I saw him from a distance, sitting against the shell of an old burned out Volkswagon. A middle-aged black man with a matted beard and a beanie stuck firmly to his scalp in defiance of the day’s intense heat. As I got closer, I noticed a deck of cards splayed out in front of him on the road, faded almost to the point of transparency, the ghost of a king, the phantom of a spade. He smiled up at me with yellow teeth, crooked monoliths.
“Hey friend. Long day, ain’t it? Long and hot, and ever so rough. Have a sit, try your luck?” He collected the cards into his hands, danced and splayed them, shuffled away.
“What are we playing?” I asked, curious. My voice cracked as it shook off the dust, shy and weary of conversation. It’d been three long weeks since I spoke to someone, my days spent shuffling the endless coil of road from one disappointment to another, my nights not much better. It’s hard to sleep, when there’s nothing to dream about.
“Blackjack’s the game, and also the name,” he said, the cards dancing. “Have a seat, place your bets, and pray to God that Lady Luck didn’t die the fire, eh?” He picked something out of his beard. I sat, cross-legged, across from him on the blistering asphalt. I glanced nervously in each direction, in case it was a trap. You see them sometimes, on the road. A man in the street, crying out for help, the glint of a rifle not far off. I’d gotten pretty good at spotting them, and a game of blackjack seemed uncertain bait. What the hell. Why not.
I reached into my pack, wary not to give Blackjack a look inside, and pulled out a can of soup. Chicken noodle. “Hope this works,” I said, placing it between us. “What do I get if I win?”
Blackjack laughed, a rough thing, but full of warmth. “Well, let’s just cross that bridge when we come to it. You won’t be disappointed though, I’ll tell you sure. You trust old Blackjack, yeah?”
“I don’t trust anyone.”
“Well if that ain’t just the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. In such an uncertain world, I sure am glad I’m here to provide you with the surety of my uncertainty. Hit or stay?” Puzzled, I squinted, only to realize that he had dealt our cards without my even noticing. Twelve.
A six, bringing me up to 18.
“St-” I started to say, before noticing the pistol pointed in my direction. Blackjack’s smile was still in place, the gun tucked casually against his hip. “Motherfucker,” I said, not really directed at him, but rather floated out into the air between us, to do with as we please.
“You gonna wanna think real hard before you make that choice,” he said. “Cause if you lose, you can probably figure what’s gonna happen, you being a smart guy and all. But I’ll tell you this: Ol’ blackjack’s never not drawn up to twenty. Lady luck’s a fickle bitch, my friend, holding me an inch away from my elusive namesake, but hey, not bad, not bad, am I right? So what’s it gonna be? Hit or stay?”
“You’re telling me that if I don’t get a three, I’m going to die.”
“Shit, man, you need to open your ears and learn something. That ain’t what I said. Aint no certainty anymore. Look around you. Who you think used to own this car? Ain’t no way to know, you see? We all just chasin’ fire.”
“Hit,” I said, tensing my body to make a move when I saw the card.
Blackjack laughed, and I felt bones unfurl, my sweat retreat back into my brow. “Well, whaddya know, would you look at that.” He kept laughing, the gun now resting on his thigh.
“So what do I win?” I asked.
His laugh sucked itself out of the air, his face curled in on itself, and his eyes sent their signal across the cards into mine. His smile shaped and formed into something new, like at any moment he could open his mouth and the stars would pour out. “Shit, weren’t you listening? I said you weren’t gonna be disappointed. You win the biggest prize of all, son, the grand-daddy, the jack-pot, the death-be-damned. You get to keep on livin’, son! You can keep your can of soup, and here’s the world for your troubles. Ain’t nothing that you know you won’t do, no place you know for sure you ain’t gonna go.” The smile returned, and he danced the cards into his sleeve, vanishing them in an instant.
I wanted to ask him how he could really believe that, in the face of all that had happened, but my eyes fell on the gun still resting on his thigh, and I decided it best to leave. Throwing my pack onto my back, I picked up the can of soup and placed it on the Volkswagon, figuring it was the least I could do.
I took two steps, felt a tug, and turned to ask, “If I had lost, would you really have shot me?”
He pulled and tugged on his beard, the gun suddenly nowhere to be seen. “I dunno, man. No one’s ever lost. Ain’t that something?”
I turned, and kept on walking.
About the author:
Eric Zipper is a writer and comedian residing in Portland OR, who graduated from Occidental College with a highly useful theater degree. When not reading or writing, he's either telling dumb jokes, walking around outside, or watching way too many movies.