I closed the classified section of the newspaper and reached for my coffee cup. My hand stopped halfway. A poker table would certainly look
perfect in our newly refinished basement.
I pictured a tiffany lamp over the table, illuminating hard looking, cigar smoking, tough talking poker players.
I, of course, was the hardest looking, cigar smokingest, toughest talking player in the bunch — complete
with sleeve garters and a green eyeshade.
I reopened the newspaper and tore out the ad, carefully rereading the words so I didn't make a mistake
like last time. My wife still likes to laughingly remind me that there is a difference between a pool and a pool table.
I glanced at the clock — 10 AM. I wondered if anyone would be home as I dialed the number.
I heard a rough cough, then a ragged male voice graveled, "Hello."
"Hello, I was calling about the ad for the poker table and I was wondering if that price is…"
"If that's too high, make it three hundred dollars. Three hundred and it's yours."
I was as suspicious as I was silent. He folded way too fast. I decided to ease into this thing.
"What's the table like?"
His voice brightened and became more animated. "It's wonderful. It's a hand carved, round table,
covered with green felt. The chairs are also hand carved and all are in great shape even though they're over
one hundred years old."
I pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it, distrust rising in my gut. Anything that old had to
be worth more than three hundred dollars, but I've always had a problem with my curiosity overruling caution.
"Can I come and take a look at it now?"
"Certainly!"
I copied down the address and headed for the door. It sounded too good to be true but sometimes
people just don't realize the value of antiques. I could be getting the deal of a lifetime. Little did I realize the
hand I was about to be dealt.
The house was a modest brick colonial in a nice neighborhood, although the lawn had grown as high as the
concrete jockey who appeared to be drowning in a sea of grass. I rang the bell and couldn't help notice the thick
pile of mail crammed into the mailbox with a small mountain of newspapers piled below it.
A skinny, shoeless man opened the door, wearing what seemed to be a forced smile. "Hi," he said, offering me
his hand. "I'm Tom."
I introduced myself and we shook hands. His grip was weak and his palms sweaty. His shirt could have used
some laundering and it was several sizes too big for him. What was most disturbing were his dull, hollow eyes
with dark rings underneath. He looked as if he hadn't slept in weeks."Come on into the living room. The table is in there."
Following him into a house that smelled like week-old food, he led me into the living room.
Sitting prominently in the center, was the table. It wasn't hard to be prominent — there was no other furniture.
The room was empty with the exception of a few photos on the mantelpiece. My disconcertion at the lack of
other furniture disappeared when I focused on the table.
It was magnificent.
It was a pedestal-type table with elaborate carvings from the floor to the top.
The carvings were of vines growing upward entwining themselves around hands holding playing cards.
"Wow!" slipped out of my mouth. Oops. I couldn't let him know that I liked this table. I didn't want to look like a trout leaping after a fat green fly.
I moved in for a better look, stooping to examine it closely. It looked to be made out of one solid piece of
mahogany! "Wow!" slipped out again and I bit my tongue. The felt seemed new and I idly brushed my hand
over its surface. It felt soft and perfect.
I put on my uninterested face and inspected the high-backed chairs.
They were also mahogany with padded leather cushions that perfectly matched the color of the wood.
The carved legs and back reflected the vine theme and the top center had five cards spread out in a royal flush entwined by vines.
Another "wow' almost slipped out, but this one I caught in time. I tilted a chair, trying to gauge its weight. It was solid but not as heavy as I expected.
This set was amazing. It could fetch several thousand dollars from Sotheby's. I looked at my host.
He was staring at the table, mesmerized while he bit his fingernails and shifted from one foot to the other.
"It's a nice table." My words seemed to pull him back to reality and he stared at me.
"I don't want to sell it."
"What?"
The shifting began again as did the nail biting. He brushed his hand back and forth on the green felt, then
his head bobbed up and down like a yo-yo. "It's yours if you want it."
A creepy feeling settled over my shoulders, but I had to have this table. "You said three hundred dollars
over the phone. Is a check all right?"
His head bobbed up and down again but his glance didn't leave the table. "It's a good table. You'll see. It's a good table."
I nodded and wrote out a check quickly. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
The check ripping from the checkbook pierced the silence and caught his attention. The man didn't even
glance at the amount and stuffed the check into his pocket. He sighed once and his nervousness fell from him like a cloak. Mine was just
beginning, as if I'd picked up his nervous jacket and tossed it around my shoulders. I felt little butterflies in my stomach.
What had I done, bought a pig in a poke? I glanced back at the table. No, it looked even better than it did on my first impression.
"I'll help you load it into your truck. Let me get my shoes on." He smiled and disappeared into another room.
