Wednesday morning, the humidity was thick by the 7:00 a.m. Ed and Ernie stowed their red and white lunch coolers in the back room. Ed was twelve years older. Both had been working at the sign manufacturer for twenty plus years, producing sign plates in a basement foundry. They teamed well and kept product to standard. It was a non union shop, family owned. While they worked the foundry Jimmy supervised the painting of each order. The plates went from the basement upstairs to be painted. Dave handled shipping orders at the bay door where product exited. Every summer, during the busy months, two part time employees were added, one down deck to help Ed and Ernie and one upstairs on the paint line.
Ernie never enjoyed Wednesdays. It was the day after his softball night. He loved playing. He also loved drinking beer. The Union, a local tavern, sponsored the team. Ernie was the player/manager. This way he got to play. The “Union Jacks” they called themselves and even had an English flag on their right sleeve. Ernie had ordered them. He thought it was genius fun, the owner being Irish.
Ernie loved competition. He loved to play almost anything. City maintained recreational sports were an outlet for ex jocks and wannabes. Softball and volleyball were the King and Queen, with the local bars sponsoring
events, teams, or both. Ernie fell into the second category, but he tried mightily.
That Tuesday night Ernie had fulfilled his obligatory seat in the Union shortly after the game. They had lost,
a fairly common occurrence. The Jacks were better at drinking beer than playing softball. No trophies adorned the Union. Only team pictures from different years hung on the walls with no sequential spacing.
Ed was the side-car to Ernie. He liked to watch sports. But mainly he loved to play cards. Any game that took an amount of calculated skill sprinkled with brazen chaptuz and bluff. The nights Ernie was focusing on a white, red stitched softball, Ed could be found playing poker with the usual group at the Table Bar. Ed loved pushing players to fold. Bluffing was a means to win, which he loved. He expected to win. Yet, he did not live by the bluff. He maintained discipline with the cards he was dealt. Most nights he deposited the money he won in a pig kept on the kitchen counter. The pig was always full.
Ed was not restricted to just poker. Five hundred, Spades, Hearts, Cribbage…anything but the elitist game, Bridge. He loved them all, but by far the game of Cribbage was his favorite. Fascinating combinations with calculated decisions to split hands, go on the offensive, sit back on defense, go for peggs or high hand counts satisfied his inner desire to outwit. The pegging game replaced the bluff of poker, with more bluntness with its suddenness. A crescendo of pegging brought him satisfaction and angst to his opponent.
They were working class men. Ed had grown children and lived in a rambler five miles from the plant. He had no root desire to enhance his life. He liked his job and the obligation of skill it asked. He and his wife had matching chairs set in the living room facing a T.V. A lamp stand separated the two chairs.
Ernie was divorced. His kids were half way up the school ladder and all his ex expected was the full amount of child care due each month. She had remarried shortly after the divorce. Ernie faded out of their lives. He was “friends” with several ladies at the Union but his “steady” was his sports. Home was rent in a fourplex ten blocks from the plant.
Every summer Neil, the third generation owner, brought in two college students for three months. Summer was the busy time and additional help was warranted. Neil wanted to give college kids opportunity. He attended an Episcopal church in GraceTown, twenty miles from suburbia. Most kids he hired came from the church. This year he had two new ones, Steve and Max.
Steve was an extrovert. He was a decent athlete and participated in intramural sports at the University. He was placed downstairs with Ernie and Ed. Steve’s presence stimulated Ernie’s ego. This made Steve illuminate his achievements even more, to goad. Ed just shuffled about listening to the two of them trump each other with fabricated accomplishments or drafted knowledge from the internet (Steve) or the newspaper (Ernie.) The banter was good entertainment, for the most part.
Max would be a freshman at a college two states away that coming Fall. He loved music. He was put on the paint line upstairs.
Ed and Earl had played Cribbage at lunch for as long as could be remembered. Dollar a game, penny a point. Ed usually came out top. No score was kept. The money exchanged was the score counter.
