Authors: Mike Monson
He reached out and put his hand on Lydia’s knee. He smiled.
“Just like you.”
att stood when they called his name for the game. Walked as straight as he could to the table. Managed to find his seat without running into any cocktail waitress or other players. He could tell he generated a buzz when he asked for five grand in chips.
The man to his right bet twenty dollars.
Matt looked around at the other players. He had a hard time focusing. Nearly everyone was a white man about Matt’s age. He couldn’t tell them apart. Some were skinny and some were fat. They all looked ugly and pale. They stared at him. He looked closely at the man to his left. He had a big gut and wore sweatpants and a green polo shirt. He looked like an idiot.
And, directly across from him, was a gray-haired man, about 70 years old. He wore elegant clothes: cream-colored slacks, an open-collar white silk shirt, and a crisp blue blazer. His eyes were intelligent and amused. His face: blank. He gave Matt the creeps.
“Hey, man,” Matt said to the man in the green polo shirt. “What is up?”
“It’s forty bucks to you. You’re the big blind.”
“Huh?” Matt said. He looked at the dealer. Name tag: Rhonda. She was all serious looking. Reminded Matt of Ms. Jackson, his English teacher during his senior year at Davis High School. Shoulder-length brown hair, big plastic glasses, and always a blank, mean expression. Matt hated Ms. Jackson. She nearly flunked him. He had jerked off thinking about her nearly every night that year. Always the same fantasy. Ms. Jackson, wearing tight blue jeans, naked from the waist up, blew cigarette smoke into Matt’s eyes and then laughed. In the fantasy Ms. Jackson’s nails were long with shiny white polish.
“Hurry up and bet, newbie,” someone on the other side of the table said.
“Oh,” Matt said. “Sorry.”
He threw two twenty dollar chips toward the middle of the table.
“No,” Rhonda said. She scooped up his chips and put them to her left. “Place your bet in front of you. I’ll put them in the pot. Watch the others.”
Matt felt himself blush. He
that, he did. Just got a little excited, that’s all.
is going to be good,” he heard another voice say. “Dude’s a total fish.”
He still couldn’t seem to
these people. Shit.
“Sir?” Rhonda said. “Perhaps you would prefer one of the lower limit tables? Or maybe you could wait until tomorrow morning? We have classes for beginners at nine
“No, I’m all right. Really, I just forgot that
Rhonda looked doubtful. Matt hated that.
“Really,” he said, “Go on, I’m
Rhonda gave Matt a skeptical look. She dealt two hole cards to each player. Matt got an ace of hearts and a king of diamonds. Pretty good.
He couldn’t remember if he was supposed to bet first or not. The man to his left bet sixty dollars. Okay. The guy to my right is the small blind, and I’m the big blind. The person to my left bets first, I bet last. I should know this shit.
Things went too fast. He heard people say things like raise and call. He saw chips placed on the table to be grabbed by Rhonda and put into the pot. Some people folded, placing their cards on the table face down. Eventually, they were all staring at him again.
Matt didn’t want to ask what the bet was and have everyone think he was stupid. He knew he had to pay something to see the flop because he heard people say “raise.”
“It’s four hundred dollars to call,” the man to his right said.
Matt called. What
. He didn’t dare look at Rhonda.
She dealt the flop. An ace of diamonds, a king of clubs, and a jack of spades. Matt had two pair. Aces and kings. That
to be good. The betting started again. It seemed like four or five other people were still in the hand, including the man to his left. He heard “call,” “raise,” “fold.” Saw cards and chips go down on the table. Saw Rhonda quickly move cards and chips around. She was fast. Seemed as mean as Ms. Jackson. Matt was afraid she was going to flunk him.
Then, they were all staring at him again. He looked at Rhonda. Knew it was his turn. Had no idea what he needed to bet to call. Thought about folding just to avoid making a mistake with his bet and be sent away to the low limit tables. Couldn’t bear that. Instead, he guessed.
“Raise,” he said, and bet six hundred dollars in chips. That seemed okay because after that, one player folded and three called.
