The Fox and Lox Society met on the first and last Sunday of every month, though it had been at least 30 years since a piece of salmon lay across any of their bagels. For that matter, they hadn’t had any bagels, either. As the decades went by, their habits had shifted. It used to be cigars. It used to be hard liquor and bottles of beer. Amazing, when you think of it, that any of them were still alive. Wives had died or were carried off by men with mustaches. Colleagues, business partners, associates: hard to count the number that had departed or moved into attractive suburban settings, where their meals were brought to their tables or next to their beds. Yet here they were, all the original members, rising from the card table at intervals to stand over Toto and American Standard-brand toilets or stick a toothpick into a cantaloupe cube.
In the days of their youth, when Marty was a new recruit on the force and Paki still thought he would be a poet and not a professor of accounting, and Deeb was just entering medical school, the stakes were only a nickel and a dime. Over the years, as the eight men aged, they reached a limit of $2/$4 Texas Hold ’Em. Nothing else changed, including the decks of cards, which lasted as long as a decade until they fell apart or became too greasy to hold in one’s hands. Ernie put on weight but otherwise continued to be the big winner at the end of a Sunday night. Frank, wounded in the Battle of la Drang Valley and afflicted by chemical agents, never abandoned his cards and so never went home with more money than he had arrived with. “I like the action,” he’d say; even though it ruined the game, the others indulged him since he had been put out of action himself at the age of 22.
Nothing in the outside world seemed to touch them. The seasons went by, the years went by, the Earth continued its journey through the universe; and if one paused for a moment one could hear the cries of pain, of madness, or despair on its surface. But not on those Sunday nights. A man might land on the moon—that happened on a Sunday, and so did the night Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek a second term. In both cases, men outside danced in the streets. But if Paki, this was during his beret period, should cry out C’est Merveilleux! or Roll say, Good riddance!, Marty would pound the table and declare, No politics! Then Bernie, sharp-nosed and with cheeks as pink as those of a woman wearing rouge, would mutter, Deal the fucking cards. Thus the Fox and Loxers, now hairless or with what hair they had powdered like the wigs of English jurists, and with canes and even a walker, doddered into the new millennium and to the present day.
We come to a recent winter night, when the seven players arrived at the lobby of Deeb’s skyscraper, only to discover that they were six. “Roll called me on the telephone,” Paki announced. “It’s his kidneys again. Don’t worry. I’ve got a substitute. One of my grad students. From what I hear, a first-rate player.”
A groan went up. “Remember the last time we had a substitute?” asked Jimbo. “That friend of Marty’s? Bettinelli or some Italian name? We had to shout in his ear and he still couldn’t hear.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” said Marty. “Besides, he finally broke down and got an aid.”
“And he brought a cake,” said Bernie. “We don’t eat cake. Listen, why don’t we just play with seven? We shouldn’t have to explain our customs to anyone else.”
Frank said, “Bernie is right. That’s why we have eight. In case someone has trouble with his kidneys. Or fibrillations.”
“You just like the better odds,” said Marty. “You think maybe you can finally win a hand.”
“I don’t like new people,” said Jimbo. “The old ones are bad enough.”
“Too late,” Paki declared. “I made the invitation. I gave the address. I make it a point to treat my students like they are peers. Fellow humans. I expect you guys to treat our substitute the way you treat each other. Scratch that. A lot better.”
“He makes it a point,” grumbled Bernie. A fellow human, no less. Aristotle is among us. But he’s an accountant.”
But someone, probably Marty, had pushed the up button on the elevator, because it now loudly chimed. Everyone moved toward the sliding doors—everyone but Ernie, who all this time had stood dripping in a corner, poking numbers into his old-fashioned phone. It wasn’t the snow, which had already run down his sleeves from his shoulders and evaporated from the crown of his hat. It was sweat. Now he spoke into his device. “Hello? Lillian? I’m in the lobby. I’m about to get on. Remember, I love you.”
“Come on,” said Jimbo, pulling something black, with strings dangling, from the pocket of his overcoat. “I’ve got it here.”
It was a blindfold. Ernie would not get into an elevator without one. Indeed, you had to pull him, and even push him, to get him inside even if he had the mask in front of his eyes. Such was the routine every two months when the game revolved to Deeb’s condominium, 38 stories high. He clicked shut his flip top. “I think I better go home.”
