All The Countries of The World
Around him, the bar stank. Cheap wood, cheap women, and cheaper beer all added their smells to the volcanic odor of the island air. There was a dim roar inside, made from the sound of low talking, the sound of the waves just outside, the sound of buzzing neon. Creaking wood could be heard faintly, through the other sounds, as islanders walked across the old worn wooden floor. The sounds were slightly distorted, as the low tin roof above reflected and shaped their echoes.
It was dim inside. A Budweiser sign lent the bottles behind the bartender a reddish glow, and a small, swaying lamp over the pool table shone green. Candles flickered on the tables, small flecks of yellow in the dim light of the bar. The plastic lamination of the cards reflected all the light, mixing it into a swirl of neon red, dark green, black lines and white card, with the intricate pattern of the Bicycle beneath it all.
They were Bicycle cards, fresh from the pack. They slid, new and perfect, from the fingers of the dealer, their white as white as his suit, their black tracery as black as his tie, and their image was reflected in the perfect, shiny leather of the dealer's eyepatch.
Two cards spun into the air, face down. One dropped down, landing with perfect precision in front of the dealer, and one flew across the table, spinning into place in front of the player, half covering a stain on the green felt of the table. Face down.
The dealer smiled. His smile was kind, as if he was in the process of doing someone a favor, and wished that person to feel at ease as he did it. The smile fit his face perfectly. It was neither too warm, nor too uncomfortable, and it curled around his face, avoiding only the eyepatch that covered his right eye. He exuded confidence, but it was a confidence masked by incorruptible politeness. He was in charge, the smile said, and any effort to contest that fact would fade quickly, in the face of such confidence.
The player shivered. It was too hot to shiver, one might say, but the heat was the humid heat that can make a man feel cold, even as the sweat soaks his shirt.
The player's shirt was soaked.
"Do you feel ill?" the dealer asked, leaning forward with solicitude written across his face. His hands never left the deck.
"No..." the player groped for words, and failed. "No." he finished.
"Would you like something to drink, perhaps? The heat, it plays tricks on a man who does not know it. One loses so much water here, in the summer months." The dealer gestured at a glass at his side. It was filled with a clear brown liquid, and had two ice cubes slowly melting in it. The player could smell the alcohol in it, even through the beery haze of the bar.
"I don't think I should," the player replied. He could feel his thin wallet through his sweat-soaked jeans. He wanted a drink, badly, but the constant reminder kept him from it. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve, but the thin fabric wouldn't absorb any more.
"Very well." Even in the all-pervading noise of the bar, the crisp flick of pasteboard could easily be heard. One card flipped, end over end, towards the player, and landed beside the other card, exactly aligned. The table could not be seen between them.
The player looked down.
A nine of spades looked back. The plastic coating shined, bright and exact, against the pitted and patched surface of the table.
The player swallowed.
Another flick, and a card landed beside the dealer's card. It impacted with a sudden noise, as the dealer's fingers drove it downwards to the table. It was the ace of hearts. The dealer's finger rested on it, exactly covering the central heart.
"The cards are dealt, sir." The dealer smiled again, leaning his head forward, to indicate the cards. His white hat cast a shadow across his face as he did so.
The player's hand rose from beneath the table, and slowly crept towards the card.
Suddenly, it halted.
"Ah... the stakes are..." the player asked.
"A ticket to Galveston, on my part, versus the loss of all your funds, on yours. We have already agreed on this." A tiny, tiny edge of impatience had entered the dealer's voice.
"All my funds?" the player wanted confirmation.
"All your funds. We have already agreed on this."
The impatience grew, as if a sword was slowly being drawn from its scabbard. The player looked away from the shiny politeness of the dealer, his perfect white suit, and his calm assurance, toward his cards, lying there on the worn green felt of the table. "You may look at your other card, if you like." The player reluctantly raised his hand from beneath the table, and lifted the corner of his card. His eyes refused to focus on the card for a moment, then he became aware that he was looking at the ten of clubs.
He had nineteen.
The dealer's voice penetrated the haze through which the player stared at his card. "Will you be wanting another card, then?"
The player's voice shook, as he let the card slap down. "No, no. I don't... I stand."
The dealer's sole eye looked steadily at the player. "I am satisfied with mine, also. Would you reveal your card, then?"
The player reached out, and twisted the card over.
"Nineteen," the dealer said. "Hard to beat, I must say."
Without taking his eye off the player, the dealer reached out and flipped his card over.
The player stared.
The jack of spades lay there, half covered by the dealer's hand.
