From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Playing with Spades

The Queen of Spades is missing from every set of cards she buys. Even from pinochle decks, with their doubled cards, which means she is always attempting to play pinochle at least two cards short if she uses the decks she’s bought. Not that she does that too often: the dullest pinochle player will notice missing Queens of Spades.

It must have some significance, this queen of spades, but she cannot figure out what it is.

She plays pinochle, regularly, with a set of three friends she doesn’t much like. They don’t much like her, either, or one another for that matter. They switch partners every week, which doesn’t seem to help. Double deck pinochle, which means four Queens of Spades in each hand, with four possible pinochles, the Queen of Spades overlaying, or embracing, the Jack of Diamonds. Impossible to play without a Queen of Spades, much less four Queens of Spades. Suggestions of switching to single deck pinochle have been shouted down.

Her friends are beginning to question why she never brings cards.

She’s tried. Tried heading to random stores, and just grabbing decks with her eyes closed. Tried asking other people to grab the decks for her. They look at her strangely when she asks this, but she’s pretty enough, and manages a nervous smile, so they do. “Arthritis,” she says, to anyone who appears particularly uneasy. They grab the decks for her, take them to the counter, where the cashier places them into a plastic bag. She takes the bag home, touching only the handles, and shakes out the card decks, opening them slowly, carefully.

She never finds the Queen of Spades.

#

Wikipedia tells her about the Queen of Spades. It could mean, it says, Old Maid. She does not like that thought. It could also mean the Alexander Pushkin story, or a Styx song. A now hated ex-boyfriend played Styx all the time. She decides not to play the song, for now.

She’s never read any Pushkin and isn’t sure she should.

She opens up another deck and spreads out the cards.

The Queen of Spades is missing.

Wikipedia has a link to the Pushkin story. She clicks. Her eyes follow the first sentence, then she stops, moving away from the computer.

#

One of the friends has found a significant other. He cannot stop talking about her. She does not like cards, or any games at all. The other three look at one another uneasily. This does not bode well for the card game, although they do not see this relationship lasting.

She wonders if she should invite an acquaintance to these games, after Significant Other friend leaves (the girl, it seems, is highly possessive, and already worried about this pinochle game, which includes two single women and a man who might possibly be gay, although he says he isn’t really).

She wonders if the new player will be able to pull out a Queen of Spades.

#

What does it say about her, that her three closest friends are unfriends?

#

The Significant Other friend is already having problems with the new girl. She exchanges glances with the other Single Woman, meaningful, discreet. The Significant Other friend does not notice, caught up in making vaguely misogynistic statements about the inadequacies of all women. The other man, who has gone through a divorce, occasionally adds to these comments. She should say something, she thinks, in defense of women. The other Single Woman occasionally does, looking at her for assistance. But instead, she finds herself making comments about the weather.

During the entire game, she is never dealt the Queen of Spades.

#

Her choice of friends means nothing. It has not even been a choice, not really, just a combination of happenstance, of circumstances. Of a love of cards.

#

Pushkin’s story is also about card playing. She thinks of the second chapter of the story as she looks at her partner, who this night is the Significant Other friend. He is having problems looking at her, talking to her; the new girl is troubling him. He will not, he says, be making it to the next couple of games. He needs to spend time with the new girl.

No one is surprised. They agree to miss the next week — it’s as well to have a break, they say — and then chat online and figure out what they will be doing next. This is normal, she tells herself, normal. And yet, as she drives home — they have been meeting in the home of the other man, Divorce Guy, which defies stereotypes by being remarkably neat and clean, with limited electronics — she finds herself trembling.

#

Eventually, despite the memories of the old boyfriend, she listens to the Styx song. It tells her to beware the Queen of Spades, that the Queen of Spades means only death. The song has something, too, about luck, about the dangers of relying on luck. Perhaps this means that the card’s absence from her life is a positive, an affirmation of life, even if it means she is struggling in pinochle. Perhaps it is a warning, that her life is luck, luck, luck, and nothing more. She realizes the absurdity of taking advice from rock songs; suddenly realizes just how often she has allowed a suddenly overheard song, or a random song from her iPod, to determine her next move. She shivers.

Listening does not increase her liking for Styx. She deletes the song from her iPod.

#

Single Woman has a friend she would like to invite to the next game while Significant Other guy is attempting to soothe the waters with the new girl. He likes cards, Single Woman emails, almost defensively, although he may seem a bit old to them.

This is an understatement. The friend turns out to be in his late 80s, charming, smiling, laughing. He is an uncle of Single Woman, and, they realize, relatively bored. He is also one hell of a card player; by the end of the evening, he and the other woman have destroyed the other two. She finds herself suddenly missing Significant Other Guy more than she had ever thought possible. The other woman begins to look a bit embarrassed.

