Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes • 1959, La Habra, California

Sequestered by the murky outline of the San Gabriel Mountains, Orange County had constant smog alerts, sometimes so bad they closed the schools. Everyone was told to stay indoors, the outside smothered in a pea soup of brown haze so dense not even a Santa Ana wind could blow it away.

The pall enveloping our card games was worse than the pall outside. Carleen inhaled Pall Malls and Claudia smoked Salems. Betty preferred Parliaments, and when she full of herself, she smoked Vogues. She smoked two, three, sometimes four packs a day, blowing me perfect smoke rings whenever I asked. In those days, everyone smoked: Ricky and Lucy, John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Ed Sullivan, Liberace, my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Wilcox, my mother, and my three sisters.

I was happiest when playing cards with my sisters. The four of us sat at the dining table for hours, their oldest kids locked outside the front screen door to play in the neighborhood, the babies in the playpens napping while we shuffled, cut, and dealt. They let me play because they needed a fourth for partner Hearts, Canasta, or Pinochle. I didn’t interfere with their conversation and I laughed at their jokes, which were over my head. I ingratiated myself by serving them ham sandwiches, refilling coffee, lighting their cigarettes, and emptying ashtrays. Some weekends we’d be at it all day and all night, only taking breaks to feed the kids. Betty lost a babysitter once because she didn’t make it home until dawn. “One more hand,” we’d say, “just one more hand.”

Clemens siblings Carleen Claudia Liz Betty Gordon Larry  Cathy April 1959 La Habra

Clemens siblings: Carleen, Claudia, Liz “Betty,” Gordon “Larry,” Cathy, April 1959, La Habra

They drank pot after pot of coffee and smoked pack after pack of filters, complaining the whole time how crappy their hands were, bad-mouthing Mother, and bitching about their husbands. I was clear that I did not like coffee or cigarettes, clear that I was not going to grow up to be like Mom, and really clear I wasn’t going to marry some s.o.b. like they had.

Cathy Clemens, 5th grade, La Habra

Cathy, 5th grade, La Habra

Playing a game of Hearts, I carefully organized my cards by suit and value, alternating the reds and blacks, trying not to drop any face up on the table, when it dawned on me what I had. I held the Queen of Spades, all the high hearts, and enough lower ones to shoot the moon. Yabba dabba doo!
“Yessss!” I hid my crooked grin behind my fanned cards, so excited I could barely contain myself, my brown cowlicks and peepers popping with glee.
“Whooeee!” I slapped my free hand on the table.
“Yaahooo!” my butt cheeks danced on the chair.
“Oh yeahhh!”
Swearing, the three of them threw in their cards and didn’t let me play my hand.
“I hate you!” I whined.
“Oh shut up and shuffle,” they replied.

50. Noreen Clemens, La HabraThere’s nothing like a common enemy to unite sisters, and we had Mom. Our Mother’s redeeming value though was, she played cards. When she pulled up in her black-and-white Buick Special with the four chrome holes on its sides, we readied ourselves. Carleen and Betty said they didn’t like being stuck with her as a partner either, but since “either” had to go to school during the day, they tolerated her as my fill-in. They cheated when they played with Mom, slightly fanning their cards to each other, quietly passing under the table whatever they needed to fill out their hand. Mom wasn’t as sharp as she once was. Her thinking ability was fuzzy from shock treatments and the pills that she took, and my sisters took full advantage. Whenever they talked about Mom, they referred to her as your mother, like she wasn’t their mother, just mine.

I learned a lot more from playing cards than just shuffling, cutting, and dealing. Like how to win and how to lose. I realized that pouting didn’t improve my hand one whit. I got the hang of the rules, how to keep score, and how to count. I learned how to bluff. I mastered keeping my cards close to my chest, when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em. I learned to lead with my strong suits, and to play my bad cards as well as I could. I got cheating wasn’t fair, or all that much fun. I learned to play the cards dealt me even when they were rotten, and that it was only a game and not to take it too seriously. I learned about the Ace of Hearts and the Queen of Spades, and that hearts trump everything and hope trumps anything. And I learned that there was always a new hand soon to be dealt, and possibly, a better one.

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