THREE DAYS after Christmas, and I was at the poker table along with Seymour and McCafferty at Keith’s place.
Keith had had a plenty rough day, most of it spent with his girlfriend, Bonnie, in an abortion clinic just outside of Pittsburgh. You could see how frayed he was: skinny as hell and that big head of electrocuted hair, smoking one cigarette after another, the blue veins in his forehead like hot wires about to rupture. Every so often he’d interrupt the game to get up and check on Bonnie, asleep in his bedroom. He’d drag back in, in that baggy Captain America shirt and bells way too short, and throw me a worried glance, tears in his eyes. Then he’d get back in the game.
I had chipped in to help pay for the abortion and had gone along with them to the clinic. Keith had wanted to keep the baby, but Bonnie insisted they shouldn’t have children until they were married. Keith was raised strict Catholic and worried it was murder, an unpardonable sin, and that he and Bonnie would be cursed by God for the rest of their lives. I didn’t necessarily believe this, but then again I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d all been struck by lightning as we left the clinic. More than anything else, I believed in inevitability — which in my mind was the same thing as God. Put up a fuss or roll over and die: the outcome would be exactly the same.
Bonnie didn’t say a word, just kissed Keith. Then she walked into the room with the nurse, and the door closed behind her.
Sitting next to Keith on a hard wooden bench, I tried to put out of my mind what was going down on the other side of the white clinic wall. I knew that I should dig deep and find something to say to my friend, offer something in the way of comfort. But, truthfully, it was a little too much to talk about, and I had no idea what I’d have done in Keith’s place. While we waited, the winter weather outside threw a hood over the afternoon, and then the light shut down completely.
WE WERE PLAYING a game McCafferty introduced us to called High Heart: straight Seven-card Stud — two cards down, four up, and one down — but to win the pot, somebody had to catch not only the high hand but also (and this was the kicker) the highest heart on the table as one of his three down cards. The betting got nuts because a guy sitting on the ace, king, or queen of hearts underneath would drive the bidding up, hoping to catch a decent hand or at least bluff the other players out. The same held true for someone who landed strong cards but no big down hearts early. He’d bet like he had it and pray for a heart on the last down card.
If someone couldn’t parlay both high heart and high hand, the pot stayed on the table, the cards were shuffled, and another round was dealt. Fold and you sit out until somebody wins the pot. You either get out in a big hurry, or stay in because so much of your money is sitting in front of you that you can’t bear to let it go. A sucker game: greed, stupidity, and what passes for guts.
I folded early, but Keith hung with Seymour and McCafferty hand after hand, like he had a pistol to his temple. He had this dogged, doomed look on his face, as if he had been forsaken and all that remained was to toss his money onto the table and run back and forth to check on Bonnie.
“Hey, Keith, will you please pay attention?” Seymour said.
“It’s to you. A bean.”
“Man,” Keith said, and threw a dollar into the pile of bills and change in the middle of the table.
“Drop, if you don’t have the stomach for it,” cracked McCafferty.
I looked up but said nothing. I hadn’t known McCafferty long. He was a friend of Seymour’s from college and only occasionally showed up at poker games, so I had no way of telling if he was serious. McCafferty was a little too slick. The way he throttled the deck like a shark and snapped off the cards between his thumb and middle finger when he dealt, twirling them across the table and calling out in poker lingo: bullets, ducks, johnnies, cowboys, boats, all silk, twenty miles of track. McCafferty with his movie lines like “Drop, if you don’t have the stomach for it.” Like this was some dire scene. Like he was Doc Holliday. Like the whole backdrop of Keith’s apartment, his furniture, and his friends existed only to showcase what a miraculous character McCafferty was.
The hell with you, I thought. McCafferty was Seymour’s friend. I wasn’t going to worry about it.
McCafferty had his girlfriend with him. Just back from Jamaica, they were both dark brown from the Caribbean sun. The girl’s name was Helen Munson. McCafferty called her “Munson.” The island rays had dropped a crown of light in her brown hair. Her nose and cheeks were cherry pink where she had peeled. Not a speck of makeup, just her eyes and bleached brows, lashes, lips, a white dress with nothing under it. All that and she wasn’t pretty. I found myself studying her, searching for whatever flaw it was that ransacked her beauty.
