Can't Win Em All
I'm not happy with this, but it's all I've finished in the last month.
Can't Win Em All
If he knew anything for sure, it was this: You can’t win em all.
That’s what Mark said to the other players seated around the poker table as he tossed his cards into the muck. A few gave him knowing glances, but no one replied. It wasn’t the kind of statement that needed vindication or even acknowledgement among gamblers. The dealer gathered his chips and pushed them to the other side of the table, towards a young man wearing sunglasses and headphones and a shit-eating grin that left one side of his face lopsided like some kind of stroke victim. Mark rapped his knuckles soundlessly on the felt, then stood up.
“Want me to hold your seat?” the dealer asked.
Mark stood watching the player across from him stack his chips – his chips – in neat, tall towers, looking smug and satisfied. All the outs in the world, he was thinking. Thinks he outsmarted me, outplayed me, and he doesn’t even know the math, doesn’t even know he was a dog when the all money went in. Thinks he should be out in Vegas playing for millions instead of in this shitty basement in –
“I said, you want me to hold your seat?” the dealer said, a little more irritably this time.
It occurred to Mark then that the entire table was looking his way. His cheeks bloomed red.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling out his wallet and thumbing through its meager contents. His face got even redder. “I’ll be right back.”
The dealer gave him a knowing glance before shuffling the cards and dealing the next hand.
When Mark walked out of the basement, the first light of day was peeking over the horizon.
He pulled into his assigned parking space in the Glendale apartment complex thirty minutes later. The living room light was on. He hoped that Julie had forgotten to turn it off before going to bed – hoped for it the same way he’d hoped for that fifth spade half an hour earlier – but ultimately knew that wasn’t the case; Julie didn’t leave lights on in rooms she wasn’t in, and red deuces always fall on the River. He unlocked the dead bolt and walked through the door with a conscious effort to keep his shoulders straight.
She was on the couch, her nose in a textbook. She didn’t say hello, didn’t look up – didn’t do anything.
Mark sat down beside her. He opened his mouth to say something, but all that came out was an ineffectual little squeak. They sat silently for a few minutes. Every so often, Julie would turn a page in her textbook and Mark would shift uncomfortably in his seat.
“It wasn’t that much, okay?” he finally sighed. He didn’t want to speak first – he who speaks first, loses, after all – but knew he would never win the battle of wills against Julie.
“How much?” she asked, still not taking her eyes off the page.
She repeated the question.
Mark sighed. “Three-sixty, total.”
The real total was closer to five-hundred.
Julie closed the textbook and dropped it on the coffee table. She looked exasperatingly up at the ceiling, shaking her head. She closed her eyes and rubbed her fingers around her temples in slow, wide circles. “That’s a few hundred, Mark,” she said scathingly, “going on many hundreds.”
“Let’s not get into semantics,” he said. He moved to touch her shoulder, but she was already up and walking towards the kitchen. “Julie – “
From the kitchen came the sound of ice clinking into glasses. Cupboards slamming shut. A long, exaggerated sigh. When Julie walked back into the living room, she looked ten years older. Mark knew somewhere deep down that if she didn’t leave him tonight, she would look that way for the rest of their marriage.
She had two whiskeys on the rocks in coffee mugs. She handed one to Mark, who took a small, grateful sip. She downed her own in one gulp. Setting her finished drink on a coaster, she said to her husband: “We can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep doing this.”
“I know,” Mark said to the ice floating around in his mug.
“I want more than this, Mark.”
“I know.” He meant it, too. Julie had put up with so much – so many failures, so many excuses. It was a wonder she’d stayed this long.
A pause. And then she said: “Good.”
She gave him a cold, lifeless kiss on the forehead, then turned and walked away.
And that was it – the end. Mark had expected more. But what was that old expression about the end of the world? It wouldn’t go out with a bang, but with a whimper.
Mark called out to her as she reached the stairs: “One more?”
She leaned around the corner and fixed him with a hard, incredulous gaze. “I’ve got work in a few hours,” she said.
Mark tapped his finger against his lips. “That’s not what I meant,” he said, but it didn’t matter what he meant. Julie was already gone. The slamming of the bedroom door solidified her departure.
If Mark knew anything else for sure, it was this: Nothing gets better until it gets much, much worse.
