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vol 8 - issue 05 (jan 2006) :: pen & think
Words by Smokin' Joe Blow

Thirteen Cards in a Deck. Thatís just how it is. Might as well question why the sky is blue, or why the grass is green. The fact remains: There. Are. Thirteen. Cards. In. A. Deck. If you ask me, itís just one more riddle we got no hope of solving.

Wiser men than I, your Most Humble Narrator, have bent their learned minds to the test, calculating with calculators, producing volumes of printouts, grease boards chock-full of Greek theorem, and spreadsheets crammed of every possible explanation but no real answers. If you ask me, theyíll figure out who shot JFK, why hangers multiply in dark closets, or why pussy tastes so goddamn good before they reach any conclusions about the Deck.

// Searchlights chase dark storm clouds ripe with inner thunder across the evening sky, like the children of giants playing tag in the park... //

For instance, why are there thirteen Cards? No more, no less. Doesnít strike you as strange? Some say the number of Cards in a Deck points a finger toward intelligent design. Some claim the 1 and the 3 are hidden messages from a god no one trusts anymore. And some just roll their eyes. But facts is facts, and grass is green. Whether you see those now-holy numbers as 2+5+6=13; (256), being 2 to the eighth power; 1+3=4, also equal to 2 to the second power; or 3Ė1=2, (precisely the amount of numbers a computer can recognize), everybody calls Decks the same thing: pure fucking magic.

// He hurries through the station gate, skidding to a stop at platform seven. The train is already here; a brightly-colored Chinese dragon built of clanking steel hissing twin jets of hot steam through forged nostrils from its temporary home on the last track. He glances around at the bundled families and traveling businessmen before taking the Deck out of his pocket. Holding it aloft he waits, breathlessly. The Deck is silent; right church, wrong pew. Itís the fifth time heís been wrong tonight. Lucky for him, this ainít the only dragon in town. But heís got to hurry. Itíll be seven any minute now... //

Decks donít come with instruction manuals, which means thereís no reasonable fucking explanation why these glowing rectangles generate light without heat, connectivity without cables, and rhyme without reason. Ainít a brand name, model number, or power button on any Card of any Deck anywhere. But thereís no Deck without thirteen Cards. Doesnít matter what Cards you use; switch out, trade with friends, whatever. Come the dawn, the sky is still blue, and the grass is still gonna be green, green, green.

// Destination, a hotel downtown. His arms churning, legs pumping, and raw lungs sucking sharp oxygen from cold night air; the staccato pop of boot heels report like tiny rifle shots on cobblestone streets, echoes filling the concrete valleys formed by remodeled warehouses and leftover loneliness, blowing in the wind like candy wrappers. Heís running out of time... //

So how do they work? Shuffle the Pack. Draw a Card. Not just any Card-- youíve got to know your Deck to make your Deck work. Flip it over, slip it in, and the Deck becomes a phone. Flip another Card 180 degrees and you got yourself a camera. Flip a different Card X number of times and the Deck will play your favorite song, instantly, without static or batteries. But youíve got to know your Deck, green. Dig?

// Complex scents fill the air: coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom-- a sidewalk Pakkie closes for the night. Heavy incense billows forth from open cathedral doors, lit from within by hundreds of flickering candles, the scented smoke boiling out into the night by the force of whispered prayers. He redoubles his speed... //

Essentially, flipping any one of the glowing blue Cards along its X or Y axis produces any one of 676 different tools. The hardest part comes in figuring out the combinations, and remembering how you got there to begin with. Man, you can do all kinds of crazy shit with a Deck. Like I said, youíve got to know your Deck.

// He flings apart the gigantic glass double doors of the St. George Hotel, shoving blades of angular light across the room like a nervous man in a knife fight. Secret mechanisms hidden deep in dense granite walls catch the doors, exponentially reducing his transferred momentum to a shrug... //

When you hold a Deck, you hold impossibility in your hands. Gone are the days of lingering at the gates of the temple for the technocracy to bring the scripture to the people; the faithful have seized the Word from the altar and run screaming into the street, laughing, weeping, and fucking with joy. Ladies and gentlemen, you are free to roam about the cabin of your mind.

// The gesture goes unnoticed, save for the Madonna and Child etched upon the doors, a thing at once infinite and elegant exploding slowly in the orange light leaking in from neon streets. Those boot heels fall silent on deep red carpet now, the scent of gin stings his nostrils. Seven mighty gargoyles leer down from the top of a fountain bubbling soft secrets. "Not quite right," they say. "That makes six." But heís close, with only minutes to go... //

The crazy thing is, Decks donít work the same way for everyone, and they sure donít work for just anyone. The mating of the right Deck with the right user is a powerful thing to behold. Sends shivers up your spine like the smile of a pretty girl, like a miracle, like your first kiss. Something youíll never forget-- letís put it that way.

// The voice said "Stand before the Dragon and be recognized by seven." Checks his watch, seven minutes till seven. Running out of time. His eyes dart frantically around the room. Was he imagining things? He bursts into the lounge, finds it, a mural of St. George and his most Ancient Enemy hanging over the bar... //

And sometimes, just sometimes, the Cards tell you things. Knew a guy once. Talking with an old friend on his Deck? A voice comes over the line. Like it was haunted or something. Told him tonight was the night when he must stand before the Dragon and be recognized by seven. "Did you hear that?" But no, it was meant for him, and him alone. Made his blood run cold. Was he imagining things? Doomed to die? Destined for love? If you ask me, you canít truly have one without knowing the other.

