Let there be no more delays! We continue with:
Chapter 1 (Jeanette)
“You’re what?” my boyfriend Larry asked me after I finally made myself track him down.
I glared. “You heard me. Look, I’m not trying to trap you or anything. Just tell me what you want to do and we’ll go from there.” We were standing just outside the front door of the bowling alley where he worked, but the stench of its mildewed carpets had followed us.
I nodded sympathetically, though I was pretty sure he wasn’t thinking of the mildew. But he didn’t seem to be looking at me anyway.
One little blue cross on a test strip. One little baby on the way, one new life in the world. Out of billions, I kept telling myself, this couldn’t count as a crisis.
“Jesus, Jen,” he repeated, throwing in a nickname I hated. “I didn’t see this coming. Uh, look…” he studied his shoes “…is it the money you need?”
I’d loaned him three hundred dollars, and—probably as a direct result—he’d been dodging my calls for a week. I’d taken the pregnancy test three days ago, but I’d waited to tell him in person.
So, now I’d done that. The nature of our future relationship was becoming clear. I tried to control my voice and my face. “All right, Larry. Yes, the money would help.”
He nodded. “I get paid tomorrow morning. I’ll cash the check and bring the money to your apartment.”
I nodded, turned, and walked away. My eyes and throat weren’t happy—I decided it was the mildew, and took deep breaths as I made my way to a bus stop.
I really wanted to get back home, and take a bath. And stay away from people for a little while.
* * *
But the next day, by six PM, Larry hadn’t shown up. And four days of moping, I suddenly decided, were about my limit. I was all done with sitting around my apartment feeling sorry for myself.
Not that things were completely out of control. I’d been cutting classes at UT, but my friends had brought me notes from Physics and Calculus, so I wasn’t too far behind in the important stuff.
But the money was more of an immediate problem, and I had to do something about it. Sure, Dad was paying for college—I was a Physics major, planning to go into Astronomy even though he wanted me to head for medical school, following his example, after I graduated—but I was actually pretty close to broke. Because I’d stupidly loaned Larry that three hundred dollars.
Anyway, I needed cash for rent…and today would be good. I doubted Dad’s response, when I finally confessed my situation, would be to meekly give me more money. He’d be more likely to show up on my doorstep, all ready to save me. Which would include taking me home with him, I was sure.
So I tied my hair behind my neck—I hate my hair; it’s sort of a blonde afro even on a good day—and grabbed some jeans and a sweatshirt. Time to confront Larry. Again.
He wasn’t working tonight, and he wasn’t answering his phone. But I knew he had Caller ID. So I’d check his apartment first, then think about calling his friends and letting them know he had my rent money. If I needed to.
* * *
I found a seedy-looking guy smoking on the porch when I got there—mid-thirties maybe, long greasy black hair, jeans wrinkled from living in them, and a potbelly poking out from beneath a dingy gray T-shirt. He tried to pull the shirt down when I got close, and his eyes lit when he saw I was headed for the door he was leaning against.
“Here for the game?” he asked.
What game? “Here for Larry. I need to talk to him.”
“Yes.” Definitely. Please, I thought, Larry, be here. Don’t be an asshole tonight.
The guy shrugged and opened the door for me.
“I’m Matt,” he mumbled as I edged around him. His breath stank of the cigarette and cheap beer. Well, college.
“Jeanette. Pleased to meet you.”
The place? A wreck. Larry had two roommates, but they’d been in Cancun for a couple of weeks. If he didn’t clean it up, they were going to be royally pissed.
Voices. Loud, male, obnoxious. Not a surprise at this point. I picked my way through the entry hall—a waste of space; I’d never liked Larry’s apartment—and peeked around a corner into the living room.
Six guys, ranging from Larry at 20 to a guy who looked vaguely Indian—like from India—and maybe in his mid-sixties. Sitting around an eight-sided table I’d never seen in there. But I could see what it was for.
“Larry,” I said as calmly as I could. “I need to talk to you.”
He started guiltily at my voice, then glanced down at the pile of poker chips and money in front of him and gave a nervous smile. “Hey, hon! Didn’t I tell you I was busy tonight?”
I think everybody else at the table winced. “That’s fine, Larry. I’m glad you’re having a good time. But can you step outside with me for a couple of minutes?”
* * *
“So, do you have the money?” I asked when we were alone.
“Sure,” he said, sounding wounded. “I told you I would.”
