Just like every casino or gaming house, the Century had no clocks to be found anywhere on its beige walls, no windows to frame sunsets and sunrises. The dealers wore watches with second hands on their left wrists, but only to be able to count down a minute when a player called “Time!”, which happened when someone took too long to call a raise because of a bad hand or of the need to pretend, for pride’s sake, that one held something playable but was just being extraordinarily cautious. Time meant little otherwise at the Century, which could have lived up to its name in the long and practically unimpeded train of hours that it stayed open for business, 24/7, 365 days a year except for three hours after lunch on Good Friday, when Christ was writhing on the cross and even poker players and their enablers could have used a long cigarette break or, for the fish or habitual losers, a stay of execution.
Anytime the Century was open and full, the ceaseless murmur of chips on the tables sang like a forest of crickets. Players liked to stack their chips into mini-towers of 20s, the easier to compute how much they’d gained or had left, but it was also to intimidate the enemy, or to whet his appetite and entice him into making a hasty call. While they waited for the others to act and for the hours to pass, they picked up the chips and dropped them back on each other like a cascade of plastic coins, establishing a nervous rhythm across the table and across the room, almost like a substitute for the absent clocks, seconds without minutes, minutes without hours, just a steady, strangely comforting trickle of leaden-hearted chips.
In the early mornings, when players with a full working day behind and ahead of them might have been lulled to sleep or to slower play by their diurnal clocks, the Century’s receptionist played DJ and put on Beyoncé or Bruno Mars to get people nodding or humming along. By three, the rock bands playing garbled covers of Guns N’ Roses and The Police in the courtyard outside the Century would have packed up, the silence behind them broken only by the scraping of empty chairs being stacked for the night and by the thump of the bass from the Century’s PA system. The dutiful husbands would have gone home unless they were on some stupendous winning or losing streak, and the dawn patrol would drift in—the gay comedienne and her entourage, sometimes still in full make-up straight out of the show, the frat boys too drunk to drive home after the party, the butches and their trophy girlfriends, and the call-center agents coming off their shifts, Ozamis and Ohio still screeching in their ears, looking for cold beer to wash their spiels off their tongues and for a brilliant hand like cowboys—a pair of kings—with which to redeem and restore their battered egos.
Joel would be among these stragglers, easy to spot at the door in his apple-green Timberland jacket with the frayed pocket flaps, a black leatherette messenger bag slung across his chest containing a pack and a spare of Marlboros, menthol candies, a charger and external battery for his iPhone, earphones, and a datebook on which he had written almost nothing but which he kept because it had a plastic sleeve just large enough to hold a 3” x 5” picture of Jemmy on her second birthday. At that hour except on Fridays and Saturdays there was ample and free parking in the asphalt lot behind the Century, and Joel could sidle up his red Charade beside a white Chevy Suburban or a black Escalade, a sure sign that there was a game going on at the Big Table, where the mayors and the movie stars and the boxing champs went all-in with mindless abandon against the slipper-shod pros. Sometimes he had to pause on the steps just outside the Century’s door to smoke a last stick before going in, to remind himself what he was there for and to check on his bankroll for that session—often three, maybe four or even five thousand, beyond which it would begin to hurt and eat into his gas budget and possibly even into Jemmy’s maintenance, although he knew that Merlie would always cover for him there, albeit with an earful of abusive admonitions.
Joel would often wonder at the door if Ruby was dealing at the Big Table, and what the mayor from Laguna was telling her as he flicked a 500-peso chip into her tip box. In that situation, in the mayor’s place, he himself might have said something lame or even stupid like “Buy yourself a new lipstick” or “Go take your boyfriend to that new Sandra Bullock movie” when what he really wanted to say was “Smear me, please, all over” and “Any day you say you can sneak out for a movie with me, I’ll call in sick which won’t be a lie because it will be so true, I’ll be so sick with longing and surprise that I might not even show up, for fear that you had simply made a joke that I mistook for truth, reason, and justice.” Joel was both gifted and cursed with an articulate imagination, one with long and slender fingers, but he had the hardest time saying the simplest things, and with ponytailed, sharp-heeled Ruby nothing was ever so simple.
Every time Ruby walked up to a table where Joel was playing, he felt his chest tighten, and whatever cards he held—whether they be pocket aces or a 7-2 off-suit—suddenly seemed silly and unimportant. She was his biggest gamble by far, and he hadn’t even made a bet, not even a vague suggestion that he was interested in playing his hand, much less in raising the stakes, as he inevitably would have had to do if he allowed Ruby to become everything he had imagined her to be—Ruby no longer in her black-and-white dealer’s uniform but in a pastel T-shirt and jeans, or, better yet, in a cotton housedress, perhaps in sunny yellow, or a powdery blue, and he could see the fabric crinkling and stretching against her pale white skin when she turned or bent over to pick up a doll or a grocery receipt. He’d heard her mention a child once, a boy who must’ve been three or four when Ruby made a joke about tips and milk money, but rather than bother Joel it made Ruby even more interesting to figure out, like one of those dulcet voices that would occasionally cross his earphones, hinting at faceless flirtation across straits and mountains, until he went through the identity-verification routine and saw her DOB as 18-05-1957, forcing him to shift instantly to a talking-to-my-mother mode.
