The Card Sharp by Trevor Hearfield
If you go down to the Mekong river, near where the ferry barges dock to take passengers, cargo and vehicles across the river, you will find – as you all will always find with these things- some cheap, pop-up stalls selling such basic items as coffee, skewers of fire-cooked meat and, once you’ve got to know the stall-keeper, whisky.
If you are known and kind to him, he may, for an extra small price, splash in a drop of whisky into your coffee; like that, many happy hours can be spent down by the river where the money you spend will be given back to you at some point in the day by the current of little jobs, favours and errands that you will do for the stall-keepers and bargemen and shadowy passers-by who may be in want of a thing or two.
No-one was better than anyone else and they all looked after each other in their own ways.
The only time things would get truly bad, like a cloud passing before the sun, or like seeing a shark fin cut above the sea near your frail boat, was when the police would show up with their sirens, whistles, batons and dogs.
The shouting and the barking and the kicking over of stalls or the confiscation of whisky bottles because someone’s license was not in order meant that there might be a long ten- or fifteen-minute period where everybody would be simultaneously shouting at each other and threatening each other whilst also calming each other down and calling each other brother.
It was a charade, a piece of play-acting in which no-one got seriously hurt. The cops knew not to arrive too late in the day when, perhaps, too much “coffee” had been consumed because by then we were all cut snakes of our own kind if you want the real truth of the matter.
But like all trying people anywhere in the world, just sitting around, drinking and waiting for casual errands and other responsibilities, it could be boring and so we had our own forms of entertainment; things which allowed for the short illusion of unpredictability that could rescue us for a few moments.
Old Hai had his chess board; many of the original pieces had been replaced by whisky bottle-tops and that was usually good for an hour or so’s entertainment to see who might beat him.
There was the occasional bout of arm-wrestling and, every now and again, some men might show up with their nephews and at a different place by the riverside, slightly further away from the road and obscured from unwanted eyes by bushes and trees, there was a clearing where our hushed crowd might bet on and watch a kick-boxing fight.
I must admit, I didn’t like it to see the two young boys, they were only ever teenagers, kick and punch each other for the momentary distraction of us older, heavier men, many of us who once fought like the boys and were used up just as well; some sort of hopeless belief that if you do something a million times then, at least once, it’s bound to turn up differently and somebody might get happy.
The grunts of the kids and the sound of skin and bone striking skin and bone and the dust that would be scuffed up and the smell of whisky-sweating spectators never failed to stain me and make me feel ugly and, yet, like everyone else, I watched.
The fight was to first blood then it would be over. The uncles would intervene and the fighters would embrace each other quickly, both knowing that they’d been used, and the uncles would make their way through the press figuring out who got what money, the boys, with their bruised, bloodied and swollen faces sitting side by side, already forgotten and shunted to the sides.
Money. All of our entertainment was done for money. You could bet on whether someone could beat Old Hai at chess or you could bet on the arm-wrestling, the kick-boxing, whatever game or idea it might be that would have its moment of fiction.
We bet on everything and bet everything we had, whether it was our last few cigarettes or the shoes we were wearing if we were wearing shoes, or the shirts on our backs which we had on that day. And it was as simple as that. Once your money, then your shoes, cigarettes and shirt had gone you weren’t allowed any more bets – you were out of the games for that day: better luck tomorrow.
By the end of the day, in amongst the singing and the slurred expressions of love or the sometime threats of death depending on how the whisky had turned that particular day, people who’d lost their shoes or shirts and cigarettes, even what money they had, would usually get it back in some strange, unobserved way, and like that, they’d return in the twilight to their families, every day always more reduced in grandeur than they’d been earlier that morning and the day before. It was only a matter of time before we each ran out of our grandness.
But more important than any of the other games was the cards.
Everybody knows that cards, after enough time, are boring. Even gambling on cards doesn’t make them more exciting so decks of cards might or might not be played and more often than not, they would sit in a desultory, redundant mess on one of the crooked tables that lay about the river bank.
That would all change when Bam showed up. You could never predict at what time of the day, or even if, he’d show up, but, when he did, he’d always see us before we saw him and it would be the sound of his incessant, chattering, slightly high-pitched voice that would herald and announce his arrival.
Bam appeared, non-stop talking, insulting everybody personally by name and with a smile and telling jokes that made you pleased if you were the butt of one of them. To be harpooned by Bam was an honour.
“Cho, I see by your yellow smile that your wife must have given you some sweet something this morning. That’s after she gave some sweet somethings to Lom over there, and Po, and Samok!” He nudged and winked and pointed and everyone, including Cho, smiled.
