My mama loved to play cards. I grew up hearing about card games that stayed up as late as raccoons and rook strategies that won tournaments, but may or may not have been strictly legal. Her friends tell me I played cards from someone's lap as soon as I could sit--eventually suggesting cards, training--and listened to the game and the conversations long after I should have been in bed. 

At the beach or in Huntsville or on Joey Street we played Spades, surrounded by snacks, drinks, and score pads. Mama taught me how to play well: how to predict what your partner needs next, how to guess what your opponent is counting on. 

Spades is a quick game. You are required to moan about the deal while you bid: "Who dealt this?!" "I wish y'all could see this hand!" "I'll either go nil or 10." But once the cards start falling you move quickly, laughing and enjoying both the strategy and the surprise. You can tell big stories while playing Spades, replete with gestures and punchlines, but the cards keep falling around and around. When the hand is over, everyone recounts what they had and what they were worried about. The famous hands are remembered: "nil with 5 spades!" And you laugh as you deal another round. 

I don't remember Mama ever getting upset about a game. We had fun if we won or not. There were bragging rights--and on one church trip, winners' ribbons!--but those titles are easily lost again in pursuit of the next game, and the next story. When Mel made nil with the King of spades, Mama cheered her on whether they were partners or not. When I got set, she was disappointed, but never angry. There was always another round. Cards were serious, but never grave. 

At home, Mama taught me Mike & Spike. You usually play Mike & Spike with two decks of cards--though I played a three-deck version in the Zurich train station once with one friend and a random Swiss guy. 

You need at least one deck per person. You deal a pile--10, 20, 30 cards depending on how much time you have. This is the game deck; the goal is to make your way through that pile. 

If it was cold--or if Daddy was already in bed--we played on the living room floor in front of the fireplace. But just as often we played sitting on Mama and Daddy's tall, antique bed. We'd smooth out the the navy comforter with the tiny white flowers, stretch it taut between our crossed legs, and deal. Mama sat at the headboard, but never leaning back, always forward, engaged. I sat toward the food of the bed, stretching out one leg, then the other to keep from cramping. Most of the time a dog lay on Daddy's side of the bed. Occasionally a cat would step gingerly through the game. I'd start out close, but scoot back as we played and our discard piles got longer. 

Sometimes we'd have the TV on--Entertainment Tonight in the evening, or maybe a talk show on a Saturday morning--but we weren't watching. We talked and played our hands. 

Mike & Spike is a slow game. It's a long game, and while there is strategy, you can't know what your opponent has and you can't know what you'll draw next. Your turn is simply trying to best play the five cards in your hand. 

It's a good game for telling big stories with gestures and laughter, but it's a better game for quiet stories, sad and shy stories, hopeful and in-progress stories. It's a good game for talking out a situation until you arrive at your feelings. It's a good game for listening. 

In Mike & Spike you play on two rows of cards. The shared row has rules: you must play in order, counting up from aces to queens. The discard row has none: anything goes. It's easy to play the first row. You know what comes next, what you need, what your opponent needs. But the second row is different. You discard once each hand, trying to anticipate what you'll need later, how to best prepare. You are trying to look into the future of your 10, 20, 30-card game deck and predict how it'll play out. What should you save? What can you play now? What can you show? What should you hold? 

How should you order that row to prepare for the rest of the game? 

In 2004, Mama and I went to Italy. She had a horrible sinus infection and we booked charming but drafty old monasteries without ensuite bathrooms. She felt so bad that we eventually bought medicine from an Italian pharmacist, and I completely forgot to tell him she was allergic to penicillin. But we hiked through Cinque Terre, jumped on and off the train in Milan like lunatics, cleared our sinuses with grappa drunk right in the vineyard, extricated a Fiat from a walled city, got lost and carsick in Chianti, and bought a watercolor painting of Pinocchio at a street market in Florence.

On our flight home--at the airport where we'd separate--her flight was delayed. She was sick and ready to go home. So I walked up and down the terminal looking for two decks of cards. 

We sat in the floor of the airport shuffling those slick, red and blue Bicycle cards. Trading half decks to get the whole 104 cards well-mixed. And we played until she boarded. 

Mama never rushed me as long as I was contemplating the game, but she also gently reminded me that I had a finite set of data. You've got to make a decision, even if it's wrong, she'd say. Five cards in my hand. Two rows to play on. And every turn you must lay something down.