Poet 11586

Life and Death and Playing Cards

Two women sit at a scuffed wooden table.
One shuffles a deck of greasy cards with
Clean hands, her manicured nails making
A pleasant clicking on the lacquered backs.
The other tilts back on two legs of her chair,
Breathing clouds of smoke from around the
Swirled cigar resting between her lips.
She watches the other woman shuffle from
Behind her hooded eyes, then grasps the cigar
In two red nails and parts her lips in a smile.
"You're as fast as I remember, my dear," she says,
Laying the cigar on a porcelain tray at her elbow.
"Have you had much practice at playing?"
"Not as much as you might think," the shuffler replies,
Crackling the cards back together and setting one in
Front of her opponent. "My companions are rather boring."
"So you say." The red-nailed woman draws her
Coat tighter around her and gestures to the piles
That they now both possess, as the shuffler
Sets down the deck and gathers up her hand.
"You'd be hard pressed to find a better
Opponent than me,"' she says, taking up
Her own cards and settling back into her chair.
The shuffler hooks her boots into the rungs
Beneath her seat and changes her cards around.
"True, there's no cleverer woman around,"
She muses, laying a card with a tick
Down on the battered tabletop.
"Nor none as beautiful as you," the red-nailed
Woman replies with a flash of her cinnamon eyes.
She responds with a card of her own, and thus
They commence their game. It is a rhythm that
Never grows old, no matter how often or how
Rarely they play each other. The shuffler
Unhooks one foot and braces it against the
Centerpole of the table, as she unties and
Shakes out her head of strawberry hair.
The night progresses, and the same game
Rolls on throughout the hours. At each turn
Of the small hand on the clock, the women
Alternate placing single gilded coins in
The center of the table. Each one is embossed
With a different face, and each holds a
Different weight. Yet they are made from
The same material, and each has the same
Tired line for its tiny metal mouth.
At the strike of midnight, one woman
Stands and lays her cards facedown
In her chair. With a quick word, she
Walks off along the warm-lit wall to
The low-hanging sign blazing Restrooms
In a rich and tacky neon orange.
The remaining leans forward, her
Long hair caught golden in the light
Of the bulb hanging overhead.
She flicks easily through the cards,
Then places them back down and
Calls to a young man seated at a
Table behind her. He is new, they
Are always new, for someone is always
Stepping up to replace someone else's
Theories with great ideas. She whispers
To him, and he murmurs a solution in
Her hooped-and-studded perfect ear.
He returns to his seat, and she smiles,
Arranging her cards in her fingers as
The other woman returns and sits, her
Hair a wave of shadow across the table.
They play in silence now, for the shuffler is
Smirking with impending victory, and the
Other woman has taken up her cigar again
In sober retaliation. Two more turns each,
And the shuffler slaps down her cards with
A low shout of delight. "A fine opponent yet,"
She exclaims, "but I still take the win!"
"For now," the dark woman replies, her smile
Full of deadly calculation. She nods her defeat
To her partner, who rises and gathers her things.
They shake hands, then the shuffler departs,
Swinging her purse at her side so it bumps
Against her sequined hip. With a sigh, the
Dark-haired woman orders a beer, and
Stares at the table. Of the five that had
Glinted before her, only four remain.
She scoops the four into her hand and
Dumps them in her purse. She stays
Until she's finished her drink, then
Rises and exits the building.
In the parking lot, she's unlocking
Her car when she notices a young man
In a white jacket choking on the ground.
She watches him, silent, her eyes
Those of a lioness who's spotted her prey
And lies still in wait for it to see her.
But he does not see. He chokes, and
Sputters, and collapses, and she startles
In surprise. She sets down her purse and
Walks unhurriedly to his side. Kneeling,
She pries his jaws apart with her crimson
Nails and wedges two fingers inside his
Mouth. Her fingertips brush a metal edge,
And she draws it out smoothly: a gilded,
Embossed coin with a queerly contorted
Face. She smiles and pockets the coin,
Now possessing a complete five for
The evening, and returns to her car,
Leaving his body in the street.