This story is by Donny Cooper and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Al Gleason hated everything about his life. It wasn’t that he was a failure; the life he had at forty-one was just so mediocre. In his opinion, mediocrity was worse than failure. When a man failed, it was over. He could be inspired to try again, learn from his mistakes, and prevail the next time. The lack of defeat but the absence of winning could make a man complacent; this condition could last a lifetime.
His over-weight, under-achieving wife of nine years acted like he was a tycoon, but that was understandable, considering the nature of the life she’d had before he’d rescued her from poverty. Her mother enjoyed telling her friends that Al “ had his own business.”
His furniture store was the only one in Bartow, population 3822 , with that many or more living outside the city limits. The problem was that big box furniture store, Buffet’s Fine Furnishings, was only eighteen miles away, in Carolltown, where the number of residents was fourteen thousand.
Al felt like his customers came to him for a cheap dining room set, but went to Carolltown if they planned to buy a roomful of furniture; what made Al mad was that he knew his store could compete with the bigger stores in price, but not in the selection—– his inventory was less than a third of theirs.
The other four men sitting around the table were affluent, respected businessmen in the community. This high stakes poker game was held once a month. It was a diversion to everyone at the table except Al; to him, it was a desperate attempt to come up with enough money to prevent his worst nightmare——the shame of public humiliation caused by bankruptcy. The other men were casual, relaxed, and discussing the ups and downs of the stock market while they waited on the other two players to arrive.
This month the game was being played in Hiram Leonard’s man cave. Al didn’t join in the conversation. He was too preoccupied with his problem, concerned that his desperation had driven him to take part in this last effort to save himself.
He had grown tired of seeing his business suffer because he couldn’t offer enough choices to his customers to stop them from going to Buffet’s Fine Furnishings; he took a risk that could either solve his problem or make it unsolvable.
The furniture manufacturers had an annual dealer market in Atlanta for the furniture stores that sold the brands they made. Discounted prices, as well as extended payment terms, were offered to qualified store owners. Al saw this as his chance to increase his inventory and be more competitive in that respect with Buffet’s. He ordered forty thousand dollars worth of furniture in three days at the market, with one hundred and twenty-day terms. Four months to raise forty grand. What in the hell was he thinking? That his business would instantly double because his inventory did?
He did see a nice increase in business, but it was a fraction of what he needed to pay his creditors on time. When a company is given the extraordinary opportunity to have four months to pay for its merchandise, it’s useless to ask for more time. He had managed to scrape up fourteen thousand dollars and borrow seven thousand from his despicable brother-in-law. That twenty-one thousand got him in this game with a thousand to spare.
The four other men at the table plus the two who still hadn’t arrived played every month. The seventh slot was filled by a different man each month.
Just having the required twenty thousand wasn’t enough. One of the players had to vouch for you as well. Dexter Givings had known Al since he was a teenager and recommended him. The other two players finally arrived, and the game was about to begin.
Hiram Leonard said, “Listen up, boys. The game will be dealer’s choice, as long as he chooses five card stud or seven card stud. No draw poker, no wild cards. Ante is five dollars, bet is five dollars, three raises are allowed. If four or more players agree, the ante and bets can be raised to ten dollars at any point in the game. We will stop at three A.M. There are two ways to quit. Lose your stake, and you are free to go. Rarely ever happens but it can. Other way is to play until three. The bathroom is behind that curtain if you need it. The refrigerator is stocked, and so is the bar. Nobody has to leave the room for any reason until the game is over. Otherwise, winning or losing, we all quit at the same time. Does everybody agree?”
They all nodded yes and Hiram shuffled the cards. Hank Vinson drew the highest card, so he dealt first. Al’s luck had never been worse. His hands were too promising to fold, but not good enough to win. He began to wonder if they were cheating him, but if that was the case, they were experts. If he hadn’t agreed to their terms of playing until three, Al would have quit after losing four thousand dollars.
After one hour, the stakes were doubled. He tried to slow the pace of the game, but the players weren’t having any of that. When he hesitated in calling a bet, they prodded him to make up his mind. Al felt battered and bullied but didn’t know what to do to cut his losses. He started folding at the first bet, but then he would get a hand with a pair of face cards in the hole and stay until the end. And still lose. He no longer thought they were cheating, now he knew they had to be.
These powerful men thought they knew Al Gleason, but what they didn’t realize was the level that his desperation had reached. Desperate men can take actions that not only surprise others, but themselves as well. Al stood to lose his business, his home, and his reputation because of his stupidity in part, but also because of the duplicity of these evil men. He knew that there was at least a hundred and forty thousand dollars in this room, and it was going to be his.
He had started carrying a gun after an attempted robbery scare a few years ago. The Smith and Wesson thirty-eight was in his pocket, his car was full of gas, and Al’s decision was mad. The men all wondered why his grim look had turned into a broad smile. They were about to find out.