LIKE AN OLD SHOE

10/28/2020 6:19:18 PM
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A Native New Yorker, born in Harlem and raised in The Bronx. I spent a great deal of time visiting, living in and working in Virginia. As a result, many of my short stories are in the vein of Zora Neale Hurston, with extensive use of southern black dialect.
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“Centa,” said Mary Walker as she picked up one of the five plastic containers of nickels in the middle of table.

On the sides of each of the containers neatly written words in thick, heavy, black ink indicated what they were: CENTERFOUR CORNERSFOUR OF A KINDFIRST CORNER, and, of course, POKENO. Scattered around the large dining room table were plastic chips, styrofoam cups and plates, and cough drop wrappers.

Pokeno is a combination of two games, Poker and Keno.  Each player selects a board with twenty-five miniature playing cards arranged 5 x 5 horizontally and vertically.  Each board contains a “four of a kind” i.e. four cards that are similar except in suit, of course. The dealer using an ordinary deck of fifty-two playing cards, shuffles them, allows for a “cut” and then begins turning over the cards one at a time. Cards are turned over in succession, and the players cover the miniature playing cards on their boards until someone gets a complete row of five in any direction - - horizontally, vertically or diagonally - - and ends the game.

To add a little more excitement and monetary gain, extra cash prizes such as the aforementioned CENTER, FOUR CORNERS, FOUR OF A KIND, and FIRST CORNER containers are sometimes added to the game.  If, however, someone gets POKENO before any of the other prizes are won, the game ends and players continue to put money in those containers until someone wins the money they hold. By virtue of their being the most difficult to achieve, the FOUR CORNERS and FOUR OF A KIND pots are usually the most filled.

In addition to Mary, there were four other women seated at the large, oval, wooden, dining room table. They were Carrie Swit, in whose house they were playing; Josie Stubbs; Barbara Jean Logan; and a newcomer, Teresa Ann Bennett. All of the women were in their early sixties.

Some of the game boards, from years of continuous use, had pieces of tape in various places. Many of the symbols and characters on the boards had slightly faded over the years.

“Jack uh hearts,” said Barbara Jean as she put down a playing card. “Three uh spades . . .  nine uh diamonds . . . five uh spades . . .”

“Corna,” yelled Josie.

“Been gon’,” three of the women responded in unison, indicating that FIRST CORNER pot had already been won.

“Queen uh clubs . . . eight uh clubs . . . king uh hearts . . .”

“Two uh hearts . . . eight uh diamonds. . .”

Mary now had two of the four Kings on her board covered and looked slyly around the table to see if anyone else noticed.

“Ten uh hearts . . . nine uh spades. . .”

“Seven uh diamonds . . . three uh hearts. . . King uh spades .  . . ”

Covering a third King on her board with a small, red chip, Mary felt her stomach flutter with anticipation.

“Ace uh hearts. . . four uh spades . . . six uh hearts. . . ”

“Pokena!” shouted Carrie.

Deep sighs emerged from around the table; the loudest and most elongated from Mary.

"Call 'em back," said Teresa Ann, indicating that she wanted confirmation of Carrie's win by having all of the turned cards called again.

The other four women looked at each other and smiled.

Carrie recited the winning row of cards on her board back to Barbara Jean; she'd won. She then picked up the POKENO container and dumped its contents into her plastic, over-sized casino slot machine cup she had gotten during last year’s trip to Atlantic City sponsored by Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

Four of the women had containers of various sizes, shapes, materials and previous uses stationed near their respective Pokeno boards. Carrie had the aforementioned casino slot machine cup; Josie had a cloth pouch that once held a bottle of inexpensive perfume; Mary had a square aluminum box; and Barbara Jean had an old, worn cigar box. Teresa Ann, however, kept her nickels on her lap in the folds of her flowered housecoat.

“Ah swear Ah cain’t git nuffin’ dis evenin’,” said Josie to no one in particular. “Ah’ma havta change boards.” She always said this, but never did.

Teresa Ann said, "Maybe you should quit playin' Pokena. Stick ta Bingo. Sumfin easier fo' ya ta understan’." She smiled as she said this, but it was akin to how a shark might look at you before it bit you in half.

The other three women looked at each other and nodded their heads.

"Y'all wanna take anuvver little break an' eat sumfin?" asked Carrie.

They all agreed with Carrie's suggestion.

Reaching for her purse and jacket, Josie said, "Ah'ma step out onna front porch an' take a smoke break."  She reached into her purse, took out a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes and a small box of wooden matches.

The women knew that Josie's smoke break also meant she was going to take a few sips from the brandy-filled flask hidden in her jacket. This was her second trip of the evening.

“Carrie, you got anymo’ uvvat ‘tayta salad lef’ innair?” asked Mary, who loved potato salad.

“Ah’ll take annuver piece o’ dat pie, if ya don’t mind, Carrie,” said Josie.

“Teresa Ann, cain Ah getchu anythang?” asked Carrie as she walked into the kitchen adjacent to the dining room.

“Yeah, Carrie. Ah’ll take a glass o’ ginger ale."

“Lemme come innair an’ give you a han' wif dat stuff,” said Barbara Jean rising and heading towards the kitchen.