No one bothered to reply. His five friends came up to him. Jimbo secured the blindfold, and they all moved forward, two on either side, one in front, more or less like the banned flying wedge. Behind this formation the twin doors slid shut.
“Second floor,” intoned Frank, like a bellboy in one of the grander hotels. A long pause ensued, during which no one spoke and the mass of Ernie’s body became, as in Einstein’s thought experiment, as weightless as a ball thrown into space.
“Third floor,” Frank announced, just as the acceleration ceased and the doors opened wide. The six passengers got out, the blindfold was removed, and they all began to move down the floral carpet toward Deeb’s luxurious apartment.
Their troubles were not over. The last hurdle was the dog that lived in flat C on the right-hand side of the corridor. Deeb swore, and so did Patti, that they never heard a peep from the animal. Yet when Ernie said, as he invariably did, Are you sure this is the third floor? the pit bull or the Rottweiler or the Dobermann would hurl itself against the closed and shuddering door. On this winter night Jimbo put his hand over Ernie’s mouth as they tiptoed down the hall. A futile maneuver; for no sooner did they approach flat C than the beast, almost certainly a mastiff twice as big as Marty, began to howl in bloodlust and scrape its claws at the thin piece of wood separating itself from the half-swooning victim.
“Sense of smell,” said Jimbo and began to shuffle along with the others to where Deeb stood smiling next to his wide-open door.
Inside, the usual preparations had been made. Patti had put out the melon balls and saltines, along with three bottles of soda water, and had either retreated into the depths of the suite or gone out with the other surviving wives to the movies. Thick drapes, especially purchased, hung over all the windows, so that the lights of the city below them, the revolving lamp in the harbor, the blinking signals on the wingtips of descending airplanes—all were blocked from Ernie’s view. And there sat the octagonal table, with the blue cards and the red cards fanned out in double semicircles on the surface of green felt.
“What’s this,” said Ernie, who had recovered his spirits, “honeydew?”
“Straight to the eats,” said Bernie.
“You know what you can do with that toothpick,” said Marty, already easing himself into his chair at the table. Paki, the shortest of the players, was already plumping a cushion to put on the seat of his. “Let’s play,” he said. So all sat down in what was their invariable order: Frank, and going clockwise, Jimbo, Bernie, Deeb, Marty, Paki, Ernie, and then the eighth and empty chair.
Frank stared through his spectacles at the arch of blue, the arch of red. Ever hopeful, he thought he could see, and almost touch, the pots of gold that lay beneath both these rainbows. The others also fell silent. If they had been Christians, you would have thought they were a family at prayer before beginning their evening meal.
At last Deeb gave a sigh, gathered a deck into his hands and started passing out a single card to each of players. “Whoever gets a spade,” he said.
A four of that suit fell to Frank, who took up the other deck and began to deal the first hand of the night. When the cards got round to the vacant seat, he turned to Paki. “Where is this student of yours?”
“It must be the snowstorm,” Paki said. “Everybody is stuck on the T.”
Bernie: “Roll always uses that excuse with the kidneys. He didn’t want to go out in this weather. We ought to cut him out of the game.”
“I call,” said Deeb, putting two chips—black was the only color remaining after all these years—onto the felt.
“Raise,” said Marty, stacking up four.
“Jesus,” said Paki. “The big spender.” He sat for a moment in meditation. “Call.”
Ernie peered at the ex-policeman. “You want us to believe you have two jacks. But what you do have is a much lower pair. Call.”
“I’ll call,” said Frank, to the surprise of no one.
Jimbo, the small blind, threw in his hand and got up to eat a saltine. He had taken no more than two steps toward the kitchen when the buzzer sounded from the downstairs lobby.
“There’s our eighth,” said Ernie.
“I’ll let him in,” said Jimbo, making his way to the telecom by the front door. “Who’s there?”
“For Christ’s sake,” said Bernie. “We know who’s there. Buzz him in.”
“Does he know the apartment number, this student?” asked Deeb.
“Sure,” said Paki. “E. On the, um, third floor.”
“What’s so funny?” asked Ernie, when everybody started to chuckle. “You better warn him about that wild animal next door.”
“Let’s finish up,” said Frank. “I’ve got a great hand.”
