The prize fight must have ended while we were away because Hem and Scott were back to their own bickering when we arrived.
“You told me you were putting it all on Carter. That’s why I bet on him. I thought you had a tip.”
“I changed my mind,” Hem retorted in his patented calm fury. “A man’s allowed to change his mind.”
“Didn’t you notice I was cheering whenever Carter landed one? Didn’t it dawn on you I’d bet the other side?”
“A man’s also supposed to be able to make his own decisions.”
“I don’t remember you making too many decisions on your own when Wolfsheim was in town.” Hem snapped his eyes on Scott and his head followed a moment later. The mention of this German fellow was apparently the only thing that could jar Hem slightly from his offhand coolness.
“Shut up, Scott,” he said softly.
“What color socks are you wearing?”
“Shut up, Scott.” A little more forceful.
“Are they white, Ernie?”
“Shut up, Scott!” Much more fire now.
“Or were they black?”
“Scott!” This is as far as the argument went. The low, booming voice of Hemingway vibrated through the chamber and temporarily shook the two gentlemen from their trances. It was as if a bell had rung between rounds and Sam, I, and the others were the corner men.
“How are you, old sports?” Scott had finally recognized the presence of guests in the quarters. “What do you say we get down to business?”
The oak gaming table was already surrounded by six heavily-armed chairs that had been presumably carted in from the casino floor. Five double whiskeys sat on the table accompanying the chairs. The sixth was gripped firmly in Scott’s right hand. The color had returned partially to his face, but a noticeable glaze shined from both eyes.
We all took a seat. Sam was to my left and Truman to my right. Directly across the table Edgar stared at me with his beady eyes and blank smile. He was flanked to his left by Hem and Scott. The men began spilling their own chips on the table. I looked at Sam nervously and whispered to him that I didn’t have as much as a wooden nickel on me tonight. He smiled and told me, “Son, even when you think you’re fresh out, the proceeds always roll back in. That’s the first sign of a real gambler.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, but reached into my pocket anyway and was considerably surprised by the outcome. Suddenly, and utterly inexplicably, my pockets were filled with chips. I eased my alarm only by convincing myself the entire evening had been so peculiar up until then, that it wasn’t time to start worrying until I saw something completely ordinary. Since finding an unexpected fortune in your pants didn’t fall into this category, I tossed the chips on the table as if I’d possessed them all along.
Hem pulled out a deck, did some fancy shuffling and said, “It’s been awhile since Sloppy Joe’s. Five card stud, no wild.” The cards filtered from his hand and billowed down in front of us like fallen oak leaves on a crisp, autumn afternoon. Hem grunted and lifted his cards and we all followed. A pair of aces stared back at me. I took three cards from Hem who stared directly through me as he dispensed them, and then he smiled. I could barely notice a single muscle twitch in his jaw, but I was sure it had happened. The gruffest, least sentimental person I’d ever met was suddenly amused. When I turned the cards over to reveal another ace, I was pretty sure I knew why.
“I’ll start the bidding,” Scott said, and he pushed a pile of red chips to the center of the table. Sam folded immediately and Edgar followed just as soon as I matched and raised.
“A little rich for my blood,” Truman said as he dropped his cards face down on the table. Hem and Scott both matched and I, deciding it best to stay conservative my first time out, called.
“Call?” Hem asked puzzled. “Ok, I guess.” He and Scott laid their cards on the table. Hem had a pair of twos. Scott had clearly been bluffing. “Pot’s yours, kid,” Hem said, “but you left quite a bit of it in the pockets of your opponents.” He pushed a mound of chips across to me that I imagined represented more money than I’d possessed all at once in all of my life. “When you have something good,” Hem continued, “be confident in it and put it on the line. Don’t sit back and worry that the cards will make you look foolish.”
“Quickest way to waste what you have,” Scott added and for a moment I was surprised it was possible for the two to agree on anything.
The deck passed to Scott and he shuffled with equal grace and kept the game consistent. This time I was dealt nothing special so I held my highest two cards, a king and a jack, and hoped for something good. I was answered with a stray jack, enough to round out a pair. I matched Sam’s outrageous bet and then added another stack of chips for good measure. Everyone matched and Hem called. I was surprised when my pair of jacks fell victim to Sam’s pair of kings, Scott’s flush, and Edgar’s full house.
The odd man cradled the chips in his arms and pulled them across the table. “But you must be true to yourself,” he said, apparently in my direction. “You can’t just bet on any old thing. Your chips must be staked on something you’re genuinely proud to possess as your own.” The other gentlemen grunted and nodded agreement.
It was clear that my entry into the gambling world would not be as easy as my first hand. I was reminded of the fact time and again. When I had three kings and laid a pile of chips down, Sam was quick to show me a glimpse of his straight before scooping up the proceeds. If I had a pair, Truman would pull out three of a kind. When I had three of a kind, Hem would blast me with a full house. No matter how confidently backed I felt by my hand, someone would always have something better, something fresher, something more precise. And no matter how many chips I’d raked in on my first hand, the stack before me dwindled lower and lower still.
Finally, hours after the game had begun, I pulled my first full house of the evening. I only held a short stack of red chips but Hem’s advice loomed large over me. I wouldn’t get a better chance to strike than this. I laid it all on the line. Edgar and Truman were quick to fold. Hem and Scott stuck around for one more raise by Sam until they were out. My bank was officially broken, so I borrowed a chip from Truman (who was quite tickled by my neediness and refused to accept my pledge of repayment) and I matched and called. I tossed the full house down for all to see and reached for the chips on the table.
But Sam was also reaching.
He grabbed my wrist and thrust his hand before my eyes to reveal a royal flush. His mouth curved into a smile and the silvery mustache flicked and twitched with excitement. “Sometimes you get a raw deal even when you have something good,” he said. “Just can’t go and let that stop you.” And the gentlemen, myself included, all erupted into laughter and slapped Sam on the back to signify total agreement on this fact.
The game died down considerably once I was retired and fizzled altogether once Scott dropped face-down on the table and Truman started singing a lullaby he said he’d learned from that Miss Sook lady he was always talking about.
When the time had come, Sam motioned to the door and I said my farewells and thank yous to the generous individuals I’d acquainted with that evening. Sam walked me out on the deck to the gangway; the sun was taking an early-morning peek over the Eastern horizon and the birds were chirping in the semi-darkness.
I told him I proved not to be much of a gambler after all and he told me I was crazy for thinking so. I mentioned that I may have lost more hands than we’d actually played that night and he outlined the impossibility of my statement. I commented on the lack of chips in my pocket at the present and he left me with the following:
“Son, people like you and I, we need to lay our chips on the line. I told you that already. But the chips? Remember: even when you’re out, you’re not out.” Then he tossed me a single red chip. I smiled, shook Sam’s hand, and placed the chip in my pocket for safe keeping. Then I stepped off the Claremont for good and made my way down to the labyrinth of piers below.
I don’t know how I ended up there or how I got home. It hadn’t been my first choice, maybe not even my second, but I found myself wandering aimlessly across the piers nonetheless.
When I awoke later to a mid-day sun, the stale smell of cigar smoke did not cling to my wrinkled clothes, nor did the sound of spilling coins ring in my ears. Not a single peculiar gentleman stood before me; and perhaps none ever had. *