QUANTUM SHORTS 2013: RUNNER UP, OPEN CATEGORY
God blows on the dice and lets them fly. In the moments before they land he feels the familiar flicker in his veins, the opium of hope. The pressure lifts, things expand: his lungs, the wrinkled walnut of his heart, the casino’s stuccoed firmament. He can barely remember the last time he won, or what it felt like to be lucky; the eyes turned towards him, sideways in envy, or openly flirtatious, looking for someone to sidle up to. He’d once placed bets and ordered drinks with such expansive ease — lifting his hand, inclining his head — certain of attention.
Now the looks he gets are suspicious ones. Though he doesn’t blame them. He’s let his beard grow out. His clothes could use a wash. His old habit of peeling them off his body to a froth around his ankles as though he were undergoing an extravagant metamorphosis, secure in the knowledge that they would be cleaned and pressed and folded and returned, is as impossible to believe as his one-time winning streak. Now he avoids day-to-day domestic confrontations. He undresses behind locked doors, keeps himself to himself.
The dice land and stop, sucking his lungs shut. Out for an up-pops-the-devil seven. He catches the eye of the woman across the table. Her eyes slide off his. Women tend to edge away from him these days. It has been some time since he felt the thrill of an arm brush against his, the accidental-on-purpose contact of skin-to-skin that drives the circuitry of desire. He imagines how they see him. Pitiable, almost an old man, respectable enough — he has not yet begun with loud proclamations and wild gestures — but with a little too much white of the eye showing for people to feel comfortable around.
The casino lights are as relentless as a headache, but he lingers. Better this than the dense breath of his bedroom, sour with sleep and disappointment. He feeds some coins into a slot machine, cranks it and watches the shapes line up, the cheerfully mismatched images wink at him. To his left and right people are bent to the task, their eyes lit full of ghosts. He scratches through his wallet, counts up the last change and comes short. The evidence of the night’s damage knots his stomach.
Outside, under a sky blank with smog, a night market has appeared on one of the pavements. He stops at a table piled with second hand books; flips through them, hoping for an inscription, a name or date or better yet, a love-note or photograph. He found the latter once, in a fat novel which came highly recommended but turned out to be dull. He kept the book, if only for the photograph, the thought of it hidden between pages, pressed between other books on the shelf, intimately anonymous, gives him a breathless falling feeling. So many possible variations of a life, playing themselves out beyond the horizon of his own.
The stall’s owner is giving him a stare that suggests he should move on. He looks around for something to distract his wife from the anger that flares against the friction of his presence. There is a flower stall, bright blooms in their cellophane skirts. But she is worn out of flowers. He has watched enough bouquets wilting in their waterless vases to know this for sure. Besides which he hasn’t change for more than the cheapest bunch.
Across from him a woman is shuffling a deck of cards, their hush-hush-hush is both lullaby and siren song. He can’t resist it, the lure with chance at its heart. How much simpler life would be if all decisions were made by card or by dice. He would wake each morning to a clean slate, deal himself a breakfast, black for porridge or red for eggs. Throw a two for marriage and a one to end it. And each time — in that moment before the card is revealed, the dice rolled and settled — the suspension of everything in its purest potential. More than the exhilaration of winning it is this moment of infinite possibility that is his particular addiction.
He holds out what is left of the money in his wallet. The woman with the cards counts it and nods. She spreads the deck. Next to her, laid out individually on a table, is another deck. On each card is what looks like a large snow globe. In each of the globes’ glass domes is a miniature universe, intricately wrought, complete with stars and comets, galaxies and planets. God is pleased with what he sees. It is precisely the sort of whimsical trinket that his wife loves and that clutters the mantelpieces of their home. He picks a card. It is the seven of hearts. His eyes go to the table, the corresponding seven, on it the globe. It pulses with light and he catches glimpses of colour, a red sphere, a flash of blue.
He is suddenly impatient to hold it and when it is handed to him, shakes it. The stars hum slowly to motion, the tiny planets agitate and settle, agitate and settle, slave to his hand. He feels things unclench inside of him, a shudder of surrender and sensation of expanding warmth that is something like the relief of emptying his bladder, something like love. He wraps his hand gently around the globe but cannot quite contain its light, which shines through his fingers in a bright blood halo. He lets it swing to his side, measuring the heft of it, its satisfying gravity; then he turns towards home.