How I ended up in Blackbark, Idaho that night is because my kid brother and his wife are in The Casino Business. That’s what I always tell people. Sounds better than saying Nora is a waitress and Joey is a busboy.
Joey and Nora got started in poker rooms because of me, back when all three of us lived in Los Angeles. I had become a floorman the traditional way. First I was a professional poker player, then I went broke a few times so I became a poker dealer. I was very good at staying quiet when it mattered most, so they made me a floorman. That’s when my brother Joey started hanging around the poker room where I worked, and before I could save him, he got hooked on Omaha. And that’s where he met Nora. At an Omaha table.
They both gambled themselves broke, repeatedly, and one day Joey came up to me with a prepared speech.
Him: I want to be a dealer.
Me: No, you don’t.
Him: Yes, I do. And so does Nora.
Neither of them lasted long in the chair. Couldn’t take the heat. And by then they were too well connected and addicted to the scene to get out of it, so they took the next jobs they could get – waitress and busboy — as long as it was in a poker room.
Joey and Nora got married and they turned it into a cycle. First Nora got bored and had a fling. Then Joey started going to whores, even though he never did that kind of thing when he was single. Then came threats of divorce and it only took one called bluff before it was I’ll-see-you-in-court. Single again, they slimmed down and got to feeling good about themselves, attractive to everyone and especially each other. Then they were back in the sack and next thing you know they were going to movies and recommitting for life again. When Joey and Nora moved from LA to Blackbark a few years back, it was a big restart. New jobs, new town, new courthouse. A couple years later, Joey called me up:
“Hey Bo!” Joey always yells into the phone if he’s the one who called. “Me and Nora are splitting up again. Do you think you could come to town for a couple days and help out with some things?”
Here it was all these years gone by and it was still no different than when we were kids, Joey getting in a jam and me coming to the rescue. And now he needed me again. To help out. With some things. Translation: He needed my back to help with moving, he needed my mouth to help with lawyers, and he needed my wallet to help with everything. I went. And I helped. That was a year ago. Last week Joey called:
“Hey Brother! Pack your bags! Me and Nora are getting hitched just this one last time. And guess what? You are going to be an uncle!”
I flew into Blackbart Idaho on Friday night. The plan was that I’d rent a car and pick Joey up from work. We’d go pick Nora up at home, and the three of us would go out, someplace nice. Call it the rehearsal dinner I suppose.
I drove up to the Blackbark ligaz11 Casino and Hotel, and I left the rental car with the valet. I entered through the front wall of glass doors. The place was huge. I walked through the lobby and into the casino. There was live music, so I stopped by the lounge. They had three old black guys on stage caught in a time loop. I pounded down a double shot of whiskey and settled into a big chair to listen to one song. What’s that say on his bass drum? “The Noisy Boise Boys”? Ha! This place might be okay after all.
I left the bar and navigated through the slot machines until I arrived at the poker room all the way in the back. Ten poker tables were sectioned off from the rest of the casino by a waist-high padded maroon rail with gaps. The floorman greeted me at the podium in his suit and smile. I told him I was ex-floor and we talked shop a little. He asked if I wanted a seat. I said no I’m just looking around. He pointed at the coffee pot and I said thanks.
I looked around. The air smelled like old smoke with a hint of spilled beer. The carpet was busy and dark, the ceiling panels low and warped. The poker tables were surrounded by white guys in caps. I didn’t know anyone here, yet I knew them all.
I spotted Joey right away. He was bent over, cleaning up used dishes and cups from a little side-table on wheels. There was a crash, followed by a harsh voice: “Joey! Spill on table two!” It was the dealer at table two. Joey scurried over. I watched him find a poker chip on the floor. He asked the players who the chip belonged to so he could give it back. One of the players silently snatched the chip from Joey’s hand.
I made my way back to Joey’s station, near the kitchen door. Joey saw me and waved. I waved like someone trying to hide. I watched Joey start to clean another rolling table. This fat tobacco-chewing slob turned around and spit at a cup that was on the rolling table. He missed, and the nasty brown stuff landed mostly on Joey’s hand. Joey didn’t even look up. He rolled the table on over to the sink, next to where I was standing, and he put his hands under the running water. The table held a plate with a half-mutilated chicken carcass on it, and an upside down ashtray, recently full. I felt Joey relax a little. This was his space.
