Why Do We Gamble for High Stakes?

The glasses stacked waiting in tiers on the central counter of the U-shaped bar reflected the three men drinking together and beyond them green card tables. The card room was full of meaning for everyone who hung out there. The wall behind the counter displayed four kinds of glasses: small, neat shot glasses; highball glasses like water glasses; substantial beer mugs; and martini glasses, which lent their image to the neon sign over the door. There were two green tables on each side of the bar. Three were pushed into the dark against the wall, unlit. Only on one side the fourth was presently pulled forward and lit by a bulb in a hanging shade. The bar glasses were arranged on green cloth like the cloth that covered the tables.

It was eight in a summer evening; the neon over the door and over the doors of other clubs along the street had not yet taken hold. Three men who worked at the aerospace company across the road were leaning on the bar together waiting to meet a supervisor. The bartender came in from a back room.

Only the youngest of the three was speaking. He was an inspector and the Shop Steward. He was steward because he cared about the men and he liked to negotiate. He was medium height, slight but with a small, distinct paunch. He was wearing an old sport coat and baggy gabardine slacks. He was a talkative man who always asked questions in his conversation. He was talking and asking as he went. He spoke at first to the tallest of the three, an older man on his left in a guard’s uniform with a heavy pistol in a shiny leather holster on his belt. The tall guard was smoking a cigar. He spoke as little as the Shop Steward spoke often, but laughed from time to time slowly and heavily like a piece of heavy machinery starting. His was a mean laugh. Before it began, he would take the cigar off of his lips and when he stopped he would run the tip of his tongue around the edge of his mouth.

"Why do you suppose it should be Gardena?" the talkative Steward was asking. "Why should poker be legal here in this town but not in Hawthorne across the street or Hermosa Beach or Hollywood? Sometimes I think if we could just understand a thing like that, we could understand it all. Do you think that there are some things that if we could only understand them we could understand everything?"

The old guard did not answer. He kept his eye on his watch and turned his cigar over with his lips.

"Maybe it was a fix? Or the crazy notion of some guy in Sacramento? Just some crazy jerk in Sacramento that drew a circle around Gardena with a grease pencil? That crazy, screwed up bunch in Sacramento. Why don't they cut the state in half and let us keep the fix in town?"

The guard took out his cigar and laughed several times. The shortest of the three was standing on the other side of the Steward. He wore no watch and stretched around to see the guard's. He was dressed in painter's overalls splashed with pastel colors. He had a moustache and wore his soft dark hair cut very short so it showed the shape of his skull and made him seem faintly Near Eastern. He was a small man from the Middle West who spoke little most of the time except sometimes he would tell stories, and sometimes his humor would slip out of his mouth like a mouse from a hole. He worked for the aerospace company as a painter,

"But still," said the Steward, "there are lots of people in this town who don't come in to play. Guys come from all over the county to play here, but there are other guys right here in Gardena who wouldn't cross the street to lay their money down."

"I don't play no more," said the Painter.

"It's a funny thing; it makes you wonder. What is it about some guys: they'll kill themselves to get cards in their hands, and other guys, they act like old maids."

The Guard laughed again.

"Maybe there's something wrong with the ones that want to take a risk all the time? Maybe the ones that lay off are smart? If you could know that, you could look into the hearts of men, like the Shadow."

"Ha, ha, ha," the old Guard put his cigar down and wiped the back of his hand over his lips.

The dealer came out of the back room carrying two racks of chips to the table. The three from the aerospace firm stopped speaking as if caught in some conspiracy. When he was gone again, the Painter broke the silence. He also addressed the guard.

"Do you remember Jake the dealer that was here before?"

"Shit, yes," the Guard said.

"A dealer now is a different kind of man," the Steward began to explain. "It's his living, you might say. His reasons for wanting to hold a deck in his hand would be different from someone like we've been talking about, even if he liked it. Look at a guy who paints a chest of drawers on Sunday," he said turning to the Painter, "Doesn't he feel different about it than you do when you work in the shop?"

"Oh, sure," the Painter said. He had spilled a little of his beer. He touched his finger in the puddle, then lifted it to his moustache, touching the soft hair with his wet fingertip.

"Some fuckers don't know their ass from a hole in the ground," the old Guard said.

The dealer came back with cards and his stick. He laid them on the table and disappeared again. The three drank in silence. Then the Painter began again.

"The old dealer was a man with ambition, yes he was. He wanted to be a master-of-ceremonies. He felt he was suited to preside at great occasions." The Painter paused as if he lacked confidence to go on. Finally he asked the Guard, "Isn't that so?"

"Shit yes," the Guard laughed and bit at the end of his cigar.

