The ace and the ten of spades is, normally, a very good starting hand in Texas no-limit hold ‘em. Asking the poker gods for more with me against only three other players seemed overly greedy, even if my life wasn’t at stake. Naturally, I would go all-in with my remaining chips. Win and I’d live, lose and I’m dead. I don’t mean out of this game—I mean out of this world.
This game was for all the chips. You bet your life. Why not? Don’t we do that every time we drive down Central Expressway in Dallas, past dozens of bars with the drunks plowing their murderous machines by us at seventy-five miles per hour. What a lame justification for what I was doing.
My mind wandered from the game to the time Sylvia, my live-in girlfriend, first met me and she said, “You look like an accountant.” It didn’t sound like a compliment, somehow. She could have said staid or responsible. It was the way she said it, like I was dull and predictable. I was.
Trying not to be dull and predictable was how I met Sylvia. In the break-room at work I overheard the advertising geniuses say, “That Sylvia is the ugliest girl in the secretarial pool.” Even so, what they said wasn’t true about Sylvia; Alice Fay was a little uglier. It made asking Sylvia out easier. She was plain, and boring, like me.
A person can only watch so much TV. My mousey girl suggested one evening while watching Bell, Book and Candle on Turner Classic Movies, “Why don’t we rescue a cat from the pet shelter.” The mousey Sylvia, wanting a cat; God’s main redeeming quality: his sense of humor.
We named it Pyewacket like Kim Novak’s black cat in the movie. It was a sweet cat and reminded me of adopting Sylvia. I wished that Sylvia was more like Kim Novak, you know, a witch. Sylvia suggested that I try online poker, since she’d heard me gripe about TV. It was fun, and a home game was started with some of the guys at work. It got around the office, and Mel Tolson bragged about his big-time game one evening when we were going down the elevator together. I’d thought of telling him that my Dad could whip his Dad, but the seed that he planted wouldn’t die. My game and life seemed insignificant. Maybe Sylvia would conjure me up the cash for the buy-in for his big game.
Mine was a beige, rodentia world that was hard to take anymore. I wasn’t a man, I was a beige. There had to be a colored me that wanted something real badly. Bold beige. Those thoughts started a seismic mind shift as if I’d heard God with a high voice.
Charles said, “Fold, raise or call, Lee. You’re holding things up.” Well, anyway, at the game, ace, ten suited was a good bet. I said, “I’m all-in,” and pushed my remaining chips toward the center of the green-felted table. My “all” cracked when I said it, like a teenager with a changing voice. That was a dead giveaway to my nerves and the weakness of my hand–just what I didn’t want to do, give Charles, Dave, or Mel more information that they could use. Of course, I could be giving a false tell to fool them into calling me. Maybe I was holding two aces, trying to trap them into going against me with their weaker hands. Staying home from work all week practicing saying “all” like an actor with one important line in a play could do it; standing in front of the bathroom mirror saying it over and over until I got the imperfect crack in “all” perfect.
Charles on my left was next to act. If we were going to play for life-changing amounts of money, I should at least call him Doc like the others did. After playing for an hour I tried it and he didn’t look at me weird. His eyes were on me, sucking information off my face and the eighty-seven little muscles there that nerve-connected to my brain and registered thoughts like a graph–a lie detector with a big-screen. Looking down kept them from seeing my eyes. Why would I give them those, too?
Playing for high stakes was new to me. Big money in my normal home game was three hundred bucks, not the three hundred thousand dollars that this game meant. Three hundred Gs could do a lot to a life.
Charles was a plastic surgeon and he was always making comments about what he could see in my face. I’ll bet he could name all eighty-seven muscles there. He was the one that told me that I had that many. “Every one of them has a little story to tell me about you, Lee.” Doc was used to studying them for his work and poker. He was as sharp as his scalpels and didn’t miss much.
