You can build a house of cards, you really can. I’m telling you, I saw a man do it once. I never used to believe you could, ‘cause I ain’t never done it then myself, and I never saw nobody else do it until then, but I seen a man do it once, build one up like a wedding cake.
It was in a saloon. I shouldn’t have been there, of course, not at my age. I was barely nineteen then, maybe still eighteen. But there was an older man worked down the undertakers who said he’d buy me a drink if I ever went there, to the saloon, said it would do me good, said it would help. He was the only man for miles around put velvet in the caskets, he said, and that meant he got paid good money, ‘cause people liked to know that they was passing away in what he called ‘luxury’. He had a funny way of saying it, I guess, like I ain’t never heard before. He kind of stretched it out some, and it was all in this higher-pitch he got when he was trying to impress, so it sounded like ‘looks-ewery’, like maybe an old woman from Texas would say it. He said ‘cause of people wanting luxury, he could afford to buy the whole room drinks some weeks, and he said that high-pitched too. In winter he was richest, he said, although this fall hadn’t been too bad neither, from his point of view.
Anyways, he bought me a drink, and then he said that I should watch this man playing with a pack of cards. He said that this man, he could do anything and everything with that deck of cards. So we sat right down at the table next to his, and we watched. He did a few card tricks first, like he told a lady to pick a card, and then guessed what it was, and it was the ace of hearts, and she just sat right down on his table next to him. She was real pretty, real pretty, but I didn’t think it would be right to look. Anyways, the man shuffled the cards all over, laid them all out flat and facedown on the table and made the seven of spades jump all over the place, like a fish come out the water. It went right round from one corner to the other, no lie. Every time he turned a card over, there it was, except right at the end, when it came up the seven of diamonds, and he just passed his hand right over it to turn it black. And then the undertaker, well, he says to the man that he should build a house of cards, ‘cause he doesn’t think it can be done. He told me later that he knew it could be done, ‘cause he’d seen this man do it, and that he was just goading the man on, because the man didn’t like that. The man had pride, you see. Didn’t like to be called no faker or no cheat. But I didn’t know that he could do it. Every other man I ever saw try to build a house of cards, it always fell down on them, sometimes near the start, sometimes right close to the end, but either way, I never saw them do it. But this man did it, this man really did it, no tricks and no folding cards or nothing. He built it all wide at the bottom, all these cards leaning against each other, with more cards laid flat on top, and it got thinner all the way up like a pyramid, like one of them they have in South America, over the border. I told the undertaker that’s what it looked like, and he said he didn’t know ‘bout them, but then he said that he was going to get enough money up, probably this next winter, and that he was going to go to Egypt to see the real pyramids he’d heard about, not the ones the Mexicans had that probably wasn’t really all that ancient as they said, and was saying all this is his high-pitch, and it was getting higher with every word. I tell you, I nearly laughed in spite of myself. Not that I didn’t believe him or nothing, ‘cause I’d seen the pictures and probably read the same books as him from the library, but it was just the way he talked. But he’d bought me a drink, so I held it in, the way you learn to do at school, when some other boy’s being whipped or something, and you know you’ll get whipped next for laughing. Anyway, this was all after it was built, and I still wasn’t sure at all what was going to happen when he came to holding the last two cards in his hands. The way he’d built it, all the other cards were facing inwards, and they had like, well, it was like wallpaper or something on their backs, like the wallpaper in fancy hotels maybe, but he put the last two cards facing outwards. They were the jokers, the one black and the other red, and they were sitting up there like the little figurines they put on wedding cakes sometimes, and the whole thing was sitting like one of them cakes anyway.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but I do now. I think about it often. She was wearing my ring that fall, a ring that cost most of what I earned since I got work when I was seventeen, and she’d been wearing it since spring. Nobody knew she had it until too late, and she was coughing in between the few words she could say. She’d always known that there were more words than I knew ever existed, she said that there were thousands. There were thousands of words, she said, and there were probably people using every one of them, at some time or another. I’d never thought about that being possible before, never thought about it at all, but I believed her. And then she got so bad with it all that she couldn’t say hardly two of those words. She reached out with my ring on her finger, and we never did get no wedding, like she wanted, but we was holding hands as she went. I told her it was like walking down the aisle, I said it’s like we’re going down the aisle and there’ll be God to be the priest that sees us wed. She knew I probably didn’t believe that, but she was smiling, when the coughing went away. She had enough faith for the both of us, she said, she always said that, so it made everything right. Her parents were kind enough to pay for the velvet in the casket, so as she could be sent off in the luxury she deserved. I got the ring back, because they didn’t think she should be sent off with it, us not having made it to the altar, and they thought maybe I might need it again, being as young as I was. I didn’t think so at the time, with her just newly cold and in the ground, but I guess now it’s been another age since then.
I bought a pack of cards last week some time, well, leastways I found it and there was nobody seemed to want it back. I’ve been practising with it most nights since, and even though I ain’t got nowhere yet, I reckon I’ll keep on goin’, ‘cause I seen it, and I know it can be done.