"I remember him from when I first came out here." The Painter turned to the Steward, "It was years ago. He was running an amateur show at the movie theater then." The Painter shook his head as if his memory bemused him. "The biggest amateur was him. Back in Kansas I'd picked up a couple of bucks playing the accordion at dances. I wasn't much. The first couple of weeks I was here I had no work and no skill. I'd come from home without a buck in my jeans, so I tried on his show. I was pretty nervous I guess because I figured this was big time." He paused again, again pushing at the beer spilled on the bar in front of him. Neither the barkeep nor tonight's dealer was in sight. The wall opposite them was now hidden in brown darkness. In the shiny glasses the intense green of the table wedded the red and white neon now visible from the open front door.

"It was the funniest damn thing you ever saw," Pete, the Painter told the Steward, "You would have laughed to see it. The people in the audience were ranking him. The winner was by applause. Pretty quick I caught on that they were against him." He paused a little between each sentence as if offering the other men a chance to stop listening. "He would try to make out that each contestant was somebody big time, and the crowd wouldn't let him, they would shout him down. So when it was my turn I knew to play up to them, you know, and when he started out about me being nationally-known, I asked him to shut up, and I told him he was doing me more harm than good. I won that night."

He looked down in to his beer as if he suddenly did not know how to go on.

"I don't see what that has to do with the question," the Shop Steward began. "Was Gardena open then? Maybe jobs as dealers were fewer then? Or did he change from the one to the other? It's funny how some guys change from one job to another. If you could only understand that you might be able to understand what made them that way in the first place? Do you think it goes to prove that it's something outside us?"

The guard took his cigar out of' his mouth, "Shit yes," he said.

"It's the same way with Gardena. Some crazy fuck in Sacramento could draw the line back, or there could be some kind of supreme court decision."

"The Fuckers," said the Guard.

"Do you think it's luck? Do you think it's all chance?" the Shop Steward said.

The bartender and tonight’s dealer came out from the back room chatting together and continuing their preparations for the evening. The three from the aerospace company fell silent.

 When they returned to the back room the Painter resumed his story. "That's why he wanted a job here. He figured someone might recognize him." The Painter paused and shook his head and smiled as if' at Jake the dealer's folly. "He thought that some wheel from Hollywood would come in here and see the way he ran the game and say, ‘What’s a guy who can run a show doing in a joint like this?' In a week he would be the MC on an afternoon women's TV show. That was his ambition, an afternoon TV show for the women. So when anybody that was at all special would come in he'd introduce them like they was contestants. If they were strangers, he would say something like, 'Here's a hipster' who’s heard about our little place all the way in Frisco,' or 'Here's a big spender from the East.' That's just the kind of man he was."

He paused and drank to give the others a last chance to interrupt him if they were bored, or maybe because he was afraid to finish his story.

"It's half past," the Guard said, "Go out and see if that cocksucker's showed up."

The Steward went out. While he was gone the bartender came by, and the Guard and the Painter had their beers refilled.

"When do you think he'll show?'' the Steward said when he got back.

The guard leaned toward the Steward. His old face, almost silky with wrinkles, trembled with hostility. "How the fuck should I know?"

"Or when things would get tight here," the Painter began again, "he always played up to it. If some guy was losing too much or getting mad or just making out something in the game wasn't quite right, Jake'd jolly him along. Or if a guy lost more than he could afford, Jake'd slap him on the back and jolly him out as if for all the world he were a barkeep 86ing a lush. Or even send him home. Jake could do that."

"What if someone won big?" The Steward asked.

"Oh, he’d go off like fireworks."

"Do you think he only did that because it was good business?"

The Painter appeared to consider the suggestion and reject it. "No, Pete, he did it because it was his way. There was one man who came here who gave him a chance to really show his stuff. He was a man — He was a foreigner I think, though, gosh, he looked just like anyone else except he was so big. Do you remember where he was from?" he asked the Guard.

"They called the fucker 'Finn', but I think he was from St. Paul, only his old man was a Finn," the guard said without raising his face from his glass.

"He would come in and, like you said, he couldn't put a hand of cards down."

"What kind of a man was he then?" asked the Steward leaning forward.

"He was a garbage man, I think," the Guard said.

"He would sit over the game with his eyes squeezed to slits," the Painter continued," as if he couldn't see very well, or as if he wanted to look into the cards so hard he would see better cards, or as if he was trying to see the next deal. I think that was it; he wanted to see what was in the next deal. Like most guys like that he lost most of the time. When he lost and he was out of money. What did he do? He'd put up his wife. Isn't that right?" the Painter asked the Guard.

"Damn fuck yes," the Guard said.

The Painter was silent again. The present dealer and the barkeep were moving about all the time now, getting ready for their evening. The bartender had not wiped way the spilled beer and the Painter wet his finger and touched it to his soft moustache. The Steward stretched his neck out to see into the street. The Guard sucked his cigar back to his front teeth and bit the end.

"He'd offer a night with her to any man who'd stake him," the Painter resumed, "or, if it had come his turn to match a raise and be was light, he would ask Jake the dealer how much he would stake him to for a piece of his old lady. That's what gave Jake his chance. What he did depended on the night. If it was a Saturday night or any crowded night he would make a joke of it and tell the strangers how whenever the Finn said that he knew he'd played enough, and then he would jolly the Finn out winking at everybody. But if it was among friends, he would turn to us like an auctioneer, like he was imagining himself some big Hollywood pimp, and try to get a good price for her. Isn't that right?"