Rhonda dealt the turn: a two of hearts. The player to Matt’s left tapped the table. Matt knew what that was: checking. All the other players checked too. When it was his turn, Matt tapped the table. He was feeling good now. He’d get this.
The river card was another deuce, this time a diamond. Matt still had his two pair. He had no idea what anyone else had. The other players bet quickly. No one folded. The guy right across from him raised. Someone else called. Again, Matt didn’t know what to do when it was his turn, and Rhonda and everyone else stared at him. He almost folded, just to be safe and not make a betting mistake and look like a dick. But aces and kings was a good hand, right? He could win.
“Raise,” he said. He bet eight hundred.
“Call,” the man to his left said.
“Fold,” someone else said. “This I gotta see.”
Two more players called. Matt knew he had to show his cards now. He turned them over. The first guy looked, sighed, and then put his cards down. Matt felt excited, he might win the hand.
Another player went out. Then, the well-dressed older man turned his cards over, and the dealer gave him the pot. Rhonda gathered all the cards, including Matt’s, right away.
Matt watched her shuffle. He watched the player to his left quickly make the forty dollar big blind bet. Matt thought for a moment and realized that he was now in the small blind position. He made the twenty dollar bet.
He’d lost the hand. He had no idea what the other player had, but the dealer was in charge, and she knew.
He considered leaving right then, but he was frozen to his chair. He just kept playing and playing, doing whatever he could to not look stupid, even though he just kept losing.
He ordered a cup of coffee. Willed himself to concentrate. He got better at knowing the bets and at getting into the rhythm of the play.
Still, the hands just went so fast. He completely forgot whatever strategy he thought he might have known. He folded if his hand looked bad, and he bet if he thought he had something good. Never won a pot. Sometimes, after a bet, one or two of the other players stared at him and laughed outright.
He remembered someone saying, “Jesus, what’s that guy doing at this table? He’s dead money all the way.”
When he had about five hundred in chips left, he was dealt two aces. There was another ace in the flop. After the river, he went all-in. Another player had a diamond flush. Matt was done.
As he stood up, some of the players clapped.
“Come back anytime,” he remembered one of them saying.
“Hell yeah,” said another. “You’re hellafun to play with. Please come back.”
Everyone laughed as he walked away.
He went straight to his room. Took a bottle of Johnny Walker Black from the bar. Opened the scotch, brought the bottle to his mouth, and jerked his head straight back. He drank five swallows like it was water. Put the bottle down on the bar and took a deep breath. Looked out the window at the lights of Reno. Took another big swig, twice as much this time. Put the bottle down and saw he’d drank more than half. He laughed.
He lay on his bed fully clothed and passed out. It was 9
hen he met Hunter Manning, Tanner Savage’s life was pretty much shit.
Out of high school for more than a year, he totally lacked focus and direction. He didn’t have the grades for any four-year college, and, even if he did, he hadn’t taken the SAT or the ACT or whatever freaking T all his friends had constantly talked about.
It never occurred to him to sign up for classes at Modesto Junior College. He passed by the place nearly every day of his life, and he saw the people constantly teeming in and out, holding their books and their backpacks. But to him, it was a separate world, just another confusing part of the landscape.
His mother had never mentioned college. She was too busy working and eating and getting fat and working out and getting skinny again and dealing with dumbshit Matt and fucking any man who happened to come along. Molly Perkins, the college counselor at Davis High School, had made several appointments with him his junior year, but he never showed. Perkins tried to contact Lydia, but all her calls were unreturned. Since Perkins was busy with motivated students who had enthusiastic parents, she finally gave up on Tanner Savage.
He’d tried a couple of jobs. First he was a busboy at the DoubleTree hotel. He never came back after his first break because he didn’t like the way the chefs and the servers yelled at him.
He worked at Ross Dress for Less for nearly two months before getting fired for punching assistant manager, Lester Kemp, in the face and breaking the cretin’s nose. Kemp had accused Tanner of transferring clothes and other store merchandise out the back door and into the trunk of his friend’s car. Kemp was right, but Tanner wanted to get in a good punch before getting fired. Kemp and the store decided not to press charges as long as he forfeited his last paycheck and never came back.
