Rule Four: Never, ever go on tilt.
Remember those old-school pinball machines that would sometimes get a ball jammed, and when you shook the machine or otherwise went crazy to get it dislodged, the display would light up with the message TILT until an attendant could come and reset it? TILT meant something had gone haywire and nothing good would happen until a reset occurred.
“Tilt” is a phrase that gamblers use to signify when Juan Valdez fucks, strangles, and then eats his donkey and wears its head around town for a hat, all because his big shipment of coffee … got fucked up, I don’t know, whatever bad thing happens to coffee shipments. It’s when a player with pocket Aces loses his shit after getting beat by some idiot’s 3-8 offsuit because the flop, turn, and river come down A-K-3-8-8 because some people never, ever fold and luck into these situations. They’re called fish, donks, and all manner of other unkind names, but they will have the “W” in their column that time and the poker Ph.D will not.
When you’ve got the absolute nuts on a hand, it’s a great time to start teasing fellow players, trying to make them angry and annoyed, do anything you can put them on tilt and off their game. Occasionally it’s a great idea to stay in a hand with shit cards (like that 3-8 off) on the slight chance that you can catch weird pairs or a straight and make your opponent lose his mind. The difference is that the fish just does this because that’s how a fish plays, not knowing a thing about pot odds or when to stay in a hand or fold—the poker pro is playing a completely different kind of game in addition to Hold’em. The poker pro knows that this will transform otherwise excellent players into gibbering, furious balls of impulsivity.
Tilt is what makes that pushed-to-the-limit cardsharp go all-in on every single hand until he loses everything, then go out and get drunk and land in jail for DUI as well as for trying to punch the arresting officer in her Kevlar-protected tits because the winning 3-8 fish was also a woman and GODDAMNIT WOMEN.
That’s “tilt.” It is invariably fatal, either to your poker game or in what passes these days for “real life.”
Example: Couple of years ago, I was compadres with a self-styled zombie hunter calling himself “Dildo ‘B.B.’ Baggins.” (Yes, a nickname within a pseudonym. I didn’t say he was any good at self-styling. And why not “D.D.”? You’ll find out soon.) If you’re old enough to remember reality TV, you’d remember his real name in two seconds from the sharpshooter show he hosted on ManTV, making straight women swoon and straight men rethink their orientation. He was absolutely the greatest shooter I ever saw. I witnessed that son of a motherless goat shoot more than a few wobbly shamblers right between their empty eyes. He did this, time and time again, from more than fifty feet away. While we were running the opposite direction. The guy was unflappable when it came to knocking down revenants like they were undead tin ducks at a county fair shooting gallery.
His other interest was pussy.
Dil said that the only reasons he bothered surviving were shooting zombies and getting laid. It was hard to argue with this viewpoint, or really find any fault with the chisel-featured Dildo (other than maybe his moniker, but whatever). I saw him as the most rock-solid, coolest cat ever to come down from Chillsville. Nothing threw this guy is what I’m trying to say, okay?
This was when I still, even after years of living in an undead world, might piss myself over seeing more than two zombies together at one time. So Dildo usually had the added distraction of me muttering in terror not too far from his ear while he was trying to cap the walkers, too. He had nerves of absolute steel, fibers which were cooled by blood composed entirely of iced vodka, and this was back when most cities had already fallen, with nine out of ten “people” you encountered to be mortuo homine ambulans , but out in the California mountains it was pretty clear. Hell, by the time we happened upon that camper settlement at Big Bear Lake, I hadn’t actually seen a free-range walker in more than a year and occasionally allowed myself to hope that humanity had somehow beaten back the undead, that somehow we had gone and won this World War Weird.
Then we’d stop to play cards or trade at some little encampment and learn that our species hadn’t won a damned thing. Solar-powered or hand-crank radios still picked up nothing but static. Tribe members looking to trade for supplies or just get information either came back with bad news or didn’t come back at all. If these little enclaves were lucky and their envoy did make it back, much of the time the poor bastard was stripped naked, relieved of any trading materials, and sometimes abused so viciously he walked sideways and dripped a trail of blood. (That might considered in itself an example of “bad news,” by the way.)
Anyway, young Dildo and I were kind of trading services in those days, with me playing cards and getting us food and whatnot and Dil providing us protection with his two holstered pistols, one slung rifle, one fully-stocked bandolier, and these velcro leg pack things stuffed full of ammo that made walking easier than a backpack full of ordnance would have. (Also, his backpack had juggling balls and porn and such in it already. Not all trading materials had to be what economist types used to call “intrinsically valuable.”)
