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Lucky Charm

* Story contains bad language

On the day I turned seven, my father, a man of such small stature that he was known to everyone by the dubious moniker of 'Little Willie' Larkin, took me with him to Black-Eyed Petes' Pool and Arcade Emporium, where the sound of teenagers banging away at their pool games and cursing the tilting of their pinball machines made for background noise to the illegal poker games held in the secret backroom, games that were the true money-making aspect of Black-Eyed Petes' "Emporium".

I grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the fact that my father had to resort to illegal backroom poker games in a city where gambling was not only legal, but a religion, was a true testament to how badly bitten by the gambling bug he was. He was an infrequent visitor to Pete's at that time, as were all of Pete's customers; the only clientele that frequented those illegal games were the men, who, like my father, sometimes woke up and realized their gambling was a problem and voluntarily banned themselves from all the casinos in town. Little Willie tended to do this two or three times a year, never banning himself voluntarily for more than a couple months, because, as he put it, "all I need is a couple of months downtime to break this streak of bad luck I bin havin'." Black-Eyed Pete's, however, was one place that didn't enforce a voluntary banning rule; Pete's was the alternative to voluntary banning.

During this particular period of self-banishment, my father was between jobs (a not unusual occurrence for a man whose resume had more holes than the PGA tour), and so was my primary caregiver, long before the term 'primary caregiver' had been invented. My mother, the long-suffering Elayne Larkin, did what most people who lived in Atlantic City did - she worked at a casino, dealing blackjack at the Royal Dragon. The tips she made were, more often than not, the only source of income for our family. On those rare occasions that Little Willie decided to "turn himself over a new leaf" and managed to go out and actually find himself a job, he always seemed to get himself fired within a few weeks, a month at the most.

That's not to say that my father was a lazy or shiftless man; he wasn't. He was just a man who had never found the job in life that he was suited for. He'd been everything from a casino doorman to a door-to-door insurance salesman. He had tried selling used automobiles at Uncle Johnny's Deals on Wheels, but had been fired from that one after only two days on the job. "I just couldn't sell that piece of junk to that nice old lady", he explained apologetically to my mother when she found out. The third job he had been fired from in less than three months, but still she couldn't be mad at him. He always seemed to have such a good reason for getting fired . . . it was never his fault, he'd explain. Was it his fault he'd accidentally walked in on his boss and the girl who sold the makeup getting to know each other rather affectionately in the mop closet of the Wal-Mart after only two weeks of working maintenance there? Why, no, of course not. And could he really be blamed for taking a swing at the man who'd thought to sic his dog on him, when all he'd wanted to do was demonstrate the amazing cleaning power of the Bissell Steam Clean Deluxe? That he had spent the weekend in jail for that one was just one more example of how bad his luck was, as my father saw it. After all, he'd only been defending himself, hadn't he?

And he would promise that next time, the next job he got, that would be the one, we'd see. And my mother would sigh, and nod supportively, knowing in her heart that the next one would be the same. Try as she might, she couldn't help but love him, for it wasn't as if he was a bad husband; he was just a bad provider. As a husband he was great, she'd say. . . loving, faithful and, as I overheard her telling my Aunt Lucy one day when I was ten, wonderful in bed. I hadn't known what that meant at the time; my young mind conjured up pictures of the pillow fights and tickling contests that often occurred with my dad in my bed. And as a father to me - well, some men are born to be doctors, some lawyers, some are born to be teachers. Little Willie was born to be a father. There was never a man who loved his child more than my dad loved me, never a man whose life revolved around his son's more than Little Willie's revolved around mine.

