I looked over the cards – seven in total. Prime number…of course it was. I moved them around…habit, I suppose. The desire to make the inobvious less obvious.
I looked around at the other players – seven in total. All of us doing much the same in different ways. I tried to pry some truth from the situation, tried to understand what was happening and why with little glances that tried not to scream, “Is this for real?”
No one seemed inclined to voice such a question. A table of well-known strangers all acting like they weren’t mentally imploding. Each one wearing their own reusable mask of cool composure.
The one to my right looked the most out of place. A man who had clearly seen dark times and dark outcomes. He looked at his cards like a man who feared that everyone else was preparing to pry them from his hands. He seemed twitchy. His hands always moving, eyes glancing. He wore a tangled curtain of dingy, stringy hair. The odd man out. My gut told me he’d been as such for quite some time.
He took some chips from before him – odd-shaped things, seven-sided with a weird line design at the center that looked like a spiral. He seemed almost haphazard. Grab and throw. He didn’t even say anything.
I got the feeling he was a man who was used to betting recklessly. A man who had lived through enough bad bets that he just accepted that shit is what shit is. Deal with it and move on.
I looked at the others…the ones who would need to call or raise or fold before I had to do the same.
The next one to decide was clean-shaven. He had the look of a man who ordered whiskey, Black Label, neat. Maybe something more expensive. I don’t know enough about whiskey…never had the taste for it. He was like a man who aspired to be Don Draper. He looked like he might have succeeded. A man that made hard decisions. Big decisions. Used sentences like “The expected needs of shareholders” as regularly as other people talked about TV shows.
He barely looked around. Just glanced at his own cards, which rested in hands that only moved to find a glass of whiskey that should’ve been there, but wasn’t. He grabbed some chips in the right quantity while looking like it was accidental and threw them into the center of the table.
Part of me almost chuckled at the humor of the pretense. Like watching people wearing domino masks and acting like their identities were an enigma.
The next one looked like a man who had slipped his arms into the warm embrace of simple mediocrity. A man that worked a nine to five. A man that watched TV on his off time. Paid his bills. Mowed his lawn every other Saturday. A man that had an aura made of shoulder shrugs and self-resignation. He didn’t strike me as a gambling man.
He looked around the room with equal parts veiled confusion and disinterest. He looked down at his cards and then at his chips, weighing the risk and reward. He cautiously picked up some chips and held them. Looked like he might put them back down while moving his cards like he might fold. A little dance of back and forth, back and forth.
“Fuck’s sake,” the first man said, “in or out.”
His voice was even rougher than I imagined it would be. A smoker to be sure.
I remembered trying to like cigarettes. I hadn’t succeeded. Never understood how anyone else ever did.
The hesitant one finally froze in the midst of his little what-should-I waltz and cautiously put his chips in the center of the table.
While everyone at the table was different in their own way – apart in their own way – the next one seemed somehow more so. He didn’t have a red mohawk or a face full of piercings. He didn’t have a sleeve of tattoos like the man that sat just to his right. He didn’t seem like a man who drank expensive whiskey or a man who might be the Unabomber in training. And yet, he was the stranger of the strangers in this odd ring of uncomfortable familiarity.
Unlike everyone else, he wore a wedding ring.
With a brow that told as many common stories as his JC Penny attire and matching expression, he looked around the room with a look I couldn’t place. Discomfort, or apathy? Calm collection? Some neutral disposition that I’d never seen in myself and so struggled to recognize when I saw it now?
I’d looked around to play Sherlock Holmes at one point to see if there were tell-tale signs of recently missing rings on other fingers but they were all bare except his one.
I’d never been married, of course. Never even been close. Never really been close to close. I often wondered how people ended up there and why. I couldn’t help but wonder what roads I’d passed, lost, or ignored that might have ended up where I might have been a man with a similar ring.
He gave a little expression with his mouth. Not a smile. Not a grimace. One side pulled up and pursed at the corner, like his face was saying, “Hm…” without using words. He looked around at the table like…I’m not sure what. He made a little clicking sound out of the other corner of his mouth and put his cards down. He drummed his fingers on the table, gave a “Yup…that’s me…” raise of his eyebrows, stood up and walked away.
“And then there were six,” the Don Draper type said without even looking away from his cards.
“Well then,” the next one said. He looked over his cards and the chips in the center of the table. His arms were ink up to his wrists, his face shaved into a goatee that was grown down to probably his sternum. No piercings though. No rings on his fingers. No tattoos on the neck or face or scalp. He looked like the kind of guy that had driven adrenaline on highways of loud music. A man that was used to staring out at a group of strangers that would all look up at him with false visions of lovingly-crafted recognition. A man that had kicked down the door of “follow your passion” and realized that it was really all anyone had – that and the regret of never having done so.
He called with so little hesitation that it made me envious.
