I had not played cards in years. I have always owned a deck, from exotic locations to historical reproductions.

I got in before count. I got the usual delays, and sometimes you don’t know if the delays are manufactured mind games or just the way things ran because they were so unpredictable and even whimsical. I stay quiet either way. I always have to remember my purpose, and that is to talk to Lance, and get home in time to pick up my kids.

When I went to get processed for my pass, a guard I had never seen, but clearly a guard that does not take her job seriously in the least, kept scanning my passport card repeatedly and typing something after each time and then taking a stare at my ID. She didn’t look frustrated, but I was wondering why a step that only happened once on ever previous visit, she is doing repeatedly and stopping to make calls to hero the guard friends on duty. I refused to say anything. I stood there expressionless behind the blue tape line directly in front of a camera by her side. I waited and waited and waited. four people went by. I waited. Then she told me to go.

every step of the process seems timed so that you miss getting into the next step and must wait wait wait.

The guard at the heavy gate to the visitor’s room is always the same one. Guards tend to change jobs each time I come, but this guy always has this job. He smiles. He tries to cheer up the people frowning in line. He flirts with the mamas. He is polite and even kind. He controls the opening to the visitor’s room. I always smile when I see him and he has started to add “again” at the ends of his hello’s to me.

I went to the shelf of broken board games and torn books and incomplete card decks. All the pencils were broken and the markers dry. I wouldn’t be able to sneak some notes while pretending to color. I gathered all the decks of cards and walked toward my assigned seats 1-12. I started to resurrect a complete deck from all the cards. In the end, there were four or five different decks that went into making the complete deck. I handed them to Lance when he entered and told him to: “Shuffle.” He smiled at me and at the groupings of four of every kind. I tell him I figured he shuffled better than me. I ask him to teach me a popular card game in Sing Sing, one guys gambled on.


First round six cards each, then every subsequent round five each. Aces are worth one point, ten of diamonds-two points, seven or more spade cards together is worth same as an ace and the player with the most cards gets three points. The maximum points total that can be scored by all is 11.

After the cards are dealt, you either throw down a card in your hand or pick up a card the same as yours or totaling a card in your hand.

We played a game with all our cards showing, so I could learn. Then when we started playing for real, I won every time although I didn’t try. Then he had me deal. I hate dealing, but I would do it as long as he continue to shuffle.

When they announced early go-back, he made some mention that he would have to leave soon because he wanted to go to the commissary. I was okay with that. He said we would squeeze in around. Then I began to notice correctional officers coming into the visitor’s room and staying. There was one at every guard station, which was unusual.

Usually there was only two guards in the front at the OIC and maybe one or two in the back not really paying attention. At the four guard stations, there were at least three guards, wooden night sticks dangling beside their legs, ready and eager. Then more guards came, and stood in a crowd of fourteen at the front. There seemed to be more coming in all the time. We continue to pay, and I continued to win.

I was careful to conceal my hand, but he didn’t bother and I got a quick guilty glimpse at his cards. To distract myself, I asked: why are all these guards here? They all had their sleeves rolled up, tattooes on biceps.

There are no female guards out, not even at the OIC desk. They must have left as these guards came in. I didn’t recognize any of these guards.

Lance didn’t miss a beat, we kept playing, and then he said: “Last week at visiting hours, two guys got into it. They were throwing chairs.”

I asked why, and he replied: “If your trying to finish with someone, let’s say they took something or messed with you, then the only time you can get back at them is mess hall, yard or visiting room.”

Why the visiting room, it’s full of children and families?

“It was probably the next time they saw each other. didn’t matter if it was the visiting room. They were in a fight and that’s the only time the guys were together next.”

Lance told me they also do that when there are known trouble makers in the visiting room.

Lance did not win once.

I asked him if he should go, and he decided to forget about the commissary today.

He was worried about the clemency letter he had to write. He thought the odds were stacked against him, so I gave him a pep talk about how it didn’t matter. The decision is not legal; it’s political.

We spoke about the two men he shot. We hadn’t really spoken about these men who would be about the same age as Lance now. Was there a woman or a man out there who had grown up without their father because of this? Were there grieving parents? An entire people torn from future photo albums-just in the way Lance has been. The difference is Lance has a chance to return to his family, and these men never will.

I never took pleasure in playing cards until today. I went home and taught my youngest son, who then taught his older brother and we all played and then the both of them played until it was time for bed.

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