“They got it all wrong,” I say. “There are no scrolls with everyone’s name scrawled on the parchment, and that great white throne is nowhere in sight. The only furniture in the clouds is this massively long table, you know, the foldout cafeteria kind, stretching way off in the distance. Everyone sits on both sides of this infinite table.”
The three of us, my mother, my half-sister, Claudia, and I, sit at the small round table in my mother’s kitchen. A moth rebounds inside one of the opaque light shades hanging over us. Outside, it is so dark that the large bay window beside my mother is a black mirror reflecting the three of us hunched over the cards in our hands. There is my mother’s concentration and Claudia’s relentless rage. I’ve let my beard go from my cheekbones down to the bottom of my neck. My apathetic stare is as still as a wall. I try a lame smile into the glass.
“When Gregory’s heart stops, if he has one, he won’t be there at that table. He’ll have a TV tray in Hell,” Claudia says.
“There is no Hell,” I say quickly.
“Oh, yes there is,” Claudia says even quicker.
Claudia and I share the same father, so I was surprised when I showed up a little over a month ago to find her staying with my mother. My mother told me that Claudia’s own mother thought Claudia deserved what she got; Gregory was very upfront about who he was. Claudia’s mother warned her, but Claudia ignored the red flags. Claudia’s mother thinks her daughter should stay in the bed she has made. My mother is all about throwing off the heavy blankets and making for the door.
“This is two sets and a run,” my mother says. She will repeat her deliberate chant several more times before one of us goes down. “Two sets and a run, two sets and a run.”
“There’s this crazy rummy game going,” I say. “But, unlike us, only taking it to three runs, there will be hands consisting of hundreds of runs and thousands of sets and so on. No end to the combination of hands. Eternity.”
“Can I buy this back,” my mother says as she holds out an ace of spades.
I snatch it out of her hand without any reservation.
The first few times playing cards with my mother and Claudia, I felt magnanimous toward this seventy-five year old woman for letting me stay with her. Right before being evicted from my apartment, I visualized moving in with a woman I’d only dated for a few weeks (our first blind date was on the same day I got fired). She didn’t like talking much, and told me once that, when she got home from work, she needed at least two hours of silence to get right again. I dreaded telling her about my unemployment, my dwindling savings. I paid for all of the movies and dinners and lunches as if everything were normal. During one lunch, I innocently asked her to tell me something new about herself. She became defensive, saying there was nothing new to tell. She wanted to know what I was getting at. At her front door, I said that I had something new and told her that I needed to find a new home. Good luck, she said. She didn’t return my calls or emails. I moved in with my mother. And so, playing cards every night, out of all the expectations my mother could be laying on Claudia and me, is my mother’s only request. She claims it keeps her mind alert. Now, though, I’m stuck in this mire. Lately I’ve been ornery. Like talking about the punishing card game awaiting us in eternity. My mother is so even-keeled, so fully absorbed with the cards in her hands. Claudia’s mire is making her more sinister.
“No, there’s no game playing going on,” Claudia says, her jaw sharpening every moment. “We’re all going to have to account for what we’ve done. Gregory’s whole existence, every disgusting moment of it, will be exposed for all to judge.”
I smile at myself in the window, this time for real. “Okay, everyone plays except for one person standing on top of this very high column—oh, the column is white.”
“I mean, who says, ‘You’re miniscule’ to a person?” Claudia says, throwing a card way over the discard pile.
Her glare shoves me toward my absorbed mother.
“People will take turns speaking about their lives with such passion and openness,” I say to my mother, “that the rest of us will look up from our cards now and then to listen.”
“I won’t,” Claudia says.
“Two sets and a run,” my mother says.
I look back and forth at these two women and neither looks at me. Claudia is done with me. My mother wants to win this hand.
It occurs to me that I need to keep talking. Silence makes me inadvertently glance at the black bay window. And, suddenly, considering my unkempt reflection reminds me of all the phone calls and emails I’m not receiving.
“I’ll see her again,” I say to my inattentive audience. “A woman you two don’t know, a recent acquaintance. I’ll see her on top of that tall, radiant column. She’ll be so bright. I’ll fan out my thousands of cards to shade my eyes. She’ll stare down at all of us, at me. She’ll tell me that she has something new to say.”
I squint up at the light fixture.
The shadows of gigantic wings furiously bat across the ceiling and walls and cabinets and fridge door.