I frowned at him, but decided to let that pass. “So give it to me, Larry, and I can get out of here.”
I turned to go back inside and he spoke again. “But y’know, Jen, I can’t take it off the table yet.”
I stopped, staring away from him. “Why not?”
“It’s the rules. I can’t take money from the table until I quit.”
How had I ever wanted to spend any time with this guy? Suddenly I realized I was relieved that he hadn’t shown any sign of interest in the baby.
“Whose money is it, Larry?”
“Look. I’ll pay you back when the game’s over.” He brightened. “I’ll bring it over later. Uh, maybe tomorrow if the game goes all night. I mean, I can’t quit, I’m the host.”
* * *
Two hours later—and that was an eternity for me as I leaned on the wall and tried not to meet anyone’s eye, but I wasn’t going to trust Larry to pay me back once I left the apartment—Larry lost all the money he had in front of him.
I just nodded and straightened up. No point making a scene; I was done.
But then, sweating heavily, he got more chips out of a box and put them in front of himself. Nobody said anything, so I went back to the wall.
Three hands later Larry and this guy who looked like an Ivy League recruiting poster started raising each other, shoving chips into the pot. I leaned forward, then caught myself and settled back. Larry’s eye had been twitching the way it does when he gets nervous—but it wasn’t now. Was he going to win enough to pay me after all?
“I’m all in,” Larry announced in a voice so quavery I thought it should inspire anyone who was paying attention to fold. I’m not good with people, but it was obvious.
The other guy looked at him for a while, then glanced over at me and smiled in apparent sympathy. He began counting chips to call.
The hell with it, I decided. Larry was a jerk, and this guy had smiled at me. “Fold,” I told him.
He stopped and stared at me. “Are you serious?”
Larry slammed the table with his right hand. But he kept his left hand on his cards. “Shut up, Jen, damn it!”
Yeah, like that was going to happen. “See what I mean?” I said. “He knows he’s going to win if you call.”
Mr. Ivy League turned up his hand—the jack and ten of spades. “You sure? Look, the king and queen are on the board—the only way he can win is with an ace-high flush.”
I shrugged. I barely knew what a flush was. “Your decision.”
He smiled at me again, so I added: “But if you fold and I’m right you have to take me somewhere for coffee.”
Larry was trying to control himself, but it looked like his blood pressure might actually cause his eyes to pop out.
“Yeah?” said Mr. Ivy League, barely glancing at Larry. “Deal.”
And he threw his cards away.
I nodded in approval. “See you outside, jack-high.”
Larry jumped up and screamed at me, but I went out the door instead of listening. Screw him.
* * *
By the time I got outside I was nauseated and shaky, so I sat down on the steps and leaned against the rail, hoping Mr. Ivy League would just stay inside.
But he followed me out. “You okay?” he asked as he closed the door.
“No. I’m pregnant.”
Oh my god. What was I saying? And what was the poor guy supposed to say to me now?
He was still behind me, so at least he couldn’t see my face. I swatted a tear and stood. “Sorry. This isn’t your problem. I just…need to go home.”
“Hey. Want a ride? With your coffee, I mean.”
“A ride. Coffee. Conversation. That idiot Larry’s the father?”
I turned to look at him. “Yeah.” Was he going to play Mr. Sensitive for a while and hit on me now? I guessed I’d shown him exactly how high my standards were, hadn’t I?
He smiled again. “You’d make a hell of a poker player. How’d you let that guy play you?”
I gaped. It was the perfect question. “I…don’t know.”
“Yeah. Well, you’ve got his number now, don’t you. You know you saved me five hundred bucks?”
“Yup. I appreciate it. And I want to know how you knew. So will you do me another favor and let me pick your brain over coffee?”
Put that way…“What’s your damn name, anyway? I can’t keep calling you jack-high.”
“Call me Jack, then. My car’s over there.”
* * *
Jack—if that was his name—was a class act all the way. He took me to Denny’s.
“Nice place,” I said as we sat in a booth.
“Hey, free refills on the coffee.” A waitress came by and filled our cups as he spoke. “And great service, too.” She smiled at him and nodded to me.
“Actually,” Jack went on after she left, “this is sort of my office. I come here four or five times a week, at least.”
I looked around. “Here? Why?”
He shrugged. “They know me, and they don’t care if I spend three hours reading a book with nothing but a cup of coffee. ’Course, I tip a lot. Nothing’s free.”
