“I check,” said the big man in the red suit.
Three cards lie on the table. First, the Queen of Hearts, its color like the emotion bleeding from my own heart as it longs for my late wife. The other one is the Jack of Spades, just like my son, a fine young man, but a bit entitled, spoiled by all the comforts I provided him. Then, there is the Four of Diamonds. The exact number of times my businesses failed.
I look around the unusually large room, and I get a chilly feeling like someone is watching. Usually, these kinds of invites take place in some dank underground cellar smelling of mold and cigarettes and musty desperation. But this one is different. You can feel the luxury, if not see it.
Here too, most of the lights are dimmed, which makes it difficult to make out the exact size of the room. I can’t be sure if some special guest is observing the game behind a one-sided mirror. I assume there must be cameras too, so I am super careful how I look at the cards in my hand. Quick peeks only.
A pair of butts stare back at me mockingly. Not much I can do with a pair of threes.
Perhaps this first hand is supposed to be some sort of an omen. A hand this bad with no card I could use from the flop — I should probably quit while I am ahead.
I lock my eyes with the big man in red. The thick white beard prevents me from reading any of his emotions. I got nothing. I look at my cards again. Butts!
I check. I immediately begin to wonder if this whole thing is a huge mistake.
When you get an invite to the most exclusive, high-stakes card game in town, you accept. Even if it is right in the middle of the holidays. And you definitely don’t ask stupid questions like “how did you get my name?” or “who told you about me?” It is not the first time that my reputation precedes me. It’s just that I’m not sure which one of my many “reputations” is in question.
The dealer lays down a Three of Hearts on the turn. Could this be it? Maybe I underestimated my luck. I have to play it cool.
I look around the table and try to read each of my opponents. Harsh lights shine down on their faces.
“Fold,” says Ora, and throws her cards to the middle of the green plush surface of the table. As they fly, I take an accidental glance at one of her cards: an ace in a red suit. Is that wise? To throw it away you either must be so close to your opponents that you’re able to instantly read them, or you must be able to time travel.
It is as if she can see all the possible futures through the large, thick-framed eyeglasses that hide her young face. If it wasn’t for the long and disheveled white hair that resembles a palm tree, I would’ve considered her not an appropriate age to sit at this table. Her eyes, though, reveal a lifetime’s worth of experience and with every rapid movement seem to be jumping from the future to the past to the future.
“I raise,” says Sammy the Snowman and his cold, emotionless face doesn’t even move a muscle. Which is pretty ironic given the number of muscles all over his face and his menacing body. One of the lights beaming over the table reflects off his bald head.
“I call,” says Zana as she slowly takes a sip of wine. As her lips part from the glass, my study of her movements lingers like a flowery bouquet with hints of pepper and spice. Enchanted, my instincts take over. I haven’t felt like this since…
Her revealing black dress consumes me and I can feel my animalistic urges boiling. I become uncomfortable. It is not lust, but longing. Memories of my late wife. All the good times and the bad. The passion and the regrets. For a brief moment, I almost forget why I am here. Who is this goddess of love? So confident, stirring, so free. She reminds me that I am just a human being. Just a mortal.
I sense my distraction and I look away. My emotions are a liability. I am a man of flesh and blood. But above that, I am a professional. The game is my priority. And the more emotions come forth, the harder it is for me to bluff.
The man in red calls as well. There is an air of confidence and chill in the way he moves his chips across the table.
“I check,” says Tony Silverspoon.
“You have to say you ‘call,’” says the Snowman, so obvious that he’s trying to contain his anger. “How long have we been playing? You always do this.”
It is clear that Silverspoon is in the game out of pure boredom. His smooth hands don’t even try hiding the cards, which he takes too long to analyze. Yet, his long hair is swept across half his face, making it difficult for me to read him. Is this part of his act?
“Yes, yes, sorry,” says Silverspoon. “I call.” And then turns to me and gives me that look. You know the one. “Your turn.”
People often like to look down on characters like myself. Heck, I would too, if I was born under better circumstances. But perhaps, deep down, all that contempt comes from people understanding at some subconscious level that we are all the same. That we are all gamblers in this game we call life.
And life has made me a great bluffer. I can go into any situation, without any prior experience, and behave with the greatest confidence as if I am an expert in the field. One time I lectured an entire university class on art and culture. Another time I bluffed my way into running a company. This one time, I even consulted for a government minister as a special advisor on issues that I am not at liberty to divulge.
But this is not some special superpower. I know scores of people who are just like me. Not a hint of imposter syndrome. Must be something in the water, or perhaps the beans I love to eat. Or it is just maybe that X-37-E-773.15 mutation in that one protein. It doesn’t really matter.
What sets me apart from the other people is the hand I was dealt in life. A matter of nurture versus nature. In my case, I was shaped by those rough circumstances that I work hard to forget.
And then comes the river. It is the Ace of Spades. A death card. There goes my chance of winning the hand. I get an urge to fold.
I look at the dealer as if to exact my curses on him, and am met with Fatmir’s calm face. I keep meeting him at these kinds of high-stake games. Always dealing. Always fair. Always impartial in dispensing the randomness of the Universe. The smooth movements of his hands are a carefully choreographed dance that always surprises.
Almost invisible, if you don’t pay deliberate attention. You could mistake Fati for some regular dealer wearing a white shirt and a black vest. But what makes his signature look is the choice of a colorful bowtie to break the monotony. He is always unpredictable in two ways: the cards he deals, and the bowtie he chooses. And he is exemplary at both.
Tonight, he wears a bowtie that has reds and whites and greens — you know, the holiday spirit. The colors revolve around a fractal pattern that hypnotizes me. The more I look at it, the more it changes, just like that quantum physics thing. That is as good an omen as any.
