazy stream. The jokes, nothing we were ever going to hear in polite company and oh my goodness the teasing. They knew each other so well that gentle commentary about noses, bald heads, skinny legs seemed to pass almost without notice.

The flick of a wrist, a red chips clicking onto the pot, “I call,” the chips raked in and then without any visible signal the game stopped. The players  sat back and dad an Ed or Oliver stood and went to the kitchen. A loaf of Webers bread in its blue and white livery, Mayonnaise and mustard from the fridge and a stack of baloney and the went to work. Sandwiches were made, though they were farmers they used no lettuce or onions, vegetables were for market not eating. For a while it was calm and quiet as they refueled but soon enough the chairs slid across the floor and the action picked up again.

We didn’t know when they quit, for we had nodded off in our parents bed. Waking in our own beds in the morning, everything in the house was back to normal. My dad stayed up very late, washing dishes and putting things away, not wanting my mother to have to do it. As we slipped into our chairs for breakfast, my dad already gone to the fields, it seemed as if perhaps it was a dream or perhaps just a sudden glimpse of what was behind the curtain of adulthood.   

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