Dil and my own bad self tracked through some forest roads—hard for zoms to notice you through the trees, and they don’t give a shit about deer—and ended up at Big Bear Lake, me looking for a game and him looking for a young lady upon whom he could express his appreciation of enthusiasm for life in general and the female form in particular. Mountain lake enclaves were always iffy—on the one hand, they were beautiful and offered relative shelter from zombies thanks to their “vacation getaway” isolation and those trees; but on the other, if some undead pals did somehow manage to stumble down the access road, you’d better be a fantastic climber or a damned good swimmer if you wanted to keep your “survivor” status, because it’s up the mountain or into the drink with you.
Undead danger notwithstanding, the RVs and little lake homes that comprised this particular encampment made for the perfect place for Dildo and me to while away a little bit of the end of the world. There was one young nubile thing walking around in lake de rigeur bikini top and cutoffs, with her shiny brown hair and slight tan making her look like she was at summer camp instead of waiting for ghouls to come and eat everyone she loved. However, she didn’t look quite old enough for me to do anything but gaze wistfully—I kept a strict over-18 policy that had served me well after countless poker tourneys, since only gambling-age and older were allowed to hang out at casinos anyway. But by not dipping my wick into minors—even though the legal niceties of statutory rape no longer applied in this lawless new world—I helped myself avoid awkwardness with any well-heeled parents I was trying to keep in a good mood so I could beat them senseless at an evening’s game. Since there were middle-aged men in a fifth-wheel RV who were starving for a challenge at the dining- slash -card table after playing for matchsticks with the same three people for years on end, getting laid was not high on my agenda that evening anyway.
Dildo, on the other hand, would take to bed any girl who had hit puberty—if she had actual tits or anything even approaching an hourglass shape, even if she was essentially still a stringbean, he was right there with his underwear model good looks and a libido hungrier than any ten zombies. So he zeroed in immediately on the bikini-and-cutoffs girl, who with her dimples had to have one of the sweetest faces I’d ever seen, like something out of that old TV show Petticoat Junction . She was making out with Dil right there in the middle of the road before they said two words to each other. Darkness was falling but you could see their hands running up and down and around each other like they thought this might the last shot at sex with a hottie for both of them.
I was ensconced in the fifth-wheel RV already when two of the three gentleman with whom I was seated and about to pokerate craned their necks to gander at the pheromone-drenched sight outside. The girl’s name was Caroline, and her father was Mack, the third gentleman I sat with and the only one of us not watching. He shook his head ruefully as he looked up just in time to see my handsome-but-obviously-dog-horny friend get led by young Caroline into one of those little pop-up campers, no doubt headed right for the full-size bed that took up one entire side.
For a few seconds Mack stared into the encroaching gloom—the white pop-up wouldn’t be visible in a few more minutes—but his face was utterly blank, without the slightest sign of what was going on in his mind. (If that poker face was his actual poker face, I was in trouble.)
Finally, Mack removed his gaze from the window, returning to us with a sad shake of his head, and said to me, “Zombies changed that girl.”
Then he shrugged, motioned for me to hand over my plastic cards (which I did—he wouldn’t run far with that beefy frame jammed in between the bolted-down table and curved bench seat). Like an old Vegas hand, he riffle-shuffled the deck three times quick, burned a card off the top, and shot us each two cards face-down. He obviously knew his way around a deck of cards, which was a refreshing change from the half-wits I sometimes had to let deal, but it also put me on guard against bottom-dealing or other advantage shenanigans. Remember, folks: No gambler is too holy to cheat if he feels the need.
Zombies changed that girl. To me, the sentence lingered there like a noxious fart that only got worse the more you tried to wave it away. However, the two other middle-agers, both remaining chunky-style like Mack despite the deprivations others may have been suffering (which bode well for any food prizes I might collect), just peeked at their hole cards and waited for the flop.
So I said to Mack, equal parts anxious for Dil’s safety and trying to be polite, “The, um, zombies … ? They didn’t get to her, did they? Like, recently?” It wasn’t really a question so much as a request for reassurance. “She didn’t just take my friend back for a last romp as a human before she turns, did she? I’ve seen girls who are desperate to have an experience before they—”
Mack chuckled mirthlessly. “No, nothing like that. She’s no virgin, far from it. Your boy’s isn’t gonna get bit or anything, although he could’ve bought her dinner or shook my hand before he went back to tap her.”
At this the other two men, one with a big red beard and the other with salt-and-pepper hair that looked like it was cut using a bowl and a sharp rock, exchanged a look and a little laugh, probably less out of mirth and more out of politeness to their friend whose daughter was at that moment experiencing how appropriately Dildo had nicknamed himself. (Note to the post-zomboc reader: Back when manufacturing artificial penii was still a going concern, they didn’t bother making a lot of small ones.)
