Sally Rae and I run The Waterin’ Hole Café, the best (and only) eatery in Heartbreak, Texas. We’re 50 or 500 miles due west of Houston’s unfortunate sushi bars. No raw fish in our place, just honest, heart-warming chicken fried steak, the sort of food you can depend on. We serve everyone, including the marginal folks from Quick Fix and even the occasional touroid, you know, those folks with a broken GPS that wonder through, looking for something different. Well, we got a lot of different around here, but we mostly treasure it, not put it on display for those poor folks that “ain’t from around here.”
Saturday morning I woke up feeling good. In about 14 hours Sally Rae would hang out the “CLOSED” sign and we would get a little peace and quiet. I thought that I might take Li’l’ Billy, our special adopted son, on a fishing trip.
Rev. Hollis was on vacation, so my presence at Cottonwood Baptist Church would go unnoticed, mostly. …
My morning reverie crashed to a sudden halt. Polonius was sitting in our restaurant, drinking coffee. Polonius and I have a troubled history. He is an undercover Texas Ranger. I saved his life a few years back; he saved me from prosecution in a gambling game I shouldn’t have been in, and I started going to church a lot more regularly than before.
Anyway, I was fine forgetting him, but he hadn’t forgotten me.
“Hi there, Polonius,” I said, with a good deal more warmth than I felt.
“Have a seat, Dave, we got bidness.”
That is exactly what I feared.
“Nothing much, really,” he continued. “I just need you to sit in on a little poker game down in Quick Fix tonight.”
“Now Polonius, I don’t live that way anymore,” I protested. “I got a family and responsibilities ...”
“… And an overdue mortgage and health department issues and maybe street work coming up that will put you out of bidness,” he retorted. “I can help with all that, but I need a simple favor. Just go play poker. The State of Texas will even stake you $1,500 and if you win, you get to keep the difference.”
“Let me guess, I have to wear a wire and everyone there will be carrying a gun.”
“Well, there’s that, but nothing too bad ought to go wrong.”
Flashes of Eve offering Adam a big Delicious apple came to mind. I shivered.
“Really, I’m not interested. Sorry …” I started off.
Polonius pulled a paper out of his pocket. It was my mortgage on our home and restaurant. “It says here that you’re three months behind. I own the paper now, so if I foreclosed …”
“If the State of Texas ponyed up that sort of money, you must really want this tonight,” I countered. “I won’t do it for three months’ back payments, but I’ll listen if it involves tearing up the rest of the mortgage.”
“You’re sort of proud of your services, aren’t you?” he asked.
“More like I’m too young to die. The fact that you have the paper in your hand tells me that this isn’t going to be as easy as you tell me,” I countered.
A good girl only stays good with a firm “no!” Once she starts dickering about price, she is completely redefined. I knew with an awful certainty that tonight I was headed back down to Quick Fix to play poker with some really bad characters.
As Polonius explained it, I would be wearing a wire, two-way. If there was any trouble, he and a number of other Texas Rangers would be ready. Of course, a man can get dead very fast, but at least there would be enough of them to carry me out if it went sour.
“OK, Polonius, you got me for the evening. But first, do you have any spare Xanax?”
So about 10 p.m. Saturday, I went down to Quick Fix and the Filthy Sistah, a little juke joint that mostly proved that germs had rights, too.
I got led into a back room with a bunch of strangers playing cards with great intensity. LuLu Ninnypo (her professional name) led me back and gave me a glass of amber liquid, its vintage uncertain. I knew that I was gambling when I took my first sip; it was a gamble that this rot gut wasn’t too close to the first draw at the still. That first draw was pure wood alcohol, a little more deadly than drinking liquid toilet cleanser.
“Howdy, I’m Dave,” I announced myself. Reluctantly, the introductions began. Poker players are “frenemies” at best, but some protocols of politeness must exist.
“Hi, Boss,” I said. “How’s the road extortion business going these days?”
“Fair to middling,” Boss Plemmons allowed, pointedly not shaking my hand. “Your septic system is going to have a terminal problem soon. I’d hate to condemn your place.”
The way Boss ran the county roads was so old school it should have been outlawed in the Constitution.