I take another quick peek at my cards. With Ora’s red ace folded, my chances have increased. It’s now or never.
“I’m all in.”
And I watch them all fold one after the other. Except for the big man in red. He takes his time stroking his thick white beard.
“I call,” he finally says. And looks at Fati for permission to show the cards.
I reveal my pair of butts. Together with the community cards already on the table, they form a three of a kind.
My hand confronts the big man’s five and two. Ace low, a two, three, four, and a five, his straight wins him the pot.
Suddenly my vision blurs and a loud hiss starts ringing in my ears. I feel the blood vessels in my forehead pulsing and I start seeing flashes to its intensifying beat. They are images, snippets of my troubles. The mortgage. The loan shark. The business. My son. His education. The stakes. The bills. My late wife. My guilt. The expectations. The crushed dreams. The letdown. The troubles. The possible solutions.
As my head spins, I lower it for a moment to get myself together.
“Why, surprise, surprise. Santa wins again,” says Silverspoon. “I can’t take any more of his lucky streak. It just makes things so boring. How about we switch it up a bit?”
“Would our guest be okay with it?” asks Zana, turning to look at me politely.
“I’m afraid that was the last of all I had left,” I say as I begin to slowly rise from my chair.
“This next game takes bets in a different kind of currency,” says Silverspoon. “It’s always much more fun when we bet with things other than money.”
“I’d love to. But it’s not like I have some gold watch on me. And I’ve gambled anything that could be gambled, a long time ago.”
“You still have dreams, don’t you?” asks Ora. “You still have wishes?”
“Those, I have an abundance of.”
“Then we have a game,” says the big man in red. “Fati, would you please do us the honor?”
In my defeated mental haze, and with the prospect of reclaiming my losses, I shrug off my suspicions. I go not only beyond my instincts but also logic, and continue without as much as a simple question. What’s the worst that could happen? We’re playing without money. Might as well have some fun.
Fati starts working on the deck. Shuffles and deals, and it’s just my luck: A seven and a two. The worst hand in poker.
“I check,” says the Snowman.
“I raise with ‘decreased pollution,’” says Silverspoon.
“I see your ‘decreased pollution’ and raise ‘easier breathing during winter,’” says Zana, and adds: “No, scratch that. Just ‘better breathing conditions’ period.”
I barely keep track of the cards. It is all happening so fast. But it seems like it doesn’t matter. It is beyond cards.
“I call,” says the big man in red.
It is my turn, and I stumble and take my time.
“Your turn,” says Silverspoon again.
“A wish, or a hope, or a dream,” explains Ora.
“Take your time,” says Zana. “We’ve been doing this for a while. We forget you humans need some time to catch up.”
“For a while?”
“You know, years, centuries, whatever,” explains Ora. “Perhaps the beginning of time. Who knows. It’s all jumbled in my mind.”
“It has now become a sort of a tradition,” says Zana. “Each year we invite one random mortal to join us. Think of it as a planning committee, a sneak peek into how the next year will turn out.”
“I call,” I finally say.
And then Fati lays down another card. What is it? Does it even matter? It is not that easy to focus when you find out that you are playing with gods and goddesses. And that the outcome of this game, with you, a mortal, is used as a sample for predicting the future of humanity.
“I raise with ‘the marriage of your son,’” says the Snowman.
“I call your ‘marriage of your son’ and raise you ‘visa liberalization,’” says Ora.
Santa flinches. It is the first sign of any emotions I get from him. I got him now. He keeps looking at his cards.
“I see your ‘visa liberalization’ and I raise you ‘a PhD thesis with honors,’” I say. I can now see what appears like a single drop of sweat sliding down his wide and weathered forehead.
And this goes on for a while, as you can imagine. Lots of hopes and dreams and wishes and aspirations. But in the end, my bluffs fail me again. The last card is revealed, and we each show our hands, and that’s it. I got nothing more to lose. No money, and now, no wishes and aspirations left.
I pick up my jacket, and with my head held low, walk towards the door.
“Wait,” says Santa. “One last thing. A parting gift.”
“Yeah? What gift?”
The man in red raises his tiny glass of cherry port and cheers in my direction “Here’s to your good health!”
And that was that. From that day on, I was as healthy as a bull. And the magic, or whatever, kept going for a while.
I often think about that bizarre encounter with the mighty gods and goddesses of the holiday season. That was the one and only time I played with them. And while I am still mad that they cleaned me out of all my money (not that they had any use for it), I kept believing that Fati’s impartial hands would parcel out the randomness of the Universe equally to us all. Every once in a while I’d notice Fati’s bowtie at some game and chuckle a bit on the inside. The high-stake games came and went. I kept winning and kept losing. And I bluffed my way through even more business opportunities.
One time I saw someone who looked like the Snowman. I don’t think he noticed me. He was undergoing a full meltdown in an alleyway behind some bar. He was beating some poor soul. His white gloves were all covered in blood and mud. It was almost spring and the snow was melting fast. His sunburnt orange nose dripped thick snot as he yelled in rage spraying his spit.
The Silverspoon kid became a politician. A very successful one at that. Everyone knows him now. But also no one truly does. I suppose state affairs are exciting enough to keep him from getting bored.
I hear Zana and Ora still run the exclusive holiday game. Still believing in humanity and using the game to predict and protect its future. It’s a new location each time. A new random human player as well. Various mythological characters are invited. Some even show up.
As for the man in red, I’ve never seen him since that night. I hear he moved north, but who knows. They say he was sick of capitalism and consumerism, and wanted to reassess his values, get in touch with nature. I could certainly think of several warmer places he could do that while enjoying a mojito.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.