Games are a big deal in my family.
It’s Canada Day weekend, 1980, and we’re visiting my grandparents at their little house in Almonte, Ontario. Me, Mom, Dad and Uncle Larry are sitting there at the kitchen table. Grandma and Grandpa are there too, smoking cigarettes that Grandpa makes himself with a Supermatic cigarette-rolling machine. I love to crank the handle after loading up the slot with squishy Matinée tobacco from a yellow can, and some filter paper. You’d keep turning and Thunk! A brand new cigarette would appear in the tray below. Magic.
At the table, I drink root beer out of a glass with all the card suits printed on it in red and black. On nights like these, Mom lets me stay up real late. Euchre is more of a grown-up card game, but I can play Rummoli, and watch the big octagon sheet load up with prize pennies. I know the basics of poker, and even if I can’t always remember whether a flush beats a straight, I can still nab a few of the pots if I’m lucky and I play smart. Right before bedtime, I manage to win the Ace & King of Diamonds pot. It has about fifty pennies in it.
Afterward, Mom walks me up the narrow staircase and puts me to bed in Dad’s old room, from when he was a kid.
“We’ll be in later,” Mom says. “Go to sleep.”
“Mom, am I rich now?”
“You sure are. Love you, Alan,” she says and closes the door.
From under a green quilt that smells of Vicks VapoRub and dust, I can see out the window. The moon’s up over the red barn across the street. Downstairs, I hear Dad say, “Time to get serious.” His voice is pretty loud, and Grandma shushes him. They’re going to play euchre now, with Dad and Uncle Larry playing against my grandparents. I asked Dad to show me how to play once, but he told me it was a grown-up game. That was back when I was six, but I’m seven now. Mom doesn’t play euchre. She sits on the living room sofa with a glass of wine, and watches old movies on TVOntario.
We arrived in Almonte earlier today, Friday. The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Montreal was really warm, with long tree tunnels running down Highway 417 and summer air blowing in through the window. I made hand snakes in the wind. It smelled like leather and Dad’s Brut cologne in our silver Cutlass Supreme car. The radio was playing my favourite song, “Afternoon Delight”, the one with the skyrockets in it. Mom and Dad held hands in front while I sat in back, no seatbelt on, leaning up against a case of Dad’s Molson Golden beer.
As I close my eyes in Dad’s old bed, I hear him downstairs, shouting at Mom, “Get up off your ass and get me a brewski, Pat!” I giggle into the green quilt. Dad always starts swearing whenever he drinks. I hear the downstairs sofa creak and footsteps on the old wood floor. Mom is going to get him a beer. The moon is still shining through the window, just starting to go down behind the red barn.
It’s going to be a fun weekend.
I wake up early and go downstairs to watch cartoons. Grandma wakes up first, and she gives me a bowl of Lucky Charms. Sun shines through the kitchen window. “Grandma, do we have any balls?” I ask her.
“Let me have a look,” she says. Her voice sounds even smokier than usual. She walks into the living room, and I follow. In an old, wooden chest by the front door, her shaking hands push aside clothes and stuff until she finds a rubber baseball. She holds it out to me, wiggling and wobbling all over the place.
“Thanks, Grandma!” I grab the ball from her and run out the front door.
Outside, it’s sunny and already a little hot. There aren’t too many cars that come this way. Water Street runs along the river and the fairgrounds, ending in a dead end at the woods. Across the street on the big, red barn is a metal sign that reads, ‘No Parking or Standing’. I throw the ball at it. The ball either bonks against the wooden wall or lets out a clang every time it hits the sign. At my school back in Montreal, Thorndale Elementary, they banned everybody from playing Bums Up against the gym wall, ever since Jeff Richards got hit in the nuts and had to go home. Here in Almonte, no one is going to stop me from doing what I want to do. This is my game, and hitting the sign feels like a win every time.
After I while, I get bored of throwing the ball. I know Mom and Dad won’t be awake yet, so I go for a wander. There are some old train tracks behind Grandma and Grandpa’s house, so I walk along there collecting iron spikes that have come off the railroad ties. I clang them against the rusted rails, then throw them at trees to watch the bark fly off. After, I head back and look for treasures along the fence surrounding the fairgrounds. I find a few snail shells and dead beetles, along with a popped blue balloon that has a picture of a clown on it.
