“Straight shoot.” Raglin spread five cards in front of him, eyes glinting.
“Damn it, Rag. I was just about to fix you-” A stout man with obsequiously oily blond hair slammed his fist on the table, subsequently sending his hand of cards flying across the table.
The nine of them sat in the Walton Blue’s lounge, their faces clouded behind a swarm of cigarette smoke.
The round table was just barely illuminated by the swinging light overhead, and that, swathed with the plait of smoke, was a recipe for disaster. Each of them held a briar-root pipe that hung from the corner of their sneering mouths.
Earl was having no luck that night.
He had already reached his limit in bets, the chips mounding in front of him, as if attempting to exasperate the point of his abating wealth. He had nothing left. His hand, which he would forever blame on Ricky’s dealing, was now flippant in eights, an unlucky result of his bad luck.
“I swear, if Raglin wins one more time,” Another balding man, Rawfe, grunted from across the table, “I’d think he was a cheat.”
There was a sudden scraping of chairs, and Earl’s head shot up just as he caught a flash of red suit, and a ‘I’m going to get you-’ that followed a blur of fist directed at the opposing seat.
It was a split second before another pair of hands had reached into the chaos, though this time, it was to tug the two apart. A man the size of a boulder was wrenching the men away from each other as Earl turned to see who it was. It was the owner Nickels. His expression was punitive, angry even. Earl didn’t have time to react though, because a moment later, a fist came swinging towards his face.
He ducked, barely missing the stray knuckles. When the noise quieted, and when he knew he was safe, Earl resurfaced.
The dust was clearing, and the bodies of Rawfe and Raglin had come into view. Entangled, they shook the other off, and sat down with respective grunting.
“Sorry, boss.” Rawfe responded. The group murmured in agreement, heads drooping. Raglin had slid back in his seat, a look of disgruntlement blinking across his face.
“You know I like you guys around here,” Nickels said, and added, “Brings about good business. But we can’t have schoolboy brawls. If you have a problem, take it outside.”
Raglin was still shooting daggers at Rawfe.
“And Rag-” Raglin’s head beelined towards the boss, “Don’t pull something like that again. Are we understood?”
“Sure boss.” He whispered, though Nickles leaned in.
Earl’s heart sped up.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Are we understood?”
“I said sure boss.” Raglin snapped.
Nickels drew a breath in, stood and faced the group again. The tension was still wavering as Nickels continued.
“If I see any of you pulling some crap like that again, you’re out. Got it?”
They all nodded vibrantly, sure to avoid contact with Nickle’s mauling eyesight. Nickels stayed stoic as he hobbled away.
It wasn’t until he was out of sight that someone spoke.
“Ok boys. We’ll meet here tomorrow at seven sharp.” The blond said.
A round of lukewarm, ‘got it’, ‘sure’, and ‘that works for me’ succeeded the announcement, and those who were ready, stood and began to follow the rest of the group out of the basement.
As Earl walked home, he contemplated not returning. What was the point? He wasn’t going to win, and his rent was due next week. If he wasted any more money than he already had, he would go broke.
Earl turned down his street.
The rain began to drizzle, clinging to his maroon sweater, and coating his face in a layer of cold.
It dribbled down the nape of his neck, the rivulets held by their fingertips at the hem of his vest. Earl absorbed it, the corners of his lips playfully dancing alongside the drops of water.
Ahead of him, he could see his appartement waiting ever so patiently for his return.
What surprises would Earl find tomorrow? Could he ever have a chance of winning?
The morning brought more rain, though this time Earl was less enthusiastic to see it pummeling his windows.
His mood had significantly improved, however, and he had a feeling that today would bring luck.
He arrived at Walton Blue’s just before seven in the evening, and made his way downstairs. Two men were setting up the cards in the dim light- The blond man, and another man he didn’t recognize. Reaching the table, though, his hope faltered.
They had set up a completely different arrangement, new settings, new cards, new everything. It was as if somebody had yanked the carpet from under his feet, and he was now hovering above a chasm, held by the tightrope of luck.
“Hey Earl, want to help us set up?”
