The blinds had gone up four times when the guy with the mutton chops raised, the Vietnamese dude re-popped, and Jack flipped his ten eight of hearts towards the muck. He would have liked to play the hand, don’t get him wrong, would have almost certainly played if not for the re-raise, which made the pre-flop price simply too steep for an almost suited connector with little to no chance of drawing to the nuts.
And then he would have flopped a flush. Not only that but four cards to a straight flush. He would have cleaned up, especially after Mutton Chops made middle set and the Vietnamese Dude moved all-in with a flush draw that never came.
It was deeply painful to imagine what could have been.
In the end, he finished fourth. The top five places paid, so technically he was in the money, but the prize wasn’t much—thirty-five dollars on top of the forty he paid to buy in, little better than community center wages for his four hours work. He laid his license down on the poker table, let the manager take down his contact information so that he could get paid. He watched the man write down his mother’s address—the address currently accurate, a source of continuing shame.
He left five on the table for the dealer, folded the rest of it into his pocket, and headed for the door. It was twelve-thirty in the afternoon, and he had nowhere that he had to be.
He drove back down Aurora Avenue, past the fast food restaurants and pay-by-the-hour motels and gas stations—all of the usual junk that he tended to tune out on his way up to the casino, when his impending commencement into the game drew his attention away from the grimy, industrial highway that connected the leafy, lakefront neighborhood where he lived to the tawdry stretch of asphalt where he had lately begun to spend most mornings.
The ride back, though, was different, especially if he lost. Then he saw the filth with clarity, with feelings, even, of identity. As though he had become part of the ugliness he passed through, as though it had begun to engulf him. And while he had not lost money today, the thirty-five he gained did not feel like much of an improvement, either, not with first place paying five hundred and him trying to put together a bankroll.
He was tired of the morning tournament. Tired of its greasy, complimentary breakfasts and flimsy, plastic chips. For the past year, he had regularly spent long afternoons poring over strategy guides in bookstore cafes, sipping mug after mug of milky coffee while scribbling notes in his sketchpad. He watched every World Series of Poker broadcast that came on TV, paying special attention to the diminutive, sharp-witted Canadian who people in casinos sometimes said he looked like. And he had played in countless morning tournaments, competing against a rotating cast of college students, degenerate gamblers, and middle-aged former strippers who seemed to have no sense of sophisticated poker strategy as articulated in classic strategy guides like Barry Greenstein’s Ace on the River or Doyle Brunson’s Supersystem. He had paid his dues.
He was ready to move up. To play in real games, where real money was at stake. Specifically, he wanted to play in the Indian reservation casinos, where no-limit cash games were legal, unlike in the rest of Washington state. The last time he had gone up to Tulalip, he brought four of the six hundred he had to his name, played so tight and skittish that he barely stood a chance.
He needed a bankroll to sit in those games, he knew now. A couple thousand, at least.
He turned off Aurora at 75th, curving along the lake behind a white Camry that was barely pushing thirty. He was hungry, having turned down the tournament food, and had in mind a feta cheese omelet from the Sunlight Café.
When was the last time he had eaten at the Sunlight? he wondered, cruising past the Thai spot where he and his dad used to go after baseball practice. It must have been a year, at least. He had not been since his father passed away.
He eyed a parking lot on the left side of the street and threw the Civic into reverse. Was it a mistake? he wondered, spinning left and then right. The omelet would cost fifteen dollars with tax and tip, nearly half his morning’s earnings and about ten percent of his present net worth as a whole.
He slammed the door behind him. A man had to eat.
“Coffee?” asked the waitress, peering down at him through low-slung bangs. He nodded, pushing his brown cup towards her.
She was pretty, he thought, not like the woman who had served him coffee at that morning’s tournament. She had dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, a sweet, simple face. He looked away. He was lousy at talking to women.
“What are you having?” she asked once his cup was full.
“The feta cheese omelet?” he said, passing her back the menu. “With a side of home fries?”
“Anything else?” she asked, smiling down at him.
“No,” he said, reddening and looking away.
When she was gone, his mind returned to practical things. He figured that he had two ways of getting the money together, neither of which seemed good. He could go back to working the front desk at the community center, checking out basketballs and yoga mats for eight fifty an hour. Or he could call Tommy, see if his brother might be able to put him to work as a driver. Tommy made more money delivering weed to his brother’s network of clients than he used to make in a week working at the community center. The only problem was that the last time he saw his friend, he had not looked good. His body was still thin, the way it had always been, but his face looked puffy and pale, as though it had not seen sunlight in days.
No, neither option seemed good. If only he could have beaten the morning tournament for the money, the way the books had said. Beat up on the smaller games first, then gradually move up the stakes. But he had not been able to beat up on the morning tournament—not with any consistency, anyway. The stacks the players started with were too small, the blinds moved up too fast. The tournament’s structure rewarded reckless play, making the game a gamble little—
The waitress dropped his food with a bang. He looked up to catch her eye, but her back was already turned.
