The Poker Champ, continued...

Before I was able to leave the tournament for the day, Keith cornered me at the door. “You’re coming with us to a bar.” It wasn’t a question.

“A bar in the hotel?” I asked.

“Riley, come on,” Keith snorted. “You think we’re going to some shitty casino bar? Nah, there’s a place on the strip.”

I used to love going to bars on the strip, but I wasn’t too excited by the thought of trying to navigate my wheelchair through Las Vegas street traffic. I started to protest, but Keith wouldn’t hear it. “Mike’s got his car and he’s driving us, okay?”

I assumed he was referring to his good friend Mike Feng, another name from the top ten so far. I still wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but Keith practically pushed my chair to the parking lot. When I competed five years earlier, I remembered hearing that it was tradition to get wasted the first night of the championship, so Avi and I drank shots of Jim Beam in his apartment. We got completely plastered and I wound up sucking his dick on the balcony. That was probably also how we mixed up our shirts, apparently giving ourselves away to people like Marie Fallow.

The bar was dark, dank, and smelled of some combination of beer, cigarettes, and something else that might have been urine. That smell brought back memories. “This place is the best,” Keith announced as we went through the door, apparently having forgotten that five years ago, he and the guys invited me and Avi to come here. I remember Avi and I had excused ourselves to go take a piss, then we desecrated the handicapped stall. That was back when using the handicapped stall had been an option for me. I remember Avi and I had carefully smoothed out our hair and checked our clothes for signs of jiz before coming back out of the restroom.

The people joining us for drinks read like a poker who’s who list: in addition to Keith and Mike, there was Benito Gomez, Jack McFadden, and of course, Avi Green. “Fucking Riley Haveson!” Benny Gomez cried. He was slurring slightly. “I can’t fucking believe it!”

“Are you drunk already, Ben?” Mike asked incredulously.

“I got a few drinks at the casino,” Benny said, grinning like an idiot. His talent was charming waitresses into giving him the drinks of their tray. We had a bunch of laughs one night counting how many of other people’s free drinks we could get... by the end of the night, I was almost as good at it as he was. He was probably more charismatic than me, but I was young and very good looking, so the waitresses really went for me. I couldn’t believe he was still at it five years later. He had to have been at least in his mid-30’s by now. “Shit Riley, you’re all grown up now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I’ve got chest hair and everything,” I said. I was only 22 years old the last time I had seen these guys and they always kidding me that they were corrupting me.

“You married yet?” Jack McFadden asked me. He was the oldest of the bunch, probably 45 or so by now. He was an accountant in the real world, but on the table, he was a force to be reckoned with. He had a deep, gravelly voice that always scared me a little. But now he was looking at me with concern in his eyes. He was probably wondering who the hell would marry me now that I was crippled.

“Not yet,” I said.

“Dodged that bullet, huh?” Keith laughed. “You’re the only lucky one here, I’m telling you. And I saw that hottie, Marie Fallow, talking to you earlier. Man, she has got great tits.”

My eyes met Avi’s across the table. He was the only one who wasn’t talking to me. He was just sitting back in his seat, quietly drinking his beer. He was still wearing the goddamn Yankees cap, and I felt a sudden urge to rip it off him. Along with his shirt and pants.

“...Marie Fallow and Angelina Jolie,” Benny was saying. “Shit, I’d like the two of them to make me a sandwich.”

The other guys laughed. “Let me buy you a beer,” Keith said to me. “We’ve got a long night ahead of us.”

“Excuse me,” Avi said, rising from his seat. He headed in the direction of the restroom. As I turned my head to watch him go, I wondered if he wanted me to follow him. Then I realized what a dumb thought that was. Everything that had gone on between us was long over.

“Who the fuck invited Green?” Keith muttered, shaking his head.

“Calm down, Keith,” Jack said. “What happened last year isn’t going to happen again.”

“Damn fucking straight,” Keith said.

“I don’t know how you were ever friends with that asswipe,” Benny said to me. “Riley, I’m sorry, but we’re taking him down.”

“I’m not friends with him anymore,” I said. “I haven’t heard from him in five years.”

Keith looked me straight in the eyes, very serious. “Riley, if you ever think you have a chance to take that fucker down, I want you to take it.”

Last year, I had watched the match on television. One by one, Avi had defeated every single man at this table in hands that he had no business winning. Because in the end, you can’t take all of someone’s money on a bluff. You need the cards to win.

“I hear you,” I said. But it was an empty promise. What were the chances that I would have a shot at taking Avi out? I’d consider myself lucky if I were still around tomorrow. “I’ll do it if I can.”

“Don’t look so uncertain,” Mike said. “We heard how you finished off those two tables today. You might not know them, but some of those players are very good.”