He slapped Cho on the back, “And that’s after she’d seen Dendok over there, eh, Dendok?”
We all looked at old Dendok with his bottle-thick glasses, his cherry brown balded head and his toothless smile.
“Chen, you have your sister’s legs and your mother’s hands: not great for walking on or making bread but then, luckily, they weren’t walking and I wasn’t hungry!”
And so it continued as he’d draw himself up to a table, toss the cards dismissively to the side and reach inside his oily, sweat-stained jacket for his own, special deck of cards that none of us ever asked to check – we didn’t need to.
“So, on this glorious morning and everyone’s had their tiny pricks stroked, hopefully by their wives; maybe by themselves, eh, Nom?” he flashed a wink at Nom who darkened with guilt and delight.
“Unluckily goats don’t have hands, eh, Millo?” We all looked at Millo, “But it’s the mouth not the hands, eh, Millo? Hands would be wasted on a goat, just watch out for them teeth!” He snapped his own teeth together and everyone laughed and smacked him on the back, “That’s a good one, Bam!”
We laughed as Bam continued, “Though poor Millo only has half a cock left which, when you factor in what he had to start with, means he has to piss sitting down- nothing to hold on to. Still, he can pick his teeth while he’s pissing: both of them!”
“Or knit a jumper for Hueng! I mean, dog’s breath, brother – what is that you’re wearing? Looks like a jumper that still remembers being the back end of a sheep! Dog’s breath, man! If I win today, I promise you, brother, I’m going to buy you a new jumper; put us all out of our misery!”
Finally, almost breathless, he sat down and got to work with his cards.
“So, it’s thirty-three, as usual: three cards – two down, one up. All cards worth their points, jacks are eleven, queens twelve, kings thirteen and aces are fourteen.”
He pulled out the two jokers from the deck and turned them face upwards, “And these two noble beauties, fifteens apiece.”
“So, I’m slapping down fifty to begin with,” he looked around at us, making it look easy. “Come on, fifty’s not much. You guys blow each other for less.” He winked and looked around, waiting for takers.
We huddled around him, gathering closer, wondering who would take the bet today.
Bam continued, “All right, all right; how about I’ll take a seven for myself, middle card already?”
He spread the deck of cards and took out a seven of clubs and placed it on the table.
Still, there were no takers.
“Okay, you’ve all got soft balls today so how about I’ll give you a ten on your middle card. How about that?”
“I’ll take a jack but only for twenty,” Jin Ling eventually called out from near the edge of the circle.
Bam looked at him then leaned over to one side, farted loudly and pulled out a twenty-note and held it up to Jin Ling. “That’s what I’ll do for twenty. It’s yours – take it! You earned it!”
He looked around at everyone and smiled with his hands spread wide. “You all did,” as the smell hit us.
Jin Ling accepted the bet for fifty and shuffled forward to take the empty seat at the table facing Bam.
“Good man, good man!” Bam acknowledged him and picked up the deck of cards, leaving the jack of diamonds for Jin Ling and the seven of clubs for himself on the table.
“Three cards; thirty-three, or nearest, wins it. Anything over is gone; like Guol’s teeth.”
We looked at Guol, who proudly showed us his empty mouth, happy to be seen.
“Just remember,” Bam continued, “if it comes to it, hearts always win,” and he looked at us and winked, “and I’m not talking about cards here, am I fellas?”
Then just for a flash of a moment, he became subdued, “Because we all know that love triumphs over anything, right?”
And before we could answer or collect the pieces of our understanding, he was back to commenting rapidly on the game.
The truly smart and great thing about Bam was that when he said things like this, he’d somehow notice the people who didn’t agree and nod their heads or were troubled by it in some way. He noticed everything even when it didn’t seem possible that he could notice. And if the light in a person’s eyes, if only for a split-second, dimmed, he’d see it and later, once the card games were finished and people broke up into smaller groups to smoke and talk about what had happened, Bam could be seen with his arm around somebody’s shoulder telling them something earnestly and secretly and there’d be a pat on the fellow’s arm or back and, later on, that person would find an extra fifty or two in their back pocket or half a pack of cigarettes they were sure they’d already smoked, and spend some of the quieter hours of the night wondering how that had happened.
“Here we go, Jin Ling: you’re the only one with balls around here to take me on. The rest of these hole-in-a-tree bangers get to now watch real men at work. How about we show them, eh, Jin Ling?”
Jin Ling grunted and looked suspiciously at the first card Bam placed in front of him.
Bam winked at him and waited for Jin Ling to pick the card up and draw it tightly across the table and onto his chest where he raised it gradually until he could take the tiniest of peaks at it when it was slightly below his chin.
