By Jamie A. Hughes
Growing up, I thought everyone had casual conversations with the dead. The people in my family certainly did, mainly when we congregated on front porches and under shade trees, gathering around rickety folding tables with scarred vinyl tops to play hand after hand of dominoes. We’d bring them out at family reunions, between church and dinner on the grounds, and on weekend visits to Mamaw’s tidy house in Leachville, Arkansas. On long summer afternoons that were slowly siphoned away by the moon, we’d sit for hours, talking trash and swapping stories I’d heard a hundred times before I finished my first decade.
I knew those stories so well I sometimes believed I’d witnessed them firsthand. I saw my twin great uncles, Darrell and Doug, pissing in the dirt outside the gymnasium, snickering as they smeared the mud on windows their father — the school janitor — had just cleaned. Tasted the yeast rolls my great-grandmother made in the school cafeteria, always slipping the biggest ones to my mother and aunt when they came through the line. Rode the bus with my grandfather who arrived, took one look at the college he was supposed to attend and headed straight back home. Met Elvis with my grandparents on their first date, saw him in all his pompadoured glory, flush with youth and platinum-record promise. Hiked the Arkansas backcountry with my 17-year-old father, shotgun open and slung over one arm, and later felt the panic that only a cocked gun can engender. Tasted moonshine created at the still, unknowingly discovered and, like him, been willingly enfolded into the conspiracy by an unspoken law: You’ve sampled the Pierian Spring, boy. Now don’t tell nobody what you saw.
“Rattle them bones good, baby girl,” one elder or another would invariably say each time I shuffled dominoes. I worked them in slow circles, imagining myself a conjurer who called the dead to our table. And they would come, eager to revel in past glories when their steps were sure, before time and hard work whittled their bodies to slivers. They’d stand with one hand on a teller’s shoulder to correct errors (or insert a few new ones) in the tale, which would start everyone to bickering over details. The dead were there to savor the days of their lives, beautiful despite toil and deprivation. To play one more hand.
The secret of rattlin’ was to work the bones just fast enough to jumble up the numbers and redistribute the luck without making too much noise. The right shuffle was soothing white noise, the crackle of a weak AM station on the radio. Do it too rough, and you’d cause a racket and summon the dead you didn’t want — the ones who didn’t like to be disturbed and who, just for spite, would wreck your hand and give the points to the person on your left.
Some people played a little looser with the rules, called the dead close enough to converse. My great uncle Horace would whisper when he rattled. What’s that, Daddy? I’m gonna make 70 points this hand? You better show me which ones to pick, then. This one here? Allright. And this one? And when the pile was open for all, he’d select his seven dominoes with work-worn hands — all swollen knuckles and grease-stained nails. And sometimes, amazingly enough, the prognostication would come to pass. Fish fish, got my wish.
With fewer than four players at a table, the unclaimed dominoes sat in the boneyard, waiting to be drawn. Every time a player had to pull one, he’d roll his eyes, swear under his breath. “Boy, you sending me to that ol’ boneyard again?” he’d say, fingers dancing over the pile. “You want me to dig up your sister Bernice while I’m in there?” And the answer was, “No. Leave her be,” or some other variation depending on the person invoked: “Call her over here. I’ve got something to say” or “You go ahead and try. He was lazier than a housecat when he was alive. Cain’t be much better now.” For one particularly gruff cousin no one cared for, the answer was, “You leave that sumbitch right where he is.” I gasped at the swear word, then giggled when the one who said it blushed and begged pardon.
It was a joy to sit among the men of my family, this tribe I was tied to by blood and marriage. I liked the way they carried on over me when I was a novitiate, helping me count and providing easy ways to make points until I could do it on my own. We’d go at it for hours, drinking sun tea, listening to a Cardinals’ game on KMOX, and eating homemade cracklins. We’d wipe greasy fingers on pant legs and let the world float away on a breeze.
Dominoes, because of the exquisite orderliness inherent to it, made it easy to forget that life beyond the table was a mess. Most of the men were more exhausted than they let on, or someone we loved was in a bad way, or past-due bills were piling up in the basket under the rotary phone in someone’s kitchen.
The game moves in two directions until the spinner’s placed and two new routes created. But no matter what shape the board eventually takes, the only way to score is by 5s. On pads of paper from places like Riggs Hardware, Heath Funeral Home, or Patterson’s Feed Store, the columns filled with numbers, solid and sturdy as a well-framed house, five Xs to a row. Every 25 points, a new line was added, and they stacked up like canned fruits and vegetables put away for a hard winter.
Mine was a family that “made do,” who cooked up a mess of greens and then drank the pot likker, too. Nothing went to waste in those days when hunger waited around the corner, bided its time in the space between bedroom door and jamb until nighttime came and it could pester you through the long, dark hours. The boiled vegetables and the fat from the ham hock made a bowl of broth that, with a bit of cornbread, was a meal in itself. It nourished like the game did, kept me so full of tradition and history that I could sometimes forget we came from nothing, that we had nothing, and that I, in all likelihood, would end up as nothing. I’d play and wait my turn, the sun cupping my neck like a warm hand, a domino in my fingers. I’d count the pips like rosary beads, worry them with my thumb until I could smack the bone down. And then I’d hear the satisfying click as I connected my bone to a neighbor on the board. It had a place, and in those days, so did I.
Not long after my ninth birthday, a move to Florida changed my understanding of place forever. Cotton fields and pecan trees were replaced by saw palmettos and wiregrass. Everywhere, Spanish moss hung from trees like graceful mourning drapery. Days after our arrival, I looked at the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, and the sheer olive and sapphire expanse of it thrilled Me in a way only something dangerous can.
We left the vibrant domain of poverty and joined the manila-bland ranks of the middle class, assimilating into normalcy. Each time my father was promoted, we moved to another city — sometimes near that glorious expanse of water, other times not — but always into analogous three-bedroom ranch homes. And somewhere in that gypsy decade, between the first rented house and the last, I lost myself in an endless sea of white walls and sensible tan carpet.
We still played dominoes at our kitchen table on occasion, but during those years of frenetic pursuit, the game lost some elemental quality, the essential strangeness I couldn’t describe but keenly felt the lack of. And in time, I convinced myself none of it had been real, that my memories were nothing more than the wishes of a small-town girl with a penchant for impossible things.
I recently introduced the game to my sons, both adopted from the foster care system, as a way to fold them into my family’s history. I’m showing them how to make, how to piggyback, and how to block. How to work the board or lock it up if that’s in their best interest. It’s a satisfying way to spend an evening, and the old skills are coming back. The steps are the same, the liturgy familiar and comforting.
But I can’t rattle the bones these days, can’t hear the voices anymore. That world is lost to me. Perhaps it’s because I don’t live on an edge any longer, don’t remember the difference between a penny more or less. I “got myself educated” as the old folks said, stumbled across a bit of prosperity, and left that liminal space behind. But what I wouldn’t give to be called “baby girl” one more time by someone with a smoker’s cough, to see my grandfather smiling across the table, proud I’d gotten the 10 points he’d left for me.
It’s a little easier to sleep at night when the wolf’s not circling the house, but I can’t help but mourn all that went with the worry.