Bernie, with his hawk nose, stared at the two cards in his hand as if they were a pair of chipmunks he was about to snatch up for lunch. But before he could swoop, the brass knocker struck the brass plate of apartment E. The players turned toward the sound.
“Welcome to the Fox and Lox Society!” Jimbo announced, and threw open the door.
The eighth player, the graduate student in accounting, stepped smiling across the threshold. A gasp sounded throughout apartment E. For the first time in its half century of existence, the poker game was to have a female player.
“Thank you,” she said, putting out a plump hand, glittering with fingernail polish. “My name is Meena.”
“Jesus Christ!” Deeb, the condo owner, exclaimed.
“What the hell, Paki?” That was Marty, rising from his chair as if to make an arrest. “What the hell?”
Jimbo started to put out his hand but then quickly pulled it back. “You’re sure you’ve come to the right apartment?” he asked.
“Of course she’s sure,” said Paki. “Meena doesn’t make mistakes. She’s a straight-A student.”
“Good evening, professor,” said the young woman, who, without being asked, took off her damp Mackinaw, hung it up on the hatrack, and stepped past Jimbo into the room. Every man there, with the exception of Paki, gaped. It wasn’t just that their eighth player was a female. It was the way she was dressed; pieces of green and gold silk, with reds and yellows, were draped over her body, and a sort of bandanna covered her head. She might have been the queen of spades come to life—except for one thing: Instead of the pale cheeks and brow of the royal figure, the student’s face and arms, her midriff and throat, and even her ankles and brightly painted toes were chocolate brown.
“Fuck all!” Bernie cried. “A Muslim!”
Ernie, poking at his cellphone, let out a weak groan. “Lillian is going to kill me.”
Frank was the only one who hadn’t looked up from his cards. He nudged Bernie with his elbow. “Come on. Come on. Your action.”
“Deeb,” said Jimbo, turning to their host, “you talk to her. You’re Lebanese.”
“Lebanese Christian!” Bernie added.
Deeb, the gentleman, rose to his feet and said, “’Ahlaan bik.”
The brown-skinned woman stared uncomprehendingly.
“Or something like that,” said Deeb.
“Abhibaddana,” said Meena.
“That’s hello,” Paki explained. “That’s greetings. In Bengali. She’s not an Arab. She’s from Bangladesh.”
“Deeb,” said Patti, who had apparently not gone to the movies. “I want a word with you.” She was crooking a finger at her husband from behind a corner of the refrigerator.
“Yeah,” said Bernie. “It’s the Abhibandanna on her head I’m worried about.”
“Attention!” cried Frank. “We’re in the middle of a hand here.”
Ernie, meanwhile, was half whispering into the phone. “Yes, dear. Roll couldn’t make it. Because of his kidney disease. I got here in the Uber car. Substitute? Well, yes. No, no. It’s someone new. What? Yes, he seems like a very fine young man.”
“Here’s your seat, Meena,” Paki said, pointing to the empty chair. “Do you want something to drink? To eat?”
“No, no,” said the young woman as she moved to the table, with its green felt, wooden edges, and hollows for chips and glasses of seltzer. “I’ve had my supper.”
Paki, the perfect professor, pulled out her chair. “Meena, let me introduce you.” So saying, he went round the room: “That’s Deeb, our host, discussing something with his wife. And Ernie is doing the same with his. This is Bernie. Don’t mind what he says to you. The fellow who let you in is Jimbo, a distant cousin of mine—”
“Not distant enough,” cried Jimbo, while making a slight bow to their guest.
“And the man who just raised—I told you, right? We play two-four—is Marty. And that’s Frank, who I can almost guarantee is going to call when the bet gets around to him.”
“Hello, everybody,” Meena said. She was a heavyset woman, with round arms, and whether because of that, or the silks that floated about her, when she sank down on the cushion of her chair, a cloud of amber and patchouli and vanilla rose up and began to spread above the table.
“What’s that?” said Bernie, with some alarm. “Some kind of gas?”
Meena wore a dark purple lipstick, some of which stuck to her teeth when she smiled. “It’s Uroosa by Junaid Jamshed,” she said. “Do you like it?”
“It’s heavenly,” said Ernie, while hurrying over to sit beside her.
The others resumed their seats as well. They smiled, nodded, and turned their heads upward, as if they could actually see as well as inhale the top notes of bergamot and tangerine.