Munson was perched on the couch across the room, pulling clumps of green marijuana out of a Giant Eagle grocery sack, breaking it up on a screen with a wooden frame, sluicing the shake into baggies, then lining up the quarter-ounce cylinders side by side on the coffee table. She looked up only to hit the bong when it came her way. McCafferty claimed they had smuggled the weed out of Montego Bay. Intermittently he’d lapse into a Jamaican patois. He called the reefer “ganja” and the bong the “chalese.” Joints were “spliffs.” He was the “heavy mon,” the “tilley mon.” Instead of drinking beer, he sipped from an unlabeled bottle he said was Jamaican overproof rum.
Keith had too much invested in this pot to drop. He zipped out another smoke, trembling slightly, and gave McCafferty the eye. I wanted Keith to fold, send everyone home, crawl into bed with Bonnie, and sleep through the night without waking. The nurse had said Bonnie would be better the next day. He should have forgotten about poker, but it was a standing ritual, and Keith thought it would take his mind off things.
“It’s bad luck to count the till, Rasta,” McCafferty said, then laughed. He wore a top hat and had a beard. His eyes gleamed. He took a swallow of rum.
“I wasn’t counting the fucking till,” Keith said.
“I know you weren’t. I was just saying.”
“Just play,” said Seymour.
“My bet, I believe,” said McCafferty.
Munson handed him the packed bong. It was made of clear glass with a chamber the size of a softball. McCafferty puckered his lips into the shaft, Munson lit the bowl with a disposable, and he sucked mightily. The water bubbled. The belly of the bong clouded with thick white smoke that roiled for an instant before he let off the carburetor with his pinkie and all those shadows stormed down his throat. Munson pressed her mouth to his, and McCafferty blew the hit into her with a kiss. She staggered back, gave a little shimmy and yelp, and let out a long jet of smoke, first from her mouth, then through her nose, until the entire table was shrouded.
“Two dollah,” McCafferty sang, and passed the bong to Seymour.
“I don’t know,” Seymour said. “Let me hit this thing and ponder.”
“I’ll be right back,” Keith said, and jumped up.
“One minute, Rasta. You’re not going anywhere. There’s a bet on the table,” McCafferty said.
Keith looked at him, dumbfounded.
“I’m just kidding. Relax. We’ll be here when you get back.”
Keith stared at McCafferty another second, then strode out of the room. I got up and followed him.
Keith knelt beside the bed, a double mattress on the floor, above which hung a crucifix. A black light shed a purple glow on posters of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. A radiator under the lone window hissed. Across the street was a convent — the Little Sisters of the Poor — and next to it a home the nuns ran for old people. On the convent lawn was a big Christmas tree with blinking red and green bulbs that splashed the ceiling of Keith’s room. Bonnie, covered to the waist by a sheet, snored lightly. She wore one of Keith’s flannel shirts. Her beige hair was knotted in a long pigtail.
“I think she’s running a fever, Fritz. Come and feel her.”
I knelt next to Keith and placed my hand on Bonnie’s forehead. It was warm and a little wet. She said something: “Maybe”? “Baby”? I couldn’t tell. Her breath smelled like water left too long in a vase of flowers.
“I’m worried, Fritz,” Keith said. “I think she’s hot. What do you think?” He put his hand again to Bonnie’s forehead.
“She’s a little warm, but this room’s like a furnace.”
“You think I should turn the heat down?”
“I think it’s OK,” I said.
“What if she has a fever?”
“What did the nurse say?”
“She said that’s not unusual.”
“OK, then. Nothing’s wrong.”
“What if she dies, Fritzy?” Keith sat on the edge of the mattress and grabbed his hair in his fists.
“Listen, Keith.” I laid my hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Look at me, man.” Keith looked up, his eyes red with tears. “She is not going to die. You’ve got to get ahold of yourself. She’s going to wake up tomorrow, and everything’s going to be fine.”
“I know, man, I know. But I keep feeling like all this is going to come back on me. I mean, Jesus Christ, Fritz.” He lowered his face to his hands. “I’ll tell you one thing. I’m gonna kill that motherfucker in the other room, next time he says a word.”
“Forget about him.”
“I’m telling you, Fritz, so when it happens you’ll remember I told you.”
“Look, you’re a wreck over Bonnie. This whole thing. Go in the other room and fold, get the hell out of that game: everybody goes home, you go to bed and get some sleep, and everything will be better tomorrow.”
“With all my money in the pot? Just give it to that son of a bitch?”
“I’m almost busted, Fritz. Every nickel I had saved went into that black mass today. I can’t afford to lose another cent.”
