Chet raises his whiskey and soda to his lips and thinks about how it always, always comes down to a single turn of the cards. A bird of prey astride a bare tree branch, he leans back, tilting his wooden chair onto its hind legs, his elbows out to hold his balance. He strokes his black string tie smooth across the dry wash of his white dress shirt. With his other thumb, he spreads his cards a little wider. It isn't a great hand, he thinks, but it’s going to do the trick.
The youngster across the table from him is a yuppie clearly out of his depth. His horn-rimmed glasses gleam under a carefully trimmed crop of curls; his sport jacket hangs open over a pale blue polo shirt and sharply creased summer slacks. He smells of the cologne of privileged assurance. Chet has been patient with him, giving him some line before reeling him in.
When this hand had started out, the pupils of the kid's eyes had widened and his eyebrow had twitched ever so slightly as he first drew cards. Then he shoved extra chips out into the circle of light centered over the table. Chet couldn’t exactly say why, but he saw the makings of an opportunity, and so he saw the bet and raised it, dangling bait; the kid nibbled at it, hanging on.
At the second draw, the kid's eyes had narrowed and his mouth pursed at the corners. He still put in his chips, but not as quickly or as many as before. Chet knew then that his hand would prevail. He set the hook, upping the stakes with feigned hesitation.
The kid had swallowed hard and his eyes searched Chet's for signs of a bluff. Chet stared back at him steadily, his own eyes as flat and unblinking as those of a lizard on a sun-baked rock. After a long moment the kid had clenched his jaw and met the raise. The pile of chips left at his elbow was then all gone, and he was running scared.
Chet stays pat now and waits for the kid to show his cards. With his free hand, the kid strokes his chin before he spreads the partial makings of a full house, almost enough jacks and the two nines. Glancing at Chet for the briefest moment, the kid then looks away like a man condemned. He drums his fingers on the tabletop, slowly, each one a separate hard-pressed thump.
Leaning forward, Chet settles his Stetson on his brow and readies himself to move in for the kill. In some ways, he thinks, this moment of knowing that what’s there on the table is yours for the taking is the best moment of all. Then, before his chair legs can hit the floor, he looks up and catches sight of a familiar movement behind the kid's dejected slump.
It’s the young wife, just checking back in. Dressed in that breezy summer skirt and blouse, her dark hair a fog-bank of tendrils around her face, she floats into the room. She’s down the meager stake her husband gave her, but she’s still flush from the rush of the roulette wheel. To Chet, the color in her cheeks highlights a certain openness he detected earlier in her features. Her emotions ripple across her face like clear spring water running over the smooth oval stones in a mountain creek.
Chet knows that her husband had given her money and shooed her off earlier because he was afraid (at least in part) that if she had stayed to watch their game she’d telegraph his hands. Little does the kid know what an excellent if inadvertent job he does of semaphoring himself. But the kid is simply unskilled at deception; Chet doesn’t think the wife is capable of attempting it. To a man who used to be a straight shooter as a boy, he finds her openness a quality he’s not yet too jaded to appreciate.
As she comes closer, she puts a hand on her husband’s shoulder and leans over to nuzzle the top of his head. “Hi, honey.” The kid only grunts in return.
Chet follows the wife’s gaze from the kid’s hand to the stacks of chips ranked on the tabletop between them. He sees her eyes strain at the corners as she realizes just how much her husband has risked to see this deal through to the end, an end that even now is descending upon them. Chet hovers, balanced in midair on the rear legs of his chair.
“Is everything okay, sweetheart?” The wife runs her fingers through her husband’s curls.
Beads of sweat pop out on the kid’s forehead and he lets out his breath slowly, like a thin-skinned balloon losing air. He can’t speak, but he nods, not really either yes or no, in response to his wife’s question. Chet sees the corners of her mouth tighten as she looks over her husband’s head at him. She waits, standing pat.
He checks his forward motion; his chair hits the floor with barely a tap. Pinching his cards together with his thumb and forefinger, Chet buries his hand on the table. "I'll fold."
The kid's head jerks around and he opens his moist, round mouth. He sucks air like a fish out of water, but Chet notes that he observes the proper etiquette: he doesn't tempt his fate (at least not any longer), nor even ask any questions of it. He begins to rake in the foothills of the chips.
The young wife’s shoulders sag and her voice is low, as if too much enthusiasm might reverse a streak. "Well, dear, tonight’s your lucky night, I guess.” She looks again over her husband’s head to Chet. He sees a small rueful smile crackle like heat lightning over her lips and through her eyes, and he drops his gaze to the tabletop, empty now of everything except the cards.
As they leave the room, Chet shoots the cuffs of his black dress coat and lets himself sink into his chair. Craning his neck to relax its muscles, he plays with the turquoise and silver cinch that cleaves his tie. He runs it up and down the string and muses about how ones like this one can do you in.
He reaches over for his drink, now watery and flat. Maybe it’s true there's a sucker born every minute, Chet muses. Slightly ruffled, he finds himself baptized anew.