When my mother asked me to invite her friend’s son to my poker game, I didn’t think much of it. Sure, we like to keep our games closed, but she explained that this guy was new in town, a medical professional, single, and simply looking to make some acquaintances.
Since, like us, he’s in his early forties, I figured it didn’t hurt to include him. My friends would understand.
… If only I’d known.
My mother gave me his number, and, when I texted him, I purposefully had him arrive after everyone else. I wanted to explain the situation to my friends. For the most part, we’ve been playing poker together every other week for fifteen years. He would be the first novel face in our group in quite a while. Honestly, we were excited to have a new dynamic to the game.
Of course, we soon found out it was the wrong dynamic.
My wife took the kids to her parents’ house for the evening. This allowed us to drink, curse, insult each other, and otherwise try to act macho in ways only middle-aged men can manage. Of course, we had to fit all this debauchery in before ten o’clock at night because none of us could stay awake much later than that.
Our poker games were pretty low-stakes. Five dollars bought you in. Everyone got the same amount of chips. Second place won his money back; winner took the rest. We normally had a total of six guys who, like I said, have known each other for a long time.
As we all sat around the table waiting, Tomas, a fellow teacher, asked, “So what’s this guy’s name again?”
“I told you—I don’t know,” I replied.
Marcus, who’s in marketing, questioned, “But he’s a doctor?”
“Maybe,” I answered.
“Doctors have money,” Dewey said. Dewey’s a travel agent.
“What’s it matter with a five dollar buy-in?” Tomas laughed.
Karl added, “Nobody’s getting rich off these games.” Karl’s also a teacher.
I nodded and said, “And no side-hustles, okay, Dewey? I don’t know this guy and I don’t want any trouble.”
“A little trouble might be nice nowadays,” Jalen chuckled. Jalen’s the most financially successful among us—an orthopedic surgeon.
Jalen, by the way, probably sealed our fates with that comment because at that moment we heard my doorbell ring. The guys all looked at each other and tried to hide their nervousness. You could say we had become a bit set in our ways.
I opened the door and heard, “Heeere’s Johnny!”
As a twenty-year veteran teacher, it’s hard to shock me anymore. Let’s just say that the sight of this man … well, it surprised me.
It was obvious at first glance that he was taller than any of us, and broader, too. Though he wore a baggy Hawaiian shirt and frumpy cargo shorts, his exposed arms and legs showed sinewy musculature. He might have even been handsome, but large, mirrored sunglasses covered most of his face. A semi-transparent green visor partially concealed his wavy, dark hair.
“Hi, there,” I said. “Welcome. So, the name’s Johnny?”
“How ‘bout … nooo,” he droned while entering.
“Okay, yeah, come on in,” I muttered.
He made his way to the table, lifted up a hand, and said, “Greetings, Earthlings.”
“Uh, hey,” Karl replied. “Have a seat.”
I said, “You know me already.”
“Gunsmoke,” he revealed. He slowly started to grin, exposing huge, perfectly white teeth.
Jalen laughed, “A nickname. Got it. What’s your name for real, though?”
“Kiss my grits!” Gunsmoke exploded.
Everyone at the table jumped. Marcus even knocked over his beer.
“Damn, man!” Dewey cried.
As I ran to the kitchen, I heard this awful sound. It struck me as a cross between someone sobbing and a tiny dog howling. I realized it emanated from Gunsmoke.
I tossed Marcus a towel and then took my seat.
Gunsmoke stopped giggling, pointed at Marcus’ beer, and squeaked, “Did I do that?” He next started that awful laugh all over again.
“This is too weird,” Tomas said.
Dewey looked at me and asked, “Is this a prank or something?”
“You got some explaining to do,” Gunsmoke sang.
“Okay, um, let’s just get the game started,” I said. “So, uh, Gunsmoke, it’s a five dollar buy-in—”
He interrupted with a childish tone, saying, “You got it, dude!”
“Right,” I mumbled. “We’ll start with a dime and quarter blinds.”
“Alll-righty, then,” Gunsmoke barked.
Marcus complained, “Bonkers. Totally bonkers.”
I started dealing the cards.
“So, Gunsmoke …” Jalen began. “I understand you’re in the medical field? Me, too. What do you do?”
“Yes, that’s right, thank you for asking,” Gunsmoke responded.
He used such a pleasant voice, a voice we had not yet experienced until that moment, that it took us all aback.
