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PLAYING OUT THE DECK by Stan Dryer

I never would have made it to Mt. Katahdin by myself. When I started the Appalachian Trail with Mike, I resented his presence. Pretty quickly I began to depend upon him. Finally, when I stood next to that wooden sign at the top of Katahdin, I felt, thanks to Mike, a new and complete confidence in myself.

My father owned a sawmill near Monson, Maine. I was thus familiar with the AT, which passed close by the town. Whenever my father saw hikers hitching rides on the highway, he would always stop and pick them up. As I rode with him frequently, I heard their stories. These were all seasoned through hikers who had just over a hundred miles to go to Katahdin and the end of their two-thousand-mile journey. It was only natural that I would be bewitched by their enthusiasm, that of the pilgrim seeing just before him the golden city of his quest.

So in my junior year at Baxtor Academy I proposed to my father that I leave school early, fly down to Georgia, and hike the AT north to Maine.

I think my father believed that I definitely needed something to help me grow up. He also felt, quite correctly, that no way would I ever make it all the way back to Maine on my own. So he did what I objected to strenuously at the time, but later saw was my path to Katahdin. He hired Mike to go with me. Mike was one of the young men who worked in the mill yard, stacking lumber, loading the trucks. He was probably around eighteen at the time, but he was way closer to being a man than I was. He was tough and muscular from years of heavy work, but of even more importance to my father, he had a happy outlook on life. He lived about three miles from the mill and walked there and back every day, rain or shine, arriving always with a smile on his face and an eagerness to get to work.

So my father hired Mike to go with me. I never knew their financial arrangement, but I never heard Mike grumble about it. My father gave me a credit card to cover our expenses. He would pay the bills. I had researched the needed equipment and food and had, at least, not made the mistake of overloading us with too much baggage. Mike had found an old backpack somewhere and a worn sleeping bag.

Thus, we flew down to Georgia to start our great adventure. The first two weeks on the Trail were a torture for me and must have tried Mike’s patience although he never showed it. Despite my carefully fitted hundred-dollar hiking boots, I immediately developed a case of blisters. I padded my feet with moleskin, but I still fought the pain every mile. Mike wore the same work boots in which he hiked six miles a day to and from work. He developed no blisters. He just walked along at my pace, only occasionally suggesting we push on to put the maximum number of miles behind us each day.

It was less than a week into the trip that Mike demonstrated how to play pushup poker. We had stopped for the night at a shelter near Standing Indian. It had been a long day. I think it was the first day we had done over fifteen miles. I collapsed in the shelter, got my boots and socks off, and went to work with the moleskin. Mike found the spring and returned with a bag of water.

At that point the Trainer appeared all tricked out in proper hiking clothes and a nice new backpack. I don’t remember his name, but he was full of himself and his exploits. He was, it seemed, a trainer for a major league baseball team and eager to point out just how much physical fitness played in making a winning team. We listened to this monologue while we cooked and ate our dinner. Even that early in the hike, I was beginning to realize that no matter how much I ate, I was always hungry.

While Mike never showed annoyance at anything anyone said, he must have grown tired of the endless litany of fitness. Suddenly he said to the Trainer, “You ever play pushup poker?”

“What?”

Mike produced a deck of cards out of his pack and placed it face down on the shelter floor. “The rules are simple. I turn over a card and do the number of pushups shown on the card. Then you do the same. The first one unable to continue loses. Jacks are eleven, Queens twelve, Kings thirteen. Aces are fourteen. Interested?”

“Sure,” said the Trainer. Mr. Physical Fitness obviously could not refuse such a challenge.

I don’t think that the Trainer had done the math before he started. If you think about it, to make it through a whole deck you end up doing around 180 pushups, less if you are lucky, more if you are unlucky.

The Trainer collapsed three-quarters of the way through the deck. Mike just smiled at him and said, “I’ll just play out the deck.” He finished it up without any sign of tiring, every last card in the deck without pause, with me flipping the cards. The Trainer just sat there watching, shaking his head slightly in disbelief. When we woke the next morning, he was gone. Apparently he had not been ready for a rematch.