He sat slumped over on the couch. The bottle of whiskey was laying on its side on the coffee table beside his mug. Both were empty, and neither were on coasters. The television was on, but the volume was turned so low it was barely audible. On it, a plump woman spun a giant wheel and screamed and jumped out and down silently as if pantomiming excitement.
Mark struggled off the coach and went into the kitchen to find something else to drink.
It was small but clean – no dishes in the sink or dishrack, no food stains on the basic white appliances. He opened the refrigerator but couldn’t find any beer. Cursing under his breath, he let the door fall shut and noticed the small whiteboard magnetized to the front of it. On it were two columns of numbers, an accounting of bills paid by he and Julie. He picked up the dry-erase marker and wrote an apology underneath his embarrassing total, then erased the message with his hand. He’d written it too many times – it hadn’t been worth a damn then, and it wasn’t now.
He sat at the kitchen table and cradled his face in his hands, rubbing up and down his cheeks roughly as if trying to force himself out of a deep sleep. There was so much to do, so much to change, so many things he should be making better or maybe less worse. As he sat there drunk and defeated and down five buy-ins in two weeks, he contemplated how truly mediocre he was, and how when he weighed his list of accomplishments against those that he’d promised Julie – those that he owed her – it looked just like the numbers on his side of the dry-erase board: embarrassing and small. He was in a sea of mediocrity, barely keeping his head above water, and had been for as long as he could remember; if he didn’t do something soon, Julie was going to pull that life raft away, or at the very least get tired of heaving it out to him for the thirtieth time, and he was going to drown, all alone.
But what could he do? The answers came to him all at once, the same answers that always came in moments like these: Not drink so much, maybe, take a break from the tables, get a real job. But those weren’t the answers he wanted. Sure, he could do all that – he could go straight if he really wanted to – but it would take time, and if Julie’s lifeless kiss earlier was any indication, time was something he didn’t have much of.
Mark looked up at the clock above the refrigerator: 7:43am. Julie would be up for work soon. What he should be doing is making coffee and scrambled eggs and wheat toast, his tie tossed nonchalantly over one shoulder, getting ready for the work day like everyone else. But here he was, stone drunk, sitting at the kitchen table in complete silence like some down-on-his-luck loser while reruns of the Price Is Right droned on in the background. He spied the bottle of whiskey laying on its side on the coffee table. Disgusted with himself, he went to pick it up and throw it away.
A dark puddle sloshed around the bottom of the glass as Mark held it up. He briefly considered screwing the cap back on, but ultimately drank straight from the bottle. There wasn’t much left – maybe a shot’s worth – and he was already drunk, anyway; what would a little more matter?
She’d known what she was getting into. He’d been a gambler when they first met, and he was a gambler now. That was never going to change. And besides, it wasn’t like he was throwing money away – he’d been doing it professionally for more than five years. He’d put food on the table. Sure, the last few months had been rough on the bank account, but he was just running a bad string of cards. It happened to every gambler, no matter how good they were.
You can’t win em all.
Through the thin ceiling, he heard the alarm clock go off in the upstairs bedroom. Julie was getting up for work. Mark set the coffee mug gently in the sink and situated the bottle of whiskey on top of the refrigerator behind a box of trash bags. You couldn’t even tell it was empty.
When he heard the shower go on, he decided to be gone before she got out. He grabbed his keys from the coffee table and went outside.
It was full daylight now, though the apartment complex was still silent and sleepy; not many of those living in this government-subsidized housing block were early-risers. He got in his car – a blue 2002 Dodge Neon with a scratched red side-panel – and drove off, headed towards the only place he could think of to go: a bar.
The Hideaway Club was a small, members-only bar a few miles away from Mark’s apartment complex. Pulling into the gravel driveway, Mark was thankful it was close by; he hadn’t realized how fully drunk he was until he got behind the wheel and started driving. He got out of the car and shuffled over to the front door, barely walking a straight line. He banged on the sign that read STOP, MEMBERS ONLY and was buzzed in almost immediately. Cigarette smoke and classic rock music drifted outside as Mark drifted in.
The bartender greeted him by name as he sat next to a group drinking beer with their breakfast food – third-shift workers from the nearby Fed Ex processing plant who’d just gotten off work. Drumming his hands on the bar top, Mark asked him for a whiskey.
