This week’s story features another of the more unusual unpaired items I’ve come across. This time it’s a playing card – a ten of spades – noticed in a gutter on the side of Pullman Road. Unusual enough to spark my interest and prompt a picture. But then I saw it again five weeks later, sitting on a sidewalk four-tenths of a mile east of its original spot and I was, frankly, a little creeped out. The card was tattered the first time I saw it. It was a wreck the second time.
As I thought about these two pictures, I began with a simple enough image of a poker game. I quickly realized that the game took place on the night of the inciting incident in “Gold Knit Glitten.” And then I speculated how this item – a small part of that fraught gathering – might have been moved by human and other forces, just as the the lives around the card had been.
Alex was on his way out the door for his first class on Monday, March 20 when he saw a playing card – the ten of spades – on the floor just to the left of his front door. He looked at it, furrowed his brow and then closed his eyes.
. . .
Twenty-nine hours earlier, he had been leaning on the rear passenger door of a blue Audi A4 parked on Third Street just west of Polk. He heard the door of the house across the street open. The sound reverberated through the cool silence of the first hours of the early spring day. He heard footsteps on the wooden steps and then on concrete and asphalt. Now he could smell the tequila sweating out of the approaching presence.
“Alex!” Alex turned and found the owner of the Audi and one of the hosts of the party that was winding down in the house across the street. He nodded a greeting. “You have fun?” the young man asked. He was holding a deck of cards and began riffling them with his thumb.
“Sure,” Alex responded.
The young man held the cards out and said, “Cut.”
Alex looked at the cards and said, “Why?”
“Just cut. Why the fuck do you have to be so ‘whyyy’ all the time?” The young man put a nasal whine in the quoted word that caused Alex’s mouth to twitch and flatten. Alex breathed in and out then reached out and cut the deck high – only five cards down. He didn’t look at the card and he didn’t show it to his companion.
After waiting for a few moments, the young man pulled the top card off the stack and showed a ten of spades. He said, “There’s my cut. If you lose, you have to take off your pants and walk home. If you win, I’ll drive you home.”
Alex cupped the five cards face down and went to lay them back on the deck. He said, “You’re not driving me home.”
The young man pulled the deck away, hiding it in his hand behind his back. “Nope. Nope. Nope. Show me your fucking card. You don’t get everything your own way.” Alex breathed in and out deliberately again, closed his eyes for a moment, opened them again and flipped his hand over. It was a ten of hearts.
The young man looked at the card in the yellow sodium light of the pre-dawn street and squinted. He pursed his lips and then looked up at Alex’s face. “Of course. You are a pain in the ass.” He looked at Alex as he took a breath. He then turned his attention to the ten of spades in his hand and said, “You sure could have made things easier for me if you didn’t whine about not wanting to play poker.”
“I wasn’t going to play strip poker with you,” Alex said. It was said with almost no inflection.
“It’s not like I was going to manipulate cards to make you lose.” The young man increased the volume of “you” by approximately 20 percent.
“I knew what your plan was,” Alex replied quietly with a slight smile.
The young man wrinkled his nose up and in a high nasal tone said, “I knew what your plan was.” He shook his head and, returning to his normal voice said, “well, I didn’t need your help to seal the deal anyway.” He was now smiling broadly and repeatedly spinning the ten of spades atop his index finger. They both watched the card spin.
“What’s her name?” Alex said.
The young man fumbled a spin. He re-positioned the card and spun it seven more times before he laughed and said, “Alex, you’re a card.” He then patted Alex on the shoulder and said, “have a nice night.” The young man started across Third Street and Alex turned, stepped onto the sidewalk and began walking west toward his apartment. He didn’t notice the playing card tucked into the hood of his coat.
. . .
Alex leaned down and picked the card up off the floor. He started to set it on the small set of shelves next to the door but then pulled his hand back and stepped to his right into the kitchen. He dropped the card into the nearly full trash can. He began to turn to leave again, but turned back. He pulled the white plastic trash bag from the can and left the apartment. In the parking lot, he tossed the bag into the overflowing dumpster. A banana peel, a Campbell’s Hearty Chicken Soup can and a post-it note with the words “drop food at 1912 Center” fell out of the bag. He picked the peel and the can up and wedged them into the bulging mass just under the rim of the dumpster. The post-it note blew across the parking lot. As he stepped to retrieve it, the ten of spades rode another gust of wind out of his trash bag and under a 1979 Volvo sedan 20 feet away. Alex picked up the Post-It note, walked back to the dumpster, tucked the blue square next to the banana peel and began his walk to school.
