May 24, 2005

Here we go again -- More stories!

“Turning River”

The only thing more offensive than the smell of the Grease Pit was the face of the gentleman that greeted anyone brave enough to enter. Greasy, ink-black hair seemed to ooze from under the faded trucker’s hat, shrouding eyes that had sunken into their sockets and cheeks lined with scars and age. A quick grin showcased a dental free-for-all, with scarcely half the teeth remaining, and half of those covered in metal or plaque.
Eddie was an appropriate host here, as the Pit had a few holes to call its own, and didn’t feel ashamed to cover them in whatever it could. All along the walls were signs that hung askew and broadcast announcements for daily specials, some on food, but most for drinks with tacky names that men would call clever and women would roll their eyes at. The trim along the walls was wood, which probably could’ve passed for classy had it not surrounded flyers for Hot Oil Wrestling on Tuesday nights and Ladies’ Night every Friday. The fifty or so folks that sat at the eight tables, however, weren’t focusing on women tonight – it was Wednesday, and as anyone could see by the sign under the neon Corona Light sign, it was Poker Night.
Cigarette smoke cast a deep haze over the tables, dancing in the low light from the fixtures over each 52-card battleground. It was hard to hear the Lynyrd Skynyrd over the various bet and raise declarations, but most everyone seemed to be too focused on the ceramic clinking of their own chips to care. The smoky haze complemented the strong stench of beer and Jim Beam, offset only by what has to be chalked up to a hard days’ work at the factory or construction site. Most of that, as anyone who’s played at the Pit before knew, could be attributed to Ben Lambert.
Ben had the grimy essence of Eddie, just without the zombie-like aftertaste. A soiled red T-shirt peeked out from under his equally grungy sleeveless jean jacket, and black jeans covered the skinny stilts that some people are surprised he calls legs. A bucket sitting next him held five beer bottles (now sitting upside-down in the ice) while he nursed from the sixth. His scraggly, grey beard lifted a little as he bit his lip, letting a few drops of the beer that missed their destination fall from what Ben fondly called his “flavor-saver.” He fingered his chips for a moment, then tossed in his cards, leaning back in his chair and desperately trying to get the last few drops out if his final bottle.
After a few more hands, he ordered to more bottles, grinning shamelessly at the waitress as he made a feeble attempt to tell her how nice her halter top, amongst other things, looked that night. The waitress laughed, then walked away, rolling her eyes all the while. Ben didn’t catch that, as his eyes were focused on the very things he’d just mentioned. As his eyes followed her out the room, he noticed a kid sitting by himself at a booth along the wall. He seemed out of place here with his collared shirt, khaki pants and baseball cap, but Ben remembered smugly that he had taken all of this schmuck’s chips earlier in the game. What seemed odder than his attire, though, was the notebook on the table and the pencil in his hand. Normally Ben wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but he was a little concerned when he realized that this kid was writing something down while he was looking him in the eye.
He asked the old hag next to him to fold his next few hands and walked over to the booth, determined to find out what was going on. Patrons and waitresses alike gave him a wide berth as he passed, not just from the stench of him, but also his reputation of aggression and ill temper. He sat down at the table without any objections from the kid sitting there and wipes his nose with the back of his hand as he faces him.
“Got a problem, kid?”
“No, sir, just ready to play in the next game is all.”
“Really? Mind tellin me what you’re jottin down there?”
Jimmy was caught red-handed, and he knew it. It was oddly similar to the bluff that this same old man had called at the table, sending him to retreat in this booth until the next game started. Only thing to do now was fess up and minimize the damage.
“Homework. Just trying to get it done while you’ve given me a little bit of free time,” he joked.
“Care to say why you have to stare at me while you do that?”
“Is it bothering you?”
“The run-around is, son. Let’s see it.”
Jimmy looked down to cover up his notes, but Ben had already pulled them over to his side of table and was reading them quickly. He’d written some less than flattering things, so he braced for what he figured would be a violent reaction.
Instead, Ben burst into laughter, his eyes shining dully in the yellow light pouring onto the table. “I think you’ve nailed this rat trap, son – what the hell’s this for, a bar review?”
Relieved, Jimmy let his guard down a touch and smiled. “It’s a writing assignment – take the ambiance of a setting and put it on paper in a story. I’d say this place has ambiance to spare, right?”
“Yeah, though they could go easy on that “ambiance” from time to time. Here’s my question, son – since when does a bar have a… let me find it… here, ‘a grey, scraggly beard’? ‘Scraggly’ isn’t even a word, is it?”
“Well, that’s not about the bar so much as one of its patrons, I’m afraid.”
“It’s about me, ain’t it?”
The jig was up. Jimmy nodded in affirmation, wondering if the explosion would happen now.
“And what am I getting out of this?”
Fast thinking was not a specialty of Jimmy’s, but he surprised himself by coming up with what he figured would be an iron-clad solution as a waitress passed by.
“How bout I buy you a couple beers?”
Ben wasn’t expecting such an offer (or even the honesty this kid had shown the whole time). He smiled, knowing to raise when he had the upper hand.
“You make it whiskey and you’ve got a deal, son.”
Two shots of whiskey later, they were still sitting at the booth, Jimmy still a little uneasy after somewhat intruding on Ben’s privacy, and Ben trying to tell him a thing or two about poker.
“The thing is kid, you absolutely have to let the other guy think you have the best hand. That’s not done by betting alone – that’s done by everything about you. The clothes you wear, the way you talk, even the way you smell – you have to let them think you’re a disadvantage.”
“I guess I just don’t understand how you can keep all that straight after a full bucket of beer – how many hollow legs do you have?”
The dull glisten returned to Ben’s eye. “Two. Plus a hollow beard. The trick is to make them think you’ve had more than you can handle when you’ve barely had any at all.” He clinked to two shot glasses he’d downed a few minutes ago. “This is the first alcohol I’ve had all night.”
“What? Where’d all that beer go then?”
Ben just winked and reached for his wallet, pulling out a small white card. “I’ve got to get back to the table – I’m big blind next hand. I like you, kid. Best of luck with the paper, and let me know when you want to learn how to really play poker.” He then handed him the card, cleared his throat, and placed the gruff frown back on his face. As Ben walked slowly back to his table, Jimmy glanced at the card, nearly dropping it after reading it. Turns out Ben was a senior IT consultant at a prominent engineering firm, a far cry from the construction worker Jimmy had figured him to be.
He stared back at Ben, who’d taken his seat and already had another bottle of beer in his hand. Jimmy watched carefully this time, and chuckled as he saw Ben bring the bottle to his lips, taking what looked like a long pull. He let out a satisfied breath, then casually leaned back, letting his arm drop to the floor. Jimmy just shook his head as he watch the bottle tip forward, letting some of the beer flow out onto his pants.
Jimmy grabbed his pencil and jotted this down, murmuring to himself. “That explains the odor, all right. He probably hasn’t washed his shirt in months. Old man even wore black jeans so no one could tell they were wet.” He knew then that he had a lot to learn about poker, but more importantly, about reading people in general.


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