October 12th, 2020
Cafe BabyloniaOutside the Cafe Babylonia the waiters wear no shoes, But saunter through the alleyways reading and talking out loud. Murmuring in paper thin party harts decorated green and white The chefs in the cafe spread date jam and honey. Out on the street the wind picks up sand And throws it in the face of the children Who play football on the stone, And watch the dogs fight for a metal bar. Around the cafe table sit a group of men, In dusty boots and aprons they play a simple game. Taking turns they deal out cards, And watch each others eyes For ticks they know and love. ‘I could write a book,’ says one, shifting his weight, ‘Beginning. End. There you go.’ The others laugh and grunt with their thick fingers. The cards go spinning across the board, The birds go spinning through the sky. ‘Did you see Morone’s?’ asks one. ‘No. He kept it under a sheet.’ ‘When I went round it was behind the couch, and a blanket thrown over the back.’ ‘He’s working on something new, I think.’ ‘Then he should finish the old one first!’ They laugh again and toothily grin, Clucking like hens they snick snick and chuck. The next round begins and the jollity dies, Cards are dealt again, and odds laid out in full. Eyes are narrowed, wind whipped and suspect, I know I have good hand, they think, I know I do. The turn goes round and they all place bets, Some boldly to bluff, others in muted tones. The ones who say nothing try not to twitch, and the ones who smile slyly are the most likely to lie. In Bernardo’s hand are a perfect three, The second triplet in as many turns. The ideal setup for a double bluff, He counts in his head the winnings he’ll make. In Ricardo’s hand are two sevens and a four, He wants to make twenty nine. Carlo is asking for sixes and threes, From over their shoulders, God looks at their hands. After once they go round again with the extra: A card that equally gives hope and hinders, For some secret joy, others secret dismay, And for Giuseppe the surprise of a hand worth playing. In Bernardo’s hand his perfect three shines, And he giddily throws in another then two, flicking the counters across the board. One counter rolls then flops down to stop, The second jumps and spins, Spinning, Spinning, Till it topples flat. Old Luigi takes it all in his stride. Slowly, Slowly he brings his hand to his face, Decades buried in the furrows by his eyes. ‘Sette,’ he mutters, and lays his cards down, And his lids with them, shadows sliding across the board. The bet goes round again and the waiters, In their dust-dowsed livery, Show a passing interest in the game. Show an interest in the faces of the men. ‘Morone will be coming round soon’ They say. They say, ‘He won’t be happy if Giuseppe wins.’ ‘Morone won’t leave his house,’ Bernardo wants to stand up, Another pulls him down. ‘He won’t be happy till he finishes his work.’ ‘Morone won’t like it if Giuseppe wins’ They say. They say, ‘If he can’t pay then how does he bet?’ ‘Morone knows he’ll get his money,’ Ricardo wants to stand up, Another pulls him down. ‘He won’t leave the house till he finishes his work.’ ‘Morone is coming this evening,’ They say. They say, ‘Giuseppe you better go hide.’ ‘Morone can come and find us,’ Carlo wants to stand up, Another pulls him down. ‘He doesn’t frighten us, here.’ The waiters scramble away, Sniggering and licking their lips. Like lizards they scatter for the shadows As the boot of a man comes down above them. ‘Come on, deal,’ says Bernardo, To break the mood. The others all come back around, Take their seats and settle with their minds back on the game. ‘Do you think he’ll come round?’ Ricardo is looking jumpy, So another slaps his back, ‘The man is a fool and a liar.’ Bernardo looks from one to the other, He doesn’t like distractions from the game, He doesn’t like his afternoons spoilt With work, or with lazy talk. ‘Shall we play?’ says Bernardo, To break the mood. Ricardo nods and looks at his hand, He fumbles, The cards fall. Carlo shouts, piqued, Tired of the interruptions, ‘I’m tired of thinking about Morone,’ He says, and slams his hand down on the table. The cards go spinning across the board, The birds go spinning through the sky. Old Luigi takes it all in his stride. Slowly, Slowly he brings his hand to his face, Decades buried in the furrows by his eyes. ‘Nove,’ he mutters, and lays his cards down, And his lids with them, shadows sliding across the board. ‘Let’s finish this turn,’ Bernardo doesn’t ask. One by one they lay down their hands, Watching for sleeves or boots, Where Aces slip and are later found. ‘Another win for Louie.’ Who doesn’t move to draw up his winnings, But sighs a contented smile and leans back in his chair, The sun’s rays glowing over his frosted eyes. ‘How does he do it,’ asks Carlo, ‘When he cannot see?’ The others laugh, the perfect end. ‘Oh he does see,’ says Bernardo, ‘Old Louie sees everything.’ ‘Has he seen Morone’s?’ The others all laugh. They stand together and walk, Talking and kicking dust. At the table still the winner sits, His cards laid out in full. Old Luigi, who took it all in his stride, They leave him there to sleep the afternoon away. Lids close over frosted eyes, A smile plays out To the sound of children kicking a ball on stone. When the sun sets, he sits there still, His winning hand before him. Mourning for the birds that whistle and sigh, That perch to watch the eyes of the boy grow damp, The shutters still down, the sun rising, And the flashing lights of the slowly, Slowly crawling ambulance.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale