The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense. -Bob Dylan
You are alive to the moment—nothing more. And the moment is not alive to you. The shrunken path you walk, the fogbanks swirling around you, the overgrown forest that slows your stride offer neither cheer nor condolence. Rather they make you feel perishable, as though you have stumbled here in your sleep.
You have no memory—for that you are grateful. Memory has no place in this land of fog and shadow. Its mood is not one of reminiscence but pure and utter sameness. Anything smacking of ego would seem a sacrilege.
People pass you along the trail, traipsing in the opposite direction. Occasionally, they glance at you, and then they look away. Their faces appear to be carved out of wax, their movements lack commitment. They are as defeated as the branches that droop from the ancient trees.
You trudge along the narrow path, but you journey without destination. Not even the sight of a ramshackle mansion allows you a sense of arrival. If the winking sign can be believed, the mansion is a hotel. The sign says Rooms Available and emits a frosty light.
Seeking a change of solitude, you stroll into the mansion. The foyer is full of people, but none of them speak to you. Since the people are as passive as corpses, their snub is a consolation. You do not want to converse with them, you do not want to hear their laments, you want only the sterile bearings a hotel room might offer you.
You belly up to the front desk where a pimply clerk notices you. You tell him you would like a room. “A room,” he repeats, he pronounces the word as though it might poison him. “Yes,” you say. “I would like a room.” He says, “How do you know you would like a room? You haven’t seen the rooms.” “All right,” you reply, “I would not like a room, but I want one anyway.” “You want a room anyway?” he bleats. “I’m calling the manager.”
He punch dials a cell phone, while shaking his head, and mutters into the phone. Soon a fat, sweaty man waddles up to the desk and gives you a practiced smile. “He would like a room,” the clerk says to him. “But he has not seen the rooms.”
“If you haven’t seen the rooms,” purrs the manager, “how do you know you would like one?”
“I’m here for a room,” you argue.
“My good man,” the manager says, “that isn’t the reason you’re here.”
The conversation is so convoluted, you decide to leave the hotel. But the manager seizes your elbow before you walk out the door. “We had almost given up waiting for you,” he says in a buttery voice.
You feel guilty. “What am I late for?” you ask him.
“Late?” he exclaims. “Why do you think you are late?”
“You said you were waiting for me?”
He laughs. “Come, come. You know why you’re here.”
Gripping your elbow like a jailor, he guides you down a hallway. You arrive at a room with an open door—a room thick with cigarette smoke. Inside the room, a half-dozen drab men sit hunched around a table. You hear muffled bids, an occasional cough, and the clatter of poker chips. As your eyes adjust to the lighting, you notice an empty chair.
The manager rocks back on his heels and nods like a marionette. “The game has no beginning,” he says. “The game will never end. Yes, my friend, we were waiting for you, but please don’t think you are late.”
That the room is not unfamiliar to you affords you no relief. It smells like blackened cabbage, it resembles a movie set, and the fellows sitting around the table look dirty and desperate.
“Where is he?” pipes one of them, picking his cards up.
“Who do ya mean?” says another.
“The Hog,” the first speaker says. “Anyone know where he is?”
Nobody speaks except to voice bets. The clatter of chips tickles your ears. After a minute somebody says, “I saw him a week ago—or it might have been a month.”
You stand as though bound, but you are forced to concede that this room is calling to you. You do not want to sit at the table. You do not want to place any bets.
“Come, come,” says the manager, “please take your seat. You have credit at this table.”
The manager shepherds you into the room. You sit down in the empty chair. In front of you is a generous stack of hundred-dollar chips.
“Is that him?” someone says, nodding toward you.
“Who?” says another.
The speaker, a man with a harelip, says, “Is that Strutting Hog?”
All eyes at the table appraise you, but you utter no reply. You nervously finger your stack of chips. You wait for the cards to fall.
Somebody says, “Bullshit, that isn’t him.”
“I dunno,” says the man with the harelip. “It’s hard to tell in this light.”
“Deal,” someone says impatiently.
