The Flop

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is a short story about poker, motherhood and overnight celebrity. Titillating enough?

Submitted: July 21, 2008

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Submitted: July 21, 2008

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THE FLOP
 

The Flop. In the poker parlance of No Limit Texas Hold‘em it’s the term for the first three community cards dealt, whereafter players proceed to evaluate the strength of their respective hands and make bets accordingly, but to Reese Richie, it simply described her.

From the next room came a faint cry. It would steadily increase in volume if unattended to, though she had lost perspective on just how loud it could get. They say that mothers are particularly attenuated to their own child’s cry – that the cries of other children can be tolerated, but those of your own are unbearable. The cry is supposed to trigger your ‘maternal instincts’ to placate whatever need your child, your precious, innocent little human, might have. But that self-sacrifice bullshit, she thought, only works if your child is the thing you most care about, and in her case it wasn’t anymore.

She put down the magazine half-heartedly, surveying the cluttered coffee table filled with books, magazines, mugs – the usual stuff that betrayed little about the real disarray in your life. Though he never forced the issue, she knew he expected her to take care of this stuff too, as if she graduated magna cum laude to tidy. 

His expectations might have been what started this whole mess in the first place. She had a promising career as a public accountant, nothing too glamorous, but a job that stimulated her. The pregnancy was unexpected, coming at the worst possible time for them. He’d just agreed to transfer to his law firm’s main office in Atlanta, a move she was comfortable with because she had a former boss who worked at a big accounting firm there. By the time they found a place to live and got settled in she was already six months pregnant. Her old boss advised her not to even interview until after the birth, but afterwards things got too complicated for her to even do that. Logistically, it was easier for her to stay at home than to arrange transportation to childcare every day.

She could sense her career (if not her marriage) was doomed when she began to embrace all things domestic. The household chores, heretofore a fifty-fifty split, drove her into overwhelming guilt. She couldn’t bear to let the kudzu-like trail of laundry snake across their floor until he found time to do it. She was the one that had to deal with the precarious tower of dishes in the sink, the shifting discolorations in the toilet, the ankle-high water in the bathtub. So in addition to the constant needs of her newborn, she sought to address the sorry state of their house. He thanked her at first, pitching in with the occasional washer to dryer transfer and offering promises to help once he “settled in” to a routine at work. But soon enough work became his routine and the thank yous trickled off. And thus, through a series of silent discussions, she became the things she so desperately tried to avoid – stay-at-home mother, housekeeper, failure. 

Which is why, when she stumbled upon No Limit Texas Hold’em at a neighbor’s welcoming party, and cleaned out the table en route to a $200 payday, she enveloped the game with a war-like frenzy. Of course, it didn’t hurt that poker was displayed on practically every television channel, and that all the gambling websites also offer free card play. Needless to say it wasn’t long before she felt ready for prime time, and it took even less for her winnings to accumulate. Her first day with real money she won a $500 guaranteed tournament on a $5 buy-in. Not long after, she was making a modest income. Perhaps it was the influx of late-term pregnancy hormones, but she was on an unending high. She even spent two weeks away from the computer during her daughter’s birth and the post-delivery “what the hell do I do now” period, but lost no steam. 

It was the perfect outlet for her newfound stay-at-home status. The baby, early on at least, actually slept several hours a day, which coupled with the down time of feedings, allowed her adequate table time. And her winnings helped her feel like she was contributing financially, albeit modestly. Yet even though she told him about her winnings, she sensed he never really believed her –

“Great honey – what are you going to do with all the extra money?” he would say, not really looking up from whatever sports story was currently on. That is, until she informed him that she’d qualified for that year’s World Series of Poker. 

“You what?”
“Surely you’ve heard of it.”

“Yeah, but – you qualified for it?” It was the most confused she’d seen him since his ill-fated Sudoku tutorial. 

“I won an online tournament, which qualified me for another tournament, which had a top prize of a seat at the World Series.”

“Are you....Really?

Belief or not, it was true – the ticket to prove it came in the mail a few days later. All she had to do was pay her airfare to get to (where else) Las Vegas and agree to wear her online gambling site’s paraphernalia, which was an overlarge sports jersey and, unfortunately, was a non-negotiable condition of her prize, and she would get to participate in the richest poker tournament in the world – $7.5 million dollars to the winner, with the top 560 finishing in the money. With 5,600 entrants, it was going to be a continual test of psychology, endurance, and most of all, luck. 