He jabbed at the omelet with his fork.
He decided that he would give Tommy a call.
The music was so loud—big pimpin’, spendin’ cheese—the car around them shook.
“Poker’s not working out for ya, huh?” Tommy shouted, pulling on his e-cig.
“It’s going all right,” said Jack said, looking out the window. “I need some extra income is all.”
“You used to beat my ass whenever we played in high school,” Tommy hollered. “For whatever that’s worth.”
“Not much,” said Jack. “Unfortunately. Where are we going, anyway?”
“This little pizza spot over here. You’re going to love it. Best calzone in the city, bar none.”
“I could definitely eat,” Jack said.
Tommy turned off the main street, pulling down a narrow alley. He came to a halt beside a green dumpster. Soon, a guy wearing a white apron was climbing in behind Jack.
“My man,” said the guy, reaching over the seat.
“What up, brother man,” said Tommy, clutching his hand. “What you holding today?”
“‘The New York,’” said the cook, passing a paper bag over the seat. “Olives, mushrooms, and pepperoni. Three kinds of cheese. You’re going to love it.”
“Damn straight,” said Tommy, flipping the bag to Jack.
He pinned it against his leg with one hand. It felt surprisingly comforting against his groin.
Tommy handed the cook a tightly rolled baggie.
“Much obliged,” the cook said.
“No doubt,” said Tommy.
They slapped hands lightly. The guy got out of the car.
They drove north, the music so loud that it made it hard for him to think.
He liked music that made him feel calm, that he could listen to at the table while he was waiting for the other players to knock each other out. That was one thing he learned from the morning tournament—that poker was a test of stamina often more than it was anything else.
“This calzone is unfuckingreal,” Tommy was saying. “You gotta try it.”
“Give it here,” Jack said, reaching into his friend’s lap. He yanked off a hunk and stuck it into his mouth. It was good—cheesy and saucy with a crisp, satisfying crust.
“Good, right?” Tommy said, drawing from his e-cig.
“Good,” said Jack, reaching for another piece.
“Perks of the job,” Tommy said. “This is my every day.”
“Speaking of which,” said Jack quietly.
“Oh, right,” Tommy said, keeping his eyes on the road. “I did talk to my brother. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much in the city right now.” He paused. “He does sometimes need guys to go down to Portland, though. They pick one thing up, drop another thing off. Guys make a lot of money that way. They don’t even spend the night.”
“Drop what up?” said Jack. “Pick what up?”
“You don’t ask,” said Tommy. “You don’t look. Plausible deniability, that way.”
Jack nodded. “Sounds risky,” he said.
Tommy shrugged. “Riskier than what I do, for sure. But the reward’s higher, too. Guy can make fifteen hundred or two grand just for the one trip.”
“Two grand?” Jack repeated.
Tommy laughed. “Think about it. Remember—it doesn’t have to be you.”
Jack felt his knee quiver. “But what if I wanted it to be?”
He entered the express lanes south of 45th, bringing the borrowed Corolla up to seventy-five without thinking. Quickly, he released his foot from the gas.
Years ago, he had gotten a speeding ticket in a small town south of Olympia, the only time that he had ever been pulled over by the cops. Only later did he find out that the town—Chehalis, he remembered now—was a speed trap. The small-town cops liked to hide along the highway in wait.
He decided to lower the speed all the way to sixty once he reached Chehalis. In the meantime, he would keep it at sixty-eight. He was satisfied with the compromise of a minor risk.
He passed Kent and Auburn, the borrowed car quiet as it sped over the slick highway, the only sound made by the windshield wipers swiping away rain.
He tried to remember the last time that he had been to Portland. It had been with Tommy, strangely enough, when he was back from college for winter break. Tommy was going to Central and still living at home.
He had pitied him, he remembered. He had thought that he was wasting his life.
He passed Tacoma, with its depressing white dome, and Lakewood, where all the cops had been shot. He had held such promise back then, such hope. Tommy had been the one in trouble, Tommy the one for whom the future looked bleak.
Back and forth the windshield wipers went. He settled deeper into his memory. When he was a child, he went a couple of times with his dad. They ate Simpson’s-themed donuts and looked at books at Powell’s and went to the Rose Garden to watch the Trail Blazers play. They had been business trips for his dad, but he had not made them feel that way.
It was difficult to believe that more than a year had passed. It did not seem real.
He saw signs for Olympia and let his foot off the gas. The speedometer plunged towards safety.
Fuck that, he thought. His foot shot forward.
The little car went.
He saw signs for Chehalis and kept the Corolla steady at seventy-five. What was life without a little risk? he thought. His left knee quivered. He gripped the wheel tightly with both hands.
Ten minutes later, he had not been stopped. He pressed on.
He boarded the bridge that divided Vancouver and Portland, one state from the other. The Columbia River swirled its either direction. He imagined yanking the wheel to the side, plowing through guard rail, relief as he began his final descent.