Bam placed a card for himself on the table but didn’t look at it.
He looked at Jin Ling. “What do you think? Another ten? Twenty?”
Jin Ling grunted, “Keep playing, no stops.”
Bam smiled, “Okay, maybe next time.” He dealt Jin Ling his final card and then dealt the next card for himself.
He started up his chatter once he’d seen Jin Ling look at his card and then he looked at his own cards in a snake-like speed of movement before he placed them back on the table. We’d long given up trying to see what cards he had by sneaking up behind him because it didn’t matter how close we could get, we never saw the cards as fast as he could; all we saw was a blurred streak of colours that was so fast that you sometimes couldn’t tell if you’d seen red or black.
He started up his chatter, daring people to place their bets which they began to do, and putting up Jin Ling’s chances as he spoke. “Good cards, good cards: I can feel them, I tell you. What with that fat jack spread there like a sultan expecting a blow-job, how can he lose? I can feel it coming on like a monk’s boner in March!”
One of the men began acting as the bookie and he listened to the call of the men and repeated it once so that no words could be taken back afterwards because we’d all heard them and what kind of men were we if our words were no good? It was the last of what we had.
“Because it’s going to be long, hot and hard, eh, boys?”
Once the betting had stopped, eager as ever, Jin Ling could not contain his excitement as he spilled his cards onto the table, revealing another jack to go with the jack on the table and an eight of spades.
“Thirty!” he exclaimed, “beat that!”
Bam expressed admiration, “Ah! Thirty, that’s good!” he looked at the rest of us. “It certainly beats all hell out of my seven and a queen, nineteen,” he paused before turning over his final card, “but unfortunately for Jin Ling, the queen’s lesbian sister also showed up,” and he flicked over the queen of diamonds.
“Thirty-one fucks your thirty like a lord over his people!”
We cheered and shouted and money exchanged hands and Bam pocketed Jin Ling’s fifty which had been placed on the table.
“Okay, okay,” Jin Ling shouted, turning red in the face, “again!” he cried out, “I almost had you!”
Bam leaned back, “No, no, my dear brother. I’ve already taken your money; where’s the honour in taking more?”
“I’m good for it!” Jin Ling protested and stood up to look around at us. “Come on, who’ll give me a fifty? You know I’d do it for you!”
In the excitement and brouhaha which followed, nobody except me noticed the black car with the dark-tinted windows drive past us slowly on the road above the river bank. It stopped and reversed and stopped again, just above where we were all crowded around the card table. Whoever was in the car had been watching us and had seen what had happened.
Then the door on the far side of the car opened and a man got out and I immediately knew by his sunglasses, oiled hair and expensive suit that he was mob.
The man made his way around to the near side of the car and opened the door; a large man got out.
Sometimes you only need one look to know that a man has amputated a part of his soul and is no longer any good. Whether the man had amputated it himself or it had been done by others is the crux of all things but what’s for sure is that the man who emerged from the car was a badly damaged soul and, mostly, all that damaged souls can bring are damaged souls. The few damaged souls who, somehow, learn to love: around here, we call them angels.
There was a hush as the others realised what was happening and the mob men made their way down the river bank towards us. They were joined by another two men who had followed them out of the car.
They all were dressed the same and looked similar, for sub-cultures decree to each other what success looks like even though it looks ridiculous to everyone else looking in at them.
We stared silently and powerlessly at them until the boss raised a finger and said, “Play!”
We looked at Bam who hadn’t once looked at the men.
“I’ll go for forty. Who wants in at forty?”
But nobody responded.
“It seems that I’ve got Jin Ling’s balls and money in my pocket but I didn’t realise I had everyone else’s as well! I’m going to need bigger pants! Maybe I should get some of those cargo pants things. Or I could start carrying around a handbag and keep them in that; how about that?”
We looked at the boss though, again, Bam didn’t.
He hesitated a fraction so we knew that he was also scared.
“Sure, a hundred’s good. That’s some big balls you’ve got there, Chief. Seems like a handbag isn’t going to be big enough. I’m going to need one of those belt things that those foreigners carry around their waists – what are those things called?” he addressed us.
“Bum-bags,” someone replied, I didn’t see who.
“Yeah, that’s it. Seems like I’ll need a bum-bag to carry your balls around in, brother.”
We cleared away for the boss to come and sit down at the table.
“What are you playing?”
“Thirty-three,” Bam replied, shuffling the cards in his hands and looking at the boss for the first time.
“I know the game: deal.”
“Let me see your money first. Big car like that, nice suit – how do I know they’re not stolen?”
