All In

Poker, friendship, mortality

The fellowship of the poker table can be an uneasy thing.

photo by Ryan Girard

photo by Ryan Girard

In the friendly game, everyone is both ally and enemy, no enemy more potent than yourself, with the creeping impairment and pent-up bluffs the evening holds in store. Among the eleven or so players who wandered through our game were several writers, including Nino Ricci, Antanas Sileika, Joe Kertes, George Galt, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall and Paul Quarrington. Paul was also an amateur magician, a sleight-of-hand artist (he wasn’t the only one; until he moved to L.A. Bert Kish would do improbable, worrisome things with the deck while waiting to deal).

“Do you ever use those skills?” I asked Paul the first time I was invited to play. “I mean in a game. This game?”

“Sometimes,” he said.

Even without the close-up magic, Paul was a good card player. He had spent thousands of hours with a deck of cards. He understood them and understood the game, had divined that busy intersection between luck and opportunity and the sometimes perverse play of his fellows.

One night, years ago, we cracked the new Bicycle deck and Nino took out the card that showed the hierarchy of poker hands on it—from Royal Flush down to lowly pair—and put it in his breast pocket. Hours later, when he was waist-deep in a raising session with Paul, he took it out of his pocket and looked at it, then looked at his cards for two or three minutes, a millennium in poker time.

“You don’t know what you have?” Paul said. “Why would you raise if you don’t know what you have.”

“I’m thinking.”


They had a relationship that sometimes resembled an old married couple. When Nino announced that his new novel Origin of Species had comic elements, Paul said in that flat voice of his, almost Nicholsonesque in timbre, “We’ll be the judge of that.”

We mainly played two games; the ubiquitous Texas Hold ‘Em seen on television—in which every player uses two individual face-down cards and five communal face-up cards to form the best five- card poker hand—and Omaha, a more complex variant that has a winning low hand as well as a high hand (and which resulted in a year of clarification on the rules after it was introduced).

Poker, like love, has a lot to do with anticipation. Waiting for your first two cards is a delicious moment. The joy of paired queens, the heartbreak of another 2/7 combo. Poker is a perfect activity in that it has both collegiality and competition, and it allows for conversation, alcohol and food (an aspect of our game that grew more elaborate over the years). It is a beautiful excuse to get together, and has its own attractions. Gambling, even at this low level, is rarely dull; that’s one of the reasons people get addicted to it.

You run into a streak of bad luck and it’s hard not to feel unjustly punished. By whom? God? Maybe the search for a good hand is the search for God; He rewards the faithful with aces. Luck can be streaky, and your mood tends to move with those cards, the endless string of dead hands, or a rare barrage of contenders. So much is luck.

Luck notwithstanding, there are three levels of poker expertise. The first is to recognize what is in your own hand, to know where it fits in the hierarchy, what its odds of success are. The second is to know what others have, to read the other players at the table and know who is bluffing and who has the aces (there is a tournament player who says he could win money without ever looking at his own cards, surely a bluff). The third level is to know what others think you have. This last, zen-like plane is, like heaven, largely theoretical. At some level, moving your chips into the centre of the table is an act of faith.

The friendly game works best if there is balance, if over the course of a few years no one emerges as the guywho wins everyone’s money. The amount won or lost has to be commensurate with the players’ incomes as well. Years ago I played in another game, made up of journalists, and we had similar stakes—in the course of an evening it was rare that anyone won or lost more than $150. One evening we played a game where the pot could increase geometrically and it quickly climbed to over $1,000. It was a number no one was comfortable with, in part because whoever lost would have to replace the pot, would lose a grand in a single hand. When the hand was played and the inevitable happened it cast apall over the game. Not long after, we drifted apart. There were other factors—a divorce that resulted in the loss ofour venue being one—but that handunbalanced our delicate society. It spooked us.

