Game of Cards // Chapter Excerpt Part 2

A little black squirrel startled me as it suddenly launched itself out of a trashcan. I was walking down a sidewalk on my way to the museum, facing a bunch of rush hour traffic. The squirrel looked really scared as it tore down the street and ducked into some bushes. Readjusting my backpack, I took a deep breath and looked over at the line of cars stalling behind a red light. Some of the drivers glanced up as I passed.

At Warren Avenue, I was kind of disappointed the homeless man wasn’t on the green bench. He usually slept there sitting up, his chin tucked down on his chest. I didn’t know his name, I hadn’t even seen him with his eyes open, but I hoped he was okay.

On a whim, I took a running jump and pulled down a handful of bright yellow leaves that hung over the sidewalk. They were basically neon against the dark color of the bark. I threw most of them into the wind, but decided to keep one. I liked how it could twirl by its stem between my thumb and finger. It smelled good too, I covered my nose with it a few times before tucking it into my backpack. Marcus was at the main entrance.

“Theo! How are ya?”

“Hi, Marcus. Doing good. You?”  

“Can’t complain.” He winked and held the door open. Then his voice got deep, “Be good, son.”

As I walked in, I turned slowly and nodded.

“I have my eye on you.” Marcus pointed to his eyes, then to me. I glanced over again and just barely heard him mutter into his radio, “The ghost is in the house.” I didn’t know what that meant.

I swung into the European galleries–past the ginormous painting of Louis-Philippe saluting his army on a life-size white stallion, then up the marble stairs–to the third floor and the Dutch Golden Age wing. The collection wasn’t very big, mostly plain churches and grey landscapes of old windmills, shipyards, and sleepy cows. When I rounded the corner, I took off my bag and stood in front of my favorite one. It reminded me of Momma. 

The painting’s frame wasn’t big. Inside, a girl sat next to a small white dog laying on one of three dining room chairs. A man wearing a bright red coat and a large black hat (like Captain Hook) sat at a table with the woman. Sunlight from the window lit up the right side of her face. She was looking directly at the man–who seemed to be watching something through the window–and was handing him a playing card. Both of the grown-ups were holding cards. And plus there was the boy standing behind them, “most likely brought to the Dutch Republic from Africa,” the plaque said. He was dressed nicely and pouring from a pitcher, “modeled after Chinese porcelain.”

What I like about the painting, though, was the way the hands were positioned. It looked like the boy was taking the card from the woman, but his hand was actually directly behind hers, holding a glass by its base–an optical illusion. Leaning forward, I read the plaque again. The Game of Cards, oil on canvas, by Hendrik van der Burch—  

“Kinda tells you about the history, don’ it?”

I jumped and spun around to see a big lady, a guard, standing directly behind me with her arms crossed.

“He could be about your age, couldn’t he? Kinda looks like you.” She noded to the painting.

“Oh? Yeah, I–”

“Makes you wonder about the painter, huh?”

“Yeah.”

The lady leaned in to get a better look. “To be honest, I’ve been working here so long I forget these are real paintings. After a while I just kinda stop seeing them, you know?”

“Oh–“

“Well, not really, but you can only look at a bunch of dead white people for so long before you go crazy.” She put a hand on her hip. “See, about eight or nine o’clock at night? I start playing hop scotch with these squares on the floor.” She started hopping on one leg, making the keys on her belt jingle, loud.

I laughed.

“Hey, I was gonna aks you, where d’you live, anyway?”

“Oh, uh, my momma says I can’t tell that to strangers.”

“You live in the city?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How close to here?”

“Pretty close, I guess.”

“Who’s your momma?” She hoisted her pants higher on her waist, tucking in the back of her shirt.

“Uh, she works–she used to work here.”

“What department?”

I scratched the back of my ear. “I donno. She emptied trashcans in the offices and stuff. Why?”

The lady folded her arms again and stepped closer to me. She lowered her voice, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” she paused and looked over her shoulder, “but a couple of us have noticed you come in here an awful lot by yourself at all hours of the day–even during school hours–but we never see you leave.”

“Oh.” I nodded my head slowly, suddenly feeling really hot. My thoughts jumped to Marcus. He must’ve said something.

“Like I said, I’m not accusing nobody, but…” She gave me a once-over with her eyes and pressed her lips together tightly before turning away, “you tell your momma hello, whoever she is. Stay out of trouble now.”  

I watched the woman walk down the hallway, keys swinging. My heart was pounding. A picture of a Dutch princess popped out on the wall directly to my left. Her face and neck were really bright and contrasted against the murky background. I noticed for the first time she was staring, frozen, with her lower lip sticking out in a sad way. I backed away, but no matter where I moved, her eyes always followed.

