Friday, December 26, 2008

SHUFFLE, Chapter Seven

The drive to the poker room in that little dream of a convertible was short, windy, and wonderful. Before that ride I looked forward to getting my faithful Mustang out of the shop, but now I wanted to pick it up, drive straight to the dealership, and trade it in for something with a little more snap.

Impossible, but tempting. To buy a car, one needed a job and an income. Working in an illegal poker room only supplied the income part, no employment. At least no employment I wanted to prove on paper. I was just happy I had purchased my house and car before I cashed out of my accounting job.

True to his word, Shade escorted me to the poker room door, leaned in to say howdy to Whitey and Angelina, then headed for home, or so he said. Now why did that suspicion sneak into my thoughts? What did I care? Shade was free to go anywhere he wanted. I had no hold on him. Nor him on me.

I admit I felt something missing after he left. I kept turning to say something sarcastic to him or something witty but he was never where I thought he should be. Last night I hated Shade at my table. Tonight I missed him. What’s up with that? Probably I was just tired. In the shape I was in, even my old desk at the accounting office looked like an inviting place to sleep.

Whitey, eyes red from smoke and lack of sleep, appeared by my side like a sleep-walker. “Javi just walked in,” he said into my ear.

Ca-rap, I thought as he walked on to inform the next dealer. The night we needed everything to be slow and quiet, one of the rowdiest road players in Texas drops by.

“Texas men are pussies,” Javi called out. I looked across the room as laughter rolled towards me like spilled beer. There was Ramon Javier Guadalupe Perez, wearing his usual cutoff jeans, Hawaiian shirt, leather sandals, dark sunglasses, and white Panama hat, as out of place as ever in a room full of cowboy boots. He raised his arm high in triumphant arrival. Wrapped around that arm was his pet snake, El Duce.

More people pushed into the poker room behind Javi. It looked like a bus had pulled up outside and spewed out a hundred or so players. And I don’t mean geriatric, slot machine junkies eager to separate themselves from their social security checks. The people milling around the front of the room were true poker folker, late night gamblers looking for the fast fun and adult action only found with like-minded, addicted players.

I shook my head regretfully. The crowd promised a wild night. We were playing five-ten no limit Texas Hold’em. Five and ten dollar blinds might not seem like much, but no limit means betting can get pretty crazy, especially since the game girl was dispatching canned beer as fast as she could haul it from the refrigerator and distribute the betting lube among the newcomers.

Whitey had scheduled the usual three dealers. With this crowd, we definitely needed more card throwers so he was dialing for dealers, trying to keep the dollars in the house. Angelina frantically added seatless players to the dry erase board waiting list.

At my table Doc was in seat one. He always made the game interesting by bluffing big and playing bigger. Black Forest had seat four, with the two college kids between him and Doc. I don’t know what Black’s first name is but his last name is Forest. He calls himself Black Forest, “Because, like the cake, I’m dark and sweet.” We call him Black, for short. The jury’s still out on sweet. It certainly doesn’t stand for sweet tipper.

Old man Joe, a personal favorite of mine was in seat five; Whitey’s daughter Crystal, seat six ─ no house advantage there ─ and her boyfriend, seat seven. Two sports bookies, Lem and Jaycee, were in seats eight and nine. Bookies are great for pumping up the action. They’ll bet on anything.

Jimmy Thweat, owner of Thweaty Chores, was sitting in the last seat, number ten, next to me. I like to keep Thweaty close. He needs a nudgin’ when he dozes off, which is often. He’s seventy-six years old and drinks black coffee with tons of sugar, eats chocolate by the handful, and still manages to fall asleep in the middle of a good poker hand.

I concentrated on mentally separating myself and my table from the noise of the wait-listers but I couldn’t help but notice Mother in the crowd. Mother’s not anyone’s mom. She’s just another poker player with a nickname and one of the ugliest women I’ve ever seen. Men flock around her, supposedly to enjoy the conversation. It’s kind of a two-for-one tête-à-tête because Mother always has a beautiful talking parrot named Polly on her shoulder. You talk to either Mother or Polly and sometimes both at the same time.

Of course, another reason men flock around Mother is they all have bets on if she’s naturally a really ugly woman or if she previously was a really ugly man. They’re hoping she’ll slip up and give an indication of birth gender. Last I heard, odds were split roughly fifty-fifty, with bettors changing sides repeatedly as new information presented itself.