Keith nodded. “One thing I always liked about you, Riley,” Keith said, “you never wear the shades. Never hide your eyes. I gotta respect that.”

“Not everyone bluffs with their eyes,” Jack remarked.

“I wouldn’t mind losing to you, Riley,” Keith said. He grinned. “Of course, I’d rather win.”

Over the next few hours, nearly everyone at the table got themselves hammered. I held out and only had a few beers—alcohol is a diuretic and I didn’t want to piss myself in front of my old friends. Avi was the other holdout, but he had never been much a drinker—one of the reasons that the other guys had never respected him. At a little after midnight, Mike Feng stood up unsteadily, “I... think I better walk home.”

“I think I’m gonna hurl,” Keith muttered, covering his hands with his face. Keith always said that, but I’d never seen him make good on his promise. He peeked at me through a space between his fingers. “Where you staying, Riley?”

“Excalibur,” I said. It was on the strip, but still a big hike.

“Shit,” Keith said. “We’ll call you a cab.”

“I can give you a ride,” Avi volunteered.

“Avi Green, designated driver,” Benny laughed, finishing off his last beer in one swig.

I remembered Avi used to drive a flashy two-seater with no trunk space. My wheelchair wouldn’t have fit in his old car. “You got room?” I asked him.

“Definitely,” Avi said.

“His wife made him get an SUV,” Benny giggled.

“It’s a safer car,” Avi said. He didn’t seem that bothered that the other guys were mocking him. I guess he was used to it.

There was plenty of room for my wheelchair in Avi’s trunk, but the seats were too high for me to do a comfortable transfer into shotgun. Luckily, Jack was still sober enough to help me do the transfer into the car. After I was all buckled in, I watched the guys stumbling in the direction of their hotels.

“Not much has changed, huh?” Avi said as he started up the car.

I knew I had to talk to him about what Marie Fallow had said to me earlier. I didn’t know what to say exactly, so I just decided to be direct. “Marie Fallow from ESPN knows about us.”

Avi slammed on the brakes in time to keep from rear-ending a stretch limousine in front of us. “What? What does she know?”

“You know.”

Avi stared at me. “You told her?”

“No, I didn’t fucking tell her.” Avi could be very irritating sometimes—I could see why the other players didn’t like him. “She already knew. She found out somehow.”

“Riley, if this gets out...” Avi had that desperate look on his face. I could almost see the little beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

“So what if it gets out?” I said. I knew how big a deal it was, but I thought it was best to play it down. “It was a long time ago.”

“I’m married now,” he reminded me. “My wife would kill me if she knew.”

“You mean you didn’t tell her?” I was joking, of course. I knew Avi hadn’t told anyone about us. He was ashamed by our relationship, even though I got the feeling it meant more to him than it did to me.

“Riley, this isn’t funny.”

“Marie just said she wanted an interview with you,” I told him. “She said she isn’t going to expose us.”

Avi let out a breath. “Okay, fine.”

I was impressed at how well Avi seemed to know Vegas now... he was navigating the streets like he had lived here his whole life. I remember riding in Avi’s car and getting lost at least half a dozen times before we made it back to his apartment. I always accused him of doing it to torture me.

Avi pulled up to a back entrance to the Excalibur that he said was faster and emptier. “Where are you staying?” I asked.

“Luxor,” he said.

“You gave up the apartment, I guess.”

“My wife wasn’t too hot on the idea of living in Vegas.”

“It was a nice apartment.”

“We were just kids back then,” Avi said. He looked like he was trying to come up with some kind of explanation for what we did. “I mean, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”

“We were experimenting,” I said, trying to help him out.

“Yeah, exactly!” Avi said. “I mean, what does Marie think... that we were in love?”

“I wasn’t in love with you,” I said.

“Me either,” Avi agreed. “It was just a one-time experiment.”

I don’t think I would have believed Avi even if I hadn’t looked down and seen that he had an erection. On my part, I didn’t get that kind of erection anymore, but I knew I was feeling very drawn to Avi. Even if I didn’t have any action below the belt, there was still plenty Avi could do to me from the waist-up. And there was still plenty I could do to him.

Even if Avi’s wife found out about us, I doubted she’d believe it. Avi wasn’t that type at all. It always amazed me that we wound up hooking up. We were playing cards in his apartment, betting with an old box of chips we bought on the strip. It was the middle of the summer and Avi’s air conditioning was on the fritz so we both stripped down to our shorts. Just for fun, I went all in on a king-high hand, and I remember Avi studying my face, trying to figure out if it was a bluff. Then suddenly he wasn’t looking at my face anymore. I couldn’t even say who kissed who first. Five minutes later, we were rolling around on the floor, our sweaty skin sticking together. Best fuck of my life: Avi Greenberg.

“Nobody else is going to find out, Avi,” I said. “I promise.”

I was wrong.

To be continued...