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A Place at the Table

Luck and Grit, photograph of hand covered in tattoos, by Geoffrey Ellis
  • By John Haskell
  • Issue 20
  • Fable

Just as you can only love a limited number of people, there are only a limited number of people you can be in a lifetime. I was still in my twenties then, newly arrived in Los Angeles, not a writer or an artist or anything really, just knowing that what I was had come to nothing, that I had nothing, and unable to live with that I started spending time with Cosmo. I was looking for possible role models, and Cosmo was someone I was attracted to, someone you might have called charismatic, and part of his charisma was his ability, or his need really, to make the world seem like a party. And he always seemed to have the invitation. So I went along with him, and I watched him, and although it’s impossible to be someone else, by imitating a person you can get the characteristics of that person to adhere to you, or in my case, adhere to me, not that I imitated everything Cosmo did. Some of what he did didn’t interest me. The limousine, for instance. Hiring a limousine wasn’t embarrassing for Cosmo because he made riding in a limousine, and drinking champagne in the back of a limousine, part of who he was. And there I was, with him, sitting beside a sealed window, Cosmo at the other window, and Rachel was sitting between us. She was a dancer, tall, dark skinned, and Cosmo, having offered her a job at his club, was showing her the town. He was wooing her, wearing his regular evening costume, a rumpled tuxedo. I had on a sport coat he’d given me and Rachel, shoulder to shoulder with us, had a purple orchid pinned to her chest, a small black purse in her lap, and like a deer she was beautiful, keen and alert, or maybe Cosmo and I were the deer and she was the headlight, her earrings catching the light from the streetlights as we drove. And because Cosmo was trying to make her happy, and because he associated drinking with happiness, he pulled a bottle of champagne from the backseat ice bucket. He handed me a glass, and Rachel wasn’t drinking, and I told him I was fine but he reached out to me with the champagne bottle, reaching over Rachel’s body, and I suppose his idea was to make me happier than I was, but I was happy enough. And Cosmo was handsome, not perfect, with his large nose, more strong than large, and his sly smile, like a fox smiling, although I’ve never seen a fox smile, and his eyes. I have seen stars twinkling, and he had a cigarette in one hand, and although he was the owner of a nightclub, he always seemed like a salesman. He had what salesmen have, persistence, and he was trying to find the mouth of my champagne flute with the mouth of the champagne bottle, but I can be persistent too. And I was, except after a while he wore you down. They call it the force of personality but really it’s just wearing you down, and I didn’t want to drink champagne but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So I let him fill my flute, the bubbles rising up from inside the liquid, rising up and breaking the surface, and I’m sure Cosmo ordered the finest, so I drank. Which made Cosmo happy, which made me happy. And the smile he smiled at Rachel triggered in her, and to some extent it triggered in me, not triggered but when Cosmo laughed, although I didn’t know what was supposed to be funny, and although whatever it was had already turned into something else, we felt it, the carelessness of happiness, and we were all in a jovial mood when we arrived at the Ship Ahoy.

