"Night Train to Babylon"
James Cruesoe was in the club car of a train plummeting out of Chicago, rocking and swaying as if it were drunk, when the conductor, lurching by, glanced at the bar, gave Cruesoe a wink, and lurched on. Cruesoe listened.
Uproars, shouts and cries.
That is the sound, he thought, of sheep in panic, glad to be fleeced, or hang gliders, flung off cliffs with no wings.
For there at the bar, drawn to a blind source of joyous consternation, stood a cluster of men glad for highway robbery, pleased to have wallets and wits purloined.
That is to say:gamblers.
Amateur gamblers, Cruesoe thought, and rose to stagger down the aisle to peer over the shoulders of businessmen behaving like high school juniors in full stampede.
"Hey, watch! The Queen comes! She goes. Presto! Where?"
"There!" came the cry.
"Gosh," cried the dealer. "Lost my shirt! Again! Queen up, Queen gone! Where?"
He'll let them win twice, Cruesoe thought. Then spring the trap.
"There!" cried all.
"Good gravy!" shouted the unseen gambler. "I'm sunk!"
Cruesoe had to look, he yearned to see this agile vaudeville magician.
On tiptoe, he parted a few squirming shoulders, not knowing what to expect.
But there sat a man with no fuzzy caterpillar brows or waxed mustaches. No black hair sprouted from his ears or nostrils. His skull did not poke through his skin. He wore an ordinary dove-gray suit with a dark gray tie tied with a proper knot. His fingernails were clean but unmanicured. Stunning! An ordinary citizen, with the serene look of a chap about to lose at cribbage.
Ah, yes, Cruesoe thought, as the gambler shuffled his cards slowly. That carefulness revealed the imp under the angel's mask. A calliope salesman's ghost lay like a pale epidermis below the man's vest.
"Careful, gents!" He fluttered the cards. "Don't bet too much!"
Challenged, the men shoveled cash into the furnace.
"Whoa! No bets above four bits! Judiciously, sirs!"
The cards leapfrogged as he gazed about, oblivious of his deal.
"Where's my left thumb, my right? Or are there three thumbs?"
They laughed. What a jokester!
"Con--fused, chums? Baffled? Must I lose again?"
"Yes!" all babbled.
"Damn," he said, crippling his hands. "'Damn! Where's the Red Queen? Start over!"
"No! The middle one! Flip it!"
The card was flipped.
"Ohmigod," someone gasped.
"Can't look." The gambler's eyes were shut. "How much did I lose this time?"
"Nothing," someone whispered.
"Nothing?" The gambler, aghast, popped open his eyes.
They all stared at a black card.
"Gosh," said the gambler. "I thought you had me!"
His fingers spidered to the right, another black card, then to the far left. The Queen!
"Hell," he exhaled, "why's she there? Christ, guys, keep your cash!"
"No! No!" A shaking of heads. "You won. You couldn't help it. It was just-"
"Okay. If you insist! Watch out!"
Cruesoe shut his eyes. This, he thought, is the end. From here on they'll lose and bet and lose again. Their fever's up.
"Sorry, gents. Nice try. There!"
Cruesoe felt his hands become fists. He was twelve again, a fake mustache glued to his lip and his school chums at a party and the three-card monte laid out. "Watch the Red Queen vanish!" And the kids shout and laugh as his hands blurred to win their candy but hand it back to show his love.
"One, two, three! Where can she be?"
He felt his mouth whisper the old words, but the voice was the voice of this wizard stealing wallets, counting cash on a late-night train.
"Lost again? God, fellas, quit before your wife shoots you! Okay, Ace of spades, King of clubs, Red Queen. You won't see her again!"
Cruesoe turned, muttering. Don't listen! Sit! Drink! Forget your twelfth birthday, your friends. Quick!
He took one step when:
"That's three times lost, pals. I must fold my tent and . . ."
"No, no, don't leave now! We got to win the damn stuff back. Deal!"
And as if struck, Cruesoe spun about and returned to the madness.
"The Queen was always there on the left," he said.
... It was there all the time," Cruesoe said, louder.
"And who are you, sir?" The gambler raked in the cards, not glancing up.
"A boy magician."
"Christ, a boy magician!" The gambler riffled the deck.
The men backed off.
Cruesoe exhaled. "I know how to do the threecard monte."
"I won't cut in, I just wanted these good men-"
There was a muted rumble from the good men.
"to know anyone can win at the three-card monte."
Looking away, the gambler gave the cards a toss.
"Okay, wisenheimer, deal! Gents, your bets. Our friend here takes over. Watch his hands."
Cruesoe trembled with cold. The cards lay waiting.
"Okay, son. Grab on!"
"I can't do the trick well, I just know how it's done."
"Ha!" The gambler stared around. "Hear that, chums? Knows how it works, but can't do. Right?"
Cruesoe swallowed. "Right. But-"
"But? Does a cripple show an athlete? A dragfoot pace the sprinter? Gents, you want to change horses out here" He glanced at the window. Lights flashed by. "halfway to Cincinnati?"
The gents, glared and muttered.
"Deal! Show us how you can steal from the poor."
Cruesoe's hands jerked back from the cards as if burnt.
"You prefer not to cheat these idiots in my presence?" the gambler asked.
Clever beast! Hearing themselves so named, the idiots roared assent.
"Can't you see what he's doing?" Cruesoe said.
"Yeah, yeah, we see," they babbled. "Even-steven. Lose some, win some. Why don't you go back where you came from?"
Cruesoe glanced out at a darkness rushing into the past, towns vanishing in night.
"Do you, sir," said the Straight-Arrow gambler, "in front of all these men, accuse me of raping their daughters, molesting their wives?"
" A preeminent storyteller... An icon in American literature."
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