On a rainy Saturday afternoon, Theresa, Denise, and our friend Jerry Palestini played Knuckles. We huddled under Denise’s concrete patio which abutted a paved back street. I was 9, Denise 10, Theresa 12, Jerry 11.
Knuckles is a game in which the object is to get rid of as many cards as possible, much like “Go Fish” or “Old Maid.” Unlike those games, however, the person holding the most cards doesn’t earn or lose points; he or she gets their knuckles slammed with the edge of a deck of cards by the winner. If you are holding black suits, clubs or spades, you get soft hits, but if you are holding diamonds or hearts, you get hard, savagely. A variation on the punishment allows the loser to trade 10 hard hits for a single sandwich---placing half the deck on top of your hands and half the deck on top and then the person stomps your knuckles with their shod foot.
It was down to me and Jerry. Theresa and Denise already were out. I had seven cards. Jerry three.
“Please let this be a ten,” Jerry prayed as he lifted the card from the pile on the damp cement. His white plastic glasses were fogged up from the misty weather and the warmth of our huddled bodies. I closed my eyes, my heart shuttering. My index finger was in tatters, my fourth and fifth knuckles swollen. Jerry had suffered a sound stomping from Denise’s desert boot and was bruising. The back of his hand looked like a piece of sliced ham, shiny, denuded.
I loved playing this game. We all did, a juvenile S&M ritual---the risk, the tension, the giving of pain, sharing pain, taking it.
Denise giggled, her braces flashing in the dimness. Theresa looked at me, her dark eyes filled with concern, then scooted over to see my cards.
Jerry picked up the card. “Alleluiah,” he shouted.
“Wait a minute,” Theresa screamed, with a flourish of drama, standing and holding her hands on her hips. “Patricia, are you crazy? You’ve got three eights and a Jack of Diamond and Queen of Spade. You’re out. You’re out!”
“No way. No way. Nu-uh,” Jerry shouted, his voice echoing under the concrete cover. “I’m out first. I’m out.”
“Don’t be a strapper, Jerry,” Theresa intoned, deepening her voice in a way that reminded me of Carol Burnett “She was out before you. She just didn’t put the cards down.” I could always depend on cousin Theresa to come to my aid. She was my defender.
“A card laid is a card played,” Jerry yelled back.
“What the hell does that have to do with anything?” Theresa shot.
“Let’s go inside and watch “Dark Shadows,” Denise interrupted.
“No,” Jerry said, now almost in tears.
“O.K., then,” Theresa dared. “Smash her hand. Will that make you happy?”
Jerry glared, but didn’t take Theresa’s dare.
I wasn’t sure that Theresa was technically right. In fact, I knew she was wrong. But she would not back down. I felt like I deserved the punishment based on the rules. Theresa knew she needed to protect me from my tendency to condemn myself with the zeal of a martyr. The game broke up and we marched into Denise’s basement where her mother maintained a beauty parlor, past the deep black sink past the hive of silver hair dryers and padded chairs, I sat next to Theresa in the growing darkness of the afternoon in case, I got too scared of Barnabas Collins. She put her arms around me again and said, like she did on so many occasions, “Don’t be scared, Patricia.” Throughout my life, she was there to protect me, comfort me, tell me not to be afraid.
Theresa was not exactly beautiful. Her nose was a bit too large for her thin face. She had plain brown hair and brown eyes and skin that frequently erupted in acne, across her cheeks and a saucer-shaped scar on her face from the chickenpox She had a great figure, though. The kind that dieting and exercise never produce; a natural lean torso, long smooth legs, delicate hands and a swan's neck. She ate with abandon: cheese steaks, cheese fries, Pepsi, chicken cutlets, cinnamon buns, beef stew. After each pregnancy she melted right back to her original size. The cigarettes probably helped.
More than her appearance, she was lovely on the inside. She seemed to lack the capacity to judge people; she accepted you at face value, loved being silly and happy.
I had spent my adolescence with Theresa, climbing on the mountains of dirt and construction debris created by the building of Veteran's Stadium, riding bikes at The Lakes, and whiling away hours in her house doing nothing in particular while her mother was at work.
One afternoon Theresa and a few others went to see "The Last House on the Left" in Center City. It was one of the original slasher movies and I was petrified, shaking as the decapitated and tortured bodies piled up on the screen.
"It's just ketchup," she said, putting her arm around my shoulders. "Look, I think I just saw a microphone around the neck of man carrying the chain saw." I felt better, stopped shaking. “Really?” I asked.
Other kids teased me about being afraid of but not Theresa. It wasn't in her to hit you where it hurt. And she wasn’t going to tolerate anyone giving me an unfair smack with the edge of a deck of cards ---no matter who was right.
Theresa died a year ago from multiple sclerosis after a long, hard struggle. I gave the eulogy at her funeral mass. During the service, the priest recited the prayers we Catholics hear time and again---“forgive her sins.” I could barely control my anger at the notion that somehow she needed absolution.
When I dream of Theresa she is well, leaping to hit a ball in a game of Monkey in the Middle, she is swinging her locker key from a ribbon attached to the side of her high school uniform, she is inviting me inside for a piece of lasagna from her doorstep.
I wish I could speak with her again. I want her to wrap her arm around my shoulder and say, "It's all right, Don't be scared."