I now had a new goal. I was going to see just how many pushups I could do. When I started, the maximum I could complete without collapsing was around ten, but I worked away at improvement with a zealous passion. I remember the many times I dragged my ass into a shelter after a twenty-mile day, dropped my pack, drank the final contents of my water bottle, and then forced myself to do pushups. I measured the trip not in miles hiked but in pushups completed in one try. Up to twenty by the Smokies. Fifty by Harpers Ferry. Seventy-five when we crossed into New Jersey. Then I topped one hundred just before Vermont. My arms ached more than my legs which had, without my noticing it, become solid muscle. When we crossed into New Hampshire, I was stopping at a hundred and fifty, because I needed the time to cook dinner before dark. I figured I was up for any number of pushups.

So I challenged Mike. I guess I had overestimated my stamina, as I collapsed on my face when we still had about five cards left. Mike played out the deck, then got up and punched me on the arm. “You son of a bitch,” was all that he said, but he said it with a grin on his face.

That was the last time I did not finish my half of the deck.

It was in the campground at the base of Katahdin that I had my final match of the trip, but not with Mike. There were five of us sitting around a campfire in the early fall darkness. Tomorrow we would finish the hike, climb up one last mountain, congratulate each other, and then go our varied ways. Sitting around the campfire, in addition to Mike and myself, there was a married couple we had met a couple of times along the trail in Maine, and Bart. We talked about our trips, trying to put it all together, to figure out what we had done and why. The couple were as much amazed by the fact their marriage had survived as by the reality that they had made it to Katahdin.

Then there was Bart. He was what Mike and I called a speed freak. He was full of his exploits on the trail, how he was averaging over thirty miles a day, how many wimpy through hikers he had passed along the way, and how rigorous training was the key to a speedy hike.

After listening to this monologue for about fifteen minutes, I stopped him. “You ever play pushup poker?” I asked.

“What?”

I explained the rules to Bart and looked over at Mike. He winked at me and went over and got his now well-worn deck of cards and a flashlight out of his pack. He tossed me the deck, which I took out of its stained and disintegrating box.

I put the deck face down on the ground next to the campfire. “Care for a game?” I said.

Mike turned on the flashlight and shined it on the deck of cards.

Bart was in pretty good shape, I have to admit. He didn’t collapse until around the fortieth card in the deck.

“I’ll play out the deck,” I said.

Which I did. Bart had gotten his face out of the dirt. He stood and watched me whip through the rest of the cards. He was silent for once. When I finished, I picked up the deck, put it carefully back in its box and tossed it to Mike. He grabbed the deck out of the air with one hand and smiled at me, shook his head from side to side, and smiled at me some more. I didn’t need words to hear the message. Always play out the deck.

The next morning we climbed Katahdin and had another end-to-ender take a picture of Mike and myself high-fiving in front of the mountaintop sign. When we came back down the mountain, my father was waiting for us in his pickup.

We threw our packs in the back of the truck and got in next to my father. He looked over at Mike. I thought he was about to ask him, “Well how did he do?” but then he looked at me. He must have seen the difference in his son. Perhaps it was my muscular body. Perhaps it was that I carried myself with a lot more confidence. “You two look as if you had a good time,” was all he said.

I was already late for the Baxtor Academy fall semester, so I headed back to school the next day. I worked with Mike in the mill yard the next summer. Everyone was nice to the boss’s son, Mike included. He asked no special favors; he saw himself again as just one more yard worker.

However, on my last day on the job, he stopped me as I was leaving. “How about a last round?” he said.

I knew what he meant. “You got the cards?” I said.

We went through the deck together out in back of one of the sheds. I had been out for crew at Baxtor and had a summer of lifting lumber behind me, so I had no problems.

