I always wondered why they called Nana a card shark. As if the diamonds and hearts and spades would suddenly start swimming between her fingers and the green felt of the card table. Before tonight I had never seen Nana play. Occasionally, she would pick up a deck of cards at home for a Go Fish game. Sometimes the fish slowly evolved into poker with pretzel sticks and Hershey’s kisses. She always let my brother win – always whispered what cards he should play into his ear so he could beat me. Brother was her eternal favorite, she was forever holding him in her lap, petting his arms, smiling into his red hair. I had to play for myself, and Nana never offered any breaks.
And here we are now, all dressed up for my 21st birthday. I shuffle my five cards between my fingers, all thumbs. I watch as other people watch Nana, who has asked me to call her Rose for the night, a routine we often slip into when she doesn’t want anyone to mistake her for someone old enough to be my grandmother. I’m used to this game. We’ve played this one again and again. Nana calls to me across the table waving her hand to a middle-aged man resting a drink next to her elbow. Have you met Mr. Parks? He is staring at the rhinestones on Nana’s cleavage and cocks his head sideways in my direction to acknowledge me. Nana squeezes his shoulder before he takes the last empty seat next to me. This is her best game. She plays men like a deck of cards, aces high.
I have to admit I expected her to be a cliché – the way she piled on makeup before we left, sprayed so much Aquanet in her hair the house might explode. Even now she moves a cigarette between her red lacquered nails as she balances her cards against her breasts. But she is not cliché. Here, seated on the barstool, with a fruit garnished daiquiri at her elbow, she isn’t garish. She is almost beautiful. I can see what those men think of her. Why they want to be near her. Why her attention matters so much. Nana is like when you watch the shadow of someone walking and the outline is so clear you don’t even need to see the person. Here, she’s not downing B&J wine coolers and playing for candy like back home; there are no rollers in her hair. Here, the less talented players move from the table when she sits, and the only people stupid enough to challenge her either have something to prove or want to peel her green dress off and count the rings around her trunk.
My brother is not here now, it’s just me and Nana. My lungs feel a bit fuzzy as I consider throwing my bet into the middle of the table. I accidentally brush my elbow against the man sitting next to me. It’s Mr. Parker, and he looks at me the same way he looks at Nana. I raise the pot. This time Nana isn’t whispering in anyone’s ear what cards to play. She watches the attendant shuffle cards, her hands moving back and forth across the felted table as if summoning sharks. I stretched my hands out too, spread my fingers out in the empty space waiting for my hand, meet Mr. Parker’s gaze, and curl my lips in a smile just like Nana does. This time I want to win.
Nicole Provencher-Natale is a poet and English teacher living in Ohio with her husband, three children, and some very interesting chickens. She holds an MFA from The University of Arkansas, Monticello. Nicole’s work has appeared in Permafrost, Thin Air, Eleven Eleven, The San Pedro Review, Nimrod, and The San Antonio Express News. Visit her at www.nicoleprovenchernatale.com