Even if he'd been out shooting craps all night, or had sat up in some all-night poker game, even on those rare occasions when he had a job and he'd worked away the hours till dawn making headlights for foreign cars in some factory, or cutting big shanks of meat in some meat packing plant, even then, when he was bone tired, he always managed to be home in the early hours of the morning to get me up and make me my breakfast before school. That was our special time together, he would tell me, and it was a ritual that we both enjoyed immensely, one that would go on throughout my childhood. That my father couldn't cook at all was a fact that I would look back on wryly in later years. I ate so many bowls of Shredded Wheat as a child that I sometimes imagined that that was why my hair had changed from the deep auburn it had been in childhood to the sandy-brown color of Shredded Wheat it had become in my adolescent years. And it wasn't until I'd had my first Saturday night sleep-over that I realized eggs could be cooked any other way than scrambled.

But of all the memories I have of my childhood with my father, all those morning talks before school as Little Willie fumbled around in the kitchen, all the footballs thrown around in the park and baseballs tossed in the backyard (though Little Willie threw baseballs and footballs about as well as he cooked), the fondest memories I have are of those times when my father took me with him to Black-Eyed Petes'.

Black-Eyed Petes' was, to a seven-year-olds mind, a realm of sights and sounds that my short life had not prepared me for. Walking into Pete's from the relative calmness of St. James street was like entering another world, as if I were the male equivalent of Alice and I'd just followed the White Rabbit down that absurdly large rabbit hole, although this rabbit hole was adorned with garish neon lights displaying pool balls blinking so fast they almost seemed to be chasing each other along the walls of the building.

Painted on the outside walls, amid the racing pool balls, were poorly done murals of men with large handlebar mustaches dressed in three-piece suits, standing by pool tables, cuesticks held in one hand and thick, smoking cigars held in the other. Interestingly enough, the only figure in the mural who seemed to be actually playing pool was a blonde lady in a short cocktail dress, draped across the table, who seemed to be a badly drawn attempt at a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. The year was 1969, and in those days, pool halls were not establishments frequented by nice women. And, as I think back on it now, it seems doubtful that those women who did, did so dressed in cocktail dresses and looking like beautiful movie stars. Then again, I don't seem to remember many men dressed in three-piece suits and sporting handlebar mustaches being in attendance either.

"Now listen up, Jesse," my father said to me as we stood outside the door to Pete's for what would be the first of many visits. "I'm not really supposed to be bringing you in here. Pete's not really - uh - well, fond of children. But your mother was called into to work today, and I sorta promised the guys I'd be here for the Big Game." With Little Willie, it was always a 'Big Game'. The way he said it, you could tell it was meant to be capitalized in his mind. "So, uh, you just kinda stay with me and be very quiet. And after we're done here, we'll go right to the ice cream parlor for ice cream, before your Mom gets home for your birthday party. Okay? Oh, and if Pete happens to say anything to you while we're in there, you just smile and say 'yessir'. Alright?"

Entering Pete's was like stepping into a Salvador Dali painting. All the windows in the building had been painted over with thick black paint that looked like the grease that always got all over my hands every time I had to put the chain back on the second-hand bike I'd gotten for my sixth birthday. The natural sunlight of the outside world thus blocked out, the only illumination in the dim room came from the weak white glow of the fluorescent lamps that hung suspended above the pool tables. The smoke was so thick that my eyes immediately started to burn. Everywhere I looked, I could see men smoking, not the big cigars pictured in the mural, but Camels and Lucky Strikes, or my fathers brand of choice, unfiltered Marlboros. The smoke drifted off the ends of what seemed like hundreds of cigarettes, wafting upwards in lazy swoops and whirls, to collect under the light of those fluorescent lamps, like an acrid storm-cloud waiting for the proper moment to unleash its torrential downpour. The men, smoking those cigarettes and drinking their draught beers in thick-handled mugs seemed to me, at first, to be all identical to each other, as if I'd had just stepped into some carnival Funhouses Hall of Mirrors, where one mans' image was reflected over and over, a hundred doppelgangers staring at the little kid who'd just invaded their sanctuary. After a moment, though, I realized that they were, of course, all different. They wore different clothes, had different hairstyles, some tall, some short. They did, however, all have that look of general lostness and lack of purpose that had given way to my mistaken generalization. Because of that first impression, regardless of the fond memories I would later have of my father and our time at Pete's, I could never pass a pool hall without a shudder at the thought of the lost souls I'd glimpsed that day.