Some nights are so quiet that ice clunking in the drinks sounded like thunder. This wasn’t one of those nights. The joint was loud. Chips clacked as players riffed them together. Players and dealers laughed and talked loudly in order to be heard above the noise. It was a frigging circus, complete with wild people, crazy side shows, and animal attractions.

The players at my table kept themselves above the uproar, deeply involved in serious poker. I pointed to Lem, he bet; Jaycee called. The two college kids folded without comment. They must have scored well on their SATs.

Lem waved a hand at Doc to get his attention. “Hey, Doc. Ten dollars on the side. No six, no eight, no jack. You game?”

“You got it,” Doc said, placing two redbirds next to him on the rail of the poker table. Damn, that didn’t take long. Side betting already. Next thing you know they’ll be betting on whether the flop is red or black.

Whitey came by and gave me a nod and a wink. More dealers were on the way so he worked the room, meeting and greeting. Wait-listers milled around the tables, all seemingly in good spirits. I half-heartedly kept an eye out for Dante. Every other poker player in town was in the room so it was even odds he’d walk through the door too. I hadn’t forgotten my lost money.

Two and a half hours into our gaming night, I got my first break. We now had five full tables going and a relief dealer. I was headed down the hall to the ladies room when out of the corner of my eye I saw Dante step through the front door. Just the sight of him put me on tilt. Heat rose inside me until I was ready to spit fire and light the night with his flaming soul.

Son of gun, he’s a bold bronco, I thought as I quickly changed directions and headed his way. After weeks of trying to find the deadbeat, he walked brashly into my lair like it was no big deal. What? He didn’t think I’d be here? Give me a break! I’m always here!

But then again, maybe he was there to pay up. That was a pleasant thought.

I pushed through a mess of poker folker standing around table three. Mother was taking a seat for the first time that night. Trying to get comfortable in her chair, she stood up to adjust her skirt and slammed smack into me.

Mother’s not a small woman…man…person…whatever and the collision bounced me back in my tracks. Off balance to begin with, she was knocked on her butt. At the sudden loss of her comfortable perch, Polly started squawking at the top of her little bird lungs. She batted her wings trying to regain a normal, shoulder-high roost. Bright green, red, and yellow feathers filled the air like confetti at a birthday celebration.

As loud as Polly screeched, Mother’s squealing and cussing was even louder. “Jeeze Louise! Sunny Beaches! What the heck is going on around here? Why don’t you watch where the puck you’re going! Get me up off this floor!” Mother raved in a G-rated rant. Birds are like children, I guess. You have to watch what you say so they don’t repeat it at inappropriate moments.

Mother fired a dirty look up at me, like somehow this was my fault. The player I’d been bucked into wrapped his arms around me, as much to steady me as to take advantage of the situation.

“I’ve got you, T.R.,” he whispered in my ear but I shook him off and took a step towards Mother. I wanted to rush over and grab Dante by the throat and shake him until my money fell out, but I knew the professional thing to do was to help Mother up off the floor and apologize profusely, whether I was at fault or not. Lord knows, you never want to piss off a potential tipper. Besides, the fat thing could never make it to her feet by herself.

I glanced towards the door and Dante. Our eyes connected briefly, or so I thought. He might have just been looking in my general direction, watching the commotion around the table. Either way, I had to turn my attention back to Mother.

“Are you ok? I am so sorry. You’re not hurt, are you?” I cooed so sweetly even I didn’t recognize my voice. I held out both my hands and braced myself for the weight they were about to pull up.

Mother grabbed hold and I gave a gigantic heave. Out the corner of my eye, I caught movement. Snake movement!

Javi was sitting two seats over from Mother’s vacated chair. Up to this point El Duce was calmly wrapped around either Javi’s arm or neck. But El Duce was moving now and that wasn’t good. He stretched off the back of Javi’s neck, his tongue flicking in and out like snake’s tongues do.

Quickly I turned my head towards Javi, trying not to drop Mother in the process. But Javi had already turned his attention back to his chips and was oblivious to the action behind him.

“Javi!” I called out to alert him to a possible problem, but there was too much noise in the room, too much commotion. More turmoil than normal with everyone talking about Mother and cracking off-colored jokes. Even if Javi had heard me, it was so crowded around the table now that I doubt he could have gotten off his seat to turn around and see what was going on.