“I can spot you a little bread. Fold. Drop out of the game, and get that asshole out of your house.”
“You think I should?”
“I know you should.”
“OK, I’ll fold.” Keith kissed Bonnie on the forehead. “You think she’s all right?”
“She’s fine, Keith. I wouldn’t lie to you about it. I care about her too.”
“I’m tired, man. I’m gonna fold.”
REGGAE PLAYED, and Munson danced as if a light wind were blowing her languidly about the living room. Her thick hair vined across her face, and when she dipped and threw her head back, I saw that her breasts were brown too, and that she didn’t shave under her arms.
McCafferty handed the bong to Keith and laughed.
“I’m gone, man,” Seymour said.
“You out?” Keith asked.
I looked at Keith. He had a ten and a pair of deuces showing. McCafferty had a smear of unmatched cards: queen, eight, six. They each had two more cards coming: one up, one down.
“I got him beat on the board,” Keith whispered to me, then fired up the bong.
“Two bucks to you,” McCafferty said to Keith.
Keith slid two dollars into the pot and knocked his beer off the table. I thought I heard a little cry from Keith’s bedroom. Munson swayed, the music revving, getting ready to blow her all hot out into the frozen night. I could smell her: Coconut. Sun-blanched skin. The taste of sea salt on my tongue. I had never seen the ocean. She was like some kind of mythic temptress, seductive, unreal.
The drapeless window was crusted with frost. Outside, the air crystallized, twisting itself around the street lamps and convent lights. The concrete was iced over. Bits of snow chipped out of the sky.
“Turn that music down,” Keith said. “Bonnie’s trying to sleep.”
Munson glided over to the stereo and lowered the volume. She stopped dancing and sat down at the table between McCafferty and me. I felt heat radiating off her. Blessed warmth. Sunshine amid the endless icy gray of a Pittsburgh winter. I wanted to touch her. Just touch her. She laid her head down on her arms and closed her eyes. McCafferty lifted a hank of her hair and let it fall through his fingers.
“The Stones did a concert in Kingston while we were there,” McCafferty said. “Jagger almost caused a riot.”
“What the hell does that have to do with anything?” Keith snapped. He pulled another beer from the bag at his feet.
“Atmosphere, Rasta. Just thought you’d like to know,” McCafferty came back.
“I’ll raise you a couple more, Rasta,” Keith said, and he laid two more bucks in the heap.
Seymour whistled. I shot a look at Keith. He looked dead back at me. “Fuck it. You know?” he growled. “Just fuck it.”
“Some fatalistic dread, mon,” lilted McCafferty. He held two bills above the pot and let them fall.
“Deal,” Keith ordered.
McCafferty tossed the ace of clubs to Keith. “Bullet,” he called, then dealt himself a two. “Your deuce. No help. Your bet, Rasta.”
Keith split off a five-dollar bill and threw it in. “Five bucks.”
“OK, Rasta. I’ll see that five and raise it ten.” McCafferty laid the money in, pulled a joint from behind his ear, and lit it.
“That’s a little extreme, McCafferty,” Seymour said.
“I don’t know, man. A ten-dollar bump in a friendly game?”
Bobbing his head to the music, McCafferty took a three-beat hit on the joint, smiled, moored his eyes on Keith, then exhaled. “I’ll retract the bet if it’s too rich for your blood.”
“Listen —” Keith started.
“This is bullshit, Keith,” I interrupted. “Throw in your hand. You’re getting sucked in.”
“Really, Keith,” Seymour said. “Don’t blow any more money to this jag-off. You know, you’re a jag-off, McCafferty.”
“Throw in your hand, Rasta,” McCafferty said, “and we’ll call it a night.”
Keith scattered another five and five ones into the middle.
The last cards came down. Keith very deliberately slid his to the edge of the table and lifted the corner. McCafferty picked up his card, blew on it, put it back down, and smiled at Keith. “Your bet, Rasta.”
“Crafty, Rasta. It’ll cost you one Old Hickory to see what I got under here.”
“Twenty bucks, McCafferty? You’re a real jag-off. This is a friendly game,” Seymour said.
“There are no friendly games, mon.”
“Fuck you,” Seymour said.
Keith looked at me, a cigarette twitching between his teeth as he talked, smoke catching like fog in his insane hair. “I’m going to see his bet, Fritzy. I’m not going to get run out of my own house by this fucking ramrod.”
“You’re nuts,” I said.
