Benji lives at 865 York St. in Oakland, California 94610. He lives there with his wife Tess, his dog Raider, and a big ass gun. I didn’t catch the name of his big ass gun. I’m telling you right now, he doesn’t play nice.
“What are we playing?” Scotty asks.
Scotty is built like a pit bull. His neck disappears into his shoulders and his wide jaw resembles a bunch of wood planks and cement bricks slapped together willy-nilly. No shit. Scotty is a weekend player. We all are. Some worse than others. Scotty is worse than others. The man is a billboard. A bad hand- he likes to grind his molars back down into calcium and sawdust and his temples throb. A good hand- he’d trace the tip of his fuck you finger along the edge of his cards and smirk like an arch villain. Last time we played, Scotty helped me pay rent. He is the last one to the table and I am happy to see him.
“Seven card, nothing fancy, fifty to get in, no limits.” Benji answers. “Nico, get me a beer. Tess bought a case earlier: It should be behind that tofu stuff she eats.”
“Benji, do I look like a bitch?” Nico barks back with no bite.
“Well, yes. Yes, you do.” replies Benji not looking up while he shuffles a red and white deck.
Nico fetches us all a round of piss beer.
Nico cannot play cards. He doesn’t have the guts for it. What Nico can do is talk a nun naked and then convince said nun that god can only hear her prayers when she is bent over and her hair is being pulled. That doesn’t mean shit at cards but sometimes helps away from the table. He has a healthy disdain for gambling and gives up on most hands. He’s only here because of the snacks, I think.
I met Nico years ago at Bozo’s Bandwagon on Grand Ave. We were drinking the same brand of cheap whiskey. We both knew whiskey wasn’t so much of a drink but rather a way of life. I wouldn’t call the man my best friend but he was the closest thing to it. He knew how to laugh with little reason and somehow he never let the grind get to him. I liked Nico for that.
“Stop spilling your drink on the goddamn table. Tess is gonna kill me.” Benji snaps at Scotty. “O.K. who’s in?”
We are deep into the game at this point. A few hours in and the money and the luck and the drink are swaying back and forth between the four of us but I have the biggest stack…
We started the night at Bozo’s and then proceeded to twist the night into a blur of booze and smoke. Both kinds. All kinds. Nothing good ever comes from this but all men feel lucky and strong during these hours so we thundered on. We drenched last call with drunken laughter and idiot applause. We didn’t leave Bozo’s until we swallowed the last drops, and slapped the bar’s wood grain slabs with our empty bottles, and said our final goodbyes to the D.U.I.’s and the one night stands.
It was 2a.m. when we stumbled out of the bar. It was 2a.m. when Benji whispered in my ear, “I feel like hurting something.”
Benji knows the game. He plays it close to the vest. Nevertheless, he does have a tell. When the cards are bad for him, he flares his nostrils quickly and only once; like a coked up bull ready to charge without the sprinting Spaniards. When he’s drunk and losing big his temper trumps reason. He starts to bully the other players with big sad bluffs. Not so much “pushing his luck”, more like shoving and spitting on it.
My pops told me once that when it comes to any kind of successful hustle, alcohol and stupidity should never mix. Tonight, 865 York St., Oakland CA 94610 is brimming with alcohol and stupidity. I barely know how to play cards. Nevertheless, I can’t walk away as pops would have liked. Poker is complex and difficult thing to learn, people are not.
Scotty was easy money. Benji will risk his first born when he’s drunk. Nico is a nimrod with a sugar momma. And I have my wife and my daughter waiting in a pay-by-the-week room that’s past due. I need the money.
“So Scotty, you still doing side work for Big Al?” Nico asks.
“Naw, fucked up the wiring in one of the apartment units. Some kid walked into a room, flipped the light switch on, and now the kid can’t talk right, slurs or something.” He replies, shaking his head. He pauses for a bit and in one mammoth gulp drinks almost half a fifth of whiskey. “Now every time I ask Al for work he mumbles something about insurance.”
“What he really means is you’re a brain dead who, when push comes to shove, couldn’t find the ON button on a T.V. set,” Benji states through a cocked smile.
“Speaking of ON buttons, I finally got that Puerto Rican bartender at Limelight to help me scratch an itch.” Nico bellows.
“What happened to Stacy?” I ask, tugging at my sleeve.
“Nothing happened to Stacy. Anyways, last night I go over to her spot and everything gets real nasty real quick.” He says, almost delirious. “She slams me against the wall, knocking down pictures of her and her kid at some beach somewhere, rips down my pants, and starts sucking my dick like it was her favorite food. Then she stops, gets on all fours and, I shit you not, screams, screams, at me to finger her asshole hard. Real hard. Like I was supposed to knock her out through her butt hole.”
“What the fuck did you do?” We all say in unison.
“1st round knock out.” Nico answers with his head tilted up.
“Such the fuckin’ gentleman.” I say, smiling and shaking my head.
“Whaa time issit?” Scotty slurs aloud to no one in particular. The whiskey has won.
“Almost 7 in the morning.” Lighting another cigarette as I answer. Our bender waning.
“Shiiit, I godda go. Los so much money t’nigh.”
Scotty staggers to his feet, takes one last tug from a random leftover beer, and stops moving.
“Rochelle iz, iz… gonna kill me.” He says while staring at his empty hands as if they are telling him a secret only he can hear.
