Two nights ago I played poker. Ten of us gathered around my buddy’s dining room table and played a $10/man Hold ‘Em tournament. Seventy bucks to the winner, twenty bucks to second place, and ten bucks to third. It was the second time I’d played poker in two months, but other than that it had been at least a year. And you know something? I won. I waited out my opponents. I was patient. I’m always patient when it comes to cards. See, some of my friends are experienced players, whereas others understand the game but get anxious and merely bluff. Others, still, don’t really understand when to get away from a hand, when not to bet, and when to “act strong.” So, again, I just stay patient. I play hands when I’ve got cards; I fold hands when I’m chasing. Simple. And does this mean that I’m now worried about “revealing my secrets”? Of course not. Who in the hell cares, really. I mean, with the popularity of poker these days, there are no secrets. Oh, and you know what else? Televised poker is flat-out terrible. Seriously, watching poker borders on watching NASCAR or the WNBA. If forced to choose between the three wherein I had to watch one of these “sports” on a 24-hour loop, I think instead I’d opt to become Amish.
Today’s poem is about playing poker. It’s about a game I learned and played for the first time 22 years ago. And, more importantly, it’s about the power of words. Of a single word, really. It’s a poem in which my 13-year-old self and my adult self came to the same conclusion about what we do and do not say, and why. It’s a poem about despising myself and, in effect, despising those around me, who were also teenage boys, who thought so little of what it meant to hate without knowing it. It’s a poem about being a dumb, naive boy in a time when I begged for acceptance, and not having the voice I have now, and so desperately wish I had then.
Baptized by my brother and my brother’s
gangly friends around the once-polished
oak table stripped of lacquer and shine,
I learned poker, hand after hand, eager
to earn both their bankrolls and respect.
Omaha, Queen and Follow, Seven Card Stud,
Hold ‘Em, each one a variation of the next.
So when the deal passed to Chris Hocker —
squirrel-faced, smile formed by smoke
and MGD – I didn’t know whether to cringe
or laugh when he announced the game: Nigger
Sweat. My thirteen years had not yet taught me
all the words I couldn’t own, but even then
I knew that wasn’t one of them. I listened
to the rules – how the loser matched the pot —
and watched Chris deal four cards down,
one face up, then played my hand
like the older kids, giving up completely
on grace. I couldn’t say who took the pot,
but imagine that the winner dragged more away
than the mound of chips and crinkled singles
he mixed in with whatever stash
he’d already compiled: that shattered mountain
of reds, whites, and blues splashed and scattered
before him. Chris Hocker, whose father always
joined the table late, who rolled in after midnight
when the factory shut its doors, drunk
and still reeling from busting holes through sheet,
from shots of bourbon at the closest tavern.
Hocker’s father, who sat down to lose,
who already had the word nigger so far tucked
into his heart that it fell away from him
like a breath. The lot of us hooked on Sweat,
each handling the tainted deck with our smoke-
stained fingers, laughing each time we had the choice
of deal, not knowing if we’d get the chance
to walk off with each other’s money, or if
we’d burn in hell, too elated by possibility,
too god-damn happy to care.