Joey motioned me closer and he got all hush hush, “Did you see that big game over there at table five where I just was? It’s all black chips, hundreds. And purples, five-hundreds. They’re playing no-limit hold’em. Blinds are $100-200.”
“No way. In this podunk joint?”
“Way.” Joey said. “Very very way. Christ Bo, those guys have got to be dripping with money, don’t they? To be betting by the thousands like that?”
He was right. They did. Or their backers did. “Where’d they come from?” I asked.
“See that guy in the cowboy hat? Word is he’s some real slick poker player from Nevada and see that big greasy guy with the small stack in seat four? Joey was talking about the man who had just spit on him. “That’s Orren, the owner’s son. He only comes in sometimes, for these big poker games.” Joey got real quiet, right in my ear. “We don’t like him.”
The rest of the story, as I rendered Joey’s version, was that this Orren fellow lost big at poker in Vegas about a year ago, and in a childish rage, he challenged the Vegas pros to a big no-limit game up here at his Daddy’s casino in Idaho. Now they play once a month. All these men come all this way.
Joey said, “Just go on over there, Bo. Go look at all that money.”
I craned on tiptoes. “Looks like it’s all chips on the table. Cash doesn’t play?”
“Right.” Joey said.
I walked over and stood close enough to watch the big no-limit game, with my arms folded like I belonged there. A couple players glanced up at me and a security guard walked toward me. I had my suit on and I acted like a floorman, meaning, I did nothing. The players turned back to the game. The guard gave me a flicker of a grin and he went back to his corner.
I watched a few hands, all small pots, and I was about to return to Joey, when the guy in the cowboy hat raised it to $600 before the flop, and the only one who called him was Orren, from the big blind. I thought, okay, I’ll watch one more hand. The pot was $1300. Orren had two stacks of blacks left — $4,000 – and the cowboy had him way covered. The flop came 8-5-5, twotone. Orren checked, and the cowboy checked behind. The turn was an offsuit three. Orren checked, and the cowboy checked again. The river was a queen. Orren bet all-in, $4,000.
The cowboy simultaneously spoke and showed. What he said was, “call.” What he showed was, pocket fives. He had flopped quads. Orren came all the way unhinged. He threw his cards up and over his shoulder. I saw them flutter past during reentry: a black king and a red queen.
Orren jammed his hand in his front pocket like he’d done it a million times. He pulled out a folded-in-half wad of hundred dollar bills that was so thick it was shaped like a teardrop. He undid the wide rubber band and squared the money into a brick. Then he began to count, one bill at a time, not onto the table, but from left hand to right, using his left thumb, in steady rhythm, with the top of the left stack becoming the bottom of the right.
My trance snapped when Orren suddenly stopped counting and thrust his right hand out, holding ten thousand dollars under my nose. Orren snapped at the dealer, “Deal me in. Ten thousand plays.” Then he barked at me, “Go get me another rack of black.”
Orren thought I was a floorman. And all the other players at the table were from out of town. And the real floorman was busy starting a new game on the other side of the room. Can you spell o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y? I took Orren’s money and nodded politely. “Yes sir.”
I walked through a gap in the padded maroon railing and toward the cashier. I walked past the cashier. I put the ten grand in my pocket and I kept my hand around it. I walked past the lounge — bye-bye, noisy boys, forever! I walked through the front doors and to the valet booth. I gave the valet boy my ticket stub and I sat down on the bench to wait.
It was not too late to turn back, to walk into the casino, to the cashier, and buy Orren’s chips, and deliver them to him. Or I could drive away with his ten thousand dollars in my pocket, and split it with Joey and Nora. If I kept the money, all hell would break loose inside, with security asking questions and pointing fingers. I knew Joey wasn’t the brightest star in the sky, but that’s a good thing if you don’t want to be seen. I thought Joey would figure out it was me who took the money, and he’d be smart enough to play dumb, and exit quietly, and grab a cab home. Then there was that annoying issue of right and wrong. Was it right for me to blatantly rip Orren off just because he was rich and abusive? Was it wrong if Orren’s money got spent on Nora’s baby?
The valet boy pulled up in my rental car.