Keith kicked in the twenty. “All right, what do you got?” But before McCafferty could answer, Keith turned over his cards: “I got deuces and tens, with the jack of hearts underneath.”
McCafferty grinned at him for a moment, with the same stagy awareness of every move he made, then began turning over cards one by one. He had two queens underneath to go with the one he had showing. One of them was the queen of hearts, prim, androgynous, judgmental. Trip queens with the high heart. McCafferty’s pot. A hundred bucks easy. More.
Keith said nothing. He stared down at his cards on the table. He touched them as if they might suggest to him a better strategy or shape-shift into a higher hand.
“No,” he said.
“ ‘No’ what?” answered McCafferty.
“You didn’t win that hand.”
“Well, where I come from, Rasta, three of a kind beats two pair every day of the week. And a queen is higher than a jack.” He dragged the money toward him slow. More of his theatrical bullshit.
“You did not win that fucking hand,” Keith said, and he stood up.
McCafferty was smoothing the paper money, peering intently at each bill as he stacked it.
“C’mon, Keith,” Seymour said. “Forget about it.”
“This son of a bitch,” Keith shouted, pointing at McCafferty, who still had not looked up.
“Let it go, Keith. Forget about it,” I said.
Keith flicked his lit cigarette at McCafferty. It hit him in the chest, spraying his red sweater and the green tabletop with sparks. McCafferty looked up at Keith.
“He cheated,” Keith said, lunging with a finger at McCafferty’s face.
“C’mon, Keith,” Seymour said. “Nobody cheated. You lost the hand.”
“Look,” McCafferty said, “I’m going to pretend like I didn’t hear that accusation, and that my favorite sweater didn’t just get mutilated by a lit cigarette hurled at me. I’m going to make a conciliatory suggestion. Why don’t we all load up and get something to eat at Ritter’s. Forget about all this unpleasantness. My treat. What do you say, Rasta?”
“You fucking cheated, and you know it!” Keith yelled. “You are not taking that money out of this house.”
“Fighting words, Rasta.”
“Look, there’s no fighting going on here at all,” Seymour said. “Why don’t you just take your money and split, McCafferty.” He stood up. “Come on, let’s go. We’re all leaving.”
McCafferty remained rooted in his chair, his eyes blazing into Keith’s. Crazy Keith standing there shivering, another cigarette already in his blue lips, eyes like cracked lemon drops, his clothes pulling on his sharp, bony body.
“Can’t leave now, Sey. There’s another bet on the table. Laid down by this righteous Rasta here. This heavy mon signifying in my direction. Very high stakes.”
“Give it a break, McCafferty,” Seymour pleaded. “Just go home.”
“Son of a bitch cheated me, Seymour,” shouted Keith.
“I didn’t cheat.”
“Fuck you didn’t.”
“Take it easy, Keith,” I said.
Munson suddenly lifted her head and spoke: “I wish you would quit staring at me.”
She was talking to me. And it dawned on me at that instant: Munson’s flaw. Why she wasn’t pretty. She was simply too unapproachably beautiful, too unattainable. She carried the sun around with her as if it were her due. Temperate breezes. Warm blue water. She possessed a genetic perfection that canceled out mutts like me and Keith and Bonnie lying split and bled back in Keith’s bedroom, our futures no longer than the walk from Keith’s beat-up vw to the abortion table. I suddenly hated Munson for her ease within her skin, the guarantee she received from the mirror every morning when she gazed into it. McCafferty too. His confidence. His wealth. His good luck. Munson was right. All night I had been staring at her, mesmerized by her perfection, trying to find something wrong with her so I could dismiss her — as if I couldn’t bear beauty because I wasn’t worthy of it.
I was suddenly ashamed of everything: my shabby home, my mother and father, my entire being. I saw my life as though it had all come down to this moment of Keith’s knowingly false accusation. Keith and I, we’d rather have died than tell the truth and admit how empty everything was, what losers we were. Stupid East Liberty kids whose only mode of dealing was to call someone out, right or wrong, then take a beating — take death, if it came down to that — and call it honor.
“Honey,” said McCafferty to Munson, “he’s been looking down your dress all night.”
“You know, McCafferty,” I said, “I’ve been holding off saying this, but you’re the scum of the earth. What you came in here and did tonight . . .”