When Steve came on board he asked if he could join in. Ed suggested that Steve ask Max to play. That way they could play as teams rather than a threesome. When he was asked, Max simply replied ‘sure.’ The stakes remained the same, dollar a game and penny a point.
They began the competition that Tuesday. Steve could see Max knew the game, but he seemed to make critical errors pegging. That first day made Steve uncertain. They had lost two out of three, with one game a skunk (which doubled the money.) What if they got waxed continually? He did not want Ernie chirping at him, nor did he want to be losing money consistently. Steve mentioned the money issue to Max.
“Why don’t we see if they would just play for fun? Or cut the stakes,” suggested Max
“Yeah, that would be good. At least until such time we can see how the teams fare.”
Steve offered the changes. He cited Max’s reluctance, which of course was not true. But he was not going to own it. Ernie was all over them in a light but clawing way. It was Ed who seemed annoyingly superior in response. .
“Really? Why not? Seems like a trifling matter don’t you think?”
“It’s just a little money,” included Ernie
Steve couldn’t get himself to say anything. Ed’s response dug on him harder than he thought. Tuesday wound down. He let Max know on an upstairs errand. Quitting time came. When Steve came up to clean up, he heard a voice behind him.
“We play. On one condition.”
Steve turned and looked at Max standing there. “What condition?”
“We up the stakes. A team has the option to double down at any time during a game. The other team must accept or fold.”
Steve just looked at Max. “Are you kidding? They already skunked for one double. Why would you want to play for more money? And I’m not so sure you can hold up your end of the partnership.”
“That’s the option. Otherwise I am out.”
Steve continued to look at Max and then watched him turn and walk away. He shook his head and tried to wrap his mind around the possible consequences. Three handed seemed more attractive. Perhaps Ed and Ernie would comply.
“What about just not playing,” he yelled after Max? Max’s body was out the door.
As the humidity increased Wednesday, Steve watched Ernie’s shirt become a wet dishrag. Ed kept to himself. Max was on the paint line in silence. Steve considered their conversation, or rather Max’s dictum. He felt a lions den stench. His competitive nature wanted in. His wallet said no. As lunch break neared, he sauntered up to Max and qualified yesterday’s comment.
“You are in as long as the stakes can be doubled, right?’
“Yes,” answered Max
“O.k., but once we start we cannot back out. It will be for the whole ten weeks we have left.”
Steve looked up and watched as the “Wet Rag” and the lump, Ed, came up the stairs and headed for the “dock.”
“Alright, what the crap,” he stated and grabbed his thermos and brown sack-lunch. Max went to the soda machine and payed for a Mountain Dew.
Ernie had plunked down and had half of his sandwich eaten by the time the boys had reached the landing. Ed was just starting on his lunch while preparing the cribbage board. The cards were waiting to be shuffled.
“We’ll play,” stated Steve in a flat voice. “But we would like to add a condition.”
Ernie chomped on the second half of his sandwich. “What?”
Steve shot a quick look at Max. “Max here wants either of the teams to be able to double down on a game at any time.”
Ed briefly stopped his reach for the cards, then continued and picked up the deck. “You a backgammon player Max?”
“Yeah, play alot with my dad,” replied Max
Ernie whipped his face and grinned. “I knew you boys wouldn’t go away with your tails tucked! But doubling down? Mighty generous of you!”
Ed launched back, “seeing how you like betting backgammon style, what if the other team doubles back?” Ed’s mouth was not grinning, playing more to a smirk.
“That’s fine,” stated Max, before Steve could heave out an answer.
“We’ll be tolerant, boys,’ stated Ed. “Remember, I still have Ernie as a partner. He gives you some chance,” and chortled.
Steve was in no man’s land. He said nothing but grabbed his lunch and began to eat.
