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Aug/Sep 1998 Fiction

Saturday Night Poker

by Kevin Hoffman


My name is Frank. I'm a butler. I work for Patrick Conner. He's old money. Three generations old money. He's an old man too. Relatively old. 62 years. I've worked for him for the past twenty. I'm forty three myself. Seven years away from retirement. Then I won't be a butler anymore.

I didn't train to be a butler. Didn't train to be much of anything, really. I don't think anybody trains to be a butler. It just kind of happens. It's a step above being a waiter.

I speak with a phony English accent. That's what makes me better than a waiter and earns me the big bucks. I told Mr. Conner that I was from England, and I used the upper crust English accent, not the cockney one. That's my genius. A lesser man would have gone with the cockney one.

Mr. Conner bought the trick, twenty years ago. The accent has changed a bit over those twenty years. I'm sure I've changed it entirely from what it sounded like back then. He hasn't noticed; the change was gradual. I haven't noticed either. My English accent is constant now, and I even talk with it while I am at the supermarket buying loaves of bread for Mr. Conner.

We live in Lake Forest, in Chicago. Mr. Conner lives there because he is extremely rich and can afford to buy a two million dollar house. I live there because Mr. Conner is my employer. As I mentioned before, I am his butler.

He has gotten old, and doesn't get out much. I see him more than anyone. Some times he sees no one but me during the entire day. You would think that over twenty years my relationship with Mr. Conner would have gone beyond the level of employer/employee. You might imagine that we would have become the best of friends.

But that's not the way it is. He is my employer, and I am his employee, and we are nothing else to each other but that. Except on Sundays.

Sunday is poker night. Mr. Conner has never been a religious man, so we gamble. Not with high stakes, mind you. That would make the playing field uneven. Mr. Conner could bet me out of the game on the first hand. So we play for small stakes. Dimes are the standard unit of currency, but we don't even use those, because the glint of the silver might convince us that the money wagered was meaningful.

We use pennies. Each penny represents a dime. A stack of ten pennies represents one dollar. Five such stacks equals five dollars. But we try to forget that and regard them simply as pennies.

"Don't think of them as dimes, or dollars," Mr. Conner said, "think of them as pennies. Simple pennies."

Mr. Conner seemed extremely concerned to make me forget that we were playing with real money. I would have thought that he was trying to swindle me, were it not for the fact that he stood to gain nothing from it. A rich man swindling a poor man serves no purpose, they don't get enough money from it. A rich man must swindle a rich man in order to make any real profit. That or a million poor men.

But nonetheless Mr. Conner was always adamant about saying they were just pennies, simple pennies, and would tolerate no mention of them representing dimes during the game. I wondered once why he was so concerned to forget it was money why he didn't want to just play for fun anyway if he didn't want the pennies to be dimes.

"There's no such thing as fun," he told me. "And there's no reason to do anything without some reward. The dimes mean nothing to me, that's why I'd rather see pennies. It's the reward I'm concerned with."

Similarly, things were only fun to Mr. Conner if he stood to lose something from poor performance.

Mr. Conner was always a little funny about our poker games. He would become an entirely different person for three hours on Sunday. He insisted that I change clothes. Normally I wear a tuxedo. Like all the butlers on television. Mr. Conner insists that I do this, and after twenty years of service he has not changed the dress code even slightly, nor did he tolerate the one occasion when I did not wear a bow tie because of a mishap with the laundry.

On Sunday, for the poker game, I am not allowed to wear my tuxedo. He insists that I wear a short-sleeved shirt, button down, with no less than three buttons undone at the top. Furthermore, I am required to wear a gaudy gold chain around my neck, with a gold crucifix on it, which he insists cannot be made of real gold, but rather a synthetic gold which turns my neck a slight shade of green if I am exposed to it for too long.

On Sundays I am required to wear shorts, which show off my pale, hairy legs. These shorts must be made of denim, they must be cut off and frayed at approximately thigh level. They must be worn exactly two inches off of my hips, so that if I were to bend over the crack of my ass would be exposed.

He also requires that I smoke a cigar. A big stinky one, which must cost no more than three dollars and forty nine cents for a pack of five. I must smoke these cigars throughout the three hour game. I must also drink beer. The beer must originate in America and can cost no more that five dollars and ninety-nine cents per six pack.

