We're playing Texas Hold 'em.
Didn't we play that last time?
We did. But next time… we'll play something else.
Course you are.
No one folds.
No different than slots. Shovel the chips in and see what happens.
It's just money. They print more every day.
Seven for the flop.
Seven of our best.
It's only seven people at the table!
You guys know where I can find a poker game around here?
You watch, I'll get screwed on the river.
And you'll be out ones of dollars. Guess they'll have to update the richest people list.
A six-dollar bet; a reluctant call.
A pair of threes.
You play that trash?
Another pair of threes.
Well, this is some championship poker we've got here, folks.
I’ve heard poker described as “hours of Boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” Problem is, I’ve heard soldiers used that line to describe war.
So maybe, maybe it ought to be “hours of Boredom punctuated by moments of…” Well, of what? Apprehension? Doubt? Worriment? Fretfulness? How about excitement? Mild excitement. “Hours of Boredom punctuated by moments of Mild Excitement.” Doesn’t have the same oomph to it, but what the hell. This ain’t war. It’s $3-$6.
Yeah, sure, we’re talking Texas Hold ’em, same as they have on the TV. Though about as similar as Major League Baseball is to a slow-pitch softball game where the players’ve set up a keg at first base. What you see on TV, that’s No Limit, a game based on psychologically manipulating your opponent into thinking, hell, believing you’ve got the best hand, a game where the goddamn cards almost up and disappear, a game that brings us as close as we’ll ever get to a psychic competition.
But in $3-$6, your most fearsome foe, once you have the game down pat, ain’t Wild Bill Hickok or Nick the Greek or Doyle Brunson. Matter of fact, it ain’t a person at all. No, something far more sinister. This desperado is waiting for you at every single poker room in the whole wide world, and if there are poker rooms on other worlds, damned if it ain’t there too. Boredom.
Because $3-$6, friends, is a structured betting game, meaning for the first two rounds you can only wager increments of $3 and the last two rounds increments of $6, and you don’t get to pick which increment, you gotta follow the order. Unlike No Limit, then, there’s precious little psychology, no psychic powers at all, and the cards always remain painfully present. To win, you gotta fold and fold and fold and fold, until the odds are in your favor; to win, you can’t get depressed when you realize you haven’t played a hand in a few hours; to win, you can’t let the fact that some bastard so drunk he can’t even see his own cards (let alone the shared cards at the center of the table) lucked out. This game, it ain’t about taking the pots you ought to take, but about staying away from the hands you shouldn’t’ve played in the first damned place. How do you go about doing that? You have to see the poker world, sure, but you also have to look beyond it. Or Boredom will be victorious, and you, buddy, you’ll be broke.
But now why is it when there’re so many more horrible things in the world, death, torture, rape, disease, hunger, actual Nazis, physical pain of all sorts, mental pain of all sorts, fear itself, that folks include Boredom in that list of awfulness, when really, all it is, I mean no one’s kicking your ass, threatening your family, nuking your future plans, telling you that the problem is you got this condition ain’t no one’s ever heard of before, no, you’re just bored, nothing to do, which, no offense pal, are you kidding me? why is that such a problem, so much so that psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, scientists of all kinds, even philosophers have written about it, studied it, thought about it, no one more so than Martin Heidegger, that old Nazi, who went on forever and ever about the three stages of Boredom (can you feel the ZZZZs creep up on you when you think about sitting through those goddamned long-winded lectures?), who showed us how Boredom is connected to time and meaning, but then, there at the climax, okay, for fuck’s sake, lay it on us already… but no. He shows us how Boredom finally comes to an end (strangely not by shutting the hell up, but never mind), but not why it’s a problem in the first damned place.
