D.J. laid the 10 of
clubs on top of the jack of hearts, glanced at the remaining cards, and pulled
three more out of the deck. No luck. Three more. Five of diamonds on six of
spades, then the 4 of clubs on the 5. Not bad. The front door opened.
D.J. looked up and
saw a man, medium height, pale, red hair. He stood in the doorway, looked
across the otherwise empty bar, then walked in and sat at the bar a few stools
down from D.J..
“Quiet night,” he
D.J. put a cocktail
napkin in front of the man. “Wednesday’s always slow. Though really that’s every
day but Friday or Saturday.”
The man nodded. “I
bet it’s busy then though. Or during football season.”
D.J. shook his head.
“That don’t matter. No football team in Montana.”
The man smiled. “Of
course. Silly me.”
“What can I get ya?”
“What are you
“You’re going to let
me drink alone?”
“I’m here. And I’ll
be drinking coffee.”
then I’ll have a beer.”
D.J. nodded. “Bottle
“It’s all cold.”
“Then surprise me.”
D.J. slid back the
lid of the ice chest and stuck in his hand without looking. He pulled out a can
and put it on the bar.
“Looks like you’re
getting a Bud Light. Let me get you a glass.”
“Of course. We must
D.J. poured the beer
into a glass mug. “Want to run a tab or just have the one?”
“A tab is fine if
you think I’m good for it.”
“I’m not too
worried. You want snacks? I have to ask nowadays. I got peanuts, mixed nuts,
mixed nuts without peanuts, pretzels, and popcorn. I don’t have gluten free
pretzels, so don’t ask. If you don’t want gluten, eat some nuts. If you don’t
want any of that, eat some chips. They’re 50 cents a bag and probably about to
choices, I think I’ll go with pretzels.”
D.J. filled a bowl
with Rold Gold minis, then pointed at the T.V. remote.
“Turn on what you
like. I think there’s hockey on 3. Maybe bull-riding on ESPN. No movie
D.J. picked up the
cards and flipped out three. Nothing. Three more. He put a 2 on the ace. He
sipped his coffee and frowned.
“Coffee too cold? Or
is it a bad batch?”
D.J. shook his head
slightly. “Time to clean the cup.” He poured what he had in the sink, reached
for a fresh cup, and filled it.
“You may be right.
Pot’s old, too. Time to make more or make tea.”
laughed. “That reminds me of my favorite quote from Abraham Lincoln. Not his
most famous, but my favorite. During the war, he visited an Army camp and they
brought him a cup. He drank it and said, If this is coffee, bring me tea. If
this is tea, bring me coffee.”
“That’s pretty good. Yeah, bring me somethin’ that ain’t whatever this is.”
“Indeed. Ah! Boxing!”
D.J. looked up at
the screen. “Eh. Lightweights. They’ll just dance and hug. Won’t get a
knockout. You need pay-per-view to get the good stuff, the heavyweights.” He
shuffled and dealt himself a new game. He
put a red 4 on a black 5.
The stranger glanced
over at D.J.’s game. “I forget what movie had the line, ‘Solitaire is a dull
game even if you cheat. It’s bloody awful if you don’t.’”
D.J. nodded. “I tend
to agree. No point if you cheat, though.”
“If you do, you’re
only cheating yourself?”
“No. If I’m going to
cheat to win, I might as well say I won and not even play. Build cardhouses or
“You might be the
last honest man in the world.”
“Doubt it. The world’s
a big place. There must be some other guy who’s not an asshole.”
The stranger smiled.
“Well honest man, it looks like those cards are itching to play something other
than Solitaire. Or you are.”
D.J. smiled back.
“You bet I am. I haven’t played in years. Too many Mormons in this town. Go
Fish is edgy for them.”
“Sure,” D.J. said.
“That or gin rummy. No money, though. Can’t bet what I don’t have.”
Business here isn’t exactly bustling enough for you to be throwing your dollars
D.J. shook his head.
“Nope. Not even dimes. Fresh beer?”
“Sure. Still on the
D.J. pulled another
bottle from the ice chest and pushed the cards toward the stranger.
“There. Shuffle and
cut. What’s your name, pal?”
The stranger picked
up the deck carefully, shuffled, fanned the cards, shuffled, cut the deck into
sections, put them back in a different order, and shuffled again. He pulled the
top quarter inch off cards off the deck, revealing the queen of diamonds.
“Bud. It’s really
‘Bub’ but I go with ‘Bud.’ People remember that better.”
“I can see that.”
D.J. held his hand over the deck for a minute, concentrated, then cut the deck
deep. He flipped over the jack of clubs. He shrugged.
“Tough luck.” Bud
“Yeah. Your deal.”
Bud shuffled again.