The story should have ended there, right when Scotty left. I should have finished my drink, pocketed the money, and walked the fuck out but Benji was drunk and getting a ruthless run of bad cards, and Nico was still stupid, and Lady Luck was blowing all her kisses my way. I had to see how far I could take it.
“Raise you $30.” Benji slurs, nose flaring.
Benji doesn’t have shit.
“I’m out.” Nico says, running his hand through his hair, fixing it for the eighth time.
“What was that!?” Benji snaps. “With the hair?” Benji looks down at his cards then back at us.
“Shut up. It was nothing and I call.” I reply, scratching my neck.
I win that hand big. It isn’t close. Benji looks at Nico with a mix of disgust and suspicion but doesn’t say a damn thing. He sits back on his chair and takes a slow, long drink of the remaining vodka.
The early morning sunlight is now piercing through the cracks in the shades like burning bullets. One of the stray lights hits the clear bottle as Benji takes his drink and the light immediately shatters against his face. I stare at him without saying a damn thing.
“Damn. What was that, six maybe seven, big hands in a row?” Benji snarls. Completely drunk. Shifting hard in his seat.
The last time I saw Benji this faded he ran into the kitchen at Applebee’s and started to choke the cook. I still don’t know why. It was funny at the time but I wasn’t the one trying to cook chicken fingers for a family of four with Benji around my neck.
“Something like that. I guess the cards are going my way.” I say.
“Sure you’re not gettin’ any help?” Benji stares directly at Nico without blinking.
Nico deals the next round. I watch as the cards drop and with each one, I feel Benji grit his teeth meaner and meaner. Two of clubs for him. Ace of hearts for me. Seven of diamonds for him. Ace of diamonds for me. By the fifth card, I know I will win. For a split second, I consider throwing the hand, but that will make the situation worse, so I let it play.
“It’s only us again.” Benji says, no longer disguising his anger. Nico folds early so he tosses the sixth card to us and waits. Nico can feel something is not right. He begins to get nervous. He starts talking fast and at a higher pitch. The big dummy.
“So how’s your wife?” He asks. I want to scream, shut the fuck up. “Heard she went Tahoe this weekend.”
“When did you start to give a shit about Tess?”
“Just asking.” Nico’s voice raises another octave.
“Hey, your dog is a Rott, right? Raider, right? I hear they can get vicious. My neighbor had a Rott once. Scared the shit out of me. Thought it was going to bite at any moment. One day it got loose…”
“Shut up and drop the last card.” I say as calmly as possible, with just a hint of annoyance.
Nico tosses the seventh card and wipes the sweat off his palms onto the felt table. Shit.
“What the fuck was that!?” Benji says.
“What!? You know exactly what, you mothafuckin’ cheat.” Snaps Benji.
“It’s nothing.” I casually respond in an effort to try to calm everything down before it explodes.
“Nothing!? Let me see what you got.”
I have a fat, sexy, beautiful full house. Benji can’t even slap together a pair.
“Hold on.” Benji says. He gets up and stumbles drunk into the back bedroom. Nico wants to run and is staring at me for the go-ahead. Nothing is said between us. I sit there with a dumb smile and shrug my shoulders.
Benji walks back into the room holding a fistful of something in his right hand. Hanging from his left hand is that big ass gun I never caught the name of. What kind of gun was it? I don’t know and I don’t care. The only thing I want to know about any gun is the direction of its barrel.
“I can’t believe you guys cheated me.”
Benji opens the revolver, places six bullets on the table, and finishes half a beer in one swallow.
“We didn’t, Benji. That’s how the cards came.” I say, trying to deliver the line without the tipping him off to my rising fear.
“WHY?” Benji screams. “I trusted you boys” he then says quietly into his chest.
Benji then picks up a single bullet, loads it, and clicks the revolver to an empty chamber.
“We’ve played before and I took your money before. I didn’t cheat then…
Load and Click.
“…and I didn’t cheat tonight.”
Load and Click.
“I took you into my own home and you disrespect me like this.”
Load and Click.
I look over at Nico and it appears he is about to cry.
“Benji, stop fuckin’ with us. No one cheated. You know I’m stand up.”
Load and Click.
“All those signals, back and forth, all damn night, you were cheating me out of my hard earned money. You know I got a baby on the way…”
Load and Click.
“WHY DID YOU DO THIS?” Benji screams. His eyes are bloodshot and begging for violence. I look over again at Nico who is now crying.
“Benji, listen, for the last time before you shoot my pretty face off. I took your money clean. Nothing dirty about it. So put that big ass gun away and get me a beer before I call Tess and tell her that you didn’t use the coasters.”
He cracks a smile like daybreak and lazily drops the gun to his side. He gets up and sits next to me, placing the gun on top of my stack of twenties. I gently push the barrel away from me. Nico gets up slowly from his seat, pauses a moment, and then runs out the door. I light two cigarettes, hand Benji one, and we sit there staring at the overflowing ashtray in front of us for a few minutes. No one says a damn thing.
It is about 8a.m. and Bozo’s is about to open. Benji wants to apologize by keeping me drunk until noon. To tell you the truth, I need that type of apology. We walk into Bozo’s as Sue is plugging in the Pac Man Pinball Machine. A sad jazz song fills the dead air. We stroll over to the pool table and put two quarters in. Benji racks. Scotty walks in asking Benji if he can crash on his couch, Rochelle kicked him out again. With their backs turned, I pull out an Ace of Spades from my sleeve, fold it in half, and stuff the card in my back pocket.
“Hey Benji, you want to play for a drink? I’m feeling lucky.”