The High(est) Stakes Game
by George Bowden
The man stooped slightly and shielded his eyes as if the stage strobe and the pounding music made him bow in worship. Glitter dimpled a stripper’s nakedness, luring his eyes to the stage until a drunken “dammit” and the crash of poker chips jerked his head to the right. He watched a tuxedoed bear of a man collar a desperately repentant gambler and shove him into the darkness.
Across the room, a bar loomed as ominous as a morgue slab, and he saw the Owner touch the brim of his Fedora in a mock salute to the stripper as she playfully flicked her tongue and snatched the mortgages from each of her devotees. The Owner’s smile looked like the gates of hell had unleashed thirty-two perfectly aligned, hot-white teeth — a grin as seductive as the raven-haired temptress snaked down the pole and slithered toward the dollar-rich regulars leering from the edge of the stage.
The Owner conveyed a clear message: the man knew he looked as timid as a child who had been spanked for far less a sin than walking into a place like this, a place where a man could get a little taste of the wildlife that might cost him his soul.
The pinstripes of the Owner’s suit glowed like streams of fire in a dark flow of silk lava. His sunglasses mirrored the neon behind the bar, a temptation-rich glow barely visible through the gumbo-like haze of Marlboros, Cubans and weed, its strangling odor not seeming to phase the patrons. The silver tip of his boot scratched at the bar rail like a vulture scratches its carrion.
The Owner’s voice sliced through the music and the haze, as if summoning a pauper to the throne. His hand, glistening with gold and fiery stones, made a single “come here” wave. “Boy, your first drink is on the house.”
The Owner pointed at the bartender. “Renfield,” and he motioned toward the man. The Owner shoved a bag of coins across the bar, and it stopped just shy of the man’s hand. The man pulled out a coin – a treasure seemingly as ancient as Caesar. Renfield lovingly poured a double Macallan scotch for the Owner. The man slipped the coin into the front pocket of his jeans.
The man looked at the floor as if he was a teenager taunted by rich bullies. He could see rusted steel peering through the worn leather on his boots. His jeans wore dirt as if they had been starched with ditch water. He looked back at the bar mirror, and the ravines of a leathered face spread from his eyes, almost closed from years of working in the sun. He ran his fingers through hair that resembled untrimmed weeds growing in an empty parking lot. Although slightly taller and lankier than the Owner, he nodded with an almost apologetic smile. “Beer, please.”
Renfield cackled and grinned, and placed what the man might call the perfect beer in front of him — a layer of frozen bock and foam atop a large mug so cold that Renfield’s fingerprints didn’t leave a mark.
The man savored his first sip of the icy brew as if it was heaven-sent, then took a larger swallow and placed the mug on the bar. He looked at the Owner and nodded toward the poker chips scattered across the floor. “That didn’t go well.”
“You’ve got to be willing to lose if you’re going to play.” The Owner’s teeth sparkled like a hypnotist’s watch. “Are you a gambler?”
The music stopped. The quiet seemed eternal until the tuxedoed bouncer hastily stacked the poker chips on the table and pulled up two chairs. Renfield, the dancer and all her fans leaned in and stared as if they had wagered on the man’s response.
“A little poker on Saturday nights with friends. Mostly small stuff. Nothing more than five or ten dollars. But it’s gonna take a lot more than one beer.” Renfield placed a full pitcher and another frosted mug next to the man.
The Owner sat across from him, as elegant and powerful as a king overlooking his court. “We can play for fun and use these chips, but I’m thinking a man like you wants to show his skills, maybe higher stakes.” He motioned for Renfield to bring the bag of coins to the table.
“Let’s play one hand. Texas Hold ‘Em. I’ll wager these coins – thirty pieces of silver. Last guy I gave them to did a little work for me, then threw them back at me and killed himself. What a waste of talent.”
The Owner leaned forward and slowly shuffled the cards. “What if you wager something more” … the silence spoke of eternity … “permanent?” He squared the deck, split it into two, thumbed the corners and allowed the two halves to merge, their sound as crisp as twigs snapping in a fire.
“You lose, you come to work for me.”
The man eyed the coins and looked back into the Owner’s eyes. He’d felt that darkness before. He had been homeless and desperate for any glimmer of dignity left in his life. He remembered the stench of Old Crow Whiskey and the comfort of a pawnshop-38 caressing his chin. He still didn’t understand why the pistol didn’t fire, and he never saw the face of the person who snatched it away, stood him up and walked him to the shelter.
The man tapped the table with his forefinger and middle finger. “Deal.” He wondered if the Owner remembered him from that dark alley, when he handed him the whiskey, cocked the gun for him and whispered, “All the pain will be gone.” The man knew the Owner would relish a second chance like this.
The Owner shuffled one more time, laid the deck in front of the man and offered to let him split the cards. He simply tapped the deck. The Owner slid two cards face down to the man, then dealt himself two cards. The man looked at the cards, scratched them against his chest and ran his left hand through his hair.
“Let’s get to it. Just one bet. Best five cards. I win, and you work for me. Forever. You win …” …The Owner simply laughed. “… you’re a rich man.”
The Owner dealt the first card face-up. Ten of diamonds.
He slid three cards from the deck. Eight of clubs, queen of diamonds, nine of diamonds.
The last two cards seemed to scrape across the table like chains dragged slowly across concrete: Nine of diamonds. Jack of diamonds.
The man’s sigh brought cackles and knowing nods to the anxious crowd that now circled the two players. He knew when he walked in the door that the Owner would deal him a worthless hand. Two of spades and six of hearts. He paused and closed his eyes as if they were blackout shades covering the windows to his soul.
The Owner tired of waiting. “You’re wasting my time!” He threw down the seven and eight of diamonds. “A straight flush.” He laughed at the man, hoping to top off his loss with desperate regret, “Clean you up, and you’ll look great in this suit.”
The man laid down his two cards. King of diamonds. Ace of diamonds.
The Owner threw his head back and screamed wildly. He slammed his elbows on the table and pounded the sides of his head with his fists. “No! No! No! No! Where in hell did you get the ace and king of diamonds?”
The man waved an open hand toward the coins, as if the bag contained such little value that it wasn’t worth the effort to pick up. “I don’t give a damn about your coins.” The man slid his chair back, startling the crowd, who still stared as if they were waiting for two trains to collide. He stood, finished his beer and looked at the Owner. The man smiled. “I’ve had a hell of a good time.”
He walked away but stopped at the door, a slight smirk still on his lips, his head tilting to one side. He winked at the Owner and pulled the two of spades and the six of hearts from his shirt pocket. He flicked them toward the Owner, then pulled the one coin from his pants pocket and flipped it in the air. He caught it and chuckled, “Good to see you again … boy.”