"Not a penny more," Mr. Conner said, picking up off of the poker table a penny which was really a dime.

Also on poker nights, and this is the most bizarre thing of all, Mr. Conner and I smoke a small amount of marijuana, which Mr. Conner insists is for medical purposes.

"If it's for medical purposes, sir," I said, "why am I supposed to smoke it? I have no medical condition."

"Exactly," Mr. Conner said, and puffed heartily on one of his cigars, "Let's keep it that way."

In fact, I am required to obtain what is colloquially called a dime bag of pot every Sunday, which is exactly ten dollars worth of weed. Mr. Conner gives me this ten dollars in addition to the five hundred, thirty-three dollars and fifty cents which I make for a weekly pay-check.

Actually, the first time Mr. Conner asked me to buy reefer for him was one of only two job related anecdotes that I feel is worthy of telling.

Mr. Conner said, "Frank, come here for a moment, I have a question."

And I went into the library, where he happened to be sitting in a chair, with a quilt over his legs, a book open at his desk and a bright light shining into it illuminating one small comer of the otherwise dark room.

"What is it sir?" I asked.

"I was wondering," Mr. Conner said, "If perhaps you know anyone who might be in possession of some marijuana."

This was when he was fifty-six, after I had been working for him for sixteen years, and after he had already begun to look like a very old man. Even at fifty-six he looked seventy. And now at sixty he looks as least eighty. At that rate he'll look almost two hundred by the time he dies.

"No sir," I said, startled, thinking he was accusing me of associating with a seedy element, and imagining that he might want to start taking urine samples every month to test for drug use, as per the advice of Ronald Reagan, whom my employer was an acquaintance with, on account of a donation of no small quantity to a certain campaign fund.

"That's too bad," Mr. Conner said. "I could really use some."

"Marijuana?" I asked.

"Yes," Mr. Conner said. "I have a medical condition."

"What kind sir?"

"That's none of your concern. But I have it on good authority that marijuana is a cure for it. It's in this book, I have just double checked the source," Mr. Conner said, scratching at a few gray whiskers on his protruding chin.

"Perhaps I could talk to some people," I said.

"Yes, yes you do that. Keep in mind, of course, that this particular drug is not approved of by the government. 'Just say no' and all that, of course. It wouldn't do to have me implicated in any of this. But if what this book says is accurate..." He tapped the book as if that was all that needed to be said.

"Yes of course, sir," I said.

A short while later I obtained some marijuana and that was added to the routine of our weekly poker games, which at that time were not yet a tradition. We had been playing every week for a month. We have not stopped playing since then.

I was very curious the first time he asked me to play poker. It was not nearly so as the marijuana incident. But I was taken aback, for it was the first time in years that he asked me to be anything more than a servant.

"I would like to play a game," he said. "A poker game."

"Sir?"

"Yes, poker. But not like this. We should change. And get cigars."

"Cigars," I said. "Right away sir."

And after I got the cigars, and after we both changed into what has now become the standard uniforms of our poker games, Mr. Conner said, "I don't want you losing on purpose."

"I wouldn't do that, sir," I said.

"Of course you would. Anybody would in your situation. And for good reason," he clapped me on the back, and then became frighteningly serious. "But I won't stand for any of it."

"Yes sir," I said.

"You are to attempt to win by any means necessary. If I am not shielding my cards properly, I want you to look at them, and play your hand accordingly. If you think I am bluffing, I want you to throw all of your money into the middle, call me a bullshitter and demand to see the cards. If I ever catch you folding with a good hand, you will be dismissed immediately from service. As long as you play to win, you will have nothing to worry about it in terms of job security."

"Yes sir."

"And during the poker game you will not address me as sir. You can call me Conner. Or Patrick. Or Pat. You may even call me cocksucker."

I made a face like a baby tasting a lemon for the first time.

"Yes, cocksucker. But you may not call me Mr. Conner. And if you call me Mr. Conner, the penalty will be the same as if you had folded with a good hand."

"Yes... " I was, at the time, unsure of whether to finish the sentence with "Mr. Conner," "sir," or "cocksucker." Mr. Conner detected this confusion.

"At the end of the poker game, you will resume calling me Mr. Conner, and we shall act as we have always acted, and as it is proper to act."

"Yes Mr. Conner," I said.

