Author's Note: This is a novel about a man who uses a power wheelchair. In addition to doing my best to write an interesting story, I'm also portraying a man with a disability as a real adult. Some of the content (profanity, sexual situations) may thus be inappropriate for children.
Power wheelchairs are like tanks. They tend to break things. Parents pull children away. Everyone stares.
At least parking is easy. Or it would be if I drove. My girlfriend Donna dropped me off. Like almost everyone else in Silicon Valley, she has to work today. But I work at Immertel, and they give us May 21st off every year to celebrate the company’s birthday. Total bullshit, but at least I get to play poker. I like taking money from the able-bodied.
PokerLive reeks of money. At least I think it does -- I have no sense of smell. But card playing always has an element of the seedy to it; that’s part of its charm. Another part is that Donna hates it. She wasn’t happy about dropping me off, but her office is only a mile away. If I win big, she’ll roll her eyes and avoid mentioning it. If I lose, I’ll never hear the end of it.
I’m not going to lose.
PokerLive fights the seedy with spotless glass, brushed aluminum, fancy uniforms and plastic smiles. The doormen are dressed like organ-grinder monkeys as they open the massive front doors. Inside is a greeter who smiles and waves Tony over.
Tony’s why I like PokerLive. It’s his job to make everyone feel comfortable, so I’m probably kidding myself to think of him as a friend. His suit is cheap, but his smile is genuine, like he sees the joke in life. His weathered grey eyes and furry grey mustache cut through the artificial glitz. Tony also manages to acknowledge that I’m in a wheelchair without getting all weird about it.
“Good morning, Mr. Able,” he says.
“Call me ... Chuck.”
“Sorry, Chuck. It’s a habit. Back to take more money off these chumps?” He nods to the floor.
“Good day ... for it.”
I concentrate intensely to form intelligible words, but still they come out slow and slurred. I also tend to run out of breath in the middle of sentences. Some people call it a cerebral palsy accent. To understand me takes both effort and patience. To ignore what I’m saying takes neither.
But it’s hard to ignore me when I’m taking your money.
First I need to pick up my chips. I keep a thousand dollars here as my stake. Tony leads me to the cage in the center of the PokerLive hexagon (apparently four walls just aren’t enough to contain its cachet). Opposite the entrance is a staircase that tapers up to a platform where VIPs can turn to either side as they head to the VIP level. Along the walls on either side are well-lit bars and poorly-lit restaurants. The rest of the room holds fifty card tables, with the cage in the center like a spider in its web.
I love the feel of a card room. The expectant air. The clink of brightly-colored chips. The electric quiet of money on the line.
And the not-so-electric quiet of people staring. They should be watching their chips and cards, not my red hair, pale skin, and light frame. But they aren’t looking at me, not really. They're looking at the chair, at the disability. They're looking with faces full of pity and fear and confusion and the question: does he belong in the same room as me?
They’ll find out. Donna will pick me up in a few hours for lunch and mini-golf. Hopefully I’ll win enough for a nice steak dinner. Donna likes steak.
Tony carries my chips to the usual table: 10/20 no-limit hold'em. The dealer sits on the long edge of an aluminum-lined felt oval. His nametag says David. I don’t know him--dealers come and go here--but I need to be next to him. Tony waits for the hand to end and then asks people to shift around. One guy grabs his chips and strides off, muttering something passive-aggressive and unintelligible.
“I'm sorry for the inconvenience,” I tell them. “I need help to turn the cards over and place bets. The dealer will assist me. I hope you don't mind.”
With my communications panel, I talk without an accent. The panel folds out from my chair and lays across my lap like an airplane tray table, but every square inch of it is a touch-screen display. My friend Marco built the hardware, so it got the full-on, over-built, German-engineered treatment. I can eat spaghetti off of it without hurting the electronics, and the frame could stop a bullet. Marco calls it the Panzer; he likes tanks too.
I wrote the software. The display is pretty simple, just some buttons I press to choose the phrase. But I’m really proud of the speech synthesizer. I got an MRI of my vocal cords so I could model what I'd sound like without the accent. The only problem is that I have to choose my words ahead of time. Right now I’m using the panel configured for PokerLive, including the explanation I just gave the other players.
None of them look familiar. Saturdays there are a couple of regulars who know me, but I rarely play during the week. Three men in their sixties sit to the left of the dealer, two buttoned-down flannels and an orange Hawaiian shirt. Next to them is a woman the same age wearing an immodest blouse to show cleavage that no doubt looked amazing in decades gone-by. Next to her is a black leather jacket with a trucking hat, a woman with hoop earrings large enough for an Olympic gymnast, and three guys speaking Chinese, all wearing visors that cover their face. Two of the visors are white, but the one in the middle is hot pink, like he bummed it off his wife or daughter.
