The Final Score
An excerpt from On the Plus Side
Originally published in The Lindenwood Review
The game began forty-seven years ago. John, in his crumpled slacks after a long day at the office sat cross-legged on the stained carpet across from Mary, nothing between them but cards. They could only play a few hands before John Jr. would notice they weren’t paying attention to him, would begin banging his teething ring against the plastic edge of his playpen like a prisoner in an old movie. But a few hands at a time was better than nothing. Originally, they’d agreed they’d play to five hundred, but when Mary reached the target so quickly—after just three days—they extended the objective to a thousand, then five.
It became a sort of running joke: a winner would be declared only when one of them passed away. There was a period of about two years—in their early forties—when John was several thousand points ahead, but Mary caught up to him, even passed him for a while. And so it went for years and years, John would be ahead, then Mary, then John. The game kept going and going, through it all. Through John Jr.’s childhood, his graduation, his marriage; through John’s infidelity, apology, penance; through Mary’s illness, then her remission; through John’s illness, his stay at the hospital, his hospice days back home.
The winner, it turned out, was John. Mary checked the score scratched on the scrap paper before folding it up and sliding it inside the card box. Afterward, she wasn’t sure what to do with the cards. In the end, she gave them to John Jr., who’d grown up watching his parents play the game. When she told him she was giving the cards to him, he protested, but only a little.
“I can’t take them,” John Jr. said, even as he reached out for the box. “You should keep them.”
Mary shrugged. “What am I going to do with them? The game is over,” she said. “I lost.”
With the game over, the evenings seemed longer. Mary took up knitting, but it didn’t stick. She moved in with John Jr. and learned to play cribbage. She’d play most evenings with John Jr.’s wife, Marina, but it wasn’t the same. Mary missed the continuous nature of the old game with John, the illusion that the game would go on forever, that there would always be time to even the score.
Years later, after his mother was long gone, after Marina was long gone too—happily remarried to a dentist in Lancaster, and with two kids, neither one John Jr.’s doing—John Jr. came upon the old deck of cards while trying to make room in his closet for his new live-in girlfriend. He didn’t remember those early days, when his parents played on the porch while he distracted himself watching ants. He didn’t remember the later days, much, either. He was preoccupied with his own life back then—a pre-teen, then a teen, then a college student, and then, and then. The game’s title was faded, almost unreadable, and the once stiff box had softened and torn. The cards felt light in his hands, and without much thought, he tossed the worn box into the large trash bag with the rest of the clutter he didn’t know what to do with.
© Ashley Cowger