Anyway, to pass the time, as we wait for answers to our questions, as we wait for some goddamn cards, which, sad to say, could be quite a while; and the longer the layover lasts, the more it gets to feeling like you’re at a bus station and the bus’s due, overdue, long overdue, which ain’t so surprising at first, a late bus, gonna go out on a limb here and say it’s happened before, gonna go further out on that limb and say it’ll happen again, gonna blindfold myself and take off at a sprint on this limb to say it’ll happen again many, many, many times, no fear at all that I might fall out of this metaphorical tree, hell, it’d be goddamned bewildering if the coach were ready to go at the listed time, could be the harbinger for the end of days, eschatological horseshit from the religious canon be damned, instead, here it is 11:07 on the nose and what in the hell are we doing? yeah, rolling out of the station, Hades following, just as confused as the rest of us, almost makes you want to go up, pat the ruler of the underworld on the back and say, Come on, bub, you’re the, uh, well, supernatural entity for this here job, been preparing for all eternity, and so, what I want you to do, don’t hold back, pal, go out there and really…, but right now, what luck, the apocalypse ain’t upon us on account of the expected lag, so until we get some cards, I’ve got this story to tell you.
Goes like this:
The Legend of That Guy You Replaced Your Son With
There was a man in the Queen of Hearts Club, up there in Billings, Montana, who went by something or other, no doubt, but I’ll call him Herald. And Herald was perfect and upright (not three sheets like some), a guy who feared the bad beat, and generally steered clear of sucker straights… Herald? Yeah, I know, it ought to be Harold, since that’s a person, right?, a guy, guy you can drink a beer with, guy you can watch a ballgame with, guy you can turn to and say, I was thinking of reorientating this impromptu shindig we’re having in more of a bowling direction, you down?, of course he’d be down, and after you’d gotten the shoes, the ball, the lane, you’d look up and see your new pal’d already filled out the scorecard: H-A-R-O-L-D, and reading his moniker you’d get this warm feeling in part because you’d made a new friend, and ain’t that nice?, in part because you’re about to do some bowling, which’s nice too, but also on account of this thought just entered your noggin that all was right with the world, even though it sure as hell wasn’t, not even close, that everything was gonna be okay, though it probably won’t be anything like okay, and you know it, but, behold!, thus is the power of that there arrangement of letters: H-A-R-O-L-D.
Herald, on the other hand.
No one goes by that.
’Cause it’s just not a name…
Only, who cares?, since it wasn’t his name either. Well, probably it wasn’t. I mean, I never heard his name. Or, if I did, I don’t remember it… Lemme tell ya, he looked like a Harold, yeah, on account of the fact that everyone at this table looks like a Harold, that’s why he was perfect, because everyone at a $3-$6 table is old, even the young folks are old, and no one pretends to be anything but, least of all our friend here, and just in case you thought you could pull one over on us, there’s a rule, at the Queen of Hearts, in this casino, and in every other poker room in the world, says you can only speak in one language: Cliché. I was sure, if he graced us with his words, they wouldn’t actually be his words, they’d be someone else’s words, passed down through the generations, so familiar I could join in along with all the other Harolds, like as if we were reciting the lyrics to some ancient song absolutely everyone knows and no one needs to fear.
Oh, but we should’ve been afraid.
Because when he finally spoke, in violation of all the natural laws, this man sang his own terrifying song, and I haven’t recovered since:
“Our son died. And the guy we replaced him with was eaten by a bear. He just got in the cage with the bear. And the bear ate him.”
Maybe a few minutes before, except it seemed like eons at that point, he was just another lousy poker player at the Queen of Hearts… Goddamn guy was just another Harold.
After he spoke, well, there’d probably been less commotion if he’d up and turned into a sphinx…
In Cincinnati, this was years ago, I was driving a moving truck with side mirrors that stuck out way farther than I was used to, and the telephone poles, for whatever reason, were really close to the road, only I didn’t realize any of that at the time, so the crash and the explosion, what caused either of them was a mystery to me, not helped by the fact that everything was suddenly in slow motion, actual slow motion, glass moving through the cabin at a laggardly pace, no hurry, making me think I could pick each and every fragment out of the air, turn it around in my hand a few times, think about it, really get to know it, maybe write the definitive treatise on that piece, plenty of time here, before, almost sadly, remembering back when I was focused on…, but no, gotta move onto the next one, even in slow motion you don’t get all the time you’d want, going from bit to bit this way, until I became an expert (available for various court proceedings) on the shards that happened to be occupying the airspace inside the U-Haul or Penske or Budget furniture hauler I was obviously doing a bad job of piloting, since I’d rammed a side mirror into a telephone pole, which led to my only experience where time actually… slowed… down.
