My brother's fiancee grew up playing with nines. I've told her that if she even tries to teach her children to play with nines, I will come and take those children away and raise them as my own. Hell, if they even learn 'Dix' or what it means, I'm not sure I will be able to contain my rage.
Pinochle in my family religion, and I'll be damned if I allow such blasphemy to occur.
My brother had bought some new decks for the week, sitting unopened and pure on the coffee table on the front porch. I opened them and immediately carved out the nines, took them about back to the fire pit and burned them. I laughed and felt proud while I did this, keeping those stupid useless little cards from corrupting some other game. Burning the nines was still probably too good for them, but I was worried about fucking up the septic at camp even more than it already was.
My family, like they usually do in situations like these, let me do my stupid little thing and then got on with their usual activities. They had no idea how close the danger had come.
My grandparent's dining room table seemed like it was built from a single massive tree, chunky carved legs connected by slats of wood and inlay. It was so large that five year old me could be under there with my matchbox cars while the adults above played cards and drank. I must have spent hundreds of hours among the legs there, playing in my little world while their bigger world played out above me. Every once in a while, the disorienting crack of my grandfather's ring on the table as he emphatically played trump would echo around, scaring me and bringing everyone out of their daze.
Every once in a while I would emerge up above, barely able to see the action if I stood on my tip toes. Cards laid out in a pattern, scooped up, laid down in a different pattern, scooped up, laid down one at a time, scooped up. In between, there was yelling and laughing and groaning. It was a weird language that I didn't understand, removed from the context of everyday life.
I don't remember the exact moment that my grandmother first put me in her lap and tried to explain the game to me. She would pick a card out of her hand for me to play, and I would laugh when "we" won a trick. A few times around like this and I didn't want to play under the table anymore. I wanted to be up here, where I could try and figure it all out. That was where it all started.
I learned how to play pinochle from watching many different family members, but I think my grandfather had the most influence. He was also the least patient. When I actually played for the first time, cards sticking out all crazy because my hands were too small to hold them all, he was my partner. He taught me how to deal, three and four with one for the kitty on each time around. He taught me how to bid, which is part of the reason I bid all crazy and daring. He was also the first one to let me know when I had fucked things up, and he would mutter at me unpleasantly while he tried to drag us through the hand. This time the crack of his ring meant we had won, and the thought-terminating noise became one of victory and happiness.
He dragged us through three or four years of my mistakes before I finally got the hang of things a little and wasn't a completely liability. By then I was trying to figure out how to keep score, his scrawl mostly understandable on the notepad. Always three columns: we, they, and the bid. I tried to count up my meld, messing it up half of the time so that he would have to go back over my cards, muttering at me again.
I became good enough that we could rotate partners, and I got to see family interactions mirror themselves though the cards. My grandfather was much less aggressive when teamed with my grandmother. My father and his cousin would try and out-bid each other, even if they were on the same team. My little brother and I fought terribly when we were teamed, to the point that we were rarely paired up.
Through the confusion of high school, moping through intentionally heavy moments and fumbled relationships, I never became jaded enough to skip those card games. Even when things seemed completely out of touch, and my frustration with being in that house rose to a crescendo, those games were able to cut through that din. It was easy to figure out what to do when I knew the rules and I knew what was expected, and I was competent and strong. The future was confined to the next deal, the next hand, the next point. If only other things had been so simple and clear back then.
I wandered off to college, and my grandfather became very ill, and the cousins didn't come around so much anymore. When I came back, there were too many other things to deal with, and not enough people to get four hands going. The family rattled along, but it was clear that things were different.
When my grandfather had to go into the nursing home and his children began the process of selling the homestead, the only thing that I really wanted from the house was the wooden box for the pinochle cards. It always sat on a low table at the bottom of the stairs by the front porch. I didn't even remember what it looked like at that point, only that it was something of a holy artifact that I needed to possess in order to be whole. No one knew where it was.
When he died, the ring was given to my younger brother. I was happy for him to have it, since he was the most likely of us to have children at that point. It seemed like something that should be passed on that way. The day after the funeral, I tried to get everyone together to play a quick game because it felt like the right thing to do. But it was too soon. There was too much of him in the cards.
I single-handedly went on a crusade to revive the game in 2005. Everyone was home for the fourth that year for some strange reason, and we were pinned down at the house in the rain. It felt like the time was right. It was time to get back to work.
It took me forever to dig the cards out of the desk drawer in the dining room. It then took me forever to cobble together a proper double deck out of the remnants of other decks, scraping the last jack of diamonds out from under the contact paper. I had everything spread out on the dining room table, counting out fours of every card and marveling at how incredibly worn they all were. My brother's girlfriend asked me where the nines where. I told her if she wanted to play with some garbage, there was a can in the kitchen she was welcome to jump in.
It was the four of us for that first round: my father, my brother, his girlfriend, and I. She killed us repeatedly, pulling out a double run on the first deal and systematically dismantling all who opposed her. This was the moment I accepted her as a part of the family.
Those first few games, we were all anxious. The cobwebs did not shake off so easy, and we were trying to work techniques that we hadn't even thought about in many years. It was the table talk that drew us back out; those little moments of trash talk brought us out of the game itself and back into the world that the game creates. While we would never be able to recreate those old moments, we were now able to make new ones on the same traditions.
The cards were moved to the cabin up north, which seemed like their native environment. And there, on a little table on the front porch, sat my grandfather's wooden card box. When my mother had eventually found it, she had simply forgotten my request and brought it up north. Things came full circle.
When I drive east for a visit, the cards inevitably come out. We play until it becomes so late that all we can do is laugh at our shitty cards. New people at the cabin are forcibly indoctrinated into our little card cult, and sometimes that works out okay.
My older brother bought me a fez as a joke for one Christmas, and I wear it every time I play. I felt it was important to have a thing that is done at that table, like my grandfather's ring. My younger brother is afraid to bring the ring out at all, afraid of trying to live up to that role. My father smokes and bids us up so high that it seems like we will never make it back down. Usually, he gets us back to good somehow. My soon to be sister-in-law still mows us down with incredible luck, and still asks when we're going to give in one night and try out the nines.
I think about my grandfather every time I play. Every time I go for the kitty hoping for a card, or try to count trump as it is played, or even try telling a story while playing out the last of my shitty cards, I think of him. I think he would be happy knowing that this is part of his legacy. I think he would be happy that we are still at it.
My brothers' children run around the table as we play. Every once in a while, one of them will put their chin on the table, sneak some of whatever snack is sitting there, and ask what we are doing. One of these times, I'm going to scoop them into my lap, hand them an ace of trump, and have them take a trick. And that will be that.