By Moe Berg
They drove in silence, the radio buzzing faintly in the background. Giant movie theatre complexes and factory outlets lined the highway. Andrew nursed his dread, and Sarah watched him, waiting for them to be almost there before she started anything.
“Maybe they won’t feel like playing tonight.”
“When was the last time that happened?”
“C’mon, is it really so bad? You liked it at first.”
“I didn’t realize it was pathological at first.”
“Pathological? Please don’t talk like that about my family.”
“Sorry.” But not really. “It would be nice if it wasn’t a mandatory part of the evening. It would be nice to just visit or watch TV after dinner.”
“It’s their thing. They really like you. You know that.”
Andrew didn’t answer. He merged off the exit ramp, Sarah’s parents’ place was around the next corner.
“Hello, dear,” Mrs. Oliver said, hugging Sarah. “So nice you could come, Andrew. I’ve got a lovely pork loin in the oven. Sarah told me it’s one of your favourites.”
“How nice of you, Mrs. Oliver. You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. We love to see the two of you.”
Sarah beamed at her mom, taking her by the arm and walking into the house. They looked nice together. Mrs. Oliver was really quite attractive for her age. Her hair didn’t have that dyed-and-styled-to-death look a lot of middle-aged women had. Andrew looked around the Olivers’ neighbourhood; the suburban lawns, freshly pruned trees. This isn’t so bad, he thought. The city was getting a bit claustrophobic. He marched up the steps, deciding to forget where he was.
“Can I get you a drink, Andy?”
“It’s Andrew, Dad.”
“That’s all right, Sarah.” Even though it wasn’t. “I’m O.K. for now, Mr. Oliver.” He settled into a brown, leatherette chair with big padded arms. Mr. Oliver sat in its twin, almost spilling his drink.
“So, how’s business, Andy?”
“Good, no complaints. With spring arriving, people are already coming in looking to upgrade their rides, get tune-ups, new parts . . .” Andrew stopped. He sounded like a commercial.
“I hear Tanya is thinking about a new bike. Where is she? Ivy, where’s Tanya?” Mr. Oliver yelled toward the kitchen.
“She’ll be along in a minute. I just sent her to the store for some Coke.” Sarah came into the living room carrying a glass of ice water and sat on the sofa. It matched the two chairs but had a crocheted blanket covering it. Better that than plastic, Andrew thought.
The front door opened and in swept Tanya, Sarah’s seventeen-year-old sister. Tanya was a younger, every bit as pretty version of Sarah, except her hair was short and dark, and Sarah’s was long and sandy. Betty and Veronica. Almost. She walked right up to Andrew and kissed him loudly on the cheek.
“Hey, Sarah,” she said, flopping down on the arm of Andrew’s chair. Sarah glared a pinhole through her sister’s forehead.
“I’m thinking about getting a new bike, Andrew. Do you think you could help me?”
“Of course. Come on by the shop any time and we’ll get you set up.”
She ran her fingers down his arm as she got up to take the Coke to her mother.
“I’m ready here. Everyone come and get it,” Mrs. Oliver sang.
The pork was wonderful and the conversation light and cheery. Andrew let himself be sucked into the warm breeze of goodwill blowing through the Oliver house that evening.
After the dishes were done and the second cups of coffee poured, Mr. Oliver went to the cupboard and pulled out a deck of cards.
“You up for a little cards tonight, Andy?”
Here we go.
“Actually, I’ve got an early start tomorrow. It’s a long drive back into the city.”
“C’mon, it’s early. Tanya, get the Crown Royal from the linen closet. See, I’m cracking out the good stuff.”
Tanya smiled at Andrew and scurried off to get the booze.
“You’re in aren’t you, Sarah, honey?”
“Well, just a couple of hands, Daddy. We do have to get back soon.”
Her eyes begged Andrew for understanding.
“Just a couple hands,” Mr. Oliver said, lighting a cigar. The whole family lit up, save Sarah, who really hated that her family smoked, and forbid Andrew to.
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
Andrew saw that Sarah wanted to say something. He also knew she wouldn’t.
“Tanya, deal the first hand. What’s it going to be?”
“Let’s open the bank first, Daddy. A quarter a chip. What are you in for, Andrew?”
“I’ll have five dollars worth.”
“Let’s all start at five,” Mr. Oliver said gaily. “Sit down, Ivy, but first grab a fin out of your purse.”
Mrs. Oliver took a long haul on her menthol cigarette. She was one of those older women who drew huge amounts of smoke and then kept it in her lungs, licking her teeth, getting every milligram of nicotine out of each puff and then blowing out a tiny patch of steam.
“Quarter ante, everyone.”
“O.K., five card draw, nothing wild.”
Mr. Oliver slid the cards around the table.
Tanya casually threw in a single chip.
“I’m in,” Mrs. Oliver said cheerfully.
“Not me,” Sarah said, folding her cards on the table.
Andrew looked at the two queens in his hand. He knew he should raise the stakes.
“I’ll see your quarter.”
“How many cards, Tan?”
Tanya pulled so hard on her Camel that her face looked like a pushed-in squeeze toy.
“I’ll have two, Dad,” she said, blowing a long thick spray.
The next two-and-a-half hours were a hot, smoky blur. Andrew’s throat was raw from whiskey and second-hand smoke. Mr. Oliver had maintained his jolly mood throughout, especially since he already had a little over twenty-five dollars of Andrew’s money. Andrew had not won a single hand in over an hour and had long ago stopped returning Sarah’s smiles.
“All right, the game is the cross. Ante up, everyone.”
The chips slid into the centre of the table like crochinole pieces.