She does not really care for winning, she tells herself, and yet she does: to have gone the entire evening without winning a single hand is humiliating. Divorce Guy looks at her across the table; she fancies that they are in sympathy for perhaps the first time, at least over this. Of course, she realizes, they have been losing all night.

#

She returns to the Pushkin story again and rereads the first page. Names jump out at her. The Comte de St. Germain. She relaxes a little. This name she knows: he was a vampire, right? She is not sure what a vampire is doing in a Russian story about cards. She is not sure what she is doing in a story about cards. But that it is a story, she is completely sure. She forces herself to read the tale, line by line.

She had read a book about him, or perhaps not. When she tries to think of the Comte de St. Germain she sees only blankness.

#

They try other players. Work acquaintances, people met through Craigslist, people met through a gaming store that both Single Woman and Divorce Guy head to from time to time. None of them quite work. They don’t know how to bid properly, how to play their hands well. She can feel Single Woman itching to correct them, biting back the words on her tongue.

They want to talk about other things besides cards.

#

It takes her forever to read through the Pushkin story, a tale with, she decides, entirely too many dilettante nobles in it. They would not have worried about cards if they’d had real jobs. That sounds, in her head, like an echo of what somebody else would have said.

The story is about ghosts and false love and cards. It is not her story. It cannot be her story. The Pushkin story has a Queen of Spades. She does not.

#

The guy without a clinging girlfriend, the guy with a divorce, has been doing remarkably well, tends to win the game no matter who he partners. He is talking about possibly heading to tournaments, to conventions, to play the game, matching his wits — their wits — against others. They could possibly win money, he says, to sweeten the suggestion. The other woman looks interested.

She clutches her hands tightly, noticing that her knuckles have gone slightly white. Her hand — twenty cards spread before her, a run in diamonds, kings around — stares back at her, or so she imagines, the dark eyes of the King of Diamonds almost accusing. She cannot go to the tournament. How can she play without the Queen of Spades?

And yet he is looking at her. Watching her. He wants her to go, she realizes, not Single Woman. Her stomach clenches.

She has never been good with change.

#

She opens up her laptop, moves her fingers confidently over the touchpad, opens up Freecell, begins to play — and is immediately stuck.

The computer has given her fifty-two cards, but no Queen of Spades; instead, she has two Sevens of Diamonds. Panicked, she starts a new game. Another fifty-two cards; no Queen of Spades. A third game. She closes down the game, opens up Solitaire. She is stuck again. Seven games later, and no Queen of Spades. Spider Solitaire. Nine games. Not a single Queen of Spades. Each game should give her two.

She slams the laptop cover down.

#

She watches birds swallow live fish whole, sees the wiggle of the fish as it slides down the bird’s long neck. She is out on a deck that extends out into a lake with the other man from the card group, the one not in a relationship. The one who usually wins, no matter who he partners. He has arrived slightly before the others, out of boredom, he says, and she is showing him the lake, also out of boredom. She is afraid that he is about to ask her out, that the dynamics are about to change, because of what has happened to Significant Other guy. She remembers, suddenly, that she had once thought he might be gay.

When he looks at her, she turns her head away.

“The others will be here soon,” she says, watching a heron swallow another fish.

He nods. “We should try playing out here some time,” he says.

“We should,” she agrees. The deck is wide enough, broad enough.

But they play inside, over a coffee table, as always, sipping the same wine, the same sodas, nibbling on slightly different cookies. She begins to relax, even as she notices that she is almost never dealt any spades during the entire course of the evening. She taps her fingers, hoping it isn’t spreading. Hoping it can stop with the queen. She needs spades. She needs spades in order to play.

#

Perhaps, she thinks, it is pinochle. Or the people she plays cards with. She needs to find another game. She heads out to one of the casinos, sits down to play poker, trembling. It is not her game, but she is not here to win.

A thousand dollars and an evening later, she leaves without having glimpsed the Queen of Spades.

#

“How do you know when you’re missing something?” she asks the other woman.

Single Woman shrugs, staring at her two new decks of pinochle cards, decorated with brilliant dragons. This is a change; they usually buy the plain cards from a Walgreens or CVS. These were clearly bought at some specialty store, or over the internet, perhaps. They are too beautiful to play with.

She wonders what the Queen of Spades from this deck will look like.

“I don’t know,” Single Woman says. “You just do. It’s just not there.”

She finds herself shivering a little. She wants to reach her hand out to the deck, to touch it, to feel the dragons under her hands, to know what holding the Queen of Spades would feel like, after all this time.