I studied him. Red hair, freckles, upturned nose, a funny dimple in his chin. “Okay, you’ve officially piqued my interest. You can just quit messing with me now. How is this your office? What do you do for a living? Are you in school? And, mostly, is your name really Jack?”
“It used to be John. John Faa. But when you called me Jack I liked it.”
“Well, I did. I’m going to use it. Look.” He fidgeted with his spoon. “I don’t usually tell people what I do, but…I can’t lie to you after what you did and what you told me. So: I play poker for a living. It’s not much like the movies—but the truth is, most of the people I play with aren’t the kind I’d want to see away from a poker table. So, other than the games, I’m alone a lot.”
“No girlfriend?” Subtle. That’s me. On the other hand, he’d left that wide open. Maybe I was supposed to ask.
“Nope.” He kind of squirmed in his seat. “There’s a problem with girls, for me—they generally either want to gamble with my money or to ‘cure’ me of all the gambling.”
“But you win. Right?”
“Yeah, mostly. Doesn’t matter to a lot of people, or they don’t believe it. My mom says I’ll grow out of all this, and that’s about as good as it gets.”
Sounded kind of awful. “Will you? Grow out of it?”
“Dunno. Right now it’s hard to convince anyone to pay me much for working—I’ve got no experience and no degree—so poker is what I do. Someday I think I might want to run a bookstore or something, but as things are I only work once or twice a week. It’s not a bad life.”
“Except that you don’t tell people what you do. And you’re lonely.”
I wasn’t sure what to think of this guy. Was he just putting me on? “You mentioned no degree. Are you in school?” I waved at the waitress.
“Uh, no. That didn’t work out too well for me.”
“How come? You seem bright enough.”
“Gee, thanks.” He looked at his watch. “Are you ordering something?”
I blinked. “Wow. Hit a nerve there?” I put my hand on his arm. “I didn’t mean anything by it—I’m just trying to figure you out. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
Well, that worked. Of course it always works with guys. He relaxed and shrugged sheepishly. “I guess I’m a little sensitive on the subject, yeah.”
“So tell me next time.”
“Sure. You’re lonely. I like you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not after a love interest right now—and I’m not looking for a father for the kid either.” He looked down at the table. Maybe I was laying it on a bit thick. “I mean, I like talking to you so I hope we can do this again.”
He grinned at me. “Me too. Does that mean we’re done? Because if we are, I have an idea.”
“My mom tells me all guys have ideas.”
“Besides that. You were at the game because that idiot Larry owes you three hundred, right?” He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out more cash than I’d ever seen, then put three bills in front of me. “So here’s your three hundred.”
God, that’d get me through the next month. But…“Dude. You don’t owe me—”
“Maybe I do! You just saved me five. But that’s not the point. If you go back in with me, I’ll tell Larry I gave you the three, you back me up, and he’ll give me the money in chips.”
“Why would he do that? And what about my ride home?”
“He’ll do it because he’s the big loser at that table, and from watching him I don’t think he has the money to cover what he’s lost. So if I make a big enough fuss he has to do it my way or risk the game breaking up.”
“And my ride?”
He looked down at the table again. “Yeah. I forgot about that. Unless you want to borrow my car?”
“You’re kidding. Borrow your car? I just met you.”
“Yeah, but who cares about that? I can get a ride from Andrew to your place—it’ll only be an hour or so, ’cause we’ll want to cash out while we still can, and you can just leave my keys on a tire or something.”
“I got lost somewhere, Jack-high. Who’s Andrew?”
“The older guy, with dark skin? He’s…my mentor, I guess.”
“He looked sort of mad, earlier. When you said you’d come with me.”
“Yeah…Andrew has this thing about focus, you know? He says, if you’re going to play poker, you play to win. When I left he figured the game was still good. So I should have stayed put—in his mind, anyway.”
“But I just saved you five hundred dollars!”
He laughed. “Sure. But you’re a girl, and Andrew doesn’t think they count. Also, that was already a done deal. There was no advantage to going with you afterward.” He tapped his head. “The guy’s a little nuts, but he’s helped me a lot.”
“And he’s giving you a ride to my place?”
Jack—fine, I would call him Jack—spread his hands. “Come on. It’s not like you have to invite him in.”
We went back to the game, and I helped Jack collect from Larry. It worked just the way he’d said it would.
After that, though? I told him I’d take the bus.
He laughed. And went back to his game.