But the fact that he was in such disbelief – had so lightly regarded her poker prowess – made her seethe, such that everything about him began to madden her. For instance, he would only eat things that were warm – not hot, he despised things that were hot, as he let her know every time they considered splitting entrees at a Thai restaurant, but warm as in temperature-wise. All leftovers, even the always-better-cold-the-next-day pizza, had to be microwaved, cereal was out of the question, ditto any cold deserts. But the aspect of this quirk that drove her to the edge, the thing she both “tried to get some perspective on” yet that viscerally affected her to the core, was his insistence on warming food never intended to be eaten as such. Potato salad, fruit, all sandwiches – not just those intended for warmth like a melt or panini, but your basic ham on wheat. The day she absolutely lost it though, was when he came home while she was working late and re-heated a gigantic pot of gazpacho soup she’d made the night before to take to a party that weekend. He couldn’t see why she wasn’t the least bit amused.

“How was I to know it’s the only soup served cold?” Her fight or flight instincts dueled inside. Was it worth starting a jihad over gazpacho soup? In the end she settled for “you don’t ever serve anything cold,” but it was unsatisfying, and perhaps why she maintained such hostility towards the incessant warming. She even unplugged the microwave for a while, telling him it was broken, but the bastard, showing patience never seen before or since, simply waited out the conventional oven. 

All this anger and resentment, in retrospect, was made all the more prescient by what she perceived to be the penultimate maddening moment – his reaction when she appeared on ESPN. This twenty-four hour sports cable network, which in its early days featured live broadcasts of fishing and yachting, is now the required channel for men 18-45, and thus, public enemy numero uno for women of the same demographic. It is all one can do on a Saturday afternoon to even get the attention of one of these men, much less actually have a conversation about “what needs to be done” around the house, in the yard etc. And though she herself had before thrown out the statistic about the aforementioned channel and the number of divorces it caused, and in turn been combated with the utterly predictable and easily refutable retort that she herself was no small fan of any number of so-called “women’s channels,” she, for the most part, acquiesced in his weekend ritual, and in return used the time he spent watching football or whatever to actually attempt to form relationships with other women similarly estranged, the end result being though that approximately half the time with these companions was spent dissecting the religious affixation their respective S.O.’s had with this channel and its contents and the other half engaging in somewhat forced rhetoric concerning the various activity chosen, so that by the end of the day she felt even more hostile towards her husband because he both got what he wanted and enjoyed himself while she gave him what she wanted and got nothing in return (because she undoubtedly would never become regular friends with her that day’s companion, though each would spend the next few months promising more regular engagements). All that to say ESPN was always ON.

So during Day 4 of the tournament, when the number of breasts at the tables dropped into single digits, and the ESPN camera crew began to hone in on her as one of the few remaining female players, she got an extra rush of adrenaline thinking of how impressed he would be upon seeing her on his channel. Sure he was there in Las Vegas and aware of her impressive showing, but if he were to see her on TV, should the cameras actually show her performance, well then wouldn’t that be the ultimate thrill? She certainly thought so, and when the cameras focused in so did her attitude. Whereas she had heretofore played up her amateur gosh-aren’t-I-lucky schtick, she suddenly become quite the assassin. Every bet sent a vigorous array of chips splashing onto the felt like a Busby Berkley number. And the bets came from all angles – a gigantic re-re-raise that forced the laydown of Q-Q when all she had was 6-7, a sneaky out-of-position all-in with three players behind her on a flop of K-10-9, all diamonds, and her without one, a check-raise with four high on a flop with two aces. The cameras ate it up. She did an hour sit-down interview after the day’s session ended, and was one of only two women left. Granted, the field was still crowded – 112 players remained – but she was on the cusp of being the last remaining woman. 

She was exhilarated, not having felt this free since playgrounds and recess. The chips were like Halloween candy and she wanted to hit every house in the neighborhood. She knew that soon enough the adventure would end and she’d return to responsibility and a four-month old, but that could wait – right now she was enjoying her fantasy in a town hell-bent on ensuring as much. 

That night she treated him to a five-star dinner with her now guaranteed prize money. He had initially attended many of the playing sessions, but had kept to the hotel room as of late.

“Why?” she wondered.

He shrugged and took a long gulp from a recommended wine pairing. “It’s kind of boring.”