“Do I smell lily of the valley?” said Marty, whose brow was wrinkled with the effort.
For a moment all sat silent, as if overcome by this vapor from the East. Then Frank turned again to Bernie. “What’s the matter with you? Why aren’t you betting?”
“Betting? There’s been a disruption. This hand is over.” With that, Bernie threw in his cards. So did everyone else.
“Oh, no,” cried Frank, “I was the one with the jacks!” He spread out his hand, displaying the two knaves, each of which faced in opposite directions, as if in consternation at this turn of events.
“Oh, dear,” said the new arrival. “You are an unlucky person.”
Now Bernie put out one chip for the small blind, Deeb put out two for the big. Jimbo started to deal. Halfway around the table, the substitute said, “One moment, please.” Everyone looked to where she had raised one arm and with the other began to dig beneath the wisps of her petticoats.
“Jesus,” cried Bernie, attempting to leap to his feet. “A grenade!”
No one seemed to hear him. The members of the Fox and Lox Society sat staring at the exposed armpit, with its hair, and the swath of flesh, the color of cinnamon, beneath it. A fresh puff of incense rose into the heated air. No one said a word as she withdrew, from the mystery of her drapery, a bag of cellophane and placed it on the table. “Candies,” she said. “A treat for the gentlemen.”
Ernie leaned to his right, where Paki was sitting. “Pssst,” he said into his friend’s ear. “No brassiere.”
The others passed round the bonbons, each of which came in its own individual wrapper. Bernie eyed his suspiciously, waiting for the others to put the spicy cube into their mouths.
“Thank you,” Deeb said, with the nougat already in his cheek. All the others mumbled their thanks, as well.
Jimbo completed the round of cards and turned to Marty, who had the first bet.
“My goodness,” said the native of Bangladesh. “How dirty these cards are. May I ask, when did you last replace them?”
“Replace them?” Marty echoed. “What do you mean?”
“These are old. Very old. Such filth, gentlemen.”
“Wait a second,” said Jimbo. “These are Bicycles. Top of the line.”
“They’re not old,” said Frank. “I bought them—when was it? I don’t remember. In my youth, ha-ha-ha! They’ve got to bring me luck sometime.”
“Tsk, tsk,” went Meena. They all saw, when she made this sound, the flickering tip of her tongue. They saw more than that: For once again she raised her arm, revealing the damp, dark curls in their cavity, and the dusky folds of flesh; this time she unearthed two packs of playing cards and with the movement of a single fingernail slashed through the cellophane that enclosed them.
“Uh-oh,” said Ernie. He had noted that these were Kem Casinos, deluxe, the kind used in Monte Carlo, Singapore, Macau, and other celebrated establishments around the world.
“Redeal, please,” said the accounting student.
“But, but,” Bernie began to sputter. “We’ve already got our hands!”
Deaf ears. That’s what his protest fell on. Who can explain why? Was his complaint not just? Were they no longer playing by the rules of Hoyle? Apparently not, since the circle of old men remained immobile as Jimbo gathered up the disgraced Bicycle brand, cracked and bent and soon to join the world of plastic circulating in the sea. It is not inconceivable that they had become intoxicated by the jets of Uroosa newly sprayed into the atmosphere.
Marty, his head lolling a bit, said half to himself, “Yes, definitely lily of the valley.”
Bernie, too, could feel his head growing lighter, as if it meant to soar above his shoulders. Drugged, he said to himself. Gassed.
Or perhaps it was the cards themselves that had hypnotized them. Jimbo washed one of the new decks, Frank did the same with the other. Everyone gazed down at the kaleidoscopic spectacle, which repositioned itself like an undulating pattern of Moorish tiles. These might have been, to the aging men, the swaying red skirts of a fandango dancer, the shifting blue tides at Capri.
Nor did these Kem Casinos lose their power to enchant once their gyrations had ceased. As the games went on around the circumference of the table, the players seemed to fall increasingly under their spell. At first things seemed normal enough. The seductive twos and mischievous threes continued to insinuate their way into Frank’s hands; as usual, he clutched them until each bitter end. “There’s always next time,” he said. As for the kings and queens, they galloped to Ernie, who piled up castles of chips for them to reside in. The rest of the cards were aloof and capricious, seemingly as indifferent to where they dwelled as hotel guests who know they shall soon be moving on.
