Her grandmother stands expectantly outside the apartment complex, positioned under an awning-covered walkway awaiting her ride. Every time Joyce phones Nana to make arrangements for their once-a-month Friday night bridge game, she urges her to please wait inside. There’s no way to predict how long it will take her to get from the city to Westport during rush hour. Still, no matter how much she tries to reassure her they won’t be late, there Nana is—outside—a bright light in her lemon-yellow pantsuit.
As Joyce pulls the car closer, she resolves to make the trip from Manhattan more often. It’s only when she sees her grandmother alone there that she realizes how much she misses her.
It takes Nana more than a moment to recognize her granddaughter, but when she does, she beams and marches right up to the passenger side door. The skip in her step, uncharacteristic of a woman in her eighties, has Joyce wondering again, exactly how old is she? Every time the subject comes up—which isn’t often since Nana’s adept at dodging the question—she makes up a new number. Her grandmother adds and subtracts ten birthdays in the time it takes Joyce to have one of her own.
“Hi dearie. Do you mind picking Hazel up? She’s going to be part of our foursome. Edith’s playing too, but she went over early to help set up.” Nana lovingly squeezes her arm, and a loud whiff of Jean Naté comes with the kiss she plants on Joyce’s cheek.
“Sure thing.” Joyce motions for Nana to close the door. “What’s this?” She taps the odd piece of jewelry pinned to Nana’s suit jacket, a key dangling from a safety pin askew on her lapel.
Nana covers the key with one hand.
“This thing? It’s as old as the hills.” Then she pauses as if taking the key in for the first time. “Oh this, it’s hard to find in my bag late at night.”
“You don’t have to wait out here, you know. I don’t mind ringing the bell. Or coming inside.”
“I like the fresh air,” Nana says. “I pass the time with a little game. These dang eyes can make out the cars before the passengers, so—based on the type of vehicle—I try to guess whether the driver is a man or woman. I give myself five points if I’m right. Lose five if I’m wrong. Then when you get here, if I’m up, I win. In the negative, I lose.”
“What do you get if you win?” Joyce asks, smiling at the woman who taught her everything she knows about betting.
“Nothing. You know me, I just play for the love of the game.”
“Speaking of those dang eyes,” Joyce says pointing to her suit jacket. “You missed a few.”
“Jeepers. You can’t take me anywhere.” Nana puts her purse in the space between them, and when she does, Joyce feels something pointy stab her thigh. Fumbling with her jacket, Nana hesitates for a second, as though she’s trying to figure out exactly how a button fits through a buttonhole.
“Why aren’t you wearing your bifocals?” Joyce picks up her grandmother’s bag, asking with the gesture if she can look inside. When Nana doesn’t seem to register the request, Joyce says, “Mind?”
“They’re a nuisance. Make me look old, too. But go ahead. They’re in there.”
Aside from being unbuttoned in places, Nana is as put together as always. Clean clothes, matching earrings, hair combed just right. So what if her make-up is applied a bit heavy and her breath hangs a little sour in the air.
The inside of Nana’s purse is still a child’s treasure box. Rolls of pennies and poker chips, several packs of sealed Bicycles, and an array of colorful bingo daubers. But beyond the familiar, Joyce uncovers Nana’s scare card. A half-eaten banana unleashes a rancid smell declaring it days old. And underneath that—the source of the poke—a piece of what looks to be steak trapped in the corner by a kitchen knife.
Joyce reaches across Nana to get into the glove compartment for a napkin to wrap up the food. “I’ll be right back,” she says dabbing her eyes.
By sleight of hand, Joyce slides the purse away from her grandmother and opens the door, stretching her legs, stiff from the drive. Nana doesn’t look up from her buttoning. Without seeing her face, Joyce can’t tell if Nana’s embarrassed by what she’s found or oblivious to it.
The overfilled dumpster is on the far side of the parking lot, and Joyce blames its foul odor and the frenzied car ride for her sudden dizziness.
Nana hasn’t been confused during their weekly phone calls, and she doesn’t seem so now. But a deeper look into the purse steals her breath. Two pads of generic checks with the numbers out of sequence; no check log. No wallet. Nana is out and about in the world without any kind of ID.
Joyce’s fingers go numb when they hit a Ziploc bag filled with a rainbow of pharmaceuticals, some she recognizes, most she does not.
All at once she has the impulse to ask to use Nana’s bathroom, to get a look inside the apartment. She shouldn’t wait until the bridge game’s over and they finish their night with Earl Grey and gossip. Joyce tosses the rotten food and heads back to the car.
“Excuse me, you,” Nana shouts, her head poking out the window.
