Billie Holiday crooned out Easy Living between piano riffs over the tinny speaker system in the Washington’s family room, and George leaned back in his chair. His eyes hid in the shadows of his traditional Poker Night plastic visor—clear emerald green, with the four suite symbols stenciled on. The gray tuft of hair popped up off his deep brown skin. He took a long satisfying drag from the convenience store cigar before laying out his hand. “I call. Full house, jacks over sevens. Whatchu all got?”
Thomas gave him a stoic face for a moment, then flopped his cards on the table. “At least I got more pride than to wear that god-awful hat.” He cackled and pointed, his gold tooth gleaming in the light.
James joined in, and George cocked his head with a glare. “Oh, this how it’s gonna be?”
Muscle-bound James shook his head and revealed his hand. “Two pair. Dayum, G-Dub, I thought I had somethin’ good this time.”
“You thought, JJ.” George shook his head. “You know better than to start doin’ that.”
“Come on, deal the next hand and we’ll see.” James tossed a couple pretzels into the pot. Thomas and George followed suit, and George offered the deck for James to cut.
“Lord give me strength, Herbert!” LaTasha strode through the room to open windows, waving her hands like an archaeologist sweeping away cobwebs. “You tryin’ to give us all cancer already?”
George smiled and dealt out cards. “Just enjoyin’ the finer things, baby! The sweet fruits of my labors all week long.”
LaTasha drew near and slipped her arms around George. “Fair enough. My man done good.” She moved to peck him on the cheek, but George managed to get his lips in the way.
Chris and René entered the room. Chris moved to the door to put on his sneakers, but René froze. “Eewww. Gross, Dad.”
Muffled by the kiss, George muttered, “No way, Lil’ Ray.” LaTasha pulled back, and George smiled. “I am a happy, happy man.”
LaTasha flashed a playful glare at the guys. “And he’s my man. I’m only loanin’ him to you incorrigible louts for a few hours. Do stay out of trouble.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Thomas and James answered in unison.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Taz,” a new voice said from the hallway, standing with another young man and Chris, who held the door open.
“What up, Cee?” George called without looking up from the cards.
“Oh dear Jesus, Clarence,” LaTasha said. “I know you too damn well to buy that. My God, is this tall man my little nephew Dre?”
The young man smiled and nodded. “Good to see you again, Auntie ‘Tasha.”
Clarence gave him a soft backhand to the arm. “Don’t you go gettin’ on her side, boy. She’ll have you spyin’ on us with promises of home cookin’.”
Dre mumbled, “I’m okay with that.”
Clarence dragged him to the table. “All right, boys, Dre just hit eighteen an’ got himself thinkin’ he’s grown. Been runnin’ dice on the street with guys from the Disciples, lost him some serious cash.”
The men shook their heads and made appropriately disapproving noises. George glanced at LaTasha out the corner of his eye, and saw folded arms beneath a raised eyebrow.
Clarence seemed to notice as well. He laid it on thick. “So I told his mama I’d teach him a lesson about gamblin’—but with pretzels an’ peanuts, not Lincolns and Jacksons. You boys know how to hustle better than any of them brothers on the street. Do your worst.”
LaTasha softened as Thomas passed a bowl of snacks to each of the newcomers. “You boys be good,” she said. “I’m gonna put these heathens to work gettin’ the church ready for tomorrow morning. Chris, René, you ready?”
They nodded, and moved to leave. A pile of pretzels grew and cards flew across the table, all eyes on the game while LaTasha pushed her charges out the door.
The men paused and waited a minute, nibbling on snacks.
Clarence reached into his backpack, and George waved him off with a hiss. He whispered, “Every once in awhile she sneaks back to check on us.”
Another minute passed, and grins slowly formed around the table on every face but Dre’s. He looked from one man to the next with confusion, then broke the silence. “What you guys doin?”
George laughed and pulled out a stack of one dollar bills. Thomas and James did likewise, and Clarence set a bottle in a brown bag on the table.
