On The Button
Here is what she knows:
She knows four thousand dollars is a lot of money. More money than she has ever lost or won. Four thousand dollars could pay for her entire stay at the Bellagio, her room service, her bar tab, her flight home to Indiana, her husband’s birthday present, and a “Haha, I’m quitting to become a poker pro” outfit to wear to her last day at the office. The man sitting across from her, the man she likes to call “Big Country,” plays his cards fast and loose. He has bluffed several times tonight, and he has pushed her around before. Everyone at the table is expecting her to fold because that’s what little old ladies do when facing aggression. Men don’t respect her game, and she has used this belief to take their money all night. She’s a better poker player than everyone at this table combined, and that includes Big Country who just raised her all-in.
Now here is what she thinks:
She thinks Big Country is in his late fifties. He came from humble beginnings. He grew up on a farm, maybe a small hick town in East Texas. His parents were people of low I.Q. He didn’t go to college. He used some sort of mechanical skill with cars or tractors or harvesters to get ahead and started a business no one else considered. This made him a very rich man. His wife is likely his age. Her skin is weathered from tanning salons, and her ears and fingers are sparkling with diamonds. Right now she’s in their hotel room, wearing a bathrobe, watching TV from bed, annoyed that her husband has been playing poker for seven hours straight. Because of this, Big Country has to go. It’s getting late. He has one foot away from the table, and he sighs impatiently. Players that want to leave typically do stupid things. Stupid things like bluff badly or overplay their last hand. That fact alone should make this decision easy.
But this is what she fears:
She fears losing this hand, not just this time, but every time she sees a playing card or a poker chip. She fears wondering what she could have done with four thousand dollars every time she pays her credit card bill. She fears the derision of her friends and family when she confesses she wanted to become a professional poker player at the age of fifty-three. She fears the slow painful drain of her ambition, her dreams, her hopes, slipping away as the dealer shoves all her money to the fat Texan.
And then this is what she remembers:
She remembers her father lecturing her brother to get good grades and then disregarding her straight A’s. She remembers her mother telling her to how to keep a clean house for company. She remembers thirty-six years of clerical jobs because her parents never encouraged her to go to college. She hated her parents for that, but then she forgave them because it was a different time back then, and then she hated them again every Monday she went back to work. She remembers being a little girl watching her father and his friends play cards in the garage. They were terrible poker players. She used to sit in the corner and correctly guess all their hands. She fetched them beers just for the privilege of watching them play. She relives the moment she first entered a casino, the bright lights, the clatter of chips, the energy of that little girl inside her coming back all at once.
So that is how it’s decided.
Sam Nam’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Annalemma Magazine, Night Train, JMWW, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Wrong Tree Review. He is currently an MFA candidate at Cornell University and an assistant editor of Epoch.