Unlike Cosmo’s club, the Ship Ahoy was a club for gambling. The men who ran it weren’t mobsters exactly, or gangsters, but when we stepped out of the limousine, still holding our champagne flutes, someone must have recognized Cosmo because a door opened and a large man, like a bodyguard, led us down a hallway and into a low room with a sprayed acoustic ceiling. A picture window framed a view of the dark harbor, and there was a round table in the middle of the room, with chairs, and a few men were sitting in the chairs. That was the poker game. Rachel and I were given seats along the wall, our backs against its faux wood paneling, and I watched Cosmo walk to the table like walking into another room, a brightly lit room that put everything else in darkness, including me. And Rachel. Which doesn’t mean we weren’t taken care of. Waiters brought us pastries and dipping sauce, and yes, I was drinking. First of all, the drinks were free, and once you cross the line of drinking, it’s hard to draw the line because the line is already behind you. And although I’d told myself I wouldn’t drink too much, I wasn’t listening to myself. Plus, I was sitting next to Rachel. I was sitting on a gold, slightly padded convention-hall chair, and the place had a nautical theme. Fishing nets and life preservers, and anchors were hung along the walls. The waiters were serving us seafood wrapped in bacon. I assumed that Rachel and I, since there was nothing else to do, would talk, but the way the chairs were set against the wall, it was like we were an audience, or at a trial, facing the round table in the center of the room, and I’ve never been to the Colosseum in Rome but it must have been like this, with the poker table where the gladiators would have battled. And because the table was our focal point, although we couldn’t see the details of the game, we were both looking in the direction of the five men, watching them holding cards, pushing chips to the center of the table. The room was cool and the chair I was sitting on was cool, and I was wishing I had something engaging to say. I knew the harder I tried to be engaging, the less engaging I would be, so I asked her a simple question about her job at Cosmo’s club. And we talked a little, about performing and nakedness, and it was a nice enough conversation but when it was over, when she turned her attention back to the poker game, that’s when I noticed the goose bumps on my arm. Or goose flesh. It appears when the tiny muscles attached to the base of our hair follicles contract, something to do with the fight-or-flight response, or sexual arousal, and I mention it because Rachel was sitting very straight, her neck long, her arm bones pulled into their sockets, and because she was staring off toward the poker game she didn’t know I was following her follicles, from her wrist to her arm, the fine hairs tracing a path up her neck, over her ear and I noticed a mole near her hairline. I didn’t want to stare but I felt myself getting lost, in her, and in the thoughts that arise when you’re absorbed by your own concentration on something, and I was surprised when a man, a large man, stepped up to us, me specifically, and in a hollow voice said something about offering me a seat. At the table. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. The card-playing table? Apparently one of the players had left and now a seat had opened up, and this could be one of those moments, I thought, when you can change the course of your life. The man’s name was Freddie, and I could see Cosmo waving me over, but I don’t even play poker. I play, but I’ve never been very good, never really enjoyed it, although my father was excellent poker player. He used to play with Gregory Peck, the movie star. He called him Eldred Peck, said Eldred still owed him twenty dollars, and from my father I learned the basic elements of poker. Rachel was telling me to join the game, to go play, to have some fun, and Cosmo was signaling me, so I stood up and followed the signal. I followed this Freddie person, who said that any friend of Cosmo’s, and he didn’t say what about any friend of Cosmo’s, but it felt good to be respected, or a friend of someone respected, and with his massive hand he guided me to the table where he pulled out the chair that had been occupied by someone and now was occupied by me. And the chair was probably radiating heat but I didn’t notice because I was feeling the excitement of joining the game. Whatever chemical causes elation, I was feeling a surge of it, looking around at the men at the table, all of them older than I was, most of them smoking cigars, drinking amber-colored drinks which turned out to be whiskey, and I’ll have one too. If I was going to cross the line, I might as well dive in. A waiter brought me a glass of scotch with one rock, a single piece of ice melting in the alcohol. Introductions were made, people nodded, and the dealer asked me how many chips I would like, meaning how many chips did I want to buy. Ah-hah, I thought. We were going to be using real money. I didn’t think of that when I let myself get led to the table.

I knew enough about poker to know that a large percentage of winning is luck. And although I’d never won a lottery, or won anything really, I’d always thought of myself as having an amicable relationship with fortune. You can’t will luck or create it, all you can do is allow a space where it feels welcome and comfortable, and that’s what I was doing. Cosmo was across the table, to my right, and at the beginning I imitated his style, the way he fingered his pile of chips. By imitating his style I got not only a feel for the game but also a confidence in my ability to play. When the dealer dealt our cards, some faceup, some facedown, I was being a beginner. And I had what they call beginner’s luck. Although I didn’t win the first hand I did win the second, and the bets weren’t big because they didn’t want to scare me away, and as the game went on my imitation of Cosmo was doing better than the actual Cosmo. I knew to quit when I was ahead, to wait for the wave and then ride the wave. And I knew when a bald man with a mustache was bluffing me, trying to make me think he had a better hand than he did. I had three nines, which wasn’t fantastic but I had a hunch, and a hunch is an intimation of luck, invisible but swirling around us and in us, and I kept up with the man, betting as much as he did, and in fact betting most of my money, and it wasn’t confidence but was just as good, and when we finally presented our cards my three nines beat his three sevens. I couldn’t tell if Rachel, sitting against the wall, was watching me but if she was she would have seen that my pile of chips was growing. The chips were different colors, in denominations of five, ten, twenty, fifty, and one hundred dollars, and I was up quite a few hundred dollars. I didn’t count my chips, why tempt superstition, and the night went on like that, me winning occasionally, and yes, I was losing too, you can’t help but lose a little, but I was getting used to losing and winning, and also I was drinking. I changed my order from scotch on ice to gin and tonic, heavy on the tonic I told the waiter, and I knew that drinking too much wasn’t good, that being inebriated wouldn’t assist me in my quest, which was less about winning and more about being a person who could wait for the waves of luck and then ride them. I would have been content to break even, to enjoy the play of the game, and in fact as I sipped the gin and tonics, and as the game continued, I lost enough of my chips to put me back where I came from, financially. I still felt that luck, like a friend or a lover or a sense of self, was hovering nearby. Like a seed, blown on the wind, and once it falls to earth it needs the right kind of soil, the right amount of water and sunlight, and although there’s no guarantee, I was pretty sure luck would eventually pop up, like a tree, or a plant, and until it did I kept playing. Playing and drinking, and I wasn’t drunk but I wasn’t myself, that’s the expression, not quite myself, and it’s natural to lose a little. Cosmo was also losing. And I wasn’t losing a lot. But enough. Not desperate yet, but I didn’t want to miss the moment when luck would eventually return. So I kept making bets, and because I was aware they were unintelligent bets I felt I was in control of my losing, and by remaining in control, when the time came, I would also control my rise back up to the break-even point. The question was, when would that time come. Everyone at the table was waiting for that time. Cosmo, my normally effusive friend, was quiet, relaxed, not looking up at me, or when he did, not expressing any concern or encouragement, and although his self-sufficient relaxation was worthy of emulation, when I tried to sit like he sat, elbows down, cards held at my heart, I didn’t feel what sitting like him felt like.

