Beer bottles lay scattered on the balcony, empty of alcohol and instead filled with cigarette butts. Dots of black and grey ash were everywhere, the wind swirling them about in carcinogenic spirals. A collapseable card table had been setup in the middle, it was made of cheap green plastic, dotted with the scars of a hundred matches, and four men sat around it. David was at North, as was his wont for they were in his house, he had five cards in his hands, pressed against his chest, invisible to the other three. A low hand, a pair of fives and a pair of sevens, his confidence was high anyways, the last seventeen hands had been won by him, it seemed as though his touch was golden, today at least. If they were playing for real, he would be up by about $28,000. Jonesy is South, the tip of his head at equal height to David, his messy blonde hair the polar opposite of David's perennially neat brown. He had four cards, eight, nine, Jack, Queen, and was waiting for another. Would it be a King? Clutched tightly almost to breaking in his hand was the second to last beer of the current carton, resting against his leg. Milton, East, folded, gone from this game. He out of all of them has lost the most, his face has suffered a range of expressions from an early rush of pleasure when it seemed that he could not lose, to a quiet and reflective repose as his luck went from Mississipi-good to Kentucky-bad in only a few hands, to finally, what it is now, a picture of crushing depression. In the last half hour he had never been without a drink and had - sadly to him but happily for David - not yelled quotable once, even though, let me tell you, Stan was making some mighty fine sentences with his immense vocabulary. The West man, Stan, a newcomer to the party but not to the history of the others, was short and stocky, soft in the traditionally hard places and hard nowhere but his mind, which was as unyielding and intricate as diamond. He was losing, as he always did, instead preferring to watch and gauge the reactions of the others, in an attempt to ascertain their personalities, for surely a Game of poker is the best way to determine the worth of a man? In the centre, jade of the compass, was the card table, conveniently green, a drink on each corner as a weight, scattered with white and red chips worth $50 and $100, respectively, though the values were arbitrary as they were meaningless. Stan was keeping score on a blue-lined notepad; he often allowed himself little errors of calculation in his favour, nobody minded, though a score of $1,459 does seem a little odd considering the chip value.

-You want another card, Jonesy?

-Sure, Milton, hit me, not too harsh now cause I wanna win.

-It's about time, you've barely won at all 'Tis a poor man who cannot win at cards', I believe Milton said.

-He never said that.

-He did! It was in a early version of Paradise Lost, I think...

-Now you're just making stuff up!

-Well, ok...maybe I wrote it...

-Milton, you're not a writer, understand?

-Now Jonesy...

-I'm just saying, ok? Can't write, not like ol' Billy.

-Don't see you changing your name but, do we now fellows? Faulkner'd make a pretty stupid first name then though, don't you say?

-Obviously I'd change it to William.

-William? Which William would that be? Prince William, down at the Buckingham palace? William the great? Huh? Nobody would know, not like my name.

-I'm pretty sure it was Alexander the great, Milton.

David leans over and takes the pack of cards from Milton, hitting both him and Jonesy over the head in the process. Milton grumbled, but let it slide. Shifting in his chair until he assumed a position of authority (slightly leaning forward, left hand holding the cards tight against his chest, right hand with the deck placed hard on the table's edge, head cocked, eyes firm, mouth tight, if you're interested), glancing over first at Jonesy, then Milton, then back at Jonesy. Stan he ignored. -Listen you two, let's just play, alright? Nobody gives a shit about your authors.

-Let's make this the last game, alright, David? Milton says, rubbing his eyes and leaning back on the chair which creaks in protest. Jonesy for once was quick to agree and Stan echoed.

-Alright boys, this is it. The final Game of the day. David's voice allows no mistake as to the significance of the capital letter. They all groan but accept; they knew it would come to this.

