(c) 2021 Lif Strand
The cards had been dealt. A mountain of chips spilled over the middle of the table. All eyes except the dealer’s were on the cardboard rectangles the players held in their hands. The fate of each would be determined, one way or another, by this last hand in this dark and smoky room. The fate of the others who waited anxiously outside in the bright light would be settled, too.
No one spoke. The only sound was the mildly irritating tapping of a lone fly battering its insect body against a screen in a futile attempt at freedom.
Jake pulled his eyes from the cards before him and coolly assessed each of the two other men at the table. He sat back in his chair and pulled deeply on the unfiltered Pall Mall that, once lit, never left his lips till he felt the heat of the ember. Smoke leaked out of the corner of his mouth and found its way into the large, hairy nostrils that flared above his neat moustache.
Jake’s gaze took in the man to his right. Ricardo, married into the clan and a rising star from day one. An amiable charmer, maybe going a little soft — but Jake never underestimated that one. He was the kind that would smile at you friendly-like while he shoved the knife in a little deeper. Ricardo rested his arms lightly on the edge of the table, his cards held in an untidy fan, as relaxed as if he was reading a mildly entertaining book.
Jake’s eyes flicked to the dealer who sat across the table, a pretty thing whose professional manner belied her youth, then moved to the man next to her. Al, another one married into the clan. Now, there was a man who wouldn’t let honesty get in his way. Not too handsome, not too pleasant to be around, but with his family backing him, not the kind of guy you’d want to cross. Al sat hunched over his cards studying them as if his life depended on them. Maybe it did.
The dealer cleared her throat.
“Yeah, yeah, lemme think here,” Jake muttered, turning his attention back to the cards in his hand. He shook another cigarette from the pack next to his chips without even looking at it, and lit the new one from the glowing ember of the old, which he ground out in an overflowing ash tray.
He rolled his fresh cigarette side to side with his teeth, squinting when the smoke hit his eyes. Ricardo grinned. That meant nothing – the man always had a smirk on his face. Al looked pissed off. That was no tell, either, since pissed off was his baseline nature.
“Call,” Jake said, shoving a stack of chips into the pile. He leaned back in his chair and checked out Ricardo’s reaction from under lowered lids.
“I’ll see your fifty and raise you a hundred,” Ricardo said immediately, picking up chips and tossing them carelessly into the center of the table. Jake began to frown, but immediately wiped the expression off his face.
“Cards,” the dealer announced.
“I’m out,” Al growled as he slapped his cards face-side down on the table. He sat back and crossed his arms.
“Hit me.” Jake discarded one. A replacement sliced through the air to land at Jake’s fingertips.
Ricardo tapped the table once and the dealer sent a card his way.
“Check,” Jake said flatly.
“A hundred,” Ricardo said happily, pushing more chips into the pile.
Jake closed his eyes, and smoke leaked out of his nose like a dragon thinking about scorching the village.
“Damn,” he said. “That’s it. I fold.”
Ricardo smiled widely, his white teeth gleaming as he leaned forward to scoop all the chips to him.
“Hold it there, big boy.” Jake put a hand on Ricardo’s arm. “Whatcha got?”
Ricardo’s grin faltered. “You want to see my cards?”
Jake looked at Al, who jerked his head once. “Yeah, we want to see.”
Sighing deeply, Ricardo picked up his hand and examined the cards. He laid them out carefully. A pair of twos. A pair of threes.
“A winning hand is a winning hand.” Grinning again, Ricardo stacked the chips in neat towers. The dealer sniggered. Al shot her a glance, but he’d lose face if he said anything. Instead he pushed his chair back, the legs screeching on the linoleum floor. “It’s time. They’re all waiting out there. You wanna flip for it, Jake?”
“I gotta pee,” Jake replied. “That okay with you?”
Al grunted. He’d lost his stake – again — and only cared about how to explain this to his wife, who waited beyond the front door. The dealer cocked her head but provided no opinion. She was only interested in what would happen outside.
Jake disappeared into the gloom of the hallway, his footsteps loud. The others heard the creak of the door, the splash, the flush, and then the footsteps again. While they waited the dealer returned the chips and cards to their slots in Jake’s velvet-lined briefcase and emptied Jake’s ashtray.
“Well?” Jake stood with his hands on the back of his chair at the head of the table. “You gonna do it or do I have to?” Al shrugged, not looking up from his folded hands. Annoyance flashed over Jake’s face. “You are a piece of work, you are.” Al shrugged again. He might have lost the game but he didn’t want to be the one to make the final decision on its outcome.
Ricardo glanced towards the curtained front door. There had been nothing to indicate anyone was still out there. Maybe they had left. There was nothing holding them there, really, except for family loyalty. Maybe a little dread on the part of Al’s people.
A young child cried out, a wail of hunger and exhaustion.
“I’ll deal with them,” Ricardo said abruptly. “I won, I should make the decision.”
Jake grunted. He didn’t really like playing with Ricardo. Jake himself cheated and everyone knew it. He was the patriarch and who would gainsay him? But Ricardo – did he cheat? He won just a little too often to be playing it straight and Jake figured a cheater should be able to tell a cheater — but he never had figured out what Ricardo’s game really was.
“Well get on with it then,” Jake grumbled. “It’s cruel to make them wait any longer than they have to.” He glared at Al. “And you keep your mouth shut when we get out there. You gave up your right to an opinion.”
The dealer still stood quietly at her side of the table, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that she was witness to this. When Jake jerked his head, though, she hurried towards the front door. He lit another cigarette, absently stuffing the half empty pack into a shirt pocket. He surveyed the table, the stacks of chips neatly in their caddy in the briefcase, then shook his head.
He was the patriarch. He had to set an example.
He headed for the door, knowing what was coming. He didn’t have to like it, but he had to go along with it.
Outside, the sunlight stabbed Jake’s eyes, giving him an immediate headache. He paused at the top of the steps, squinting. The others had all backed away from Ricardo, knowing instantly by the crazy grin that he’d won but worried about what he was going to do about it.
Movement caught Jake’s eye. “Oh no you don’t, you little shit.” He grabbed a wad of Al’s shirt to prevent him from sidling away. “He won, fair and… he won. You know what that means.”
A few of the waiting adults groaned when they heard Jake’s words, but the children – including the dealer — screamed and started to run towards the waiting vehicles.
“Pizza! Pizza! We get to have pizza!”
“Again,” Jake grumbled. Damn Ricardo and pizza. Well, okay. Make the best of it. He was the patriarch, wasn’t he? Yeah, and the patriarch would make Al pay the full tab.
With that pleasing thought, Jake followed his family to the cars.
♠ ♥ ♦ ♣
This story was prompted by the first photo (below) that I discovered when I was going through a box of mystery paperwork. I would have been in my late teens in the photo, and as I was a lousy poker player I was likely the photographer. Names in the story have been changed to protect the…um… yeah. So I don’t get yelled at. Even though this is fiction. Ignore my comment about “true” at the top of the page. Too risky for me.
The second photo was taken probably ten years later. Family’s still playing poker and I still wasn’t, for the same reason as always.