“I, uh … hell, man,” I said, and it didn’t sound half as coherent as it may seem written here. I lifted the corner of my plastic hole cards—everybody always wanted to use my beautiful once they were convinced they weren’t marked (which they weren’t)—and saw the suited K-Q. Quite the nice open—against three opponents, I already stood a 35 percent chance of winning the round. But I pushed my cards toward the center, even though I was in position and had those excellent cards. “I fold.”
All three of my new buddies looked distressed, then apologetic. “Hey, Chris, you don’t need to feel bad about Caroline,” Mack said, “she fucks absolutely everyone who comes through Great Bear Lake.”
“Or who lives here,” the red-bearded guy said.
“That, too,” Mack added, shooting Redbeard a look. “Not me, of course. Zombies or no zombies, I’m a father first.”
“Not a lot of men with hot daughters can say that,” the gray-haired guy said in a supportive tone, apparently unabashed about making lusty appraisals of Mack’s daughter or noting the fact that everybody for miles around had apparently sampled her wares, “not after the undead assholes ruined everything. Some men just gave up and started taking advantage any way they could, even of their own families. People got changed , even if they never got bit.”
“Yeah, that’s a fact,” Mack said to me. “Everybody changed, families changed, friends changed. And my little Caroline sure changed. Don’t feel like you got to make up for it.” He slid back the cards I had just folded. “She’s done every man come through here over the past three years after what happened to her in the lake. ”
That sat there like a sandbag, so I said, “What, um, was it that happened?”
“Fucking underwater zombies,” Redbeard muttered. “One year after the decide not tostay dead anymore,start pulling their shit, a teenage girl can’t even take a goddamn swim in her Daddy’s lake.”
Alarmed, I couldn’t help shooting a look out to the waterline, which was visible through the RV window behind Redbeard.
“Nah, don’t worry about them now, man,” Grayhair said. “We trawled the whole fucking thing with nets after. Threw back all the fish—they wouldn’t keep anyway, not without power—and did a backwoods trepanning on every goddamn soggy walker we dragged up.
“What happened was one tried to get Caroline—the fucker grabbed her ankle as she tried to pull herself up into the rowboat. By reflex and panic, since she was still half in the water and could feel it was a hand and not a fish mouth or drifting plant, she kicked out hard at whatever had clamped onto her ankle. She said that as soon as she kicked out blindly with the heel of her foot, she could still feel the rotten hand still gripping tight but the pulling stopped. She hauled herself into the dinghy and there it was around her ankle—a rotted hand attached to a rotted arm that wasn’t attached to anything anymore.”
“She kicked the zom so hard it ripped his stinking arm off,” Redbeard added with a chuckle, but the laugh died on his lips almost immediately. “We went down and ended that fucker’s suffering, but after that incident, Caroline never was right in the head again. Started drinking and acting … well, maybe a bit overly friendly to the men in our little camp here.”
“Overly friendly, huh? Like you weren’t the first in line to fuck her,” Mack spat out with a murderous stare at Redbeard, and everything froze. Was there going to be a throwdown right here before the first hand had even been played? Then Mack’s stern look broke into a smile and he laughed, which released nervous laughter from the rest of us at the table. “Hell, I’m just glad she’s still alive, that she’s got a way to cope with all this End of Days shit. Her mom …” he said, and choked a little.
The two other guys nodded somberly and gave Mack some manly bops in the arm and thoroughly masculine supportive claps on the shoulder. I took it that his wife—Caroline’s mother—had not found a way to cope with the 24/7 horror show of the zombocalypse and thus had taken it upon herself to check out early.
“I got my fishing,” he continued, “these guys have their vices like drinking and fucking their friends’ teenage daughters , but my wife lost her mind—I mean, her whole brain clocked out and never came back for another shift the first time she got cornered by the walking dead bodies of her vacation lake friends and had to bash in one of their heads from two feet away. That was in the first wave, three years ago. We had come up for a quick dip and cookout, just like a dozen other families. All of them are dead or undead or whatever now. Since that day I’ve never left Bear Lake except on supply runs. My wife, Caroline’s mom, she never ate or drank anything voluntarily again. We forced it on her as much as we could, but within a couple of months she was dead.”
Everyone sat at the little table, looking at the backs of their two cards, nobody speaking or moving. Through the window behind me I could hear the pop-up squeaking in rhythm.
To be honest, I have been present at even less fun poker tables.
But shit .
“So you can where Caroline got it from, the losing her mind thing. Like her mom when she had to kill her book club friends, after Caroline got grabbed in the lake she just said fuck the world and then proceeded to do exactly that,” Mack finished, and looked at each of us in turn.
