After the nest was empty, and after my mother left him, my father played poker.
The Texas Hold ‘Em tables at the Indian casino were shrouded in cigarette smoke, assaulted with slot machine bells and whistles. Cocktail waitresses brought complimentary rum and cokes.
My father folded most hands. Pushed his pocket rockets. Chose deuces and fives as his cards to bluff on. Quietly laughed at the suckers who drew to inside straights or stayed in every hand on the prayer that the flop might bring good news.
He focused on percentages. Every gamble calculated. Making all the right moves.
He won his way into a Las Vegas tournament. Local media interviewed him, and he had his expenses paid for a flight into the desert. When he wrote me, the bluster of his emails belied his claims that it was just business. Just another game of cards. After all, there was a two-million-dollar purse at stake. TV exposure.
My father has never told me that he was lonely. He’s never discussed the stakes of this trip beyond dollars and cents. But I knew.
The prospect that he might win back everything he had lost and start anew.
Fifty-three years. Fifty-two cards.
He didn’t win. He was eliminated at the end of the first of three days of play. Checked out of his hotel early and uncharacteristically shelled out to change his flight and fly home early.
It’s been years.
He tells me, on that last hand in Vegas, he was down and needed to make a big move. He won’t name the cards in his hand or on the table, the stakes, the percentages. I know he hasn’t forgotten.
We never play cards. He’s too quick to criticize, and I’m both too sensitive and not a good enough player for it to be competitive. I tell him stories of winning ten bucks off a Friday night game over a kitchen table, over a bowl of popcorn. He listens. Laughs. But I can still see bigger prizes in his eyes.