That they were all staring at me was not the mistaken impression of a child, however. Well, perhaps not all of them, but more than enough to make me uncomfortable, and very conscious of how out of place I was. My father also, I could tell, for his hand in mine was a good deal sweatier than it had been moments ago. It was not everyday at Black-Eyed Pete's Pool and Arcade Emporium that the door to the outside world opened up to admit a child barely tall enough to see over the pool tables. And it seemed that our presence had attracted someone else's attention, as well.

Sitting on a stool at a bar strewn with overflowing ashtrays and empty beer mugs, was the largest man I'd had ever seen. Seated, it was hard for me to tell how large he really was, but a guess would have put his weight nearer to five hundred pounds than four. His massive head, which now swiveled slowly around to view our arrival, was covered almost entirely in thick, shaggy white hair, only his eyes and mouth really visible through the beard. His cheeks, what could be seen of them, hung down from his face like the jowls of a bulldog, to be lost in the thick folds of his neck. Even from over twenty feet away and through thick smoke and dim lights, I could see the sickly purple color of his fleshy stomach, which protruded from under the porcine mans once white t-shirt. Visible even were the veins, a darker purple than the rest of the skin, forming a crazy road map along his belly, broken here and there by open sores, like potholes in the road. One meaty hand, the size of my head and with fingers as round and greasy as breakfast sausages, lay idly scratching one of them.

As I watched him watching us, the behemoth of a man laboured himself off his stool, a feat somewhat like watching a house lift itself from its foundations, a feat I would have deemed impossible had I not seen it myself. As he lumbered towards us, Little Willie bent down and whispered in my ear. "That's Pete. Now you just stand there and don't say anything but 'yessir'".

"Now just what do you think you're doing, bringing a kid in here?" Those deep rumbling words were directed at Little Willie, but the harsh glare that came with them was all for me. "I don't recall this place being named 'Black-Eyed Pete's Babysitting Service'. Do you, Little Willie?"

"Well, no Pete, uh, but. . . " my father began.

"Madigan! Get over here, Madigan!" Pete bellowed, making my already terrified self jump. From out of the dim shadows of the back of the room came a man who must have been Madigan. Whip thin, and standing tall enough that he had to duck the high-hanging table lights, he was dressed all in black, so that he seemed to be formed out of the shadows he had walked out of. As if some evil spirit had been waiting for Petes call before coalescing into the shape known as Madigan. I had been to a funeral parlor once, when my paternal grandmother had died and Little Willie had had to make all the arrangements. Even though the funeral director there had been a somewhat overweight and red-faced man, almost jolly looking even, this spectre of Madigan was what I would have expected of a funeral director. Or perhaps the man who digs the graves. Or even the body in the grave, for he was so thin, the skin on his face stretched so tight over his sunken-in eyes and sallow cheeks that I had the impression I was looking at a skull. Even his hair, what little was left on his mostly bald head, was brittle looking and that sickly yellowish color one would expect of a long dead and decaying corpse. More terrified than I'd ever been in my life, I clung desperately to my fathers hand, the warmth and familiarity of it the only link to normality I had.

"What's up, Pete?" The walking cadaver asked, in a voice surprisingly soft and lilting, not at all like the creaking of bones, or the hissing of snakes that I had expected. In fact, now that he was close up to me, Madigan wasn't half as scary-looking as he had been. He still looked like a zombie risen, but the gaze he laid upon me was full of warmth and compassion, as if he knew how scared such a little guy must have been. And his eyes, sunken in though they might have been, held that soft twinkle of a man who knew how to laugh and enjoyed doing it.

