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       The Cardturner: A Novel About Imperfect Partners and Infinite Possibilities, p.1
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           Louis Sachar
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The Cardturner: A Novel About Imperfect Partners and Infinite Possibilities


  ALSO BY Louis Sachar

  Holes

  Small Steps

  Stanley Yelnats’ Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake

  Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes

  The Boy Who Lost His Face

  There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom

  To Nancy Joe, Nancy Jo Gordy, Marilou Powell, Paul and Beth Tobias,

  Jerry Bigler, Claudette Hartman, Alex Kolesnik, and Ruth Sachar.

  It’s been a joy sitting across the table from you

  (even if a bit trying at times),

  and to all my friends at the Austin Bridge Center,

  opponents and partners alike,

  and to anyone, anywhere, who is struggling to figure out

  whether a bid of four clubs is Gerber or natural …

  A Note from the Author

  Imagine you were abducted by aliens and taken away to their home planet. After living there awhile, you learn to speak their language, and then actually become a pretty well-known author. You were a huge baseball fan back on Earth, so you decide to write a book about baseball. You know that none of your alien readers have ever heard of baseball, but you think it will make a great story, and besides, you really love the game….

  As you attempt to write it, you quickly find yourself entangled in words with multiple meanings, like ball and run. When you try to describe a triple play, you get so bogged down explaining the rules about force-outs that the excitement of the play itself is lost.

  That was the predicament I put myself into when I wrote The Cardturner. It’s not about baseball but about bridge, a card game that was once extremely popular but that, unfortunately, not too many people play anymore, especially not young people. In fact, the people who do play bridge seem to live in their own alien world.

  My publisher, my editor, my wife, and my agent all said I was crazy. “No one’s going to want to read a book about bridge!” they told me on more than one occasion.

  Still, I really love the game….

  1

  My Favorite Uncle

  Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had it drilled into me that my uncle Lester was my favorite uncle. My mother would thrust the phone at me and say, “Uncle Lester wants to talk to you,” her voice infused with the same forced enthusiasm she used to describe the deliciousness of canned peas. “Tell him you love him.”

  “I love you, Uncle Lester,” I’d say.

  “Tell him he’s your favorite uncle.”

  “You’re my favorite uncle.”

  It got worse as I got older. I never knew what to say to him, and he never seemed all that interested in talking to me. When I became a teenager I felt silly telling him he was my favorite uncle, although my mother still urged me to do so. I’d say things like “Hey, how’s it goin’?” and he’d grunt some response. He might ask me a question about school. I imagine it was a great relief to both of us when my mother took back the phone. Our brief conversations always left me feeling embarrassed, and just a little bit creepy.

  He was actually my great-uncle, having been my mother’s favorite uncle long before he was mine.

  I didn’t know how much money he had, but he was rich enough that he never had to be nice to anyone. Our favorite uncle never visited us, and I think my mother initiated all the phone conversations with him. Later, after he got really sick, he wouldn’t even talk to her. My mother would call almost daily, but she could never get past his housekeeper.

  I had only met Uncle Lester face to face one time, at his sixty-fifth birthday party. I was six years old, and to me, his house seemed like a castle on a mountaintop. I said the obligatory “Happy birthday” and “I love you” and “You’re my favorite uncle” and then steered clear of him.

  “His heart is as cold as a brick,” my father said on the drive home.

  That phrase has stuck with me, I think, because my father used the word cold instead of hard.

  My elementary school was a brick building. Every day on the way home, I would drag my fingers over the hard, and yes, cold surface.

  I’m in high school now, but still whenever I walk by a brick building, I feel compelled to touch it. Even now, as I write this, I can almost feel the hard coolness, the sharp edges, and the roughness of the cement between the bricks.

  2

  A Turn for the Worse

  Uncle Lester has taken “a turn for the worse.” That’s a phrase I heard a lot around the first of this year. Another phrase that came up a lot was “complications resulting from diabetes.”

  I wish I could report that these words brought great concern and sadness to our household. True, when my mother spoke of our favorite uncle’s unfortunate turn, her voice had a somber tone, and sometimes she would place a hand on her heart, but I would say the overall mood was one of anxious anticipation. Once, I actually saw my father rub his hands together when he mentioned that Uncle Lester was not long for this world. December 25 might have come and gone, but there was a sense that Christmas was still just around the corner.

  To be fair, I should mention that my father worked for a company that manufactured and installed insulation material. He often complained how the synthetic fibers made his hands itch, and that could have been the reason he was rubbing his hands together.

  Nevertheless, the only person who seemed genuinely worried about our favorite uncle was my sister, Leslie. She was also the only one of us who had never met him, unless you count his sixty-fifth birthday party. She was about four months old when we went to his dark castle on the mountain. My mother put extra emphasis on the first syllable of my sister’s name when she introduced Uncle Lester to his new grandniece, Leslie.

  Leslie was eleven when Uncle Lester took his turn for the worse.