#

She will find a rational explanation for this. She will. Cards don’t disappear from people’s lives. Things disappear, people disappear, money disappears — but not cards. Not cards. She is having some neurological issue, some memory problem keeping her from seeing all the cards. That’s all. Simple. Easy. She finds herself breathing again.

#

Her friends — she uses that word more and more in her mind — have not seemed to notice that she is never dealt the Queen of Spades, not ever, no longer how long the evening lasts. She finds herself grabbing ever more quickly at the cards, scanning them desperately.

She is catching on to the trick of breathing past her disappointment, of showing nothing. The others do not notice the disappointment either, caught in their own concerns: Single Woman with job troubles; Divorce Guy with condo repairs; Significant Other guy — who stops by randomly — with the girlfriend dilemma.

When she deals, as she must, the hands she deals no longer contain any Queens of Spades. Instead, game persists with an extra queen of diamonds, an extra queen of clubs, extra jacks, extra kings, extra tens. This throws off the entire play, but no one else seems to notice.

#

She spreads two decks of cards in front of her, studies them. She has never believed in tarot, in fortune telling, although one time she and a friend had headed to the mall to have their tarot cards read. The fortune teller had noted the lack of Major Arcana in her spread, whatever that meant, had warned her that she needed to focus more on her studies, had assured her that yes, eventually she would find true love, just not now. That had been back in college.

She looks at the spread now, of regular playing cards, diamonds and hearts and clubs and spades. It means something, or it doesn’t. She wishes she could figure out which.

She clicks on her computer screen again.

#

It bothers her, sometimes, that none of her friends seem to notice that she cannot deal the Queen of Spades. It is not so much, she tells herself, that she cannot deal with her friends not noticing this, but these are card players. They should be able to tell.

#

The internet tells her that the Queen of Spades is calculating, disciplined, logical, craves power.

#

After four months, Significant Other Guy states that the girlfriend is about to break up with him. He is all apologies, saying that he will never leave the group for her again. They nod sympathetically. She partners him on his first night. They let him make the first deal. It should be the same, she thinks, but it is not. Something in the dynamic is changed; something is different. They all are playing badly, missing tricks they should pull, bidding poorly, failing to make bids. The game ends early. She has not even touched a Queen of Spades all night, but for once, this does not bother her.

The other man — the one not in a relationship, the one still hunched from divorce, suggests coffee afterwards. To her surprise she finds herself agreeing. They find a nearby Starbucks and order two decaf drinks. She notes he puts raspberry syrup in his, and realizes, suddenly, that this is one of the few things she knows about him.

They chat about cards, about places to buy cool card decks. The word deck reminds her of the moment by the lake. The talk shifts to books, to politics — they disagree, and the subject is rapidly changed — to sports, where both falter. It turns to movies.

I do not like these people much, she thinks, and then, but I do.

“Next time, we should invite the others,” she says.

He pauses. “Yes,” he agrees.

She finds herself remembering a moment where they had stood and watched birds swallowing fish. She is flushing, she thinks, she who never flushes.

#

The Internet also tells her that the Queen of Spades can also signify a breakup. A delay. Spades alone mean death. She thinks of spades — the other types of spades — digging up the earth. She decides she is being too literal.

#

“Give me the queen of spades,” she says to the other woman in the group.

The woman frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I mean — just hand me the card.”

The other woman looks at her hand, frowns. “That’s funny. I thought I was just holding it.”

Her fingers tremble, tingle. Calculating. Disciplined. Craves power.

She does not feel disciplined. She is shaking. She has played poorly tonight, she knows. “Never mind,” she says, and pushes back her chair. “I think I should go home,” she adds.

“Anything wrong?” asks Divorce Guy.

“Just a headache.”

“Cards can do that to you,” he says.

#

She has nothing to breakup. And nothing seems delayed. Death, then?

#

They are having coffee again, at the local Starbucks. He has exchanged his raspberry syrup for hazelnut; she is surprised to find herself remembering his preferences. He is saying something or other about his work, and she nods along. The normality of the conversation, the banality, almost calms her. He leans back.

“What’s with you and spades?”

Something is missing. Something.

He has noticed. She finds herself trembling. But she manages a grin. “Nothing,” she says. He grins back at her, and the conversation turns elsewhere, although she cannot say what it is about.

And yet.

It is not her imagination.

She sips coffee, tries to focus on the conversation.

#

Things die around her, as they do for everyone: plants, fish, the occasional dead bird or small animal seen along the road. Grandparents. Coworkers. One close friend; three acquaintances. Princess Diana. Heath Ledger. She consumes dead things.