"What's up? I'll tell you what's up! Little Willie here seems to be under the mistaken impression that we're running a babysitting service," Pete said, waggling one meaty finger at me. "Now, I may be mistaken, but I don't recall seeing any signs saying "Childcare Provided' anywhere around here, do you?"

"Now Pete, just relax," Madigan said soothingly. Looking at the two of them standing side by side, the overly thin Madigan and the corpulent Pete, I couldn't help but think of Abbott and Costello. Although I couldn't imagine Madigan playing straight-man to Pete; perhaps the other way around, for Madigan at least looked like he knew how to laugh. From the thunderous look on Pete's face, I wasn't sure that laughing was something Pete was even capable of. "He's just a boy, what's it gonna hurt, him being in here?"

"Now you listen here, Madigan," Pete said in an icy voice, the waggling finger now turned towards the skinny man, leaving me relieved that the attention was somewhat off me. "When our Daddy owned this pool hall, we weren't even allowed in as kids." I stared at the two of them in shock. Brothers? I couldn't imagine any two people looking more unlike brothers than these two. . . they were the epitome of opposite. "And now that he's retired and left it to us, I ain't about to start changing his rules."

"I don't seem to recall Daddy running illegal poker games in the backroom, either Pete," Madigan replied in as icy a tone as his brothers. "Seems to me that our Daddy's somewhat of a religious man, or have you forgotten all those Sundays spent in church? I don't think that he'd cotton too much to learning about your little sideline business. Do you?"

Pete's face had gone that peculiar shade of white that I had always associated with the rubber glue that I used at school. Until then. After seeing that, that color would remind me of Pete. "You wouldn't dare," he said, his voice a strangled whisper. "You're in this just as much as I am," with each word, the whisper got louder and louder, until he was just short of yelling. "What do you think paid for that new Cadillac you're driving? If you tell Daddy -"

"Hold on, hold on," Madigan interjected, his gaunt hands held up in a gesture meant to be placating. "Nobody said I was gonna tell Daddy nothin'. I'm just making the point that sometimes the old rules are just that. . . old rules. And if Little Willie here wants to bring his son in, I don't see what harm it's gonna do."

"Uh, really, Madigan, it's alright if -" my father began, breaking off as Pete's enraged visage swung his way. I'd never seen anything like the way his grey face became redder than a ripe tomato in the blink of an eye. It was like all the blood in his considerable body had risen to his face all at once, as if his surely overworked heart had gotten confused and finally given up directing all that traffic.

"Now you listen to me, Little Willie. If you insist on bringing that little brat in here, I'll allow it this time, only because you're one of my better customers. But if he so much as makes one little peep, breathes too heavy, or even passes gas during my poker game, you're both outta here, quicker than a fly sticks to shit. Got it?"

"Sure, Pete," Little Willie said, flashing him an easy grin.

Centering his red-faced glare on me, Pete growled, "Got that, kid?"

Still too terrified to speak, I couldn't even squeak out the 'Yessir' I had prepared. A jerking nod was the best I could manage. Giving me one last malevolent glare, Pete thundered off back to his post at the bar.

Madigan bent down on his haunches in front of me. "Now don't you mind Pete. He's not half the bear he'd like everyone to believe." I wasn't sure how much I believed that. "Well, all this commotion over you and I don't even know your name. Mine's Madigan. What's yours?"

"Yessir!" I blurted out. That had been the only word on my mind to say for so long now, it was like my tongue had forgotten how to form any other word.

Madigan looked up at my father quizzically. "It's ok," my father smiled down at me, tousling my hair in that affectionate way he had. "Madigan's one of the good guys, you can tell him your name."

I looked at the skeletal man with the twinkling eyes as he smiled at me encouragingly. "J- Jesse. Jesse La-Lar-Larkin," I said haltingly, trying to rationalize how such a scary looking man could have such a warm smile. A seven-year-olds life is one of blacks and whites, very few greys; in my mind, a man that scary looking had to be that scary. I wasn't quite ready to trust that he was 'one of the good guys', regardless of my fathers claim. Not yet, anyway.