“Can I ask a question?” I asked, a question.
Mack nodded in a way not unlike a cat sniffing its own fresh feces.
“How is she not pregnant? Or, like, sexually infected?” See, I was unable not to think about what teenagers did when they realized the zombies’ march was not going to stop and we were all going to die, or worse. I had seen so many in LA want to go out in a blaze of glory and so put on their headphones, cranked up something suitably metal, and went surfing on their skateboards into the biggest undead cluster of rotting teeth and jagged nails they could find. Might as well get eaten while I can still choose it myself , maybe they thought. And maybe sweet Caroline thought I might as well get every fucking flavor of VD I can and get knocked up before I die horribly anyway or go nuts like Mom. Why not?
I could almost hear her despair. It was beyond me to contradict her. At least she was bringing happiness to the men she took to bed, right? But after registering what I had just asked, first Mack started shaking with laughter, and then Redbeard and Grayhair caught the giggles, all three of them laughing hard, eyes squeezed shut and streaming tears of hilarity, in a matter of seconds.
“What?” I said, smiling despite myself, despite the horror. “Why are you—”
“ She’s hotter with the clap than a Gold Rush whore!” Mack managed to squeeze out between titanic guffaws. “These guys’ll tell ya—they’ve been oozing and itching and boiling for years—they got to go in the lake to try get some relief! Ha ha! Ha ha HA! HA! Oh Jesus, HAHAHAHA!”
Ooh, ouch, did that take the wind out of their sails. The men who had fucked young Caroline tried to force out a couple of more laughs, but I but they had both visibly paled and shared a miserable glance. They both, as subtly as possible, were scratching themselves, something I hadn’t noticed earlier but would have to see if I could use as a tell if we ever actually, you know, started playing poker . Mack wasn’t lying about the venereal diseases ravaging his daughter, then, and now he was having the greatest revenge paroxysm in the history of bitterness as he watched two of her lovers’ faces fall.
My own eyes grew wide as I turned in my chair and looked out at the little camper where Typhoid Caroline had just taken the resolutely horny B.B. Dildo for his Big Bear Lake roll in the hay. It was only a couple of minutes, I thought, so maybe they were still on foreplay? Did 17-year-old girls even require foreplay? Either way, Dildo had joked with me long before that the “B.B.” in his moniker stood for “bareback.”
Oh, no. I had to get over there and stop him before he—
“ Haw haw ha ha ha! ” Mack’s butcher-block face turned purple as he laughed and cried and tried to breathe and also kept looking at his poor infected friends who had fucked his 14-year-old darling daughter again and again as she grew into a woman. “And pregnant? No, sir—she hasn’t had a period in two years, how’s she gonna get pregnant with all that sickness in her lady parts!”
The proud papa practically screamed this last part and had to slap the table to control his laughter and try to coax at least a little bit of oxygen into his lungs.
“Okay, Mack, why don’t we play some cards, huh? We get the … the, um … joke …”
Grayhair trailed off as he noticed that the beefy RV owner who’d been laughing so hard wasn’t laughing anymore—but his face wasn’t getting any less purple and his eyes were bulging in exactly the way you hope your own never will.
“Aw, fuck!” Redbeard said, and tried to skootch around the little built-in RV kitchen table to get out and over to his friend. “He’s having a goddamn heart attack!”
I don’t know what Red was trying to do, but as soon as he tugged on Mack’s arm to get him up from the table and maybe onto the floor for CPR or something, Mack stopped struggling against his own asphyxiation, cocked his head up at his standing friend and then at his sitting friend, and let out one final, awful, brutal “HAAAA! ” At the end of that horrible sound, vomit mixed with black bile mixed with arterial blood projected all the way across the table and full into Grayhair’s shocked face, and Mack’s face smashed down onto the laminate. You could see the man was stone-cold dead even before the black blood started pooling in his ears.
The two men jumped around the kitchenette screaming “Oh, fuck! Oh, FUCK!” again and again while I hit the RV’s door running to get down to the little pop-up camper where Dildo and Caroline hopefully hadn’t yet gotten 100% busy.
I banged on the little metal half-door and the curtain almost instantly parted, Dildo sticking his sweaty red face ( oh, fuck ) out to look at me.
“What the hell’s going on in there?” Dil said with his usual casual amusement. “You hand them the all-time bad beat or what?”
“Did you guys do it? ”
Dil laughed and I could hear Caroline do the same. “Well, we didn’t come in here to do jigsaw puzzles.”
“But did you already? Did you fuck?”