D.J. cut, Bud dealt. Two down, one up.
“Five card draw,
nothing wild. Just a warm-up.”
D.J. was showing an
8, Bud a 5.
“I’ll take one,”
Bud dealt him a 4.
“Looks like you got
my 4. I’ll also take a card. A 3 – no help for me.”
D.J. raised his
eyebrows. “I’ll take another one.”
Bud dealt him a 3.
“Wish I had that.
I’ll take another one. Seven. Put us together and we have a straight. Ready for
D.J. flipped over
his hole cards and smiled.
“I had the one 8 up,
and two more down.”
Bud smiled back.
“Too bad. Straight.”
picked up the cards, shuffled, and dealt.
“Five card draw,
jacks are wild.”
D.J. won that hand.
And the next. Bud won one, then another. D.J. refilled the bowl of pretzels and
poured himself a beer.
“Ah! The honest man
is human after all!” Bud said.
D.J. chuckled. “I’m
allowed one. Then it’s back to coffee.”
“Fair enough. Say,
as much as I like playing poker without betting, it gets dull pretty quick.”
“Want to switch to rummy?”
Bud waved his hand.
“We could. Or we
could keep playing. I’ll spot you a buck, even five. We can play for pennies,
chips, toothpicks, I don’t care. Anything real to make this more interesting.”
“Nope. I’m not going
to borrow from you, I’m not going to take from you. And playing for toothpicks
is for little kids. Rummy 500.”
“Suit yourself pal.
It may take a while.”
“I’ll make more
Bud shuffled and
dealt. “Seven cards for you, seven for me. I don’t suppose you have real food
around here. Burgers or something? Chips and pretzels just aren’t enough to
sustain a person, you know?”
“I haven’t run the
grill since Tuesday and it’s too late to turn it on now. How about a pizza? I
could put a frozen one in.”
They started to
play. D.J. sipped coffee and ate from a bowl of microwave popcorn while Bud ate
his pizza. The game was pretty close. D.J. lagged behind at 20, 30 points a
hand to Bud’s 50 or 80, but then closed the gap with a monstrous 120 point
hand. He then got on a roll, pulling ahead until the score was 470 to Bud’s
chuckled, shuffling. “I must have learned something from Grandpa after all. He
taught me to play. I almost never beat him.”
Bud downed a shot of
Jameson’s, then sipped more of his beer.
from their grandfather. It’s what grandfathers do. Take you fishing, teach you
cards, teach you pool.”
said. “Way things are supposed to be.” He laid his cards down.
“I’m out. I have the
2 and 6 to go on your straight. That’s 10 points. Then three tens for another
30. That brings me to 510.”
Bud tossed down his
cards. “Shit. You caught me with two aces and a bunch of little ones. You win.”
“Heh. Yes, I do.”
D.J. gathered up the cards. “Go again?”
“Not 500,” Bud said.
“It’s too late. How’s this – no money, that’s clear. But I’ll make you one bet
just to bet.”
“I bet I know your
“It’s on the license
behind the bar. You could probably read it from there.”
“No. That says ‘D.J.
Totten.’ I know your real first name.”
“That’s a legal
document, Bud. D.J. is my real name. Has been all my life.”
“You know that’s
bullshit my friend. You name is a pun. You were named after your parents. Your
mother was Dee, your father was named Jay. As was your card-playing
grandfather. So your actual name is Dee Jay, not D.J.”
D.J. felt his pulse
throb in the middle of his forehead. His mouth went dry, his palms wet.
“Do you know who I
am?” Bud said pleasantly.
“Your name’s not Bud.”
“No. But I told you
that. I said people call me Bud. I have many names. I knew your grandfather
during the war. Did he ever talk about Korea?”
“Not much. Almost
nothing. He said it was really hot and really cold.”
“It was. Your
grandfather killed 27 men in Korea. He only knows of a fraction of them, the
ones he could see. He just kept firing into the dark, not knowing what was
there, killing men he never saw coming for him. He was a very pious man,
despite being a skilled killer. I’d like to tell you I have him now, but I
don’t. So instead I’ll make a play for you.”
He picked up the
cards, fanned them out in front of D.J., showed him both sides. He collapsed
the deck, shuffled, shuffled again.
“Here’s my offer: One
game. Five card stud, nothing wild. If you win, your financial debt goes away
and this bar, your livelihood, will keep you comfortable until you retire an
old man. If I win, your soul is mine and you’ll spend the rest of your life
knowing you’ll be simmering in a vat of acid for eternity, burning away as your
flesh grows back and burns again.”
He put down the
“Shall we play?”
D.J. stared at the
deck. “You’ll cheat.”
“I could, but I
won’t. The rules between us are clear, as are the rules of these contracts. I
must give you a choice, and we must play for real. You could deal if you’d
“I think I will.”