Tanya dealt the cards, cigarette balancing in the corner of her mouth. Her sneaker was resting lightly on Andrew’s but he couldn’t find the energy to move. The bets went around the table.
Andrew fanned out Tanya’s offering. Ace, queen, three of hearts, nine of diamonds and the eight of spades. Crap.
“Andrew, honey, are you in?” Sarah said, smiling, trying to keep things light.
“It’ll cost you fifty to stay.”
Tanya turned over the first card. At the top of the cross was the queen of clubs.
“I’ll raise fifty more,” said Andrew.
“I’ll see your fifty and raise you another fifty,” said Mr. Oliver, crunching on an ice cube.
The girls all bucked up.
Tanya flipped the next card, the left arm of the cross. Six of diamonds.
The bottom of the cross was the ace of spades.
“What are you saying, Ivy?”
“I’m out,” Sarah said.
“I’ll raise it twenty-five,” said Andrew. His eyes went from hers to a tiny blemish on her chin and back again. She quickly touched the blemish with her hand. Mr. Oliver said, “I’ll see your twenty-five and raise you another fifty. Seventy-five to you, Tan.”
Tanya scattered three chips across the pile.
“There’s your seventy-five and here’s another fifty.”
Here we go. Andrew wanted to try and win at least some of his money back. God, this is so mental. They looked like an alien family, fingering their cards, sipping their drinks, smoking their cigarettes. He half expected them to shed their skin and emerge as reptiles like an episode of The Outer Limits.
“I’ll see all that.”
“Too rich for me. I’m going to put on some tea,” Mrs. Oliver said.
Yeah, you just fucking do that, Mrs. O.
Mr. Oliver relit the dregs of a cigar. The sucking sound was making Andrew nauseous.
“I’ve got your fifty and I raise you fifty more.”
Tanya stood up and pulled off her shirt, revealing a tank top that was sprayed on to her torso.
“This isn’t strip poker,” Sarah said, frowning at Tanya.
Tanya didn’t acknowledge her. Andrew felt like laughing.
“There’s the fifty and here’s fifty more. That’s a dollar to you, Andrew.”
He threw a dollar chip at the pile.
“Can we see the next card, already?” Andrew said, trying to sound funny.
“All right, let’s do that,” Mr. Oliver said.
Tanya reached across the table and lifted up the ten of diamonds.
Well, Andrew would be going top to bottom. He was sitting on aces and queens and maybe that centre card held a full house.
“I’m in for twenty-five.”
“I’ll see that and raise you fifty.”
Tanya stared at her cards for a few seconds, biting her bottom lip.
“There’s seventy-five and I’ll go one higher,” she said, tossing a chip.
“I’m in,” Andrew said. And you’ve got fantastic tits, just like your sister. Both your little girls are fucking hot, Mr. Oliver. He felt something unpleasant but intoxicating entering him.
Mr. Oliver puffed at his soggy stub, getting the last couple of pulls out of it, then butted it in the overflowing ashtray.
“So, I need fifty to stay in and here’s another seventy-five.”
He’s bluffing. Andrew was sure of it now. After I win this hand, I’m going to go home and paint your daughter’s face with my come. Then, when Tanya comes to see me about her bike, I’ll let her suck my dick the way she’s been dying to ever since we met. Mr. Oliver winked at him over his cards.
“Dad, really. I’d leave you and Andrew to duke this out mano-a-mano, but I’ve come too far to fold now.” Tanya forked over the necessary chips and looked over at Andrew.
“Again, I’ll see.”
“All right, I’ll hold there. Tan?”
“Let’s look at the last card, shall we?”
Tanya squinted over her smoldering smoke.
“The middle card is a . . .” turning it, “seven of clubs.”
“I’ll bet a quarter,” Andrew said, staring at his cards like they might change if he looked away.
“I’ll see that and raise you seventy-five.”
He’s bluffing. Just hang in there.
“I’ll see,” Tanya said. “A buck to you.”
Andrew slid a dollar chip towards the sprawling stack.
“All right, I’ll call. What do you have, folks?”
“A pair of kings and a pair of sixes.”
“Aces and queens,” he said spreading them on the table.
“Well, looky here. Three tens.” Mr. Oliver reached over to the pile with both his hands, sweeping the chips towards himself.
“Sorry about that, Andy. You’ll win it back.”
“It’s Andrew. Andrew. How many fucking times do you have to be told?”
“Andrew!” Sarah shrieked, panic reshaping her face. “We’d better get going. I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Take it easy, Andy, Andrew. It’s just a game.”
“Just a game? Just a game?”
Andrew heard himself changing his life.
“Just a game? You invite people into your home and then take money from them, take money from your own family, and you think ‘it’s just a game’? A game would be playing Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit for fun! You people are sick!”
He was stupid with rage. Tanya was sitting on her legs with a huge smile on her face. Mr. and Mrs. Oliver were flushed with embarrassment.
“Please, Andrew, let’s just go,” Sarah pleaded.
“I, you, I mean, God, fuck . . .”
He turned around and walked to the door, hearing Sarah’s apologies as he opened, and left open, the front door. Sarah ran after him, getting in the passenger side of the car. The car jerked forward before she could get her seat belt on. Once she was turned around and belted up, she took in a breath to start speaking, but he stopped her with a look, a look he’d never given her or anybody.
The ride back into the city was like the ride out, except that Sarah had begun to cry softly.
“I’ll drop you at home, but I’m going to Danny’s.”
“Do you love me, Andrew?”
Do you love me, Andrew. She sounded so pathetic. Andrew kept his eyes focused on the road and the city glowing in the distance.
(Originally published Christmas, 1999.)