The next man sat quietly. That look of a man weighing everything and everyone. A mind running probabilities and wondering if any of them led anywhere other than right here and now. His hair was semi-short, leaving that always recognizable friar’s ring hair that you see in men of a certain age. He moved his cards around not unlike I’d done and had been doing. He looked around the table with a look that – in all truth – was more terrifying to me than the man to my immediate right who, I’m pretty sure, had at least one story in his arsenal of a time when he’d snorted cocaine off a dead body in an alley. It was a look of a man who didn’t really see anyone else at the table – just end results. Like a man counting up the value of collateral damage. His mind ticking by with an assessment of individual importance and coming to the same conclusion over and over again.
He cleared his throat and eyed his chips. Picked up the necessary amount and slid them forward.
Down to me then…
I glanced around the room in that way that people do. In that way that I’d always done. That way that I’d done the most when I wish I’d done it the least. That way I’d done when I used to look at Julie in my mid-teens. That way I’d done when I used to look at Sarah when she’d get a glass of water that was just close enough to my desk that I could always smell her perfume and watch her do that thing with her hair when she was mentally processing.
I never once asked what was on her mind, of course.
I didn’t want to intrude.
I wondered if the others had their own Sarahs and Julies. I suppose everyone does in their own way. I could have asked, but then none of us seemed willing to just ask the most basic question of all.
That question that existed because of that sentence I’d heard years ago. Some random thing I’d seen on the internet. One of those “What if…” type questions that makes you go, “Well, I mean…yeah…that would be kind of fucked-up…”
I tapped my chips. I tallied the numbers – likely not as well as the one to my left – hopefully, better than the one to my right. The math wasn’t lost on me. Seven players with seven cards. Forty-nine cards total. A deck has fifty-two. That leaves three in reserve. Clearly, this was not a game where there would be any new cards, only discards. You get what you have – you play it to the end or…well…you don’t play at all, I suppose.
I slid my own chips forward, driven – if I’m being truthful – as much by curiosity as I was by the drive that had driven me through so much. The drive to want to play and to want to win…even when the cost of winning was losing…and even when the only thing won was knowing that I’d done it.
The addict took a look at his cards and selected two, placed them face down. The kind of man that was used to reckless wagers. He was hard to read because he seemed the sort that didn’t know how to panic anymore. Life was a downward spiral – it only led one direction now – the rest was just window dressing.
“All in,” he said with a grin that showed a severe need for a trip to the dentist nearly two decades ago or more. He shoved his entire pile of chips into the center.
The suit seemed calm. Composed. He knew how to gamble. He did it all the time, and he did it with time and money…he did it with lives – his own and others. Life was a game of pick your poison. A game of keep-your-enemies-closer. He took two of his own cards, placed them face down and slid his own chips forward.
I doubt anyone was surprised when the man who had already seemed hesitant to play at all found his courage buckle and just put his hand down entirely. Even then, he seemed unsure about whether he should stay and watch, or get up and leave.
“Not really a voyeur kind of situation,” the one with tattoos said.
“Yeah,” the addict said, “in or out. If you’re out, then piss off.”
He got up, hesitantly and started to turn. “I…” he said, “it’s just weird, right? Like…it’s not just me, right? I mean…” he looked at the floor now, “I remember seeing this thing a long time ago and…I mean…”
“You’re out, yeah?” the suit said – more a statement than a question.
The one standing just nodded.
“Then you’re out,” the suit said coolly. “Be out.”
The man whose life must have been a long and empty raft ride through the gray waters of “why and what and who really cares?” clenched his jaw. He swallowed his words like he’d probably swallowed so many other words and outbursts in his life. He kept them inside like a man who had long ago decided that he had nothing to say that was worth saying.
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m out…” and he walked away.
The man with tattoos chuckled. Plucked two cards from his hand and set them down – chips in.
“Fuck it, right?” he said like a man who had learned to stop worrying about things he couldn’t control because he’d decided that he couldn’t control any of it, “Games a game.”
The next man didn’t say anything. He calmly pushed his cards together and set them on the table and departed.
“Guessing we all know what he was going to say,” I said – more a statement than a question. Of course, we would. Beneath the minor differences and major alterations, I could see it clearly. Under a skin marbled with tattoos or a face of calm deliberation. Under a face that was wearing twenty more years than it had any right to wear.
I saw the same ticks and quirks. I saw the things that matched that outshined the things that didn’t. A game of “find the differences” and realizing that no matter how deep they went, they were still hard to pull away completely from the parts that were the same.
“Didn’t say there’d be a group,” the addict said.
“No,” I said, “but it’s compelling all the same.”
“You plan on doing something with those chips?” the suit asked.
“You late for a meeting?” the one with tattoos jabbed.
I took two cards from my hand and set them down. “I never asked her what was on her mind,” I said. “I wish I would’ve.”
“Julie?” the suit said. He chuckled a bit at that. “You would’ve been let down by the answer.”
I pushed my chips into the center of the table and I thought about the line that had been weighing on me. The line that was probably going to keep weighing on me. The one that made me fear what would happen when the chips settled and we decided to put our hands down so we could all really see what we had.
“What if hell is when the person you became meets the person you could have been?”
The addict was right, though. No one said shit about it being a group.
“Call,” I said – driven still by curiosity as I was by the desire to win. Even if winning meant losing. Even if the prize for winning was that I knew I’d won.