Like a much younger woman, Joyce’s grandmother has had the physical dexterity to reach across the driver’s side, put down the window, and stretch her body nearly through it.
“Coming,” Joyce says.
It’s hard to make sense of the key pinned to Nana’s lapel and the contents of her purse. Her grandmother has been on point, sharp as the proverbial knife, since she hopped in the car. If only Joyce’s mother were here to convince her she’s overreacting. “That woman’s an eccentric, Joycie,” she’d likely say.“Her idiosyncrasies are merely exaggerated due to age.”
Back in the car, Joyce’s hands shake as she buckles the seatbelt, but gain strength when she takes hold of the steering wheel. That’s when Nana squeezes her arm again. This time the loving touch has been replaced with a pinch that threatens to bruise.
“Give me back my bag,” she says, wrenching the purse toward her. Once clutched to her chest, she stares at Joyce with eyes squinty and scared.
“Nana, are you okay?” Joyce places her hand on her grandmother’s, partly to comfort her but also to loosen her grip.
Nana cocks her head just a touch and offers Joyce a weak smile. “Fine, I’m fine,” she says. “Let’s get cracking. We don’t want to keep Hazel waiting. She’ll be in a snit the whole night if we don’t get a good table.”
Nana breaks the deck and performs the riffle shuffle like a pro. Joyce is ten and her grandmother is just beginning to teach her to play cards. Before every game, she begs Nana to do it again, show her one more time. Joyce loves watching Nana divvy the cards, dovetail the deck, releasing them in a cascade. The waterfall noise the cards make is crisp and confident.
“We’ll play a few hands of five card draw to see if you remember the rules. Then I’m going to teach you about poker tells,” Nana says. “Did you bring your pennies?”
Joyce lifts her sweatshirt enough so she can dig into the pocket of her blue jeans. Out come the coins she rolled herself behind her closed bedroom door. She’d been in no mood for one of her mother’s lectures. That woman better not be filling your head with foolishness. You’ve got homework to do. Nothing good comes from betting your future on luck, her mother is always saying.
Yeah, yeah, Joyce thinks. Nana says Mom wouldn’t know a lucky strike if she stepped on one outside their apartment on the corner of East 9th and Broadway. And Nana isn’t talking about the occasional cigarette her mother sneaks at night when she thinks Joyce is asleep. Nana is talking about Malcolm.
Mom’s last boyfriend had a job trading money with other guys who wore nice suits. The kind with lines the color of chalk running up and down the pants and jacket. Everything about Malcolm was flashy, the way he carried his shiny watch tucked into a waist-high pocket, and never showed up to the apartment without candy for Joyce and tulips or some other fancy flowers for her mother.
Except Joyce hasn’t seen Malcolm in over a week. Last night when she asked her mother where the guy went and when he planned on coming back, all her mother said was good riddance to bad rubbish.
Joyce slaps the one cent cylinder down on the table, proud that she’s followed Nana’s directions and didn’t get caught getting ready for the game. “I counted them out three times,” she says.
Nana doesn’t abide being sloppy when it comes to betting games. The seal on the cards must be opened in plain sight of the other players. A new Bicycle deck for each session. No room for dirty dealing. The plan is to play with real money till Joyce gets the hang of it, then Nana will teach her to bet chips.
After playing three hands, Joyce knows she’s done well following the rules. She’s even won one big. Her royal flush beat Nana’s three of a kind earning her a mountain of pennies.
“So what’s a pokatell?”
“They’re called poker tells,” Nana says. “You show other players the strength of your hand with what you say and do. And you don’t want to do that.” Nana splits the deck. “Unless of course, you’re bluffing. Watch and learn.”
She performs another perfect shuffle. Flying cards come out of her hands and then go right back into them. The only things missing for this magician is a white rabbit and black hat. When five cards lay face down on the table in front of Joyce, Nana tips her head and raises her dark eyes. “Go ahead. Pick them up and look,” she says.
Joyce hasn’t even organized her hand the way she’s been taught to, kings to aces grouped by suit, when Nana startles her.
“See there. You’ve got nothing.”
“How do you know I got nothing?” Joyce asks, pulling the cards close to her chest.
“You’ve got a habit of curling your bottom lip and crinkling your nose when you don’t like what you’ve been dealt. If your lips move up and your eyes open wide, I know you have something good. The brighter your face, the better your hand. Now, with an experienced player, it’s just the opposite. Anything that looks like sadness—a shrug of the shoulders, some change in the eyes, god-forbid a sigh—usually means the player has strong cards. The act is meant to deceive you.”