“Little early for the hard stuff, isn’t it?” Brett, the bartender, asked. He held a cigarette in one hand as he poured whiskey with another.
“You know,” Mark said after taking his shot, his face scrunched into a ball as the whiskey burned from his throat to his empty stomach. “You can’t win em all.” He gave Brett a knowing grin, tilting his head at the group beside.
Brett nodded back. “Say, Tony,” he said, “you shoot some don’t you?”
A big, burly man at the far end of the bar spoke up: “Somebody looking for a game?”
This was the Hideaway, Mark thought. The only reason people come in the place is to find a game. He fumbled money out of his wallet, asking the bartender for some quarters, perhaps setting too many bills down on the bar top in the process. He leaned over the bar, looking at the man through puffy, bloodshot eyes. “I’ll shoot,” he slurred
The man beside snuffed out his cigarette, and the game was on.
Mark lost the first two games in embarrassing fashion. He couldn’t seem to find the angles, couldn’t seem to keep his body squared against the table. He shanked nearly every shot, always over-cutting and hitting the cue ball far too hard.
By the third game, his aim had picked up markedly; he was making at least two shots in a row each time he went to the table. But he couldn’t finish it out. When he shot the eight ball into the corner pocket, it bobbled but never fell in, hanging there like an early Christmas present.
When the stakes were tripled for the fourth game – double or nothing – Mark eeked out a victory, though it looked undeserved. Lining up his last ball in the corner pocket, he undercut by a wide margin and left the cue ball on the bottom rail of the table as the eight-ball laid flush on the rail at the top. His opponent failed to bank the eight-ball – his only available shot – but succeeded in making the cue ball, giving Mark the game.
On the fifth game, Mark broke and ran the table without missing a shot. On the sixth, he missed once, but won the game easily; his opponent still had six balls on the table.
He set his cue down with a thud. “That’s it,” he said.
Mark didn’t press him for another game, just collected the money and stuffed it into his back pocket.
“Didn’t know you was letting sharks in here, Brett,” the man said to the bartender, slamming a few bills down on the bar top. His cheeks were deep red – the cheeks of a man who’s smart enough to know he’s been bamboozled but hadn’t been smart enough to stop it from happening in the first place.
“You know my rules,” Brett said, chuckling that harsh laugh again, but this time there was no friendliness in it. “You pick your own games, you accept em - win or lose.”
Mark had enough sense to stay silent. He stood by the pool table, chalking his cue, balancing his weight on it to stay upright.
The man grunted but didn’t protest. He left the bar after drowning the rest of his beer in one long gulp.
Mark went into the back room, where he deposited most of his winnings into a slot machine. He was down so much money on the month, another hundred wouldn’t make much of a difference. Maybe the damn machine would hit for once and he could start digging himself out of his hole.
When that didn’t happen, Mark turned his focus back to drinking. It was nearly noon, and the bar had cleared out; all the Fed Ex workers had gone off to bed. Only he and the bartender were left. Mark handed him a ten, thanking him for the introduction; it wasn’t the first time Brett had set up a game for him, and it wouldn’t be the last, so long as he threw a couple bucks his way.
“I don’t know why you place those damn things,” Brett said, stuffing the ten into his tip jar. “You might as well be setting money on fire.”
“Aw shit, I already have been – am, for that matter,” Mark shot back.
Brett nodded. “I could still find some work for you, you know,” he said, then laughed that ridiculously harsh and forced chuckle of his, looking at Mark with upturned eyebrows.
Mark knew what kind of work he meant. Brett was a man of the world. “I wish you could find me a drink,” he said, laughing along with the bartender. “Then maybe we could talk.”
The last thing he remembered, after draining a double whiskey on the rocks, was asking the bartender if he played any poker.
Mark woke up in a startle. His head was resting against glass and he could feel it sliding down. A sharp blast of air ran over his face. Someone shoved his shoulder lightly and his face bounced off the glass.
He turned and recognized the bartender’s hollow, wide set eyes staring at him blankly in the dimness of the truck. Mark rubbed his own eyes with the heels of his hands. “Shit, Brett,” he said. “Where the hell are we?”