He puts his hand down on the table, face up, declares the game over to a chorus of groans and reshuffles the deck in. Deals to Stan first, one card down, on the table, for all to see, the Game has begun, gentlemen. Has a brief meeting of orbs with Stan, nothing too conspicuous but it's there, to be read for or against by the other two players, not to mention whatever Stan thinks about it. Milton gets a card, and then Jonesy, accidentally (or was it?) knocking over a carefully arranged pile of alternating white and red chips the Faulkner-lover had been working on tirelessly throughout the game, then finally, a card to himself. All now have a fifth of what could be their greatest hand ever, or their worst, or anything in between, 98% of the fun in the Game now is figuring out just which one it is for the other three. David deals out another round of cards, each thatched blue-backed card placed horizontally on the first cards vertical, a cross, symbolic to many cultures and times, was he trying to tell the others something? an intimidatory tactic, perhaps? Stan is thinking yes, he reaches out his hand, too soon, betraying his nervousness and collecting the cards into a neat pile. Jonesy watches and a bead of sweat appears on his freshly shaven upper lip, the sun isn't even hot yet, so what's that about? Don't think Milton didn't notice, he shuffles his feet and looks down at the card backs, perhaps trying to see what is underneath through some sort of telekinetic mind powers. Three cards each, the Main Deck is thinner, its power is fading as the number of cards it holds sway over decreases, but the mystery remains as nobody has yet dared to peek at a card. Stan shuffles the new card into his pile, perhaps some paternal instinct is taking over, for with each card he adds to his pile, the Main Deck thins and his own Deck grows, a child learning at the expense of the father? The possibility is not lost on David, who considers Stan his greatest foe. Four cards and the tension is mounting. Nobody wants to be the first to look at his cards, but the time for it is drawing closer. Will it be the dealer, the man who so far has controlled every aspect of the game? The last man, his position secure for the longest as he weighs in the bets of the others, trying to calculate just what cards are gone based on his own and how much the bets of the others would reflect the cards if he had them? The air is so still now that Stan's fifth card hits the table with a thud, he sighs forcefully, the gust of wind from his mouth threatening to overturn his last card, to the horror and secret pleasure of the other three. Quick as a flash he scoops up the final card, pressing all five to his thigh and turning them over ever so slightly, glancing down to take a peek but looking up too quickly to actually see what they are just in case either Jonesy or Milton is watching him, because surely David would have no chance of seeing his cards from the other side of the table...unless some sort of elaborate mirror scheme is set up that he isn't yet aware of? Jonesy and Milton do the same, all untrusting the others, trying to be casual about their peeking's but failing as their faces redden, brows become wet with sweat and feet start to tap. David hasn't touched his cards, instead he is staring right at the centre of the table, at the largest cigarette burn marring the green, the black and yellow mark still somehow managing to smell of nicotine. Slowly, he raises his eyes and meets Stan's, unflinching, the whites of his eyes clear, the pupil dilated. Stan's eyes are erratic, dancing about, darting from David's left eye to the right, seeking the smallest indication of intent. Jonesy takes up the bait, finding Milton's eyes with his own, staring across the table to the West, in an attempt to unite with the East, maybe, or to declare war. Tap, tap, tap goes Milton's heel against the concrete of the balcony, his leg rubbing against one cardboard corner of the carton of beer, the only sound in an otherwise vacuum of noise. The four men are reduced to two distinct entities now, a North and South and an East and West, both connected by line of sight, the trick here is to know whether or not North will befriend South, or betray it for East, or any number of possibilities. Nobody blinks, eyes start to dry out, tear ducts kicking in too late as the pain still continues even when the eyes mist. To Jonesy, Milton is just a flesh-coloured lump but he won't look away, won't be the first to break even though there is a pain growing behind his eyes, a purple pain that is infringing on the mash of watery colour before him. Stan's eyes hurt so much his brain is taking emergency action, pummeling him with random thoughts and memories - Tree at five, dappled with sun, first girl he ever kissed, four years younger and not sure what was happening, a slap in the face from his mother for calling her a bitch - in an effort to get him to blink, to look away and retain his sense of self. David feels as though the room is spinning around, with the card table at the centre point, with each player taking centre stage for a few seconds as the invisible camera rotates, around and around, observing their reactions, judging, perhaps even learning. Tap, tap, tap, the tempo of Milton's foot increases, and now the throbbing pain behind each man's eyes syncopates with the foot, becoming one with it, tap, a throb of pain, tap, another, if Milton could, he'd slow down his foot but he can't, he is possessed by something greater than him and it is speeding up his foot, the Game has taken over, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap...