The $50,000 dollar buy-in to this game that each of the twelve of us started with was nothing to him; another tummy tuck and facelift procedure on Jerry Jones’ wife. Big deal. Doc had pocket aces two hands ago, won a twenty-two thousand dollar pot and knocked out the fifth place guy. The ungodly poker gods were favoring the wealthy once again.
“Poker gods, how come you gave Doc aces when he’s rich already?”
“I don’t care if he’s rich.”
“Wouldn’t you rather give aces to a poor slob?”
“I don’t care if a guy is a poor slob.”
“Money doesn’t mean a thing to me.”
“What’s with the Indians getting all the casino money? Are you Indian?”
Without using his hands, Doc moved the cigar stub from the right to the left side of his mouth, contorted his face into a silly-putty Gargoyle and used fifty of his eighty-seven muscles. That meant he was going to fold if my read on him over the last six hours was right. That illegal, Cuban, Cohiba Behike cigar, cost what I’d laid out for dinners for the whole week and scented the air with his power. Unlike me, winning wouldn’t mean anything to him. He’d still drive his Porsche and wouldn’t move up into more expensive cigars. Couldn’t. Hopefully, Doctor Chucky was a better surgeon than chip dipper. He had red splotches on his blue silk dress shirt. It wasn’t blood but salsa that had dripped from the taco chips he ate with his precise, skilled, suturing fingers.
This game was illegal, too. To gamble legally you had to drive from Dallas, north on I-35, through Gainesville, just across the rusty, pathetic, over-named Red River to Oklahoma’s Winstar Indian Casino. The indiginatos got back at us hordes of palefaces a quarter at a time; Montezuma’s real revenge.
During the game, glancing out of the window every time I heard a noise got the others jumpy and they gave me dirty looks. The high-end Anatole Hotel suite with the two testosterony guys that frisked me at the door made my mouth dry. They brought me a bottle of water and I chewed a Tums tablet from a roll in my pocket. I rested a little easier since Dave, the guy on Doc’s left, was a powerful Dallas city-councilman and had the police chief in his pocket. Dave said, “Not to worry guys.” But the knot in my stomach wouldn’t untie completely.
“We’ve got some scared money at this table.” Even if Doc noticed, it wasn’t necessary to advertise. Thanks Doc. He’d been raising me every time I’d bet for the last hour: throwing his big money around, intimidating the short stacks. It worked. I was. My face was up for study once again. It was an intense examination if the short hairs jigging on the back of my neck were a sign. “You got something this time, Lee?” He paused for a tell and didn’t get one. “I fold,” Doc said. He threw his cards into the muck in the middle of the table. Doc knew faces. I wouldn’t say another word without a week’s practice and just stared a laser-hole into the table.
My fifty G buy-in came from my company, Southern Life, where I was an invisible life insurance accountant. That money didn’t come willingly; I had to convince, entice it. Embezzle is kinda like borrow–if you pay it back, which, of course, I was. I’m not a crook.
Life insurance is gambling. Legal. My boss’ boss always said, “Actuarial science is probability theory being lived out in the life and death of people. Just like poker.” More justification for doing what I was doing. Southern Life’s high muckety-mucks got the profits, not the Choctaw in Oklahoma. Yes, I got some of it. I had to borrow sixty thousand. It cost me ten thousand to bribe my way into this game, since I wasn’t well known to most of the other players.
There was over half a million dollars up for grabs: $300,000 to the winner, $200,000 to second and $100,000 to third. I was definitely grabby with the all-in bet. I almost talked myself out of coming to the game. In my car the radio had a golden oldie with Billy Joel singing, I’ll take my chances, I don’t care what consequences bring. I have been a fool for lesser things. That was a sign from God to go through with the plan. Now there were four of us left and only one guy who wouldn’t get any money.
Dave said, “I don’t think you have much and I don’t either, but I’m tired. I’m all-in, too.” Politicians. Best liars in the world: skills that transfer well to the green-felt table. “What do you say, Mel. Make it a three way pot?” All eyes moved to Mel, my boss’ boss at Southern Life, the one who’d told me about the game and to whom I had to give the ten grand bribe. I wondered if he borrowed the money for the buy-in, too. At his salary level, probably not.