She had to admit this was somewhat true. She herself hated to watch others play cards, and had to force restraint during long spells of cold hands. But come on. This wasn’t heads up at a neighbor’s home game – she was one of the last 112 players in the goddam World Series of Poker! He could at least feign interest. 

The rest of the meal might as well have been airplane food. She didn’t even bother to order dessert. 

Perhaps it was the disappointment of the prior evening, or the general sense of abandonment she felt, but she was knocked out of the tournament within the first hour of Day 5. Amazingly, however, the only other remaining woman went out within the first half hour. Reese Richie was therefore the last remaining woman in that year’s World Series. She was thus assured of ESPN airtime, as well as exposure in the general poker circuit. 

It came quickly and forcefully – major media outlets, all the poker trades, tons of internet sites. Which is why, in retrospect, it was easy to forget what led to her elimination in the first place, and in forgetting, to feel that much more abandoned and betrayed several months later when her performance was featured on his channel.

She’d arranged a viewing party of their friends and family the night the episode in which she was featured was to air. It was hard for her to contain her excitement in the days preceding. Tending to the baby even seemed a joyous experience. She’d never before been recognized this way for anything. Of course she had past academic honors, but those were a dime a dozen, and not nearly as sexy as this. 

She found herself holding court the night of the viewing party. So into the moment was she that she didn’t even notice he wasn’t there until someone else brought it up. She was stunned – where was he? She politely excused herself and reached for her cell phone. No messages. She had to call twice before he answered.

“Where are you?”

“Still at work.”

She paused, waiting for further explanation that wasn’t forthcoming. “Did you forget about....” Her emotions wouldn’t let her finish. 

“No, I just can’t make it tonight. I didn’t want to call and upset you.”

It so worked. Perhaps the tears clued him in because he then offered these compassionate words: “it’ll be on re-runs Reese. I can catch it later.”

However logical, practical or true this was, the fact remained she had a house full of friends gathered that night, and he had, surreptitiously, chosen instead to work, which left her in the unenviable position of either breaking down publicly and alerting everyone to what a jerk he was, thus ruining the enjoyment of all, or keeping it to herself – as her grandmother would say “put on a good face” – and actually explaining away his reprehensible behavior. 

Before she could decide a friend burst through the bedroom door – “It’s on!” How exciting was her brief portrayal as a poker professional that she forgot there was anything to be upset about. She was featured for two minutes at the most, but the montage of sound bites and chips raked enthralled. The game was now a part of her, though only later would she realize that it wasn’t so much the game as it was the high of winning, and that mistaking the one for the other carried heavy penalties. 

The fame she gained, however brief, was enough to ruin her. Her inbox became cluttered with questions from bloggers worldwide. And though most, of course, wanted her to send a pic, the attention enthralled nonetheless. Some of the more flattering messages she read aloud to him in an effort to provoke perhaps a hint of jealousy (to no avail). Overnight she had gone from talking to no one save the baby to having her name on every poker blog – how could it not intoxicate?

But soon the inbox emptied and diapers once again began spiraling through her mind.She needed something to fill that tortuous void of her vanished notoriety, so she kept playing. And thus, as utterly predictable as it might have been to a detached observer, she overvalued her moderate talent, and in ignoring her fortuity, proceeded on a course with disastrous consequences.

They divided her winnings judiciously: $20,000 to help pay off their student loans, $15,000 into mutual funds, $10,000 to start a college fund for the baby, $2,500 on an HDTV (supposedly a mutual decision), and the rest, roughly $17,000, for her to spend as she saw fit. For all the coolness of his response to her televised performance, he was more than happy to take part in the dispersion of the assets. And she was more than a little surprised that he’d allotted her as much as he did. Even though she knew she “earned it,” she was fully prepared to have to state her case for why she should be allowed a portion to do with as she saw fit. As it turned out, the intoxication of the windfall did a number on her husband too. At the most she thought they’d “agree” on setting aside $10,000 for her. When the calculations yielded $17,000, she probably did not conceal her bewilderment. 

In her mind she couldn’t help thinking she’d pulled one over on him. But then that’s probably reading too far down her train of thought. No, at the moment of the divvying, she was sure she did not contemplate spending even one dollar on poker, though, since she could not recall anything that she had actively thought of spending it on, by default she surmised poker must have figured prominently somewhere in her sub, if not active, conscious. In any event, it did not take too long before she began plotting her next game.  