-I'm out.

Milton who spoke, poor Milton, he broke first, the loser of the bunch, no longer a man for the day. With an almost audible rip he tears his eyes away from Jonesy and blinks rapidly, head between his legs, tears streaming down his cheeks and dripping onto the concrete. He makes a hacking noise, his throat raw from the pressure.

The spell is broken. Jonesy, without a staring partner, becomes automatically exempt from this stage of the Game. Stan and David can choose to continue; predictably, they don't. Pain amongst four is fine for a while, pain divided by two people is a price too high to pay. David sighs with relief and picks up his cards, looking at them, casual now, the most intense part of the game is over.

Milton stands, he knocks the card table with his knees and throws his cards on the table, face up. A breach of the rules, but one that no single person will gain any special advantage from: what one knows they all know. Heart 7, Spade 7, Diamond 7, Spade Ace and Heart King. Nothing too fancy but it rules out a royal flush for one of the other players, and an ace is down.

Once a man is out of the Game, he cannot stay and watch. This rule goes beyond the house decisions of David, Stan, Jonesy and Milton, it is something that has been ingrained to males since time immemorial. He who is not a part of the society shall be cast out as though he were nothing. Milton knows it, you can see it in the slump of his shoulders, the way he mumbles something about going back inside for a drink. The other three don't respond, they can't. Milton is no longer a part of their social interaction, at least for now.

He plods back into the house, still blinking, his face red but clearing up. Three solid hours of drinking is catching up with him and his belly feels bloated. Slumping heavily into a chair, he pats his stomach lazily, liking the feeling of solidity but hating the fact that it is fat and not muscle which protects him. Comfort is comfort, and he reaches for another beer.

First man out of the Game. Happened before and it'll happen again, Milton's luck not being what is used to, back several years ago when it seemed that everything he touched turn to gold, much like Midas except not quite so creepy...Madeleine was there for him, then, and his stomach was tighter. She'd stay awake after he had fallen asleep - or so she would tell him - just to rub his stomach, feel the six muscles, three by two against the ribs, a transference of warmth in a darkened room. Her hands would wander, up to his face, maybe, to linger on the little scar underneath his chin that he made while shaving, that very first time, without his father, who sat in the living room on a fifth-rate couch drinking beer and watching football, or maybe she would descend further, into the darker regions of his body, the enticing, secret, erotic parts that only she had ever been privy to, excepting of course his own right hand which was party to all of his earthly secrets, and she would caress his groin, just above his pubic hair, pressing down gently and he would moan and stretch in his sleep, a touch not sexual but comforting, the sort of touch that, fifty years later when both groins are dead and the only thing left is a life lived together, can reinvigorate love and that sense that, yes, we did it and we did it together. But soon the touches would go lower, to a place where she couldn't see, lined with satin from his boxer shorts, encircling him and feeling him rise. She would masturbate him, slowly, for long, silence-filled minutes when the air in the bedroom would come alive and every minute rustle of the bedsheets causes a flush of red to dot her cheeks. Then he would awaken, ten or twenty minutes later, perhaps, ready, and so was she. Simply a matter of pressing her down, kissing her roughly and using her how she wanted to be used. Sex like that was always quick, always messy, and always unbelievably arousing. Afterwards she would clean them both up with a towel she kept in his top drawer next to the socks for just that purpose and he would be soothed back into sleep as the cycle began anew and she stroked his stomach, so lightly, so delicate, like a butterfly...