// Breathless, he drinks in the biomass looking for signs. Flashbulbs pop every few seconds, a table of laughing women enjoy an evening away from husbands and familial responsibility; he hears the sound of someone, possibly bored, spinning a coin on a table top; the moist crunch of light refreshments dissolving in human mouths; the dull roar of conversation punctuated by hissing female sibilant 'S'; somewhere high above it all, the sound of violins... //

"When opportunities come, we should not turn away." He read that somewhere, and it gave him the shoves to act. Springs into action, a once-in-a-lifetime call to arms. Runs like a raped ape length and width of the city, looking for dragons. Shit at the zoo. Nothing in the junk stores. Museums were no fucking help (nothing by Blake available). "This is it," thinks he looking at the mural, "itís gotta be." Get it wrong, the Deck may never speak again. Worse yet, it may cease to work, a thought too terrible to entertain: YOU ARE NOW LEAVING HEAVEN. HEREíS YOUR HAT. WHATíS YOUR HURRY? Either way, best not to question a Deck.

// Monitors fill every wall, patrons held captive by an onslaught of stimuli and spiced white drinks strong enough to start your car. Swore heíd stop coming to these places, looking for something heíd given up on long ago; chasing a foolish dream that seemed to amend itself every time he touched it, a puzzle without a True Solution... //

So he takes a seat along the massive rectangle of polished cherry, orders something Russian, and waits.

// He refrains from too many, for fear of tearing his cotton thoughts on the thorns of the Rose of Decision waiting just downstream. Need a clear head. With trembling hands, he draws forth his darkened Deck. Death or Desire, no telling anymore. Waiting for his Personal Armageddon, he takes a deep breath and puts the last of his trust in the Great Unknown. Itís out of his hands now; itís on the bar, with a click... //

He catches his reflection staring back from the mirror behind the bar. Sort of a strange looking man; wild green eyes stare out from behind clunky black glasses, shooting for that sexy intellectual look thatís all the rage. Full mouth, high cheekbones. Had it all a few years back, but calendars turn on everyone; his looks are approaching an apex of sorts. Creases around the eyes. Unusually tall, cautiously angular. An expensive timepiece on his left wrist, visible as he runs one hand through thick black hair standing on end, gone all salt-and-pepper hair at the temples.

// Too busy looking for the Past in the eyes of the Present, he fails to notice the Future glowing softly on the bar... //

He doesnít know himself anymore, canít keep track of all the people heís been. Somewhere between Careless Anger, Elder Spokesman, and Youthful Wisdom lies Aging Hipster. He is none of those things. Tonight, he is Trembling Child, rolling the dice. One. More. Time.

// His heart skips a move as he watches the Deck flash once, and again. And once again. Exploding softly, receding gently. Decks donít do that. They just donít. Sky is blue, grass is green. We know so little about the Decks, but weíve never seen one do that before. He canít hide his astonishment from the eyes of strangers focused on him. We now return you to the Miracle already in progress... //

"Is that your Deck? Iíve never seen one do that before!" says a soft voice to his right. He nods slowly, dumbfounded, unable to tear his eyes away from the occulting thing on the bar. But when he turns to face the speaker, heís speechless all over again.

// His eyes donít pick her up at once, but in pieces, like a man who finally understands how the puzzle fits together. Light dons on yonder mountain. At last, he understands the True Solution. Eyes of melted jade punch their way in through one side of his soul and out the other, supporting him, the only thing preventing him from falling down... //

He canít hear himself speaking. He hopes heís saying something reasonably intelligent.

// The room was comfortable a few seconds ago, but now he feels hot flames of fire rolling up and down his spine. Perfumed smoke from some strange and delicate cigar rests between those reed-slender fingers dressed in fire-engine red, like the violet gong of catastrophe. Its opposite tucks locks of jet-black hair behind a generous ear, drawing open her smile like curtains on a stage, and he is struck quite suddenly across the chest by a hammer he cannot see. Fever shines in his face like moonlight... //

He counts two silver Hindu rings on her soft right hand, and two perfect smoke rings rising slowly to copulate with the chandelier. One heel of two leather boots hooked over brass rail, a glass of blood-red wine before her. He feels as though heís been shot; turns out itís just his heart-- pounding, thudding, exploding wildly in his chest.

// As she smiles a smile heís never, ever seen before he notices for the first time a bright red dragon breathing vivid tendrils of green flame dancing across one supple shoulder. Time stops. Stand before the Dragon and be recognized by seven. No way. Canít be that easy. He waits with baited breath, torn between anguish and bewilderment. He canít bear another night alone, another paper cut across his heart... //

Somewhere far above, the stars are shining brightly; Somewhere far below, a cool breeze finds the tortured brow of the Damned, and Somewhere in the night, seven bells ring out.

// Seven bells. Stand in the presence of the Dragon and be recognized by seven. He doesnít know to shit, cry, or wind his watch. But you bet your ass heís a believer now... //

If you ask me, every little thing is going to be alright.

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