The Hanging Man
Sometime between the invention of the six-gun and the invention of the skyscraper there lived a gambler, Memphis-born, whose name need not concern us and whose nickname changed with every hotel. He wore a fancy waistcoat and a shoestring tie, a silk shirt and a shiny top-hat; he slicked his hair with bear-grease and his smile flashed gold. The picture of his profession from the tilt of his top-hat to the tip of his polished shoe, his appearance was contrived with such nice sterility as to seem more abstract than apish; and in the lamplit fog of innumerable back rooms, whilst inferior players spat tobacco-quids upon the floor and let down their suspenders, this gambler wore his top-hat on his forehead, chewed a cheroot, smiled his golden smile. Last onto the table, he would always leave it last, his fine hands fisted round chips which he would cash or dollars he would bite – “And that’s how I got this tooth,” he’d say to the preening crinolines who waited for him at the bar, all eyes to catch his winning smile and win the night with him.
From New Orleans to St Louis, in the towns and on the riverboats, his world was harlequinned with colour: the red and blue and yellow of the court cards, the black black of the ace of spades; the silver shimmer of the dollar which sang when he flipped it, caught it, flipped it; the unreal emerald of the baize, a green which always seemed astonishing, and would admit no second vivid aberration. These were his sightlines and his compass-points, a world of fixed migration so alive it could be nothing else but artificial, utterly clearer, impossibly better than the mist which clung around the edges of the tables, the four sides of his real, cardbright life.
At the table he sat like a ramrod, drank like a lady, smiled like a mandarin, his whole being, or half-being, simplified into the pure attempt to teach patterns more exquisite patterns. He had no system and no tricks; his game was finely wrought of experience, concentration, and flexibility. His major wins were born of minor gains, his losses never more than temporary, a calculated sidestep in an intricately improvised pavane of the imagination. He played with his gold-plated gambling-pistol by his right hand, and he never used it.
He never argued, and he never cheated: a real gambler, he staked his life on play alone.
Some people, misled by his success, his smile, his exact dandyism, mistakenly credited him with the American innovation of the Joker, but at this his face grew serious: he played a fifty-two-card game, he said. The Joker was a visitor, and always welcome, but it was not his card. He knew his own card.
Away from the table, he lived as if through someone else’s afterthoughts: the regular failure of things to connect was at worst untroublesome, at best, relaxing. Once he told a girl he loved her: the consequences were so slight that he repeated this idea to almost every girl he hired, in every rented bed. This one had red hair, and that one had black eyes: the uniform softness of their breasts reminded him that daylife was a thing devoid of shape, of edges, of significance. Time passed as on an actor’s Sunday: a not unpleasant shade of grey which other people coloured for themselves, somehow. He wasn’t sure how. The idea didn’t interest him: his colours were ordained.
He saw his poker-life in terms of a simple narrative image which his mind gradually purified until it could repeat itself in all its details like a loop of cinematic film. He stood beside a row of foursquare gaming-tables, set so close together that there was no gap or chink between each one: the row ran with the authority of railroad across desert, to disappear over an inconceivably distant, possibly only theoretical, horizon. What he sought was the final table of the sequence; for the final table, he knew, would not be green but some other, undreamt-of colour that he would at once recognise as miraculously correct and utterly astonishing. It might be patterned like a card itself, it might be plain: it would explain everything. In his hand he held a virgin deck of cards, its edges crisp and cool, a double set of sweetly sliding parallelograms: easing and teasing the unbroken card pack, he would walk along the line of tables, his step like an Indian’s and his head on fire, his manhood raised before him like a lance.
For years the gambler stalked the road to paradise.
Until the nightmare came and at one stroke demolished the neat walls of his mental haven, laying bare the furthest corners of his mind. The gambler dreamt that he was playing a game in which the stakes were dangerously high, even for him, and that the cards had run against him. He knew full well that cards are simply dealt and played, but in this dream, they ran as if directed by an intelligence whose like he had never encountered before. The situation had reached the point at which he realized he would have to cheat or be ruined. Here lay an irritating warp of logic, a double bias; for though the gambler never cheated (hence his continuous success), yet in the dream he took the decision to cheat with utter calm and on the basis of a straightforward calculation – just as in an ordinary game he would decide to raise the stakes by a precisely necessary amount.
As soon as he made the decision, he became aware that there was an ace up his sleeve, an ace of spades.
The sensation as he snapped the lacquered card onto the slightly yielding baize was prolonged, intensely pleasurable, and entirely exact. He took his hand away, already envisioning the look on his opponent’s face, and as his fingers left the card, the image changed into a picture of a man hanging by the neck from a gallows. The legs swung very slightly.
