SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 28, 2017

I’m a Loser, She Says

 

There were five of us sitting around the table in my mom’s kitchen. My oldest niece, McKenzie, dealt the cards. I’d arrived in Green Bay the night before for a week-long stay to mark my mom’s birthday and meet McKenzie’s new son, Trey, who’d been born three weeks earlier.

            McKenzie tossed eight cards each to herself, her daughter Harper, me, my mom and my sister Mary. We all picked up our cards and began perusing what we had, though I of course had to count on my mom to help me, trusting she wouldn’t use the opportunity to cheat. In a flash, Harper dropped two pairs on the table in front of her. My mom pulled out a pair from my hand and likewise dropped them on the table in front of me. Nobody else had any matches.

            “I got two pairs,” Harper said to me. “You only have one.”

            “Yeah,” I replied. “But they’re doctors so they’re worth ten points. You have the basketball player and the artist, and they’re only worth two points”

            “That’s not right.”

            “Way I play, it is. Sorry, but them’s the rules.”

            Okay, let me explain a bit about Harper, who is three and a half years old. I’ve learned in recent years that comparing her with other people’s kids of the same age is simply unfair. It’s a bit like comparing Dr. Strangelove with Fail-Safe. And I don’t just say that because she’s my grand niece—plenty of other non-relatives and complete strangers have made the same observation, though without the Kubrick reference.

            Harper is most definitely what you’d call precocious, but not in that snotty, nasal and aloof Park Slope kind of way, with kids named “Orlando” and “Cassandra” trying really really hard to act like adults to prove how sophisticated and intelligent they are. I’ve seen adults act that same way too, and can always see straight through the desperate facade. Harper is decidedly still a kid, with all the energy, exuberance and curiosity (as well as the occasional tantrum) that comes with being three, but one with a frightening facility with the language and an open-ended imagination.

            Heavily socialized since she was very young, she’s been exposed not only to a wide assortment of people, but a wide array of cultures as well. By two she was already speaking in complete and coherent sentences, she had a sense of humor, she could manipulate an iPhone better than I can yet, and had a busy career (against her parent’s wishes) as a model, appearing in dozens of national print campaigns for several department stores. (She refers to photo shoots as “going to work.”) She seemed to have the ability to absorb and retain everything she experienced.

            Now at three her vocabulary is on a par with mine, she knows all the words to all the songs on the radio, and seems to be teaching herself to play the piano. She improvises her own infomercials, and her favorite TV show is “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is something her mother simply can’t figure out.

            “So,” I asked her as we sat around the table. “Do you want to be an entertainer when you get older?” There was already some question whether she was going to be an entertainer or a doctor.

            “Yes!” She said. “I’m going to be a singer. But before I do that I want to be a dancer. Before I do that, though, I need a really nice wardrobe.”

            “I see,” I said. “Well, I’m awfully glad you have all that worked out. I’m still working on the wardrobe part.”

            When the game ended about ten minutes later, Harper had won, and I was left holding the Old Maid.

            “I won,” she said matter-of-factly. “You’re the loser. Okay, round two. Mama, deal the cards.”

            My god, I thought, I’m playing Old Maid with the Cincinnati Kid.

            At the end of the second game, she was once again the winner, and I was once again left holding the Old Maid.

            “I win again. You’re the loser,” she said.

            “I know that, but only because it’s a stupid game.”

            “No it’s not!”

            “Yes it is. Stupid, stupid game.”

            She all but ignored me. “No it’s not. Okay round three. Mama? Deal the cards.”

            By the end of the fourth game, I’d only found myself holding the Old Maid three times. I didn’t win the fourth, but at least I didn’t have the Old maid, so she couldn’t justifiably point out that I was once again the loser.

            “Are you counting cards already?” I asked. I wouldn’t have been surprised.

            The next night the five of us were sitting around the kitchen table at my sister’s house when Harper suggested we play Old Maid again.

            “Oh, no,” I said. “Count me out. Stupid game. Never playing that stupid game again.”

            “No it’s not. You just always lose. You’re a loser.”

            “I know that, sweetie, which is why I refuse to play. But I’ll get the cards for you.” I stood and began fumbling around the kitchen counter, not exactly sure what an Old Maid deck felt like.

            “Oh, Jesus,” Harper said. “You can’t find anything,”

            Realizing I was dealing with a three-year-old, I tried to stop myself. Then remembering what kind of three-year-old I was dealing with I decided against it.

            “That’s because I can’t see. You can see, so let’s see you go find something why don’t you, you’re so damn smart?”

            As the rest of them played another four rounds, I sat at the table with them, petting Mary’s cat and drinking Pabst.

            The next morning Mckenzie, Harper, and Harper’s three-week-old baby brother Trey had to pack up and head back to Milwaukee, so my mom and I stopped by Mary’s to say goodbye. After giving me a hug, Harper stepped back and said, “You’re a loser. You always lose.”

            “I know that, sweetie, but I’m at least glad I’m leaving you with an honest impression.”

 

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