“Just wanted to make sure you still had it in you,” Mike said as we stood up and wiped the sawdust from our hands. He punched me lightly on the arm and then shook my hand. “Always remember to play out the deck,” was the last thing he said to me.

Then came Nine Eleven. Mike enlisted and had ended up in Iraq. I had been in ROTC in college and went on to OCS. My father had been an officer in Vietnam. After he returned, he never said anything about his time there except once on the day when I was about to ship out to Afghanistan. He sat me down in his study and said, “Just remember this. Your job is not to win the war. Your job is to make sure that the men you command come back home alive. The rest is bullshit.”

I really listened to him probably for the first time in my life. I think I followed his advice when I could. My unit won no medals and produced no great body count of the supposed enemy. Only one of my men died, and I had only two seriously wounded.

There was only one time I ignored my father’s advice. My team had just gone through a village that was supposed to be a Taliban stronghold, but we found none of them there. Someone had apparently let them know we were coming and they had all cleared out. Nonetheless, we went through the village house by house, finding only frightened women and children. There were two houses left to go and it was getting late. I did not want to be driving back to our base in the dark.

“There’s nothing here,” said my sergeant. “Let’s head back.”

I was about to agree, but then I remembered what Mike had said. Always play out the deck. “No,” I said. “Let’s finish it up.”

We found them in the second house. We did a sweep of the house, which appeared to be empty. Then, as we were about to leave the back room, we heard a faint voice that seemed to coming from under a rug in the center of the floor. “Help. Get us out. Help.”

We moved the rug and found a loose piece of plywood which, when removed, revealed a square hole and the end of a ladder. Down below, trussed up like turkeys ready for slaughter, were the two American soldiers who had gone missing a week before. One of them had managed to work loose his gag. They were in terrible shape, but they were alive. We cut them loose and loaded them into one of our Humvees. On the way out of the house, one of the freed soldiers spoke to me in a hoarse whisper, “Good you came in this way. The other two doors are booby-trapped.”

The kidnapped men lived. You may have heard about the incident in the news, but with no names attached. A colonel came down to our base and thanked us personally, and that was the end of it.

I did get a Purple Heart but for a different encounter with the enemy. It was a flesh wound in the arm from a spent bullet. I picked it up while trying to do what my father had advised me to do. Specifically, I was keeping one of my men from bleeding to death.

I do have a citation that is worth more to me than any official Army commendation or medal you could name. It is a letter that came to me in a battered envelope that must have bounced over half of Afghanistan. It was handwritten on a piece of cheap notepaper.

Dear Lieutenant, They won’t tell me your name and I hope this gets to you. My children and I want to thank you for saving David’s life. He is back with us now and making a good recovery from all he went through. We are all praying that you too will soon come safely home to your family. Tammy, Chris, Susan.

The last name was carefully scrawled by someone obviously just learning to write her name. I have the letter framed and hanging on the wall of my office. Just a reminder you should always play out the deck. The Purple Heart is in the bottom left-hand drawer of my desk.

I finished out my time and did not reenlist. I came back to find that my father had had a mild heart attack and was advised to back off working ten hours a day. So I took over management of the mill under his mild direction.

My life moved on. The mill was making a profit. Sally, who worked in the mill office, and I discovered a mutual attraction which morphed into marriage.

I saw Mike once a year later when I ran into him in downtown Monson. We talked for about five minutes, each of us having immediate commitments to be somewhere else. He was back on leave after his third tour of duty. He had lost a little weight and was bronzed from too much sunshine. On the surface he was still the Mike I remembered, with a big smile of greeting and seeming full of life. But underneath I detected a new sad seriousness, perhaps a haunting of bad memories. We talked about the here and now, of my new bride, of things at the sawmill, and how his mother and stepfather were getting on. We did not talk about Iraq or Afghanistan. Then we shook hands and each went on to more important appointments.

It was about a year and a half later that I got the phone call.