McCafferty turned on me. “What is this Wild West shit? What do we do? Slap leather?” Then to Keith: “What do you want to do, Rasta? You know I didn’t cheat. You just have a bug up your ass because I tore your house down tonight. Now I’m going to stuff my pockets with your money that I won fair and square, and I’m walking out of here. You follow me, and I will hand you your second ass-whipping of the night. My advice is you crawl back to your soiled sheets and pussy and chalk this up to shitty cards. Better luck next time.”
“Outside, motherfucker! Outside!” Keith screamed, and threw his beer. The can whizzed by McCafferty’s head and busted up the turntable. The record screeched, then died. Munson let out a little cry and laid her hand on her breast.
Keith’s face looked like baby snakes were writhing beneath his bluish mottled skin. “And I want this puttana out of my house,” he said, jabbing a finger at Munson.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“Some wop word,” McCafferty said.
“What’s it mean?” she asked again.
“What’s it sound like it means, you fucking whore?” Keith yelled.
“You awful, ugly thing,” she said to Keith.
McCafferty stood up. He was tall and thick, smiling beneath his blond-streaked beard and silky black hat, blond hair shooting out beneath it. A long necklace of fat orange beads hung from his neck. “I’ll gladly go outside with you, Rasta.”
Keith started for the steep flight of stairs that led down to the street. Holding to the banister, he stumbled a few times on his way down. McCafferty was directly behind him, then Munson and I. Seymour shouted from the top of the stairs: “I’m going to call the cops!”
The avenue was deserted except for a couple of teenagers sledding down a side street. The snow had turned to sleet. It needled down, clicking off the frozen crust that covered everything, visible in the street lamps’ glow and against the convent Christmas tree each time the lights flashed. No cars. It was almost two in the morning.
Keith walked out into the middle of the street. He and McCafferty faced each other. The rest of us stood around them shivering. No one had bothered with coats.
“I want to hear him say he cheated,” Keith said.
“I didn’t cheat,” McCafferty said, “and you know it.”
“I want to hear you say it before I kick your ass.”
McCafferty hadn’t cheated. Keith was all to hell over Bonnie, over the sorry turn his life was taking. All he knew, drunk and stoned as he was, was to lie and swagger. I knew to step in and tell the truth, save Keith a beating. But the truth meant calling Keith a liar, and I couldn’t betray my friend. So I was stuck with Keith’s version of saving face. I stood there silently, pricked by the freeze that knifed down as Keith took a wild swing at McCafferty, lost his balance, and crashed to the frozen asphalt. He clambered up, his head cut at the scalp line, and immediately lost his footing again. He lay there for a moment, buttons of blood falling from his head every few seconds as though precisely measuring time.
“Let’s forget about it, Keith,” I said, clamping under his arms and helping him to his feet.
McCafferty stood there expressionless. “It’s over, Rasta.” Munson, her bare arms folded across her chest, sidled up against him. He put an arm around her. A light came on above the convent porch. The kids, trailing their sleds by wash twine, wandered over to watch.
I had an arm around Keith’s waist. “C’mon, man. That’s enough now.”
Keith nodded. He was crying openly, unabashedly, tears and blood washing down his face. He slipped, righted himself, then whipped a fist at McCafferty. The punch caught Munson in the face. She screamed and went down, taking McCafferty with her. He jumped up, leaving Munson sitting in the street cupping the blood from her cracked nose, and in the same motion caught Keith twice in the mouth, a right and a left, then a knee until Keith lay balled up on the ice, heaving, McCafferty riding him, boots and fists, a long inventory of retribution, the wages of sin.
An old nun, in wimple and plaid bathrobe, hurried out of the convent and teetered across the ice toward them. The kids took off. Police sirens screeched in the distance.
I saw how wrong it all was: Good intentions gone bad. The love between Keith and Bonnie. The abortion. The poker game. The egotism that pushes men to lie rather than admit pain and frailty and wrongdoing. My own inability to look in the mirror and see myself.
Still, I couldn’t help it. Not for the nun, like the queen of hearts, scolding, “Young man,” pulling at McCafferty, who kept pounding Keith. Not even for Bonnie, homely and small, a child who’d had a child raked out of her that very morning, who limped down the long staircase and fell to her knees, whimpering a singsong litany of please and Keith over and over. I simply could not help it. In the glory of my imperfection, I blindsided McCafferty, knocking him clear of Keith.
Then suddenly it was me with his back against the frozen earth, McCafferty’s fists reminding me that I was beholden to a merciless planet, as Keith, sobbing Jesus Christ, crawled into Bonnie’s arms and she rocked him like a child.