Before I knew my ABCs I learned to deal.
I performed at Daddy's Friday night
poker parties. I got to stay up late,
a good thing: I was afraid of the dark.
Sometimes, alone in my room, I saw the nights
as a deck of cards, stacked against me.
On Sundays Daddy and I fed the ducks
at Lake Merritt. Mallards scrambled for crumbs.
Swans drifted past the caged bald eagle.
Canada geese everywhere. Their calls
mingled with the bells from Our Lady of Lourdes,
and coots swam in pools of orange light.
I learned to read the handicaps when I was six.
I picked Lover's Dream and Lucky Lucy,
and Daddy took my bets downtown to the bookie
with his and Mama's. Mama and I sat
on her bed, beside the radio, fingers crossed.
She gave me fifty cents whenever she won.
At Steinhart Aquarium Daddy and I saw
batfish, flat, shaped like fans with yellow
tails and fins. Their eyes, black-banded,
twitched while they swam, mouths small pink slits,
opening and closing as they came toward me,
my hand in Daddy's, my nose pressed to the glass.
I looked into their eyes, liking them
better than the rockfish or eels, better
even than Ulysses, the bug-eyed bass.
They seemed to have a message for me
that I couldn't decode. I watched, wondering
if they knew what I knew: they were trapped.
I got my first jackpot when I was seven,
at the Cal-Neva Club just before breakfast.
Daddy shooed me back to the table. I could
hardly swallow my pancakes. He came back
with a red plastic cup filled with nickels
and a stack of keno tickets for me to mark.
I pretended I was the only daughter
of the Brownings or Curies, though there were no
books of poetry or science in our house.
Mama read TV Guide, Modern Screen
and True Confessions; Daddy read Playboy,
murder mysteries and science fiction.
I was never very popular with the kids
at school, though I taught them how to play
spit in the ocean, California poker,
lowball and five-card stud. I kept an extra ace
up my sleeve, but I rarely used it. I learned
to take chances; I knew how to bluff.