Polly was fluttering around, trying to find some place to land again and by chance picked Mother’s head.

El Duce recoiled back to Javi, and quickly struck out at the parrot.

Polly must have seen the snake coming because she started squawking even louder. “Bloody bad boy! Bloody bad boy!” she screeched as she flapped her wings to rise above the snake’s attention.

In her panicked levitation, a talon on her right foot tangled in the locks of Mother’s tresses. To everyone’s amazement and amusement, the bird and Mother’s hair winged their way upwards.

Mother’s hands flew to the top of her now bald head, and her expletives suddenly lost their G rating. “Mutha effer! What the…? Polly, get your ass back over here!”

The college boys, eyes full of white, fell over their chairs trying to distance themselves from the striking snake. Poker folker around the table got the same idea and moved away in mass, going in all directions.

Several “oh shits” rang out around the room as the rest of the players watched the action as if it was on a television tuned to the animal channel. Dealers tried to stabilize cards and chips as tables jumped and bumped under the rush of gambler evacuation.

Everybody was on the move. Everybody, that is, except Old Joe, who seemed relatively oblivious to the goings on.

El Duce retreated back towards Javi again, then struck out one more time at the bird. With the snake’s tail end still wrapped around his neck, A now fully-aware Javi, cursed colorfully in Spanish and dived away from Polly in an attempt to save the bird from becoming snake dinner.

Unfortunately, as Javi lunged past Old Joe, El Duce was mid-strike with nothing to latch onto except Joe’s forehead.

And that’s exactly where the snake’s opened, unhinged mouth landed.

Instantly the room went silent and still, like we were all playing a game of Freeze-Statue-Freeze. Even the parrot seemed frozen in mid-air as she hovered in place, wings pushing her upward, wig pulling her downward.

Only feathers stirred, floating through the air like colored snow.

“Nobody move!” I yelled needlessly, since for that brief moment the room felt like someone had hit the pause button on a remote control. I put my hand on Joe’s shoulder to steady him and show him help was at hand.

“I-I-I-I ain’t movin!” Joe said, his voice vibrating, his eyes looking up at the underbelly of the snake. “I ain’t movin’ nothin’! But somebody better get this bastard off me!”

Someone hit play on my imaginary remote control and the room erupted in movement and noise again. Players who had scrambled away from the table were now frantically trying to move closer to get a better view of the action.

Polly started squawking again, still flapping her wings and trying to haul herself and her freight away from the enemy.

The snake, though, was fully involved in a battle of his own, his mouth opened flat against Joe’s forehead. Stretched out from Javi’s neck to the old man’s forehead, that snake had to be over six feet long, a fact no one realized when El Duce was coiled quietly around Javi’s arm.

“Stop!” I ordered. “Somebody grab that damn bird and put it in a bathroom!”

Afraid to even move, Javi was still crouched down with his back to Joe.

I pulled in a deep calming breath, as much for myself as for the people involved in the melee. “Quiet. Just be quiet. Please.”

Gently, I grasped El Duce at the base of his head, calmly maintaining eye contact with Joe and silently willing the poker player to remain calm.

“Hang on, guys,” I said sweetly. “Everybody settle down. Javi, unwrap El Duce from your neck.”

The room managed a library atmosphere with everyone’s attention totally focused on Joe, the snake, and me.

Javi detached himself from El Duce just as Whitey entered the room and roared, “Get that damn snake off my poker player!”

His voice reverberated off the walls and sent players scrambling and chattering all over again.

“Damn it! EVERYBODY HOLD STILL!!” I yelled again, glaring at Whitey. Behind him I could see Dante still standing in the doorway. At last I had his full attention, though it didn’t do me a bit of good.

“I’ll get him off,” I cautioned quietly, “but I can’t just pull him off.”

“Makes sense,” Whitey conceded, his voice only a notch or two lower than before. “Simmer down, you guys,” he added, pushing his palms in a downward gesture to signal the players in the crowded room. When a man that big tells you to do something, you do it.

Now that I had the rest of El Duce in my other hand, I gently pushed him towards Joe’s forehead so the snake could release his jaws. When he got himself loose, I swear El Duce smacked his lips.

“Angelina, could you grab me a paper towel? Javi, put El Duce into one of the other bathrooms,” I said, handing the snake back to its owner.

The room erupted in applause. I gave a little bow their way and laughed nervously.