But as the minutes flew by and the button for the big blind moved closer and closer to—what was she? Surely not a mere accounting student: A sorceress? A siren? A practicer of voodoo?—their female guest, the cards seemed to become excited, energized and take on a will of their own. For example, when Marty was dealing, one of the Kem Casinos did a sort of backflip in the air and landed in front of Bernie. It was a haughty and disdainful king. Bernie picked it up.
“Give it back,” said Marty. “It goes into the deck.”
“I’m keeping it,” said Bernie. “It’s my choice.”
“Sure,” said Paki, “because you know you have another one in your hand.”
“What are you, a mind reader now?”
Ernie chimed in: “It goes back in the deck. That’s our rule.”
“What rule? You pulled it out of your ass.”
Deeb cleared his throat, as if from a catarrh.” This is my house. I make the rules. The card goes back. That’s what they do in a casino.”
“Since when are we a casino? This is a friendly game. In a friendly game we overlook mistakes.”
Marty said, “I don’t understand it. It just sort of flew upside down.”
Ernie: “We can’t let people decide whether they want to keep their cards or not. What would stop a player from accidentally flipping a card he didn’t like?”
“I saw Jimbo do that once.”
Jimbo replied, “Is that the kind of thing that should be said in a friendly game?”
“You’ve got no friends.”
Jimbo rose and reached back for his cane. Marty also got up from his seat.
Somebody knocked over a full glass, even though it had been in its holder. Then everybody started to shout.
That is when the visitor from Bangladesh waved a hand. She said, “This is not becoming, my dears. Please do sit down once again.” Those who had risen did so. “Mister Bernie, will you please give me that king of clubs?” Without a word, like an automaton, he handed it over. “Will the other gentlemen also give me their hands? Mister Marty, you must now give me the remainder of the deck.” Mysteriously, as if bewitched, everyone pushed over the cards that lay before him. No one knew why they behaved in this manner. Ernie, next to her, thought it was the sight of her painted fingers: They glittered and flashed as if they were sending, and just to him, secret semaphores. But for the others, perhaps all the others, it was the way she had uttered, as a genie will pronounce abracadabra, the words: My dears.
Before they knew it she had gathered up all 52 cards in the deck and as she shuffled them, the Kem Casinos dancing in her hands uttered a ripple of unmistakable laughter.
“Look,” said Frank. “My pants are wet. It’s the seltzer.”
Another half hour went by. Now the chips themselves began to behave as if they possessed an inner life. They seemed drawn to the temptress in seat No. 8. One after the other, as if they had tiny magnets inside them, they began to glide and roll and then eagerly bounce in her direction. Had she, beneath her multicolored silks and the folds of her exposed abdominal parts, hidden a disk with an opposite charge? Again and again she leaned far forward to enclose her winnings within the half-crescent of her arms; again and again Ernie, leaning in the opposite direction, saw the twin dimples of Venus that in his delirium seemed to wink at him and cause the world to whirl around.
Higher and higher grew the heap of chips before the femme fatale, soaring in jagged piles like the lines of a fever chart or the bars on the graphs that measure national wealth. The result was that sooner or later the players found themselves reaching into their wallets and laying bills, 10s and 20s and, from the wounded Vietnam veteran, a 50 onto the green felt of the table. Inexorably, the button for the big blind made its circular journey until it came to the plump accountant, now half hidden behind her cornucopia. Then it passed to Frank, and then to Jimbo. That meant that for the first time it was the nimble-fingered Meena’s turn to deal.
The players sat in a kind of stupefaction as the Kem Casinos twirled through the air and, after a series of arabesques, landed face down before them. Bernie leaned forward, so that his sharp nose almost touched the two cards he concealed with his hands.
“Call,” he said, and threw two chips from his dwindling pile.
“Me too,” said Deeb, running his hand over his thinning hair.
That was a tell to Marty, who said, “Raise.” He pushed four chips forward.
Paki, it was a habit of his, pulled on the lobe of his left ear. A moment went by. “OK, call.” He pushed his chips forward with effort, as if they were pushing back.
Ernie, whose white shirt was again wet with perspiration, called. Everyone turned to Meena, who, astonishingly, said, “If you will permit me, my handsome ones, I shall make at this time a further raise.” Her full arms, with creases at the wrist, like a baby’s, pushed forward six of the sable circles.