“No problem to me,” I fired back. “We got enough ptomaine in those lines to take care of anything really bad.”
“I‘m Stan Kowalski,” said a blond giant to Boss’ left. Stan was about 6-foot-5 with a crewcut and bad breath. He defined what I thought of as a bad-news redneck.
“I’m Rob Muller,” said the next guy. He felt compelled to wear a suit and tie, even in a “friendly” poker game. I pegged him for a Yankee.
“Yo, I’m Royce.” He wore $1,000 loafers with no socks; something snazzy that could have pleaded guilty to being a “leisure suit,” and a scarf around his throat — even in 90-degree heat. I pegged him for an East Coast Liberal, or worse. I could practically smell brie cheese, even across the table.
“I’m John Smith,” said the nebbish in beached blue jeans and a self-consciously faded tie-dye shirt. “If I tell ya anymore, I’d have to kill yah.” I pegged him of mid-America, with hints of Kentucky.
Boss spoke up with his usual eloquence. “Are we going to form a country club or play some serious poker?”
I sat down. It was five-card draw, and for the next 20 minutes I steadily lost the $1,500 stake money that Polonius had issued me (with three signatures, no less).
So I am a bad poker player …since when’s that a crime?
Out of nowhere Stan blurted out, “Hey, I need some spare Meskins to do some chores at my ranch.”
Finally, we were getting somewhere.
Rob piped up, “Well, I might just have some pals in Austin and DC who could see their way through the paperwork on such a transaction, for a price, of course ...”
Royce said, “We specialize in discreet one-way transport. My, ah, associates, and I have private airstrip y’all might be interested in … raise ya $100.
“Boss,” I said, “How’s your labor pool holding up?”
Stan said, “I need ’um by Tuesday. Need any new crew, Boss?”
“FOLD!” Boss declared, slapping his cards down.
“Well, how do we make local contact?” Rob asked.
“I’ll call,” I said. I was holding a full house, kings high.
Four people pulled guns and aimed them at me! I tried to be very calm.
Stan said, “ICE! You’re under arrest for facilitating the movement of illegal aliens!”
Rob responded, “You’re under arrest for conspiring against federal immigration policy. FBI!”
Royce would not be outdone. “You’re under arrest for conspiracy again the United States. CIA, by the way.”
“I’ll call on the hand, not the phone … do we have a little misunderstanding here?”
John I-Have-to-Kill-You-if-I-Tell You said, “I’ll think of something to charge you with, Mr. Homeland Security!”
I said, “All I mean is, I’ve got three cowboys and a pair of deuces. Don’t I get the pot?”
This caused some considerable embarrassment. In no time at all, those Feds said if they blowed this guy away (meaning me!), the problem blows away, doesn’t it? The idea originated with Royce, I think … I was under some considerable stress at the time.
Homeland Security said that I was just another one of those questionable citizens who could just disappear and solve all kinds of problems. Then Royce added: “We do that a lot of that in our office. But we’d have to include that lard-rump to his left (meaning Boss Plemmons) and we’ve found that dropping two boys out of a helicopter in the Caribbean is as easy as one.”
Rob said, “If they both just disappeared, well, at worse it would be just another governmental conspiracy theory, way too improbable to be believed.”
Boss was uncharacteristically silent. That’s when I said: “Before anybody gets an itchy trigger finger, I want to point out that Stan has a red dot on his temple … just sayin’. That’s from my friend Polonius, Texas Ranger. He is monitoring this game on a two-way wire.”
“So, you’re one of us, part of the law enforcement system,” said Stan, somewhat disappointed.
“Sort of,” I said. At that moment I would have been prouder confessing to my mother that I was a pimp.
As one, they all trained their weapons at Boss Plemmons.
Royce said, “We can do one body just fine. Problem solved. My, ah, group has precedence for that sort of sanction.”
I surprised myself in what I said next.
“Boss here is a friend of mine. Leave him alone.” The truth was I didn’t care for Boss, but I didn’t like what was shaping up even more.
“The only thing y’all have going wrong here is too many agencies looking for too many crimes. Now, about my full house …”
Anyway, don’t play poker with the government. There are way too many wild cards.