By John Thomas Tuft

It was a dark and stormy night. The rain came down in sheets, obscuring the view down the narrow alleyway. The solitary streetlamp cast a feeble glare that gave up less than a third of the way through the space. Garbage bins stacked along one wall overflow with the refuse and effluence of the various bars and restaurants that fronted onto the main square. Back here lies the realm of rats and restless wanderers without reason to wait for hope to find them. Down this dark, damp, foul smelling alley walks the man they call Pirate Patch and his cat, Cameo. Pirate Patch is dressed in an outfit befitting his rank, an old chartreuse ruffled tuxedo French silk shirt, worn over pantaloon breeches from an old costume shop, motorcycle boots, and a pale blue gentleman’s waistcoat leftover from a prom rental outfit. In his arm is a one-eyed calico with a damaged ear, Cameo.

They duck down the wooden stairs and through the weather-beaten door of a joint called Susan’s Floor. At first glance it appears to be not all that out of the ordinary: plank tables and benches, low ceilings, dim lighting. He passes on through this great room and through a hallway to a door with a thick, velvet curtain hanging across the opening. Inside the dingy room, a poker game is in progress. Pirate Patch sits down in the waiting chair, sets Cameo in his lap, and looks around at the players. “I’m the shadow on the windowsill in late afternoon, I’m the forgotten bulb planted in the fall under the leaves, I’m the hidden ace in a royal flush…” he started his spiel. “Shut up and bet,” yelled a woman with blue/silver hair, dressed in a pink taffeta gown and clutching an old Raggedy Anne doll. “I don’t want to be late for the fundraiser.” Across from her was a man with a monocle and a Daniel Boone coonskin cap. “Gambling is the purest form of prayer,” he wagers.

“Dealer’s choice,” sang out a thirteen-year-old girl with freckles and red hair, wearing a plaid school uniform, an AR-15 slung across her back, as she shuffled the worn deck of cards. “Everybody remember what’s in the jackpot?” She looked around the table at each player, holding their gaze as she flipped the cards to them. “Place your bets on the table, the most valuable thing that you have with you. One hand, no wild cards, aces high. The game is death fears.” The players picked up their cards, looked at them, put on their best poker faces. “The jackpot is one look,” the girl reminded them with finality. Monocle man thought long and hard. “Death fear is non-existence,” he said, carefully removing his hat and placing it in the pot. “It’s knowing ahead of time that we won’t know anything at the time. For the rest of time.” And he laid his cards upon the table.

Taffeta dress went next. “Death fear is not making the Big Guy happy. Eternal anger.” She kissed her ragged doll and placed it in the pot. “We don’t know anything before we are born, but then we are like dolls, being told how to dress and how to act. Who to love, who not to love. Death fear is that we won’t be happy. For the rest of time.” And she laid her cards upon the table. Now Pirate Patch studied his cards long and hard. He finally sighed and put Cameo into the pot. “Death fear. The scariest thing about being dead? Nothing.” He leaned back and studied the ceiling. “Going through dying doesn’t seem like a lot of fun, even scary, but then that’s it. It is all over.” And he took an old sandwich out of a pocket and started to munch on it. After he laid his cards upon the table.

Dealer girl hesitated about even looking at her cards. “Death fear? I hardly know what life is about yet.” She tried to lean back but the big rifle made it too uncomfortable. “They told me to carry this around with me all the time. That I’d be less afraid.” She looked at the items in the pot in the middle of the table. “What means the most to me…huh, I mean most valuable?” She found a pin in her pocket and pricked the end of her finger. Then she leaned over the table and let a single drop of her blood settle onto the Daniel Boone coonskin cap. Another onto the doll. “All this talk about dying and then wanting to come back to life. To what?” She hesitated. A tear ran down her cheek and dropped onto Calico as she whispered, “To what?”  And she laid her cards upon the table.

 “The winner!” cried the other three, and sure enough, the girl won the hand. They stood and escorted the girl down the darkened staircase, further down and further in, until they reached a great room. Across the center of the room was a huge cloth, finely spun, almost like gauze. “There it is, the jackpot,” said Pirate Patch. “Beyond the veil, you get to look at death. And beyond. We all want to know…”

The girl stepped forward, drew back the veil, and stepped beyond. They waited. And they waited. And they waited…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.