Frank was the small blind. It would cost him five chips just to stay in the game. To the amazement of all, he said, “Re-raise,” put seven on top of the one before him, and thrust the little tower to the center of the table. “You only live once,” he philosophically added.
Now it was Jimbo’s turn to look at his cards. He did so. Then looked again. They had not, in spite of their playfulness, changed their value. “Fold,” he said.
Deeb needed six chips to call. But he only had one. So he threw it, plus the $10 bill he had taken from his wallet, into the pot, and took three chips back. “OK, OK,” he said. “My back’s against the wall.”
All eyes turned to the original raiser. He glared at his cards as if they were suspects in an interrogation room. Then he squeezed the four chips in his hand, the way he was once rumored to have treated the neck of a child molester. Into the pot they went. Paki said things had gotten too rich for him; he folded. Ernie was leaning toward the player on his left. “Is this silk?” he asked, daring to put one finger on the green and gold cloth that lay on her shoulder. “From silkworms?”
“Your action,” Bernie told him. “What are you going to do?”
“Ha, ha! Handsome one!” he exclaimed, and threw his chips into the pot, which had indeed taken on the hue of something under a rainbow.
With her left hand Meena adjusted the gossamer that lay on across her clavicle and with her right called the Vietnam veteran’s bet. Then she burned a Kem Casino, which seemed to shudder slightly from a sense of neglect, and laid down three cards: an ace of clubs, a five of diamonds, and the same imperious king before whose court there had been such a lengthy dispute.
For a moment everyone sat mesmerized by the sight of the ace, which, like Schrödinger’s cat, could be high and could be low. Then Jimbo indicated the next most powerful card. “Hello,” he said, “we’ve seen this fellow before.”
“Those no longer in the game: Mouths shut,” ordered Marty.
“I was just pointing out the obvious,” Jimbo insisted.
Then Bernie said, “Check. For God’s sake, check.”
“I check, too,” said Deeb. You could hear his sigh of relief.
Paki, of course, said nothing, since he was, as the French say, and as he used to say himself, hors de combat.
Ernie was bent over his phone. “Ha, ha,” he laughed. “I shut it off.”
“Poor Lillian,” said Bernie.
“Come on. Bet or fold,” said Marty.
“Neither. I check,” Ernie replied.
Meena threw two new chips onto the mound, and did so with such vigor that a visible mist of tangerines hovered over the table, in lieu of the smoke from the cigars and cigarettes that had been banned decades in the past. “There, my dear chaps,” she said, revealing two things: that she still had a powerful hand and that the British influence on her childhood had not waned.
“Four!” said Frank.
Bernie grumbled and got up for a melon ball; but when he returned he put in the extra chips.
Deeb called, Marty called, and so did Ernie, one chip at a time. Then he inhaled, deeply, making a show of it, and exclaimed, “Nectar of the gods!”
Meena owed two more dollars. She threw in four. These were, for the group of aged men, deep waters. How much money was on the table? Who knew? Thirty? Forty? Fifty bucks? Even Paki, by profession an accountant, did not know for sure. For a moment all stared dazed at the pot, which had grown to the size of a small Labrador. Then Frank said, “Call,” and so did Bernie and Deeb and Marty. Ernie sat groaning, but in the end put in the chips. Meena, smiling mysteriously, like a sooty version of the Mona Lisa, merely checked. Then she burnt another Kem Casino and turned up an ace of hearts.
“Watch out!” Jimbo exclaimed. “Two aces!” Then, to a chorus of hushes, he covered his mouth.
In no time the table had checked all the way around to Meena, who, now that they were at the turn, was allowed to throw in $4. This she did.
Frank threw in eight.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Bernie. “Does she think we’re all millionaires? Fold!”
Deeb, who actually was a millionaire, put one hand under his chin. He stared at the pot, which had spread over the table like a tar pit. “I withdraw from this madness,” he, with great dignity, said.
It was up to Marty. “I’ve got a hell of a hand,” he announced. But it was a hand he folded.
Ernie was sweating so much you would have thought he had discovered that he was on the 38th floor. “You want me to believe,” he said aloud, “that you have an ace in your hand.” The Bangladeshi sat silent as a sphinx.
