Recently one of our staff wrote about a day spent in Rhinelander, WI. In response to that story our offices were flooded with so much fan mail that we decided to send our intrepid reporter back into the field for a night, if not on the town, than at least near it. Below is what happened.
I was invited to poker night by Pete, a 55-yo guy I met while doing some business around town. ((I’ll come back to Pete later, as both he and the business we conducted merits more attention than the present permits.)) I explained to Pete that I don’t play poker. I will now reiterate before you, dear readers, the very same admission: I don’t play poker. You may cast me in whatever sour, sickened shade of masculinity that revelation demands, but cards just ain’t my thing. Like NASCAR and Guy Fieri I simply can’t understand the appeal.
No problem, Pete countered, you don’t have to play. Just come hang and hang out. I thought about it a moment and then said, It’s okay with me, and drove out to poker night.
I met the guys, as Pete called his poker pals, at a shack about twenty-minutes outside of town. The shack was located at the end of a long gravel road somewhere deep in the woods. As I bumped along three deer scooted across my path and dusk stumbled lazily through the trees. I had been given no address and was told to continue driving until the road ended. My cell phone registered no signal.
I came to the literal end of the road and pulled up outside a wood and concrete building. Several trucks were parked near the doorway. No windows were visible in the shack’s sides. A large diesel generator growled somewhere in the distance. Nearby a lake tickled the shoreline and whispered soft, sweet nothing’s to the dock.
I stood outside and hoped I was at the proper place. The air became silent and the silence became legion, immense and ominous. I reckoned the odds of someone watching me through a rifle scope from afar at 5:4. If Ned Beatty had suddenly materialized on the steps with a banjo I wouldn’t have blinked.
On the walls inside were several unlit neon beer signs, an exceptionally well-stocked bar, and a rack of guns. A grill sizzled on the back porch and dinner was burgers and cheese-soaked hash browns. I ate two hamburgers and a pile of potatoes. I drank one Miller High Life, then another. The guys consumed liquor like water, and when I paused to drink a glass of the latter I was eyed curiously, presumably for acting like a wuss. Pete poured me roughly 11-ounces of Whistle Pig, a lovely rye from Vermont. Before the night was over I had managed to drink less than half, and donated the remainder into my neighbor’s glass.
Some of these guys have been playing poker together every Thursday night for over two decades. The interplay between them was a tension that can best be called sophomoric, penduluming as it did between insulting inanities and thoughtful considerations. Their banter I will not repeat in case Grandma should ever read this. For those needing imaginative fodder, envision a 24-yo bro head-nodding a Whadup? across a crowded bar, then fast-forward that image 30-years. Lest that sound condescending, let me insist that I found something charming in it.
At one point I was gratuitously bankrolled and forced to play several hands of a game that to this day I couldn’t explain to save my life. If we recreated the evening, you could literally take one of the rifles off the wall, place the barrel against my head, and threaten to pull the trigger unless I provided a description of the game’s ins and outs, and at the end of this hypothetical you’d find my brains splattered across the BudLight sign. Seeing how baffled I was, my neighbor leaned continually over my hand and directed my play, which certainly called into question the very concept of playing. I soon felt exactly as I did when I was six-years old and had been corralled into playing Scrabble with the adults—Here, play this letter…, No, not like that…, and so on.
At one point in the evening politics reared its gangrenous head, and after some banter I asked the following question: How many people in this room are voting for Trump this fall? Every hand went up. I nodded and said the only thing one could possibly say in that situation: nothing. I sipped the last of my whiskey and removed myself from further card games. Later, I drove home.