It’s an illusion. I told myself, but I was sure those eyes followed me all the way down the hallway, and I ran.

burch_d.jpg
The Game of Cards | c. 1660
Oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts

Game of Cards // Chapter Excerpt

“It’s basic logic.” Cedric explained. “The key to blackjack is being able to remember.” He was sitting with Adrian at one of the small circular tables in the casino. She was distracted by his white silicone and gold watch, flashing as he shuffled the cards.

Pop music hummed through large speakers in the ceiling and Adrian heard the occasional eruption of excited voices all around her. Cedric wore a ghost white tee. She noticed it fell loosely, yet fitted enough to reveal the clean outline of large rounded shoulders and a defined upper chest.

“After the deal, if the remaining deck has more ten and ace cards, you have a higher statistical advantage of winning,” said Cedric. She half-consciously replayed in her mind the way he said statistical, kind of like—focus, Adrian.

“You gotta count the cards as they’re played.” He continued. Adrian said nothing, only nodding occasionally, careful not to betray her projected confidence. He sat close, she could have easily reached out and touch his extended knee under the table.

“Don’t forget the count value of previous hands, it tells you about the cards that are left in the pile for the next rounds.” Cedric paused to let the information process. He dealt two cards face up to her, a four of diamonds and a six of spades, and then dealt himself a king of spades and another card face down.

“Double down?” Adrian asked after the deal. “If I double my bet I’d have a good chance of getting ten or eleven, right?”

“Well, d’you remember the cards played in our last hand?”

Adrian looked at him coolly, wordlessly shifting the expectation on him to answer his question.

“Remember, all cards below six are worth one positive point and all cards ten and above are worth one negative—”

“Yeah, I know, I know, you said that.”

“Okay, so,” He lifted up his arm to scratch the back of his neck. She could smell his deodorant. “Keep doing the math in your head. It gets easier, I promise. You jus’ need to keep adding, subtracting, or,” he paused, adopting an increasingly instructive tone, “if the card is a seven, eight, or nine—”

“Don’t add or subtract anything.”

“Right. So, when do you have the advantage?”

“When the point count is positive.”

He smiled, “Because…?”

“‘Cause there’s a higher amount of ten or ace cards that could be dealt,” she blinked thoughtfully a few times, “and I’m more likely to win.”

“Oh, you’re good.”

Adrian felt a warm sensation run through her.

“Alright,” Cedric said quickly, filling the silence when she didn’t say anything, “so is your count positive or negative?”

“Definitely positive.”

“Double down.” He said, and handed her another card.

Adrian nodded slowly. “I think I’m getting it.” She rested her elbow on the table and delicately reached over to take the card from Cedric.

She never anticipated enjoying blackjack, or, she had to admit, the time spent with Cedric Davis. He was charming and well kept, always in thick denim jeans and spotless white tees. His coarse hairline was shaved along the edges, accentuating perfectly straight lines against the dark skin. 

They practiced in the casino to simulate the feel of an actual game of blackjack. Cedric began by dealing one card at a time face up on the table, starting the count after each card was dealt for the entire deck. He paused occasionally in the processes to ask Adrain the count. They practiced at different speeds. If she was able to count the entire deck correctly, Cedric dealt the cards a little faster. Eventually, Cedric stopped counting. He’d pause and ask for the count, she’d write it down, note where he stopped, then they’d go through the deck at the end to check her accuracy. Soon she was able to score one hundred percent after every deal, regardless of dealing speed.

A few weeks later, Adrian was increasingly astonished that she was consistently winning hands in the casino. She was meticulous in her strategy: only taking carefully calculated risks and killing the excitement of every win. Where pathological gamblers lost themselves in the hazy whims of luck, she remained unshakable, grounded in the laws of card counting and self-control.

This wasn’t a gambling game, this was a game of logic, this was knowing when to close and how to maintain an extremely high threshold against pressure. She learned the timing of a perfect night: when to bid low or take even money, and when to go home. Onlookers booed her decisions to cash out on a winning streak, but she wasn’t there for fun and taking chances. Luck had never been on her side.

Cedric was right, the key to blackjack was basic logic, but it was also emotional extraction, she realized, which was another well-developed skill. She drained all feeling out of the experience—the lights, the excited voices, the low, omnipresent music—everything was shut out. She made a point not to make friends with anyone who worked there and didn’t accept any favors or incentives, she played the game.

And if I can’t win, she told herself, I won’t play.

Confessions from a Gentlemen’s Club

The first rule is: you do not talk about this club. The second rule is: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THIS CLUB!

Tyler Durden’s voiceover ran through my head as I sat in an oversized leather chair looking down at a nondisclosure form. I signed.

I was sitting across a table—more like an oak platform—from Michael Caine’s doppelgänger. His eyelids were relaxed in that uncannily familiar half-closed way.