But Frank, who hadn’t gotten an ace in a month and a half, or maybe two months, said, “You’ll have to pay to find out.” And that is what Ernie, scraping each chip from his palm as if it were a piece of softened licorice, did.
The sphinx, up next, called.
Time for what in poker is for some reason called the river. A hush fell over the room and, perhaps because of the falling snow, the entire city. Who knows? Perhaps the whole world held its breath to see what would happen next.
Meena discarded the final blind card and then turned over a colorless 10 of clubs. What a letdown! The dangerous aces, the commanding king, had been joined by a hapless five and uninspired 10. Only three players were left. Frank, as feared, threw in four chips. All eyes turned to Ernie, who now seemed, like the tigers chasing round Little Black Sambo, to be melting into a puddle of clarified butter—or, as Meena would undoubtedly call it, ghee. “C-c-c-c-c,” he started to say, but the word would not come out.
“He wants to call,” said Bernie, which his friend of 50 years confirmed by throwing in his $4 worth of chips.
The turn, now, of the female guest. “Raise,” she said, and pushed in eight chips from her considerable store of wealth.
“Re-raise,” said Frank, throwing a $20 bill that sailed onto the pile like a paper airplane. Once more all eyes turned to Ernie, though it was hard to see him, or anything else, over the mountain of frozen lava that had risen at the center of their table. Again he began to stutter, but on a different consonant. “F-f-f-f—”
“Fold?” asked Bernie.
“Fold!” This word was uttered in a sort of scream, and then, as if to create a visual equivalent of what he had vocalized, he bent at the waist, groaning, and bent even further, so that the top of his head was below the edge of the table. This might have been innocent, the sort of thing that sometimes occurs after eating a sour herring; on the other hand, there were wonders in that darkness, like 10 toes twinkling, and of course other things that may not be mentioned.
The game was now a duel between two contestants. Meena had to see Frank’s raise. This she did, adding, in a fall of sibilants, “See you, sir; and as you observe, raise also.”
The veteran, who had inhaled noxious gasses and whose limbs had been shattered by bullets, was not one to be fazed. Have we mentioned that he wore clear plastic glasses? With blue eyes behind them? They did not blink. Nor did his hand shake when he added not only the four required chips, but also four more.
A gasp went up from the spectators. It was as if they were watching two gladiators at the center of a Roman ring. For in the many decades that these men had engaged in their sport, no one—not even Frank—had lost more than $18 or $19 or put more than 35 or 40 into his pocket to take home. But before them now lay a kind of Eldorado. Paki was trying to calculate the sum on his fingers, but soon gave up the effort.
“Hundreds,” murmured Jimbo. “Hundreds and hundreds.”
“A golden goose,” said Deeb.
Bernie said, “A cash cow.”
Whatever Ernie said was muffled because of the felt on the table.
What, that’s what everyone wanted to know, was this stranger, dropped somehow among them from a far-off land, going to do? “Re-raise,” she said, throwing in her $8 worth of chips.
Frank was already pulling out his billfold. But before he could open it, she raised her left hand and touched him on the arm. “You are a nice man,” she said. “You have been through much, this I understand. Do not be foolish. I advise you merely to call.”
But by the time she had finished those four sentences, her opponent had already thrown another 20 onto the table and was taking back 12 chips. “Raise you back,” he unflinchingly declared.
“Listen to her, Frank!”
“She’s got the three aces!”
“Or worse! Maybe even a boat!”
“I can’t stand it,” said Marty. “So much tension.”
Here’s what happened: She raised him back. Here’s what happened next: He did the same to her. The others around the table, and perhaps the one person beneath it, held their breaths. And all but perhaps one covered their eyes. But they could not help hearing the clash of wills as the tournament continued. These might be two knights, charging at each other. They might have been two wrestlers, each with his hands in a death grip around the other’s throat. Raise. Re-raise. Re-raise again. Finally, Meena, smiling with her purple lips, lifted both arms into the air. This revealed what Ernie had already noted: that she was not encumbered by shortclothes or corset.
“My modakies,” she said. “It is time to be merciful and bring this contest to an end.”
At this, Ernie’s head appeared once more among them. “What did she call me?
“A monkey,” Bernie proclaimed.
“No,” said Paki. “A sweetmeat.”
Ahhhh, said the six other men. “Sweetmeats.”
