One minute, I knew exactly what was going on, and who I had to beat. Or I thought I did, anyway. Then it all changed, and I realized I didn’t know anything.
Through the process of elimination, I was left playing the Mediterranean-looking man, but I’d had him pegged as my nemesis since the flop—the first three of our community cards—when his eye twitched, and he glanced at me, if only for a moment. There were only four of us in the game at that point, although one folded and walked away from the table before she bet that round.
The Mediterranean guy—he told us to call him Charles—stayed in, and when our dealer, a cute young blonde, dealt the turn, Charles and I were the only two players left in the game.
I wasn’t sure what the stakes were anymore. We weren’t just playing for the chips in the center of the table, or the money they represented. Somewhere along the way, the game changed.
A feeling had been building up during the last few hands, but when Charles joined the game right before this current hand, the feeling intensified. With every chip, I felt I was throwing in a piece of my life—I’ll see your good health and raise you my livelihood. I’ll see your eyesight and call.
But when Kimber, the dealer, dropped the turn onto the table, that Eight of Clubs, everything I thought I knew changed. Charles took one look at that fourth community card, shook his head once in disgust, and threw his cards down.
“I knew I should have stayed away from Texas Hold ’em,” he said in a stilted accent, standing up. “Not my game at all.”
He walked away, but I didn’t feel like I’d won anything. I still felt as if my whole life and my future were lying out there on the green felt.
I sighed, trying to ease my nerves. Odds are, I would have won the hand anyway. I had the Three of Clubs and the Ace of Hearts as my two hole cards, and they went nicely with the two other threes and the Ace of Diamonds that were out on the table. It would have been difficult for Charles to beat me. Apparently, his hand had been bad enough that he didn’t want to wait around for the last card.
I started to set my cards down when Kimber spoke up. “Why don’t we finish the hand, sir?” she said.
I looked up to see her gazing intently at me. With a crazy look in her eyes, she didn’t seem quite as cute as she had a few minutes before. There was something a little empty in her eyes, and there were a good number of lines around her eyes and mouth that I had noticed before. She somehow looked older than I had thought she was.
“Well, I’ve already won,” I said.
“There’s still two cards to go, though. Don’t you want to see how you would have done?”
“There’s only one card left.”
“Well, technically two—the last card I have to burn and the river.”
Her smile was a little too big. I knew she was my real opponent, and she hadn’t even been playing in the hand. I wasn’t sure why she felt she needed to mention the burned card—the one she would discard, unplayed, before dealing the final community card.
I had to finish the hand, even though I was the only player. “All right, go ahead and deal.”
She gasped—in delight or despair, I couldn’t tell. She slid the top card off the deck and set it off to the side, then flipped over the next. It was the Six of Spades.
It didn’t affect my hand. I turned my cards over, showing my full house, threes over Aces. “Looks like I still win,” I said.
I reached out and pulled in all the chips. When I glanced back at Kimber, I noticed that the last card that she had burned was gone.
I looked at her face. Her smile was gone, but the wrinkles stayed. The more I focused, I saw she had to be closer to fifty than to twenty, like I’d first thought. She must have really had the make-up caked on earlier in the night.
I flipped her a ten-dollar chip, but she pushed it back to me. “Thank you, sir, but you’ve given me enough already.” She gathered up the remaining cards and threw them in the trash, then walked away from the table as her replacement stepped over.
I was pretty sure that if I counted the cards in the trash, there would only be fifty-one.
In the years since that game, I’ve often wondered what exactly I gave Kimber. Or, more likely, what she took from me. I haven’t touched a deck of cards since that day—haven’t even played a game of computer solitaire.
But when I look into the mirror, I study my white hair, my liver spots, my lines and creases. I remember how she seemed to age before my eyes, and how I’ve aged before my time. I can’t help but wonder, had I aged due to stress, worrying every day of my life about what she took from me? Or did she actually steal years of my life, the good ones when I was young as opposed to the ones at the end?
What card did she burn?