But of course all good things must come to an end. Their midnight sojourns could not last forever, after all. Dawns always breaks the darkest night, reality intrudes, freckles are made visible. You are too passive, she would tell him, throwing cushions and pillows at him while he stood there and let them bounce of his body, physically painless but mentally a knife was being turned...Late nights spent holding her while she cried and whispered, over and over, 'I hate you', and there wasn't a thing he could do or say to make her stop, he didn't even know why...A particularly striking moment when she came to visit him one day, her hair newly cut and styled, clothes sparkling, manner bright, asking if he liked it, but of course he only remembered that two nights ago she had slapped him for touching her, accusing him of wasting her most precious years on a failure so he said nothing at all and her eyes died, her lips falling into a frown from which they never really recovered...Kisses that had to be asked for, not stolen...The times when he felt that the action of taking her hand was like crossing an immense cavern filled with ravenous animals just waiting to leap out and attack him, so he never did, and they walked together, but alone...Then finally, events came to a head and the words left her lips to come screaming at him faster than a bullet, I'm leaving you, it's over, he actually staggered backwards when she said it, just a step but the significance wasn't lost on either of them.

Since then he had grown, not mentally or emotionally but physically, outward, his arms thickening and becoming loose, stomach fading away until it was a round, pale fish-belly, he even thought his hair had begun receeding, at twenty-three!

The reminiscing continued for a little while after that, but it was tainted by dream-thoughts, for Milton had fallen asleep, his newly opened beer falling from his hand and spilling out onto the cream carpet, his mouth open, drooling, eyes closed, still touched by tears. And outside, the Game continued, the players unable to step away from the seductive sway of possibility, steeped as they were in the foibles of fortuna.
Speaking of which, Stan and David were still seated around the card table, winding down from the mental rigours of a game which had ended an hours previously. Somehow, unknown to either of them, they had ended at exactly $0 up or down, even though before that last hand, when the Game became more than just a set of cards upon a table, David was up nearly $30k and Stan was wallowing down near the zero, with all sorts of weird numbers that just don't compute with regards to $50 and $100 chips. They had shaken hands and called it a night...day, and were just sitting, watching the face down cards on the table, a new hand, one that they weren't betting on but were playing merely for fun, even though David was pretty certain he would be strangling Stan if he won, and Stan was thinking along the same lines, those his thoughts involved more swords and less strangling.

-You want to show first? David asked, looking up at Stan around nose- height, not wanting to start another battles of stares.

-No, you probably should.

-Me? Why?

-Your house...

-Yeah, but you're my guest...

-Look, how about we both turn them over one at a time, ok?

-Alright, fine.

David goes first, he turns over the first card, on the left, its a 10 of hearts, then Stan gives his a flip, wouldn't you know, 10 of diamonds. They haven't allowed themselves to look at their own cards, so nobody really knows if the 10 they both received is a good thing or not, they can factor in that a 10-pair seems less likely if the other person has a 10, but that's about it.

Next card. Stan flips this time, jack of diamonds. David flips a jack of hearts. The symmetry is weird, not unnerving, not yet, that'd take another similarity, at the moment just weird will do.

Third card. Stan, queen diamonds, David, queen hearts. Three for three, with David in the lead if you take it on the fact that hearts are better, but really, neither of them have anything just now. From the living room the ring-ring...ring-ring of the phone is just louder than the television, still an advertisement but for a different product this time, with, yes, another song, not quite so catchy but the words are more forceful, so there is balance.

Fourth. King diamonds, King hearts, Stan, David. Neither can really believe it, to be matched card for card, like this. Stan won't admit it, but he is actually a little bit jealous that David is doing the heart run, because, if they both come up aces, he would win by default and poor old Stan will wallow on the sidelines, even though, really, it is just as impressive.

-We don't have to turn over the next card, you know, David says, just as a bead of sweat runs down his cheek. Inside, he is thinking, why does every fucking thing Stan and I do have to get so damned epic?

-No, we do, Stan replies, shifting his index finger under the remaining card, ready to flip. -We'll do these together, on three, okay?

David nods, preparing his card. -One, he pinches his thumb and forefinger together, around the card, tight, -Two, he leans in a little, as does Stan, their brows knitted, gaze intense on the blue backed cards. -Three! They both flip the cards over.

There, smiling serenely, three juggling balls balanced, one on top of the other on the point of his fingernail, red-blue-yellow, a pointed cap with bells dangling on the ends, seeming to almost swish with the motion of the card-flipping, dressed in green livery, with threaded blue trimming and yellow boots on his feet with curled up tips, is the Joker card, one each, identical in every way except that they are mirrors of one another.

Nobody wins.