Opossum Society

My grandfather was a big card gambler, and told us a lot of wild stories from his traveling youth. He mostly kept to five-card stud and was a master at bluffing — given the nature of most of his stories and how we believed them, I guess he was at least telling the truth about that.

The story that stuck with me had happened in the summer of 1940, he said. He was on furlough and visiting his parents a few miles east of Ichor Falls. Landlocked and bored, he overheard at some dive that there was all-night gambling at a nearby Indian reservation, maybe Moneton or Mattaponi, I forget which. The story was that a local group of investors calling themselves “the Opossum Society” gathered there one night a month and talked big policy and local events; the things that had made them wealthy. Intrigued, my grandfather caught a ride near there, and walked a couple miles on foot the rest of the way.

Two things to remember about my grandfather: he was as slick and charming as anything, and he hated to play sober. He said they poured strong drinks there, and by the time he had the courage to wander over to the lone table where anyone was still playing, he was worried they’d kick him out for being too drunk. But he must have turned on the charm, because after twenty minutes or so, he’d been invited to sit down.

The game was five-card stud. My grandfather didn’t have much money, but he hung on in the early hands, and after an hour or so, he had a tidy pile of chips in front of him, to the surprise of the others.

The night wore on, the talk was lively and the drinks kept coming. An old woman came around with a tray of shots of whiskey, which she placed in front of each player. Each raised their glasses, and one man made a toast: “To the Opossum Society, and to new friends.” They all drank and the dealer continued with a new hand.

My grandfather said the tone of the game changed. All the din of small talk and high conversation was replaced with the quiet shuffling of cards, and the clinking of chips. Sensing this, my grandfather bet conservatively — but it became increasingly difficult as the pot grew.

Finally deciding the most he’d be out was the money he walked in with, he went all in on the next hand. The entire table called, and the cards came down. Although there was a clear winner, and it wasn’t my grandfather, all eyes on the table turned to one of the other players, who had trash cards and no chips left. Sweating, he plead with the dealer, the others in the society, even the old Indian woman.

“You know the rules,” said the winner. At this, the losing player burst into tears and, knocking over his stool, ran out of the place whimpering and moaning.

The other players congratulated my grandfather, saying he’d played a good game, and that he had an open invitation to play next time they gathered. The old woman came around with another tray of shots and set them down, when my grandfather said, “no more for me, thanks, I’ve got to get home.” But she insisted he drink. He asked why.

The winning player leaned in and told him.

“It’s the antidote.”

—Based on a dream my dad told me he had.

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