“Newcomer posts the big blind,” the dealer nods my way.
I nod back and he moves a black-and-white chip in front of me, and the croupier moves it into the pot. I feel the rush. Game time.
I don't look at my hole cards. One flannel and the earrings fold, but nobody raises. Then comes the flop, three cards that belong to everyone’s hand: two, four, and five of diamonds. Hawaiian shirt's hand shakes as he bets out. Shaking hands in amateur poker is a standard tell for a strong hand, but Hawaiian shirt’s seems to be intentional. His ten dollars come around to me.
“Show me the cards, please.”
The dealer bends up my cards so I can see them. Three of diamonds, ten of spades. Not a hand I’d normally play, but nobody but me can get the straight flush, and any one of fifteen cards will give me a flush or a straight. Fifty-four percent chance with two cards to go.
I watch the faces. Hawaiian shirt smiles, a bit too broadly. He raises me to forty. Everyone else folds.
The turn is a king. No joy; odds of a straight or better are down to something like one in three. I bet ten and call at twenty.
Last card is a ten. That gives me just a pair. It costs me twenty bucks to see that Hawaiian shirt's got a pair of jacks in the hole, and to reinforce everyone's impression that I'm the sucker. Still, I played the odds correctly, even though I'm out a hundred bucks. I can hear Donna's lecture already.
Not much happens for a few hands, but then the tone of the room changes, like it did when I came in. I push back against my headrest and look around for the reason. Three women are strutting across the dark blue carpet. They’re wearing skin-tight evening gowns (at 9:30 on Monday morning) and that sculpted-bronzed look of tabloid-standard beauty. They barely glance at the nodding security staff before mounting the stairs to the VIP floor. I’m not sure exactly what goes on up there, but I suspect a power wheelchair would get in the way.
I force myself to re-focus on the game. Sometimes I can make money off the distracted, but this time I don’t get the cards. I fold a couple of hands, and then lose another sixty bucks chasing a twenty percent chance at five hundred. I get eighty back when I connect with an ace, and start to feel comfortable at the table.
Hawaiian shirt is up big; he’s got about twenty-five hundred in chips in front of him. His shaking hand is a bluff, but his eye twitches when he thinks he's got a winner. Pink visor pulls his ears back when he's worried, and one of the white visors has a twitch on his forehead that shakes some of the hair above the visor. The others have all the textbook tells: looking at their chips, holding their breath, turning red, re-checking the hole.
I'm a pretty decent poker player. Since it takes everything I have to communicate anything to anybody, I have no tells. I play the odds, watch the other players, and cling in vain to the hope that Donna will be impressed when I win.
Ace-king of hearts in the hole. Here we go. I bet twenty and lose only the shriveled cleavage and one white visor. The flop is king-queen-jack, clubs-diamonds-spades. They check to me. I put in sixty, chasing out everyone but Hawaiian shirt and the vein. Hawaiian shirt shakes his cards, but his eye doesn't twitch. The tuft of hair shakes above the white visor; that's the threat. He might have the straight.
The fourth card, called “the turn” for some reason, is the two of hearts. That can't improve anyone’s hand. I bet a hundred, bluffing now, acting like I've got ace-ten. Hawaiian shirt hesitates. He's got nothing, and he's got to decide if I'm clever enough to bluff, or too dumb to be scared off. Then there's the twitch for him to consider, if he's even seen it.
“Two hundred,” he says at last.
The twitch folds. I'm guessing he has the best hand, but it must be ten-nine, and he doesn't want to chance it.
I call at two hundred. There are now nearly eight hundred dollars on the table between me and Hawaiian shirt. Win or lose, it's my last hand.
The river's a ten of hearts. Pure luck, but at least half the pot's mine. Now we have the game within the game. Hawaiian shirt’s eye is twitching; he thinks he’s got this. If he’s holding an ace, we each make about a hundred buck regardless of how much we bid up the pot. But if he just has a nine...
“All in,” I say with my talker.
The table was quiet before, but now I can hear every breath taken around it. Hawaiian shirt hesitates. Not the ace. The pot's mine. Now let’s see if he wants to hand me another seven hundred and sixty dollars.
“Call.” He counts it out and shoves it in.
He turns over his cards. King-nine. The dealer turns mine. “Ace-high straight wins,” he says.
