The Folded Flag – Part 3

Second fold. Also lengthwise. A representation of our belief in eternal life. It’s odd to think how deeply religious the roots of this symbolism are when so many men and women in the ranks have absolutely no religious inclinations. “Our belief in eternal life.” I didn’t even have a belief in eternal life before I met Levi Habanero.

 

Pepper was good at poker. And I don’t mean just good, I mean like Maverick, hide-all-your-money-and-jewelry good. The first time he played, he completely cleaned us all out in such a short amount of time I thought it must have been a fluke. It was no fluke. But it wasn’t the fact that he was good at poker that threw us, so much as it was the way in which he played. He didn’t concentrate on the game. He seemed to throw cards haphazardly and make on the spot decisions without any forethought or attention to anyone else. He always had a story going, and for all of his odd quirks that we liked to attack, Pepper told great stories. We could always tell when he was really getting into a story because he would pull his glasses off the top of his head and start gesturing with them. He would wave them around in wild motions, stab them in sharp jabs at someone to make a point, or chew on the end of one of the earpieces in a thoughtful manner. We all knew that he was doing it strictly to distract us, but somehow we always got pulled in none-the-less. I don’t know how many of them were true stories, but we never heard the end of any of them. We would all become so wrapped up in what he was saying, we wouldn’t realize how many people were out of the game. Pepper would keep going, right up to the very end. He would throw in his request for cards, his raises in bets in such a manner that we heard what he said, but he barely interrupted the flow of the story. He would keep talking until the last person was out, and then he would stop dead; it didn’t matter if he was in the middle of a sentence or at the most critical element of the tale. He just stopped. We always knew the game was over, not because we were aware that everyone was out and not because we had no money left, but rather because the story ceased. Pepper would push his cards into the middle of the table, stand, calmly collect the pile of cash, then nod at us and walk off with that smug and amused smile of his that always made me laugh…usually at my own expense. We would all be left sitting there, a little disoriented, not caring so much that the game was over, but wanting to hear the end of the story. We tried to ban him from talking during the poker games, but that didn’t work. He had incredible one-liners and as soon as he opened his mouth, we were hooked. I tried talking him into writing a book once, called “Poker Stories.” He just shrugged and told me that wasn’t really his type of thing. I should have written some of his stories down: I could have been rich by now. Then again, I didn’t know the end to any of the tales, and I don’t think many people would buy a book full of half-stories.

The first time I found the money on my pillow, I was confused. I had lost fifty-eight dollars to Pepper that night. It was only the second time we had played and I had lost almost as much to him the time before. I was moving to fall into an exhausted heap on my bed when I spotted the neatly folded green and white bills on my pillow. I picked them up, unfolded the middle crease and began thumbing through them. There was one hundred and four dollars in the stack. I was nonplussed. I was not expecting money from any source: no one owed me anything. I couldn’t figure it. So I tucked the money away with plans to solve the mystery the next day. And solve it I did.

It was when the other men that we had played poker with mentioned the oddity of finding money on their pillows the night before that I began to put the pieces together. I started adding up the amount I had lost to Pepper in the two games, and my blood started roiling. I don’t know why it got to me so badly, but something about Pepper’s simple action rubbed me completely the wrong way. The first free chance I got that day, I went in search of him. Unfortunately for Pepper, I didn’t get a free chance for most of the day. In that time my unfounded anger mounted more and more, especially every time I caught sight of him. When I finally found him, he was sitting quietly, scrawling out a letter to someone. He was actually wearing his glasses, which it seemed he only did to read and write. I marched over and shoved the folded bills down behind the one lens of his glasses. He jerked violently, whether from surprise or from the slight jab to his eye from the corner of the money, I don’t know, but I obtained a small sense of satisfaction from his flinch. He looked up at me and if I had not been in such a rage, the hilarity of him looking at me with one eye while the other was hidden by a stack of bills that stuck above the rim of his glasses would have made me laugh. As it was, I just stared at him, trying to rip into him with my gaze like bullets from an M4 Carbine. Pepper reached up and gently tugged the money out. He never looked at it, but kept his gaze trained on me.