That is until right after Herald spoke.
See the poker room. Felt tables. Green or red. Some with markings and lines. Some without. Vinyl leaning strips encircle the felt. Red or black. Office chairs with no arms. Or with arms. Brown and blue. Maybe maroon or beige. Chaotic carpet. Emerald and purple. Navy and gold. Orange and yellow. Other colors too. No discernible pattern. The dealer in polyester. Unflattering long-sleeve shirts. Unflattering for all. Rows and rows of chips. House chips. None of them yours. Cocktail waitresses. Clad like strippers. Clad like casual Friday. A man enters. An emissary. From somewhere else. Calling a name. Walking past a distant bank. Of slot machines. Blinking lights. Pulsing lights. Progressive jackpot. Pink neon piping. A name. The name. Of a winner. Moving through an atmosphere of pure oxygen. No. Moving through an atmosphere perfectly controlled. No. Moving through. Passing by. Pit bosses. Dressed like gangsters. Dressed like cheap PIs. Dressed like fast food managers. Calling a winner. Calling an absent winner. Calling the only publicly known loser. For that day. Moving through a too cold expanse. Moving through an overly mannered expanse. Of the indoors.
And on this space dreams are printed. By those who don’t play. Imagine. You can see it. And by those who do. Close your eyes. Don’t let yourself get distracted. The story, these dumb bastards don’t have a clue. You know what’s really going on. You know.
But what bothers me is. Is in that slow motion. I… I can’t picture Herald. This graybeard. Provided he had a beard. Maybe in a hunting ball cap. A fishing ball cap. A golf ball cap. Just can't recall. And. And anytime I think. I think I’ve almost got him. Time catches up again. And the Harolds erupt with questions:
“If your son was eaten by a bear, why’d you let the bear live?”
“If that guy knew your son had been eaten by that man-eating bear, why’d he get in the cage?”
“Wait a minute. He didn’t say his son was eaten by a bear. He just said his son died and that guy was eaten by the bear. You know, after he got in the cage with it.”
“Why’d that guy get in the cage with the bear in the first place?”
“Did that guy blame the bear for your son’s death?”
“Did you blame the bear for your son’s death? Did that guy get in the cage because of you?”
I was the only one who said, “The guy you replaced your son with?”
Ladies and gentlemen, I argue this very short story has everything: it has tragedy (a parent having to deal with the death of a child), heroism (the man getting in the cage with the bear), implied action (the battle between the man and the bear), gore (the man losing to the bear), if read the right way it has a moral (don’t get into cages with bears), if read another way it has comedy (“He just got into the cage with the bear, and the bear ate him, what’d the dumb bastard think was gonna happen?”), but the one thing it doesn’t have is an explanation, since Herald, after telling the story, after being bombarded with questions, said nothing to me, said nothing to the other Harolds, and, like nothing’d happened, he went back to playing poker…
So there you are. And since the fervor died down pretty quickly, such that like five minutes later no one seemed to care anymore, nor seemed to think anything out of the ordinary had happened, well, sure, after all that, I guess it’s only me, by my lonesome, who can tell you about it.
Was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at a fancy-pants restaurant when my friend Whitney Holmes, noting the fancy-pants-edness of the general surroundings, put forth her belief that the purveyors of this here fine establishment can likely make an actual cocktail, not one of those mistakes you get at dives and college bars, where they dump various liquors and mixers into a glass until the glass is full (of what, there’s no telling), slopping it in your direction, inviting you to lick the rest off the bar if you don’t care for their service, but here, yes right here, they should have the real deal (completely contained in a tumbler, even), so that when the waiter came by and inquired as to what liquid refreshment she might want, Ms. Holmes said:
“A Brandy Alexander.”