"Okay," Mr. Conner said. He sat down at the table and started shuffling the cards. "Let's play."

And then the cocksucker dealt.

He never explained this particular ritual to me-this three hours of poker and cigars and swearing and being high on marijuana, this ritual which he spontaneously created sixteen years after hiring me and one week after reading a three part book series about life in the old west-but I figured out the psychology of it in short order. Mr. Conner, I understood, was somewhat ashamed of the fact that he was old money and hadn't proven himself worthy of wealth. He envied the young, upstart, computer geeks at Apple computer who were making a fortune out of nothing. He said they had style, and it was exactly the same style that he had seen in characters like Jessie James, Billy the Kid, and Doc Holiday.

That was why Mr. Conner established a three hour hiatus from wealth on Sundays, during which time he competed in what he considered a street fight, pitting his wit, intelligence, skill-and that most envied of characteristics in old west heroes and new wave millionaires as well-luck, against mine.

Which is why we play poker. Mr. Conner is not a terrific poker player by any means. In fact he is laughably bad. The marijuana evens the playing field slightly, and on a few occasions I attributed sinister motives to his skimpy drags from the pipe, and his generosity, always offering me, his humble servant and poker companion, the lion share of the drug. But even with the excess of marijuana, I won every game. Have won every game since the first week. I imagine I will win every game from here until seven years from now. At which time I will not be a butler. At which time I will not play poker with Mr. Conner anymore.

A funny thing happens to me when I smoke weed. I get paranoid. Mr. Conner pointed out to me that this is one of the side-effects described in his book. I said, "I know weed makes you paranoid, you dumb cocksucker." We were playing poker at the time.

Mr. Conner has two mottoes which he has repeated a grand total of 94 and 86 times respectively in the past twenty years. The first motto is: "Never let politics get in the way of a good time." The second is: "Never let your good times damage you politically."

For this reason I may speak with him in whatever manner I want during those three hours, reveal to him any secret, confess certain secret hatreds of certain tedious and downright annoying characteristics that he has, but I must never, ever allow anything which occurs in those three hours to have any effect on our working relationship. Likewise he promises to me that what is said in those three hours by me, directed towards him, regarding certain tedious and downright annoying characteristics of his, will be immediately forgotten after those three hours. "Forgetfulness," Mr. Conner said, "is another side-effect of marijuana mentioned in my book."

Last week during our poker game, after I had smoked the lion share of weed and gotten extremely paranoid, I had an extremely ridiculous thought. I had amassed seven piles of ten pennies each, each penny being a dime, each stack of ten a dollar, and the total seven stacks being equal to exactly seven dollars. In the middle of a hand I suddenly realized that I had to pee and would have to get up from the table in order to do so.

I looked down at the wealth I had accrued, all seventy pennies of it. I then glanced across the table at the man wearing the Hawaiian shirt, with loafers and black socks, who was bald and looked seventy and chomped on an unlit cigar which was falling apart in his mouth. He spit a small piece of soggy tobacco onto the green felt table. It landed near his own pile of pennies, which amounted to a mere six.

"I'll have to get a loan from the bank soon," Conner said. He picked up his seven pennies and dropped them one at a time with a chinkety-chinkety-chink on the table.

The bank was a three foot tall, one foot in diameter glass jar filled with over one thousand pennies.

"No use putting off the inevitable," he said, and dropped two dollars into a separate jar we had put aside for "real money." He then removed twenty pennies from the jar.

I watched him drop the hand full of pennies all at once, making a loud chinkety-chinkety-chink. His twenty-seven piles formed a small copper hill in front of him.

And I had to pee terribly.

The pot was up to sixteen pennies. (I mean the pot on the table of course. The amount of money which stood to be won in the poker game. Not the reefer we had smoked earlier.) I had a full house, an extremely good hand which beat a straight and a flush and was only inferior to a straight-flush, royal flush, four of a kind, and five of a kind. Five of a kind was possible because twos were considered wild and could be designated anything. I had two twos and I had designated them both kings. I have always been extremely lucky at cards.

"I call. Two pair," Conner said. He had no wild cards. His two pairs were ladies and fours.

"I have a full house," I said, putting down my cards on the table. "You lose."

He looked at me contemptuously.

"What the fuck you looking at, cocksucker?" I asked.