"Shit yes," said the Guard.

"'All right, gentlemen,' he would say like he had Pamela Anderson on hand, 'How much is it worth to you?'"

"Jesus," said the Steward, "How much could he get?"

"A hundred dollars, sometimes two, depending on who was here. But it was the show Jake liked. That was something you would have liked to see."

"Was she worth it," the Guard asked. He laughed meanly.

"Yes, she was worth it," the Painter said. He had to laugh himself because he was touched.

The Steward did not like the Guard's question; it embarrassed him for the Painter who was in his shop. "What did she think of it?" he asked.

"I think she liked it," the Painter said. She let on to every guy — 'cause it was mostly the same guys — she let onto each guy that she only liked it with him. But she liked it with everybody. Why would she have stuck with him so long otherwise?"

"You laid her?" The Steward asked.

"Yes, I played then."

"What kind of a woman was she? What did you think of her? What did she look like?"

"She was a small, dark woman. Energetic. Italian I think.”

"Portuguese," the Guard interrupted.

"One night after he lost a job she came in herself. It was Tuesday like tonight and only four of us were here. One of us had never seen her with any of the others around. She came in and stood by the table there." The Painter pointed at the table now set up for play.

"What was she wearing?" The Stewart asked.

"Blue jeans and a plaid shirt, not tight, not loose." The Painter looked for confirmation to the Guard.

"Shit yes," he said.

"She was a tough little woman. 'Can I buy into this game, boys?' she asked. Jake the dealer invited her to sit right down. He said she should make herself right at home. He got up and pushed her chair in. Finn didn't say a thing. Then she said, 'Deal the cards. This is the game. The guy who wins this hand keeps on screwing me as long as he brings home the bacon. I can see one player here that hasn't got enough to stay in the game.' She meant Finn. You could see old Jake getting excited. He began talking up what she'd said, asking each one of us if' he understood the terms of the agreement. There was one of us who was married and passed, which left four. Then old Jake asked us if it were all right if he dealt himself in. Some of the guys said it was only fair. We were playing five-card draw of course, dollar ante, Jacks or better to open. I got a pair of jacks and opened. Everyone stayed to draw. I kept a queen and drew two. After the draw, Jake began raising by fives.

"After the second round Finn had no more chips and no one would stake him. He looked at his wife, but she looked away. After the next round, there was me and Jake. I had drawn a pair of tens." The painter paused.

"What did the dealer hold?" the Steward asked.

"I don't know. I folded. What would she really have been worth anyway? What would it have been like to live with her?"

"Was living with her part of the deal?" The Steward asked.

"That's what I figured at the time."

"What happened? Did she go with him?"

"Yes, they left together. They left the county a couple of weeks later because Finn began drinking and saying he'd get the law on them."

"What's happened to them? Where are they now?"

"I don't know. I guess she gave him his chance to show off."

"Do you know?" the Steward asked the Guard.

The old Guard shook his head and laughed, "Shit, no. I heard they went to New York. That Finn's been gone a long time too."

"He's the one who'd know." The Steward began to think out loud again, "Your dealer doesn't answer the question at all; he's only like a TV MC. He wants to win, but he don't want to play. And her, she just wants a meal ticket. But it's the Finn; it's him that'd tell us why it is some guys have to bet even if it means losing — a lot."

No one answered him. After a little while the guard's head jerked the way it did when his phone vibrated in his pocket. He heaved himself up, shuffled into a dark corner, and turned his back.

During his muffled conversation, three kids in motorcycle gear came in and occupied the green table. They ordered beer. The Steward went over and began to ask them why they liked to play, but they were young and, wanting only to amuse themselves, they gave him hard answers.

The phone call was the Supervisor who had missed them and gone on to his office. He told the Guard to come to the gate. When the Steward left the kids behind, the others had already gone out. He paid for his beer and followed. When he got on the street he could see the two of them through the chain-link fence already in the plant yard with the Supervisor. The Steward began to feel in touch with the answers to his questions, that he had been in touch with the reason why the Painter was unmarried and kept a job he did not like, why he himself lived in a strange city far from home, why some men try again and again to stake their last, and others will stake nothing, why some cities are open and some are closed, why the Painter and the Guard looked alone although they walked together, why every one he asked was alone and kept at a job he did not care for. But he couldn't find the words. He shook his head and went on after them toward the gate.



Dirk van Nouhuys has a BA from Stanford in writing and an MA from Columbia in contemporary literature. He writes novels, short stories, experimental forms, and occasionally verse. He publishes regularly in literary and other magazines to a total of about 80 items. You can learn more at www.wandd.com. Dirk recommends NARAL Pro-Choice America.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, July 19, 2020 - 22:16