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The Life of Cards

From issue 33 (Fantastic Women), Jane Avrich’s sleight of hand.


The Life of Cards


THE MAGICIAN WORE neither top hat nor tails, nor did he need them. The caramel glow of the ancient spotlight, the sixty-six pairs of eyes in the crowd—indeed, the force and motion of the magician’s body—were entirely fixed on his deck of cards. He began to shuffle with molding palms, spreading and caressing them to life. They did a fan dance of ink, red and azure, garden tools and royal smirks. They became an accordion, opening and closing; they rose and fell and spilled like sand. When the shuffling stopped and the pack became solid, the audience was startled to hear the magician speak.

“Welcome to my deck,” he said to a thin man with glasses. “Is it not rich and remarkable, filled with rich and remarkable cards?”

“Very rich,” said the thin man. “And remarkable.”

“Can you think of a card you would like to know better?”

The thin man thought. “Okay,” he said.

“Would this,” said the magician, “be your card?” And revealed the Two of Spades.

“Yes!” cried the thin man. The audience gasped.

“Permit me to tell you about your card.” The magician cleared his throat magisterially.

“The Two of Spades is not a baby. He is fat and horny. He has new shoes. He’s been taking piccolo lessons and he is just about ready to make his move.”

The thin man examined his card with its plump, shiny shapes. “I can see that,” he said.

Everyone applauded. The magician turned to a small woman in a green striped muffler.

“Welcome to my deck,” he said. “Can you think of a card you would like to know better?”

The small woman thought. “I’ve got one,” she said.

“Would this,” said the magician, “be your card?” And revealed the Ten of Diamonds.

“It is!” The woman emerged from her muffler. “How on earth did you do that?”

The magician cleared his throat magisterially.

“Not all cards do tricks, but this one does. She’s the Ten of Diamonds, not a picture— she’s far prettier than those pudding-faced queens, tartier, don’t you think? No robes, no curves, no slim white instep, but she’s got glitter about her, always.”

The small woman examined the card with its decorative splay. “I can see that,” she said.

“You can see even more.” Casually, the magician flicked his hand. Golden facets rose from the card, tinkled like glass and melted away. The audience oohed and aahed and applauded.

“Me!” A very tall woman stood in the front row. Black fur prickled on her giant muff.

“You,” the magician said at last. “Very well. Think of a card you’d like to know better.”

“I’ve already thought of it,” the tall woman said.

The magician held up the Ace of Hearts. “Is this your card?”

“As a matter of fact . . .” the woman began.

The magician’s eyes were deadly still.

“It is,” she admitted.

The magician walked back to the stage.

“Aren’t you going to tell me about the Ace of Hearts?”

“You know all about her, Belinda,” the magician said, and slowly, caressingly, with molding palms, began to shuffle his next pack of cards.

Jane Avrich‘s stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House, and other journals and have been nominated for The Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She currently teaches English at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn and lives in Manhattan.

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