The woman was not done. Her voice grew louder. “This evening has been for me a pleasure. I have enjoyed being among Jewish people. And the Christian Lebanese—”
“Hey,” said Marty, “What about the Irish?”
Meena continued: “Now it is over and I wish to claim what I have won. Thus I shall do no more than call the raise of my dear but imprudent gentleman friend.”
This she proceeded to do, throwing quadruple chips onto the ebony Everest before her. Each clattered about until finding its angle of repose. The room, so high in the sky, was silent and still. All watched as she bounced a bit, struggling to rise. Then she held both her cards over her head and in a triumphant ululation that contained within it the full force of the orient, cried out: “Four aces!”
It was true. Everyone saw the ace of diamonds and the ace of spades that had joined their two fellows laying face up on the board.
“Sacre bleu!” cried Paki.
This was, of course, the coup de grace for poor Frank. He shot to his feet, almost as if he were once more coming to attention, gave a little shriek—one that his companions would remember for the rest of their lives—and fell face down onto the green cloth of the table.
Naturally, there was a disturbance. Cries and wailing filled the air. Patti came running. Ernie pushed fruitlessly against the glass-covered numbers on his phone, while Paki ran for a glass of water. Others, more sensibly, slapped Frank on the back. Marty, trained for emergencies, rolled him over and began to breathe into the dead man’s mouth.
“Call the police!” someone cried.
“Frank! For God’s sake, Frank! It’s only money.”
Jimbo then uttered a strangled cry. “Look!” He was pointing at the right hand of the corpse, which was already going rigid before their eyes. Also before their eyes, the two cards that he clutched between his immovable thumb and index finger: a jack and a queen of clubs.
“Royal flush!” Deeb exclaimed.
“Royal flush,” everyone else murmured.
Then, when the enormity of the moment fully sank in, people began to settle into chairs and the cushions of the nearby sofa. Here and there a sob. Some heads lowered. Some heads sadly shook. Into the stunned silence came the clatter, like coal going down a shoot, of the chips being poured into the mysterious cavern that lay somewhere beneath the gold and green, the yellow and red, garments. And not just the chips. The green leaves of all their cash. Then, after another minute, they all heard the wail of a distant siren.
“It’s the ambulance,” said Paki.
“Or maybe firemen,” said Marty.
“Funny,” said Ernie. “They sound like they’re way down below. Maybe because of the snow.”
Silence once more. Then someone, actually it was Patti, said, “Isn’t Frank married? We should call his wife.”
People looked up.
“I don’t know,” said Ernie. “Didn’t he get a divorce?”
“I thought he got remarried. Yes? No?”
“No one’s there when we play at his place. He just bought kiwi fruit at the store.”
“No one knows his phone number? No one knows whether he’s got a son or maybe a daughter?”
To these questions, no one had an answer. The members of the Fox and Lox Society, intimates for half a century, looked at each other in a way they never had before. For it had dawned on them that, terrible as Frank Gladstein’s death had been, there had now risen among them a much greater and a far more chilling calamity.
Five of the card players rose, gathered their coats and canes, and left the apartment. They moved slowly down the corridor. As they passed by flat C, the door opened and a Chihuahua, or it might have been a tiny affenpinscher, came rushing out; it took one look at Ernie, yipped twice, and dashed back from where it came. The quiet quintet went on and stood before the elevator. They waited a moment. During the interval, Marty shook his head. “A royal flush,” he said.
Jimbo replied, “It’s ironical.”
At last the doors slid open and four men, carrying oxygen tanks and a stretcher, dashed into the corridor.
“38-E?” one of them asked.
Bernie pointed toward the door at the end of the hall.
“38?” Ernie, hardly audible, inquired.
Then they moved as one into the suspended cage.
Once in the lobby, they put on their hats. The snow, it seemed, had stopped. For a moment they stood, clustered together in the out-of-doors. Perhaps for warmth. Perhaps for companionship. A moment passed.
“And where,” asked Bernie, “are we going to get an eighth player now?”
No one replied. Then, as if a fist or a hammer had come down on a child’s chocolate orange or a child’s chocolate apple, they all split apart and went their separate ways.
Leslie Epstein teaches creative writing at Boston University. His three Leib Goldkorn books were recently published as The Goldkorn Variations: A Trilorgy (no typo). His play King of the Jews runs from Oct. 28 to Nov. 18 at the HERE Theater.