He gripped the steering wheel until his hands turned white.
He pressed on.
He exited the freeway in north Portland, descending into a part of the city that he had never seen before. He cruised past the hulk of a closed-down gas station. He passed a Popeye’s Fried Chicken. There were houses with bars over their windows. Others had boards covering their doors.
He imagined two thousand dollars in crisp one hundred dollar bills.
He pressed on.
The motel was where it was supposed to be, as was the Mexican grocery store. He was supposed to park the car at the motel, walk across the street to the market, spend at least thirty minutes eating lunch in the taqueria. When he went back to the car, there would be a shoebox on the passenger seat—the signal that the exchange was made.
His hands were trembling, he noticed as he parked. He thought of the morning tournament.
He pulled his hood over his head and stepped out of the car.
Inside the grocery store, he went past the beans and rice and chilis, potato chips and soft drinks and popcorn. He was starving, he realized. He had not eaten all day.
At the back of the store, there was a little taqueria. A teenage girl stood behind the counter, pictures of different menu items pasted above her head.
“Three tacos,” he told her. “With beans and rice?”
“What kind?” she asked, scowling.
“Carnitas,” he told her.
“Anything to drink?”
“Coke,” he said.
“Mexican or regular?”
“Mexican,” he said.
He paid with cash and took a seat at one of the tables. It was 2:15. At 2:45, he would head back to the car.
He usually ordered carnitas at Mexican restaurants, he thought, a tic he must have picked up from his dad. When he was younger, they used to go to a hole-in-the-wall place on Lake City Way where his dad would order carnitas tacos and practice his Spanish with the waitresses and Jack would drink bottles of Coke poured into plastic bags. Coca en bolsa, they called it. One of the waitresses used to tell him that he was going to be a real lady-killer when he was older. How wrong she had been.
The girl set down his tacos, placed the Coke next to the plate. He squeezed lime over the first taco, nestled radish into the meat. He ate nearly the whole thing in one bite. For a moment, he could not think, everything in his mind given over to food.
He wondered how his dad would feel about what he was doing now. He had always liked that Jack played poker, thought it adventurous, even brave. Of course, gambling was one thing, running drugs quite another.
He sucked down Mexican Coke. It was better than normal—sweeter, not as fake.
He wondered how his mom would feel, if she would even care. He had hoped that his dad’s death would bring them closer together, but, if anything, the gulf had grown.
Anyway, it didn’t matter what they wanted, he thought, starting in on the second taco. This was his call to make.
The shoebox was orange and gray and heavy. He set it down on the floor of the passenger seat, resisting the urge to look inside.
He retraced his steps to the freeway, passing boarded-up houses and closed-down gas stations.
He would keep the speed under sixty on his way back, he decided. There was no reason to tempt fate. He was almost there.
Mist hugged the highway but it had stopped raining as he pushed the little car past hemlocks and Douglas Firs and trucks full of their fallen kin. His dad had loved the Pacific Northwest—the clouds and the trees and muted tones. Jack had not appreciated them while he was alive. That was a love they never shared.
Green-and-white signs for Chehalis snapped him out of his reverie. A few miles down, he saw a cop parked ahead on the shoulder. His boxy black speed gun was pointed at northbound cars.
He slowed to fifty-five and checked the rearview mirror. The cop did not budge.
He pressed on.
He came into downtown Seattle. The dark gray buildings resembled nothing more than sturdy towers of chips.
He thought of Tulalip. This time tomorrow he would have two thousand dollars. He would sit at the no limit table and order steak and mashed potatoes and smile at the pretty waitresses. He might even spend the night.
But that was tomorrow. It was only six. At home, his mom would be roasting a chicken or simmering a pot of soup.
He thought of The Sunlight. Perhaps the pretty waitress would be there.
“Anything to drink?” she asked, but it was a different woman. This waitress had pierced eyebrows and green and purple hair shaved at both sides.
“Coffee,” he said, looking away from her out the window.
Outside, a man was sitting on the sidewalk. He had a guitar case in front of him.
“Something to eat?” she asked, filling his brown cup.
“The feta cheese omelet,” said Jack, glaring at the bum. “And a side of home fries.”
“Coming right up,” she said, writing it down.
“And a chocolate milkshake,” Jack said.
“Sure thing,” she said.
“And a side of sweet potato fries,” he said.
“You mean instead of the regular?” she said.
“No, in addition to the regular,” he said.
“Sounds good,” she said.
“And a slice of peanut butter pie,” he said. “No, make it two.”
She looked down at him. “That’s a lot of food. You expecting someone else?”
“No,” he said. “It’s just me.”
She paused. He looked up at her. Her eyes were luminous, concerned.
“I’m just hungry,” he said, blinking rapidly. “I need to eat. Then I’ll be fine.”
Alex Gallo-Brown was born, raised, and is now living again in Seattle.