Flop, turn, river. I listened carefully, trying to learn the rules. My dad’s friends were in town. Cynthia had taken Esther to her sister’s, and Charlotte was four, old enough to stay. Charlotte was a little doll that I sometimes saw on weekends, chubby pink-apple cheeks, maple-syrup eyes roving about. She liked to climb up on the furniture and walk around singing, attention clinging to her like dust in air. But she had been tucked into bed for hours, asleep with her Barbie night-light glowing, and it was me, my dad, and his friends.
They were sitting at the kitchen island playing cards. I was supposed to go to bed soon, but I could never fall asleep at my dad’s. I’d watch the moon shift in the sky, I’d watch the branches rustle. I’d turn from one side to the next, I’d flip my pillow back and forth. I’d tell myself I wouldn’t call my mom, because last time I’d done so, she’d told my dad, and I thought I’d never be that embarrassed as long as I lived. That night, Charlotte was already in bed when my dad let me eat with his friends around the kitchen island, sitting on barstools with burgers he’d grilled outside. Then he brought out a shiny silver suitcase, flipped up the two locks, and laid it open on the kitchen table. Inside were six coils of colorful discs, red and green and white and blue, with four red dice in between, two stacks of playing cards. Poker. Flop, turn, river, bluff, blind, words that didn’t mean anything I thought they did—they didn’t mean to flop onto your bed, to turn a corner, river like a stream; they meant something else.
One of his friends said I could be on his team to start. “So it’s not some family dynasty,” Mark said, pulling out the chair next to him at the table. “No secret codes between you two.” I imagined having a father with whom I shared a secret code. Huddling with one of my dad’s grown-up friends over a spread of cards, talking conspiratorially about our next move, my spine straightened as if pulled by the overhead lights. It was even better to be this way, my dad’s equal, facing off against him, rather than a charge at his elbow that he had to try to remember things about. He sat across from me and his smile crinkled in his eyes and the tops of his cheeks.
Brett got up to open the fridge, and Mark flipped our cards quickly on their stomachs. Brett pulled out the carton of orange juice from the fridge. “Can I finish this?”
My dad shrugged, sure.
“I’m going to feel like a real asshole when Charlotte asks where the juice is at breakfast,” Brett said. Everyone laughed loudly while he poured the rest of the carton into a glass filled with ice and clear vodka. I smiled widely. I didn’t quite understand the joke, but it was being told in front of me. Brett was spending the night here—in from the city. They all used to work there, in New York together, and my dad had been their boss.
Mark held the cards back up after Brett took his seat. “You see here?” he said, pointing to two of them. I nodded, but I didn’t. The cards in our hand had to make up some sort of combination with the ones on the table. Two of our cards had matching eights, red and black. “Go ahead,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “We call,” and I tossed four chips in, the way I’d seen Brett do. They all crowed at the way I threw them in, my nonchalance. I looked at my feet, swinging high up from the floor.
“She’s a natural,” Brett said. “You never played poker?”
“She’s ten,” my dad said.
“Oh, you seemed much older to me,” he replied. “Sixteen at least.”
I blushed; that was my greatest dream. We continued in the circle, throwing chips in. The dealer switched each round, and my dad was dealing now. The best times with my dad were always the games, the false competition a mask to hide behind. Maybe I wanted to be older, less of a burden. I never cared if I won. It was enough for me to sit there, invited to play. “Ready?” he said, and everyone flipped their cards over. My dad and Mark groaned, and Brett whooped and scooped the chips toward his chest, using two hands like shovels. I pouted, for show.
“This fucking—oh, sorry.” Mark looked at my dad, wincing. “This freaking guy, I swear he changes his tell just to—mess with us.” His mouth had hovered over the fff sound again before he said mess. I looked carefully at the table.
“I’m a good bluffer, what can I say. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” Brett said, leaning back in his chair.
“Why not?” I asked. Sometimes I just floated along on the waves of their conversation, but sometimes I wanted to know more. Everyone was open, more talkative tonight, like their mouths had been greased and couldn’t help but spill out words. There was less furtive eye contact than usual, the way grown-ups always looked at each other and measured how much they could say.
“Well, I may have stretched the truth when interviewing for your dad.”
Mark coughed. “Overtly lied.”
“And he hired me. And it never mattered! But he wouldn’t have hired me with no experience, if I’d told the truth.”
I nodded seriously.
“What are you saying to my daughter?” my dad said, and with an open palm hit the back of Brett’s head. I felt crowned, special: look at them fighting over what wisdom to give me. He turned to me. “Lying is bad. Obviously.”
“I didn’t say lie,” Brett said. “I said bluff.”
They had been saying that word, bluff, all night. It conjured an image of a thick paintbrush, short and stout with bristles that you’d wipe over something, the truth maybe, with brushstrokes that didn’t quite cover the shape underneath. Maybe it was like a white lie. I didn’t want to ask too many questions, lest I break the spell and they realize I didn’t belong here.
“You should only bluff if you are prepared for the life it brings you,” my dad said. “You bluff, then you can’t go back.”
I tried to squeeze my brain around his words. I didn’t understand them, but that I might someday. I held the image in the front of my mind: my dad, eyes creased with a smile, his real daughter asleep upstairs, the words he spoke just for me.
“Okay, Willa, training wheels off!” Brett said. He pushed over a tiny stack, five chips. “I’ll donate to your independence.”
“Whoa, whoa, only if she wants to,” my dad said, but without conviction. I could tell he was curious, like he wanted me to do it. I looked between the three of them, and they were all waiting for me. So I took the five chips and scooted my chair away from Mark.
“I don’t know if I remember all the cards,” I said, but they didn’t seem to hear. Mark was dealing. I tried to remember what cards had won. There had been one round where my dad had two tens, and one where he won with a single jack. This last time, Brett’s had looked like a jumble of numbers. A lot of times everyone just gave up and whoever didn’t give up won. I looked down at my chips: I didn’t know what each color meant, how much they were worth. I stacked and restacked them in three rows. My dad pushed ten over and winked. He could do that—wink—and it felt natural, a secret blessing that washed over you quick.
Mark put out three cards, and we all put in chips, and then he put out one more: a nine of hearts. I had a nine in my hand, a black one with a clover. I felt nervous—that was good. Brett scratched at his ear, and I saw Mark glance at him suspiciously. He had done that before. Brett pushed three more chips in, and so did we. Were these chips real money? I didn’t know. Mark laid out the final card, a two of hearts—the river. I remembered the name of this one. I imagined something rushing, frothing, carrying baskets downstream. It was how I felt, sitting at the table with my dad and his friends. Something was carrying me along, no one had told me what to do. I had a two of diamonds. For a second I wanted to fold, to leave before they noticed. But no one folded, and we laid out our hands. My dad balled up a fist and brought it to his mouth, and when he pulled it away, he was smiling, widely, so that I saw his back teeth, the faint tracks by the corner of his eyes. “She’s always been a quick learner,” he said. “I knew it,” and the word always, the words I knew, they felt like what happened next, which was that they all pushed their chips toward me. I had won.
Rumpus original art by Susan Ito.
Excerpted from Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu. Copyright © 2021 by Kyle Lucia Wu. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Tin House.