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It had been almost a year since Dad died in that hospital bed from a stroke. He didn't get much exercise and wasn't the kind of father who could teach you sports -- not unless you counted playing cards that way. But he taught me lots of other stuff and was always my real best friend.
Dad's the one who first called me "Huck." It started my sophomore year in high school. I thought I was really something at poker and would challenge him every chance I'd get. I'd clean up against my friends in nickel-and-dime games. But every week Dad would beat me out of my allowance, and I'd have to do double chores to get paid again.
Mom finally threw a fit and laid down the law.
"No more gambling in this house," she ordered. "If you two wanna keep playing, you'll play for fun."
"How the hell is it gambling when it's all my money?" Dad tried to hook her.
But she wouldn't bite.
"No slippin' back into old ways, or else," she warned him.
Dad was the best poker player in Caldwell. He'd won the tournament at Saint Bart's rec center three years running, and that makes you somebody in a town that's been smacked sideways like this one. But Dad had lost his share of money at cards too, way back when I was a little kid. So he'd made a deal with Mom that he'd just play tournaments and wouldn't risk a dollar more than the entry fee.
"That's why you don't see me making any side bets at Saint Bart's, son," he'd tell me. "I'd drop ten dollars and lose two hundred more tryin' to get it back. But once I got my mind off my wallet, I became a better tournament player, more focused. Now your mother's got her eye on the both of us. She doesn't want you bleeding your buddies dry for loose change, and neither do I. Besides, you'll learn more goin' up against me for just chips, especially 'bout how to lose."
It's crazy to think of a church holding a poker tournament. But Father Dineros has been doing it for five years straight now, ever since that big brushfire hopped the main road, burning down close to forty houses and the auto parts factory that never got rebuilt. People come from as far as six townships over to play, and it usually takes two whole weekends to finish. Most everybody in Caldwell treats it like a celebration, and all the stores, diners, motels, and gas stations get a lot more business.
It costs a hundred and fifty dollars to enter, and the winner gets to wear the silver watch that Father Dineros had on when he got blessed by the Pope in Rome for the whole year. Then, the next year, the watch gets passed on to the new champion.
But the real reason so many people are hyped to play at Saint Bart's is because Father Dineros convinced a Las Vegas casino into giving the winner a free seat in its biggest poker tournament -- one with a twelve-million-dollar pot to the winner.
But that's just free publicity for the casino, because I know they don't really care a thing about the people in Caldwell.
"Our tournament's more sanctified than bingo. There's no cash prize, and every penny goes to keep the recreation center open. That's charity," Father Dineros would say. "As for the Las Vegas connection -- I believe Sin City owes this town something back."
From Caldwell, it's just a ninety-minute drive up
I-15 to Vegas, where poker's almost a religion. And after all those people here lost their homes and jobs, lots of them took their chances trying to get even in the casinos. Only most of them just dug a deeper hole for themselves. That was something Dad had a real soft spot for, and he'd give some of those people their haircuts for free.
A few years back, Father Dineros preached a fire-filled sermon about how people here needed to pull together. Then, at the next community board meeting, nearly everybody pledged their word that if they ever won the big Vegas tournament, half the money would go to the town, to get split up even between every family.
"You shoulda seen it. Something like seven hundred people were promisin' each other money they could only win in their dreams -- spending it too," Mom told me. "And most of 'em were lookin' at your father like he could fix everybody's problems with a pair of aces in the hole."
The three years Dad wore that silver watch, his barbershop was packed with people wanting to talk poker, especially around tournament time. On Saturdays, they'd be sitting three or four deep, waiting more than an hour for a haircut or shave while Dad told stories about the hands he'd played, even the ones he got skunked on.
"I sat at the same table in Vegas with the Jarvis Tatum," Dad told his customers. "I'm not sure how many world championship bracelets he's won. But it's enough to make this watch look awful lonely on my wrist. So Tatum says in this slow Southern drawl, 'Every hand, I look into the faces of my opponents before I see my own cards.' And with my voice steady as a rock, I answer, 'Mr. Tatum, I come from Caldwell, California, and all folks there can do is play the hand they been dealt.'"
On his last trip to the big tournament, Dad made it into the top one hundred out of more than five thousand players, bringing home almost thirty-two thousand bucks. And when he got back, people in Caldwell lined up to shake his hand.
Dad and me would play no-limit Texas hold'em -- the same game they played in both tournaments. You get dealt seven cards and have to make the best five-card hand you can. First, each player gets dealt two cards, facedown, to decide if they want to bet or drop out of the hand. The next three cards get turned over for everybody to see and share together. That's called the flop. Next comes the turn. That's one card, faceup, for everybody to use. Then comes the last and most important card. It's called the river, because you either sink or swim with it. Everybody sees and shares that one too, before they make their final bets.
Anywhere along the line, you can bet every chip you have by calling "All in." And winning that hand would double up your stack, and maybe bust your opponent for every chip he had.