"Well, Jesse, Jesse Larkin, it's certainly a pleasure to meet the young master that Little Willie here is always boasting about. I hear you throw a pretty mean football. So you've come to lend a little luck to your Daddy's poker hand, have you?"

Wide-eyed and still trembling slightly, (for my fear of him was still not completely assuaged), I merely stared at him.

"That's right," my father answered for me. "My boy's gonna bring me all the luck in the world today, Madigan, so I hope you brought your checkbook."

Madigan let out a bellowing laugh, making me jump and cling to my father's hand even tighter, and leaving me wondering how such a rumble could come from so skinny a chest.

"I'm sure he will at that. He couldn't make your luck any worse," he said, his warm grin showing the remark for the joke he'd meant it as. "Well, no sense wasting anymore time, the boys are all back there and just waiting on us." With that, he strode off towards the back of the pool hall, leaving my father and me to follow, both of us nearly running to keep up with his long strides. He stopped when he reached the far wall, for what seemed to me at first to be no apparent reason. Until I noticed, looking very closely, that there was a door there, set into the wall and rendered nearly invisible by being painted over as part of the mural that adorned the rest of the wall. It was without a door handle, and at first I thought I'd been mistaken, that it was not in fact a door, but merely a rectangular crack in the paint of the mural. But Madigan rapped on it three times in quick succession, and it was opened from the inside, to reveal a room more brightly lit, and, if possible, more filled with smoke than the one we were in.

Seated around a large wooden table were three men, each with a cigarette in one hand and holding cards in the other.

"Well, 'bout time you slowpokes got here," one of the men said, his voice a low drawl. He had a dark brown Stetson hat on, and a toothpick hung lazily out of one side of his mouth. His long brown hair hung out from his hat on all sides, framing a face as granite-like and weather beaten as any cowboy I had ever seen on all those late night Westerns I wasn't supposed to watch. Looking at him, I immediately thought of the Marlboro Man, that smokers champion, before all those anti-smoking fanatics picketed for his removal from ads. And in fact, I noticed that the cigarette he held tightly between two yellowing fingers was indeed a Marlboro - unfiltered, of course.

"Y'all don't seem to mind taking yer sweet ol' time, do ya?" came a gravelly voice. I turned to see the quintessential old geezer that one would expect to see at any self-respecting poker game. He sat to the right of the Marlboro Man, rocking back and forth in a wicker rocking chair, the only piece of furniture in the room that didn't look like it had been bought in some garage sale in the forties. The light from the obligatory fluorescent bulbs overhead shone off the bald pate of his head, the exposed skin there wrinkled and speckled with liver spots. What little remained of his hair started well behind his ears and fell down around hunched-up shoulders, framing a wizened face with leathery skin splotched with still more liver spots. Clenched in his mouth was a chewed-up old pipe, the stem of which was held together with what looked to be an entire roll of black electrical tape. The old man drew a long puff off his pipe before continuing, breaking into a fit of wheezing and coughing so severe that I began to get alarmed, picturing him falling down dead right there at the card table. Finally, though, he seemed to dislodge the offending phlegm, which he then hawked into the dirtiest handkerchief I'd ever seen. That I found disgusting; that he then returned the handkerchief to the vest pocket of his suit I found extremely disgusting. "Whatcha got with ya there? Who's the boy?"

"Yeah Little Willie, that your kid?" I turned to regard this new voice, and stopped short halfway around, my jaw hanging at least to my knees I was sure. Of all the weird sights I'd seen so far that day, this was by far the strangest. I was only seven that year, and I wasn't much of a music fan then, (the only music I'd then been exposed to was the Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty eight-tracks my parents listened to in the car - we didn't have MTV then), but even a seven-year-old in 1969 could not mistake that southern drawl for any other mans voice. I finished my turn and sure enough, staring back at me through those baby-blue eyes, was the King himself, sideburns and perfectly coiffed hair and all. Something seemed different about him, though. It was like watching King Creole on a TV with bad reception, like he was somehow a little fuzzy around the edges. It looked like Elvis, but kinda like Elvis would with thirty extra pounds and aged ten years. I realized then that it was not, of course, Elvis Presley himself, but rather simply an Elvis impersonator.