Ruby, he estimated, was 26 or 27, which meant that he—or anyone else—no longer had to deal with a giggly teenager or a skittish virgin, but a female in her youthful prime who would never be prettier nor healthier than she was this minute, nearly bursting with radiance, pretty even given the slight but still visible imperfections that relegated her and other women like her to dealing cards in a poker joint rather than tossing back her shampooed hair before a camera or considering proposals of marriage from the sons of shipping tycoons and real-estate magnates. Ruby could have easily passed muster as Miss Cabadbaran or Muse of the Forest of some southern state university, but there was a forcefulness to her jawline that would become even more pronounced with time, certainly by her early 40s, as she grew leaner and her skin tautened before distending at full middle age. Yet even this, to Joel, was attractive in its fatedness, the transience merely sharpening his desire.
When he took Seat 1 or Seat 9, on either side of the dealer, Joel could look down to the white space and the frilly elastic at the small of her back and honestly profess no malice in the gesture, telling himself that he was merely admiring the sculptural flow of her spine down to where the dimples vanished into her waistline. It seemed like he could stare for hours at the fine hair on her forearms, so fine that it gilded her against the light. Sometimes Joel had to look straight up at the bulbs that hovered above the table to hurt his eyes and break the spell, to remind himself how badly she could hurt him, with the cards to begin with.
As soon as the hands were dealt and the bets were called, Ruby’s fingers darted like a nimble crab across the felt, picking up chips at every stop.
Now everything was literally on the table: his off-suit 6 and 7, and the other player’s 9 and 10 of hearts. The first three cards laid out on the felt—the “flop”, in pokerese—were the 5 of hearts, the 8 of diamonds, and the 10 of clubs. To impress Ruby as much as anything else, he had gone all in—pushed forward his whole stack of remaining chips, now totaling just a little over P3,000—at that point, holding an open-ended straight draw, a 5-6-7-8, with two more cards coming: a 4 or a 9 would complete the trick, and there were two cards more to come. The villain—the only one who called his all-in bet—had paused for only a couple of seconds before calling, making a little pushing motion with both hands; he was a pink-cheeked college kid—did they even check his ID?—hoping for a flush, or maybe a triple with the 10s. But anyone watching knew that there were four suits in that deck, in any deck, and thus a smaller than one-in-four chance of another heart turning up, because so many of them were already out in the open; Joel even held one of them, the 6, cutting deeper into the enemy’s chances. Both players stood up, Joel’s hands in his pockets, itching for a cigarette even just to put in his mouth in that non-smoking room but finding only a candy wrapper from some nights past.
When Ruby drew the fourth card—the turn—it was a 4 of hearts, yielding Joel his 4-to-8 straight. Joel spun on his heels and punched the air with a yelp that drew a frown from Ruby and, in turn, a mock-apologetic grin from Joel for his forgivable boisterousness. In all the months that he had stalked Ruby in his tireless imagination, he had never come closer to telling her “I love you” and “Will you come to bed with me tonight,” the words forming in his moony eyes if not his lips. He thought he saw her smile, if not at him then at the universe, in a Holy-Mary-Mother-of-God kind of way, in gentle benediction.
And then Ruby drew the burn card, and then the river, and the deuce of hearts flipped over and hit the table like a kick in the groin. The college kid mumbled “I’m sorry” and looked genuinely embarrassed, not knowing where to put his hands, but of course he wasn’t, no one ever was for anything that happened at the Century, where everyday someone lost an advance on a housing loan to someone else jonesing for a new set of magwheels or a weekend in Boracay. In his stupor, as Ruby shoveled his chips over to the other fellow, Joel realized that he should have felt that dreadful tingle, should have seen the rogue card steaming out of the corners of his fervid imagination. The lurid redness of it, peeping from the cold white of the margins, was enough to make his stomach churn, and the roundness of the heart's shoulders, emerging with final clarity, tapered to a dagger point that bled him dry and drier every time he would recall that instant.
There was nothing more cruel than the indifference of cards, Joel thought as he sank back into his chair. Well, almost nothing, as Ruby flashed him a bittersweet smile at once consoling and disdainful, as if to say, “What now? Buy more chips, or go home to your wife and child.”
This was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Esquire Philippines.