I placed an elbow on the mantelpiece and idly looked at the pictures while I waited. They were a typical mix of old and new, black and white
and color. I noticed one of the newer ones was of a family of four. Two kids with a man and woman, all smiling. It took me a second to realize
the fat man in the picture was my host. Maybe that explained it. He must be ill and needed the money. I felt guilty about getting a better price
but that feeling disappeared as I looked back at his — no — my table. It seemed to glow the longer I stared at it.
He came back into the room. There was a spring in his step and he seemed taller somehow. "Grab one end and we'll get it out of here."
We loaded it onto my truck bed and off I went.
I felt good, more powerful, bigger — something, I don't know… My glance went more often to my table in the rearview mirror than it did to the
road ahead. All I could think of was how beautiful it was.
I jealously covered the table and each chair with some sheets and asked my neighbor for help getting it into my basement. I didn't want anyone
to see it before I had it set up.
With a quick thanks, I hurried him out the door and uncovered my prize. How long I stood there gazing at it I didn't
know, but I did know that it looked absolutely perfect in my basement. I grabbed a new deck of cards and sat down.
Ahhh… I felt like a master of the gambling world. I unwrapped cellophane from a deck of cards and cracked the seal. This table deserved nothing
less than a new deck. I attempted to spread out the cards in a row, just like a dealer in Vegas. The slick cards slid into perfect alignment. I smiled,
impressed with myself. I'd never been able to do that before. Now for the hard part… I turned the bottom card and the row flipped over into my waiting hand.
Wow. Now I was really impressed with myself. I pulled the chair closer and gently rubbed my hand over the green felt in thanks. It almost seemed pleased.
I couldn't wait for the night's poker game as I practiced shuffling.
"Honey, are you down there?" I heard the click of my wife's high heels on the landing then on down the stairs. She stopped at the bottom tread
and stared at the table for a moment, then placed one hand on her hip. "Where did you get that?"
I rose and gestured to the table like a game show host. "Pretty cool, huh?"
She walked nearer and examined the table. I could see wonder coming into her eyes. "Hey. This is really nice. The workmanship is superb."
Her eyes narrowed and she shot me a look. "How much did you pay for it?"
I smiled. "Three hundred," I said with the confidence of a man who knows he has gotten a good deal.
"Three hundred?" She walked around the table. "That's amazing."
"See! Sometimes you can do all right shopping from the classifieds."
She nodded and I felt vindicated. The feeling faded as I realized my wife was home.
"What are you doing home?"
She gave me a puzzled look. "Uh… I live here?"
"I mean at this time of the day?"
She gave me another funny look. "I always come home at five-thirty. What do you mean?"
I glanced at my watch — five-thirty-seven. How in the hell? I tapped my watch in disbelief. "It's past five?"
"Yes," she said with one eyebrow raised. "What's the matter?"
I shrugged. "I must have lost track of the time."
"Wouldn't be the first time." She walked toward the stairs. "What's for dinner?"
Again I glanced at my watch, unable to believe it was correct. How did that much time get away from me? "Uh… I thought I'd whip up some spaghetti
before the guys got here for the game."
It was a pretty lame excuse but she bought it. I headed for the stairs but
gave my table one last glance. It was still beautiful.
"Three jacks with an ace kicker."
Groans circled the table as I again raked in my winnings. This had to be my best night in the two years
our weekly poker game had been meeting.
I shuffled the cards and cut the deck one-handed. "Five card no-peek, nothing wild."
"I've had enough for tonight," said Bob. He stood and rubbed his backside.
"Me too," echoed Daryl. Carl stood as well.
"Come on, guys! It's still early. We can get in one more hand."
Daryl threw an upraised palm toward me. "Forget it, pal. You've got enough of my money."
"Mine too," echoed Bob.
Dave said nothing but gave me an odd look. He had been giving me that look for most of the evening.
Bob, Carl and Daryl bid their goodnights and headed for the stairs. Dave lingered and I could tell he wanted to talk. My guess was he wanted
to know more about the table.
He waited until the rest of the gang had left then sat back down.
"A little blackjack?" I asked.
He ignored my question. "Listen. You and I go back a long way so I can ask... Are you having any financial problems?"
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. "Me?" I shrugged. "No more than usual." My eyes narrowed as I stared at him. Perhaps he needed a
loan. "Why do you ask?"
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "This is just a nickel and dime game we play every week among friends. Maybe twenty bucks changes hands in a night.
It's chump change." He tapped his fingers on the green felt and stared at me. "So why are you cheating?"
"Cheating?" I was stunned by his question. He must be nuts. "I don't cheat!"