"Jeffrey, Harlan, Daniel," my father said, nodding in turn to each Marlboro Man, the Old Geezer, and Fake Elvis. "Yes, this is my boy Jesse."

"Boy, I've heard of losing your kids in a poker game, but I never thought I'd see it!" Fake Elvis quipped.

"Hey, Little Willie, I'll see your kid and raise you my wife!" Old Man Harlan put in. "Now there's a bet I'd rather lose!"

"Alright, alright," Madigan said after the laughter had died down. "Jesse's gonna sit in on this game with his dad today, so I expect you animals to play nice and keep the swearing to a minimum." My father and I sat down in the chairs to the left of Marlboro Man, with Madigan taking the seat to the left of us. Breaking open a brand-new deck of cards, he expertly shuffled them, cutting and bridging them faster than my eye could follow. "The game," he pronounced on finishing, "is straight poker, no draws, no limit and the buy-in is a five hundred minimum. Shall we proceed, gentlemen?"

With that, all joking was put aside and the men at the table became deadly serious. For two hours, I watched my father play, the pile of chips in front of him growing smaller with each hand at the beginning, until I thought he was going to lose it all in the first half-hour. But slowly his pile began to show signs of serious growth, as if it took the cards a few hands to realize he was a good guy and deserved their support. By the end of the second hour, Little Willie's amount of chips had more than tripled and the smile on his face was as large as I'd ever seen. Only two players remained in the game - my father and Marlboro Man. Fake Elvis and Old Geezer had lost all their chips by this time.

"Well, Little Willie," Madigan said with a smile towards me. "It seems you may have found your good luck charm. I haven't seen you win this much in forever."

My father smiled at me and tousled my hair. I could see the sweat glistening on his brow and feel a slight tremble in his hand. Playing poker must be hard work, I thought, although I couldn't see what could be so strenuous about sitting around a table drinking beer and playing cards.

"Shall we continue, gentlemen?" Madigan dealt the cards and the game went on. For another hour my father continued playing, and for some reason, before every hand, he'd tousle my hair again and smile at me. And nearly every hand, he'd win, until all of Marlboro Mans' chips resided in my fathers pile.

"Well, Little Willie," Marlboro Man drawled. "If that ain't the damnedest piece of luck I ever seen! You have horseshoes and four-leaf clovers for breakfast, didja?"

"Now why would I bother with such a breakfast when I've got the only lucky charm I'll ever need right here?" my father replied, clapping me on the back. I smiled with pleasure and satisfaction. Even though I knew I hadn't done anything to make my father win so much, he seemed to think I had, and that was good enough for me.

"I told ya a poker game was no place for a kid," Marlboro Man sighed good naturedly. "I guess I should've stayed home today!"

I could understand his point. He must have lost close to a thousand dollars to my father. I felt a little sorry for him that day; a thousand dollars was a lot more money in '69 than it is today. That is, however, until I learned later that there was a reason for Marlboro Mans mode of dress. He was the owner of a multi-million dollar a year company that sold cowboy clothes at stores in malls across America. They were called 'Good Ol' Boys'. They went bust in the early eighties when Cowboy movies went out of style and the public lost interest in all things Western.

