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A World of Black Intimacy at the Card Table

Or the person who loudly announces how long it has been since he has played, before the game even starts. He hasn’t played since high school, or college, and he has played only a few times, but he remembers the rules. Or at least most of the rules. He is certain he can recall a good portion of the rules. The important ones.

I’ve been the spades partner to these people many times, and I imagine that I get stuck with them because I’m forgiving and perhaps too kind as a partner in spades. When a partner makes a glaring mistake, I insist that we’ll get it back, even after the score tally tips firmly out of our favor. I think of this as a kind of foolish clemency, understanding that the wrong kind of mistake made at the wrong kind of table can lead to a spiral of ridicule that pushes a player into never wanting to play the game again or leads to a questioning of the stability of his or her own identity. I’m not saying that I have made myself a savior of sorts, taking loss after loss with a smile for the benefit of wayward souls who never knew the game all that well or at all. But I am saying that sometimes the game is just a conduit for something greater, or a window into a more vital community. And I suppose I can live with a less-than-stellar win-loss record if it means that I don’t overturn the tables every time partners of mine make an error that might suggest they have no idea what they’re doing but wanted to be close to where the laughter and the table slapping and the swift talk was coming from.

I have intentionally not dug my feet too deep in the explaining of the nuances of spades here, but to “renege” on something is an expression that has universal roots outside the game. In spades, to renege is a cardinal sin, but a sin that is easy to commit if you are the distracted type or the anxious type or the overzealous type. The thing with spades is that there is an order to things. You can’t just throw down whatever card you want, whenever you want. The suits on the table must be strictly adhered to. If a player, say, throws down a spade when diamonds are in play — and he or she has a diamond resting in his hand — that is going to cost when the misdeed is figured out. Eventually. It could be the next rotation of diamonds being played, or it could be the end of the game. And what it might cost varies. Some people confiscate four tricks, some even more than that. It is the kind of sin that can kick the legs out from under a pretty strong game. And it can happen so quickly, if one player briefly pulls his or her eyes to something beyond the game and looks back to the table after more than two cards have been played. In a life riddled with mistakes, it is the one I have avoided, just because of the sheer anxiety of what making it would mean.

Once, inside an old pal’s mom’s condo near the big suburban mall, making the mistake meant a spider web of glass stretching across a wide-screen television on a Friday night in ’03, when most of us boys were too boring and too broke to do anything but try and call some girls and then break out the stack of cards when they didn’t pick up. My pal’s mom was out of town, but that didn’t mean anything to us except for the fact that some of us could drink the beer stashed under the sink and play spades the way we sometimes saw the old heads play it: loud and drunk, cursing every movement of the game.

Sometimes the game is just a conduit for something greater, or a window into a more vital community.

Another friend and I were partners, playing a tense game against two players, one of whom reneged. I could tell the exact moment he reneged, because he confidently threw a spade down to cut my ace of hearts, but then looked back at his hand with a sense of dread slowly washing over his face. The game was close, and he’d become far too excited about the prospect of stealing one precious trick away from us. By the time hearts came back around, the offending player, defeated, laid down an eight. My teammate, who had been helping himself to the warm beer from under the sink, leapt out of his seat, pointing furiously at the table and yelling: “Yo, nigga! Yo! You tried to slide like you ain’t have hearts a few hands ago! Nah, nigga! Nah!” The offender could not protest what we all knew, the homies who were once bystanders now crowding around the table as the accuser took a handful of already-won tricks from the losing team’s pile while yelling: “We take six where I’m from! We taking six! Game over!”

I am not sure if it was the impending doom of loss, or the ambitions raised by the steadily cracking cans of cheap beer, or if it was the fact that none of the girls we knew answered our phone calls, but I remember the moment when the losing teammates wrestled each other to the ground while they threw lunging punches at each other, missing wildly each time. And there was my pal, the host, joining the fray to split up the brawl, which, by this point, resembled one of those cartoon tornadoes of arms and legs. Everything else was a blur until the exact moment when the cluster of boys collided with the entertainment center and the television resting atop it trembled a bit before beginning its long descent to the ground.

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