Ed shuffled the deck three times and placed it down to cut for deal. Low card won the deal and therefore the crib. The crib was an extra hand merited to the dealer and provided an extra hand for points. It was made from each player discarding one card from the five dealt to each. It would be counted and the points added after all players’ had finished their counts.
The game could actually be played at a fast pace when the players understand the nuances and point tallies. A fifteen and thirty-one count is worth two points (thirty-one is the last peg point.) Pairing a card is worth two points and adding a third of the same is six. Seldom seen is the fourth played. A four of a kind was worth twelve points. Runs are worth the number of cards that are played in them, not exceeding thirty one. One did not want to play into a run and or a flush, four of the same suit. Cutting a Jack gave the dealer two additional points. A go, with no one able to tally thirty one, was worth one point to the last card played.
After pegging is completed and all cards played, the hands are counted. The same counting applies with players using the cut card as part of their hand to configure points.
The first deal went to Steve. Dealing first meant that the other team needed to make up, on the average, ten points, as Max and Steve would have the first extra hand. The one advantage the non dealing team had was that the player to the left of the dealer counted their hand points first. Ernie, who sat to his left played first, went conservative, playing a four thus allowing Max no chance to play to fifteen. He threw a king and Ed matched it for two points. He grinned. Steve could not play and said,’go.’ Ernie dropped a six on the twenty five that was showing for thirty one and two more points.
The two youngsters found themselves falling behind slowly. Ed and Ernie began to stretch out the distance between their red pegs and the boy’s blue ones. As they headed for “home,” Ernie shuffled the deck and looked at the board.
“You boys are going to have to have a monster hand to track us down,” His shirt was soaked.
Ed’s armpits looked like dark saucers. He removed his glasses and wiped them with his shirt. Steve and Max looked to the board. They sat about seventeen pegs behind Ed and Ernie with twenty eight points needed to win. Ed and Ernie were within eleven holes to peg out. The pegging game now became the focal point. They had to prevent any pegging and hope that Ernie had a “wash out” hand (not enough to win) as he would count first as Steve had the deal. Then, if they both had high point hands, they had chance. They needed twenty eight points between them. The odds were not good.
Just as Erne stopped shuffling, Ed quietly said, “double,” and looked at Max.
“Crap,” said Steve. He knew what the odds were. The heat played on him as he looked at Ed, then Ernie. He felt resigned, the double catching him off guard. “O.K., your game.” He did not want another double.
“Wait,” said Max. The other three looked at him and postured, ‘really??’
“Steve, let’s play this out. There’s no guarantee.”
“Deal the cards,” murmured Steve.
There was no miracle, and the boys lost by twenty-four points. Two dollars and forty eight cents because of the double. The only grace being no skunk involved.
“Well now, that was fun. I have one question though,” said Ernie. “is there a limit on how much we can double?” He was perkier now even in his soaked shirt.
“I would think that one can double anytime,” said Ed. “Makes the ending that much more fun, especially if both teams have some good cards and pegging is to the wire. What say you Max, your the one who suggested the additional stakes?”
Steve peered at Max with a fallow look which suggested that the simple cribbage game at lunch had just entered a whole different universe than he was accustomed to. He felt nauseous. He had always relied on his gamesmanship to be competitive, but this “arrangement” Max had purposed swallowed him up. Sure it was just two dollars and change. But it was the FIRST GAME. Max had made lunchtime a possible financial mudhole. Why had he allowed himself to be a part this arrangement? What the hell was Max thinking, that by some miracle the game would turn into a Backgammon game?? Damn, damn, damn.
“Sure, why not,” answered Max.
“Alright!” lilted Ernie, “alright alright!!”
Steve stared at his hands. He had disconnected to the rhythm of the cards. What had he allowed himself to be part of?
“Well, I don’t think anyone is going to go crazy on this doubling option.” Ed had taken on a harder look, touched with coyness. He had no idea why Max had suggested the increase in stakes, but he believed Max was taking a “shot” at him if not Ernie. The kid needed a life lesson in cards.