#

Significant Other guy, too, is interested in the tournament. He will not bring the girlfriend, he tells them. Unless she insists. But he doesn’t think she will. Both of them — the women — are doubtful, although she doesn’t say anything. Single Woman does note that the girlfriend, by all accounts, is incredibly possessive and needy, and may not be happy with this planned expedition to a tournament.

Planned. The word almost freezes her bones. When did they plan this? Did she miss something? Did she miss a part of the story, focused as she was on the Queen of Spades?

Divorce Guy deals the cards. She does her now habitual check for the Queen of Spades before sorting, organizing her other cards.

Significant Other Guy agrees that the girlfriend won’t be pleased, but notes that she’s just been looking for an excuse to break up with him anyway. “And she won’t want to sit around and play cards.” The bid, show meld, play the hand. Only at the end does she realize that Divorce Guy is holding every Queen of Spades, has indeed held a Queen of Spades in every single hand. He smiles at her when he is not looking at his cards.

#

She is looking, she thinks, for an end to the story, for the magical twist where some fairy or goblin pops out and tells her what is missing, what is gone, what she must do to find it. what she must do to save the life of a friend, a lover, a parent, a child. She has none of these things to save, precisely, and she does not hear the voice of fairies. She has, after all, stepped into a fairy tale, has she not? A tale of disappearing cards, of things that make no sense? She imagines endings to her tale, that Divorce Guy comes to her, hands full of Queens of Spades, spreading them out on her bed just before they jump on it and make love. (Her mind falters a bit at this image.) Or that, instead of Divorce Guy, Significant Other Guy arrives at her door, holding, he says, tickets to the tournament in his hand, only when she grabs them, they turn out to be not tickets, but cards: Queens of Spades, dozens of them. She imagines herself travelling with Single Woman to the tournament, winning every game merely because she cannot hold the Queen of Spades, proving some moral point that every loss is a strength. She imagines finding a new job, finding that when she plays Solitaire on her work computer after a few weeks, the Queen of Spades appears, proving that what she really needed was a new job. (Only she does not quite believe this one, and stays where she is.) She imagines sitting at the dock, watching the birds, imagines a heron landing at her feet, a Queen of Spades in its long beak. She imagines that Pushkin’s ghost comes to her to explain the Queen of Spades, but she cannot understand him, because she speaks no Russian.

She imagines a thousand endings. She does not find any.

She remembers looking at people, thinking that they did not know what they were missing.

Perhaps that is it; perhaps she just knows what she is missing. And how many people can say that?

She finds herself laughing.

#

They have gathered at her house again, complementing the cookies she has baked. Significant Other Guy claims he has broken up with the girlfriend. Dubious looks are exchanged, but no one says anything aloud other than sympathy. She decides to break out wine, under the circumstances, and also shares a box of Godiva chocolates. The men dismiss the concept, but take the chocolates anyway. She also brews up coffee; for some reason, she is certain it will be a long night. Single Woman starts dealing the cards. They play the first hand; she pours everyone more coffee and wine.

She is not holding the Queen of Spades, but she is holding coffee. Cookies. Chocolate. She is holding something, and it is her time to deal the cards.

Mari Ness worships chocolate, words and music, in no particular order, and has a second career as cat furniture for two adorably cute cats. Her work has previously appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Aberrant Dreams, Coyote Wild, and several other print and online places. She keeps a blog at mariness.livejournal.com.

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11 Responses »

  1. Nice work, Mari! Congrats!

  2. Really enjoyable premise, and I liked that nothing was neatly solved. Well done!

  3. Great story, Mari.

  4. Excellent. I really enjoyed it. There was no light of comprehension at the end of the tunnel. The story didn’t really have an ending, but I wasn’t particularly disappointed by that. After all, I had been warned from the very beginning that something was missing. I was reminded periodically that something was always going to be missing.

    At the end, I found the same comfort as the character. Something was still missing, but at least I knew what it was. In real life, I never do figure out just what is missing. I always need, but I never understand exactly what it is that I need. I have always suspected that was a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Your story did much to reinforce that notion.

    On other thing, and I might not have noticed this if I hadn’t read the story just after waking from an afternoon nap. The story had the feel of a captured dream. Is that what happen, Mari? Did you capture a dream and share it with us? How very generous of you.

  5. Thank you, everyone, for the kind words.

    Glenn, although some of my stories are sparked by dreams, this one wasn’t, as far as I know. But it’s possible that the story has that effect simply because I’ve been writing dreams into so many of my tales.

  6. I loved the multiple possible endings that the author gave us, and the, rather bittersweet, ending that she selected. It just felt right.

Trackbacks

  1. The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: August 4, 2009
  2. The Black Letters · “Playing With Spades,” Mari Ness (2009) E
  3. Fantasy Magazine » Chock Full Of Social Commentary: Mari Ness
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