We played cards, using nails instead of pennies to place our bets. We called the box of nails “our nail collection” as if it were something special, searched for, and discovered like jewels from a sunken pirate ship. In the one-pound box of nails—galvanized, roofing—there were two we most coveted: one stubby runt-nail, and one extra-long one. I think we all like the shortest nail best.
My youngest is a betting man at nine years old, going “pot” every chance he gets, no matter the odds, and more often than not, winning. His dark blond hair waved in a continuous line from his right eyebrow nearly to his chin in the exact same way my bangs wave. It is one of the only bits of me I see in him.
His older brother, at eleven, is conservative. A modern day Alex P. Keaton, he takes no risks with his hair (buzz cut since he was five, no deviation) his wardrobe (sports shirts and sweats) or his mathematics, which he can do in his head faster than I can. I stopped calculating anything since he was in fourth grade, and just let him tally everything up for me. He calculated the odds at every hand, mostly declining to bet. He hated the slow leaching of his stockpile in the mandatory antes, wanted to keep what he had instead of risking losing. As carefully as he calculated, that night he lost over and over. “I’m doing an angry bet,” he declared at last, taking a page from his brother’s book, and wildly jumping on the wings of chance, in hopes that this one time he would be lucky, since prudence wasn’t serving him. Chance stepped aside when he leapt, though, and he crashed to the ground. Two hands later, he was bankrupt.
The youngest, wanting to keep playing, pushed a nail towards his brother. “I’ll loan-shark you,” he offered. We insist that players who loan nails charge interest, to make the boys wary of borrowing. We want them to learn the lesson of losing when it is only nails, not pennies or dollars. Wisely, his older brother refused. He didn’t believe in luck—not good luck anyway—but bad luck’s existence seemed inarguable no matter how pragmatic he was.
We switched to Go Fish and I once again mavelled that we had managed to keep hold of all 48 cards in the deck for over five years. The edges were starting to yellow--we have never held onto something as fungible as coated paper long enough for it to age. My eldest felt his odds of winning were even again, but he was wrong. It was a bad-luck night at every turn, but there’s that competitive spark in him that hates to lose no matter what. “It’s okay, Mama,” he reassured me. “I got a shiny Pokémon, and the odds of that are 4,612 to 1, though you can cheat them down to 120 to 1. I’m still ahead on my run of luck for the day.”
Copyright © 2023 Lara Lillibridge
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