The waiter said: “A what?”
Ms. Holmes again: “A Brandy Alexander.”
The waiter: “A what?”
Ms. Holmes, enunciating slowly: “A rum & coke.”
Whitney calls that move The Abort, only it doesn’t seem like you’re ready to Abort playing poker yet, since you’re still staring down our desperado (with his bent cigarette and his rumpled clothes), even if we’re getting into more dangerous territory with him, since that actual Nazi Heidegger said the first stage of Boredom, back when we were just wondering when we might get some goddamned cards already, isn’t really all that bad, but the second stage, well, sure, there’re times when you win some hands, you lose some hands, you go for a long stretch where all you do is fold, followed immediately by a rush lasts so long you can’t actually remember the last time you lost, but it don’t matter, you still feel like you’re on a bus somewhere, and you’re motoring toward your destination, but it’s taken so damn long, well, you stop believing in that destination, not sure why you wanted to go there in the first place, what in the hell am I doing, you ask yourself, on this goddamn bus?!, and as you stand at a rest stop you don’t need, but which the rules demand (so says the driver), you look around and the world seems to sprawl out forever, the night sky further than that, and time expands so much it makes the world and space appear downright small, even though you get to feeling there’s no end to any of it, making you think it’s you you’re bored of, you you can’t escape from, so for distraction, why not imagine this story I’m about to lay down takes place in front of us, right here in the casino…
The Legend of That Guy Who Sat in the Back of the Room
It befell in my undergrad days, when general education requirements were king, and so reigned, that I signed up for a course called Liberal Arts Math, believing that a person like me, good with words but a complete dunce when it comes to numbers, rightly belonged in such a class, with likeminded folks who looked at figures as if they were so many mystical symbols only magic-men understood (if truly even they did). And there came a day when Professor Santa Claus, so named by the girl who in front of me sat because he looked like St. Nick, even drinking out of a teeny tiny coffee cup we called his elf mug, decided to instruct us in the sacred rites and peculiarities of Infinite Set Theory, though we were unlikely to understand a goddamned word of it, having not understood a goddamned word of anything else he’d taught us, seeing as how the course actually should’ve been called Math for Hardcore Mathematicians, instead of what we secretly thought it was called, that being Math for Students Reluctantly Enrolled in a Math Class, and so Dr. Father Christmas told us about Georg Cantor, and how Cantor showed that there wasn’t just one kind of infinity, naw, there’re lots of ’em, an infinity of infinities, proved by the fact that any two infinite sets might not be equal, even if they are infinite, skepticism rising, a classroom full of dullards prepared to wage mighty war on the increasingly outrageous concepts being espoused, when Kris Kringle said, take for example all the odd numbers and then all the prime numbers, don’t matter that each one of those sets goes on forever, the forever that they go on into ain’t the same, which, as you might expect, made the students wondrously wroth, everyone saying infinity is infinity, just like five is five, and there passed a period of riotous jackassery, no one able to control themselves, until Papa Noel, unfazed, finally called us to order, and explained, saying:
“Two infinite sets might not be equal because,” and he paused, really leaning into the ellipsis, ready to reveal the secret knowledge we weren't and would never be prepared for: “because they both fail to end in different ways.”