"Nothing," he said.

I remembered at exactly that moment (how could I forget?) that my body had an urgent need to go pee. And this is exactly when the strange thought occurred, which I can only attribute to marijuana, and which I am sure is a side-effect listed in Mr. Connerís book. I looked at my many neatly arranged stacks of pennies, and compared them to Conner's own pitiful sum, and I wondered how he would feel if I were to take my pennies with me to the bathroom. I started to think about the chance of him stealing my pennies and getting away with it. I knew he could easily skim one or two pennies off the top of my piles, a few pennies I would not notice in my vast wealth. While those pennies were just a small part of the seven dollar fortune represented on that table, it brought me particular displeasure to think of him having those pennies, to see them intermixed with those few grubby pennies lying haphazardly in front of him. I was about to sweep all of my pennies off that table and into my pockets when I considered another frightening thought. Even if I did take the pennies with me the penny jar itself would be left unattended and he could easily take a few extra pennies out of it and put them in his pile. I would not know about these pennies and therefore he would not have to pay real dimes for them. He would manufacture money out of thin air. I thought of this and realized he could make a small fortune for himself just taking pennies while I was taking pisses. I was almost convinced he had been doing this for the past four years worth of poker games and tried to do the multiplication in my head, figuring that it was possible that he had by this time racked up sixteen dollars (one hundred sixty pennies) worth of counterfeit money during the four years worth of bathroom breaks.

"You cheater!" I said.

"What?" he said.

"Cheater! You've cheated for sixteen bucks!"

"How dare you!"

"The penny jar. You sneak money when I piss."

"I do no such thing."

"You do, cocksucker. I know you do."

His eyebrows formed a V and he was speechless.

"Before the next game," I said. "I want to invest in a bank that has a lock. This glass jar is too easy to steal from."

"Fine," he said, grudgingly.

At that moment I also noticed that his chair, a dull brown recliner, looked fluffier and infinitely more comfortable than my own chair, which was mahogany and had the special feature of a built in ash tray on the right armrest.

"Another thing," I said. "I don't think it's right for you to have that chair."

Again, he looked at me disapprovingly.

"I have all this money and you can't keep your hands out of the bank. I want the good chair. You can sit on the wooden one."

"And if I refuse?" Conner was putting on his fake English accent.

"Then I'll punch you in your bloody nose, cocksucker. When I get back I want you to be in the wooden chair, where you belong. And if I find any of my money missing then you'll be sorry."

I said this with terrific flair.

When I returned from the bathroom he had indeed switched chairs, though now I wondered why I had made such a big deal out of it. I also counted my money and I still had the exact same amount as I did when I went to piss. I regarded the money jar with skepticism but a look at Conner's pile of pennies assured me that he didn't take any from the jar, and might have put a few pennies back into the jar just to spite me.

The rest of the game progressed normally. He borrowed an additional forty pennies (four dollars) from the bank. I won almost every hand. My luck was good, his was bad. I was mostly silent and tried hard not to gloat about my winnings. He was sullen in defeat though mustered a few cowboy poses and sayings for the rare occasions of his victory.

At the end of the three hours we had both become sober again. I changed into the standard issue tuxedo promptly. When I returned clad in black and white Mr. Conner seemed to take particular joy in instructing me to "take the dog out to do his natural duty."

He said, "Make sure that you clean up after him.'t By clean up, he meant put the fecal matter in a plastic bag, a part of the job that I had understood the first time he told me it, on the first day of work twenty years ago. Even so, his first request after poker games was always to "take the dog out to do his natural duty," and always he took care to remind me to "clean up after him."

But I do this without question. And I admit that while marijuana does make me paranoid, as Mr. Conner's book said it would, it does not make me, as Conner put it, "forgetful." And while I always get told to "clean up after him," it is with particular relish that I do this otherwise disgusting act, for the memory of my many pennies is still fresh in my mind, and already I am thinking about the next Sunday, a chance to accumulate even more pennies.

I imagine it will be this way for seven more years. At which time I will retire and no longer be Patrick Conner's butler. At which time I will no longer play poker with Patrick Conner. At which time I will take all of the pennies I have accumulated over those eleven years and cash them in for dimes.

And with those thousands and thousands of dimes, I will buy myself a vacation.

And that vacation will be in Las Vegas.

 

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