Our writer’s game used to start at 8 p.m. and go to 2 a.m., but one night while driving back from the distant west end of Toronto we eastenders decided to lobby for earlier start/quit times. It was almost 3 a.m. and four of us were in Nino’s minivan. Paul was in the front seat, navigating.

“You’re taking Yonge Street?” he said.

“What’s wrong with Yonge?”

Married silence.

George was asleep, still recovering from a severe reaction to a flu shot that left him debilitated for the better part of two years and involved an expensive trip to the Mayo Clinic. The rest of us harboured lesser complaints. And there were the resentments and disappointments, large and small, that accumulate as we age. We were over the legal limit, dreamily beat. The streets were busier than you would think. We were all in our fifties and here was mortality: a maroon-coloured minivan crashing through the night, filled with existential dread and corporeal betrayal. Still, it was a surprise when Paul announced, a few months later, that he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Our fifties is a time of reckoning. It is the natural order to be overtaken by those who are younger, faster, stronger. As writers we sometimes felt we werebeing overtaken by the industry itself. The printed word may not be dying, but what emerges from the post-literate/blogosphere/e-book landscape may be less recognizable to the middle-aged.

Certainly it is more difficult to make a living than it once was, though Paul was remarkably adept. He was a talented musician and songwriter, he wrote novels, non-fiction books, magazine pieces, TV scripts, screenplays and taught writing. He was breathtakingly prolific, unacquainted, it seemed, with block or sloth.

Paul’s last two novels Galveston and The Ravine were both short-listed for the Giller Prize, his book Whale Music won the Governor General’s award, and his 1987 book King Leary won the CBC’s Canada Reads competition and went from out-of-print to bestseller. Still, he had doubts about his place in the literary world. Most writers are able to simultaneously hold in their heads a rigid belief in their own genius and deeply entrenched doubts about their work. Even the great Saul Bellow confessed that his seminal novel The Adventures of Augie March might just be “one of those stormy, formless American phenomena.” A few months before his death, John Gregory Dunne told his wife Joan Didion that his estimable work was “worthless.” Doubt comes with the territory.

Years ago, Paul once described himself, self-deprecatingly, as a mid-list author. At a poker game Paul told a story of being in a small town on a fishing trip. He went to a bait shop and outside, sitting on the steps, was a man reading one of Paul’s books. He hovered over the man, then finally said, “You know, I wrote that book.”

The man looked up at him and said, “No you didn’t,” and went back to his reading. Such is mid-list celebrity.

A mid-list author wasn’t a bad thing to be twenty years ago. It implied faith on the part of the publisher that you and/or your audience would grow. There is less faith now. Paul’s audience grew but we all worried about the uncertain state of reading and publishing. Who survives the mocking of the remainder bin these days? Once they were filled mostly with oddities, but now they overflow with greatness, V.S. Naipaul’s A Writer’s People ($6.99) sitting beside Tips For Your Ice Cream Maker ($4.95). Even the triumphantly commercial fall prey; I recently found J.K. Rowlings’ The Tales of Beedle the Bard available for $4.99. The culture moves like a freight train now, passing everything in a blur.

The writer’s world has always been precarious, and we occasionally recounted its betrayals at our games, but larger betrayals awaited, of course. Diabetes, heart attacks, cancer, neurologic grief, alcoholism, depression, crippling back pain; all of which alighted on friends. It started as a trickle and became a torrent. An old story.

Paul was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, the most advanced stage, when cancer is in both lungs or has caused fluid collection that contains cancer cells around the heart and lungs. This is known in cancer terminology as a malignant pleural effusion. Paul had several litres of fluid taken out of his lungs and pleural cavity after complaining of a shortness of breath. He looked healthy and said he felt good, yet the treatments being discussed were all palliative. The oncologist estimated six months to a year. Paul was still in control of his body, though he would have to relinquish it soon, and then relinquish everything.