Now, there’s a guy here I haven’t told you about yet, a guy who, well, he’s the guy, the one who makes the telling worthwhile, the hero, as it were, and like any hero, after his adventure was over, you could hear about him on into the future, from people like me, who were there, present and accounted for, from people I knew, who’d gotten the lowdown from yours truly, and later from folks who’d picked it up I don’t know how, spinning questionable versions, not sticking to the canon, maybe unfamiliar with it, so much horseshit added might as well’ve been titled, “The Legend of This Here Horse and Its Prodigious Amount of Shit,” but to set the record straight, I’ll have you know that this guy who sat in the back of the room, not only sat in the back of the room, but sat off by himself in the back of the room, making it seem like he was somehow really far away, in his own territory, his own land even, an inexplicably cavernous expanse, so when Professor Claus spoke his immortal line, “Two infinite sets might not be equal because,” dot dot dot, “they both fail to end in different ways,” and that guy, that guy in the back of the room, in response, well, when he flipped his book closed, the sound that book made echoed, yes, it did, it echoed off the walls, the desks, the blackboard, the ceiling, maybe even off of St. Nick’s teeny tiny elf mug, and without thinking, all of us turned around and looked at him.
With his bag, he stood up like he’d been called away on a mission.
He walked, man did he walk, epics could be written about that journey from the back to the front of the room.
He slapped his hand down on Kris Kringle’s desk, saying, in a loud voice:
With two fingers, he saluted Professor Claus, who, in that moment, was more confused about what was going on than we were about Infinite Set Theory.
And then, that guy who sat in the back of the room, we didn’t know it at the time, since we figured he’d just had enough and was headed in the general direction of his mini-fridge which contained the twelve or eighteen beers he aimed to put away, but no, as he walked out the door, we didn’t realize he was departing, just like that, never to grace us with his presence again, we didn’t realize this singular moment would be etched on our minds because he’d vanish afterwards, we didn’t realize, as he walked out the door, that that’d be the last we ever saw of him. The girl in front of me, Professor Claus, some other folks too, they assumed he wasn’t just that guy who sat in the back of the room, but that he’d be the once and future guy who sat in the back of the room, yeah, they assumed he’d return. He never did. But we heard stories. Oh, yes, we… heard… stories.
“Long ago, but not too long, and far away, but not so far as all that, in a place not unlike this one, but not exactly the same, it is told that some guy who once sat in the back of a room, only let’s call him Guy for short, Guy boarded a bus, for where? even he wasn’t sure, and rode around the land until every place became no place, until everywhere became nowhere, his journey ending in a field, as if this field were a place people could buy tickets to, as if the bus had a little electronic readout on the front of it that listed Field as its final destination, as if the driver shouted out, ‘Field!’ lumbered out the door, unloaded the luggage, and then drove off to the garage, and in that field Guy passed an unknown amount of time, finally interrupted by a couple who had recently lost a son, who, upon seeing this wayward Guy, thought he could be their son, for when asked what his name was, he said, ‘I don’t know,’ and when asked where he was from, he said, ‘Infinity,’ so the couple took him in, and fed him, and clothed him, and put him to work on the ranch, cleaning the stalls, feeding the horses, mending the fences, life proceeding without incident until the day Guy found the caged bear, why the couple had a caged bear, no one’s sure, including the ranch owners, and Guy stared inside, only the husband of the couple there to witness it, afraid to speak, afraid to move, until Guy, as if to the bear, said, ‘My name is Herald, and soon I will be invincible,’ before stepping inside.
