The River

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Usually, a pair of queens isn’t trouble, but their immediate presence reminded me of a phrase some old friends used to say. “That’s the devil’s hand right there, a curse. You never win with that deal.”

Of course, their words were empty to me. I’d won plenty of hands with pocket queens. A high pocket deal was always decent. The higher the pocket, the better. And besides, there’s no such thing as curses in poker. That’s ridiculous. There were only numbers. But, for some reason, their words lingered like the everpresent smell of tobacco and beer breath in the room.

At the table, there were five players including me. Three of them I had met for the first time at the table that day, though I had forgotten their names the moment I tilted my head their way in acknowledgment. The last player was a middle-aged man who could have easily passed for 80. Every inch of his skin looked weathered, but no place more than his callus covered fingers that twitched nervously when they were without a hand of cards to hold. Large round spectacles sat at the edge of his nose, and a dark four-leaf clover shaped mole stuck to the front of his throat.

This man had introduced me to poker, taught me the ins and outs of the game, and often shared his secrets of the trade with me. Most of the time, they were superstitious rituals, but I humored him regardless. He was known at the poker table as Ol’ Fogey Flush and he would often swear the name stuck because of his knack for pulling a flush every game he played. The truth was that flush never came from the cards, but rather always in frequent trips to the jon. Flush’s real name was Beck O’Donald, but few knew him by that alias.

I looked up at Flush who was wearing his typical fresh deal smirk. It was his usual opening bluff, but he always used it and that’s what made it unreadable. Dark shadows under his eyes, darker than usual, disclosed his lack of sleep at night. Word was his health was quickly declining. Nothing in his expressions displayed fatigue or pain, though. Poker had made him an expert at displaying opposites.

In his youth, Beck had been a soldier who had fought in both world wars and had always attributed his survival to his good terms with the elusive Lady Luck. He was a man obsessed with chance. That’s why, after the wars, he had decided to take his chance at gold mining. Fortune seemed to continue in his favor as he often bragged that it took him less than a year to strike it rich. Time, however, did not favor him. Years of tirelessly mining and an ignorance for spending money cost him his health in his middle age. Once muscular and fit, Beck retained almost none of his original youth.

Flush tossed in his blind, but then immediately winced in pain. He cradled his gut as though someone had taken a jab at him, placed his hand face down in front of him, and stood up from his seat.

“Where’s the pot in ‘is joint?”

There was a bit of unaccounted for anger in his request.

The man to the left of me chuckled, took his cigarette out of his mouth and, with it, pointed to the dark hallway behind me. “Firs’ door the lef’…”

Flush was gone before he had finished.

“Oi, don’ miss geezer!”

“Fat chance!” Flush yelled back.

The other two players laughed at this, all the while keeping their eyes trained on the face down flop. I rolled my eyes.

Then the dealer moved to reveal the flop. The sound of the turning cards hushed the already silent room.

Ten of spades

Queen of hearts

Ace of diamonds

Someone threw in the minimum bet. I raised. This was my last hand and even if I won this hand, I had planned to leave. It was almost midnight and there was work to be done in the morning. One folded. Two called. Then the turn.

Three of spades

The first player knocked his knuckle on the table. I bet. The other sat across from me, scouring my countenance for clues as to what my hand might have. He was the largest of the men at the table and extremely burly, probably a railroad worker. Most of the men in the town were. There wasn’t much else option for them. The man gave me a wicked grin, but I wasn’t put off. I was ready to leave, with or without money. It didn’t matter. He probably figured I had something. The straight or even a flush depending on the next card. My three of a kind had a good chance, but my tiredness and readiness to go clouded my mind little by little. Then, as if he had attained some divine knowledge from above, he too smirked and called. The other player folded. My heart raced a little. Then the river.

King of spades.

The man next to me buried his cigarette.

I cursed under my breath. There was an easy straight right there. Did he have it? I threw in a bet. I had to. Either he had the straight, or he somehow saw my concern because without hesitation he called me all in. I called.

“Stee-raight!” he announced, revealing a jack of diamonds and a nine of hearts.

I nodded to him that he had bested me, and as he began to organize his new set of chips, we all heard a bloodcurdling retching sound from the hallway.

“Oi, Flush! Too much ta drink, eh?” laughed the burly man. The other two cackled along, sending a spray of spittle into the air.

I stood up and stared at the players.

“I’ll check on him.”

I walked to the bathroom door and knocked a few times.

“Beck, you alright?”

No one answered.

I tried the handle. It was locked.

Then I noticed something red pooling at the base of the door. In the dimly lit hallway, I could just make it out. I stared at the blood, bewildered and petrified. It just kept coming. Then a branch broke off from the pool and meandered down the hallway, stopping just beneath where Beck was sitting. One of the players looked down and mistook it for what must have been urine.

“Look’s like the geezer did miss i’!”

When the other two saw the liquid, they accepted the claim and began another fit of gurgly cackles. In their torrent, one of the players accidentally knocked Beck’s cards off the table and into the blood, face up.

Queen of spades.

Six of spades.

A flush.

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