“Something wrong, Thatch?” He was the only one who called me “Thatch” and for some reason that also got under my skin. If it had been anyone but him, this nickname would not have bothered me. I think it just irked me that this odd kid felt he had the right to be so familiar with me that he shortened my last name. Poor Pepper. It didn’t help his case at the moment.

“What are you doing, Habanero?” Unfortunately, my attempt to sound threatening by using his last name fell flat. All I could think of was, “like the pepper,” and for a moment I fumbled with my thoughts. I picked up steam quickly, though, and before he had a chance to answer I blasted on.

“Do you think I need charity? You think I need your kind-heartedness to survive? You don’t give back money you win! This isn’t some family or blasted church function! This is the military. Get that thought through your head and start acting like it.” With a final growl, I turned on my heel and stormed out, not caring that neither my complaints nor my means of expressing them really made sense. Pepper sat there, holding the money loosely in his hand and looking a little puzzled, but calm. He was always calm. That bugged me too.

That night, as I went to fall into bed, I spotted the money back on my pillow, folded just as neatly, with a placating note beside it. It said: “I took a percentage.” There was one hundred and three dollars. For some reason, despite my previous outrage, I found myself smiling at the gesture.

We fell into a routine after that, playing poker as often as we could. Pepper would win almost invariably, and at the end of every week, each of us would find a pile of the exact amount we had lost on our pillows. I don’t know how he kept up with what he got from everyone. The kid must have had a head for numbers. I quit trying to give the money back, and for some reason, it didn’t seem to bother me any longer. I asked him about it though. He was in the barracks one afternoon when I found my money. He must have set it out early. As I picked it up and tucked it back in my wallet, I said,

“Why do you do that, anyway?” Pepper looked up at me with mild surprise, probably because I didn’t actually speak to him very often. He cocked his head to the side and regarded me.

“Well,” he said. “You guys won’t even consider the possibility of not playing for money, so I have to take it from you initially. But then, I don’t need it, so why should I keep it? I figure it makes everyone happier if I just give it back.” He tactfully ignored my initial reaction, which had been anything but “happy”.

“Most people like getting additional money, you know.” I admit, the statement was probably a little more patronizing than it needed to be. Pepper shrugged his shoulders and held out his hands, palms up, in a questioning manner.

“What do I need it for? I have enough money for now. I’ll make enough money as a PJ to keep me alive, and if I die, I can’t take money with me into the afterlife, so…” he let the sentence hang and shrugged again, then grabbed his boots and started to put them on so he could leave.

“You believe in an afterlife?” I asked. Normally I would have been ready to mock someone for this apparent lack in logical thinking, but for some reason, with Pepper, I was just curious to know his answer.

“Absolutely,” he said. “An everlasting one.” He slanted a look at me as he tied one of his boots. “Do you?” I shook my head.

“Nope. I think there are a million reasons why God can’t exist, and I think He and everything associated with Him is a bunch of propaganda, fed to people by those who want an easy way out from facing the truths of life. Your afterlife, and heaven and hell are just a part of that.” In a way, I was just stating the facts, but in a way, I was trying to get a rise out of him too. Most of the religious die-hards I had met before would be as tense as a snake ready to strike, now, and would jump all over me. I almost wanted to see Pepper lose his cool. But that wasn’t his style. When he simply tugged on his other boot, I narrowed my gaze.

“Well, aren’t you going to jump in here now and tell me that I’m wrong, and you’re right, and how I need to listen to you or I’m going to spend an eternity in hell?”

“No,” he said simply, tying his second boot. I raised my eyebrows, and couldn’t help but ask,

“Why not?” Finished with his second boot, Pepper put his foot on the floor. He rested his arms against his legs, leaned forward, and studied me thoughtfully.

“You’re entitled to your opinion, just as I am to mine. Me telling you that you’re wrong won’t profit anything. But think about this, Thatch,” he stood and moved over closer to me. “We can’t both be right. Our views are mutually exclusive. And we won’t know with absolute certainty who is right until we die. So, when I die, if I’m wrong, oh well. My belief hasn’t hurt me any, and I won’t even know that I’m wrong. But what happens if you’re wrong?” He gave me an intense look for a moment, then gently slapped me on the shoulder and walked out, leaving me to answer the question on my own.

 

– S.D. Bullard

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~ by sdbullard on April 15, 2012.

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