“The husband, after he’d seen the horrors, repeated, ‘Herald, my name is Herald,’ and headed toward town …”
Heidegger, that son of a bitch, says at the worst stage of Boredom, we feel disconnected from any narrative, we feel like we have no identity, we feel like any one thing is just the same as any other thing, and who in the hell could go on like that for long? but then he tells us how we can snap out of it, though I’d say his supposedly hopeful solution is bullshit, since it’s actually why we fear Boredom so much, why it’s so bothersome, only a Nazi would torture us with these insanely long lectures, with horrible writing full of new words that do more to cloud sense than make it, and then present us with “hope” in the form of something just about everyone is terrified of, since Heidegger claims at the moment everything appears meaningless, meaning reasserts itself by showing us new stories we could live out, new people we could become, in other words Change, Change is our way out of Boredom, so when Guy looked into that there bear cage, he understood either he’d have to accept Change (but who knows what kind of godawful monster he might become?), or he’d have to find a way to cement who he was, and thinking back to his old math class, he saw the infinite open up, understanding he couldn’t comprehend it (not a goddamned word), understanding he had no access to it, dwarfed by the vastness, realizing only through physical obliteration could his true self go on, unsullied, so he decided to protect the little bit he had—himself, which reminds me I haven’t told the rest of the story…
The Legend of Herald the Harold
“…in town, at a poker room, Herald told his story. And the guy who heard that story went on to tell it to someone else, who went on to tell it to someone else, who went on to tell it to someone else, each and every one of them taking on the name Herald, transforming into Herald, compelled to go on to some other public place and tell the story again, the mantle and the mission passing to the next person, the story perhaps taking on other true or fictional additions along the way, altered slightly each time, much as former Heralds are left changed forever, nothing like what they used to be. And if you’re wondering how you can avoid meeting Herald, how you can continue on with your own life as it is, well, there’s no one place he might be, since he could be anywhere; you’ll never see him coming, since he looks like everyone, no one. So I’m afraid all you can do is hope you never run into him.”
Unless, that is, you already have.
The cards’ve been dealt, and before I even look at ’em, I know the way Boredom’ll win this time, seeing as how, without a doubt, my hand’ll be mediocre, should just throw it the hell away. But I won’t throw it away. I’ll figure out some goddamned reason why it’s okay to stay in, forking over my $3, the bet immediately raised by the next bastard in line, meaning I’ll have another chance to get out, but hey, I’ve come this far, and anyway, that jerk who raised probably doesn’t have anything, and then on the Flop, Godfrey Daniel! I’ll have top pair, though my kicker won’t be so good, and there’ll be two cards to a flush and two to a straight, neither of which’ll be available to me, the Turn giving me two pair, though now there’ll be three cards to a flush and three to a straight, the River bringing a fourth card to that flush, the hand ending with yours truly in second place, old pal Boredom sitting next to me in a wrinkled suit with tie undone, hair sticking up like he just rolled out a bed, smoking a bent cigarette, patting me on the back, quipping:
“Andy, you should go tell the pit boss you finished in second place, you really should. Because, for folks like you, yeah, for folks like you he has a blue ribbon says, ‘Winner of Second Place,’ right on it waiting back there behind the desk. He’s been saving that prize; he wants to give it to someone. And, pal, you know what you should do, oh, if only you would, once you’ve accepted your award: put that ribbon on. And, buddy, after you’ve accepted your award, this would be epic, as a favor just to me: wear that ribbon always. Then, that’ll be you, forever: the Winner of Second Place.”
But it’s been so long, so long, what can I do to stop this…?
We’re playing Texas Hold ‘em.
Didn’t we play that last time?
We did. But next time … we’ll play something else.
The dealer’s flung cards to each of the players, none of whose names I know, not even mine. Boredom, with his bent cigarette, looks on, mildly interested, already pointing to where I should wear the ribbon. He takes a drag and my hand’s predictably mediocre. But I can get away with playing trash just this once, right? I might even win. It happens for the Harolds all the time. The Harolds who stay forever the same wherever I go.
I reach for my chips. Three chips, that’s all. I can feel them in my hand. I can see them moving forward. Who knows what I’d become if I fold again? But I look at Boredom, already holding the Second Place ribbon…
And then I say: Our son died.
I let the chips stay in their stacks.
And the guy we replaced him with was eaten by a bear.
I toss my cards into the center; Boredom drops his veneer, seems genuinely surprised.
He just got in the cage with the bear.
Later, I'll stand up, adjust the ball cap that obscures my monstrous features, pad away blending in with the crowd. You won't remember me.
And the bear ate him.
Andrew Farkas is the author of two collections of short fiction: Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press 2009) and Sunsphere (BlazeVOX Books 2019). His work has appeared in North American Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, Western Humanities Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He has been thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, including one Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXV and one Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.F.A. from the University of Alabama, an M.A. from the University of Tennessee, and a B.A. from Kent State University. He is a fiction editor for The Collagist and an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.