  “What’s diabetes?” she asked me.

  “It’s kind of a disease,” I answered. “It has something to do with your body not being able to turn sugar into insulin.”

  “Why do you need insulin?”

  I didn’t know.

  “Is Uncle Lester in pain?”

  Complications-resulting-from-diabetes was just a string of words to me, and I never gave much thought to their meaning. Unlike me, Leslie could feel the suffering behind the words.

  A week later I found out just how complicated his condition was. My uncle Lester had become blind.

  “I guess he won’t be playing cards anymore,” my father said, rather callously, I thought.

  It was the first time I’d ever heard anything about my uncle and cards.

  According to my mother, we were Uncle Lester’s closest living relatives. By this, I think she meant we lived the closest, which I doubted had any legal significance, but she seemed to think this was important if, God forbid, anything should happen to him.

  He had no children of his own. He had one brother and two sisters, and they all had children (including my mother), and their children had children (including Leslie and me).

  That was a lot of people with whom to split any inheritance, but my mother seemed especially concerned about Mrs. Mahoney, Uncle Lester’s longtime housekeeper. “I think there’s more going on there than just housekeeping, if you know what I mean,” she said one evening during dinner.

  She was speaking somewhat cryptically because of Leslie. I knew what she meant, of course, and I’m pretty sure Leslie did too, but I really didn’t want to think about my old uncle and his aging housekeeper while I was eating.

  There was somebody else who was even more worrisome to my mother than Mrs. Mahoney. That person was Sophie Castaneda.

  I’d heard abou
t the Castaneda family all my life, “the crazy Castanedas,” but I never quite got my uncle’s relationship to them. It was complicated, to say the least.

  From what I understood, Sophie Castaneda was the daughter of Uncle Lester’s ex-wife’s crazy sister.

  When Uncle Lester was in his twenties, he had been married for less than a year. His wife had a sister who went insane. The sister had a daughter named Sophie King, who later changed her name to Sophie Finnick, and then became Sophie Castaneda when she got married.

  See what I mean?

  According to my mother, all the Castanedas were bonkers. I met Toni Castaneda, Sophie’s daughter, at my uncle’s sixty-fifth birthday. Toni was about six years old, and I remember I was glad to find someone my own age to play with. Toni ran up to me. She covered her ears with her hands, her elbows sticking out, and shouted, “Shut up! Leave me alone!” and then she ran away.

  She didn’t do that just to me. I watched her tell other people to shut up and leave her alone too. I thought she was funny, but when I tried playing that game, I got in trouble for saying shut up.

  3

  By the Way

  This is very embarrassing.

  Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve been with someone for a while and you don’t know that person’s name? It’s too late to ask, but you know the longer you go without asking, the more awkward it will become. So even though you feel really stupid, you finally just have to bite the bullet and say, “By the way, what’s your name?”

  That’s how I’m feeling right now, only in reverse.

  By the way, my name is Alton Richards.

  A talented author would have skillfully slipped that in earlier, probably on the very first page. “Alton, come tell your favorite uncle how much you love him.” Something like that.

  Part of my difficulty, you have to admit, is my name. If I tried to slip Alton into the conversation, you might not have recognized it as a name. You might have wondered, “What does that word mean?”

  And if I tried to slip in my last name, chances are you would have thought my name was Richard Alton. A number of teachers have called me that.

  I’m seventeen years old. I am five feet, ten and a half inches tall, and I weigh 150 pounds. My hair is brown, and more fluffy than curly. I have dark, “intuitive” eyes and a “warm” smile.

  My ex-girlfriend, Katie, is the one who described my eyes as intuitive and said my smile was warm. That was before she dumped me. Afterward she probably would have said I had a pathetic stare and a goofy smile, but since I’m the one writing this, we’ll stick with intuitive and warm.

  I asked Katie what she meant by “intuitive eyes.” She said I could see right through all her phoniness and I always knew exactly what was in her heart.

  The truth is, I never had a clue.

  Maybe that’s why I fell in love with her. People are attracted to mystery. No doubt I once seemed mysterious too, but by the time we broke up, I was to her, just as I am to you, an open book.

  4

  And, And, And …

  By mid-March Uncle Lester’s health had taken another turn, whether for the better or worse depends on your point of view. Sophie Castaneda had installed some kind of New Age nurse in my uncle’s household. This nurse, Teodora, put him on a vegetarian diet and had him doing yoga and meditation.

  “She’s just prolonging his suffering,” my mother said, and maybe she really believed that.

  Mrs. Mahoney didn’t like the new nurse either, and complained to my mother that Teodora paraded around the house half naked.

  “Which half?” I asked.

  My mother ignored my question. “When Mrs. Mahoney suggested to her that she might want to dress more appropriately, do you know what Teodora said? ‘What does it matter? He can’t see me.’”

  “What does it matter?” asked Leslie.

  “It’s disgusting, that’s what” was our mother’s reply.