“Sorry, Joe,” I said, turning back to my player, “but if I had just pulled the snake off of you, he would have left some of his teeth in your forehead and ripped your skin a lot worse. Right now all you’ve got are a couple of puncture marks. There’s hardly even any blood. This kind of snake doesn’t have fangs.”

“Well, thank God for that. No blood? Are you shittin’ me?” Joe asked, looking at me with wild eyes. He gave me a weak smile. “I need a drink.”

“Me too,” I said, scanning the room for Dante and my money.

“And me,” said Mother. “A good stiff one!” she bellowed as loud as any man in the room. “And somebody hand me my damn hair…right now!”

“You got it,” said Whitey, trying not to laugh as he scooped up the wig off the floor and handed it to her. She adjusted her store-bought curls as good as she could without a mirror.

Javi came back into the room. “In fact,” Whitey stated, “Javi’s buying drinks for everybody the whole evening!”

The room erupted into nervous laughter at the magnanimous offer. Drinks in poker rooms are always free. We don’t sell alcohol. But I had a feeling Javi would be paying for his snake’s shenanigans in another way. The winning streak he’d been on all summer was almost certainly broken by his snake and all the negative energy created by the uproar. His panama hat was stomped to death on the floor, his sunglasses crushed, and his snake banished to a bathroom.

Javi just shook his head. “At least I still have my Hawaiian shirt,” he said to no one in particular.

“I’m fixin’ to work on that,” Mother said. “You’re going to lose your shirt tonight, Javi.” But she smiled when she said it.

“Where’d you learn to do that, bonita?” Javi asked me.

I shrugged my shoulders. The poker room was stuffed full of people and I was more worried about bathrooms than accepting accolades. With two of the four men’s bathrooms out of commission due to animal storage, we had to open up the one Ladies Room to the men, never a good thing in my experience. But with only four ladies and the still questionable Mother in the poker room, what else could we do?

It took me only a couple of seconds to realize Dante had left the room after the fracas. “Damn it to hell! He’s in the wind again,” I mumbled under my breath, staring at the door where I’d last seen him. I headed to the bathroom ─ again.

By the time I grabbed a water bottle and made my way back to my next table, the room was back to normal. Anyone walking in now would have no clue anything other than a poker game had taken place that evening.

I tapped a dealer on the shoulder to signal I was ready to take over. “Next hand,” I said.

The players were fired up. The college kids looked like they were holding their own. Both had a fair amount of chips in front of them. Before the commotion, Javi had won a huge pot and was back to stacking his chips.

“Don’t be issuing Social Security numbers on ‘em, Javi,” Black said, referring to the chips he’d lost to Javi. “You’re just babysitting my children over there. They have to be home by sunup.”

I smiled, patting Thweaty on the back. He jerked awake with a start. “I call,” he said, before he realized he didn’t have any cards in front of him.

“In due time, Thweaty,” I said, taking my place in the box. “How’s your head, Joe?” I asked as I shuffled the cards.

“I’m good, girl. Never would have figured I’d have a friggin’ snake hangin’ from it. Thanks for gettin’ that bastard off me,” he replied and tossed me four redbirds.

“Glad I could help. Hi, Pate,” I said to the bald-headed player that had taken up residence at the table during the time I had rotated out. “Good to see you. Crystal, you’re under the gun.”

I pitched cards to the players. Lem was at it again. “I got twenty on red,” he said.

“I’m in,” Javi mumbled.

I shook my head, smiling knowingly at Pate. He threw a handful of chips onto the table. “Whatever that is,” he snarled.

I eyeballed the chips. “The standard, gentleman. Thirty-five.”

Show and tell was over. I had no doubt about the tell part. Probably the story was already being told in poker rooms all across town. By tomorrow it’d be all over the state. Poker players live in a small world.

I wasn’t tired any more, only wired. What’s more, I hadn’t worried about Runt in several hours. Even thoughts of Shade had vanished.

But my money was more on my mind than ever.

To be continued Monday.


  1. Loved the whole parrot, snake, Mama scene! It was fun, entertaining and on the bizarre side...just like we like 'em!


  2. She's a use to be guy. Oh, I just knew that snake was going to get the parrot, and give him a heart attack. Maybe next time. Makes me want to play poker... ~PJ

  3. You've got some imagination! I love the mother charachter. The parrot lifting off her hair was the best.


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