Joyce tosses her cards down on the table, pushing them toward Nana. “So I’m supposed to remember how to play, watch your face, and make sure mine isn’t talking? That’s a lot of things to do.” With her hands on her hips now, Joyce has the sneaking suspicion she looks more like she’s five than age ten. Then Nana confirms it.
“Yes, it is. If you’re playing with me, it’s high stakes. This isn’t kid stuff. It’s serious business.” Nana places the cards back in the deck and slides the pack across the table to her granddaughter. “Now cut the deck and shuffle like I taught you. It’s your turn to deal.”
Joyce doesn’t win a single hand for the rest of the afternoon. Who can concentrate with Nana yammering on about her friends’ poker tells? She doesn’t care that Edith Chesterfield rubs her nose whenever she has something better than two pair, or that Trudy McMahon fingers her Blessed Mother medal whenever she’s stone-cold bluffing, whatever the heck that means.
“I’ll bet she’s taken to praying to Saint Anthony to find her a good hand,” Nana says, slapping her thigh with one hand, fingering her own miraculous medal with the other.
While Nana laughs at her own jokes, Joyce tries with all her might to imitate one of those professional faces she’s seen in one of her mother’s school books. Joyce’s always-so-serious mother, who is studying to get her nurses’ assistant certificate, pours over those giant tomes night and day. According to her, she’s determined to make a better life for herself and her daughter, and damn it, she doesn’t need a pack of cards or a man to do it.
What Joyce is determined to do, is play a good game. She’ll do whatever it takes to beat Nana at cards. If she has to practice in front of a mirror or wear a mask while she plays, Joyce will figure out how not to tell her grandmother what she has in her hand by spilling the beans with a look.
While they play hand after hand, Joyce splits her time between memorizing her cards and examining every inch of Nana’s face. Those big brown eyes shielded by thick reading glasses, never become slits. They never give Nana away as far as Joyce can tell. Her grandmother’s nose doesn’t crinkle like her granddaughter’s supposedly does. Her nostrils don’t flare either. But once—near the end of one round—Joyce sees Nana stretch her neck and cock her head ever so slightly to the left. Her breathing slows and she looks right at her granddaughter. For less than a second, Nana smiles. It all means something. Joyce is sure of it.
She goes it alone to the meeting at Gate of Heaven Convalescent Center. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Nana can’t remember how she came to have that gouge on her forehead and those scrapes on her arms, or she simply refuses to admit that in the time between visits, she tripped or fell. Joyce doesn’t need her mother to tell her it’s time.
It’s been ten years since she lost her. Joyce was a junior in high school. One day after play rehearsal not long before dinner, she breezed through the back door bringing with her whirls of winter air. Her mother was so elegantly sprawled on the floor near the kitchen table, with her nightgown draped around her knees, that it seemed at first to Joyce like an odd kind of prank. Until she noticed her mother’s pretty face the color of snow and a piece of toast crumbled in the palm of her outstretched hand.
Her mother hadn’t gone to work that morning. Said she felt under the weather. But don’t worry about me, Joycie. Be good and study hard, were the last words she remembers her mother saying.
Looking back now, Joyce wonders if—even for a split second—she considered skipping school to stay home with her mother. Except no matter how many times she goes over it, wishing it were so, she knows the thought never entered her teenage mind.
The only up side to her mother not being here now to make decisions about Nana—the only reason Joyce can think of anyway—is that at least she never had to consider this ugly business. Though if she were here, as much as that woman drove her crazy, the nurse’s assistant certified would probably be taking care of Nana herself. She wouldn’t be contemplating how to abandon her in some random nursing home.
It’s just that lately, for Joyce, images of a clean room, caring nurses, and a few old ladies who love a good card game is the better bet over leaving things to chance.
Plagued by intrusive thoughts, she worries about Nana living alone. What if she falls again? The next time, breaking brittle bones because she’s reaching out for someone who isn’t there to catch her. Worse, what if Nana dies before her granddaughter can show up for their Friday night bridge game.
As Joyce walks toward admissions, she expects the odor of urine and feces to permeate the air. She almost wants this place to be foul. To make the decision simpler. Instead Pine-sol and craft glue assault her. She asks a physical therapist if she’s heading in the right direction.
“Down the hall, turn left,” he says with a smile, pointing with his free hand. His other one is linked with an old man’s arm, the two of them out for a therapeutic stroll.
Mostly elderly women dressed in shifts sit upright in the common rooms reading books or doing puzzles. No one is screaming. There isn’t a single person with vacant eyes or a haunted expression. With a crucifix here and a statue of the Holy family there, Joyce could just as easily be standing in the bingo hall at Nana’s parish church, Christ the King.