When I get back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, everyone is awake. I go right up to Dad and ask him to come out and play catch.
“Not now, Son,” he says. “Daddy’s tired.” He lights a Player’s cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke, Dad,” I say. “Mrs. Hall says that it can give you cancer.” Mrs. Hall is my homeroom teacher at Thorndale.
“I’ll take my chances,” Dad says, blowing out a big cloud of blue smoke.
After lunch, while he’s helping Grandpa with something outside, I steal some of Dad’s cigarettes and flush them down the toilet. A little while later, I’m watching TV in the living room when he comes up behind me.
“Son? Have you been touching my goddamned cigarettes?”
Dad’s eyes are more open than usual. I don’t say anything.
“Don’t do that ever again,” he says. “Do you understand me?”
“Okay,” I say.
He walks into the kitchen, and Mom comes up to me and rubs my back. “It’s okay, Al,” she says. “You meant well. Daddy’s just—”
“Don’t make him feel better, Pat!” Dad says from the kitchen. “He needs to learn not to do things like that. Actions have consequences.”
Mom whispers in my ear: “Daddy was up late. He’s tired. Give him some space, okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
I guess we won’t be playing catch.
It’s okay, because tonight there’s going to be a big Canada Day party at the Royal Canadian Legion in town. We eat some sandwiches for dinner. Grandma isn’t as good a cook as Mom. She never makes anything like Mom’s roast beef. Then we get into the car and drive over.
It’s crowded in the Legion hall, with lots of old folks dancing to The Beatles, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash (some of Dad’s favourites), and a bunch of other music I don’t recognize. The big room is filled with Canada flags, war medals, pictures of soldiers, and cigarette smoke. I sit down at a table away from everybody to play rip-tab jackpot with tickets Dad buys for me; they’re these little cardboard cards, with three perforated tabs you have to pull open, and if you get three cherries or three swinging bells, you win. I go through a big stack of them and don’t win a goddamned thing—apart from a few bonus tickets which also end up being losers. Meanwhile, Dad drinks Labatt’s Blue and plays euchre with Grandpa and a couple of other old men. Mom chats with Grandma and a few of Grandma’s friends.
It’s hot in here and I’m getting bored, so I go ask Mom if we can leave. “Not yet, Alan,” she says, and she keeps talking with the old ladies and drinking white wine.
I go over to ask Dad to buy me some more rip-tab jackpot tickets.
“No, Son,” he says. “You’ve had enough.”
I wait and watch a bit, just standing there, then ask him if we were going to leave soon.
“Not now,” he says. “We just started another round.”
“But Dad, I’m bored,” I say.
“Yeah, well,” he says. Then he looks at the old men sitting at the table and says, “Children are meant to be seen and not heard.” They all start laughing.
I don’t understand what’s so funny. “But when are we gonna leave?”
“Go ask your mother,” he says.
“I already did. She’s busy with Grandma.”
“Well, I’m busy here with Grandpa and we’ve got a game to win. Go play in traffic.”
I’ve heard that one before. It isn’t funny, but the men seem to think it is. Dad is shuffling the cards for the next hand. I watch him do the bridge. He does it really fast, and some of the cards fly out.
“Son of a bitch,” he says. He’s putting the deck back together again.
"We’ve only got a few more tricks to win, Son. Run along.”
“Alan, would you fucking stop? Jesus.”
He starts dealing.
I feel the burn in my cheeks and eyes, like I’m going to cry. But I don’t want to do it right there in front of everybody, so I turn to walk back to my table in the corner. I sit down and look back to where Dad is.
“I can smell it. I smell a euchre,” he says, and he slams his Blue down on the table. “Let’s get serious!”
I push the tears back and look around some more. On the other side of the hall, Mom laughs at something and spills some of her wine. Everyone in the Legion seems to be laughing. It smells like old beer.
The sax solo from “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty comes on the loudspeakers. I look back at Dad, who’s bobbing his head to the music, biting his lower lip. He has won his game of euchre and is getting up to go to the bar.