|No one, not even Cezanne, plays Tegwar like Uncle Slappy.|
So Friday morning, rather than going to work and collecting a freelancer's daily wages, my wife and I packed our overnight bags and headed to La Guardia to visit Uncle Slappy. When we arrived in steamy south Florida, we didn't even check into the Debacle Tree, the hotel at which we would be staying. We went right to the hospital to see the old man.
Surprisingly when we arrived in his room, he was sitting up in bed and playing cards with one of the nurses. The "Times" was spread all over his bed, National Public Radio was on the small transistor radio Aunt Sylvie brought to brighten his room, and Doris, a middle-aged African-American nurse was sitting by his side.
"Uncle Slappy," I said stupidly.
"You were expecting Tallulah Bankhead?" he said. He put down his hand for a minute while I gave him a kiss.
"I am teaching Doris the Gonif to play Tegwar," he said, shuffling the deck of cards absent-mindedly. "I teach and I teach, but she doesn't learn."
Doris smile wanly at me. Her patience was a gift from the gods and I think she knew it.
"It's the craziest game I've ever seen," said Doris.
"When he's playing Tegwar," I said, "we're all in trouble. "
"Let me play a hand," I told Doris. "It's the only way to slow him down."
Uncle Slappy dealt six cards each. He examined his as I examined mine.
"Lorna Doone!" he declared throwing in a dollar. He picked two cards from the deck and threw out two others.
I checked my cards. As far as I could tell, I had nothing of significance, but since he called Lorna Doone, I threw out three cards, took four and exclaimed "Pork Pie!"
"You can't take three and call Pork Pie after a Lorna Doone," Slappy said seriously, "Not when you're playing Norwegian High-Low."
"Norwegian?" I shot back. "I thought this was Tippecanoe."
"I haven't played Tippecanoe since I left New York," the old man said. "It's all Norwegian down here. Pony up."
I added two dollars to the pot and Slappy drew a card from the deck.
"Bus stop!" And he took the pot.
"Bus stop when I have two pair," I said, showing him my hand.
"If you have two pair," he said with some disgust, "you have to call hobo or the three counts as a Jack."
I had to admit, the old man had me. It was a technicality, but he had me.
He handed me the deck and told me to deal. I began shuffling when Doris pulled up her seat and tried to unravel the mysteries of Tegwar. She again called it the craziest game she ever saw.
Uncle Slappy and I played for another hour, Uncle Slappy winning about 14 of the 15 hands we played, including one hand where he took me for $11 by calling a "Gator Tail," on a full house. I put the cards away meekly and dumped the contents of my wallet on his night table. As usual, Uncle Slappy had won big.
After some time, Uncle Slappy's enthusiasm waned. He picked up the front section of the Times.
"We'll be back later," my wife said soothingly. "You rest up for your next game of Tegwar." She kissed him on the forehead.
"I have a date this afternoon to play with Dr. Mushnik," he said. "I plan on cleaning his clock."
I knew when I saw him playing Tegwar, Uncle Slappy would live to see another day, maybe another decade. He's spent his life playing Tegwar and he taught it to me, so I'm pretty good, too. But no one plays like he does. He'll call "steam pipe," and "sail fish" on the same hand, go 'round the world and end up holding "pixie sticks" Albany-style. You'll sit there gaping in disbelief.
"Tegwar," he said to no one in particular. "The Exciting Game Without Any Rules."
He closed his eyes for a nap. I'm 100 per-cent sure he was smiling.