When she finds the right office, a robust woman comes out from behind her desk. It’s hard not to notice the woman’s struggle to move, rocking side to side as she makes her way forward. The old man in the hallway did a better job of putting one foot in front of the other. For a second Joyce wonders if her outstretched hand is a request for help. But then she realizes the woman merely wants to shake hers.
“I’m Mrs. Wa-dell,” she annunciates. “Please have a seat. I’m gathering the necessary paperwork.”
The emphasis the woman places on how to pronounce her name would’ve made Nana laugh. Joyce can almost hear her grandmother say, Mrs. Waddle, indeed.
“I’m only here to look around. I haven’t made my decision yet,” Joyce says, taking a seat in one of the chairs facing the desk. In an attempt to hide her smirk, to cover her rudeness over the woman’s name, she turns toward the window. It showcases a transit bus with a line of elderly people taking turns climbing aboard. Gray head after gray head ascend the steps, the pause in between protracted and painful to watch, nothing funny about it.
“Once a month the activities staff accompany interested residents into New Rochelle for lunch,” Mrs. Wadell says. “From what your grandmother’s physician tells me, she’s more than capable of partaking in these kinds of outings.”
“Physically Nana’s pretty good.”
Mrs. Wadell leans back and rubs her chin waiting for Joyce to elaborate.
“It’s that sometimes, she’s a little—” The words are right there, but Joyce can’t get them out without crying. “I thought maybe she could move in with me, but I work a lot. Leaving her alone in my apartment doesn’t really solve the problem.”
“I understand. You’re worried about keeping her safe. And that’s exactly what we do here. Our ratios are five residents to one staff member on the day shift. And as part of our memory care program, we have a wide range of terrific social activities.”
Mrs. Wadell hands Joyce a stack of papers with a schedule of activities on top. Apples and pumpkins are hand-drawn into the corners; September announcements fill the page. Sing-along Saturdays. Country Line Dancing for Beginners. The Memoir Project.
Mrs. Wadell taps the sheet. “You told me when we spoke on the phone that your grandmother likes to play cards. She’ll be able to do that here. Every day, if she chooses.”
“Even if this were the perfect place, getting her to want to live here isn’t going to be easy. Nana’s very independent.”
For her next act, Mrs. Wadell pulls a leaflet from the pile. Preparing for the Move: A Caregiver’s Guide. On the cover of the three-fold are two women—one about Nana’s age, the other the age Joyce’s mother would be—packing bags as if they’re going on a dream vacation.
“If she lives with me, I think she’ll be less confused,” Joyce says. “Except being in the city might not be a good idea.”
Speaking from a deeper place, Mrs. Wadell says, “Let Gate of Heaven be your solution.” As her mouth moves and the symmetry of her shoulders shift, Joyce realizes if Nana were here, she’d start counting the number of times the woman blinks.
Joyce can hear the tea pot whistle in the kitchen before she opens the door to the apartment. All that pleading with Nana to give her a key and she is finally able to let herself in at will. When she checks on her grandmother, a few times a week now, she always finds something that punches her in the gut. An untouched dinner plate on the table. The window open to rain.
Today, Nana makes no move to get up off her divan, a seat clearly within hearing distance of the door.
“You okay?” Joyce asks, walking toward the stove. Before kissing her grandmother hello, she moves the sputtering kettle to the back burner. Sniffs the milk, then pours the full carton down the drain. She closes the refrigerator door.
“What are you doing?” Nana asks. She’s half-dressed in one of her spring pantsuits. Slacks on, jacket draped across her lap.
It’s bitter cold for late October; Joyce will have a bear of a time convincing Nana to wear a coat.
“I was going to brew us some tea. But I’ll help you finish getting dressed first.”
Taking the cushion next to hers, Joyce smooths out Nana’s wild gray curls. A lump forms in her throat when she feels her hair so spare in the back.
“We should probably get going soon,” Joyce says as she reaches for Nana’s medication container on the coffee table. It’s an oblong plastic deal with pop-up lids marked with the days of the week that she bought at Duane Reade. Joyce opens Tuesday and is pleased to find the compartment empty. Good, Nana remembered her pills.
“Where are we playing today?” Nana asks. “It better not be all beginners. I’m not about to waste my time and talent.”
“We’re going to Gate of Heaven,” Joyce says, surveying her grandmother’s face. Looking for clues that Nana remembers what she’s been told on every single visit Joyce has made since she decided. The ebb and flow of Nana’s lucidity is the hardest thing about loving her now. With every sentence, Joyce struggles with whether to be honest or sit in silence.
“You bring your pennies?” Nana asks.
