Doug Lomond sat at the pinochle table. It was the dinner table only a half hour ago, but the dishes were washed and the leftovers were freezing, so now it was the pinochle table. He took out the 48-card deck and started shuffling. His brother, Daniel, took the pad and pencil and meticulously wrote the words “We,” “They,” “Bid,” and “Deal” on it. Doug and his brother had played pinochle since they were children. When they married, they taught their wives the game and the weekly ritual had continued into the next generation. Doug’s wife, Emily, was talking with Daniel’s wife, Sharon. They hadn’t noticed that the men were starting the game.
Doug shuffled the cards loudly. After years of practice, he could modulate the sound of shuffling as he pleased. He needed to tell them his news. As his hands repeated the motion, he realized that he had been waiting for an appropriate segue. His eyes blinked rapidly as he came to know that he would never find the right opening. He would never find the perfect time to tell them, “I’m dying.” His wife and sister-in-law sat at the table and Doug carefully placed the deck of cards to Daniel at his right. Daniel cut the cards and Doug began to deal them, three at a time.
“Prepare to die! Danny and I found a pinochle strategy book in the used book store and we are going to kick your butts!” Sharon was picking up her cards and arranging them by suit. The words had taken the air from Doug’s lungs; his lungs that should be pink and healthy based on his regular exercise and healthy lifestyle, his lungs that never had to deal with bad habits like smoking or coal mines, his lungs that had betrayed him and turned black with cancer. He tried to calm his breathing, a technique he had nearly mastered until things got to the point that he knew that he needed to see a doctor. He quietly finished dealing and arranging his own cards while the conversation raged around him.
“A used book store, huh? I never thought of looking there. I don’t think people play pinochle anymore because I can never find anything about it in the games section at Barnes and Noble,” Emily had carefully placed her cards in her hands and was waiting for Doug. Sharon responded, “I was surprised when I saw it. You should have seen me. I grabbed the book and held it tight like someone was going to try to get it away from me. The store was empty but I was looking around like I had to protect it.” Daniel looked at Doug and Emily and chimed, “Now, prepare to defend yourself.” Emily laughed and responded, “What did this book have in it?! Cheating techniques?” The three jovial players laughed and made funny symbols with their hands that stood for hearts, diamonds, spades or clubs. Doug blinked away his tears and stayed quiet about his news.
“The bid’s to you, Sharon,” Daniel urged. Sharon pondered her cards and spoke with authority, “I’ll open.” Emily immediately replied, “Twenty-six.” Daniel looked at his cards, obviously torn, “I’ll say twenty-seven, once.” Doug didn’t want to fight his partner on the bidding, “Pass.” While the bidding continued between Emily and Sharon, Doug’s mind wandered. He could almost see the doctor’s face in his mind’s eye. He couldn’t remember her hair color, but her expressive eyes had told him the news before her lips, “It’s cancer, Mr. Lomond. It has advanced to the point that we can do hardly anything about it. You really should tell your wife and family about this. Do you need me to meet with them?” Doug had just sat there, blinking at her. It took him a full minute to respond, “No. I’ll tell them myself.” He just sat there while the doctor told him about the procedures she could try. He agreed to meet with her again tomorrow to start with her recommendations, but tonight he needed to tell them.
Emily took the bid and called the trump, “Spades. Fat lot your book did for you. If you can’t take the bid you can’t win, you know.” Sharon rolled her eyes and placed cards face down on the table. Doug took an Ace and the three spade cards that he had been dealt and passed them to Emily, who cursed under her breath while she laid down her meld, “Damn, I had three legs and I was hoping you could fill me in.” Doug looked at his hand and realized that he hadn’t passed the Jack of Diamonds to her. He could have passed that instead of the Ace. “Damn,” Doug showed his Jack of Diamonds to the table and they all groaned. Daniel spoke first, “Man, you ALWAYS send over the Jack of Diamonds, even if you have to hold some trump. Grandpa would have kicked your butt! What’s the matter? Your head still at the post office?” Doug just shook his head and looked at Emily, “Sorry, babe. I’ll pay better attention next time.” She shrugged while handing back her discard, “It’s ok. I have my family. The double pinochle would have just been icing on the cake.” Daniel wrote down the meld for both teams, they all picked up their cards.
Emily led the first card for the first trick with the Ace of Spades. Daniel slapped down the other Ace of Spades, “Dammit! Just enjoy it now because that’s your last trick.” The three players laughed at Daniel’s posturing while Doug played a Nine of Hearts. Sharon played the Nine of Spades and Emily took the trick. She always gathered her tricks. This time she looked at them lovingly, “My, isn’t that pretty?” She held them up for all to see, “Look, I pulled the other Ace on the first trick.” She was smiling and Sharon responded, “It just means that all the trump is in one hand. It’s going to be like pulling teeth to get it all out.” The three of them laughed again while Emily led the Ten of Spades. Daniel and Doug sloughed low cards in Clubs and Hearts respectively and Sharon played her other Nine of Spades.
Doug thought about how nice the evening was. The three of them were happy and joking with each other. If he told them, the night would be ruined. They wouldn’t want to play anymore. They would want to talk about it. They would want to analyze it. All of this wonderful evening would be gone. He heard the children from both families playing video games in the living room and imagined their scared faces eavesdropping when the tone of the adults changed. Three tricks went by with little notice from him.
Emily had pulled all the trump without losing control and he barely gave it a second thought. She led an Ace of Diamonds and he sloughed the other Ace of Diamonds while thinking of who would take over his route at the Post Office. The second he put his card down, the rest of the table shrieked. Daniel picked it up and handed it back to him, “You don’t want to play that!” At the same time, Sharon jokingly chided him, “No, no! He played the card! They have to go with it!” Emily wasn’t the last to speak, but her tirade lasted the longest, “We all know you have a Jack to play on this trick! You KNOW I have a loser in my hand! You should have played the Jack instead. What were you thinking?” The table quieted and he looked at the three most important adults in his life, “I’m dying.” They all shook their heads still laughing, and Daniel was the first to speak, “I’d say! That’s the second screw-up tonight! At this rate, we don’t need any fancy pinochle techniques.” Doug interrupted him, “No, really. I’m dying. I saw a pulmonary specialist today about those breathing problems I’ve been having and I have cancer.” The table fell silent and the evening was ruined, just like he feared.