“We’re playin’ cards!”
James gathered up the pile of singles with a raspy laugh, ignoring the good-natured glares of his opponents.
Thomas shuffled the cards for the next hand and looked at Dre across the table. “So what’s this ’bout you hangin’ with the Disciples, kid?”
Dre pouted his lips. “Nuthin’.”
George raised an eyebrow under his visor. “If my mama gives me a whuppin’ and turns me over to my dad for a talk about somethin’ I done, then you can bet it’s somethin’ serious.”
Dre scoffed. “Just deal the cards, man.”
James glanced at Clarence, who said nothing and let the exchange run its course. “Watch your mouth, boy,” James said. “Don’t disrespect your elders.”
Dre shot him a sour look, then caught sight of James flexing his muscles, cracking his knuckles. His beefy arms shifted and bulged with each motion. “Yes sir,” the boy finally said.
George flashed Dre a sidelong glance. “Whatchu doin’ hangin’ with thugs anyhow? Nothin’ but hurt for you in that.”
Dre shrugged. “Got no job. If I can do some work for the Disciples, I got a chance of makin’ some cash at least.”
“Or ending up in prison.”
“So what? It worked for Clarence.” Dre crossed his arms and leaned back, fuming.
Lips pursed and expression thoughtful, George gauged Clarence’s reaction. There’s your pitch, Cee. Take a swing.
“Dre, I know I let you down,” Clarence said, resting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I been gone too often when you were little. Your mama and I, we couldn’t make it work. I did so much wrong. Don’t mean you should too.”
Dre shook off Clarence’s hand.
“Son, your daddy’s tryin’ to keep you from the same mistakes that landed him in the pen.” George pointed a knobby finger at the boy. “Here on the outside, you got opportunities, you got some hope. How much chance you think you got sittin’ in a cell like your daddy did?”
Dre threw up his hands and yelled at Clarence. “Man, why you even bring me here? I don’t need this.”
“Maybe you don’t,” Clarence said, quiet and humble. “You hate me so much, hate what I did, what I put you an’ your mama through? Fine. Then don’t become me.”
Thomas passed out another hand of cards to the distracted men.
“Think about what I’m sayin’, that’s all.”
Dre sat silent for a minute, then nodded. He turned to George. “You have this talk with Chris yet?”
George looked at Dre and laughed. “Why you even think I need to?”
“I’m just sayin’, sir.”
“You better be sayin’ more than just that. What makes you think this conversation has to happen? You seen Chris? My boy ain’t no gangbanger thug.”
“One of his friends gettin’ in good with the Kings. Jamal got a set, started makin’ money.”
The cards lay undisturbed in front of George. Chris was with Jamal the other day when I picked him up. They walk home from school some days. And Pulaski High is in the middle of Kings territory. How much time’s he spending with this kid?
Clarence grimaced when George looked his way. “Hey, man, money’s the key, right there. Chris gonna see Jamal with some bills, he’ll want to get some of his own. You an’ Taz got a nest egg, right? You might see about gettin’ Chris to do some work, payin’ him like an employee. Or find him a job. Only way he’s gonna learn the value of makin’ legit cash.”
Money’s so tight, though, George thought. Bills always piling up. And we’re finally makin’ progress on a down payment for a real home. Now I gotta give Chris some of that? I can’t.
Clarence gathered up the small bills. “You need to step in, G. Get him away from the gang scene. Most of the guys in prison started when they was his age. I did.”
George stared at his cards. Not much help here. It was his turn to raise the bets or call.
But his brother-in-law’s suggestion occupied his mind. In fact, it stirred up a deep, unexpected anger. He wanted to raise his voice and call his brother-in-law out. Who you think you are, Clarence? Chris isn’t like you. He’s smart, he’s doin’ well in school. LaTasha been on that boy since diapers about education and livin’ right. And so have I.
“Gonna double the bet,” George said, sliding two bills into the pot. He flashed the most confident grin he could muster. “Who’s sure of what they got? I am.”