She planned on taking it slowly at first, not wanting to make a rookie mistake in thinking she was ready for big stakes. Still, she knew she could not go back to the nickel and dime tables she’d started on. Any limit below ten dollars was most definitely out of the question, but she didn’t want to start much higher. The $10/$20 structure seemed optimal. With a buy-in of $2,000, she had 100 times the big blind – enough, so she thought, that she would not go broke any time soon. Since she’d heard about this 100 times the big blind theory from multiple poker sources, she felt fairly confident that, with her limited but successful history, she’d certainly be able to hold her own. 

Her initial $2,000 buy-in lasted about eight minutes. She accidentally signed on for a No-Limit table, and before she’d thought to exit, found herself staring at hole cards of A?K?. This was certainly no hand to back down on. She raised the big blind up to $100. Everyone backed out but the button, who simply called. The flop seemed relatively harmless: 3? 8? J?. However, in an abundance of caution, she merely checked. Her opponent did the same. The next card, 2? also seemed a sure miss, so she decided to fire, thinking that a nice pot-sized bet would take down the hand and give her some good initial mo-jo at the table. She moved her cursor to indicate a pot-sized bet of $215. After a delay of only about a second and a half, her bet was met with a re-raise to $500. 

At this point, several thoughts ran through her head, though none, in retrospect, was correct given the situation. Her initial instinct was that this was a clear steal – she encountered this type of play online all the time, where no one ever showed anyone respect. Indeed, she’d baited many an anonymous foe into re-raising in just these situations, getting them to think she was bluffing, when in actuality she’d flopped a set. It was one of the easiest ways to cash in online. One problem with this initial thought, that again she’d only think of in retrospect, was that here she had not flopped a set, but was instead herself showing no respect in thinking that surely her opponent was bluffing. Her other thought was that her opponent was simply on a draw. With two clubs on the flop, and two different sets of cards that could lead to a straight, she felt that her opponent might have the potential for something, even though currently he (or she, though most likely he (though that’s probably what he (or she) thought too)) had nothing. Given that her two thoughts were that this was a steal, albeit perhaps with the chance of making something on the river, she decided that the only way to ensure that she was not indeed beaten on the river was to make a strong over bet so that her opponent would be forced to lay down the bluff. 

So, without hesitation, she moved her cursor to register an “all-in” bet. As soon as she did, the first warning sign popped into her head. Her opponent, whose chip count she had yet to notice, clearly had her covered (meaning he had more chips than her, and that if she’d made the wrong read, which she had, she would soon be out $2,000). The other warning signs she would realize only later, after she was called and the river came down 3?, and her opponent turned over A?2? to win with a pair of twos. Sure, it may have been a dumb all-in call with only twos, but her opponent’s dumb call was right on whereas hers was dead wrong. The same psychology she’d projected onto her opponent was exactly what he’d projected onto her – brash, a bully, full of shit. And her opponent was right. One pair is all that’s needed to beat someone who’s full of shit. Unfortunately for Reese, she did not dwell long enough on the import of this expensive eight-minute lesson. 

During mandatory premarital counseling, their hired officiant told them that marriages can only survive with complete openness. It can even be openness about something completely antithetical to a healthy marriage, such as an affair, but as long as both parties are in the know, a stasis can be maintained. Without equal knowledge, however, a hidden secret, undisclosed over time, can drive an immovable wedge into even the healthiest of matrimonies. 

Yet Reese Richie was unable to release herself from the deleterious hold the game had over her. The $17,000 and change of the winnings allotted to her was gone in one week’s time – it would have been sooner had the baby not come down with an illness that required a few days of endless monitoring (she still managed to sneak in a few hands here and there, no doubt accounting for a few hundred dollars).The rapidity of the loss, however, did not have the sobering effect one might have hoped for; rather, it infused her with a primitive urgency, an unholy calling to avenge her tragic descent. 

The task with which she found herself confronted was how to fund her gambling without her husband knowing. Therein is where that great wonder the internet, in all its innovative glory, can so easily betray the officiant’s marital maxim: for despite its inculcation into every fiber of society, it will always be a damn good way to hide something from any unsuspecting soul. The source of her replenished cash flow was a series of newly issued credit cards – the internet made approval for these cards instantaneous, and after a few short days the mail would bring a new card with (thanks to her husband’s law firm salary) a sizeable credit limit. Understandably, this made attending to the mail the sine qua none task of the day. Not that he ever would, given his derogation of any remotely domestic responsibility, but if he ever happened to check the mail, there would be no way the daily double-digit credit correspondence would go unnoticed. In order to continue with the façade of normalcy, mail filtering became a higher priority than breast-feeding. 

