We were just getting the $3/5 game started. The floor lady was taking the chip racks off the table after selling starting stacks to everybody. One of the best dealers in the house had slid into the box. Nobody was stuck; everything was possible, like Christmas morning.
I took the #6 seat for reasons I don’t recall, and Happy sat down shortly after in the #5. “Good morning,” he said, and stuck out his hand. It’s weird times, and we’re all finding our way in the new world, but I shook his hand and wished him a good morning.
Of course, Happy isn’t his real name – I don’t know it, and if I did, I wouldn’t share it here. But he was smiling and congenial to everybody. We got chips on the felt and cards in the air, so we all had cause to be joyful, but he was the bandleader.
Some people talk incessantly at the poker table, and it drives you nuts – goodness knows I’ve stood up from perfectly good poker games because a chatterbox made me want to rip off my ears. But Happy drove the conversation and narrative in such a way that I enjoyed it.
He was obviously from the old school of the poker community where I was playing. He’d say to the older guys, “Remember Red Mike? How he won that tournament, bought an RV, drove away, and we never saw him again?” Clearly, we were pushing back into the 90’s, if not earlier, with those stories. Sometimes the person he was talking to remembered the event (or, at least, pretended to), and sometimes they’d shrug and say they didn’t know that guy. But Happy didn’t care – he had a story to tell, and he was going to recount it whether you knew the protagonist or not.
Another thing about Happy – he was playing a ton of hands, and winning way more than his share. We’ve all had those days – and seen others have them. When you get whatever you need, the other person doesn’t get what they need, and you just pile chips up in front of you.
Ol’ Happy was mopping up the carpet with us, never in a gloating or rude manner – just unbeatable – as the reminiscing continued.
The world shifted when somebody who knew him well stopped by the table. Did he want to take a break and go get lunch with this fellow? Happy smiled, and said no thanks. “It’s almost 1:30 and I gotta go to an appointment at Kaiser at 3:00. Get ready for some chemo, you know? I don’t think it’s a big thing – my wife, she’s retiring in a few months. We want to move back to the old country. We got a house there and a house here, and we’re going to split our time.”
So Bob (not his real name either) headed out, and Happy returned to his narrative, and winning. He hit a 5-outer to win a moderately big pot from me, but I didn’t care at all. If that helped him keep his mind off an upcoming pre-chemo appointment at Kaiser, I was okay with it.
Not too long later, Bob came back with a plate wrapped in aluminum foil and a bottle of water. “Carnitas tacos from down the street – I know they’re your favorite, and I didn’t want you to have to leave the game.” Happy’s smile got even bigger. He tried to give Bob some chips, but Bob was having none of it. So Happy spread a napkin on a side table, played poker, talked about the old days, and ate carnitas.
It came around 3:00, and time for Happy to go. He was obviously pushing the schedule envelope, looking at his watch as the last orbit came around. Finally, the blinds got to him – somebody had already brought a couple of racks over, put them on the side table, and taken away the paper plate.
Happy stood up, and said he’d had a great afternoon. I wasn’t the only one who wished him well before he headed for the cage, his car, and Kaiser. And I got why he didn’t want to take a break for lunch. Like all of us, he has a limited number of poker hands to play in his remaining trips around the sun. But I bet he’s way more aware of that than most of us. So he was happy to eat from a side table and keep the hands coming.
I haven’t seen him down there since. It’s not like I’m in there every day, so it’s possible Happy’s in there many afternoons, telling stories. I sure hope so.
And the other thing I hope – I hope that if I’m ever facing chemo, I’ll be able to express the joy that was on Happy’s face while he was in that game with us.
Because it was good – it was grand – being at the table with Happy.