Penny Ante Girl
by Deborah Bernard
My Daddy won me in a poker game. Momma bet her weddin ring, me, and our Greyhound bus tickets ‘gainst Daddy’s full house. She tried to bluff, but she never was too good at hidin the truth. Daddy always said Momma couldn’t hide nothin from him.
That’s what happened when she saved up that travelin money. She was gonna take me on a long vacation, far, far away she said. Some place real nice she said, where there ain’t no booze and there ain’t no lyin. Momma wasn’t real fond of booze nor lyin.
There was gonna be some kinda trees at that special place, palm trees I think. She got this real faraway look in her eyes whenever she talked ‘bout them trees. She said they danced in the wind, and she grabbed me in her big knuckley hands and whirled me ‘round the kitchen table.
I told Momma that was the silliest thing she ever said ‘cause even I know trees don’t dance. But she kept right on whirlin and she said, “Honey, you only seen the bad side of things. They is places in this world where trees dance and twirl and spin in the wind. And nobody knocks them to the ground if they don’t feel like dancin neither.”
I never did see them dancin trees ‘cause Daddy found the baking powder tin where Momma put the travelin money. He wasn’t real happy when he found it. I told him he could come on the vacation, too, so he wouldn’t be sad. But I think his feelins was hurt ‘cause Momma didn’t invite him herself.
Sometimes when Daddy walked behind Momma and put his hand on her shoulder, Momma would turn around real fast like she was gonna dance, twirl, and spin just like those palm trees. She’d look at Daddy right when she’d spun round, and she looked like she saw something real pretty in his eyes, ‘cause she’d get all teary, like she was ‘memberin something she used to have, but she didn’t have no more.
I think Daddy ‘membered something he lost, too, ‘cause he would kiss her real gentle then. He kissed her on the forehead first, and Momma would close her eyes like she was gonna melt all over the ‘noleum or somethin. Then Daddy would grab her up and kiss her all over her neck. Momma seemed to like that ‘cause she sounded like Teddy our cat when he sat all snuggled up in my lap, all purrin and nuzzlin.
When Daddy found that travelin money, he counted it out painful slow. Me and Momma counted, too, but only in our heads. Daddy was watchin Momma out of the corner of his eye, but Momma was only lookin at the travelin’ money. Momma’s shoulders flinched each time Daddy laid down one of them bills.
Daddy stacked the money on the kitchen table and stood back to admire what he built. Then he puffed out his chest and sunk down his chin like he was God or somethin. He crossed his arms and danced a jig around the table. “Look at me, Zilphie. I’m a palm tree,” he said. “I’m one of your Momma’s god-damned palm trees.” And he laughed and laughed.
Momma and me was real quiet.
At first I only saw Momma’s lips move. I couldn’t hardly hear her what with all Daddy’s laughin. It was like how thunder starts in on rumblin way back of Bailey Ridge. Just loud enough so you know you oughta be headin home. Momma sounded just like that, and I knew nothin’ would never be the same. Like thunder and lightnin was gonna come crashin through the door and rip the walls apart.
“That’s mine. I been savin it. Give it here.”
Daddy wasn’t payin no mind to Momma, and he sure didn’t hear nothin she said over the ruckus he was makin. She just kept sayin the same thing over and over again, louder each time she said it.
“It’s mine. I been savin it. Give it here.” Louder.
“Give it here.” Still louder.
Momma kept repeatin herself until Daddy up and stopped his laughin. He must have heard her the whole time ‘cause he spun ‘round, spit his tobacco juice on the floor, and lookin nearly clean through her, he said, “It ain’t yours. This is my money. You been cheatin me outta my money.”
“I been savin it. I’ve a right to it. Give it here.”
I thought Daddy was gonna start laughin again, ‘cept right then Momma said somethin real curious. “I’ll play you for it,” she said.
“Play me for it?” Daddy wiped spit from his chin with the back of his hand.
“A hand of poker for it.”
Now Daddy did start laughin again. He sure did think it was funny. I think Momma musta thought God would be on her side ‘cause Daddy was expert at playing cards, and I knew Momma thought they was poison.
“Whaddya think you’re gonna wager?” Daddy asked. He was still laughin. But he wasn’t smilin. “You ain’t got nothing ‘cept what’s mine.”
Momma’s eyes slid over to where I was standin. I think Momma musta hoped I’d be on her side, too, ‘cause she reached into her apron pocket and as she turned back to Daddy she said, “I got two bus tickets.” She set them tickets square in the middle of the table.
I near fell over when she said it. That was our two Greyhound bus tickets to them dancin trees. I didn’t think she’d ever risk them tickets the way she was always checkin on ‘em to make sure they was safe. It was like someone else was givin her the words she was sayin, like she was in a school play or somethin.
Momma gathered me behind her. I heard Daddy smash his fist on the table, and I imagined the tickets jumpin in the air. From behind Momma’s arms, I saw him run his thumb through her travelin money and then stack the bills next to our bus tickets.
Momma ended up bettin them tickets, her weddin ring, and me ‘gainst Daddy’s full house. I don’t ‘spect she aimed on losin me and them tickets both. I don’t figure Daddy ‘spected to win me neither. But one thing Daddy got more of his share of is pride. “Damn, Zilphie, look what your Momma’s gone and done. You’re a penny ante girl, Zilphie. A god-damned penny ante girl.”
Thunder and lightnin didn’t come crashin in and rip the walls apart or nothin. It was a real quiet storm that blew through our house that day. Them dancin trees must have been real important ‘cause Momma just packed up some of her things and walked right out the door. She didn’t say nothin. She didn’t even turn around to see me wavin goodbye.
A classroom teacher for many years, Deborah Bernard has had several pieces of nonfiction work published as proposals to school boards as well as state and federal government agencies. She serves on the board of Lowcountry Initiative for Literary Arts, a Charleston outreach organization whose mission is to nurture and promote the literary arts in South Carolina. “I have lived on the east coast and on the west coast, but nowhere in between,” she says. “I marvel that I now call magnificent Charleston, South Carolina, home, a city steeped in rich cultural history.” Most days she can be found traipsing around the city with her husband, dog Gus and her camera.