Now Dil could see the fear on my face and dropped his smile. “Well, yeah, man. You get the easy one out of the way and then—”
“Let me in,” I said. “Pop the latch.”
I saw Dil look back at his camper partner and she said, “We can all party, baby.” He sort of smiled at that and let the curtain drop, then crawled over and opened the door for me to come inside.
“Dude, what is up with you?” he said with a little grin, a thin camping blanket around his waist. “You usually don’t go for the younger hotties.”
“Did you use a condom?”
“Me? B.B.? Man, don’t you remember what that means? Besides, there’s not exactly a CVS on every—”
“Did you use a fucking condom?”
His grin was gone. “No, I did not, Mister Sexual Hygiene.”
“Flick on the light in there,” I said, motioning toward the half of the pop-up with the bed in it. It was twilight outside but damned dark inside the camper.
“No!” Caroline squealed.
“What in the hell is going on?” Dildo whined in perfect confusion. He pulled the switch on the solar-battery LED lamp and motioned me to come into the “bedroom.” Caroline swathed herself in a second camping blanket now, shy for maybe the first time since the zombies took her mother and then her sanity three years earlier.
I wasn’t proud of myself or happy, but Dil needed to know what we had just … well, gotten himself into. “Look at her cooch,” I said. “Take off the blanket and look at her cooch.”
“Dude, we just fucked for like ten minutes—I don’t think Caroline is a guy, okay? It’s dark, not—”
“Do it. Do it now.”
Caroline started panicking as Dil turned to her and started to remove the only thing hiding her genitals. “Hey, no, that’s not cool! Stay away from me! You don’t get to—stop—!”
He swept the blanket off of her naked body and saw just what I was afraid of but expecting—a raw, pustule-mottled, angry red delta around and inside her entire pubic area and into the folds of her vagina.
“You said those were piercings!” Dil shouted, betrayal in his voice. “ What the fuck do you have? WHAT DID YOU JUST DO TO ME?!? ”
Still obviously freaked but suddenly also defiant, Caroline jutted out her dimpled face at my friend and said icily, “You got what you wanted, I got what Iwanted.”
“What you wanted? You wanted to infect me with … all that? ” he shrieked, pointing at her pestilent, pustulent pussy, and when Caroline let out a bitter laugh—looking a lot like her father in that moment, actually—Dildo hauled back and unloaded a punch to the face that bloodied her nose and instantly knocked her unconscious as she fell back onto the bed against the window screen of the pop-up. He looked like he wanted to do more, but I got an arm around him and held him back before he could do something I’d really regret. We stepped outside into the forest darkness. He had let go of the blanket and stood there naked and fuming.
“Dil, she’s sick, her mind’s gone, it’s not her fault—”
“ NOT HER FAULT? Dude, I live to fuck! Now I’m gonna have pus dripping out of my dick, I won’t even be able to get it up—if it doesn’t just turn black and fall off— fuck! I … I just …” He slowed mid-rant and then stopped, fixing me with a look that burrowed right into my soul, and said. “Wait, how did you know she was all VD’ed?”
Oh, hell. “It came up while we were playing poker, that’s all.”
Dil shot a look up at the RV, in which Redbeard and Grayhair were still stomping around and shouting, still trying to process that their pal just literally died laughing at their misfortune in a world without antibiotics or soothing ointments. (Goddamn lack of CVS again.)
“They knew?” he said to me with all the energy gone from his voice. Then he turned toward the RV and his rage resurfaced. “They knew. They knew! Motherfuckers knew she was a bag of disease , set me up to get my dick rotted off. Thought it was funny!”
“Man, listen, it wasn’t like that. I didn’t—”
“Not you , Chris. You tried to save me. They thought it was funny.” He stood stock-still for a few seconds, acid in his stare at the two men pacing inside the RV, alternately shouting at each other and embracing in manful support.
Then he ducked back into the pop-up, pulled out his trusty Winchester Model 70 rifle, and marched barefoot (and still bareback) to the fifth-wheel, swung open the door, and unloaded four impossibly loud and concussive shots, I assumed two (double-tapping?) for each man. Then, sprayed with blood, my zombocalypse compadre stepped out of the vehicle, tramped down its three metal steps and then over to me, where I was still standing by the pop-up, utterly shocked and still. He stood maybe five feet from me, the LED from the camper behind me illuminating his face. He stared at me, maybe contemplating all that had just happened.
Then he said, “Fuck this,” swung the barrel of the Winchester under his chin and blew out the top of his own head. As brains, bone, and blood misted down onto me, his body remained standing for a couple of seconds and then collapsed to the ground in a heap of meat and gristle.
So, yeah … that’s “tilt.”
Try to avoid it.