Every word of this is true.

The parabolas north and south met in the middle over Greenville, South Carolina. One began over the northern states and drooped down across the Mason Dixon line. The other crept up from the Gulf of Mexico. Even with the television sound muted, it was clear the weatherman was telling us to expect something akin to apocalypse. Then he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “But hey, whatta I know, right?”

As the bread and milk aisles filled up in the grocery store, scientists from around the world prepared to release their report on global warming. The predictions told us that billions of people would suffer from water shortages while my son is still alive. Chaos and disaster, man-made, but wrought by nature, they will say.

The smiling man in the expensive suit says my town will freeze over before Thursday. The wild-haired scientists say my world will fall into global warming chaos shortly after I die.

I’m going to go to a Pragmatic Play game.

***

My head was numb and it took me three trips to the car and back into the house to get everything I needed to take with me. The air was frigid–cold enough to keep the drinks in the garage cool and cold enough to remind me that I’d forgotten my jacket. I didn’t go back, instead choosing to shiver my way down the dark highway, hitting every red light as I sped–late–toward the underground room.

Three hours after the room got rolling, I didn’t expect to find a seat when I was buzzed in. The parking lot was full and the room was loud. I was surprised to find the two seat at the second table open. I slid my money to the dealer and pushed myself down on an uncomfortable chair.

The atmosphere was unremarkable, at first. Even when I called a short-stack’s all in and hit runner-runner to bust his made under-boat, I found no pleasure in it. My opponent, however, looked pained, as if the small amount of money he lost would somehow change his future.

Future, I thought. Which future is that?

***

The door at this game is held tight behind a deadbolt. The windows are covered in black plastic and the parking lot is dark. It’s both a bunker and a shelter. It protects the players from eyes that shouldn’t see, and it is a place to hide from the other world–the world where real jobs, real families, and real friends reside. Someone has to recognize your face to let you in. When you go out, the door locks behind you.

Though the room is big, it suddenly seemed full.

A cheer erupted from the table closest to the door and somebody yelled, “Jackpot!” The man in the one-seat held a suited 6-9 and made his ten-high straight flush to win the high-hand jackpot. The man who runs the game announced how much the one-seat had won. Everyone applauded and cursed their bad luck.

***

I was getting no action. I was bored. Something in my head pushed $25 into the pot, an open raise in a straddled pot with the hammer, both cards red. The flop came 77Q. We went check, check. The turn was an ace. My opponent led, I raised. He called. The river was a seven. My opponent put out a blocking bet, I raised anyway, he called reluctantly. I didn’t wait for him to table his hand. I turned over the hammer, shrugged as if to say, “Whatta I know, right?” and silently stacked my chips in concert with the table’s tribal chant of “Ham-mer, ha-mer, ham-mer!”

By the time I left the room, I would have forgotten this even happened.

***

The Jester spoke through a mouth of rocks. Though always talking, he might as well have been speaking in tongues, a devotee of August Busch and whatever other assorted manufactured pharmaceuticals he’d found that day.

Though it was below freezing outside, he wore flip-flops, baggy shorts, a wrinkled shirt, and an ear-flapped hunter’s cap. He danced with the music, played air guitar with ping-pong paddles, and spoke in his own language–one I’ve come to call Boomhauer.

I could not understand a word he said. Even if he was standing five feet away and speaking slowly, he was as incomprehensible in speech as the action at the table was in terms of real poker. But every once in a while, he would get up from the table, go over to the side of the room, and start playing guitar. His voice was strong and, suddenly, like Mel Tillis’ transformation from stuttering doofus to country crooner, The Jester was an artist, a bard, a minstrel.

***

Out of the more than 30 people playing and milling around the room, only one of them was a woman. Blonde-haired and beautiful, her innocent face belied her body’s frame. Every male eye followed the cocktail waitress as she moved from player to player, checking on drinks, and giving the players whatever they needed to ply their spirits.

Whether it was the woman in the green tank top, the game of poker itself, or the bunker mentality, the lady’s movements seemed to be the only thing binding the players to their seats. Would but that she could stay, the eight-way pots in hands that have been raised and re-raised to 20 times the big blind might just stay in a locale we could call sane and real.

She sat down quietly next to the game’s owner. Though she’d been working her ass off for the past eight hours, her face still looked clean and serene, if only a little troubled. It was as if she knew what would happen if she left, but she knew she had to go.

She tapped her watch and said, just barely loud enough for me to hear it, “Looks like it’s about that time.”

***

Tuesday had turned into Wednesday. There are those who believe the sun and moon were created on Wednesday. Mickey Mouse told us, “Wednesday is Anything Can Happen Day.” To me, it still felt like Tuesday.

My table was the boring one, the one where the jackpots weren’t getting hit, the one where the inability to combat the turn and river made all post-flop play tiresome.

The Jester’s table was different. There was life, hope, and laughter. The jackpot had given the table a different spirit. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw nearly everybody at The Jester’s table stand up at once. Not involved in a hand, I stood and went to take a look.

The chips in the middle of the table sat in piles of green and red, an extraordinarily big pot, making up much of the wealth at the table. The flop was all middle cards with two clubs. Two players were already all-in and Mr. Jackpot was thinking. Finally, he called, making the single pot bigger than his jackpot winnings for the night.

He tabled 56 of clubs, for an open ended straight draw and low club draw. One opponent turned over pocket kings. The Jester did not reveal his cards, but I saw them as he peeled them up. He held A7 of clubs for the nut flush draw.

The drama was over quickly. A red four on the turn and no club on the river pushed the entire pot to Mr. Jackpot.

That did it. Like the breaking of the seventh seal, like Richie Valens’ plane going down, like that late night phone call to tell you somebody is dead, a line had been crossed. Nothing would be the same, even if we couldn’t immediately figure out the difference.

Although there were thousands upon thousands of dollars on the table, nothing seemed to matter much to the players anymore. Raises of any size were called in seven or eight spots. Pot-sized bets were called with abandon. Chips moved back and forth, formed into huge towers, and collapsed just as fast. Sodom, Gomorrah, and Skull Island had nothing on the chaos inside that little room.