As he walked through the Aussie Millions
tournament room, virtually nobody took notice. The few that did, quickly turned away, back to their conversations or, absent that, to staring at a fixed point elsewhere. Anywhere. Fearful of even the glint of recognition when they saw his face.
He took his seat. Number 9. Table 12. He’d no doubt he’d have been sat at #13 had one existed, but at the Crown Casino, none did. The young man to his left, no more than 21, leaned away from him, almost imperceptibly, but he marked it anyway. A lifetime of observation had honed that skill and he was thankful it still remained. He heard whispers at adjoining tables, muttered disbelief. “What is he doing here?”
See, Joe Speaker was salao
, the worst kind of unlucky. And in a poker
room, a poker
tournament, he had become a pariah. Where many years before, he had been feted, he now kept his eyes down and his chin up, feeling their tension on him, summoning himself, his dignity, to face them.
Prosperity was seven years ago, a trite number for his anguish, as if he’d broken a mirror and his crime was simply one of clumsiness. Joe preferred to think of it in terms of months, 84 to be exact, because it gave symmetry to something he loved, a force with which he identified. And like Hemingway’s protagonist, Santiago, the Old Man, bountyless for 84 days, he despaired of his dearth of material success, relying only on his inner spirit to wake each dawn.
Santiago was after a marlin. Joe was after sharks. The Sea was vast green felt, spread far and wide, a familiar place, both kind and cruel. Here, he was on solid ground, despite the beautiful turbulence. The Sea did not change. It was the whim of the Gods which he feared, the forgetfulness of the cards. Where they once rose to meet him like a cresting wave, they have, for too long now, receded like the tide.
As the tournament began, chips clattered and chirped like a noisy flock of birds. Scattered voices echoed around the room, grumbling, distress and euphoria, though none at his table. Rigid silence was the order and for hours, he tasted their discomfort. Alone he remained, unregarded and inside himself. They would look at him, see his scars, those aged, hardened callouses. Some stared longer than they’d have liked. Joe saw that, too.
Tables broke and players rotated, some faces he knew, but most not. Only one managed to speak to him until he sunk his hook.
That man came up behind him during the first break. Pauly. Friend, benefactor, mentor. Pauly was there when Joe fell, dusted him off and lured him back. Even after all this time. Pauly spoke quiet words, not of back-clapping cheer, but of truth, inner, absolute truth. Joe nodded, thankful for his loyalty.
The next person to talk to him was unnamed. Joe did not know him, but he knew his kind. A kid, cocksure and stalwart, offered his initial, defiant poke. Joe let him nibble. “I know who you are,” the kid baited, rattling a litany of Joe’s failures, his history of drought. He leaned forward in his chair, chin out, a dare. Joe cajoled him invisible inches forward, respecting this foe. Though his actions cried for contempt, to deny his ambition would be fatal.
This was the moment of risk and danger. Where before, too often, he’d felt it acutely, Joe was now calm. Resolved. He gazed at the yards of green. Lifted his eyes and saw it: a twitch in the kid’s shoulders. Simple. Timeless and noble, as it ever was, and his knowledge was sure.
When Joe yanked the line, the kid nearly kicked his chair over in haste, haste equaled by his exit. Defeated. The worst knowledge one can have, a luxury Joe had never allowed himself. The breath went out of the table as Joe pulled the chips into his net. Nearby, they whispered and pointed as he lashed his stacks together in a fortress and set about protecting them.
Others awakened to a single insurmountable fact: Joe was a threat. Suddenly, inexplicably, and they dove at him in continual assault. He was exhausted and with each parry, he suffered. Weapons long unused were needed and though successful, he was running low, broken arrows strewn about. Time raced, then slowed down.
The hours turned day into night. Outside, Melbourne came alive with the lights and players began to stream from the building in their misery. Joe held on, fixated on the lights nearby, the ones that burned hotter than others, trained on that single spot, like a mirage, like a distant, illuminated harbor. They drew him closer, steeled his spine, and he idealized his journey, drew on his reservoirs. Of strength. Of experience. Of those scars, old as erosions.
He fought off others, but not before they left him bloodied. His body wearied, though he remained steadfast. When the announcement was made, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have our Final Table,” he had no thoughts nor feelings of any kind.
Joe was too far out. He knew it. Gone beyond in his pursuit and now caught in a vise of his own hubris. By this time, he knew the fight was useless. His triumph would not be material, though his spirit was quenched. They came at him as a pack and he swung desperately, fecklessly.
He could barely stand when it was time, faltering once, twice. A man with a microphone clapped him on the back, said something about resurrection and respectability. The remaining players, four in all, shook his hand as Joe blinked away the fatigue. Applause thundered faintly in his ears as the limped away, earning nods and smiles from the crowd that parted. A familiar arm came around his waist and bore him up. “Manolin,” Joe said, and he allowed himself to be carried out.