D.J. picked up the
deck, looked at the cards. They were the same as they ever were. Carefully he
shuffled them and offered the deck to Bud to cut.
Bud waved his hand.
“No. Lay them out.”
Two cards down.
“What if I don’t
like my hand?” D.J. asked.
“Then fold. You know
how to play.”
D.J. dealt one card
up to each of them. Seven of clubs to Bud. 10 of diamonds to D.J.
Bud peaked at his
“I’ll take one.”
Ten of clubs.
D.J. drew. Ace of
“Very nice. I’ll
Bud got the 10 of
spades, giving him a pair of tens showing. Sweat broke on D.J.’s brow.
“Dealer takes one.”
King of spades.
“Still in, Mr.
“All right then,
last one down.”
D.J. dealt one more
to each of them. He picked up what he had.
“I call,” Bud said
D.J. flipped his
“I got the straight
this time, 10 through ace.”
“You were very
lucky. However, as you know, I have the other two tens. And also sevens. Full
house, Mr. Totten. You lose.”
D.J. felt faint. He
broke into a cold sweat and grabbed the bar. He stumbled backwards until he
bumped against the back wall.
“You should sit
down,” Bud said. “You don’t look too well. Have a glass of water.” He pointed
his finger and a beer glass slid down the bar, filling as it travelled. It came
to a perfect stop in front of D.J., who didn’t touch it.
“No. I don’t want
anything from you.”
“Drink the water,
it’s good. What’s the worst that could happen? Your soul is already mine. Don’t
worry. You’re not dead yet. That will be years from now. I prefer to watch my
opponents suffer and worry, or better yet forget their situation. They go on
with their lives thinking this was a joke or a dream, and then one day they’re
in Hell. That surprise never gets old.”
D.J. sat down on a
stool behind the bar, sweating. He put his head on his hands.
“Just take the bar.
“No deal, friend.
You have nothing I want. The only thing of value you did have is mine. It’s
over. Look…” He gestured at the clock on the wall. “Closing time.”
D.J. laughed. “I
guess it is.” He walked to the till at the middle of the bar and began pushing
“That’s the spirit!
The last honest man indeed. What’s done is done. Accept the consequences. A
deal is a deal. Your grandfather would be proud.”
With shaking hands
and sweat on his lip, brow, and chin, D.J. brought Bud the bill. He cleared his
“So, I keep an
honest house here. If you look up at the board you’ll see the charges match
what’s on your bill.” Bud’s eyes looked up at the vintage rear-lit plastic
display board mounted on the wall.
“Four bottles of
beer – those were $3 each, and two shots of Jameson’s. It’s during the week so
those are half price, $2.50 each. That’s $17 for the drinks. Pretzels in a bowl
From nowhere, a red
leather wallet appeared in Bud’s hand. He opened it and pulled out two 20s.
“Do you accept
D.J. cleared his
“You forgot about
the pizza. It’s not on the menu.”
Bud looked at the
empty plate on the counter. “You gave it to me. We shared it.”
“No. I made it for
you, upon your request. You asked for it. I ate popcorn. I sold you drinks and
a pizza, and you ate and drank them all. Pizza is not a regular menu item.”
“You didn’t tell me
“And you didn’t ask.
But you still ate the whole thing. Given that it’s a specialty item, the only
one I have ever sold in this establishment, there’s no pricing history to go
on. The price for this unique item is one soul: Mine.”
“No.” Bud shook his
“Yes. I believe
that’s fair. The pizza costs $6.99 retail. I was born with my soul, it cost me
nothing. You were willing to spot me five dollars to play with you. Instead you
got a $7 pizza in exchange for something that cost me nothing. I think you came
Bud stared at D.J.
for a moment. D.J. forced himself to hold his stare, unsure if Bud’s eyes were
dark brown, black, or blood red. Perhaps they were all those colors.
The room felt cold.
In his mind, D.J. was screaming.
Bud started to
smile. He laid the two 20s on the bar.
“There are rules.
You played a good game. Perhaps we’ll play again one day.”
He rose from his
stool and walked to the door.
“Maybe,” D.J. said.
Lass has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years, working
in all forms of media from newspapers and magazines to books and blogs. He has
written, edited, co-written, or contributed to more than a dozen books, and has
published 9 books of poetry, the most recent of which, American was one
of the Amazon Top 100 Books of American Poetry. His poetry has appeared in Every
Day Poems and The Albatross. His fiction has appeared in The
Albatross, KSquare, Electric Velocipede, Schlock!, Coffin
Bell Journal, and Black Petals. His short story, “Fence Sitter” was
nominated for Best of the Web in 2020.
to turn on the tv/change channels?