When they entered the kitchen, Barbara Jean said to Carrie, "Well, so far so good."

"Yep," replied Carrie. "Dis might be de one. She’s betta den de one two weeks ago."

Carrie returned to the dining room carrying a large tray.  Barbara Jean trailed behind her holding a box of donuts, small paper plates, plastic cups and a bottle of soda.  Carrie handed the glass of ginger ale to Teresa Ann and placed the saucer of potato salad in front of Mary. 

“Name o’ God,” said Mary. “You sho’ is heavy handed Carrie. You ‘spect me ta eat all dis tayta salad.  Ah’ma haveta put some o’ dis back in de ‘frigidaire.”

“Jus’ leave it on yo’ plate.  Ah’ll take alluva leftovas up ta Boots tomorra mornin’at de laundermat.” 

"Nasty ol' bum," said Teresa Ann, angrily. "Why's he hang out dere all day, anyway? Needs ta git a job or sumfin."

"He's okay," said Carrie. "He don't bahva nobody. Does little odd jobs around an' stuff. An' he's a big help ta me, 'specially when de laundermat gits crowded."

"Still a funky good fo' nuffin," responded Teresa Ann, as she shook her head.

The three other women smiled when Teresa Ann said this.

“Do his sister, Mattie, still work at VEPCO?" asked Barbara Jean, referring to a customer service office for the Virginia Electric and Power Company.

“Yeah. Only sane one in de fam’ly if’n ya axe me,” said Mary. ”Was a shame when dere sista, Evie, drownt.  Young as she was.  Sucha pretty and pleasant girl. Bless de dead.”

“’Deed she was.  What was dat uvver boy’s name?” asked Mary. 

Teresa Ann closed her eyes, tilted her head slightly upwards and said, “His real name was Ervin or Elwin, or sumfin like 'at, but evrabody just calt him, ‘Jughaid’ on account of his big ole, watermelon haid.  Afta dey parens died, Har’ld’s twin sister, Haroldina, took 'em all in. Jughaid came back once afta he got out of de army, but lef’ an’ ain’t nobody seen or heard from dat fool since.”

“Dat’s right,” said Mary. “Wonda wair he went ta.”

“Too bad he didn’t take his good fo’ nuffin bruvva wif him wair-ever it was,” said Teresa Ann.

Again, the other women exchanged glances and smiles.

“When did Mae and Har’ld die?” asked Mary.

“Lemme see now,” said Carrie. “Boots an’ Mattie’s are boaf in dere twennies, so musta been ‘bout near twenny years ‘go. So it'd be ‘bout 1957. ‘Was 'bout a year or so afta Lois got kilt innat car axdent. Bless de dead.”

"No," said Teresa Ann. "Was actually 1958. Cause Lois died in late 1957."

Carrie nodded her head. "Yes, indeed. Ah believe you right."  She smiled.

Josie returned from the front porch chewing a stick of Doublemint gum. “Darn cig’rette bref,” she said. She removed her jacket and hung it on the back of her chair.

Barely above a whisper, but loud enough for the other three seated women to hear, Teresa Ann said, “Seasoned wif a bit of brandy, too, ain’t it?”

Mary, Carrie and Barbara Jean exchanged glances and smiled. Almost simultaneously, they looked at Josie, who either hadn’t heard the remark or was pretending not to have heard it. 

As she was resuming her seat, Josie asked, "Did j'all see "Little House" de uvver night?" She was referring to the television show, "Little House on The Prairie".

"Yes, indeedy," answered Carrie. "Ah knew dat man was up ta no good when he firs' came inta town." She was in the process of clearing the table of plates, cups, napkins and utensils.

"Ah liked Little Joe betta when he was on de Ponderosa show," said Mary. Michael Landon, the actor who played Charles Ingalls on Little House on The Prairie, had also played Little Joe Cartwright on the television program, Bonanza and the Ponderosa was the ranch where he lived with his two brothers and their father.

The women began taking their seats.

"Him an’ his two bruvvas all had diff’rent muvvas," said Josie. "His farver, Ben, sho got around, didn't he?"

They all laughed.

"Quiet as it's kept, Ah'll tell y’all who else gits around," said Teresa Ann. The other women listened to her intently as Teresa Ann told the story of how Duncan Gibson was cheating on his wife with two other women.

The ladies at the table shook their heads and smiled.

"Dat's a damn shame!" said Josie. "No good hound. Needs ta stay home an' tend ta his own fireplace fo' dat fire goes out."

"Do him an' his wife still live in dat house near de fairgrounds?" asked Barbara Jean.

"Naw," replied Teresa Ann. "Dey live innat yellow house behine de high school near Thomas Willis."

The other women smiled.

Teresa Ann then told the story of how Thomas Willis had been selling off pieces of the land his deceased father had left him. "Goin' broke, as three people," Teresa Ann said and smiled.

"Wair's de money goin'?" asked Josie.

Teresa Ann replied, "Quiet as it's kept, dey say he gotta drainkin' an' gamblin' problem."

"Dat's a real shame," said Josie.

"Who's turn ta call?" asked Mary.

