Just because Emmett’s got a Santa’s Workshop ticket in the lottery this year, again, he thinks he’s something special. After an hour of Texas Hold’em, I’m about to throw a chair at his smack talk.
“Are you in?”
“I’m in.” I say, holding back the backhanded slap across his face that’s itching to go. I stare at my nine and seven of hearts.
Emmett places one card down, the jack of spades, and puckers his lips to suck in air. “Ooooh. That’s a good one.” He places another card, the eight of hearts, and winces as if light shined from the table. He places the third card down, the jack of diamond, and villainous smirk crosses his face.
I roll my eyes and take off my green knit hat and lay it on my lap. The white cotton ball tip hangs over my thigh lazily, as if it’s also been suffering from Emmett’s verbal abuse. It’s going to be a long last round.
I throw in ten. Theodore, Barry, and Salvatore match the bet. Emmett picks off a stack of blue chips and tosses them to the center of the table. He places the fourth card down slowly, as if it takes effort to flatten the card against the green felt. A ten of hearts. A grimace forms on his face. “This is going to suck for you guys.”
I push in my second to last stack.
Theodore throws his cards down. “This is the last time we play poker,” he says before standing up abruptly. He lets his wooden chair fall on its back, and storms into Emmett’s kitchen. “Where are the damn nachos, Emmett?” He slams the cabinet doors one by one.
Barry smiles and adjusts his thin-rimmed glasses behind his pointy ears before chucking his chips in. “That’s what you said last month Theo.” A cottony smoke cloud rises from his cigar towards the ceiling fan, dissipating before it reaches the blades.
Emmett slides a blue tubular building from his chip metropolis towards the pot. He raises his eyebrows and leans towards me. “Well, at least Theo doesn’t keep it in. You know what they say Jack, stress is the silent killer.”
“Me?” I clear the tightness in my throat. “What would I have to be stressed about?”
“You know,” he says as he places the last card on the table.
“I’m out.” Barry and Salvatore say in unison and stand up to watch the showdown.
Emmett flings another set of chips into the pile. “How me and my dad always get a Golden Ticket, every year, since I was old enough to hold a power drill, and how you and your dad never get one. This must be a tough time of year for your family. You should let it out.”
Barry takes another puff and narrows his eyes at Emmett. “You know, you used to be so nice. Now, you’re an asshole like the rest of them lifetime toy builders. Money isn’t everything, you know.”
Emmett giggles and mutters, “Said the garden gnome.”
“Come on… I’m kidding… Ease up.”
“Gentlemen please.” Salvatore strokes his white twisty beard as he studies the table. “You play too quickly here in America. I’m losing count. How much did you bet?”
Barry rolls his eyes. “Ten. Ten! It’s always ten!”
“Don’t yell at him,” I say. “He’s ninety-seven years old.”
“I can’t imagine being a Spook even for one year, let alone a lifetime.” Emmett shakes his head as he spins his cards flat against the table like pinwheels. “To never have worked in Santa’s workshop…. One year’s income can set you straight for life if you play your cards right.”
Salvatore dismisses Emmett with a hand wave. “It’s no big deal. Sometimes I get it. Sometimes I don’t. My father too. We don’t care so much in Italy. And look at me now, ninety-seven years old and I feel good. My father is a hundred and forty two and he feels good.” He leans towards me and whispers. “You shouldn’t stress so much. You’re still young. You have a big family, everyone is healthy and happy. This one,” Salvatore jerks his thumb towards Emmett, “he’ll be lucky to find anyone who will stand him.”
“Yeah, well, in America, you’re not a real elf unless you’ve worked in Santa’s workshop and made some real cash. And look at my face,” Emmett says with a right finger pointing at his wide grin. “This is the face of a happy, healthy, wealthy man. I don’t need a nagging wife and rug rats to make me happy.” Emmett huffs and whispers something under his breath.
I Inhale and exhale slowly, like my therapist suggested, as I push in the last tower of chips.
I space out for a few moments, staring at the pot, thinking about how I seem to always pick a Cookie Maker Ticket, a Shoemaker Ticket, or a Garden Gnome Ticket at the New Year’s Eve Bash. It’s never a Golden Ticket, ever. Why has my family been cursed? And what about my seven sons, will they have to suffer this as well?
“Jack, it’s you’re bet,” Salvatore says softly in his thick Italian accent.
Will I be this unlucky for another fifty years? Will my children have to bear a lifetime of ridicule from the likes of Emmett?
“Look Spook,” Emmett says as he reaches for his wallet and pulls something out. “I’ll give you a second chance to win the Golden Ticket.”
The plastic, shimmering card twirls in mid-air, in slow motion, once it leaves Emmett’s fingers. It tumbles down the mountains of chips and lands flat against the felt-lined table top. On the front it reads “Santa’s Workshop” in large, black letters against a gleaming gold background.
“Are you in?”
He flips his cards face up and sits back against his chair. “I know you can’t match it, so I’ll trade you with whatever ticket you got…if you win, that is.”
The smug look on his face makes my blood boils so hot that I slam my cards onto the table and stand up ready to punch Emmett’s obnoxious mug.
Salvatore grabs my right arm. “Jack…let it go.” He stares at me, rolling his eyes and tilting his head to the side for an instant, and then releases my arm from his grip. “None of this matters.”
He’s right. It doesn’t matter.
“You know what Emmett…you can take your poker games, your money, and your Golden Ticket and shove it up your ass. I’m going home to my beautiful wife and my seven awesome boy.”
I whip my jacket off the back of my chair and head for the door. Just as I was about to leave, Salvatore yells, “Jack, you won!”
“What?” Emmett shouts. His chair flips backwards when he stands. “I have two jacks. I got four of a kind.”
I walk back to the table and see the last card, a six of hearts. I look at Emmett who can’t seem to stop shaking his head. His fingers tug on his hair.
Salvatore hoots. “A royal flush Jack. You won! Ave Maria.”
Barry pounds his hand on my back and pressed down on my shoulders. “You’re going to work in Santa’s Workshop and this nut job is going to be a garden gnome for a year. Look at him, he’s sweating.”
Emmett paces from the dining room to his kitchen and back, mumbling something about his bills. Theodore stops munching on the nachos and joins us as we watch Emmett talk to himself in the living room.
“A bet’s a bet Emmett.” Theodore says with a crooked smile.
“I know!” Emmett shouts, wiping his face.
The huge pot with the Golden Ticket now belongs to me. Barry collects the money and stuff into my hand. I reach in for the glittery card and take a long look at the fancy, Victorian lettering. “Santa’s Workshop” I say out loud and chuckle. I can’t believe I finally own a Golden Ticket, the universal symbol of an elf’s happiness.
Salvatore gives me a knowing stare with his hands resting on his hips. I smile back, suddenly feeling silly for having wasted so much energy and sanity over a tiny piece of plastic.
“Good game guys. I have to go.” Barry, Salvatore and Theodore walk me out, tittering about how Emmett might be going through a nervous breakdown. They poke fun at how he will have to trade in his elite workshop uniform for the gaudy scratch-resistant, weatherproof garb the gnomes have to wear.
“Here,” I say as I hand Barry the card. “Don’t make him suffer too much, okay?”
“You’re giving it back, after all his bullshit?”
I shrug my shoulders. “Look at him.”
Emmett types frantically on the laptop keys, wiping sweat from his forehead and intermittently pulling on his hair. He whimpers, sniffles, and then wipes a tear from his right eye.
“And he’s been without it for a few minutes. In all these years I’ve never broken down like that. I’ve never wanted it the way he needs it.”
I take a deep, thankful breath. “I guess I have to thank Charlotte and the boys for that.”