There came a point, however, where there was simply no way, even with a new ten-thousand dollar line of credit, that she would be able to win back her indebtedness simply by playing no-limit cash games. It had been less than a year since she’d been in the spotlight as the last remaining woman at the World Series of Poker, and she’d already lost more than she’d won. Honestly, she could not remember how it had gotten so bad. The innocence and joy of hands past seemed a distant memory. Every time she logged on now it was with a cold sense of duty. She remembered a psychology experiment she participated in as an undergrad. She was shown various televised images over the course of an hour to monitor the impulsive initial reaction of her brain to each. As it was ultimately explained to her, at first, the brain is highly stimulated by the presence of each new image. By the end of the hour, however, the brain virtually ceases to respond to any image. In a sense, the brain becomes deadened by the overexposure. That is how she now felt with each new series of cards displayed in front of her. Even A-A failed to garner much more than a blink. 

She knew what she had to do. The World Series of Poker started in just over month. She knew she would never be able to talk him into letting her simply pay the $10,000 entry fee – indeed, that was sure to spur a conversation about her allotment of the past prize money. She would have to earn a spot in the World Series through one of the qualifying tournaments, just as she did the year before. The entry fee for a qualifier was significantly less. She would only have to put up $1,000 dollars, but she would have to place in the top two to win a spot at the World Series. It was not unreasonable to think she could pull this off – witness last year, when not only did she win a qualifier to earn a spot in the World Series, but she won a fifty dollar pre-qualifier before that to get into the qualifier. This time around she was simply cutting out the first step. A thousand dollars was a lot of money, but her chances of getting through the four-hundred or so players in one qualifying tournament was better than having to do well in two tournaments.

At once she began scheming. He had been chattering on recently about a going away party for a college friend who was moving away at the end of the month. She thought little about it to this point because in the years they’d been together this friend had (a) lived only 30 miles away and (b) never gotten together with them, so she hardly saw what difference it made where he lived. But if this guy held some sort of sentimental place in her husband’s heart, perhaps she could use it to her advantage. Ergo, this clever exchange:

“Hey, which friend of yours is moving away?”

“What?” It seemed to generally catch him off guard when she inquired into his life. She wondered if this was because she rarely did so, or because he rarely listened to her. Or, perhaps, the two weren’t mutually exclusive.

“Don’t you have a college friend that’s moving to Massachussetts or something?”

“Oh, yeah. Jeff – but it’s Rhode Island.” Now she was getting somewhere. Important now not to ask or suggest anything.

“Is there a going away party or anything?”

“I think so.”

“I just wondered whether you were planning to go.”

The wheels, however slowly, turning. “Yeah. I probably should.”

“When’s the party?”

“Pretty sure he told me it was the end of the month.”

And now to close the deal before the anxiety of decision-making forces him to shut down. “I think you should go – you haven’t seen him in forever.” And for good measure: “I was thinking of taking the baby to mom’s anyway.”

“Okay – cool.”

Fine, except that she wasn’t planning to take the baby to her mother’s. She had to do something with it though. Ex post facto, she blamed her losing streak on the baby.She could never fully concentrate on her play, even if the baby was asleep, for fear that at any second the cries of her infant might call her to duty. Big hands were thus filled with even greater tension than usual. She could not take the baby to her mother’s because she needed to be absolutely assured of peace and quiet. Plus, even if she left the baby with her mom and went elsewhere, she faced the problem of her mom and her husband having conflicting stories as to her whereabouts. Not to mention the fact that should she leave her mother’s, her cell phone would ring ad nauseum with commentary regarding the baby’s every movement, as if there was something in those few hours that she was gone that she had somehow never witnessed every other moment of her life. No, she needed a place of solitude for herself, and a confidant with whom to leave the baby.

