On Friday nights my mother went to Frida’s house to watch recorded episodes of The Young and the Restless and gossip about the people at their jobs. My father played cards with his buddies, none of them bothering to shower before they came, filling the house with a stench– a blend of motor oil, fast food, and sweat–combined with loud, obnoxious laughter as they chugged beers and ate peanuts and the tacos they ordered from our neighbor, Martha. They left food trailing from the table to the bathroom that my mother cleaned up later. My brother, Reggie, went out too, riding shotgun in his friend’s orange Cougar, everyone sporting varsity jackets and moustaches they had to quint to see. I usually went with my mother, getting sucked into the soap opera drama, asking questions they shushed, eating Frida’s spaghetti and homemade ice cream. Some nights I fell asleep on Frida’s bed; other nights I played with Jeffrey, pronounced with a British accent, a sassy Siamese cat who didn’t mind performing tricks for a treat.
The afternoon I got my braces on my mother promised me soup and a smoothie from the little café down the street from Frida’s house so that I could still partake in the Friday night gathering.
“I don’t think I can go,” I sat on the edge of my bed, after and hour-long nap and two Tylenol.
“Try this,” my mother handed me an ice pack.
She left the room, waiting thirty minutes before returning to see if I was feeling better. My father’s friends were already arriving downstairs, the sound of their gruff voices and steel boots travelling down the hallway.
“Why don’t you stay in tonight?” she motioned for me to get back in bed and pulled the covers up to my neck. “I won’t stay too long,” she stood up to leave. “Dad’s here if you need anything…I’ll tell him to listen out for you.”
“Don’t go,” I reached for her. “My mouth hurts.”
“I have to…Frida’s waiting,” she patted my foot through the blanket. “You’re okay…” she looked around the room. “Here’s a magazine, a couple activity books…Charlotte’s Web, aren’t you supposed to be reading this for school?”
She closed the door without turning to face me, and I settled down, falling in and out of sleep, awaking when I heard my father’s hacking cough, one he chased with a couple menthol cigarettes. I sat up, ran my hands across my face, the skin warm, the aching subdued. It was just after seven, and the night was just getting started. I slipped on my puffy, pink house shoes and headed for the kitchen, all the men pausing when they saw me peeking around the corner.
“Hey, there she is,” Albert said, holding up his calloused hands. “How ya doin’?”
“Hi,” the other young, childless men chimed, bachelors at heart, not wanting to engage too long in case this was how their futures would be predicted.
“I thought you went with your mother,” my father said, scratching the top of his head where the hair was thinning. “You want some tacos?”
“I got my braces in today,” I reminded him.
“Oh, that’s right,” he added two more tacos to his plate, even though he was still working on the ones he already had. “What about some…”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, waving and then heading to the living room.
After sliding the Oliver & Company VHS cassette into the VCR, I curled up on the couch, waiting for the movie to start.
“You want a cream soda?” my father yelled. “There’s one more left.”
“Sure,” I got up and walked back to the kitchen.
My father was shuffling the cards, the ash from his cigarette growing, threatening to fall on the table and burn the wood. Steve cut the deck when my father was done shuffling and then the dealing began. I bent to retrieve the lone cream soda from Garrett’s ice chest, and instead of lunging in for it, I waited, prepared myself for the icy cold water. It was during this moment of hesitation that I thought I saw something, my father’s hand, when he dealt a card to himself, in its swiftness pulled not from the top, but from the bottom.
I grabbed the soda, wiping it with my shirt, and returned to the living room. The movie had started and the homeless kitten was wandering the streets, frightened and alone, until he met Dodger, who only pretended to be on Oliver’s side. And back in the kitchen, my father and his friends all sat with their cards held close to their chests, funny banter between them but something more serious underlying. There were high stakes: money on the line, reputations to defend. So they pushed their bets to the center of the table and played, not knowing my father had the upper hand, that he was pretending, planning to take all their money and then send them into the cold night where they’d be warmed by their own anger.