Chlora is in her late grandfather’s study on a rainy Sunday afternoon…
Chlora wiped off the window pane with the hem
of the burgundy velvet drapes.
In the reflection, she practiced her best poker face,
then noticed a curious overlay of images.
The bookshelves behind her appeared on the glass,
superimposed on the view outside—it was lush
with the greens and blues of afternoon.
The montage of books and nature broke up the space
into flat planes, like the Cezanne landscape paintings in her book.
When you’re looking for something, it pops up everywhere.
She glanced at her book again.
It was the one on “French Impressionism: A New Way of Seeing”
that she had checked out last month. It had practically popped off
the shelf and into her hands, it was so striking.
But Stogie the weenie dog chewed up the corner of it,
which meant Chlora had to empty her piggybank
to pay for the damage. But then the nice librarian gave her the book.
The slobbery teeth marks certainly didn’t deter Chlora
from flipping through the pages.
On the last page it showed the same picture
that was on Granddaddy’s wall right here.
Figure the odds on that!
How do you beat the odds?
Mr. and Mrs. Odd, who are you?
Just what is luck anyhow? Do lucky charms help?
Are there any coincidences in the big scheme of things?
The picture on the wall was just an old poster, curled up at the bottom,
of Cezanne’s “Card Players”. They seemed quite at home
here in the silent smokin’ room.
Granddaddy and his old geezer friends used to play
the holy game of poker in here on Saturday nights.
They told Grandmother they were just playing bridge.
She had seen too many Sin City movies and TV westerns
and thought poker was all gambling and no skill
and caused best friends to cheat and
shoot each other in the face,
as if they were duck hunting or something.
Chlora couldn’t tell what the big deal was.
Watching them play poker was like watching paint dry.
It was no more chancy than playing the stock market
or practicing superstitions.
Just being alive is risky, but this was not high stakes poker,
except when they got their stack of chips so high
It was something like playing 52 Pick Up or winning a door prize.
Chlora won a raffle once herself, and got a year’s supply
of rabbit feed. And another time she walked in a new store
and was the one-hundredth customer. For that, she won
a ladies’ dress that was five times too big.
So Granddaddy called her his lucky trump card.
Granddaddy and his friends never talked much,
just concentrated on their cards and drank wine.
They would shuffle their feet like shuffling cards
and try to maintain a straight face,
but as Granddaddy said, it all leaks out of the eyes.
Chlora recalled the sound of their poker chips chattering
as they fiddled with stacks of them.
It sounded like the lazy chatter of squirrels.
They chuckled about smoker poker
while they puffed on their cigars and pipes
until the room swelled with a sweet haze of cherry tobacco.
That fragrance still lingered here,
blended with the musty smell of old books,
and embedded in the paneled walls and drapes.
The room was a small cathedral coated with centuries of incense
that carried the prayers of the people into every nook and cranny
that God stuck his nose into.
Chlora didn’t know jack about poker, except
that it used no jokers, no dice.
And there was some big deal about a royal flush,
which had something to do with a toilet.
Whenever the geezers used a new deck, they’d discard
the jokers in a drawer. Chlora found them
and made herself her own deck.
Next Sunday she’d take them to church and play the match game.
It was a wild bunch of cards.
God seemed to like wild cards; she doubted God ever threw them out,
even the racy ones. Chlora liked the joker with the sassy dancer.
She was prettier than the fat naked
lady on Granddaddy’s cigar box.
She queried him about that once and he explained
that it was a Bible character named Bathsheba,
who usually got blamed for showing off for King David.
He had been playing hooky nookie instead of waging war.
Which was worse?
A bit later, Chlora makes a puzzle out of the Cezanne picture…
Chlora decided to see what she could do with her collection of joker cards,
flat as the red rooftops in Cezanne’s paintings.
Most of the jokers looked like court jesters
who performed for kings and queens.
If their humor got too truthful, they could get booted out of the kingdom
or get their heads chopped off like John the Baptist.
She shuffled the wild cards and told them
they’d be better off by seeking the kingdom within.
Those wild cards shouldn’t be domesticated,
but if they were to act like a true deck,
they needed a more uniform look on their backsides.
Chlora removed the thumbtacks from the poster of The Card Players.
Chlora wished she’d brought her plaid pencil case today.
But digging through other desk drawers
she found a ruler, pencil, scissors and rubber cement.
The pencils smelled good and woody.
They weren’t all chewed up like hers were.
She drew a grid on the poster and cut it into card size rectangles.
Then she carefully stuck them to the backs of the jokers.
The rubber cement fumes helped her stuffed up nose.
The picture, now fragmented like a bad case of Postmodernism,
was more puzzling than ever. She couldn’t make head or tails of it.
She brought over her book and discovered
that you had to look closer than ever,
because there was not just one picture of those Card Players, but five.
The first painting had five people, then four people,
and the last three paintings got down to the final table of two.
The paintings were like triplets who weren’t quite identical twins.
Those cardplayers eliminated the element of time.
One might be a blue chip player with an
ace up his sleeve, but there didn’t seem to be any
cheating hearts telling on them.
Rather, it was like time lapse photography where two or three
had gathered together. It felt like something was in the midst of them,
a Third Thing—and yes, there it was, a wine bottle, smack in the center
of the picture where a third man had sat before.
The card players’ hands didn’t quite touch,
but they got closer with each picture,
and the wine bottle seemed to bridge the gap.
The table seemed to be on fire, like a Presence seen.
The two old friends weren’t looking at the table or at each other,
but at their cards, and they were down to just a few.
They had put their cards on the table and were calmly
searching them. You gotta get to know the hand you have been dealt.
Chlora decided that the man on the left
had become ordained in the process,
as his shirt had evolved into a priest’s collar.
This might happen to her Granddaddy’s shirts still in his closet;
she would go check on them later.
The whole scene had the solemnity of holy communion,
even if it was just a game.
Something was unseen, yet you know it when it’s there.
Cezanne challenged Chlora to come up with a sixth way of seeing.
Cezanne apparently had eyes in the back of his head,
like her mother did. He could paint oranges and apples
with their backside and front side showing all at once.
Chlora attempted to curve her eyes around things
but it made her go cross-eyed.
She wished she was an owl, and could turn her entire head around,
but then it might pop off, so seeing sideways would have to suffice.
Perhaps the sixth type of vision
was seeing nothing and becoming invisible,
like love overtaking a body and floating it away,
as when Jesus ascended.
Matter and energy take turns transforming all the time,
so she should try it. This would require the intensity
of X-ray vision in reverse.
Darkness would help and silence was crucial.
Chlora continued to mess around with the Impressionist art book,
seeing Cezanne’s paintings of apples.
Chlora took a real apple out of the fruit bowl.
She turned it around and felt the apple’s
shape change in her hands.
It smelled like a rainy day in early autumn, the type of day
that said the drought was over.
and she took a decisive,
toothsome bite, listening for the drippy,
nameless sound that only apples make.
It tasted even better than an apple should.
There is no use in comparing apples to oranges
but this one could even astonish Paris.
The French art book had a poem in it:
Cezanne was right,
apples have it all.
Cezanne, grave man,
pondered the scene
and saw it with passion
as orange and green,
and weighted his strokes
with days of decision,
and founded on apples
theologies of vision.*
She stuffed the jokers into Granddaddy’s hat.
They were all in this together.
Who knows? Maybe there is a sixth sense too.
It’s all in the cards.
- John Updike, excerpt from “Les Saints Nouveaux” from Telephone Poles, Alfred A. Knopt, Inc., 1963.