“That is fine by me. What do you think Steve?” He did not want to leave Steve out of this anymore. He saw the downtrodden posture and felt obligatory to it. But Max knew Steve was disconnected.
Steve pushed past his chagrin, “I don’t care.”
As Ed dealt the cards, Steve looked straight at Max. Max was watching the cards leave Ed’s hands so did not notice the look. As the last card was dealt, Max looked up and smiled. Steve looked away.
The second game went down to the wire, with neither team doubling. The skunk hole is so named as many a player has landed in the last hole only to have the other person or team pass by and win. It “stunk.”
Ed and Ernie were five pegs out. Steve and Max were two to the skunk, three to win. The game would come down to pegging. The hand started with Ernie playing a four. Steve quickly paired him with another four and slipped the back blue peg into their skunk hole. Max watched the play and felt a pinch of regret. Ed slowly played a third four making the count six points. Ballgame. Another dollar, but more specific, a mental mistake that sent electrodes cursing through Steve’s head. Max looked at Steve and now could see resignation.
“Well, that was a close one,” chimed Ed. “Good game boys.” He pushed the cards toward Max. Max shuffled. He gave Steve a quick look. It was not returned. One more dollar.
In the third game Ernie and Ed not only jumped out quickly, but they jumped out to a distance that gave the look of a skunk game against the boys. Ernie galloped his peg ahead and passed the skunk line. The blue pegs were not even in red’s rearview mirror.
“Double” he exclaimed!
“o.k.” Max noted.
Steve was riding along now. He played passively, hoping the game would be soon over. He just nodded.
They played on. Max and Steve played o.k but after Ernie had counted the crib hand red stood erect in the skunk hole with blue mired twenty-two points behind.
“Your game,” said Steve thankful again that they had not been skunked or double skunked. That was the part of the scoring in the game which made Max’s “condition” that much harder to swallow. What was this Joker even thinking about!? Two dollars and change. ‘Thanks Max!’ Jeeze, what crap. He smoldered.
“No,” countered Max. “We make them win.”
Both Ed and Ernie chuckled.
“Come on, it’s over,” state Ernie.
“Let’s play it out,” Max continued.
“Well, then Max, your deal,” needled Ed. Now more than ever he wanted to bury this kid.
As Max shuffled, the sun was just beginning to slip in over their shade. It now was directly on Ernie. Steve moved to his right a little in a resigned fashion. Max sat crosslegged looking at the cards as he shuffled. Ed leaned on his left elbow with his hands loosely clasped, his left leg laying straight out and his right bent at the knee. His languid eyelids closed half down his orbs as he watched Max.
“Your kind of a quirky guy, hey Max?”
“Thanks” Max finished shuffling.
“Why would you play this out? Its impossible to win”
Steve put his chin in his hand waiting reluctantly for the cards. Ernie was feeling a little woozy as the excitement had gone out of the game and they had half a day’s work left. The after taste of cheap beer was terrible the next day.
“Not quite impossible,” noted Max as he dealt five cards to each.
Max quickly threw his crib card down and waited for the others to do likewise. Steve was almost as quick, but Max wasn’t so sure he even looked at the cards. Ernie discarded and then Ed . The crib filled, Ernie offered the cut. The cut card was an eight.
Ed had first play. He had kept one nine, one five, and a seven and a six. He had thrown a king in the crib. Pegging cards with points in hand. He played the seven. A trap card. He was looking for Steve to play into a possible run. Instead, Steve played a king. Max smiled. It was a good play. Steve was either playing rote or had not given up entirely. Seventeen. Ernie followed with a ten, making the score twenty seven. Ernie held another ten, a jack and a queen. He had tossed a nine in the crib. He rubbed his eyes with his shirt sleeve.
At Twenty seven Max played an ace. “Twenty eight.”
Steve could not play, so he passed.
Ed had the four low so passed as well.
Ernie followed with his pass.
