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Uneven Hearts

“You don’t hate me,” my older brother smiled slyly. “You admire me.”

With that, he slapped down the queen of spades on top of the pile of cards, adding another 13 points to my score. It was the third hand in a row he’d gleefully beaten me.

Roy was only half right. I admired him; it was true. But I hated him with a fury that only a marginalized younger brother can muster.

“It’s your turn to shuffle,” my father said, handing me the deck, adding points with his sharp pencil to my already disappointing tally on his scoring sheet. He spoke in his typically dismissive tone. As if his having to remind me of my duties—even the shuffling of cards—was a tedious chore. Why should I have to remind you of even the simplest of tasks?

“Try to deal them evenly,” Roy smugly added, taking a long pull off his beer. Even in our 40’s, Roy loved to dredge up the past. Stick fingers in eyes. Pour salt in wounds.

But Roy was right. I had not been the most coordinated child.

“I was six years old, Roy,” I shot back, embarrassed that I took Roy’s bait—yet again—regretting them, even as the words came out of my mouth. “So what if I couldn’t shuffle? So what if I couldn’t deal as good as you? You want to let that go?” I added lamely, but Roy grinned. He enjoyed this game better.

“You eventually figured out how,” Wayne conceded, always the peacemaker. It seemed to be our middle brother’s job to smooth rough waters. “Roy, I remember when you first learned how to shuffle . . .” Wayne riffled the playing cards, fanning them out in a disorderly array.

I laughed.

“Are you ladies going to play cards or yammer all day? Your mother said the turkey’s on at 4:00,” my father said, grabbing the television remote to intermittently click between the football game, the Weather Channel, and cable news. He checked the score and grunted. I knew better than to say anything.

“Pass three cards to the right,” Roy said, reminding us of the rules we had known since childhood. My father looked at him with immense satisfaction as Roy favored my father in both looks and mannerisms. The heir to the throne.

My mother was more partial to me, her baby boy, the only one with her blue eyes. In our youth, she had checked Roy on his tyrannical treatment of his younger brothers. Roy resented this, resented her, doubling down on his imitation of our father, belittling her when the occasion presented itself.

When I was very young, I asked my mother why Roy hated me so much. She tried to explain how family members don’t really hate each other. She also noted that Roy had been born prematurely and had been colicky as a baby. When he first learned to walk, he would occasionally fall. Then he would yell and hit the floor for being in his way.

As for Wayne? Neither mother nor father seemed particularly interested in the bookish middle son. In high school, I’d overheard my father ask Roy if Wayne was queer, not understanding Wayne’s gentle nature. Wayne did let the world take advantage of him, passively accepting whatever he did or did not receive. At present, all the world offered him was a hell beast of an ex-wife and two disaffected middle schoolers, who readily believed the lies their mother told them. Still, Wayne was dutifully good natured, emulating my mother who artfully navigated my father’s and Roy’s dark moods.

“What is this garbage?” My father angrily arranged the cards in his hand. On some level, he blamed me, as I had dealt. He slapped down his three cards, one at a time, an indictment against all disappointing sons.

To my knowledge, as oafish as Roy was, our father seemed to excuse his youthful indiscretions. Shoplifting. Vandalism. The incident with the Gallagher girl. Wayne he wholly ignored. As for me? It had always seemed his paternal affection for me dangled just out of reach. If I had been accepted to a better college. If I had married a prettier wife. If I had looked anything like him, instead of favoring my mother so much. I had no idea how to please the man.

“No dirt on the first hand,” Roy said, unnecessarily reminding us of the longstanding tradition. House rules.

“Yeah, we get it,” I muttered. Looking at my cards, wondering if the hearts broke evenly, I plotted my strategy. If the hearts were equally distributed among my brothers and father, I could shoot the moon. If not, I was going to lose, humiliating myself even further. But I desperately needed the 26-point advantage if I was going to walk out of this house with some dignity.

By the fourth round, my ruse was discovered.

“Baby boy here is trying to shoot the moon!” Roy laughed, as if that were a remote possibility. “I hope you counted cards,” he advised, bluffing in his obnoxious way. Roy loved to make others feel he had the better of them.

Roy’s superiority vanished in short order with each hand that I won.

“You misplayed the ace, Roy,” my father lightly chastised him. Roy cursed under his breath, and I stared him down, effortlessly playing card after card, winning hand after hand.

“You are one lucky son of a bitch,” Roy threw his last card down.

“And you are one stupid son of a bitch,” I shot back. “We’ll just chalk it up to your brain development as a child. Being a preemie must have really cost you over the years,” I added, viciously.

Something palpable changed in the room.

“Son—” my father said in a low voice. It was a warning shot. But I was too emboldened by my win to take much heed.

“You should have stayed in utero all 40 weeks, Roy. It would’ve cooked up those brains of yours a bit more,” I laughed. No one else did.

Roy looked at my father, whose mouth had narrowed into a thin line. Without speaking, both of them stood up, tucked in their folding chairs, and walked to the dining room.

Wayne sighed audibly, picking up the abandoned decks of cards and wrapping rubber bands around them for next time. If there were a next time.

“What? What’s wrong, Wayne?” I asked irritably.

“Roy wasn’t premature,” he said quietly.

“Mom said he was a honeymoon baby born two months early,” I said, repeating what I now learned had been the often-told lie.

“Roy wasn’t premature,” he said again before joining the others in the dining room.

I sat alone at the card table. I picked up my father’s scoring sheet for our annual game of Hearts and saw that, indeed, the hearts had not broken evenly.

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