He still saw his primary job as watching over and protecting his mother. As early as elementary school, Tanner felt certain that Lydia made horrible choices in life, especially when it came to men.
Ralph Tilly, Lydia’s husband before Matt, came along after a string of useless boyfriends. These men were often heavy drinkers, and many of them physically abused Lydia. As Tanner became older and larger, he kept a close eye on these men, and they often ended up with black eyes and busted bones.
Like Matt Hodges, Tilly drank constantly and rarely worked. He’d only beaten Lydia once, the night of Tanner’s 15th birthday party. When Tanner found out, he worked his stepfather over so severely the man spent a week in the hospital. Thrilled when Lydia got up the nerve to divorce Tilly, he was heartbroken when she hooked up with Matt Hodges only a year later. His current stepfather was never violent or aggressive, but the dude was always drunk, and the couple never stopped arguing about money.
The only other thing Tanner cared about was fighting. Thrilled by violence all his life, he was always the toughest boy in every school he attended. Fighting was the only thing that Tanner was good at. He never lost. The only times he ever felt truly himself, truly comfortable, was while in physical battle. The anticipation of a brawl thrilled him, the fight itself was like the best dream ever, and he was naturally high and pumped up for hours or days afterward.
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy for an adult to engage in violence on a regular basis. Grown men can’t just go around getting into fights without attracting both law enforcement and lawsuits. Now at 18, Tanner needed an outlet for his immense physical aggression. He tried martial arts and boxing, but he lacked the discipline to train and learn the techniques. Joining the armed forces didn’t appeal to him. He wanted to fight, not wear a uniform and march and say “yes sir,” and whatever else they did all the time. Still, he was so fascinated with the idea of killing people that he was occasionally tempted to enlist. What he really wanted to be was a bouncer at some rough bar, but no one would hire him until he was 21.
When Hunter Manning first looked at Tanner, the young man felt like he was truly being seen for the first time in his life.
“You’re a rare person,” Hunter said to him the day after they met at the steakhouse.
Tanner had never heard of Hunter Manning. When his mother filled him in on the details of the man’s past and present criminal activities, he was intrigued and thrilled.
The older man came by the house during the day while his mother was at work. He took Tanner to lunch and then out to what he called his “compound” off of Ladd Road on the eastern outskirts of Modesto.
“I recognize something in you,” Hunter continued. “You’re a man that not only isn’t afraid of violence, but you also have the potential to learn how to focus and channel your violent impulses whenever necessary. When not engaged in battle, I can see you being able to stay quiet, to almost disappear into your surroundings. Does this sound like you?”
This sounded good to Tanner. Sounded true and right.
“You are a natural soldier. But a certain kind of soldier, not the bullshit kind you see out in the desert in those stupid camos fighting for the old US of A, but more of what you’d call like a tactical operative. See what I mean?”
“Sure,” Tanner said. He wasn’t quite following, but he liked the sound of what Hunter was saying.
“Every organization, every nation, every enterprise that has anything of value that it needs to protect, needs people like you. A warrior. Someone who can be … unleashed … someone who can get shit done what needs to get done. With no muss and no fuss.”
“You mean like Furio on The Sopranos?” Tanner said.
“Like who on what?”
“You know, Tony’s enforcer guy on The Sopranos?”
“The TV show, on HBO?”
“Oh, I don’t watch fuckin TV. I don’t need that shit. You lived my life you wouldn’t watch it either. Hollywood crap doesn’t compare to being a real criminal. You’ll see.”
“Oh, anyway, it’s a show about the Mafia. Tony Soprano, the boss, he goes to Italy and sees this Furio guy in action, fucking people up, and he makes a deal to bring the dude back to New Jersey so the guy can fuck people up for him.”
Hunter stared at Tanner. He said, “I guess that sounds close.”
They were sitting in what Hunter called his clubhouse, a separate building in the back. It was a simple square structure made of grey cement. The inside was empty except for wall-to-wall carpeting, a couch, a card table and four chairs, and dozens of built-in storage units along the walls full of pistols and rifles and machine guns. They were alone, but when they had first arrived, Hunter introduced him to some of the people in the main house.