Column: Memories of a bizarre card game in a mansion down south

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 15, 2002

It must have been about 20 years ago, though it seems longer. I had spent some time in New Orleans, where I attended a class in Creole cooking. A friend of mine had brought us there in her car from Florida and we were on our way back to Florida.

On the evening of which I write, darkness had overtaken us before we realized it and we were having a hard time finding a motel with a vacancy. We finally took refuge in what must have been a magnificent mansion before the Civil War. It had now been converted to a motel of sorts, with a red electric &uot;vacancy&uot; sign in front.

It is so long ago that I can’t remember whether it was just beyond the city limits of Biloxi or whether it was actually in the countryside of Biloxi. The desk clerk registered us with more amazement than warmth. There was a kind of a mildewed melancholy about the place that made me wish that we had spent the night in the car.

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It had been a long, hot day, though. I had a shower, trying not to notice the cockroaches, and went to bed. My friend, with a greater sense of adventure than I had, went out to explore the great drawing room and to see if we had interesting fellow guests.

&uot;There’s something strange about this place,&uot; she said, when she came back &uot;I think we’re the only outsiders here. I heard music and laughing and I peeked into this big room and a whole bunch of men were around several tables, playing poker I think. There were some women there, too, with practically no clothes on, sharing drinks.

Probably I would have forgotten the whole incident, but several years later when I was planning to again take a vacation in New Orleans with another friend, my attorney told me about a vacation he and his wife had taken in the South, years before I had gone there.

&uot;We had made arrangements to stay in a pretty good motel,&uot; he told me, &uot;But I wanted to drive around and see a little of the place. It was after dark, though, and my wife was tired. So I went alone.

&uot;I drove a little out in the country and there was this old plantation house that seemed to be used as a motel. I knew that liquor was illegal in Mississippi, but I was thirsty and I figured that in an out-of-the-way place like that they’d have a little something under the counter. And sure enough they had a regular bar in sort of a big inside room.

&uot;There was a bunch of guys playing poker. They all looked like local residents to me. The game at one table looked so exciting that I got kind of interested. Wouldn’t have liked to join them, though. They were playing for blood.&uot;

He said that one of the players, a fat red-faced man, kept complaining that he had a touch of indigestion and wanted to go home. The rest, though, wouldn’t hear of it. He had been winning pretty much of the money and they wanted a chance to get it back.

Suddenly the red-faced one gave a kind of a horrible gurgle and slipped from his chair to under the table. After a stunned moment or two, his fellow players pulled him out and carried him to one of the sofas that sat at intervals against the walls.

It was quite obvious, my attorney told me, that the man was dead, but those at the adjoining tables didn’t even look up. The ones who had shared his table had a brief discussion as to whether or not they should call a physician and decided against it.

Nothing a doctor could do at this point anyway, they told each other. It would just break up the game. Then they wondered if they should notify his wife. No, that would break up the game, too.

They waxed lyrical about what a fine woman the man’s wife, widow now, was, and on the strength of their emotion gathered up his winnings, rolled them together and tucked them in his shirt pocket. One of them pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and solemnly covered the face of the corpse while everyone stood at respectful attention, heads bowed in what seemed a moment of silent prayer. Then they went back to their table and resumed their game.

&uot;What did you do?&uot; I asked my attorney.

&uot;What do you think I did? Got the hell out of there, of course. Don’t think I even finished my drink.&uot;

&uot;Was the place where all this happened anywhere near Biloxi?&uot; I inquired.

&uot;Just outside of Biloxi. How did you know?”

Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column appears Thursdays.