On the ride to Nana’s new home, Joyce tells the truth but tells it slant. “They have games every weekday morning, alternating poker and bridge,” she says. “The guy who runs all the activities has been in a league since college.”
“What’s this place?” Nana asks, as the two make their way into the lobby of the convalescent center, each step she takes with a shorter stride.
“Why a parish hall, but no church?” Nana’s brow furrows. Resistance weighs her down like the tweed coat Joyce insisted she throw over her shoulders.
Joyce didn’t expect to be relieved to see Mrs. Wadell inside the front door. She has no idea how to do this. Her mother would’ve known. Except her mother wouldn’t be doing it. The only thing Joyce is sure of is that if her grandmother sees the woman’s rock-and-roll walk coming toward them, that’ll be the end of it. Nana will fold.
“Welcome to Gate of Heaven,” Mrs. Wadell says. “Right this way.”
Joyce’s breath becomes shallow, deep sighs impossible given the pressure in her chest. A wheelchair rolls up behind Nana. When it touches the back of her knees and the orderly takes hold of one elbow, even though his touch is gentle, Nana has no choice but to sit. Joyce has been prepared for this mode of transportation. While Nana is more than capable of walking the distance, Mrs. Wadell had insisted. It’s the swiftest means to her destination, she’d said.
Registering the name of the place and seeing Nana’s expression—hint of fear, look of betrayal—it all feels wrong. Her grandmother thinks she’s being whisked right out of this world.
“Wait,” Joyce says, stepping in front of the wheelchair, bending down.
“Nana, try to remember. This is the place I told you about. It’s closer to me. And I made sure you’ll have your own room.”
Nana stops her granddaughter with her eyes. She leans forward, pulling Joyce close by the chin. “You said we were coming here to play cards.”
“I need to know you’re safe,” Joyce says, gripping the arms of the wheelchair. “You’ll get used to it, I promise.” Then she touches Nana’s miraculous medal with one finger, praying for this to be true.
“I’ll die in here. Believe me. I won’t last a week.” Nana’s voice is flat, without the deep resonant tone that comes when she ups the ante. No soft sigh to accompany her resignation either.
“No one is going to do any dying,” Mrs. Waddell says with a chuckle.
Joyce gives the woman a look. What a ridiculous thing to say in a place like this. She almost wishes Nana would say out loud what Joyce is thinking.
Mrs. Waddell taps the orderly’s shoulder, signaling for him to hustle Nana off to her room on the south side of the building.
“I’ll take her.” Joyce moves with such purpose toward the back of the wheelchair that the orderly steps aside.
“No, no,” Mrs. Waddell says. “You’ve got admission papers to sign.”
Joyce does nothing to acquiesce to the administrator, and she makes no attempt to hide her tears either.
“Number 108 is right next to the activity room.” Mrs. Wadell calls after them, as if this is the consolation prize Nana has been waiting on.
Despite its picture window, the room is gloomy. The wooded lot it showcases is thick with trees and shadows.
Nana sits rigid in the wheelchair staring straight ahead at a wall. With her hands on her lap, she twiddles her thumbs in a smooth rhythm, a steady, easy rotation. Joyce parks her in front of an oversized vinyl chair, but with a vigorous head shake, Nana refuses to make the transfer.
“They say I can bring in some of your things,” Joyce says. “So definitely your recliner can replace this thing, and I’m thinking your card table would look great right here.” Joyce points to the space in front of the window.
“I won’t be needing that. I’m done playing,” Nana says, making that noise with her mouth, tongue against teeth with a snap. Once upon a time, her grandmother called it a poker-clack—a sure sign a player is bluffing.
Joyce plops down in the vinyl chair and wheels Nana close. “I’m staying all day,” she says. Pulling a pack of cards from her shoulder bag, she breaks the seal on a deck. Even without a table between them, Joyce performs a riffle shuffle to rival her grandmother’s.
“I said, I’m not playing,” Nana says. “I’m not living here either.”
Her hands come to a standstill. Nana leans in and lowers her voice, yet still it quavers. “When you leave—when nobody’s looking—I’m going to walk right out that front door. And there’s nothing you or that waddle lady can do to stop me.”
Nana’s big brown eyes never become slits; they don’t register a thing as far as Joyce can tell. Her nostrils don’t flare and her nose doesn’t crinkle like her granddaughter’s supposedly did when she was a girl learning to match her grandmother’s wits with a handful of cards.
But then, as Joyce continues to deal, there it is. Nana stretches her neck and cocks her head to the left ever so slightly. Her breathing slows, and for a split second, she looks proud of the way her granddaughter has gone ahead with the game.
Poker tells are everywhere. They all mean something. Joyce is sure of it.