Mel said, “Make it a family pot. I’m all-in.” Dave had an ace and an eight. Mel had two kings. The unbiased, uncaring poker gods gave me an ace on the board to win the pot. Dave and Mel were both out and I had their chips. Dave left but Mel stayed to see if the plastic surgeon could change the exultant look on my face without his knives. He didn’t. Five hands later he went all in with two queens; I had an ace and a three and called him. He had that smug look on his face like he knew he was ahead and the game was in his Armani pocket. “You don’t look worried, Lee. Why? You know you’re behind and need to draw out and get real lucky against me, right?” The shock that his smugness turned into was precious when an ace came up on the board and the three hundred grand was mine.
I swore I’d never gamble again and paid the sixty grand back to Southern Life. I had $240,000 left, quit my job and moved to Corpus Christi to buy a sailboat. A hundred and ten grand got me a thirty-two foot, fiberglass Morgan that could sleep eight, and I found Nina, my new, daring, blond, blue-eyed first-mate, with the help of an ad in Yachting World:
Crewing up a 32’ Morgan sloop for ports afar and unknown. Experience helpful but not necessary. Contact….
We were outfitting for our first cruise south to Cozumel, Mexico and watching Billy, the gentle, long-haired pothead at the Gulf Marina putting our registration numbers on the bow. He’d been pestering me to go with us. Paint thinner and salty sea-breeze mixed in the air. “I can do anything when it comes to these boats, as long as I don’t have to do it too fast,” he said over the seagulls squawking their warnings. Hurrying anything was the last thing on my mind, and I was going to take him with us.
“What’s going to be the name of your ship, Cap’n dude? I’ll paint it on while I’m at it.”
“Chips,” I said.
“As in poker, potato or cow?” Billy had a silly grin on his face.
Nina said, “That is an unusual name. There’s gotta be a story behind it?” I nodded. Billy stopped and looked at me. Nina sat on a sawhorse, crossed her legs and put wisps of honey-hair behind her ears like a movie was going to start.
“I was in a high-stakes private poker tournament recently and we were down to the last two players, me and a rich physician named Charles. On the last hand he had two queens, went all-in and I called with an ace and a three. Doc was eating corn chips with salsa and got a fleck of red sauce on two aces that he was dealt earlier in the game. I thought he had a pair of face cards on our last hand, but I saw that the next card up on the deck had that tiny salsa speck and I knew it was going to be an ace for me. I won. So, Billy–poker and corn–no cow.”
Billy nodded with his whole upper body and his red hair mopped over his blue, scarf headband. “Good story, man.”
Nina jumped up and said, “No cow. Wow! Cozumel, here we come! Hey, the weatherman says that hurricane Katrina is threatening the Gulf this week. Lee, do you think we should wait until she blows by, or what?”
I thought about that and it must have been Billy’s name, but a tune came to me, and I sang, “I don’t care what consequences bring. I have been a fool for lesser things.” The vast Gulf stretched forever, it seemed, to eyes used to being stopped at buildings. It was mysterious, dangerous and so, so good. Nina clapped her hands like a kid doing pat-a-cake when I said, “All-in. We go!”
Connley (Lee) Landers suffered a skeet shooting head injury and lost his cerebellum. Afterward, he wrote and won an award for his novel, Catethics, which proves he’d overthought previous work. Using only his medulla oblongata, had stories published in Rope and Wire Magazine, Darkest Before the Dawn, The Horror-Zine, Houston Literary Review, Metazen, Static Movement, Perceptions, Nexus, and Slushpile. Lee is looking for representation for his story collection, novel and his new memoir, Gray Matter, Don’t Matter. Can be reached with simple, large print words at email@example.com . This is his first appearance in Offcourse.