Paul’s novel King Leary chronicles the life of Percival “King” Leary, born in 1900, a hockey legend who is now in a small town retirement home. It was the first of his books that I read. I read it because Paul was my age, and because not long before it came out I had dated a woman who had just broken up with him. He was a real writer, she said, implying, I thought, that I wasn’t (which was true). “He got a grant,” she told me. Well la de da. On the down side, she said, he had a fear of intimacy, that eighties disease.

I read King Leary in the way that people who want to be writers but have yet to write anything read books by someone their age: with a combination of trepidation, fear and envy. I dismissed it as too broad, a personal defense against the success it achieved, and more critically, the success I hadn’t achieved. I re-read it when it was reissued a few years ago, and was surprised by its comic delicacy.

In parts it echoes Shakespeare’s King Lear. Among the several tragedies in King Lear is the loss of authority. When Lear abdicates power to his two awful daughters, he gives up his political authority, and both his family and England fall into chaos. We cede authority as we grow older, sometimes to the point of infantilism: wearing diapers, having someone shave us, dress us, read to us. The failure of our bodies is the most fundamental betrayal. Lovers come and go, with their talent for heartbreak, but our bodies contain the essence of our struggle: learning to crawl, then walking, the gawkiness of adolescence when it feels like someone else is controlling our limbs and our urges, and then in middle age when parts begin to wear out—small, stubborn melanomous patches of skin, the subtle swelling of prostates, the shrinking of muscle mass, the occasional word hanging just out of reach. Gradually these various dots are joined, the way a child draws lines between consecutive numbers to make a bear riding a bicycle take shape; suddenly the image comes into focus.

Cancer, that arbitrary button man, alights in unlikely places. If you haven’t already grasped it, your fifties is when you accept that evil sometimes goes unpunished, goodness isn’t always rewarded, that shit, as they say, happens.

Only now it’s happening to you.

Is there a Divine Plan, or is the world indifferent to our struggles? In King Lear, Gloucester thinks it’s a random universe while Edgar thinks the gods are just. One of the great gifts of faith is it mitigates the randomness that plagues us, a quality that seems to be defining my middle years. Not long before Paul was diagnosed, another friend was told she had cancer. She was a vegetarian who had eaten organically for two decades, who hadn’t allowed any toxic cleaning products, shampoos or make-up into her house and who had no family history of cancer. She became the gold standard for randomness.

Paul addressed this randomness in his 1997 book The Boy on the Back of the Turtle, which he said was initially about finding God but became more about losing God. The book describes a trip to the Galapagos Islands and ponders Darwin and God. In it Paul presented disease as an argument against God’s existence. “Why would a God cause that to happen? Why would a God tolerate it?” he asked. “A believer would inform me that this is all beyond my comprehension. To which I can only respond, well, um, get lost. Why should I believe something I’m not even capable of contemplating? Why shouldn’t I embrace the notion that disease is, after all, just another form of replication and propagation? It’s a crowded world and competition is fierce; sometimes, very often, the disease wins.”

In Paul’s case, the disease won, though it wasn’t a fair fight, given the late diagnosis. The tributes and memorials in Paul’s honour, beginning when he was still alive to enjoy them, weren’t held in churches. His faith resided elsewhere—in a concert venue on Queen Street, on the stage at Harbourfront, in the rooms where his faith in music and words and fellowship reigned.

What do you do when you find out you may only have six months to live? And who knows what those final months will bring. Paul was warned by a doctor that the endgame could be painful and if he were to succumb earlier, it might be a blessing. There was talk of taking Paul to Dublin for Bloomsday, or to Las Vegas for a gambling spree, but the travel insurance was prohibitive and the logistics complicated. In the end, the poker group went to the casino in Niagara Falls and had a fabulous dinner in a room that overlooked the Falls. At ten o’clock there was an elaborate fireworks display. We walked onto the mammoth outside deck and watched the fireworks. The smokers lit up.