“This is Doctor Phelps. We have a patient here in the VA Hospital by the name of Mike Grover. He’s been asking after you. He’s a double leg amputee thanks to an IED. Do you think you could come down and see him?”

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “Is he sick?”

“No. There’s no physical problem. We’re working on prosthetics for his legs. It’s more emotional. He doesn’t seem to want to have artificial legs.”

“That doesn’t sound like the Mike I know,” I said. “He was the most upbeat person I’ve known. Faced everything with a smile. Nothing could let him down.”

“I believe that. On the surface, he’s the nicest guy in the world. But underneath it’s another story. He doesn’t want to talk about what happened in Afghanistan. All I can tell you is that he was the only one who survived the IED.

“So what good can I do if I come down there?”

“Mike says you are probably his best friend. He just wants to see you. I’m not sure why and what good it will do what with his present state of mind, but it’s worth a try.”

So I flew down to Dulles, rented a car, and drove the forty miles to the hospital. When I asked for Mike at the front desk, the orderly behind the desk picked up a radio and said, “Lesley, Mike’s friend from Maine is here. Can you show him the way?”

“Got it. Be down in a minute.” A woman’s voice, turned mechanical by the radio.

Lesley was a tall nurse, probably in her thirties. I had discovered from my short stay in a military hospital that there were two types of nurses, those with a bit of hesitancy about their work and those that radiated self-confidence. Lesley was in the latter category.

I followed her through what seemed like a mile of corridors into a ward with about two dozen beds. Mike was sitting in a wheelchair next to his bed. It was a different Mike from the one I had known. His face was drawn. The bright optimism was gone, replaced by only defeat.

“I’ll leave you two,” Lesley said.

“No,” I said. “Stick around, I may need you for something.”

“I’ll be right over there.” She pointed to a bed near the door. “I’ve got to check Bailey’s dressings.”

Mike looked at me and smiled, but it seemed to be only an imitation of the smile I remembered. “I’m awfully glad you’ve come,” he said. He spoke with only a fraction of his former hearty voice. “You’ve got to get me out of here. They don’t understand me. I just want to get home.”

“But they’re fixing you up with new legs,” I said. “They really have marvelous prosthetics these days. It will take some work on your part, but when they’re done, you’ll be back walking good as new.”

“No. I’ve tried. I just fall on my face. They have to accept that I’m going to be stuck in a wheelchair forever.”

“Play out the deck,” I said.

“What?”

“You’re not playing out the deck. You’ve got more than half your life ahead of you.”

“To hell with playing out the deck. If you really want to know, I don’t deserve new legs.”

“Can the don’t deserve shit,” I said. “I’ve got something to show you.” I motioned to Lesley, who came back over to Mike’s bed.

“Nurse Lesley,” I said, “has Mike ever explained to you the rules for pushup poker?”

“No, I don’t think he has.”

I took a deck of cards out of my pocket, took them out of the box, and placed the deck face down on the floor. “You get to turn the cards and count,” I said to Lesley. “Jacks are eleven, Queens are twelve, Kings are thirteen and Aces are fourteen.”

I dropped down on the floor with my head next to the cards. The floor smelled of disinfectant with just a hint of stale sweat.

“I think I get it,” said Lesley. “She grabbed one of the pillows from Mike’s bed and sat herself down in front of me with the cards between us.

I played out the whole deck. It got a bit tough at the end because I had found that around the fortieth card my old bullet wound starts to ache. When Lesley had flipped the last card, that was fortunately a two, I stood up and stretched my arms, trying to pretend I was good for another whole deck. “There you go,” I said to Mike. “How’s that for a challenge?”

“Let me at him,” Mike said to Lesley. “Get me out of this wheelchair. I’ll show the son of a bitch.”

“No,” I said. “Any wimp can do pushups from his knees. To do real pushups you have to have legs and feet. That’s any kind of legs and feet. Also notice I’ve upped the ante. I just played through a whole deck by myself, double the number of pushups for two people playing a game with one deck. From now on, we’re playing double decks. Let me know when you think you’re ready for a game.”