“I serve as an intermediary between doctors and patients in the telemedicine industry. My primary focus concerns mental health, though I would like to expand my reach into the field of addiction as well, since the two sometimes go hand-in-hand.”
“Wow. That actually sounds really interesting,” Dewey said.
“Yes, thank you,” Gunsmoke answered. “It’s highly rewarding, fascinating work. Connecting patients with the appropriate caregiver is a fulfilling passion of mine.”
“Very cool,” I said. “Read to play?”
“Oh, you betcha, yeah,” Gunsmoke replied through his nose.
The charming, articulate version of the man dissipated. We all looked at each other, utterly confounded.
“Texas Hold ‘Em is the game,” I said. “You know how to play?”
Gunsmoke put his hands together as though they were cuffed, adopted a sultry, serious voice, and grumbled, “I know.”
“Oh, my God,” Tomas murmured.
“Here we go, then,” I said.
Gunsmoke sat to my left. He’d already tossed in the small blind. Karl was next and had thrown in the big blind. Tomas raised to fifty. Marcus matched. Jalen matched. I matched. Gunsmoke threw in enough to get to fifty, as did Karl.
Next came the flop.
Gunsmoke checked. Karl checked. Tomas tossed in seventy-five. Marcus folded. Jalen matched. I matched. Gunsmoke matched. Karl matched.
Finally, the river arrived.
Gunsmoke bet one twenty-five. Karl folded. Tomas raised to one-fifty. Jalen matched. I matched.
Gunsmoke pushed his chips while saying, “All-in.”
Tomas screamed, “You can’t be serious!”
After frowning behind his sunglasses, Gunsmoke shouted, “What’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”
“Um … Gunsmoke,” I said, “it’s the first round. You sure you want to go all-in? We’ve still got a few hours left …”
He replied with a big smile before saying, “How you doin’?”
“This is nuts,” Jalen chortled while shaking his head.
“Are you crazy or something?” Tomas asked.
I held up my hands and said, “C’mon, Tomas, don’t—”
“My mama says that crazy is as crazy does,” Gunsmoke slowly replied.
Marcus shrieked, “That’s not what mama says, you—”
Gunsmoke interjected with, “What we’ve got here … is failure … to communicate.”
Jalen asked, “What happened to that professional dude we were talking to?”
“If he dies … he dies,” Gunsmoke growled.
“I don’t even know what the hell that’s supposed to mean,” Dewey said.
I suggested, “Let’s just play, okay? Sound good, everyone? Tomas, you in?”
Tomas threw his cards down and hissed, “I’m out. This is ridiculous.”
“Okay,” I said. “Jalen?”
Jalen grinned while offering me a wink. He tossed down his cards. “Out. Up to you, my man.”
“Okay, I’ll stick around,” I said. “We’ll see if Gunsmoke knows what he’s doing.”
Gunsmoke bellowed, “I’m just getting warmed up!”
I pushed all of my chips in and said, “I call. What do you have?”
After laying down his cards, Gunsmoke said, “Three of a kind.”
A warm rush pulsed through my body when I saw his three twos.
I laid my cards down in a neat row. “Flush—diamonds.”
“Nice!” Tomas yelled.
Gunsmoke’s mouth dropped open as he moaned, “Ohhh, fuuudge …”
“Now that’s a first round,” Marcus added.
“You’re not going to stick around, right?” Dewey asked Gunsmoke. “You’ll be leaving now?”
“This is unbelievable,” Karl uttered.
Jalen caught my eye. I looked at him. He glanced at Gunsmoke’s cards. I followed his sightline.
Yes, Gunsmoke had three twos. But he also had two sevens. Three twos and two sevens—a full house. Which beat a flush, by the way.
Karl shook his head at me, silently begging me to keep my mouth shut.
Jalen smiled with a shrug.
“Guess what, Gunsmoke,” I said.
He wouldn’t make eye contact when he replied, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”
“You actually won.”
Gunsmoke lifted his head and faced me.
“You’ve got a full house there—twos and sevens,” I informed.
“That beats a flush,” Jalen clarified.
Dewey squawked, “Damn it. You could’ve gotten him out of here.”
“That’s a little rude, Dew,” Tomas chided.
“Thank you,” Gunsmoke said. “Your generosity does not go unnoticed. It’s the epitome of fair play.”
“No worries,” I replied.
Karl looked at me while saying, “Guess you’re just hanging loose tonight, huh?”
Gunsmoke quickly crooned, “Thaaat’s what she said.”
Copyright © 2020 by Scott William Foley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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