As he settled into a seat near the back of Albertson Hall 102 for his Advanced Evolution/Population Dynamics class 47 minutes later, the Volvo backed quickly out of the parking space at his apartment building. The air current from the reversing car pulled the ten of spades into the driving lane in front of the boxy sedan. As the Volvo pulled forward and out of the parking lot, the tires straddled the card. And again the current of the moving car drew the card along after it. The plasticized paper rectangle flitted through the air for 18 feet and tumbled a further four feet, coming to rest at the edge of the parking lot.
The card stayed there, face up in the sunshine for five hours, until a gust of wind out of the north picked it up and deposited it in the lower branches of an Oregon Grape bush at the southwest corner of the parking lot. Alex was sitting in a coffee shop at Sixth and Main Streets at the time, looking at a screen of spreadsheet data with his forehead resting in his hand.
The bush thrived that spring, its branches growing an average of five inches from March to September. The owner of the building mauled the bush when he trimmed it in mid-September, pruning it with no regard for its health or appearance. The card rode on one offcut branch into the the bed of a small pickup truck along with the extensive product of the owner’s aggressive, amateur landscaping effort. That evening, as the truck rolled south on Peterson Drive, the card was caught in the eddy of air behind the cab. The current picked the ten of spades up and deposited it just off the sidewalk near the south entrance to the Arby’s parking lot.
As the card settled into the mulch there, the owner of the blue Audi was outside his the house on Third Street reaching both hands into the trunk of his car. He came out with a bright blue 12-pack of Montucky Cold Snack beer which he tucked under his right arm. He leaned awkwardly back into the trunk and his arms emerged with a 30 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon suspended from each hand. He crossed the street, climbed the steps and entered the already open front door. He yelled, “supplies are here!” and set the beer down on a coffee table in the middle of the front room. He began to turn away but suddenly cocked his head, reached down and lifted a deck of cards from the table. He began to lay them out on the table by suit and when he had four neat piles, he took one up and ordered the cards quickly before setting it down. He took the second pile up, sorted through it and stopped. He fanned the cards out and shook his head. He yelled to the house, “Who the fuck has been messing with this deck? How the fuck am I supposed to get a chick out of her clothes if I don’t have a full deck of cards?” There were three distinct laughs from various parts of the house. The young man smiled.
. . .
The 10 of spades sat in the mulch at the edge of the Arby’s parking lot through the fall and early winter. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a boy in a puffy red coat was walking from the Arby’s through the parking lot toward a blue Toyota Prius in the spot closest to Peterson Drive. A woman in a red wool coat trailed behind the boy. She went to the driver’s door and he went to the other side of the car. As he reached for the rear door handle, he turned, crouched down and picked the card up from the mulch. He got in the car and set the card on the seat and buckled his seatbelt. The woman was in the driver’s seat adjusting the mirror. When the seatbelt buckle clicked, she nodded almost imperceptibly and pushed the “start” button.
As the Prius backed out of the parking lot, Alex was sitting on the couch in his apartment, listening to the young woman sitting next to him say, “Just don’t go to his house this weekend, okay? Trust me.”
“Janie,” Alex said. “What the hell?”
He looked at the side of her face as she closely watched the nail of her left index finger scratch along the inside seam on the right leg of her jeans just above the knee. She took a breath, looked up at his face and then said, “Alex, you were at a party at his house last spring. In March, right? Do you know the one I’m talking about?” He turned away and took in a breath and let it out slowly.
As the silence in Alex’s apartment extended, the Prius turned into the parking lot of The Furniture Center, four-tenths of a mile east of Arby’s. The blue car buzzed into a parking spot on the east side of the store and the driver’s door and rear passenger side door opened simultaneously. The boy emerged from the car with the ten of spades in his right hand. He walked around the back end of the car as the woman in the red wool coat said, “We’re just going to look quickly at coffee tables. Stay with me and don’t go wand- Edward, why do you insist on picking random things up from the ground? Drop that immediately!” Edward stopped and looked at the card in his hand. He then placed a corner of the card between the index and second fingers of his left hand and flicked it backhand away from the car toward the street. It flew 27 feet and landed in the middle of the nearly empty parking lot. He turned back to his mother, took the wet wipe she was holding out to him and wiped his hands carefully with it. “You can ask a worker in the store where a trash can is,” Edward’s mother said as she steered him by the top of his head to the glass doors.
As they entered the store, a gust of wind blew in from the west-northwest. The current picked up the ten of spades and deposited it on the sidewalk adjacent to the curving stretch of road that is the transition from Third Street to Pullman Road. Thirteen minutes later as the Prius sat at the exit to the parking lot, a UPS van sped by westbound on Pullman Road. In its wake, the ten of spades lifted from the sidewalk and tumbled 18 inches south and 2 feet west into the gravel-filled gutter.