The man with the harelip shuffles the deck and flips two cards to every player. The men are playing Five-card stud with a hundred-dollar ante. Each player is dealt one card face down, four face-up, and can bet after each up card is dealt. It is a poker game for purists, but the game is not at all pure. After three rounds of betting, you notice five kings on the table. Harelip, who has two them, gives himself one more.
You nudge the man beside you. “He’s got to be cheating,” you whisper. “A deck only has four kings.”
The fellow says, “So what? It’s his deal, ain’t it?”
You hang onto your chips, disgusted, as Harelip deals the final round. He gifts himself an ace and shoves all his chips into the pot.
Everyone folds but a man with four deuces who matches Harelip’s bet. Harelip turns over his down card—the card is another king. “Read ’em and weep,” he laughs.
The other, a man with a broken nose, flips over his down card—a deuce. “Five deuces beat four royals,” he crows. Chuckling, he rakes in the pot.
Harelip leaps to his feet, grabs the man’s hand. “You cheated. I saw you cheat,” he protests.
“That’s enough,” the manager says. “Please lose with some dignity.” Pulling a revolver out of his pocket he shoots Harelip between the eyes. Harelip drops like a sack of grain, he looks like he has a third eye. You watch with mounting horror as a puddle glitters and spreads. The men at the table don’t look at the corpse; they study their cards instead. As the game continues, two thugs wearing black drag the body from the room.
The man with the broken nose sweeps the cards up and passes you the deck. “Wanna deal, pardner?” he offers. “It costs five hundred clams to deal.”
You tell him you have no desire to deal. “Everyone deals,” he snaps. “You wanna piss him off?”
“Who?” you ask.
The man sighs like a faucet. “Pardner, don’t pretend you don’t know who I’m talking about.”
“I ain’t seen him in over a month,” someone says.
“He’ll be back,” says the man with the broken nose. “The Hog always comes back.”
The cards are coarse and grainy. Some are flecked with blood. You throw five chips into the pot and deal quickly. You want to get rid of the cards.
You give one card down and one card up to everyone at the table. Although you have dealt yourself two aces, you fold on the first round of betting.
You play a few more hands before you grasp the full stakes of the game. Whenever a player runs out of chips, he stands up and raises his hand. At that point, the thugs in black frogmarch him out of the room. After a pistol shot rings out, play at the table resumes, and someone else ambles into the room and sits down in the vacated chair.
Your tower of chips is shrinking. You have not placed a single bet. The player beside you, a man with a stutter, says, “Buddy, he ain’t g-gonna like it.”
“Who?” you ask.
The man shakes his head. “You k-know who I’m talking about. He don’t like a fella that s-sits on his cards. He likes to win more than your ante.”
Someone else says, “Ya don’t gotta worry. I think he’s in New York.”
“I bet he’s in Brussels,” another man says. “He likes the festivals there.”
The man with the stutter nudges you and says, “Buddy, he ain’t g-gonna like it. When he shows up, he’s gonna chew you out for s-sittin’ on your cards.”
You have a full house, jacks over queens, so you chuck some chips into the pot. You lose to a fellow with kings over aces and instantly regret your bet.
The game drags on for hours—hours that melt into days. You win a few hands, you lose a few more. You play the game ethically although everyone else is cheating. Because of this, you do not win big although you manage to stay alive.
You look forward to the bathroom breaks, which you are allowed to take every two hours. You look forward to pausing long enough to eat a complementary sandwich. And every twelve hours, the men in black escort you out the door. They take you to a nearby room filled with cots, so you can catch up on your sleep. But sleeping is impossible because the pistol shots wake you up.
After a week, it happens. A side door creeks like a coffin lid opening, the poker game comes to a halt. The man with the broken nose says, “I toldja he’d come back.”
You smell him before you see him. The odor makes you gag. As you hold your nose, an enormous man swaggers into the room. His mouth has the pout of a baby’s mouth and looks ready for squalls and bawls. His brow is locked in a permanent frown; his eyes are beady and hard. He studies each man at the table with undisguised disdain then he reaches into his pocket and slaps down a handful of chips. “Gentlemen,” he booms in a bullying voice. “We’re gonna play Last Man Sitting.”
