They gather in a circle, an oval maybe, an oblong landscape of green felt with a surprising amount of give. They stare intently at their cards, their drinks, each other, the red-shirted personage before them who manages the distribution of cards and chips and changes identity twice an hour. The whole pattern would be entirely inscrutable to one unfamiliar with the general practices of gambling and maybe even specifically the rules of poker, the seamless and implicit passage of items and their corresponding emotions out of all proportion with normal human behavior.
There is the medical student from Temple who comes in to discuss high-level philosophy, suggesting to the assembled table at 3 in the morning that maybe they are all merely past memories of someone who doesn’t exist. He guesses almost the entire plot of my third novel at one point, quietly, accidentally, making almost everyone but me eye-roll as I sit more erect and alarmed in my chair and fold my cards. Twenty minutes later, he busts out of money and twitches a bit before asking someone at the table for a loan. Eventually he finds traction with the way-up nurse who’s passing time before she goes to work with in-home elderly in need of care, offers his watch as collateral, gets a third guy to vouch for the watch’s quality, and reboots with a crisp $100 bill for another run at busting out just a few hands later. He promises to be back in an hour with the money, letting the woman keep his watch as promised, but he never returns. Maybe he didn’t exist. The woman debates briefly what to do with the watch and where she might sell it before departing for her employment.
There is the drunk who everyone knows is going to bust out after just a few hands, maybe winning one or two beforehand. There are many of these. They are the poster-children for why this whole operation should probably be illegal, was illegal for a long time, may yet be illegal again. It is arguable that it is the alcohol doing far more of the damage than the gambling, but it is also hard to imagine where the money is coming from to fuel the kind of waste that can be observed on any given night. At least this is a game of skill, though it’s hard to imagine why we allow skill to equate to standing in our society. The problems that money creates.
There is, relatedly, the story one dealer tells us of her table earlier tonight, unprecedented in her experience she says, wherein the losing player asked for his money back after cryingingly imploring that he lost his child support money and was (understandably) sure his four-of-a-kind would win the hand. She describes in vivid detail the awkwardness of the experience, the apparent grief of the man who eventually wandered away bewildered, the discomfort of the winner who offered $10 of his winning hundreds so the man could at least get a taxi home, the overall unreasonability of putting up one’s child’s support money on a game, ultimately, of chance. It takes a cynic like me at the table to suggest that maybe it was all an act, a sacrifice of dignity and honesty for the sake of recouping some dollars. This is before the watch guy shows up, but my suggestion to the dealer that she ask after the man’s kid at a future table has her in paroxysms when I follow-up with preparing her to hear “What kid?” Life has taught me all too well where people tend to rank honesty, their emotions, and money.
There is the drunk couple who shows up, resplendent pretty people in resplendent pretty clothing, fresh from a wedding with some hours to kill before their flight will return them to the girl’s home in Indiana for sedentary Midwestern living. They’ve both played before, but the girl never prior in a cardroom, and she intones stage whispers in my ears as she begs for advice in stern tipsy confusion about the arcane procedures of the poker table. I make an effort to be patient and kind as all poker tables require, only periodically cracking that this may all be an act for her to extract maximal compensation from the encounter with the casino. At one point she looks me in the eyes and asks where I’m from, says she feels like she knows me, like one of her closest friends is just like me, and there’s a hint of something heavier behind all the hiccupy banter and discussion of the way things work with cards and chips and felt. It is when her boyfriend gets busted out and wanders off in confusion that she begins to complain about his carelessness and my distaste for this particular movie mixes with my natural inclination toward it, like I’m in some sort of Eternal Sunshine infinite loop to keep making the same mistake, a moth infinitely drawn to the bug-zapper. To the point where it’s almost a relief when the lanky bearded boyfriend ambles back to collect his girl and all her chips (she’s tripled up or so in an hour under my tutelage) and stumble toward taxi, hotel, plane, Indiana.
There is the man who talks loudly about divorce, growing apart, the final date of September 12th and his kids of 8, 6, 4. He is wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat, a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt, a Dallas Cowboys watch, and holds his cards in place with a weighty Dallas Cowboys coin of some sort. At one point he stands up from his chair, having downed four beers after the five-hour curfew on such drinks was lifted at 7:00 AM, and lifts his shirt and sweatshirt to reveal a Dallas Cowboys tattoo on the back of his right shoulder. He and I have nothing in common, but we have everything shared in this average American life I have somehow been left to lead in my own wandering wake. I wonder what it’s like to be his six-year-old girl, what his wife must be like, how she tells the story of their separation, whether he started drinking at 7 AM only after the breakup. There are times I have to be reminded to play because I find this person, obnoxious, unpleasant, brash, and loud, to be so compelling.
There is the woman who speaks in Russian on the phone to her husband asleep downstairs, then in person to him as he awakens and drifts upstairs, reminding me how much of that language I’ve forgotten but also of how much of any language is the basic exchange of extremely simple phrases. How I almost get one of their jokes well enough that concealing my reactive mirth is challenging, especially knowing that those who speak in a foreign language publicly take being understood as akin to CIA-level eavesdropping. It is such an easy assumption to make in America that your mother tongue is oblique to anyone you haven’t already identified as sharing your heritage.
There is the man who talks about his wife and child like they are quartered soldiers in his home, not ones he quite resents but rather respects in spite of their slightly uncouth way of being with his property. He is delicate but off-put when she calls, he is one of the nicest people I have ever met at a poker table, he is someone I don’t really want to share my story with but feel I almost must for the sake of his greater appreciation of his own life circumstances. You can tell people to appreciate what you want all you want, but does it sink in in a way that’s meaningful? People are going to want what they’re going to want and the first rule of wanting something is that you yourself must decide that you want it. Other people’s efforts to sway and bend must be couched and timed almost perfectly to have any impact whatsoever, and even then it rattles down the echoey wind tunnel of resistance like a thorny pebble trying to nestle in your foot. Even when you know it’s right, it grates and demands extractive rejection. Even if you end up looking at the remaining indent and missing it almost immediately as it sails away into the just-hurled-at distance.
There is the dealer who asks about my sweatshirt, the sweatshirt I always get comments on, the one from Nepal, that prompts a whole discussion of that trip and my life and brings me almost to tears. Merely because I remember that day so vividly, feel its slice across time as we waited for the shops to open in Kathmandu, the impulse purchase that became my identity the rest of that trip and for some time to come, the unpredictable randomness of me selecting something orange, red, and brown when all the colors of the rainbow were available, including the normally preferred green, blue, and gray. The colors were brighter there, our last day in Kathmandu before heading out to the rest of Nepal and India, Emily encouraging me fervently to get something for myself despite my unmaterialistic inclinations, complimenting how warm and comfortable and happy I looked in the wide-sleeved selection, reminding me for years later, like my Yellowstone sweatshirt and the honeymoon thunderbird T-shirt from the Vancouver Aquarium, that she always knew when I should get something I wanted.
Everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia.
It was not my night at the poker table and it was entirely my night. It broke my October winning streak but it took twenty solid hours at the table to do so. It was a total waste of time and it was an encounter with humanity that evoked more depth than a hundred hours of conversations with apologetic friends and eager young debaters. It made me never want to go back there again and it made me want to go back the next night. It consumed my weekend in pretty much all the ways a weekend can be consumed: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
I stepped outside to find the same daylight I’d encountered when entering the place, a wan grayish bluster that sent, finally, cagey crinkled leaves rattling down the asphalt. It has been summer all October. We’re headed for a fall.