He leaned forward, palms flat down on the table. I hoped his palms weren't sweaty.
"You've been cheating all night. Bottom dealing, palming, mucking.
You're pretty good at it. I'm sure none of the others noticed, but the next time you do it I'm going to call you on it." He pushed back his chair and stood.
"And for God's sake stop fanning your chips! You've been doing that all night and it's highly annoying."
"What are you talking about?"
He pointed to my right hand. My hand sat atop a small stack of chips, split them, then fanned them back together, all in one quick movement.
I watched fascinated and did it again. Where had I learned to do that?
"Nobody likes a cheat!" he said over his shoulder as he walked up the stairs.
I sat there stunned. Cheat? Why would Dave say that? I became aware that the only sound in the room was my one-handed fanning of the chips.
I forced myself to stop.
I brush my hand over my beautiful table. I've had it six months but it seems like forever.
"You gonna deal or sit there with that stupid look on your face?" says the gray-haired man in the plaid shirt.
I deal the cards to him and the two others sitting at my table. The gray-haired man will win this pot with three queens.
I will make sure of it. He has been getting antsy like he wants to leave. I can't let that happen. The game must continue, that's all that matters.
I don't know anyone at the table. Word of a continuing poker game at my place has spread, and players from around town show up nightly.
I used to play with Dave, Bob and … I struggle to remember my other friend's names. Daryl. That was it. It feels like a moment of
clarity is coming. And Carl, yes! And Karen used to bring us pretzels and beer. Karen. I try to remember her face but it's like groping in the dark. She
left me a month ago. Or was it two? The memory floats away like a shiny soap bubble just out of reach.
"I'll see your twenty dollars and raise five more," says the man with black hair. The hand wearing three large gold rings tosses cash into the pot. The other hand
wears four. He sits behind dark glasses to help hide his tells — as if he could hide them from me. I look down at the vines that have stretched from the pedestal
and have curled around my legs. I smile. The first time I'd seen them I was afraid, now I know they are my friends. They let me know what's in everyone's hand
and what they will do.
"Call," says the man in the cowboy hat, adding a five to the pot. He's new to the game. I must feed him a few wins to keep him coming back although I'm
not sure how. I can't take it from the other players, they might stop coming like they almost did when I continually won. Now, I make sure they win so they will
return. But I'm out of funds. The house equity, the second mortgage and the bank loan funds are gone. I don't care. I must play.
"Three queens!" says the excited gray-haired man as he plops down his cards and rakes in his winnings. His grin says it all. He'll be back.
Cowboy hat stretches, yawns and checks his watch. "It's almost midnight. Time I moseyed off." Agreeing nods circle the table and chips are gathered in.
"One more hand. Come on, just one more." The voice coming out of me sounds more like a whine than a request. The others give me an odd stare.
"No, I've had enough," says the man with the gold rings as he stands.
I am powerless to stop them. I look down at my legs for help but the vines are gone. There is more scraping of chairs as the others stand. The gray-haired man
brushes his hand over the green felt and smiles.
"Real nice table."
"Would you like to buy it?" I can't believe the words that have sprung out of my mouth. I can't sell this table! Gripping the table edge hard, I pull myself closer. It can't leave me.
"Is it for sale?"
"Yes, yes it is." No! I hear the words but can't believe what I'm saying!
"Aaa, it's way out of my league."
"We could make a deal." I can't stop my mouth from speaking.
He shrugs. "Maybe next time." He brushes the felt again, smiles and nods. "We'll talk tomorrow."
An unanswered chorus of goodnights echo in the basement as I stare at the table.
It is leaving me. I slide my chair away and stand. "Why!" I shout in the empty room. "Why!" The answer comes without words.
Because it is time.
With a shake of my head I try to fling off the smothering feeling of rejection. My breath comes in ragged gasps and tears spring to my eyes. I cover my
face with my hands.
I feel discarded.
I wipe the tears down my face into my beard, my fingers lingering on my chin. Beard? When did I stop shaving? The question is forgotten as I notice my hands and arms.
They have become the color of mahogany. As I watch, the color solidifies to small vines in my skin, like intricate tattoos. I want to wipe them away, get them off! I try to
shake my arms but it is not in my power.
The vines begin receding down my arms and my fingers tremble, throwing off the vines like tiny worms. I stare unmoving as they crawl toward the table, an army of slithering
inch worms. The table has become a mass of seething vines that stretch out to gather them in, like the arms of a loving mother. They crawl into its grasp and disappear in the twistings of the vines.
It becomes still.
Waiting.
Waiting for the next game.
Waiting for the next owner.
Waiting for the next victim.