Brett opened the center console and fumbled through it. He handed over a hollow, cylindrical object. Mark pressed it underneath each of his nostrils and sniffed hard, thankful for anything that could take him out of his grog.
“You said you knew of a game,” Brett said, then chuckled harshly.
It was dark outside. They were parked along the street, the headlights of the truck still on and illuminating the back of a beat-up minivan in front of them. Mark fidgeted in his seat, checking for his wallet and phone. Both were on him. He pulled his wallet from his back pocket. “The last thing I remember,” he said, thumbing through the fat wad of cash inside, counting the money he didn’t remember winning, “was asking for some cards.”
Brett looked at him blankly. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Maybe you need another,” Brett said, repacking the cylinder. Mark put his wallet away and greedily accepted the hit. He didn’t ask questions.
He was up, now. He was ready. He looked around at the houses illuminated by street lights and caught his bearings. He thought of the money, how it made his wallet so thick that it was painful to sit on. He thought of all the bills he could pay with it. He thought of all the things he could give Julie if he won just a little bit more.
“Thanks for the ride,” he said, wiping his nose fiercely. “I can walk from here.”
“You got an hour,” Brett said.
A ride home was the furthest thing from Mark’s mind. “I’ll be fine,” he said, getting out of the truck.
Brett told him to swing by the bar tomorrow, then sped off.
The dealer had been surprised to see him so soon – when Mark busted big, it was usually a week or so before he made his way back to the table. He’d been even more surprised when Mark bought in for a full stack - $1,000 large. “Are you sure?” the dealer had asked, but the players around the table started murmuring to get the chips, dealer, count em out, let the kid play if he wants to play. They’d also reached into their back pockets to get add-ons of their own. They could tell by the look in those puffy, bloodshot eyes that Mark wasn’t there to play, he was there to gamble.
Now, Mark sat with a large, towering stack in front of him. He had more chips than the dealer had first given him – many more, in fact – and he’d stacked them so that the edges all lined up evenly. He was sitting sideways in his chair, leaning back, one leg crossed nonchalantly over the other. He looked at the cards he’d been dealt, though it didn’t matter much what he saw. He raised.
This was how the game was supposed to be played: like you were invincible, like you couldn’t lose, and most of all, like the math was on your side. Because tonight, that’s where the math was. Mark could feel it, and it wasn’t just the coke. For the last hour, he’d won just about every hand he’d played. The cards just kept coming up his way – flopped straights and flush draws and sets galore. He’d even managed to take a couple pots down on stone-cold bluffs, picking his spots carefully and correctly raising when his opponents were weak.
It was his night. He should probably cash out now, while he was ahead. It was getting late, and didn’t he have something he was supposed to be doing?
A couple calls, then a big re-raise from the player across from him. Mark peeked at his cards again.
You couldn’t let emotions get in the way, he knew. You couldn’t play a bad hand out of position just because you wanted to wipe a shit-eating grin off a certain player wearing sunglasses and headphones. He wasn’t getting the correct odds on a call – not unless the players behind also called, of course – but his hand wasn’t complete garbage, and it was suited…
Isn’t this the whole point? he thought to himself, staring at his opponent’s bet with the mask of a gambler, expressionless. He’d made a living gambling for the last few years, an honest-to-God living. Sure, he wasn’t rich – he and Julie still lived in the same shitty apartment they’d moved into when they first got married – but he’d made enough to pay the bills and live in relative comfort. And he’d done it by playing the odds. It wasn’t until the last year or so, when he’d moved up in stakes, that he’d started losing more than he was winning. He’d started chasing cards instead of playing them, putting bad money in front of good. Ask any gambler and they’ll tell you: when you’re running a bad string of cards, that’s an easy thing to do. And wasn’t that exactly what he was doing now, contemplating calling a re-raise out of position with a low double-gapper? But he was suited…
He tossed in the call. When the flop came – an offsuit 4, 5, 7 – Mark didn’t flinch, though the cards seemed to have hit him in the face. Holding 6-3 suited, a garbage hand equity-wise, he’d flopped the top and bottom end of a straight. Expressionless, he checked to the re-raiser; it was a rule of good poker strategy, and something he would’ve done if he’d flopped nothing at all.
Sunglasses put out a substantial bet – somewhere around half the pot.