My father cashed in his chips to Madigan and we said our goodbyes. And after that, we did go for ice cream. And pizza. And we went bowling. My father was in as good a mood as I'd ever seen him in. Of course, winning almost three thousand dollars will do that to a person. After that day, it became a ritual for us. Every second Saturday, Black-eyed Pete's held a big game and every game my father would take me. He never won as big as that again; indeed, in time he began to lose more often than he'd win, even with his 'good-luck charm' with him. But I think by that time, he wasn't in it for the money. I think he was simply enjoying the little time we got to spend with each other, now that I was getting older and beginning to do my own thing. I'll never forget the look in his eyes the day I told him I couldn't make the game because I had my first high school football game that day. I thought that he would be mad . . . we'd been going to Pete's every second Saturday for almost eight years by then. But he wasn't mad. The tears that welled up in his eyes were pride, he told me. And that Saturday, for the first time in over ten years, my father missed his game, and came to mine. There he was, in the stands, cheering himself hoarse as I ran for four touchdowns and over a hundred yards in my first game. And when my coach said to me after the game "Holy Christ, Larkin! Helluva game. . . your shoes made out of rabbits feet or something?", I told him, "Nossir coach, the only lucky charm I need is right there in the stands."

*It's January, 2000 now. The glorious millenium. Only not so glorious for me. My father died two weeks ago, quietly in his sleep. I think he must have known it was coming, because he phoned me up that day and, although we hadn't been in fifteen years, asked me to go with him back to Pete's. I was concerned at first. My father hadn't gambled at all in those fifteen years; he'd 'voluntarily banned' himself for good this time, I'd thought. But he set my mind at ease with "Just one final time, Jesse, for old times sake?" and there was such pleading in his voice that I couldn't say no.

Black-Eyed Petes had changed considerably in the fifteen years since we'd been. In fact, it was no longer called Black-Eyed Petes Pool and Arcade Emporium. It was simply Black-Eyed Petes now, and the majority of the pool tables had been removed and replaced with dozens of those loud and violent video games. Madigan met us as we came through the door, a little older and still as skeletal as ever. At least some things remained the same, I thought. Pete had died a few years ago, he informed us. Weight related heart failure, which surprised none of us. I was quite upset to hear of his death, for regardless of his crabby nature and professed dislike of children, I'd grown quite fond of Pete over the years, and I suspect he had developed a bit of a soft spot for me as well.

The game was still being held every second Saturday, though the only player who remained from the old days was Marlboro Man, who greeted us with such warmth I thought he would break my ribs before his bear hug was through. He was still dressed in his cowboy style, despite his business now being defunct.

"Thelma asks about you all the time," he told me. I had dated his daughter through all my high school years before we drifted apart in college. "She's still single, you know," he said with a wink.

"Uh, I'm engaged, Mr Perrin," I lied smoothly, shooting my father a harsh glance to quiet his burgeoning smirk. I had begun calling him Mr. Perrin when I had dated his daughter, but in my mind I always thought of him as the Marlboro Man. And I'm not engaged, not even involved, and that's the way I like it.

"Lucky girl. Well, Little Willie, it's been a long time since I've had the chance to take your money. You sure you're up to the challenge?"

My father laughed and laid five crisp C-notes on the table in reply. There was a sparkle back in his eyes that I hadn't seen there in the five years since Mom had died. I was suddenly glad we had came. They played for five hours, cleaning the other players in the game out in less than two. I was awed watching them play. It was like watching two stately old lions fighting for supremacy. At the end, once again all of Marlboro Man's chips sat in front of my father, and a huge smile, which had been such a rare sight in the last few years, was plastered all over my fathers face.

"Well, Little Willie, it's a pleasure losing money to you again," Marlboro Man said with a grin as they shook hands. "See you and Jesse here next time?"

My father looked at me and I nodded. "We'll be here, Jeffrey. Me and my lucky charm."

But that wasn't to be. That night my father died. They found him in his bed, a deck of cards on the night table, a book on Poker lying open on his chest, and a peaceful smile on his face.

Marlboro Man and Madigan came to the funeral, where Madigan gave the eulogy. And at the end, before the closing of the casket, he laid five cards in Little Willie's right hand; a royal flush in hearts. He put a stack of chips in his left.

"The game goes on," Madigan whispered as the casket was closed, and I nodded through my tears.