I play poker every Wednesday afternoon with a bunch of guys who are older, often wiser, and always a whole lot funnier than I am. I joined the game almost two years ago when the majority of the group headed off to Florida for the winter, leaving an insufficient number of year-round players to make a game.
I had never played poker before. My friend Larry started to teach me the games the group plays (versions of seven-card stud). I was a pretty quick study, thanks to growing up with a deck of cards in my hand, and before long I was presented to the winter group as the requisite fifth player in the nickel-and-dime game.
The winter group included Larry, an educator who had started his career teaching in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1960s and retired as a special-education supervisor for the New York City Board of Education 35 years later. Kurt, a native South-African, had trained as an engineer, and worked for General Electric. Dan, an attorney, worked in the United States Department of Commerce. Ed was an advertising executive and college professor. They were a smart, professional bunch, and had been playing poker together for years; I went to my first game with some trepidation. Larry joked that I was breaking the glass ceiling, and I certainly felt some need to prove myself. I carefully reviewed my notes on each of the games the group played right before the game, and took the notes with me to review (secretly, in the bathroom) if I needed to do so.
The group rotates weekly from one player’s home to another. My first game was at Larry’s house, a welcoming and familiar place. His wife Eleanor took me aside before the game started. “Don’t let them intimidate you,” she said. “You can whip their asses!” I was more worried about playing slowly, or making a stupid mistake, or inadvertently changing the game by virtue of my inexperience, gender, age, and background. Neither Eleanor nor I needed to worry: the men were thrilled to have a game, and each took a turn—or talked over each other—to teach me something when I got confused, or encountered a bet that I didn’t understand. I lost a few dollars, but the lessons and the fun were invaluable. I was eager for the next game.
The winter game continued; my play got better, and Dan helped me bet more strategically. There were certain rituals in the game, usually unexplained, which I accepted without comment. I wanted to enter the group as seamlessly as possible, adapting myself to the group as it adapted to me. I noticed a lot of details: the “jumbo” decks of cards we use so Ed, who has vision problems, can see them more easily. The break we take two hours into the three-hour game, when each man visits the bathroom and we all have coffee. The reminiscences about guys, now dead, who used to play in the long-running game. The enduring bonds they share: politics, religion, social values, the lingo of their youth. Old enough to be my father, the men make me feel secure, seen and heard, valued.
One Wednesday, Ed brought a friend, Marty, when Kurt couldn’t play. Marty was pleasant, quiet, and slow. In comparison, I felt like a pro, knowing when to raise, knowing the different strategies for playing “Follow the Queen” versus “H.” I did notice the guys were subdued around Marty, cheerful but quieter too. The usual jokes—whether Larry had really been in the Intellectually Gifted Class in elementary school, which famous people Ed had “made eye contact with,” the necessity of having herring as a refreshment at the game—were not made. Something was different when Marty was there.
The next time Marty played, one of the guys asked me if I knew about Marty’s special claim to fame? I didn’t, and so they told me about his having had a photograph published in Life Magazine’s “parting shot” in the1970s. I immediately googled the picture, which made me laugh out loud: a classic photo of hippie nudity in a staid public place. I looked at Marty as I admired the shot, and he looked gratefully back. As the game progressed, I realized that the guys were instinctively sheltering Marty. I wondered if his wife had died, or if he had had some other deep sorrow that made them protect him.
The third time I saw Marty, we needed a fifth to have a game, and though Marty didn’t really want to play, and couldn’t drive himself to the game, Ed went to get him. As we sat around the table at Ed’s, playing the familiar hands, I noticed that Marty folded early in every game. And when we played “Closest,” it became obvious that Marty couldn’t do the basic arithmetic the game requires: to get closest to 7 or 27. We were all very sweet to him, ended the game quickly, acted like we hadn’t noticed. The guys avoided looking at each other.
That night, Ed emailed us. On the car ride home, he had asked Marty what was going on. “He said he has Alzheimer’s. We sat in his driveway for a while, talking and crying together.”
Marty doesn’t play with us anymore. The guys talk about him occasionally: Ed sees him now and then, and reports that he is quieter, more remote, as kind and gentle as ever. They always mention Marty’s photograph in Life, a reminder that the man experiencing the decline each of the men fears, is also a man who saw the humor in life, and who captured an iconographic image of youthful vitality.