Paul had been a smoker, but he’d quit at the age of fifty. So had almost everyone else. At games, we talked about theories of smoking, how a few cigarettes a day was apparently okay, or how a Marlboro smoked twenty years ago was still rattling around at a molecular level in your system and could suddenly rise up at any moment and kill you. We all had our theories, most of them backed up by expedient science, and we all had stories oflong-lived chain smokers and non-smoking casualties. Paul had taken up smoking again. Why not? A few in the poker group kept up with him in a show of solidarity, or perhaps just simple addiction.

The theme of the evening was Paul, but the subtext was mortality. I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for the next day. A few of us talked about prostate issues or why MRIs were superior to X-rays, and watched the fireworks with our gift for metaphor. We gambled for a while in the casino but casinos are ultimately isolating; the acres of slot machines speak of pathology rather than fellowship. There isn’t much you can do at a casino that you can’t do online. The casino is already a virtual world; gamblers exist in their heads, in those impossible wins and addicting losses. Bert had flown up from Los Angeles for the event and quickly won $600 playing blackjack. But after listlessly wanderingthe casino floor for an hour we realized we were card players rather than gamblers;we prized fellowship over winning. We went up to the suite and played poker until 3 a.m.

I got up at six to get into Toronto in time for my paranoid lung X-ray and was surprised to find that the commuter traffic extended all the way to Niagara Falls. In the two-and-a-half hour crawl I wondered about those around me. If they knew they only had a year to live would they spend five hours a day in their cars listening to Talking Books and perky DJs? They might, because they might not have a choice. Middle age is often more about living with choices than making them.

As Paul passed the six month mark, the low side of his life expectancy, the thought intruded: Could this be our last poker game? The settings became more varied. One night we played in an artist’s studio that had been created in old streetcar maintenance barns. There were thirteen guys at two huge tables pulled together. The Irish writer Roddy Doyle, a friend of Paul’s who was in town, was there. The bigger the game, the larger the pot, so there was a certain excitement to thirteen players. But the collegiality suffers. Like an over-large dinner party, the conversation was necessarily Balkanized. We couldn’t chat comfortably as a group, we couldn’t all agree that X’s last book was a disappointment, that Y shouldn’t have won that prize, that Z is a derivative twit. In too large a group, all you’re left with is the cards and their perversity.

After a flop (the first three communal cards dealt face up in Texas Hold ‘Em), I was one card away from a straight flush, needing only the eight of diamonds. It’s a classic sucker’s bet trying to draw to an inside straight, and my possible flush was a low one in a crowded field. Still, the betting had been listless and I decided I’d take a chance. But then the betting suddenly caught fire, and a flurry of big, somewhat irrational raises knocked me out. The Turn (the fourth communal card dealt face-up) produced rabid betting. Then came the River; it was the eight of diamonds. The pot was huge. It would have been mine had I stayed in. To have played the hand would have taken a combination of optimism and stupidity, but to lose it was crushing.

Our last game was on December 28, 2009, when we rented a suite at an expensive hotel. Paul had two oxygen bottles with him; the hose came undone when we were walking up and we fumbled to put it back in. He was in good spirits and had a Falstaffian appetite, drinking two bottles of wine and eating twice what I did. He said he had trouble getting up stairs and would be getting the good drugs soon. Paul looked remarkably good—he’d lost neither weight nor hair (people would come up and say, Well, you don’t look like you have cancer). This kept us happily deceived, although it didn’t take much; who wants to explore that cul-de-sac? By 1 a.m. Paul still seemed strong. I wasn’t sure if it was a point of pride or if he was in better shape than I thought, or perhaps he simply didn’t want to sleep and miss whatever time was left.

Three weeks later, in the middle of the night, Paul removed his oxygen mask, whispered something inaudible to his best friend Marty and his wife Dorothy (who he had divorced and remarried) and quietly stopped breathing. The next day his body was in an upstairs room in his house and I went to see him. Because of all the worlds he inhabited—fisherman, novelist, musician, playwright among them—he had circles of friends that were more or less mutually exclusive. When I arrived at his wake there were forty people milling about and I only knew three of them. Paul was in a back bedroom, sitting in a chair. He had a white blanket around his shoulders, as if he were cold. His head was down, his hand resting on his leg. His skin had begun its darkening pallor, though even with this blunt evidence it was difficult to accept that he was dead.