“I’ll show you where you’ll be doing your work.” He said from the other side of the table, looking at me with his chin tilted up as if using invisible bifocals. I put the pen down.

As I got up to follow him out of the lounge area and up the stairs, the plastic outsoles of my wedges clicked on the dark wood floors—I had decided to go with the pencil-skirt and ’60’s box-cut argyle sweater. With the sound of plastic against wood echoing in my ears, I took another look at his thin black tie, tailored dark grey suit, and oxblood captoe style oxfords. For the second time that day, I began questioning how I got here.

Our first encounter at the door surprised us both. Or at least I was surprised to see another Mr. Michael Caine, and I think he was surprised to see a very young person—dare I admit, a girl—standing at his door front. I wouldn’t consider myself terribly young, but my inherited smallness and somewhat round facial features still make it arguable.

“You are one of the few women to have ever set foot in here.” The Chairmen had told me after I followed him into the foyer.

“Oh?” I said, eyebrows raised, unsure if that was meant as a compliment or a warning. I shook his hand stiffly, bending at the elbow and not the wrist.

I reflected on the fact that there was no job application and no interview—something I realized in hindsight. Getting a job really is about who you know. Not that there is anything wrong with being young and female, I told myself, it’s just that here I felt in stark juxtaposition to everything, namely, all things old and masculine and, I began to realize, wealthy.

At the top of the stairs, it registered he was showing me to a bedroom. There are often times when I wish I had an inner Google search bar.

Google, “what to say when you want to sound professional when speaking?”

Google, “how to ask for money after a job offer?”

Google, “what is a gentlemen’s club?”

That last one actually did warrant some research. The original clubs were established in the West End of London. Clubs took over the role of coffee houses in the 18th century and reached their peak of popularity in the late 19th century. Club Life in London (1866) explains: “The Club in the general acceptation of the term, may be regarded as one of the earliest offshoots of man’s habitual gregariousness and social inclination.”[1] In the United States, the term “gentlemen’s club” is a common euphemism for strip clubs—something I also realized in hindsight—which is why the traditional gentlemen’s clubs are often referred to as “men’s clubs” or “private social clubs” or the term I have come to use, just “social clubs.”

I tried not to think about the irony of the bedroom as he swung the closet doors open and revealed shelves upon shelves of discolored folders and wrinkled documents.

As Consulting Archivist, I was being hired to preserve these exposed relics of a bygone era and arrange them into something meaningful. The momentum of the swinging doors fanned air through the piles of papers and I watched as a few slid from an overflowing shelf to the ground. I reminded myself we’re all imposters at some level and our success rides on our ability to convince everyone, including ourselves, that we know what we’re doing.

I hadn’t planned on working at a gentlemen’s club—an exclusive membership of white men with perhaps white-haired principles and a culturally appropriated Algonquin name—but I was surrounded by Detroit history and I rather enjoyed speaking with this other Michael Caine, a perfectly poised, impeccably dressed gentlemen who smelled of a lifestyle from another planet. He made it easy to sound more educated and better spoken than I was.

“Is there a budget?”

“Not at all, we can provide anything you need—absolutely anything.” (to note: with the right angle, “anything” includes lunch—always fish, imported—because…pesco-vegetarianism).

“What about hours? What might the schedule look like?”

“Mornings, any day of the week is fine. The boys usually have lunch around noon, so best to leave before then.”

“Shall we do Friday mornings, then?” I was half-conscious of my fake British cadence, “Eight-thirty to eleven-thirty?”

“Good.”

So began a journey into the masculine culture of the 19th and 20th century—of the club’s founding generation and my speculations of their homosexuality, of my introduction to the evolution of erotic writing, pornography, and other less evocative primary source materials I won’t share for fear of breaking the first rules of nondisclosure. Yet going through the correspondence of these men helped to understand the life of this club and perhaps grant me a more tangible explanation for its purpose in a larger masculine context.

The desire to be masculine (like many other nouns and adjectives) to me reflects the desire to be a part of something larger and more definable, a group with the right set of characteristics. It’s apparent the definition of that group is changing. To be “macho” is increasingly off trend.

As the literal and figurative outsider to this institution, I confess that my speculation for its success is precisely because of its exclusivity. Something is more desirable when it is mysterious and unattainable. For a large percentage, being white and male fits into that spectrum. I know that I am not qualified to speak much on this, and I don’t feel I need a platform, but I also know I’m not intimidated by masculinity and I certainly don’t feel the need to lash out or pretend indifference or superiority over it.

It’s reasonable to believe this patriarchal society is evolving and if it doesn’t evolve enough, eventually it will grow white hair and someone will be hired to piece together its bygone history and maybe even write something interesting about it before it’s gone forever.

[1] Cited in the introduction to Women, Clubs and Associations in Britain by Doughan & Gordon, 2006.