An answer that refused to answer. The final table – did it bear the death-card? Did it? Did he then already know its colours and its pattern? Would the surprise be simply in its sudden, stunning position – the end of the row is here – as his looked down one day in a lifetime’s second to see the magnified image, bright but felt-furred, gently moving, its legs slowly swaying, swaying, a pictorial miracle achieved with all the mocking effortlessness of dreams?
And so the question was, the question simply was: at which green table in which smoky room?
He scripted possibilities. His opponent would see the card, lean back in his chair and fire – the gambler could feel the bullet pushing its way into his chest, taking as long to penetrate the flesh as it had taken him to lay the false ace on the baize. Or he would see the death-card and his heart would freeze – then start to pump, and pump, and rock his wriggling body till he saw his eyeballs pop out one by one and roll across the table, gathering fur. Or a noose would take his neck and lift him to the ceiling: was it the room moving down there, or was he moving? His tongue shot out and danced before his eyes: Why can’t I die, why aren’t I dying …? Hanged men ejaculate; and at this point in his thought he would see himself not walking along the row of tables but jerking like a puppet through the air above them, the noose around his neck, his thick seed spilling on the brightly lit baize.
And so the gambler smiled when he played poker.
From time to time he tried to tell his fear, not to the girls who moved their limbs between his sheets but to a whore’s child or a favourite and sexless Madame; but the words stuck to the inside of his mouth, the air grew thicker as he tried to say them, impenetrable with the threat of comprehension. Instead, he smiled, and was adored and hated.
He attempted to fight his way out of the half-locked logic of his visions: imitating recklessness, he tried to tempt death, to entice it, persuade it away to another place. Leaving his gambling-haunts, he broke horses, swam rapids, crossed deserts. When death would not be beckoned, he began to seek it openly: in avalanches and in burning buildings, his immortality laughed at him.
Death sat at a poker table, simply; at a certain poker table.
Returning to his game, he now played with a hermetic ferocity, his lip stuck to his golden tooth. The particulars of the rooms he played in, the names of towns and faces of opponents now faded from their prior misty significance to none at all: even as he sat, he walked beside the tables, always walked beside the tables.
One night in Memphis, towards the end of a century which had not existed for him, he came out from the back room to find the saloon girls gathered around a lamplit table in the corner: the rest of the room was empty, and in darkness. He paused for a second, expecting the group to break up and come towards him with their usual frills and imprecations; when they stayed, he moved across the room towards them.
Silent, the girls sat in a circle, watching one of their group laying cards out on the table.
As he approached, the gambler could see that the cards were not of the standard English design but of a different pattern. At first he took them for a particularly ornate transformation-pack of the type then much in vogue, but coming closer he realized he had never seen their kind before. He asked the woman who dealt them what they were.
“Not your kind of cards, I think.” She spoke with a pronounced French accent.
He asked again.
“You cannot make money with these cards,” she said “you cannot win. You would become so poor.” She laughed.
“What are they?”
“What are you doing with them?”
“Making time pass. What do you do with your cards?”
“Get rid of these girls.”
“Get rid of them.”
He took a handful of dollars and threw them into the corner of the room.
The group exploded, hissed and scrabbled in the darkness, thinned out into individual giggles which shutting doors truncated. The gambler sat down opposite the Frenchwoman: half-hidden by the lamp, her face was carved in stone, older than it had first appeared. He told her that he wanted her to explain something to him; he offered money.
“You cannot make money with the tarot,” she replied, picking the cards up from the table and slowly squeezing the pack into shape. “But I will tell you what you want to know.”
With utter clarity, lucidly and simply, he explained his vision of the tables, his journey towards the final table, his nightmare of the hanging man. She listened like a mask.
“The tarot, you have not seen it before?”
“Never. I don’t know what it is.”
“Few know it in America. They will. In France, we have known it for a long time.”
She tapped the table with the card pack, once, and disappeared into the contemplation of this gesture. When she resurfaced, she said:
“What you have seen is Le Pendu. Your own Pendu.”
“Le Pendu, L’Appeso, The Hanging Man. I will show you.”
With a single movement she took the card from the pack in her hand and laid it face down on the table.
The gambler flipped the card.
It was extraordinarily beautiful.
It depicted, as it always does in tarot packs, a man strung upside down, suspended by one leg from a gibbet, a smile upon his face. He clutched a large money-bag in either hand.
“Le Pendu, she said.”
And then, as his smile began to waver:
“Do not worry. It does not mean death.” She laughed.
“Not death as you imagine it. You see” – and here she paused – “they cannot die, the dead.”
First published in Panurge number 22, 1995