He was a good player, Mark knew, and this bet was almost mandatory for the pre-flop re-raiser whether he’d connected with the flop or not. If he just had over-cards, Mark didn’t want to scare him off just yet. He waited a few seconds, then counted out his chips and made the call.
The turn was one of the best in the deck for Mark, though it didn’t improve his hand; an off-suit ace. He checked again, hoping his opponent would fire a second bullet.
Sunglasses didn’t disappoint – he pushed forward another hefty bet.
This was the moment Mark knew he would win a lot of money. He’d been playing poker long enough to know that you don’t try to guess what cards your opponent has – you try to narrow down their range of possible cards. This doesn’t always work, of course. If your opponent is especially unpredictable and willing to put money in the pot with a wide variety of holdings, it can be next to impossible to figure out why types of hands they will and won’t play. But against players like Mr. Sunglasses – a smart, thinking player – you can do it with a relative degree of certainty, because they’ve read the same books you have, watched the same videos. Though the ace didn’t help Mark’s hand, it helped his opponent’s range; broadway aces were certainly hands he would have re-raised pre-flop, bet on the flop as a bluff, and now bet on the turn with top pair. It was likely that he had a strong hand, and that was a good thing for Mark, because he had a stronger one. He re-raised.
Sunglasses spent some time counting his chips but ultimately tossed in the call. The pot was now worth well over two-thousand dollars.
The last card to come was a brick – a red deuce that couldn’t have helped either player. Mark had another thousand dollars in chips in front of him. He knew he would be putting it all in, but he took his time. He was certain he had the best hand, and he didn’t want to scare his opponent off. Sunglasses sat directly across from him, looking at him or perhaps not, it was hard to tell.
Mark announced to the dealer that he was all in. Sunglasses said something immediately and flipped his cards face-up, but no one heard him; at the same time, a loud thwack erupted, and everyone at the table looked towards the door.
It had been kicked open; the doorknob and locking mechanism lay impotently on the carpet. The man advancing on them was wearing a black ski-mask and mud-stained overalls, but no one saw them – all they saw were the twin barrels of the shotgun staring them in the face. The voice came out muffled and forceful, seemingly from the gun itself: “Don’t move!”
Someone must have, because the next thing Mark knew, the gun was going off. In the small basement, the blast was felt by his ears rather than heard, and he moved his hands up to protect them, falling to the floor.
The masked man hadn’t shot anyone, but the intended effect was achieved – everyone around the table lay helplessly on the ground, cradling their heads in their hands, wondering if they’d been shot or if it had been someone else. He grabbed the lock box full of cash and ran off into the night.
A few seconds later, the dealer and one other player jumped to their feet. The dealer grabbed a pistol from the drawer beside the poker table and they ran out the door to take a look. They started shouting, but their voices were drown-out by the rev of a car peeling down the street.
Mark got to his feet. It was chaos around the table – everyone yelling about their cash and pointing fingers and wondering out loud what the fuck just happened. Mark could only stare at the cards on the table across from him.
8-9 suited. Sunglasses had flopped a higher straight. He’d had the best hand the whole way, and Mark would’ve lost all his money even if it hadn’t just been stolen from him.
A few minutes later, he realized that it had been the way since the beginning of the night - maybe even since the beginning of time.
When he got back home, the living room light was off. Julie had gone upstairs – either that, or she had gone somewhere else for the night. Mark didn’t know the exact odds, but he knew they weren’t good.
He was surprised to find her in bed. And grateful. He shed his clothes and climbed in softly beside her.
She wasn’t asleep. She leaned into his embrace, perhaps sensing the weight that had finally been lifted from his shoulders. “How much?” she asked, though her tone was nothing but kind and oddly curious.
“I think I’m done,” Mark sighed.
Julie nuzzled closer. “Are you going to look for a job?” she asked.
Mark started kissing her neck. “I already found one,” he breathed into her goose-pimpled flesh.
“Who with?” Her hand started roaming the lower half of his body.
“Brett,” Mark said. “From the bar. I finally took him up on that job he’s been offering.”
“Oh yeah?” Her hand found what it was looking for.
“Yeah,” Mark breathed. He closed his eyes. “I pick up my first check tomorrow.”