He didn’t feel like speaking, so he just nodded, and took the chips, distributing them across the players' seats.
Ever so slowly, the other members began to trickle in. Soon enough, the room was buzzing with conversation, apprehension for the game to begin churning in the air.
“OK boys, we’re ready to go!” Blond called over the chatter. There was an excitement that hovered when they took their seats and reviewed their dealings. Poorly disguised looks of disappointment crossed some of the faces.
The game began.
It was thirty minutes in, and Earl’s trepidation had transformed into a gut wrenching uneasiness. He was stuck again, in the same situation as last night, and was beginning to accept that it wasn’t his given hand at fault, more so his talent.
“Ok. Try this. Five yams.” Raglin, as proud as ever, unfurled the cards in front of him.
The rest of the group groaned.
“Fine. Take the twenty chips, Rag.” Grufden reluctantly allowed.
“I’ll do so with pleasure,” Raglin beamed, hugging a pile of black pieces towards him.
Earl suddenly had an idea. He replaced two of his own in the stack, and shuffled his playing cards. Bingo!
“I got it!” He blurted. Heads around the table turned to him.
“Five crows.” Proudly, he set them in front of him.
“Nice one, Earl!” The man next to him said, clapping a hand on his back.
A round of admiration circled the group.
“Wait.” It was a voice from a few places over, a man sitting in the shadows. “Show that hand again.”
The room fell quiet.
Earl unfolded the cards in front of him.
“That doesn’t work.”
“What? What do you mean?” Earl said, his stomach dropping.
“See?” The man said, pointing to Earl’s outstretched fingers, “The crow of seven doesn’t match the crow of five. And you have too many mulhouse’s to pull this off. It just doesn’t work.”
“No. It does, watch.” But as he extended the papers in his hand, Earl’s heart had already sunk too low for rescue. He knew he was doomed.
“I’m sorry, Earl. You know the rules. If you call a false fix, then you’re out.”
“Yeah, I know the rules.” Earl said, his words leaking with bitter inflection. “I’ll stay to watch though.”
He had now fallen off the tightrope, and was hurtling down the chasm’s empty chamber. He had really thought he did something well. He was so convinced, and now so disheartened.
It’s just a game, he tried to remind himself.
But it wasn’t. His entire life had been constructed to fail him. He was a complete failure. And now, as he sat in the thick smoke of the basement, he was painfully reminded of how utterly unfair it all was.
The game eventually ended, and Raglin won. Rawfe’s then unsuccessful attempt to jump Raglin on his way out, resulted in yet another fist fight by the front door.
Earl watched with little interest as bouquets of rain water splashed on their colliding bodies on the sidewalk. Below their feet, a leak of blood diffused into the deep puddles. Their fight lasted until Nickels came outside again, and pulled the two magnets apart.
The group eventually dissolved, leaving Earl standing numbly under the falling storm, one other man beside him.
He then turned towards them, and realized that he was standing next to the man who had confronted him during the game.
His first visceral reaction was to attack him. Punch him, beat him, for curating his luck. Palpitate him until he realized what a wrongful mistake it was to mess with Earl. But he then came to the conclusion; no matter what, he would have falsely claimed a prize. Whether or not this man had asserted it.
“You know,” The man called over the rushing wind, “I find that deep down, cards are a game of truth. Life is a game of truth and honesty.”
Earl didn’t respond.
The man continued. “Unfortunately, the truth is bleak. Candor can only do so much as to hide that life itself is a mess of darkness and misfortune. I am sorry for making you lose, Earl. I didn’t want to cause you anger, or stress. But I needed to let those who were playing know the accuracy of your game. It’s my duty.”
“I want to ask you one thing, Earl.”
“Shoot.” Earl finally said, still staring out into the bleak night.
“If it wasn’t for your mischance in life, would you still be the same person today? Would you have met these people, formed your livelihood, walked the same path? Because I don’t think you would have, and I don’t think you want to. Do you?”
And as the words etched their way into his skin, the man shot him one more smile, tipped his hat, and set off across the street, his figure gradually melting into the darkness.