“I’ll tell you what your problem is, Mike. You suck at bluffing,” Tyler Brooks said, tossing a couple more chips into the pot in the center of the table. “You just don’t have a mendacious nature. And that is why . . . I am going . . . to kick . . . your . . . ass.”
The other guys around the felt-topped poker table laughed. I feigned concern as Tyler turned his baseball cap around backward and leaned back in his chair. I let him smile his triumphant smile for a moment, delaying his misery for fun. Hey. At least I admit it. I enjoy taking my friends down. That’s what poker’s all about, isn’t it?
Well, unless you’re in it for the money. But considering our biggest pot to date was a whopping forty-two bucks, no one around here was going home a zillionaire. Nope. Our games were really just excuses to get together and talk smack.
“And your problem is, Brooksy, you’re a bombastic ass,” I replied, calling his bet. “Let’s see what you got.”
“Full house. Ladies over tens,” Tyler announced, turning his two hole cards over. Sure enough—when added to the communal cards, he did have a fairly sweet hand. Three queens and two tens. Not bad at all. But not as good as . . .
“Foiled again, my friend,” I said, turning over my two threes.
“Oh!” the guys around the table cheered and groaned.
Tyler’s face fell with a satisfying plop. Ian O’Connor, my best friend and the ultimate poker host, reached over to slap my hand. Add my threes to the two in the river and that gave me four of a kind. It had been audacious of me, calling Tyler’s bet with two tens out there as well. He could have had four tens, after all. But I took my chances. It’s not often that I do that. My betting style is usually based on my innate parsimony. But sometimes, you just gotta roll the dice.
“He totally waxed your ass!” Brad Lackler cried mirthfully.
“Shut up, Lackler,” Tyler grumbled.
“It is a shame how four little threes can beat your big old royals,” I said.
“Dude, you suck,” Tyler whined, throwing his cards down.
“Beg to differ,” I shot back, reaching out to gather my winnings. “These chips beg to differ too, by the way.”
Ian reached over his head and stretched, glancing at the pool-ball wall clock on the far side of his spacious basement. Every Friday night the guys met up here for a few games, a couple sodas (or beers when we could come by them), and some laughs. You’d think Ian’s parents would break up the party once in a while, but being one of the richest kids in Hillside was not without its perks. Ian’s folks were out half the time at some charitable function or another, and when they were home, their house was so damn big they never even realized we were down here.
“It’s about that time, fellas,” Ian said, gathering up the cards. He glanced in my direction. We all knew I had to get home before football curfew. On the nights before games we all had to be home by ten o’clock. Every once in a while Coach even went down the roster and cold-called our houses to make sure we were there. Some guys managed to get their parents to lie for them, but Coach had figured out the ploy and always insisted on speaking directly to his players.
“No way!” Tyler complained. “One more game. You gotta give me a chance to win my money back.”
Ian glanced at me and I shrugged. “Fine by me,” I said. I had some time. And we all knew Tyler wouldn’t be mollified until I gave in. He was the sorest loser of the group.
“All right. One more,” Ian said.
He shuffled and dealt the cards. I pulled my hole cards to me and checked the corners. Total crap. A seven and a three, unsuited. A lesser man would have folded right there, but in my innate munificence I tossed a couple chips in the pot anyway. Let Tyler have a chance at a bigger take. What did I care? I was going home twenty bucks up anyway. Besides, I knew if I folded right off the bat, he would have made a scene.
“So, you guys wanna come over my place tomorrow for the Yankee game?” Tyler asked, toying with his chips as Ian dealt the flop. “Dad said he’d swing a couple six packs if you all stay over.”
“Cool,” Ian said. “I’m in.”
“Your dad rocks,” Brad added.
Chris Templeman, our fifth, was in as well. I shifted in my seat as everyone looked at me.
“What about you, bluffer?” Tyler asked. “Can’t turn down baseball and brew.”
“Actually, he already has plans,” Ian announced. “With Marcy.”
“Aw, yeah,” Brad intoned. Tyler made a whipping sound and everyone laughed.
“Blow her off, man,” Chris said, placing his bet on the flop. “This is sanctioned booze we’re talking about here.”
“I can’t,” I said, my face heating up. This was going to hurt. “It’s our anniversary.”
“Aw!” they all chorused. Kissing noises and a few inappropriate groans followed. “Wittle Mikey’s got a wifey,” Chris teased. I stared straight at the pot as my face burned.
“Is cheerleader-girl finally gonna give it up?” Tyler asked. “Cuz if she is then you are definitely off the hook. That girl has got a sick—”
“Dude. Back off,” I said flatly. They could tease me all they wanted, but I wasn’t going to let them talk about my girlfriend like that. Even if they were my best friends. Marcy was the coolest. She was smart and athletic and totally unclingy, unlike all my friends’ girlfriends. Lately I’d been thinking that I was probably even in love with her. Not that I would ever admit that to these morons.
“Sorry,” Tyler said sarcastically under his breath. As if he didn’t get why I was so touchy. “So, you gonna bet or what?”
I didn’t even need to look at my cards again. “No. I fold.”
“Oh, man!” Tyler cried, exasperated with me.
“Dude, get over it.” I glanced at my watch. “I gotta go anyway. I gotta be at the field at eight o’clock. Coach gives us extra laps if we’re late on game day.”
“That’s right, man. Big game. Break a leg tomorrow,” Brad said, glancing up as I passed him by.
“Yeah, man. Peace,” Tyler added, slapping hands with me.
“Dude. Cash me out?” I asked Ian.
He shoved the deck of cards in his back pocket as he stood. The Vegas casinos never would have gone for such a brazen breach of conduct as the dealer getting up in the middle of a game, but we were a bit more casual around here. He took my chips and counted out my cash, keeping the requisite ten percent cut for the house. Like Ian needed any more money. But hey, I didn’t begrudge him his earnings. The weekly game was his idea, and he did supply all the junk food that we devoured every week.
“Kick a little Wildcat ass tomorrow,” he said, slapping the cash into my hand.
“You got it, brotha,” I replied.
Then I headed out into the night to a chorus of “good luck”s. I had to laugh as I closed the door behind me. My friends were so predictable. The only thing that always got me out of a poker game without a huge clamor of protest was a previous football commitment. In Hillside it was all about school spirit.