The players all bow their heads; some of them make the sign of the cross. The men in black shout, “Last Man Sitting!” They drag a huge chair to the table.
After the big man squeezes into the chair, you glance at the man with the stutter. “Is that him?” you ask.
“Is t-that who?” the man says.
“Is that Strutting Hog?” you murmur.
The man glares at you and whispers, “You bet, but you didn’t hear that from me. Oh no, oh no, oh no,” he repeats. “You d-didn’t hear that from me.”
The big man is staring right at you. His face grows as red as a plum. His body odor assaults you like a wave of lethal gas. “Boy!” he booms, “I don’t wanna believe what I been hearin’ ’bout cha!”
The man’s face is broad and impenetrable, like the faces on Mount Rushmore. You feel as though he is appraising you from a very lofty height.
“What are you trying to say?” you ask. Although everyone else at the table is bowing, you do not lower your eyes.
The big man is gazing at you as though he has known you all your life. The mockery in his eyes makes you feel like a phantom at a feast. The man softens his tone and says, “Listen up good. I ain’t chewin’ my cabbage twice.”
“Just tell me what you heard,” you say, still refusing to lower your eyes.
“I heard you was sittin’ on your cards steada playing the game like yer s’ppose to. I always knew you was a pussy, and now you’re provin’ me right.”
“Am I here for your approval?” you ask.
The man puffs up like a bullfrog—he has reached the end of his patience. “Hang onto your chips!” he thunders. “I’m gonna take my time with you!”
He reaches into his pocket and produces another deck of cards. “It’ll cost a thousand dollars to deal,” he says. “Anyone wanna deal?” When no one replies, he laughs like a magpie. “All right,” he says. “It seems as though I’ll be doin’ all the dealing.”
He throws ten chips into the pot. “Last Man Sitting!” he shouts. “No one else sits at the table—not ’til the game is done.” Without bothering to shuffle the deck, he clumsily deals the cards.
It takes you only seconds to notice that the man is an artless cheater. His sausage-size fingers grope awkwardly as he fishes cards from the bottom of the deck. His beady eyes linger like bailiffs as he studies the backs of cards. And when he flicks a card from his shirtsleeve, the movement lacks precision. It looks as though he is shaking a booger from his hand.
Nobody at the table objects as Strutting Hog wins all the pots. They obediently match his bets, they silently lose their chips, and, as he rakes in pot after pot, they sit like crows on a fence. Whenever someone runs out of chips, he timidly raises his hand, and the men in black grab ahold of him and march him from the room.
You sit there, your pulse beating faster with every pistol shot. You refuse to match Strutting Hog’s bets. You refuse to play his game. You refuse to relinquish any advantage to this foul-smelling barn of a man.
One by one, the losers are marched out of the room. You watch them pass through the doorway; you flinch when the pistol barks. Soon, the only ones left at the table are Strutting Hog and you.
Strutting Hog is now sitting behind a towering pile of chips. You have only a handful, and you clutch them like golden coins. “Who are you?” you gasp.
He shakes his head, his jowls wobble like pudding. He says, “Boy, you know who I am.”
“What spawned you?” you say.
He yawns like a hippo. “Son,” he says. “I ain’t gonna tell you if you don’t know the answer by now.”
He stares at you like a hanging judge. “I’ll tell ya this much,” he says. “This game was arranged a long time ago, before you was even born. So quit actin’ like a pussy and bet on the cards you been dealt.”
You reproach yourself for your questions. There is only one puzzle to solve. If you wish to survive, you must find a way to clean out Strutting Hog.
“Deal,” you say.
He doles out four cards. You get a king and an ace in the hole. You match his bets, you win with three kings. You know he is toying with you.
“Deal,” you repeat. Again you win, he has dealt you three jacks and two aces, which beats his pair of threes.
You play a dozen more hands, and you win every one of them. You know it is all a set-up—that he’s just building you up for a fall. But after an hour your pile of chips is the same size as Strutting Hog’s pile.
You throw ten chips into the pot and say, “All right, I’m buying a deal.”
He chuckles and hands you the deck. “Serve ’em up, Pussy,” he says.
