The card game was rigged, Pat was sure of it. The cards didn’t look right. How could Pat know anything anymore? The queen of diamonds – was that a queen? Pat was sure there was a shadow of a mustache. Was that a crown or a helmet? Was this an omen of a fight?
The dealer smiled and shrugged. “Them’s the cards. You gonna study them or play them? ‘Cause I don’t have time for art dealers.”
Of course, he didn’t say any of this in English. But even Mandarin has dialects like backwoods Alabama does. Every language does. It doesn’t matter what the phrasebooks say – there’s always a casual under-language, a side-speech. People use it when they get comfortable, switching into it the same way they switch into pajamas when they get home. Just like with pajamas, they don’t do it around strangers or those they want to impress. You have to be in, like family or a close friend to see a person’s real side.
Pat wasn’t sure why the dealer was talking like this. They’d only known each other a week. This dialect that was meant to make someone feel more comfortable was making Pat feel more and more nervous instead. This wasn’t a good way to start. It could very well be the end.
“It’s just that I don’t recognize the cards, that’s all. I’m distracted. Do you have another set?”
Pat didn’t want to be distracted. Return-home money was riding on this game. Play it well and Pat was gone. Play it badly and Pat stayed, a slave. Sure they treat their “visitors” well here, but certain freedoms would disappear, along with Pat’s identity cards. Only the spirits knew what could happen when someone has no name, no birthdate. They weren’t telling, as usual.
“Sure. I saved these. I found them in an old junk store a dozen years ago. See? I’m helping you out.” He fanned out the new cards on the battered wooden table.
Pat studied the new deck. The images were familiar, but the shape wasn’t. Round? The image on the back looked ancient too.
Surely these were marked cards with all those petals and leaves. A dot here and a missing petal there, and the dealer would know at a glance whether you were bluffing or winning. Best to try and conceal them as much as possible.
Pat was grateful for his large hands. It was his only advantage now. The dealer wouldn’t change the deck again, that was for sure. It was best not to push him.
(This story was inspired by a pack of ephemera I bought from Etsy. It included some very unusual playing cards. The story was limited by the size of the page I glued the ephemera to. I didn’t use pronouns with the main character because I wanted the gender to be ambiguous.)