The way to change an undesirable situation is to change the situation’s direction, and the secret of changing direction is to start early, preferably at the beginning, or if the beginning isn’t possible just start again. I guessed it had something to do with breathing. So I took a breath. Out with the old, in with the new. Out with my bad luck and in with the thick smoke of cigarettes. The air-conditioning was rumbling on a nearby wall but the room was still smoky. Rachel was still in her chair, still young, and the men at the table were mostly heavy, some with gray hair, three or four of them very tan. They kept their heads down, even Cosmo, so as not to accidentally reveal in their faces the contents of their cards. I was watching them and Rachel was too, and watching me, and although I wasn’t playing against Cosmo, and although she was going to work for Cosmo, I imagined she might be rooting for me. Lady Luck is a term from the movies, the Westerns, and we weren’t in a saloon but I felt her watching me as I sipped my drink and I laughed occasionally when a joke was told. The voices of the men when they spoke were deep, their hands thick, and they would have been intimidating in my normal life but now I wasn’t in my normal life. I was drunk first of all, and I was losing money, and I should have ordered a sandwich, that might have helped, but the cards kept coming, and it was exhausting, the concentration involved in hoping the cards would be the cards I wanted, the cards that would help me win, but I wasn’t winning. In fact I was losing so much that at one point, the dealer, a bald man with a double chin, asked me if I needed a loan. He called it a marker. A few thousand dollars. A man called Seymour appeared from behind a glass door. He had a bushy mustache and he glanced at me when he told the dealer to let me keep playing. And a few thousand dollars wasn’t so much, and Cosmo was doing it too, borrowing from something that seemed like a bank, and I played with the money until, when my chips ran out, I needed a new marker. I assured the dealer my credit was good. Cosmo can vouch for me, that’s what I said, and when Seymour appeared again, looking at me, although Cosmo didn’t speak up, my loan was approved. And with this money I would have to be careful. But not too careful because being too careful gets you nowhere. But careful enough. And I was. At a certain point I felt my luck returning, and thank god because playing and losing is not as much fun as playing and winning, and I started winning again, and betting more, and the game is simple. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, and I was almost back to even when I made the mistake, or the miscalculation, of assuming that the cards in my hand were better than the cards of the man I was playing against. He never addressed me, which I didn’t like, and his carefully combed hair was too carefully combed. And maybe I let my dislike influence my decision to stay in the game, to borrow more money. My luck would return, that’s how it goes, not in circles exactly but it flits from one flower to the next, like a bee, and we were the flowers and I was due for a visitation. I definitely felt that my time was coming, and when the loan was approved I felt certain it was here, the confluence of money and luck, and I attempted a bluff, holding nothing but a pair of sixes, and because it’s psychology I acted, or tried to act, as if I was trying to act as if I had a terrible hand because I wanted the men at the table to think that I was trying to act like I had a good hand because I had a bad hand when really I did have a good hand, and it was confusing, even to me, the levels of subterfuge. Long story short, I lost. But because I’d gotten so close I was pretty sure luck was close. The next round was dealt, and I wasn’t praying because I wouldn’t know how to begin, something like, oh god, please let me have a good hand, or please smile on me, or please, if you give me this then I’ll do whatever you want, something like that. More effective would have been to relax, take a breath, look at my cards and remember the fun I’d had at the beginning of the game. That would have been good but I’d lost too much money now, and it wasn’t even my money. And why was I here, drinking these drinks? I asked the waiters to make them weak but I was feeling them, and I wanted to stop but I had to keep going, claw myself back, pull myself by my bootstraps, whatever that means. And I tried to be cunning, like a suitor, pretending I didn’t care about luck, letting luck take an interest in me if it wanted to, and if it wanted to it could sit on my lap. And when the cards were dealt mine were good, better than good, and bets were placed and I needed another loan if I was to stay in the game, and that’s when Seymour walked in, the glass doors closing behind him. He seemed to know exactly what was happening and he told the dealer my credit was cut off. Cut off? That’s impossible. I need to win my money back. I told Seymour, who was walking away, that I could pay them back, but how could I pay them back. I looked at Cosmo, his tapered fingers stroking his cards, and although he was also losing he had a smile, the faintest stretch of a smile across his lips and sure, he had collateral, I had nothing. I had no house, and my car was falling apart, and then the man named Freddie was standing behind me, pulling out my chair, helping me to stand, and when I did stand, that was the end of the game for me.

John Haskell is the author of the story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock and the novels American Purgatorio and Out of My Skin. His most recent book is The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts.

Photograph from the Valley of the Meadows series, by Geoffrey Ellis