“You bastard,” said Mike. “You really know how to stick it to someone.” I noticed that the defeat had gone out of his face, replaced with anger but also something more. Was it determination?

“Well, Nurse Lesley,” I said. “I think I’ll be on my way. Can you show me the way out?”

“Lesley,” Mike said as we were turning to leave, “Can you have Dr. Phelps come see me ASAP?”

“Absolutely.” She looked at Mike with a smile that was definitely more than a professional pleasant nurse smile.

I followed Lesley out through the mile of corridors. In the reception area she turned and looked at me. “It was nice learning about pushup poker,” she said. Then she threw her arms around me in a very non-professional hug. “You really are a clever bastard,” she said in my ear, “but also a very nice bastard.”

I hugged her back. Her body seemed to be trembling, just slightly, but definitely trembling. She moved back from me, got a tissue out of the pocket of her uniform, and wiped her eyes.

“Shit, I hope it works,” she said.

“I hope so too,” I said. “But have Mike explain to you our history sometime.”

I walked out of the hospital, got in my car, and started the drive back to Dulles. I had no idea if what I had done would work. But I remembered the look on Mike’s face by that campfire at the base of Katahdin when I had played out the deck after Bart had wimped out. Just a kind of quiet, satisfied smile that said, “I’ve done all I could for you. Now it’s time we kick you out into the big wide world to fend for yourself, to play out your own deck.” So I smiled to myself and kept driving.

I didn’t hear from Mike for over a year. Then one Sunday afternoon a car with Virginia plates swung in and parked in our driveway. Sally and I went out onto the porch. The driver’s side door opened and Mike got out. There was nothing tentative about the way he rolled out of the car and onto his feet. The door on the other side of the car opened and a young woman came around to join him. She was Lesley, the nurse from the VA hospital. She stood tall and straight, and she carried her self-assurance with a pleasant nonchalance. She didn’t take hold of his arm or hold his hand.

Mike waved at me and the two of them started across the lawn. No one would know he owned two artificial legs. Halfway across, he stumbled. It looked as if he might fall on his face. Lesley did not move to help him. She just stood and watched but with a definitely possessive eye. He caught his balance and came on towards us. Lesley smiled and followed.

When they reached the porch, Mike looked up at us. “This is my wife Lesley,” he said.

“Hello, Wife Lesley,” I said. “This is my wife Sally.”

“Congratulations,” Sally said. “When was the wedding?”

“Two weeks ago. We had to wait until he was discharged. Silly rules about marrying a nurse.”

Mike looked at Sally and pointed at me. “Is this guy treating you all right?” he said to her. “He can be pretty tough when he wants to.”

“He treats me just fine,” Sally said. “He saves the tough love stuff for when his friends forget who they are.”

Mike looked at me. “Lesley says I should thank you.”

“Well?” I said.

“Thank you,” Mike said.

“You’re welcome,” I said. “Looks like things worked out okay.”

Mike smiled, the old familiar smile I had always seen when things got tough on the AT. “You been keeping in shape?” he said.

“Of course.”

“You got a card deck?”

“I’ve got a couple of them,” I said. “Why did you ask?”

“Because I plan to whip your ass.”

Then we did some pushups. Let’s just leave it that this time no one got to play out the deck.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Stan Dryer is the pen name for an author who lives in southern New Hampshire. He has been writing fiction for over sixty years. Prior to 1990 he published a number of short stories in national magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan.

He has now returned to fiction writing after a gap of thirty years. and has recently had seven short stories published (or accepted for publication) in a number of magazines. For more information about the author and his publications, visit standryer.com [1].

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Playing Out the Deck”:

With well-drawn characters and strong writing, author Stan Dryer uses the interesting premise of “playing out the deck” as the centerpiece of his story that in turn serves to challenge first one character then later the other. And he further gives us a couple of nice surprises at the end to bring the whole piece around.