Zeng Shangyou – Jack Freerick

争上游

What’s so funny, Joker?

There you are, turned out face-up on the red baize of the gaming table, wearing your idiot grin, and I want to know: What’s so funny?

You’re smiling up at me from a cheap plasticky playing card, the kind that leaves fingers feeling greasy. They must go through a hundred decks a night, here in this perfumed room, knock-off decks printed by the tens of thousands on massive industrial presses in Hangzhou or Shenzhen. The face cards, traced from respectable Bicycle designs, can almost pass in the low light; but there you are, crudely-rendered Joker in shapes a child could draw with a ruler and compass. You’ve come a long way from the East China coast to this room, this San Francisco. So have I. Is that what’s so funny?

 Look at you, blank-faced and foolish. Such a simple thing, made entirely without art — except for the hands, which have some grace. Fine hands, fine and well-formed, like the hands of the men who sit around this table. These smiling men with bad reputations.

You’re wearing the four suits on your tunic, and even the red suits are black. You have no legs. Did they take your legs? Is that what’s so funny?

The clown paint around your eyes forms the figure of a gunsight surrounding a shadowed crescent moon. Gunsight eyes. Like the eyes of the man across from me. The man to whom I suddenly owe a great deal of money that I cannot possibly pay. Is that what’s so funny?

A long way to come, just to die.

Your long-tailed cap bears twelve spots of varying sizes. The pattern looks precise; but it not one that I recognize. Is it a constellation? Is that what’s so funny? That I will die here under foreign skies, under a constellation that I do not recognize?

Or is it the way that you carry your own head upon a stick?

There you are, turned face-up on the red baize tabletop; and when they see you, all of them, these hard and elegant men in this San Francisco cardroom, they know what is to come. We have run through this slippery deck, and they know. My pockets are empty, and the luck and credit that have brought me here from Shanghai are exhausted, and they know. The time has come for this smiling man with gunsight eyes to take my head, although I doubt that he will carry it on a stick.

He looks across at me, and I am caught in the crosshairs of his gaze. The blood drains from my face, and a foolish smile comes. He reaches beneath his jacket. The punchline has come. My mouth falls open, all black and white. The unfamiliar stars whirl overhead to make my fool’s crown, and I am gone in a roar of laughter.

Jack_Feerick.jpgJack Feerick lives and works in western New York with his family. His short fiction and poetry have previously appeared in KYSO Flash, Going Down Swinging, and Penny. He is critic-at-large for Popdose.