The boss stiffened in a tiny and rapid way which scared me so much and I wished for Bam to be careful about what he said next.
The boss then smiled at his men and they smiled back. “Oh no, my friend. These things aren’t stolen: we work hard for our money.” He leaned forward and, with a calm face, repeated, “Very hard.”
He reached into his coat pocket and took out a wallet which we could see was stuffed with money. Some of us even gasped since we had never seen so much money in our lives.
He picked out a hundred-note, smelt it and placed it on the table. “Just like you.”
We could all see the blood on the note but Bam didn’t flinch and pulled out some crumpled notes of his own and placed them on top of the bloodied note.
“Somebody worked hard for that money but, somehow, I doubt it was you.”
The man smiled. “Deal the cards, brother.”
Bam dealt the first cards face down for the man and for himself. “I can feel it. This is going to be good for somebody and bad for somebody else. But what’s good right now can turn out to be bad later on, can’t it?”
He smiled at the man, “Want to look at your card?”
“You first, brother.”
“If that’s how you like it, Chief.” He turned to us and said, “That’s what he said to me when I met his wife.”
To my eternal shame, none of us was able to laugh.
Bam picked his card up and drew it to his chest and then, like lightning, flicked it up to see it and then he placed it back down on the table.
None of us could see what it was.
Then the man did something similar and Bam spoke to him, “You know the game.”
The man waved a hand modestly, “We all spring from the same soil, brother.”
“That we do, Boss, but there are different plants and many uses for them.”
He dealt a card face up in front of the man so we could all see the six of hearts.
There was a reaction from some of us but not from the man or from Bam.
Bam then drew a card for himself and flipped it onto the table.
There was a groan from the crowd: the three of spades.
“How about we put another hundred in it?” the man asked Bam casually.
Bam looked at the cards. “I’d say the same thing if I was in your position. The question is, what would you do if you were in my position?”
“I know that you would.”
Bam reached into his pocket and pulled out his bundle of crumpled, dirty notes and fished out enough to make a hundred which he placed on the table on top of the rest of the money.
The man reached into his jacket for his wallet, took it out and, again, we wondered at the amount of money that was stuffed into it. Each saw different futures for ourselves in that instant and then it was gone and the wallet was put back into the suit, an expensive gate the likes of us would never pass through in a thousand lives of our own if we wanted to keep the parts of ourselves which were ourselves and we’d want to live a thousand times with.
The man placed another hundred-note on the pile, this one unbloodied, and Bam dealt him the final card.
Again, the man didn’t touch it and waited for Bam to deal his own final card.
“Show,” the man commanded once Bam had done that.
Bam turned over his first card to reveal the nine of clubs. Twelve: it wasn’t going to be enough.
The man turned over his first card and it was a ten of clubs. Sixteen – it wasn’t great, either. Bam was still in with a chance.
It was only then that I noticed that Bam wasn’t speaking any more. This was usually when his chatter would reach its highest pitch but now he was silent. The gurgling, slopping and slooping of the river sliding past us in its brown hurry to our side was louder than the entire group of about twenty of us.
“Now you,” Bam said to the man who shook his head.
Bam insisted, “Honour dictates.”
For the first time, the man seemed touched. “And what would you know about honour, I mean, really know?”
Bam leaned back and I’d never seen this before: there was no smile in his eyes; there was no light on his face and I shivered. I didn’t know this man, after all.
“What I really know,” Bam spoke, “is that nothing is certain.”
The man raised an eye, “Not even death?”
Bam looked him back equally, “Especially not even that.”
The man smiled sadly, “Dear peasant friend: how wrong you are.”
He turned over his final card: it was the eight of spades – twenty-four.
We looked at Bam who didn’t look at his card as he turned it around to show the King of Hearts, I kid you not: the King of bloody Hearts.
The place exploded and filled with noise and movement except for the stillness and silence of the two men at the centre of the world.
“Again,” the man commanded and reached into his coat pocket.
“No,” Bam said and reached out a hand to stay the man’s arm. “Where would be the honour in that?”
The man stared at Bam for a few moments then spoke, “You need to be careful shooting your mouth off about such things like that; one day it’ll go off.”
Then the man got up and without shaking hands or saying goodbye, he and his men left, got into their car and drove away.
We celebrated long past twilight but the next day, Bam didn’t show up. Neither did he the day after that nor the next day, either.
We never saw Bam again.
Author Notes: The Card Sharp was inspired by a man I saw hustling people near the docking jetty of a ferry port on the Mekong river. It's a story which forms part of a 20-story collection called "Cede Space" which I wrote between October and December 2018.