I am in a coffee shop. I’m trying to get some work done, tapping away on my laptop. The two old women behind me are playing cards, talking louder than jayvee football coaches at football camp.
It’s impossible to get anything done with their noisy conversation.
“So how do you like your new phone?” bellows one old lady.
“I love it,” shouts her friend. “It’s just like my old phone, but this one’s gray.”
“That’s nice. My phone is gray, too.”
“I like gray.”
“Gray is a good color.”
“It really is a good color.”
“I like gray better than mauve.”
“My couch is mauve.”
“Mine was, too. But now my couch is gray.”
The two women are playing rummy.
It’s funny, you don’t see many people playing rummy anymore. I find myself distracted by their game because, you might not know this, but for many years I was international grand rummy champion. I could not be beat.
I first learned how to play the game when I was in third grade. I used to attend a daycare because my mother and father both had full-time jobs.
I lived at that daycare center. I ate suppers there. I slept there when my parents worked nightshifts sometimes.
The woman who presided over the whole place was an elderly lady named Miss Pat, who smoked Virginia Slims and had a voice like an eight-cylinder diesel engine.
She was a large woman with a great bosom, hard eyes, and white-blond hair that looked like it had been treated with industrial-strength Clorox.
Miss Pat did not have a reputation for being a friendly woman. Children were terrified of her. Rumor was that she had once killed a boy for sticking bubblegum beneath his chair. Word on the playground was that she ended his life with a stapler. His remains were never found.
But by some warped stroke of fate, Miss Pat adored me.
I don’t know what it was about me, but whenever I arrived at the daycare after school, Miss Pat wanted me all to herself. She would hold in her great arms and kiss my face, smearing her glossy coral lipstick all over my baby flesh. She made me feel special.
And she always had a game ready for us to play. We would play for hours until it was time to go home. We played dominoes, Uno, Scrabble, Boggle, checkers, Othello, and of course, rummy.
Mostly what I remember about Miss Pat, however, was that she told me stories. Throughout each hand of rummy, she would talk about her husband, Al, who she’d met back when she was a “whack.”
“A whack?” I asked her. “What’s a whack?”
It was spelled WAC, and it stood for Women’s Army Corps. When Miss Pat was a young woman, she served in Europe along with 150,000 other women in World War II. And that’s where she met her husband.
“I met him when he was a doughboy,” she said, drawing cards from the deck.
“What’s a doughboy?” I asked.
“Infantry,” she said, taking a long pull on her smoke, laying down three sevens. “Means he was on the frontlines.”
Miss Pat would tell me war stories from the Great War, and I would listen. She told me about how her husband got wounded, and about how Al convalesced on a navy ship where she functioned as his nurse.
And that’s where she learned rummy. Al taught her. They would play cards in his room for hours until he’d fall asleep. Then she’d just watch him sleep and pray for him to get better.
“I prayed for him until I started losing weight from praying so hard,” she once told me. “I knew I was in love with him.”
Al had a head injury, sometimes his memory came and went. Nobody knew if he was going to pull through. But, by some miracle, he did. They were married as soon as they were ashore.
They never had kids, and they were married for a hundred thousand years. The two of them played rummy every night after supper.
One day I finally got to meet old Al. I’ll never forget it. He came into the daycare, dressed like all old men from his generation. Sansabelt pants, button down shirt that looked like it was made from the same material they use to cover mattresses. He played rummy with us, and he was unable to use his right arm or speak without slurring his words.
I watched the two of them interact. A great change came over Miss Pat. She seemed to soften around her longtime sweetheart. The old grumpy woman ceased being a hard-nosed teacher and became a delightful young WAC right before my eyes.
I remember how they laughed together. And I remember the old-person kiss they exchanged. A quick peck on the lips. I remember playing rummy with them and feeling proud to be seated at the grownups table.
I also remember Miss Pat’s funeral. I wore a clip-on tie. My father let me slip a deck of cards into the old woman’s casket.
Funny what you remember in a coffee shop.