After Mom got her way, and we started playing for the candy she brought home from the supermarket instead of money, Dad couldn't bluff me out of hands. I played with absolutely no fear. If I had any kind of decent cards I'd just keep pushing M&Ms and Jolly Ranchers into the pot, hoping to get lucky.
"A poker player's most dangerous when he's not afraid to lose," Dad said one time, looking me in the eye. "You can't predict what he's gonna do, 'cause he gets near impossible to read."
If I thought I had him beat for sure, I'd call "All in!" shoving everything into the middle of the table, sometimes after just the first two cards.
When Dad answered, "I'm all in too," we'd turn our cards over and watch as the last ones got dealt. Almost every time Dad came in against me, he had the better hand to start.
I'd suffer through the four cards that got turned over next. Then we'd reach the river, and there might be just one card left in the whole deck that could save me. But I'd always believe that card was coming up. And whenever it did, Dad would shake his head as I pulled a huge pile of candy over to my side of the table, counting it out in front of him.
"You oughta build yourself a raft like Huck Finn," he'd fume. "'Cause you're livin' on the river, son."
Then Mom would call me "Huck" the rest of the night, just to needle him over getting beat.
Dad had the stroke at his shop. A customer said he was cutting hair, telling a story like any other day, and just toppled over. That was in early June, a few days before the last tournament here, and he stayed unconscious in that hospital bed straight through it.
He was hooked up to a dozen different machines, and every time one beeped my heart nearly stopped cold. It didn't matter what the nurses said about no jewelry, Mom made sure that watch stayed on Dad's wrist.
"It's been blessed by the Pope," she told them, flat out. "It'll protect him."
The watch had a shiny black face and silver hands, with a 12 at the top and a 6 at the bottom, and single silver bars where the rest of the numbers should have been. The glass was scratched between the 12 and the first silver bar, and every time I tried it on, the stretching metal band yanked the hairs on my wrist.
The night before Dad died, Mr. Abbott came to visit him in the hospital. He's a math teacher at my high school, who mostly has senior classes. But I'd caught his act in the halls as he barked at kids for fun, and I'd even seen him be an asshole in other places with adults, too.
I had a job serving sandwiches two tournaments back, and Abbott would snap his fingers at me like I was his personal slave. He was the most obnoxious poker player anybody had ever seen. Only he was that good, too, and could back it up.
"Some of you bright lights can't even spell poker," Abbott told a table full of players, scooping up a big pot. "It's P-O-K-E-R. Maybe I'll write a book about the game one day, and somebody can read it to the bunch of you."
But Dad kept his mouth shut and hammered Abbott at the final table, busting him good to become champ again that year.
"We weren't close or anything," Abbott explained to Mom. "I won the poker tournament at Saint Bart's today. Father Dineros mentioned your husband was sick and asked everybody to pray for him. I didn't realize it was so serious. I hope he gets better soon."
Mom caught on before I did that Abbott was there for the watch.
"He will get better," Mom said with some real fire. "And when he does, I'll let him know why you were here."
Only after Mom and me went home, Abbott must have doubled back to Dad's room, because the next morning the watch was missing.
Mom was so mad she burst into tears. That was the first time I ever remembered seeing her cry. My blood was boiling. I wanted to go down to school and beat Abbott's ass. But Mom wouldn't let me. Instead she called Sheriff Connor, who'd played in the tournament too, and he promised to check on it.
But before we heard anything back, Dad died.
He just stopped breathing, and everything we were thinking about changed.
At Dad's funeral I was torn to pieces inside, but tried hard not to show it. I was afraid I'd break down bawling in front of people, so I concentrated on squeezing Mom's hand, telling her everything would be all right.
Father Dineros gave the eulogy, and hearing what he said made me feel stronger, and extra proud of everything Dad did in his life.
"God gave Julius Porter the gift of looking others in the eye and being able to see more than the rest of us," he told everybody. "In turn, he used that gift to make us look more closely at ourselves. That's the true measure of a man."
People said Abbott was already wearing the watch around town, but Father Dineros told us not to waste our time over it. That God would judge Abbott.
Then Sheriff Connor showed up and broke the bad news.
"The math teacher admits to taking it, all right. But I don't see how I can arrest him," Connor said, almost apologizing. "Technically it's not stealing. The watch was supposed to move on to the next winner. There's just no law against being a real jerk."
In Vegas, Abbott scored more than seventy thousand dollars in the big casino tournament. But he wouldn't part with a dime of it for the town.
"That was all just talk. I never signed any legal document," weaseled Abbott. "Besides, I don't really even live in Caldwell. My property's more than ten feet past the town line."
After that, Mom and me had a lot more company in despising his miserable ass.
Still, Abbott and his wife would sit right up front in church with their heads up high while Father Dineros preached. God only knows what they were praying for.
And when school started up again for my senior year, I had to stomach seeing that thief wearing Dad's watch in the halls every damn day.
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Volponi