You deal the first four cards, and then you pause to consider your bet. Strutting Hog has an ace on display. You have the king of spades showing. You peek at your down card—the queen of spades. Could this be a possible straight flush?
Strutting Hog counts out a hundred chips and places them into the pot. You cringe and match his wager, you do not even hesitate. In all poker games, there’s a pivotal hand. You know this will be the hand.
You give Strutting Hog another ace then you put your third card on the table. When you see that your card is the jack of spades, you feel profound relief. Your straight flush is still alive, and it’s open at both ends.
You know Strutting Hog is still toying with you when he says, “Your next card is free.” He winks like a conspirator and grins like a henhouse fox.
Without placing a bet, you deal two more cards. Your heart leaps into your mouth. Strutting Hog gets another ace. You inherit the ten of spades.
“Your next card is gonna cost ya,” he says. He counts out two hundred chips and shovels them into the pot. “Too rich for your blood?” he taunts.
You are tempted to fold, but you know you can’t fold. You know you must play out this hand.
“I’ll see you,” you mutter. You match his bet and deal the final two cards. A king falls to Strutting Hog. You get a bullet. You get the ace of spades.
Your heart pounds like a mallet. Your mouth is as dry as lint. This is your moment—you have him beat showing. You will not have this chance again.
You do not want to make him suspicious. You want him to think you are bluffing. You push your remaining chips into the pot. “Five hundred grand,” you announce. Your voice is squeaky, your hands are trembling, but this is just an act.
When Strutting Hog snorts like a racehorse, you know the suck has worked. “All right, little pussy, let’s see ’em,” he says. He dumps all his chips into the pot.
You turn your down card over, revealing your royal flush. You hope the men in black will hurry and take Strutting Hog away. But the men in black do not come to the table, and Strutting Hog is still grinning. “Boy,” he says, “do you think I didn’t know you had that straight flush?”
“How did you know?” you ask him.
“’Cause I marked every card in the deck.”
He turns over his down card, an ace, and says. “Four bullets beat a straight flush.”
“Four aces don’t beat a straight flush,” you protest.
He snaps his fingers. The manager enters the room, hands him a burlap sack. Strutting Hog rubs his hands together then sweeps all the chips into the bag. He says, “Son, you shoulda learned the rules before you played this game. If I say four aces beat a straight flush, that’s how it’s gonna be.”
When he hoists the bulging sack over his shoulder, he looks like he’s toting a bomb. But he offers you only a warning scowl as he saunters out the door. His odor lingers behind like a presence. It fills the entire room.
You feel like you’ve been in a car accident. You feel as though you have been mugged. Although you are the last man sitting, the men in black come for you.
The thugs muster you into the hallway. It is cluttered with ripening bodies. The manager is there, he looks at you nervously. He is fiddling with his tie.
He reaches into his jacket, pulls out the revolver, but hesitates to shoot you. He lowers the pistol and says, “My good man, it seems you are free to go.”
“Why am I free to go?” you ask. You feel only fleeting relief.
The manager coughs, he is clearly embarrassed. “It wouldn’t be honorable to shoot you,” he says. “Not when you won the game.”
Being free to go is not good enough. You want your winnings back. You say to him, “Give me the gun.”
The manger shrugs and hands you the gun. “Many have tried,” he says.
You tell him, “That doesn’t matter. I’m putting him under arrest. If he doesn’t come along peacefully, I’ll shoot him between the eyes.”
The manager places his hand on his heart. “I understand, sir, I do. You are not the first to pursue him.”
“Where is he?” you ask.
“He’s in the casino. Remember that many have tried.”
You search the hotel until you find the casino. Strutting Hog is not there. You hear that he is in the lounge, but you do not find him there either. You search the entire hotel, but there is no sign of him anywhere. A waiter says, “He’s in Bakersfield. That’s a half-mile down the road.”
You leave the hotel. You are back in the fog. You walk with determination. You soon arrive at Bakersfield, but Strutting Hog is not to be found. A policeman tells you he just left town and went to Riverdale.
You walk on through the thickening fog. The path is wider now. You know you will hunt him down, bring him to justice. Perhaps in the very next town.