Mourning is visceral. The life of a man, a piece of ourselves, a view of the future. It all came flooding out. There was laughter coming from the living room downstairs, people remembering moments, anecdotes, fishing trips. Upstairs a combination of smiles and heaving sobs and red eyes with Paul as the centrepiece, his wife running her hands through his hair before the cremators came to claim him. I began sobbing, surprising myself, and I quickly left and sat in my car for half an hour, thinking about Paul.

It occurred to me that I didn’t really know him that well. I used to see him at the poker games and around the neighbourhood and at literary events, maybe a dozen times a year. We went to the same New Year’s Eve party each year. Occasionally, after his divorce, I would see him with a lovely new girlfriend, a woman in her thirties that any mother would describe as suitable and any fifty-year-old would describe as young. They would be shopping for something intimate,like dark chocolate. But the next time I saw Paul, she, like her predecessors,was gone. I was never sure whether to envy or pity his late-onset romantic intrigue.

By our fifties, most of our romantic intrigues are behind us, and painful though they sometimes were (incredibly, excruciatingly) they were entertaining in a twisted, William Blake kind of way. I tended to learn something from those break-ups once I got past the take-up-smoking again, mopey, drive-by-her-apartment-at-midnight phase. Some kind of epiphany usually lurked.

People make the same argument for the physical betrayals that arrive like swallows in spring, that the suffering or the battle has been illuminating. Though what it often illuminates is simply mortality and its fearful stepchild, regret. Why didn’t I spend more time with my children or my spouse? Why didn’t I write that novel or compose that symphony or stick with that dark-haired girl? Perhaps I shouldn’t have given my life to the Motor Vehicles Branch. Though writers and artists often arrive at this same point; was it worth it? It is a life that often involves freedom and economic deprivation. Who is more free, the poet or the teacher who retires comfortably at fifty-five?

Paul’s friend Marty told Paul that his life had essentially been what many people would do if they were told they had a year to live: write that novel, play that music, go on that exotic fishing trip, have that fling. It was a full life and a graceful exit. Who could ask for more? Though we all do; we want more time.

Sitting in the car outside Paul’s house, I remembered a line from The Boy on the Back of the Turtle, “I am by nature a private man, even with more wine inside me than is absolutely necessary.” Despite his boundless collegiality, he wasn’t an easy man to know.

After Paul’s death, Nino wrote, “One of the paradoxes of his personality was that as close as you felt to him, there always seemed doors in him you could never quite open, as if there was always someone else, some other friend, who was the truer confidant. That other confidant, I think, was his work, for which he saved the most crucial part of himself.”

Saving the most crucial part of yourself for anything is risky. Like love, writing is both sustaining and frustrating. It can die without warning.

It was cold in the car and I sat there and watched people walk down First Street heading toward Paul’s house, some of whom I knew, others I’d never seen before. I had a series of images in my head: Paul in a tuxedo smoking a cigar; jogging in the park during one of his sporadic health kicks; playing and singing at the Irish pub up the street with his band, the Porkbelly Futures; walking down King Street in his overcoat with his oxygen tanks, looking lordly.

We assemble people in death. The pieces we didn’t know, stories we hadn’t heard, small heroisms, minor transgressions. That was what the people in the house were doing while I sat in the car. More stories would come out in the weeks and months afterward; the dead still grow. And there are his books, of course. “Books are not absolutely dead things,” John Milton wrote optimistically, “but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” But mostly I sat there thinking about Paul’s distinctive voice,its deadpan tone at the poker table declaring that while he didn’t have anything really, he was still going to bet, just to see the cards.

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