Around noon on Friday, Big Joe sent out a text to his crew: Poker stakes 8 pm.
Some of the guys found the addition of the word stakes confusing. They played for the same stakes every week, that is to say, they played a low-stakes game every Friday night. No one really wanted to change that. If anyone sought heavier action, other games existed.
At Big Joe's game, poker occupied a secondary position in the scheme of their communion. Poker served as the premise and offered the opportunity to sit around, get high, watch sports on a big screen, and shoot the shit with a colourful cast of characters. There was Pino Grigio—his actual name—an obese man who wore a girdle and suffered from narcolepsy; Galinsky was the second coming of the Rain Man; Beester could do minor magic tricks with little foam balls; OCD Cohen rolled joints obsessively and wrote numbers on their sides, storing them in an airtight canister for future use; Silvio, who could barely speak English, argued with everyone in Italian, or at least it sounded like he was arguing.
Galinsky texted OCD Cohen: We changing stakes?
OCD Cohen replied: I don't think.
Galinsky texted Beester: Big Joe changing stakes?
Beester replied: Taking dump dunno later.
Galinsky arrived late to the game. Others were already there, huddled on the back deck around Big Joe's Blackstone grill. The patio lanterns were lit though the sun had not completely set. A smell of charred meat made Galinsky's mouth water, but another odour, underneath it, gave him pause. He couldn't put his finger on it.
Pino Grigio sat on a green Muskoka Chair with his legs spread and his arms resting massively on the armrests. He puffed when he saw Galinsky.
"You're tardy," he said, licking his lips.
"What's going on here?' Galinsky asked.
Silvio shouted something.
"Speak English tonight," Beester said. "He acts like he don't know English."
"He knows," said Big Joe, wearing a pit master apron and wielding big tongs. "He knows. But he thinks talking Italian gives him an edge."
"I'll give him an edge," Beester said.
"Galinsky," Big Joe said. "Nice of you to join us. Grab a beer in the cooler."
"What's cooking?" he asked.
"I said in the text: poker and steaks."
"You spelt it the other way. Thought you meant something about changing the poker stakes like from a one-two game to a two-five or whatever."
OCD Cohen hovered around the grill, his stoned eyes like rubies. He waved to Galinsky and pointed to the grill with a smack of his lips. Dogs barked next door. A wooden fence obscured them, but they could smell the charring meat and wanted some. It was a pleasant evening, the sky finally darkening as the May days stretched into the longueurs of summer solstice.
"Steaks," Galinsky said, twisting open a beer. "Ah."
Big Joe opened his mouth and mocked Galinsky's surprise. Silvio reached his arm around Big Joe and said something into his ear.
"Silvio asked if I have any side dishes," Big Joe said. "Did anyone think to bring side dishes? So you get invited for the steaks but you all come empty-handed?"
"Forgive me for saying this," OCD Cohen offered, "but I think your spelling error confused us. We all assumed it had something to do with the poker stakes, as in our wagering amounts, and not beef steaks. Had we known—"
"Had you known," Big Joe said, pointing the tongs, "you would have brought some coleslaw or potato salad, or even some rolls."
"Yes, of course."
Silvio said something in Italian.
Big Joe laughed but no one else did. He returned to the grill and flipped the steaks. If Galinsky was to have one, he wanted it medium rare. He hated overcooked meat. You might as well eat a shoe.
"Big Joe," he said, "medium rare for me."
"Already past the point of no return, bub. We're talking Chicago-style medium or well. This friggin grill gets too hot. Grab plates, boys, on the table there."
The men all grabbed paper plates and walked up to the grill where Big Joe slapped them with blackened slabs of meat. They sat at the picnic table in the middle of the deck with their steaks. Silvio said something.
"Oh yeah," Big Joe said, "cutlery. In the little box there by the flower pot. Some plastic forks and knives. Sorry, I don't have anything else to serve with the steaks. I was running around all day and didn't get a chance to stop for bread or anything. I figured you idiots would bring something, anything."
"We're not mind-readers," Beester said.
"Where'd you get the steaks?" OCD Cohen asked.
Big Joe smiled. "Let's just say they fell off a truck."
OCD Cohen sat up and stared at his steak. Pino Grigio, back in the Muskoka chair, folded his steak in its paper plate like a pizza slice. He blew on an end and bit into it. Silvio said something else.
"Salt?" Big Joe said. "Yeah, I got salt, inside. By the fridge. Go on in and get it. And if anyone wants catsup, think I got a fresh bottle in the pantry. Go on Silvio, make yourself useful."
The dogs next door were really barking. At one point the owner, a small sheepish man in suspenders, came out and ordered them to be quiet. The dogs complied.
Galinsky tried to cut his meat with his plastic knife and fork with little success. He had to wonder where Big Joe had purchased or found these steaks. He managed to hew off a small end piece and put it in his mouth. He immediately spit it into his palm. It tasted vile, like a charred petroleum product. He guzzled some beer from the bottle and swished it around his mouth until its bitter notes flushed out that appalling taste. He wondered if the faulty grill had corrupted the meat or if it had already been corrupted. Maybe it just needed salt.
Silvio returned shortly with a saltshaker and a squeeze-bottle of Heinz ketchup. The others salted their steaks. OCD Cohen squirted some ketchup over his. Galinsky tried his meat again and it tasted no better. There was something definitely off about it. Perhaps because of the masking effect of the ketchup, OCD Cohen managed to down a few bites. Silvio spat his first bite over the deck rail, cursing in Italian. Beester put his plastic knife and fork down and crossed his arms. Only Pino Grigio continued eating his steak, like a pizza slice, with lidded eyes.
"What's the matter?" Big Joe said.
No one said anything at first.
The dogs started barking again.
Finally Silvio blurted something in Italian.
"What are you saying?" Big Joe said, offended.
"Taste it," OCD Cohen said.
"Yeah," Beester said. "I think some diesel fell off that truck with the steaks."
A scowling Big Joe cut into his meat and forked up a piece into his mouth. He chewed on it for a moment, then spit it out.
The dogs were berserk now.
"My apologies, boys. I'm gonna kill Guido. That piece of shit. Wait till I get my hands on him. Pino, stop eating that meat. It's off."
"I'm almost finished," Pino said. "It wasn't bad."
Trying to expel the vile taste in his mouth by drinking beer and repeatedly spitting into a serviette, Galinsky figured Pino would be sick as a dog later on. No one wanted to see a four hundred pound man get sick all over a poker table. What the hell was wrong with the guy, eating that thing? So much for a relaxing game of poker.
Big Joe told the boys to do what they had to do. One by one they took their remaining steaks and chucked them over the fence. The dogs didn't bark again that evening.
Salvatore Difalco is the author of "The Mountie At Niagara Falls" (Anvil) an illustrated collection of flash fiction. He splits time between Toronto and Sicily.