The dealer's eye was steady. "Twenty-one, I believe, beats nineteen."
The player didn't move.
The dealer reached out his hand. "Your funds? I regret the necessity..."
Wordlessly, the player pulled his wallet out of his pants and threw it onto the table.
"The twenty dollars you keep in your left shoe, please."
The player looked up, shocked.
"I do believe our wager was for all your funds, was it not?"
The player slumped in his seat, then reached down and withdrew a worn, folded bill, and tossed it on the table.
The dealer gathered the wallet and bill, and stood up. "Very good." He began walking toward the door.
The player remained in his chair, motionless. The dealer halted, turned around, and gestured. "We may have further business, you and I. Would you come this way?"
The player looked up, and slowly rose from his seat. The dealer stepped back to the player, and put his immaculate arm on the player's shoulder, and guided him from the bar.
Outside, it was much fresher. The setting sun cast a red pathway over the ocean, and waves sloshed against the wharf's supports. A slow breeze was barely stirring the flag outside the portmaster's office.
The dealer steered the player away from the bar, down towards the end of the wharf.
They reached the end, and stood looking out over the waters.
"A beautiful sight, is it not?" said the dealer. "It is why I am here, in a way." He breathed deeply, "My father was a kindly man, but a rich one. He owned almost all of this island, in one way or another, but he lived up on the mountain." The dealer turned away from the sea to look up at the central mountain. "There." he pointed. "That large, white house, toward the top. You can just make it out from here."
The player turned, wearily.
"Ah, yes. At any rate, when I reached my twentieth birthday, my father decided that it was time for me to become a man, and so he took me out on our veranda, and told me that I could have any portion of the island that was within his gift, any at all, to own and run as my own, and he showed me all of his lands from that veranda. He pointed at his shops in the town, and his gardens, and all that he had, but I never saw them."
The dealer smiled, and turned back to the sea. "I only had eyes for the sight of the setting sun against the sea, and so I asked for the wharf, to be close to this sight."
The player looked at the dealer.
"I didn't know how much of my father's wealth came from the wharf, or I would not have asked for it. But he was a kindly man, and a generous one, so he let me have it, just so that I could be closer to my beloved sea." He breathed deeply again. "I did not know, either, how hard it would be to be the owner of all this, but I have managed.
"It is to my regret, however, that I have not been able to operate it as my father would have wished. The tides of the world have changed, and I was faced with the choice of either allowing those Colombian bastards into my harbor, or selling what they sold, to make enough money to keep them out. My father would not have approved.
"But that is why I have brought you out here. Not to regale you with stories, but to offer you a job. The Medellin have vanished, but their successors are as persistent, and I am now in need of more staff to run my operation. You are a pilot, correct?"
The player nodded.
"And a good one. I have had my men check up on you. I have need of a good pilot, to run my airplane in and out of, well, if you accept the job, then I will tell you. It is too dangerous otherwise."
The player stared, with a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
"I will employ you, for a short period of time, no more than that, to fly my airplane. Once you have finished, perhaps, five flights, I will pay you handsomely and return you to America. Will you?"
The player nodded, gratefully, almost frantically.
The dealer laughed, and turned away. He gazed out to sea.
"American, I have long held a belief that America is a land of the blind, and that a man who can see can do what he will, because of the fact that he can see." The dealer reached into his pocket, and withdrew the player's wallet, folded twenty-dollar bill, and a small slip of white paper. "Here, American. Take it back. I have no need of these, now that I have won."
The player took it all, looking at the slip of paper.
"You have your wallet, and you have a ticket to Galveston, on that ship there." The dealer pointed. "I have no need to keep you around as a trophy of my victory."
The player stared, dumbfounded.
"Don't you understand? I won. I took you up on that mountain, and I showed you all the countries of the world... and you accepted. You are truly blind, and I have no need of you. So, run, run away, back to your country of the blind."
The player stepped back, then turn and ran.
"American!" the dealer called.
The player turned, and a playing card hit him square in the chest. He caught it with a desperate lunge of his already-full hands.
He looked at it.
It was the jack of spades.
"American!" the dealer called, and touched his eyepatch. "Remember! Remember, that in the country of the blind, the one-eyed Jack is king!"
And the player turned and ran.
Rob Furr is a graduate student at James Madison University. He's going into the creative writing program there, in the hopes that he'll actually learn how to write. He works in the faculty/staff computer lab on campus, which is where he does most of his writing, and is currently looking around for a job that'll actually keep a roof over his head and pay for the Quadra 700 that he hopes to buy. (Bio last updated in 1992.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Rob Furr.