My brother taught me to play Blackjack when I was six. It was summer. We sat cross-legged on the maroon floral carpet in the living room of my grandparents’ house where we waited out our parents’ divorce. Paul Harvey’s voice boomed on the console. My grandfather grunted over his cane. The heavy, curlicued clock ticked away on the mantelpiece beneath a gigantic painting of the Resurrection.
"That’s no game for a lady," my grandfather told me. His eyes glinted with disapproval from behind his glasses as he rocked back and forth. He was used to no one answering him. I turned to my brother, who kept shuffling the cards. Falling together, they made a sound like a balloon losing air.
First we played for toothpicks. My brother won three times. Then I was sent to get matches from the kitchen where my grandmother, a bulky, scowling woman, was baking cinnamon wheels and cursing the trials of her life. Today it was her husband’s imagined ill health.
"If it isn’t a bottle for this it’s a pill for that; you’d think he’d make up his mind, but no." She muttered like this all the time as she pounded through various rooms going about her tasks with only the walls and furniture for allies.
"Matches!" she exclaimed, as I riffled through the drawer next to the kitchen counter. "And set the house on fire, I suppose." Her face went stricken at the thought of this new disaster.
"We’ll be careful," I promised. "We’ll just pile’em up, like poker chips," I parroted my brother. "And put’em back in the box after we finish."
"Poker chips!" Her hands went to her hips. The bulk of her swayed a little. "Does your mama know you play poker?"
I didn’t want to say she couldn’t know if I was just learning. My grandmother had already complained that my brother and I both had smart mouths.
"No, maam," I quavered, "but, um, it’s only a game. It’s just Blackjack," I added, uncomfortable under her stare.
"Huh! Just Blackjack!" She rolled her eyes.
"Well," she said, "you’re only a little kid; what would you know?" She heaved a sigh and stared at the cinnamon wheels in their pan, as if they held the answer to that. "Just you be careful," she said, then. "Don't you let them tips rub together...." She took the pastry pan from the counter and carried it wearily to the stove and opened the oven door.
"Yes maam," I said. "I mean, no maam." Feeling awkward, I returned to the living room with the matches. I wondered what she would tell my mother when she came for us. Any day now, I hoped.
The Ohio blue-tips were worth five thousand dollars each. My brother was in charge of this game, being older and wiser—he was nine—so he made the rules. He found a half-empty box of red-tipped matches next to the fireplace. Red-tips were worth ten thousand dollars each.
The value went up, it increased, he said, because there weren’t as many. For instance, if only two were in the box, they might each be worth fifty thousand.
I thought I understood. "Wow!" I said. "Nothing must be worth millions!"
He gave me his only-a-girl-could-say-such-a-dumb-thing look. "Billions," he finally said, and studied me a moment. From the light in his eye, I could see he was planning something.
After the next game he said he was tired of playing with sticks. It was time to win some real money. We pooled the nickels and dimes of our allowances. I listened carefully while he explained how it took two of the smaller dimes to equal one big nickel, and that he was giving me nickels instead of dimes to give me a decent start. We could keep our winnings, he said.
"Really?" I was so excited.
"Oh, my God!" said my listening grandfather. He gave a scornful laugh and shook his head. I wondered if Paul Harvey had said something funny.
I peeked at my two cards, a ten and a queen. "Hit me," I said, the way my brother had taught me. I slapped down the new card, an ace, and turned over my cards.
"Hey!" My brother objected. "Wait a minute!"
I knew something was wrong when he didn’t want to part with those dimes.
It was September when my mother finally came for us. By then I had learned three more things: I knew how to tell time. I knew how to count money. And I’d learned how the value of something, when you don’t have it, increases.