“Hey, young man, got a smoke?” he asked.
“Huh?” was my only reply. My mind was consumed by the turmoil I was trying to escape. I’d been staring out the window for the last two hours.
“Were you sleeping?” He asked.
“No. I’m too tired to sleep, believe it or not.” I replied.
“Well… got a smoke?”
“Oh… No. I’m all out. I was gonna ask you the same thing when I saw you in the cabin.”
That’s the thing about lying. The better you get, the more sure you are that everyone else is lying too. I fidgeted a little in my seat. The cushion had been worn flat by thousand of suckers and losers before me. It did nothing to ease my back or my turbulent soul.
“Ah hell, it’s alright. I know you got one. Heh, look. I got one too. My last though.” He told me
He pulled out a silver cigarette case. He asked me for a light. I handed him my matchbox. The flame, cupped in his hands, illuminated a face littered with scars, a tarnished silver beard, and bags under his eyes so heavy that no bell boy could ever carry them.
I lit my own. I wonder what troubles he saw on my face.
“Hell, old man. I can tell you’ve seen better days.” I said.
He chuckled. “Oh I’ve seen all kinds of days. And I can tell by your face that you’re out of aces.”
“Yeah, you can say that. I’m plumb out. There’s no coming back from this.”
“Well damn, son. I bet I’ve come back from worse.”
“Yeah? Would you give me some advice, Mister?”
He leaned back in his chair nonchalantly. “I could be persuaded.”
I looked to read his face, to see if there was a double meaning.
“Money? Hell, I’d give anything to know what to do, but I don’t got no money. I could get some maybe. It’d just take an hour to hustle some other passengers. I-”
The stranger stopped him with an upturned hand. “Got ‘ne whisky?”
“You bet your bottom dollar I do. What’s a gambler without some liquor?”
The stranger took a generous swig. “That’s some mighty fine whisky you got.”
“Thanks, it ain’t mine!” I said proudly.
“I fig’rd as much. Alright, now tell me about this pickle you’ve found yourself in.”
“Well. I owe quite a bit of money…”
“Well I knew that part. As a fellow gambler. That part is obvious. Keep going.”
I laughed nervously. “And uh, there’s a girl. The most beautiful girl I’d ever set eyes on. But she ran away with -”
“Up bup bup. Stop right there.” He took a long drag from his cigarette. “Here’s the thing. Life is like a game of cards. You got to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Sometimes you have to walk away from the table. Sometimes you got to run.”
“That’s what I’m doing now, running. But is it right? How do you know when to sit and when to run? What if there’s $1,000 dollars on the table and you have pocket aces?”
“Naw, that’s the thing. You can’t count that money. It’s not yours yet. You could lose it just as easily. You have to wait for ‘the river’. If you win it, great. If not, well that’s just how life goes, I guess.”
“Huh. And if I have a king, queen, jack, and there’s a nine on the table. What would you do?”
“Well every hand’s a winner and every hands a loser. It boils down to what everyone else has and what they’re hiding. You can’t base it only on what you have. A lot of it is out of your control. Can we control when death comes knocking on our door? No! We just have to hope that it comes in our sleep.
On that note, he grew silent and solemn. He stared out at the world through the window. Eventually he put out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.
I had finally reached my destination: no where. I wanted him to know that I’ve been thinking. I took his words to heart. That I might turn my life around. I shook him to say goodbye and thank him, but no amount of shaking woke the sage. I stood away as I realized, he had reached his destination too. He didn’t make out too good or too bad, but at least he’ll be remembered. If not for his words, then by my actions, he’ll be remembered.