Fortunately, the first babysitter and hotel she tried were free for the evening. She made sure the babysitter knew that she would not be home until late, and that both she and her husband would be out of reach for the evening. In the case of an absolute emergency, read: the baby has turned blue, is not breathing, cannot be resuscitated through standard CPR nor by emergency personnel, and the hospital staff will not allow the baby’s sitter to make a decision regarding life support – call the baby’s grandmother. This sort of instruction would probably alarm most sitters, but she was sure that Jesse, her go-to girl, was stoned 99% of the time and had therefore burned out any shock or surprise synapse (which is also why, however, she did somewhat worry about her baby turning blue in Jesse’s ward).

And so everything was set. She even had room for the $1,000 entry fee on one of her un-maxed credit cards. To keep it this way, she decided not to play in the days preceding the tournament. Best to get a fresh start, she thought. 

The first few days without poker were excruciating. Every spare moment she contemplated firing up the laptop. She made bargains with herself – “five minutes and then I’ll quit.”But she knew she wouldn’t, and the enormity of her addiction actually kept her at bay – if only, though, because of the big hit that lay waiting. After the initial withdrawal period, however, she was able to transfer her card-playing anxiety into more positive outlets – vacuuming, laundry, cooking: these things got done in an abundance never before seen by her husband. She began to even enjoy child-rearing. She scheduled a different play-date each day, even somewhat enjoying the vapid conversations with the other moms. 

In the back of her mind, however, reality just couldn’t play nice. She had gotten them deep in debt. He would find out soon enough and probably get so furious that he would either divorce her, or fixate upon it such that she wished for divorce. Either way, without a windfall they would never climb out of debt. It would take a similar miracle to resuscitate their credit scores. But for the most part, in the week leading up to the World Series qualifier, she lived in a sobering state of normalcy. And even though she’d seen shows about addiction on TV and how they ruin people’s lives, she’d also seen enough Oprah to know that sometimes those stories can have happy endings, and please God if she were to win this tournament and make it back to the World Series and finish in at least as good a position as she had previously, then she would be the first to confess her sins to the world – on Oprah even – about the dangers of gambling, the internet, the combination of both, and let her life be a cautionary tale to all, and that even though she was able to climb out from the depths she was extremely lucky, definitely the exception rather than the rule, and that of course she thinks about gambling still, but that she knows what a slippery slope that is, that she can never go back down that road, because look what it almost did to her family, and gosh how he has such a loving husband to have stood with her through all this, that she doesn’t know if she could have done the same and he truly is an exceptional man, and please if she can just convince one person to stop right now before it’s too late. She played all this out so clearly she felt she was almost destined to win. 

 

Checking into the hotel couldn’t have been smoother – a good sign she thought (against her better instincts she couldn’t help from reading something into everything). Room 217 – just as she’d requested, the month and day of her birth. 

The first thing she did inside was draw the shades – to eliminate glare, not because she was worried about anyone spying on her. The desk was smallish but adequate. She ran the laptop power cord from the wall outlet over the desk’s back edge. Even though the room had a pretty sizable TV, she didn’t bother locating the remote. Distractions had to be at a minimum. The cozy bed, too, would go undisturbed until her work was through.

It only took a few minutes to start the computer and get connected to the hotel’s wireless network. The per night internet fee was a somewhat ridiculous $19.99, but after clicking a button to charge it to the room, it was all but forgotten. Besides, who had time to worry about twenty bucks when the balance was already so high. She still had almost an hour before the tournament was to start. It was dead time she hadn’t planned for. She racked her brain for any sort of relaxation technique that might help. A yoga class came to mind. She remembered sitting cross-legged, hands on her knees, with palms facing up and arms straight. The teacher then had them chant a very guttural noise – she remembered it sounded like the word ‘hard’ but with only a subtle hint of the ‘d.’ She attempted to recreate this scenario, even though she felt inauthentic not even knowing the correct pronunciation of her mantra. 

After only a few repetitions, thoughts of all that had led her to this point began parachuting in. There was her baby, completely innocent and oblivious to her mother’s addiction, yet strangely the cause of it, for it was in the lonely daytime hours that she first discovered the game; her husband, so nonplussed by her World Series performance that it began to strip all the fun out of the game, ultimately leading her to this last desperate attempt; herself, completely capable, smart, excelled at everything she did until recently when it all fell apart – why these thoughts now? She shook her head free of the images. Reality had to be staved off until afterward. 

A phone rang in the room next door. Thin walls – not a good sign. She needed something else to sway karma back in her favor. She reached for her purse on the bedside table. No missed calls on her cell phone. Now the goods outweighed the bads. 