The feeling of despair is draining away, and with it a slowly returning memory. I remember buying the table. I remember losing my friends and my family to my un-quenchable
need to play cards. I know and remember, but part of the table remains in me. I know I must sell it. It must be passed on. It is what the table desires. I must do what it wants.
Like hell.
A bubble of anger bursts inside me, ripping away the shards of dejection. It shatters the call of the cards and scorches away the table's control.
I know what I must do. Throwing open the double-wide bilco doors, I stumble out to my backyard and run through the knee high grass past the empty kiddie pool, to the storage
shed. I load the ten gallon fertilizer tank into the back of my truck, unscrew the plug and loosen the lid. Miracle Grow spills onto the street as I speed out of the driveway.
I force myself to concentrate on anything I see. A man waking his dog. I had a dog like that. Think of the dog. Think of Spot. An all black dog that your older brother Joe named
Spot. Don't think of what you are doing. Think of Spot. Think of Joe. It can't know I'm not totally under its control. It can't know of the plan my anger has devised.
I run my errand and pull into the backyard, backing the truck up to the kiddie pool. I leave the engine running. I don't look at the full fertilizer tank sitting on the tailgate as I get out.
I think about cards. Kings of Spades. Queens of Hearts. I think about how cool it is to fan a deck. I think about how wonderful it is to play cards. I walk down the basement steps.
"I've arranged for an after midnight game," I say to no one. "The gray-haired man said he's coming to play. He's bringing his truck."
I get a sense of relief from the table. "I thought
a game under the stars would be perfect. I'll set you up in the empty pool, that way you won't have to get dirty.
The table shines in acceptance.
Maybe I was wrong; maybe it can't read my thoughts. Still, I must be cautious. I only have one chance at this.
On my hands and knees, I lift the table with my back. It will take a while as I can only move in small increments. I concentrate on the job, the pain in my knees and the places where the vines
are cutting into my back. The edge of the foot-high metal kiddie pool bends as I move the table into it. It won't matter. I place the chairs in last.
Sweat pours down my neck, more from nervousness than exertion. My pounding heart feels like it's lodged in my throat. I climb into the back of the truck and lift out a long patio torch.
"We will need to see." It was one of my purchases along with the seventy-five cent lighter I use to light it. I immediately get the sense the table doesn't like fire.
It shouldn't.
I must get this done before it can react. Before it can take me again.
I push over the tank with my foot. It bounces once and the lid flies off. Ten gallons of gasoline flood the pool, splashing onto the table and chairs.
The table is reaching for me, both in my mind and with vines climbing up the tailgate. I focus once more on my anger and throw the torch.
The explosion forces me backward and I raise an arm across my face to ward off the intense heat. Flames are reaching twenty feet into the sky with black smoke curling above. Leaping over
the side of the truck I drive it a short distance away. I get out and watch the fire, satisfied justification washing away the anger.
The table is a writhing mass of vines flailing at the flames engulfing its body. A high pitched keening fills my ears and my mind. I cover my ears but cannot keep out the sound lancing into my brain.
The table and chairs link together in a fury of thrashing vines. Fear replaces my satisfaction. The chairs have become legs and the table rises in the center of the pyre. It takes a lumbering step toward
me. My muscles turn to water and a block of ice forms in my stomach. A small piece of my mind tells me to run but it is drowned out by the sharp-edged whining cries of the table. With a loud pop,
a rear leg breaks and the table settles back into the burning caldron.
The keening grows louder.
The green felt rips from the table, ballooning upward, forming the face of a screaming man. I take a step backward. It is my face. The felt transforms into another face. It is the face of the man I purchased
the table from. It changes again into another face, then another, then another until the faces are just a blur in the flames.
The table collapses in on itself, the charred green felt expanding one last time into a face of horror. A face with vines for hair and a pig-like snout filled with rows of serrated teeth. Each hair-like vine has a green
glowing eye on the tip that glares at me with hatred.
The face crumbles inward. The thrashing of the vines slows, then stops. A few hisses and pops from the flames are the only sound.
As I approach the fire, my feeling of victory is overcome by incredible exhaustion but the tiredness doesn't obstruct my sense of relief. I know it is finished. It will never suck a man's soul dry again.
I watch the flames throw evil shadows on the house as the last pieces of the table subside into glowing coals.
Was it a beast born of the bayou swamps? A lost space creature? A construction of voodoo? I don't know and it doesn't matter.
I only know that it is dead.
Breathing a deep sigh of relief, I thrust my hands into my pockets, trying to shake the hideous memory of that final face. My right hand curls around a deck of cards. I take them out and stare at them.
They are just cards, nothing more.
I toss them onto the flames.