It is my turn to host.
By 7:30 p.m., 12 little boys in men’s bodies will occupy my family room, now rearranged to accommodate a felt-covered oval table with cheesy black cup holders and poorly stretched vinyl that barely covers its padded edge.
Rows of ham-biscuits are stacked neatly side by side on a plate, each with my signature pickled jalapeno slices capping their crown. Beers are in the fridge and big bowl of Hubbs Virginia P-Nuts is waiting to be devoured.
It is our every-other Tuesday night ritual, just now beginning its eight year. Rotating venues find each host providing refreshments; it works out to about two games a year at each of our homes with the wives generally happy to have us.
J-man, Zsa-Zsa, Tim, and Billy are all confirmed.
Guys are weird with nicknames. The process starts in grade school and accompanies us into every one of our guy associations through-out life.
Diminutives always work as does a job related slight: Drill-bit boy was a moniker that DJ (he was so cool he had, two nicknames) was prideful of given his construction job. Sock-boy was the marketing guy for Goldtoe, the hosiery manufacturer. King Carl wore his crown for a reason I was never quite sure of but it fit him as he tried to reign over our game with the authority of a despotic monarch.
A few are just not the nickname type. Howard, Jason, Jeremy, David G. and Norm would all be playing in addition to several of the other usual suspects. I was Mike-L as in Michael. We had another Mike, and in fact two Mikes respectively, Mike 1 and Mike 2, if they were playing on the same night. We had about 20 in the roundup and on any given night eight to 12 would show up.
Over the years guys drifted in and out, though a core group of ten or so has remained the same. Co-workers, neighbors, in-laws, friends of friends – the connections to each other start tenuous but by the second or third game, I know these guys as if they are my brother.
We go until one by one, the guys peel off. It is usually losers leaving first, though the rare early-leaving winner will raise the ire of the remaining hope-springs-eternal gamblers. Last hand is usually around 1 a.m.
It’s the in-between time, when I’m out of a hand that has become the most meaningful for me. While those infrequent winning hands where my heart nearly stops as I wait to see if my bluff gets called are beyond exhilarating, I lay in bed after it’s all done for the night thinking about that evening’s in between.
It’s in between hands or after I’ve folded, I talk to my buddies’ kids who I’ve come to know over the years. I help with homework, or put a Barney DVD in the player. We laugh at dad being all serious and try and throw him off his game. We play with his chips or distract him with some cookies or his favorite ice cream.
In between is when one of the wives appears to refill the empty sandwich platter, we’ll talk about work, or her tomatoes and what she’s feeding them this year.
In between is the core of relationships that are meaningful and the main reason I’m still playing after eight years.
Poker is more than cards; it’s an excuse to connect.
We play for a lot of reasons and really only for one reason.
It certainly isn’t for the money, though at times the boys act as if it is. Sure, it’s cool to win enough to take your wife someplace nice that week or get a new toy for your golf bag. Losing big will have you brown-bagging for a week or so, but no-one in our game is going to change their lifestyle because they are consistent winners or losers at our table.
We play because we have to play. Just like we had to play kick-ball in the first grade or golf on the guy-only weekend trips, we have to play and boys play differently together than they do with girls.
All week long we’re the dads who have to know everything.
We’re bosses who have to orchestrate the layoff that is going to impact people we’ve grown to really like and respect.
We are the subordinates caught in a continual crossfire of hidden agendas and corporate politics.
We’re the sons who now are the parents to our parents and have to convince them to do things against their will for their own good.
We’re getting married or divorced, fighting cancer or just bad knees and we are guys who when no one else is looking, are vulnerable to life’s indignities just like the women in our lives.
We are so laden with life’s responsibilities and others expectations that at times the weight can be crushing and drain the joy right out from under us like an elevator in free-fall with faulty brakes.
Little boys once again
And so big boys play to be little boys again.
We play to get lost in the moment, to let down our guard and know, in our gut, it’s OK, these guys have our backs. It’s not a beer commercial, there are no “I love you man” moments, just real, honest friendship that transcends the game and is rekindled in weekend phone calls asking for help moving a generator, a ride to the airport, or advice over lunch on which headhunter I recommend.
When we play we are goofy. And silly. We tell bad jokes.
For that evening we don’t have to be a dad or a boss or a son or a husband. For five hours every other week we can be back on the grainy blacktop and gravel playgrounds of our youth. Guys call us Sock-boy and we like it. We are completely uninhibited and can say anything without being judged or worried how it may come out or be perceived.
We dish out and receive unmerciful amounts of grief for our bad play, our haircut that week, or any one of a number of our frailties.
We like getting grief from the Poker boys, in fact it feels great. We shatter the bubble-like numbness that has entombed us in our daily coffins. We laugh at ourselves and have a beer in the middle of the week and don’t care.
When it gets late and we know our wives and kids are asleep upstairs, we are warmed by the sense of intimacy, we know the blanket of friendship we wear at that very moment extends to them too.
We are with our buddies, the Poker boys.