"Believe it's Carrie's," answered Barbara Jean.

Carrie shuffled the cards, allowed Teresa Ann to cut them, and then began turning them over.

"Five uh hearts . . . three uh diamonds . . . Jack uh spades . . . ten uh diamonds . . .

Approximately, an hour and a half later, the women decided it was time to call it a night. After Teresa Ann left, the four remaining women stayed at the house and sat at the table.

"So what didj'all thank?" asked Carrie.

"Ah kinda liked her," said Barbara Jean.

"She cert'nly knew de answers ta de questions," said Mary. "Even doe she did get a bit confused 'bout Jughaid's name."

Josie said, "Yeah, we all git confused wif dat sometimes. But do you thank she was mean-spirited and gossipy enough?"

"Deed she was. An' she always axed fo' a call back uvda cards like she didn't trust nobody," said Carrie. "Mary you did a good job o' findin’ huh."

Mary blushed and said, "Thank you.  Ah always spoke to huh during Bingo an’ afta church. Y’all shoulda heard summa de thangs she said ‘bout uvver people, ‘cludin’ huh own family. "

“She did say how she made one of huh co-workers at de hospital so mis'rable until she ended up quittin'," said Barbara Jean. "Pretended ta be dere fren', but all de while throwin' up roadblocks behine dere backs jus' fo' spite. Dat certainly sounds like sumfin dat our hateful, wench woulda done wif her connivin', underhand self."

Laughter erupted from the four women.

"You got dat right," said Carrie. "Dat story's de main reason we invited huh ta try out ta be our new Maureen Dayton."

"So de bottom line is, is Teresa Ann Bennett our new Maureen?" asked Josie.

Barbara Jean said, "No. De bottom line is we gotta stop dyin'," she laughed. "It's gittin' harder and harder to replace our Friday night Pokena crew."

"Ah'm sure Maureen didn't intend ta git burnt up innat fire,” said Mary. “Dey said huh woodstove burst inta flames like nobody’s business. Name o’ God.”

“Bet huh las’ bref up hair wasn’t as hot as de ones she’s taking downnair now,” Josie said, as she pointed toward the floor.

 “Hush, Josie,” said Mary. “Ah'm sho a lot of folks weren't sorry ta see huh go. But, as nasty as she was, she was still wunna us. Bless de dead."

"You right," replied Barbara Jean, as she thought about the small han’ful of people who attended Maureen's funeral; some of her own children didn't even come. "Roberta, you been Mary for almos' a year an' uh half now, ain't dat right?"

"’Deed, yes," responded Mary/Roberta. "Seems like it was only yesterday, when I came ta Pokena night ta be huh."

Carrie said, "It's hard to let some people go once you get useta dem an' dere ways, no matta how hateful dey are."

"Sho is," responded Josie. "Dey become like an' old shoe."

"Well, den, y'all," said Barbara Jean. "Lemme put it dis way, is Theresa Ann a good enough Maureen ta be our new old shoe?"

As the discussion continued about the merits and shortcomings of Teresa Ann being the new Maureen, Josie listened and smiled.  She also began to think about her niece, Lucy, who had worked with the real Maureen at the Cherokee Springs Nursing Home.

The unmarried, childless Lucy, unable to discuss certain subjects with her mentally ill mother, had confided in Josie that Maureen, through various machinations, had made life at work exceedingly difficult for her.  According to Lucy, Maureen never missed an opportunity to chastise and criticize her. This was almost always done when there was a group of other people around. Josie knew that her niece certainly wasn’t as worldly or as well- informed as some of her co-workers. Additionally, she, and more than likely Maureen, knew that her niece had a family history of mental problems that were exacerbated by an assortment of life’s experiences. 

The real trouble came when Maureen spread false, hateful rumors that Lucy was stealing money from the residents at the nursing home.  Although an investigation determined that the rumors were false, Lucy was dismissed from her job.  Lucy, however, who had little formal education, and now had the dark cloud of being a thief hanging over her head, was unable to find employment. She ultimately committed suicide by slitting her wrists while sitting in the bathtub.

Josie, who also had mental health issues that were worsened by years of alcoholism, blamed Maureen for her niece’s suicide.  So while visiting Maureen a few months after her niece’s funeral, Josie put two crushed sleeping pills into her tea. She then stealthily placed a small box of wooden kitchen matches out of sight near Maureen’s wood burning stove. Josie also moved the hems of a kitchen curtain closer to the stove.  She hoped that the hand of fate would take care of the rest; it did. 

“Maureen was certainly an old shoe wif a cruel soul,” Josie thought to herself. She laughed aloud when she realized how the words ‘soul’ and ‘sole’ sounded the same.

The women stopped talking. Carrie asked, “What’s de matta wif you, crazy lady?”

“Nuffin,” replied Josie. “Jus’ thankin’ ‘bout how much Ah miss our old shoe, Maureen Dayton.”

“Yes, indeedy,” said Carrie.

As the other women began to talk again about Teresa Ann, Josie thought to herself, “Ah only hope dat de vile words an’ deeds of dis new old shoe don’t make me end up havin’ ta miss huh, too.”

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