Max played another ace, “twenty nine for two.”
He reached to the board and moved the back blue peg two holes ahead. He showed no expression.
Steve shrugged, “well partner, you saved us a few cents there.”
Max took his hand off the peg and said, “double.”
Ernie tilted his head, “really?? Accept.”
Ed’s short smile neutralized. He too wanted to get this over with and here was this kid playing with them while holding an impossible position.
“We will redouble you.” Ed prepared to play the next card.
“Alright” Max acknowledged.
Steve felt some bile moving up his throat. He had lost track of all the doubles. He stared at Max. Now he was pushing past angry. Max was playing with his money and it wasn’t funny. Did he really think these guys would say “uncle?” My gosh but what stupidity or ignorance!
Max laid the third ace on the others.
“Thirty for six.” He again took the back blue peg and moved it six more holes closer.
Ed sat up and looked at the board. Ernie was looking intently also. Steve was trying to comprehend what just had happened. His gaze went from angry to quizzical.
Max had counted to thirty. If he had one more ace, playing it would give him another twelve points. And then the last peg would be thirty one giving him an additional two points. That would be fourteen points and the game.
Without looking up, Max offered another ‘double.’
Ed now took his eyes of the board and looked hard at Max. Max had brought their team from twenty two points behind to an unfathomable but conceivable fourteen points to win. IF he had the fourth ace it was over. Ernie was squirming now with the sun totally immersing him. Steve sat slack jawed and waited. It was quiet, like a western movie playing up to the gunfight scene. Tension actually gripped the air.
“Tell you what, Ed and Ernie. We call this day even and walk away. I think that would be good.”
“Do you have an ace? Do you?” Ernie was getting worked up. ” Do you have the fourth ace? Let’s see, four would be worth twelve and thirty one for two. Crap, they would be out Ed!!”
Ed kept looking at Max. Yes some money was at stake, but that was not what Ed was thinking about. He was the pegging King. He was the one that knocked the air out of the other players by pegging them to death. And winning. Here was this nondescript youngster, pegging from twenty two holes behind and if he had the last ace, a huge if, he would peg out and win. Ed took his handkerchief out and removed his glasses.
“O.k. The first double made the game worth two dollars. You doubled which makes it four. Ernie and I redoubled up making it eight and now you go and double to make the game worth sixteen dollars.”
“Or we call the day even and walk away. With one condition.”
“You and all your conditions,” yelped Ernie, “He doesn’t have that ace Ed!!”
Ed cleaned his glasses and replaced them. He looked again at Max who sat quietly in his crosslegged position. Steve swiveled his head fighting the tension in his neck. Ed took a sip of beverage, ignored Ernie, sat up and opened his hands by his side, palms up.
“I agree with Ernie, you don’t have it.” But what is your condition, Max??
“We walk away square, but you don’t get to see the card.”
“Crap with that Ed!! Call him!” Ernie had relinquished control to Ed.
“Accept the double…now, kiddo, play your damn card.” Cordiality had been tossed.
“I played backgammon with my dad and cribbage with my grandfather. They were both good,” and Max laid the fourth ace down.
An ashen look came over Ernie. Now the sun was bearing through his first layer of skin and skewered his good nature. Ed just looked at the card and began to stand up. Neither said anything.
“Holy Crap,” yelled Steve. “What the hell! That is unbelievable!!”
Max did not ask for any money nor was any offered. They gathered their lunch items and all shuffled back to the work stations.
The afternoon went by quickly, as the game played on their minds. Ernie shot profane comments at Steve who tried to defend his position of having done nothing. Ed was quiet. Around two o’clock, James asked Max to retrieve a new color from the paint storage area. Max walked to the door and entered. He was still wondering how the game’s result would play out. He picked out the paint and went to the door. As he turned the knob it would not move. He wiggled it but could tell it had been locked. Max smiled to himself and set the paint down. The room was stifling hot. Taking off his shirt, he sat down and waited.