Victory. I feel the saliva gather in my mouth, and force myself to swallow to avoid drooling. I'm buying Donna a steak dinner tonight. Red meat. She loves red meat.
“I'm out,” I say. “I will need some help with my chips.” Then I turn to the David the dealer. “Keep ... fifty.”
“Hold on!” Hawaiian shirt's not happy. “You're playing with my money now. Give me a chance to win it back.”
“I'm ... out.” I look at the dealer, who nods at someone behind me.
Hawaiian shirt stands up. He may be in his sixties, but he has a powerful frame that towers over the table. “Bullshit! You push your way in here, make us change seats so you can sit in your special spot, then you're out after one big hand?”
David signals again. The fifty dollar tip was money well spent. Tony arrives at the table. “Is there a problem?” he asks.
“This cripple took eight hundred off me and now he's fucking leaving.”
“Nine ... hundred and ... twenty.”
“Our guests may play as many or as few hands as they like. Mr. Able has chosen to leave now. And I'm afraid I must ask you to leave as well.”
“Mr. Able?” Hawaiian shirt looks at me. “That's your name? Able? You don't look like you're able to wipe your own ass.”
Until he called me a cripple, I kind of liked the guy. Sure he was pissed off, but he was treating me like anyone else walking off with his money. But cripple is right up there with retard. And I'm not going to take it sitting down. Well, maybe I am, but...
“For nine … hundred … I'll … pay … your … wife … to.”
The two suits start to giggle. Hawaiian shirt turns cartoonishly red. For a moment I think he's going to rush me. Instead he pulls one of the suits up by the lapels. “You think this is funny?” he bellows, spouting saliva like a rabid llama.
Security intervenes. They escort Hawaiian shirt out the main entrance. He yells that this isn't over.
It is for me. I text Donna.
> Dinner's on me. I'm bringing home six hundred bucks.
Donna> So am I, but I'll need another hour.
Donna's a lawyer. Parents hire her when school districts try to shortchange kids with special needs, which is pretty much all the time. She gets two fifty an hour. That's her reduced rate, what she charges parents who pay cash. If she gets a district to reimburse her, it's four hundred. She's got a good racket, but I don't have a ride.
Tony carries my chips back to the cage. I redeposit my initial buy-in to my account but take the thousand dollar profit in cash. My chest strap has a pouch where I stash the money. As I turn to leave, a security guard brings a bucket of chips in from the parking lot.
“'For a thousand I'll pay your wife.'” Tony elbows the guard in the ribs and chuckles.
“These are his chips,” the guard tells him. “Fifteen hundred fifty.”
“Cash him out and tell him not to come back,” Tony says before turning to me. “Your girlfriend coming to get you?”
“Not for...a while.”
“Need a ride? We have a van. Mostly we use it for retirement centers, but it can hold your chair.”
“That would...be great.”
“Sorry about the asshole.” He reaches into his pockets. “Here’s my card. I’ll write my cell number on the back. You need help, let me know. Hopefully nothing like this happens again, but you're welcome here any time, Mr. Able—Chuck.”
I lift one arm above my tablet and make a fist. Tony bumps it, and walks me to a place to wait by the front door. Hawaiian shirt is counting out his money out by a green BMW, carrying on to the guard, who alternately nods and shrugs. They look like a pair of birds doing a mating dance.
I’m entering Tony’s number into my contacts and realize I'm shaking. I like poker for the adrenaline rush, but I took a risk back at the table. When push comes to shove, I can neither push nor shove. But as my dad likes to say, we can't give in to assholes.
Something’s wrong. Too much noise. An alarm. The bell overloads my brainstem, and my body thrashes with primitive reflexes. The whole building is screaming like we're under attack, on fire, and being robbed all at once.
I feel like I'm moving. No, I am moving, rolling forward. I shouldn't be. I focus on my hand control, and pull back on the levers. No effect. I'm still going forward. Something's wrong. The chair's out of control. It's never done this before. Even my communication panel has gone black.
PokerLive's customers stride past me out the huge glass doors, struggling to both cover their ears and hold their chips. I see Tony yelling into a security guy's ear, and a few people are pointing to their bets and yelling questions that are lost in the din.
The crowd thickens around me as I roll slowly but inexorably down the path. I clip a few heels with my foot plates along the way. Hawaiian shirt has stopped talking and is watching the spectacle. But he's not the problem. What worries me is the curb at the end of the path, an eight-inch drop that might as well be the cliffs of Acapulco.I'm going over it.