  I mentioned earlier that my mother didn’t trust Mrs. Mahoney, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to her end of one of their daily telephone conversations. She’d chat and laugh and say things like “Isn’t that just like a man?”

  Mrs. Mahoney was her only source of information. It wasn’t until after my mother hung up that the smile would leave her face. Then she’d wonder out loud if Mrs. Mahoney told Uncle Lester how many times she had called, or if Mrs. Mahoney had relayed even one of her dinner invitations.

  My father was wrong when he said that Uncle Lester would never play cards again.

  “He’s been playing cards four days a week with Toni Castaneda,” my mother informed us one evening, her voice stewed in bitterness.

  I didn’t see how that was possible.

  “What can they play?” Leslie asked me later in my room. “Go Fish? ‘Do you have any sevens?’ Then what? Toni looks at his cards to see if he has any sevens. She could cheat like so easily!”

  “Why would she cheat an old blind man who’s about to die?” I asked. “It’s probably just the opposite. He asks her if she has any sevens, and she says, ‘Darn it, you got me again,’ and hands him a six and a king.”

  “And then he changes his will and leaves her all his money,” said Leslie.

  Leslie had come into my room for the computer, but I was still using it. I had priority, not just because I was older and the computer was in my room, but because I usually waited until the last minute to do my homework, and so I had a greater urgency. Leslie did her homework the day it was assigned, and therefore could wait.

  I know it’s not fair. I’d get rewarded for my laziness, and she’d get punished for her diligence, but that’s how it was.

  “Well, I guess we’ll soon be able to afford a second computer,” I said.

  “I guess so,” Leslie agreed.

  Neither of us wanted to sound overly excited about the prospect.

  “And we’ll probably be able to download all the music or movies we want,” Leslie added.

  “Probably,” I agreed.

  “How much money do you think Uncle Lester has?” she asked me.

  “I have no idea.”

  “More than a million?”

  “Definitely.”

  “More than fifty million?”

  I shrugged. “It’s not like we need a lot,” I said. “Still, it would be good to get the pool finished.”

  Leslie agreed with that.

  We currently had a big hole in our backyard, with some warning barriers around it. Our parents were involved in some kind of lawsuit with the pool company, although it had never been quite clear to me who was suing whom.

  “And I can get my own phone,” said Leslie, “with unlimited text messaging!”

  “And I can get my car fixed,” I said. “Or maybe even a new car.”

  “Or a new house that already has a swimming pool,” said Leslie.

  “And a hot tub,” I said.

  “And a game room, and a pool table,” said Leslie.

  “And a giant TV with surround sound, and every kind of video game.”

  And, and, and … That’s the trouble with money.

  5

  Cliff

  Whatever Teodora was doing for my uncle must have been working, because by the end of the school year, our hole in the ground was no closer to becoming a pool. My best friend, Cliff, landed a job as a lifeguard at the country club, so I figured I could probably sneak in there if I wanted to go swimming.

  The reason I haven’t mentioned Cliff before now is because even though he and I had been best friends since the third grade, we had stopped spending too much time together. He had a new girlfriend.

  Her name was Katie.

  If that name sounds familiar to you, yes, it’s the same Katie who told me I had intuitive eyes.

  I don’t know why it hurt more to think about Katie with Cliff than Katie with somebody else, but to put it lightly, it tore at my insides.

  That was my problem, I realized, not Cliff’s. It wasn’t his fault she brok
e up with me.

  Cliff had asked my permission the first time he went over to her house. “You don’t care if I go to Katie’s to study for the French test, do you?”

  What was I supposed to say—“No, you can’t study with her, even if it means failing the final exam”?

  I said some pretty terrible things to Katie when she dumped me. I called her awful names. Then I begged her to take me back. Then I called her more bad names. And then I begged some more.

  It wasn’t my finest hour.

  I often wondered if Katie had told Cliff any of that. Did she tell him I cried?

  If she did, Cliff never mentioned it to me. He was too good a friend.

  I’ve gotten way off track here. When I started this chapter I was simply trying to relate my state of mind at the end of my junior year, and then I somehow got started on Katie again.

  I guess she’ll always be a part of my state of mind.

  It was the second-to-last day of school. I didn’t have any summer plans, just a vague notion about getting a job. I had just driven Leslie to her friend Marissa’s house, and when I got home I heard my mother say, “Alton would love to spend time with his favorite uncle!”

  I froze.

  “Yes, he’s an excellent driver,” said my mother.

  I should point out that whenever my mother rides with me, she grips the armrest while slamming her foot on an imaginary brake.

  “I think I just heard him come in. Alton, is that you?”

  She walked into the kitchen where I was standing. Her eyes were filled with delight. She placed her hand over the phone and whispered, “It’s Mrs. Mahoney. She wants you to play cards with Uncle Lester on Saturday. He and Toni Castaneda got into a big fight!”

  I brought the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

  “Do you know the difference between a king and a jack?” asked a gruff voice that did not belong to Mrs. Mahoney.

 
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