The only call she was remotely worried about was from the sitter. There was no way he would call having been given the okay to party with his friends. The computer’s clock said it was 7:36. He was no doubt nearing drunkenness. Before he left she ensured that he would pose no problems.

“What time does the party start?”
“Two, I think.” 

“So it’s all day then.”

“Yeah, I thought you knew that?”
She did, but this was just for emphasis. “Oh.”

“I can come back earlier if you want – I just thought you were going to be at your mom’s.”

“It’s fine – I changed my mind about mom’s, but you go ahead. I just don’t want you to be driving if you’ve had a lot to drink.” And lest he think she was nixing any fun, “you think he has room for you to stay over?”

Of course he did. This was, after all, a reunion of college buddies. Even though everyone has long since moved on with their lives, upon reconvening the antics of yesteryear must again be commenced. All that to say if he were to actually call someone, it would probably be an ex-girlfriend and not his stay-at-home wife. Except, she was hardly at home even when she technically was there.

The remaining minutes until the tournament began were spent in much the same way as her life since the last tournament – in her head, distant and miserable. She did not even feel a sense of relief once the first hand was dealt. It was simply wrote at this point. 

Fortunately, she did not recognize any of the players at her initial table, and a few minutes play confirmed why this was beneficial – all appeared to be pretty standard. Big cards big raise, back downs on all bluffs. She did quite well, and after twenty minutes had tripled her stack. From there it was cruise control. If tournament play had taught her anything, it was not to force the issue once ahead. So many times she’d interpreted moderate success as a mandate, only to find herself quickly humbled. Thus, she played almost no hands the rest of the hour until the first break.

As was her custom at breaks, she stepped away from the monitor and sought the bathroom. So far so good, she thought. She was sticking to the game plan – cautious play, but pouncing on weakness. This was a marathon, not a sprint. It would be another four hours before the final table. 

She gently rubbed her temples with her fingertips. Before her in the bathroom mirror stood a woman she barely recognized, but it somehow seemed okay. She was taking the step she had to take to destroy the ne’er do well that faced her. It would make a great story when it was over. 

The second hour was a steady diet of wins and losses. As soon as she took a hand she took a hit. Fortunately, she scored a big win on the next to last hand before the break, and in order to ensure her status, folded pocket 8’s in the big blind to a raise from the button. Perhaps too cautious, but she was in survival mode.

After two hours, the field had been cut down to 129 players. The three players at the top had enormous chip leads, but she was in fine position at number 39. After the third hour, only one of the huge stacks at the top was even left in the tournament. She was fortunate to catch one of the eliminated leaders on his free-fall, taking about ten-thousand from him. His chat message afterward did not bear repeating. 

She thus found herself in the bathroom after the third hour having cracked the top ten. Now she was feeling the adrenaline that had long since dissipated. Her mouth was completely dry, and rubbing her hands assertively against her jeans, she couldn’t help but wonder if somehow all its moisture had drained to her palms. She paced. Her eyebrows began to twitter reflexively – a nervous habit that, according to her girlfriends, led to an inordinate amount of male advances. She grabbed at her wristwatch – had she miscalculated the length of the break? A frantic rush to her laptop in false alarm. There are still two minutes left. 

But she is stopped in her path back to the bathroom by a sound that numbs her – the low hum of her vibrating cell phone. She must have forgotten to turn it off. It reverberated defeaningly in her ear even though it was buried deep within her purse. Should she scramble for it – wait to see if a message was left? It could just be her mother, even though she told her ad nauseum not to call tonight. She was frozen. By the time the humming ceased there was less than a minute left in the break. She held her breath – perhaps there would be no message. If there was no message she wouldn’t have to check it. It could be a wrong number. She got those occasionally. Thirty seconds now. She considered moving, but decided against it. If she continued holding her breath maybe.... The laptop screen turned red indicating less than ten seconds left in the break. As soon as she sat back down she heard it – the two-tone message indicator that so often annoyed, but now haunted. Of all possible signs, this had to be the worst. Or so she thought.

Before she turned to reach for her purse she glanced at the screen. There, before her eyes, was the high pocket pair that had thusfar eluded her: K-K. The second best starting hand in Hold ‘em. To make matters worse she in the best playing position – on the button. But she absolutely had to at least check the missed number. She sprang from her seat and grabbed the purse. By the time she made it back it was her turn to act. Two people had called the big blind in front of her. A nice three times raise should do the trick. She fished one hand down in the bag while moving the cursor with the other to register the bet. 