. . .
On the afternoon of January 7, a lanky man was striding east on the sidewalk on Pullman Road. Just as he passed the entrance to The Furniture Center parking lot, he stopped. He pulled a camera out of the bag on his back, crouched down and took a picture of the ten of spades in the gutter. As the man stood up and stowed his camera, Alex, in his apartment up the hill from Arby’s, leaned on the kitchen table with his smartphone held to his left ear. He said, “I have to get the ring from you before I head down to Emmett.” After a moment he smiled and said, “yeah. I think I am.” There was a brief silence and then Alex laughed and said, “well, you’ll probably never have a chance since no girl will get close to your house any more.” His face pinched as he listened for a moment. “Sorry. That was probably too soon.”
. . .
At 12:14 P.M. on February 10, a gust of wind came out of the west and lifted the playing card 17 inches in the air. The wind was sustained at 17 M.P.H and carried the card for 97 feet before it hit the back bumper of a white Subaru Forester traveling eastbound on Pullman Road. It fell to the ground. The card, made brittle by exposure to the elements, broke on a rough diagonal line when the passenger side rear tire of a red Mazda Miata rolled over the card. A corner – approximately 1/5 the total area of the card – caught on a tire stud and remained on the tire. The other 80 percent of the card flipped into the air and was caught in the wake of a red Jeep Wrangler behind the Miata. This current lifted the card 42 inches off the ground and into the now 27 M.P.H wind out of the west. If anyone in the Jeep had been looking, the card would have appeared to be matching pace three feet behind. The card stalked the Jeep for a further 1200 feet, moving a few feet left and right and a few feet toward and away from the Jeep, but essentially keeping pace.
At 12:16, the card tumbled out of the Jeep’s wake, landing on the sidewalk as the Wrangler turned into the parking lot of the chrome-sided Varsity Diner. As the Jeep parked, a 31 M.P.H. gust pushed the card along the Third Street sidewalk toward Adams street. As the ten of spades was about to slip off the sidewalk onto the asphalt of the three lane thoroughfare, a UPS van sped by at 41 M.P.H. The vortex following the van pulled the card South along the sidewalk and pushed it closer to the building. The remains of the mangled card now sat 14 inches from the edge of the sidewalk nearest the diner, protected from the west wind by the bulk of the shiny building.
Forty-seven minutes later, a lanky man strode northbound on that sidewalk. He stopped suddenly two feet from the card and looked down. He crouched down and looked at the card. He shook his head and smiled.
At the moment the lanky man began to lift his bag off his back, Alex, who was sitting across a table from Janie in the window at the coffee shop on Sixth and Main Streets, said, “the police want to talk to me. I’m a little freaked out.” Janie was silent. She looked across the table at the intersection of forehead and hairline on Alex’s slightly bowed head. Though Alex couldn’t see it, Janie’s face was slowly transitioning from a flat, tense neutral expression to one with slightly furrowed brow and flattened lips that Alex would have recognized as sympathy.
“I’ll only say this once,” Janie said as she raised her right index finger, touched it to the geographic center of his forehead and forced his face up until his eyes met hers. “I. Told. You. So.” She paused and then said, “He’s no good, Alex.” She held his gaze for another moment’s silence. “Geez, you’re more than a little freaked out.” She punched out a breath through her nose. “Look, do the right thing and maybe you’ll learn something about yourself. You know she’s a friend of Lacey’s right?”
“Yeah,” Alex said. He continued to look at her before he said in a rush, “Look I’m sorry about the conversation you overheard but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just the way our pack talks.” He paused a moment before saying, “J, you know we’d be engaged now if you hadn’t happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
There was silence for 18 seconds. Janie’s face hardened again and a flush of red crept up from her neck past her jaw onto her cheeks. As the silent seconds creeped by she sucked in a breath through her teeth. She let half the lungful pass with a quiet hiss between her lips and then said in a flat low tone, “Did you hear what you just said?” She looked at him for four seconds before he turned away. She stood up and walked toward the exit onto Sixth Street.
As Janie stepped out the door, a gust of wind found its way around the chrome structure at Third and Jackson. It picked up the tattered remains of the ten of spades and blew it into the path of a white 1992 Subaru Legacy station wagon with Gem County plates. The card lodged in the front grill of the car. As the Subaru crossed Sixth street, traveling south on Jackson and just beating the yellow light, Janie waited at the corner. The walk light came on in front of her and she crossed the street as the station wagon (and the ten of spades) disappeared around the curve that would lead to the highway south toward Boise.