The blinds folded, but she was called by the two others. The flop came down 5-6-7 rainbow as she pulled out her phone. Damn, she thought, as the first player – who had her covered – threw out a pot-sized bet; looking down at her phone similarly registered no good news – it was the sitter calling from her home number. The middle player folded to her. The scenario on the screen posed enough of a headache; she could have done without the added pressure. 

The bet certainly seemed odd, even amidst her distraction. She couldn’t lay her hand down though – not with such a high over pair. She placed him on either top pair or a draw – most likely a draw. Under normal circumstances she would probably raise his bet just to see where she stood. If he was on a draw, he wouldn’t be getting very good odds to continue. If he pushed back at her, she’d know he had the nuts and fold. She was too distracted, though, and in struggling to get the tiny phone to her ear she simply called the bet. 

She waited not too patiently for her voice mail to pick up. The turn card was a Jª - certainly no help to the other player. The automated voice was telling her she had one new message, which of course she already knew. The other player had yet to make a bet. She continued waiting for the sound of the sitter’s voice. Another pot-sized bet was thrown out – to call would be committing a third of her chips. The message began. All life functions again ceased: it was not the sitter’s voice but her husband’s. He was calling her from home. 

She was no longer staring at anything meaningful on the screen. They were images that a few moments ago had been symbolic but that now failed to register. Various rectangles with numbers and pictures, a circular shape with dots orbiting it. Her finger rested on something tangible. She pressed down. The machine made a sound as if happy. 

She first noticed it two days ago. Well, that’s not entirely true. Isn’t there a difference between noticing something and recognizing that what you’re noticing is something? Here’s what she saw: a small red bump on the back of the baby’s knee. And she normally wouldn’t have even seen it tucked away amongst the folds of soft, fatty skin. She only saw it because she felt it while changing a diaper. What made her think of all this now? If it wasn’t a big deal then – and it wasn’t – then why, upon hearing her husband’s voice, did she immediately think of the bump? It’s true that she didn’t notice the bump after that. True also, though, that she chose not to look at it again. 

“Reese, hey it’s me.” His voice was very coldly sober. “Where the fuck are you?” It didn’t strike her as accusatory, rather, worried.

The situation must be dire. The sitter was told to call the baby’s grandmother per the very explicit instructions. A phone call to him wouldn’t have been necessary, unless. She recognized that most parents would have monitored the bump. By parents, of course, she meant mothers, because how many dads are at home every day changing twenty diapers? And isn’t that the reason she’s even in this predicament?It’s one bump on a baby who has changes every day – a new tooth, oddly colored shit, rashes. And she’s expected to keep up with it all – to make the key decisions about whether this creature, who she’d never seen until last year and for whose care she was not required to take any courses, is going to be okay given this or that abnormality, or whether it is going to die. And perhaps that is not a task so singularly shouldered. So, no, she did not monitor the bump. And consciously, her choice not to do so had nothing to do with the qualifying tournament that was to take place in two days, and the fear that a sick baby would be impossible to ditch; but somewhere, in the recesses of a soul that longs for an identity apart from that which was thrust upon it, perhaps.

“We’re at the hospital. The baby’s got a fever off the charts.”

More sounds emanated from the desk. She was able to make out a rectangle with the number two. Next to it was a shape – a clover? For good luck? The negative signs had been piling up, perhaps it was time for a change. Something on the screen flashed at her so she pressed a button. In another moment the screen with the rectangles and dots disappeared. She couldn’t tell what kind of sign it was.

Her husband didn’t find her until the next morning. The concierge was nice enough to personally let him in. She sat statuesque, finger poised on the keyboard, eyes straight forward staring blankly at the screen, not registering the cards that kept popping up. Her pocketbook was in her lap, but her wallet lay open beside the computer with several credit cards strewn about. He’d always had his suspicions, of course.

It would be several months before the doctors could get her to speak; longer still before she could bring herself to hold her daughter, though the girl seemed to harbor no lasting effects from the spider bite – physically or emotionally. One day Reese would have to explain to her what happened. But for now, she reveled in the girl’s warmth. It took months of therapy, and the guarantee of many more to come, but the cards now shuffled only through her mind, and infrequently at that. It was a deal she was happy to take.


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