By Barry Yourgrau
An alcoholic newspaper cartoonist has a gambling problem. It goes along with his drinking problem. The drinking will likely kill him in time; the gambling has provoked other people to have in mind killing him much sooner. Their looming threats drive him aboard a ferry heading away from the city, up along the estuary that opens out muddily beyond. Slowly the ferry zigzags from shore to shore, calling at ramshackle villages. The cartoonist has this plan: to get off at the last stop, wander into the woods and there make an exit from all his miserable anxieties via the cheap revolver he has in his pocket. With a bitter sneer (a variant of the ones he directed at the subjects of his mordant drawings) he thinks of his desperate inspiration of last night, to offer as collateral the rottenest gleanings of a newspaper life, tidbits on the private shames of certain public figures, all ripe and ready for blackmail. But no one was interested in blackmail. Only money, right away. Of course: who isn’t interested in money, right away?
So here he is on the ferry, with the seagulls as pallbearers, carrying him on his last voyage. He snorts, and blinks away a sodden tear. What should it be? Gun barrel to the heart, or to the head? He brings out a coin and in a morose gesture he flips it in the air and silently calls it. He opens his ink-stained catching hand. He grunts and rubs himself at the middle of his chest. So be it. The gambler’s final throw. He reaches for the bottle in his coat pocket and takes a swig. So be it.
But then again, a shot to the heart seems too uncertain; too easily messed up…. Suppose he hits a rib instead? He hefts the coin again, and then flips it, summoning a revision of fate, or a confirmation.
The heart again.
But no, not the heart! He flips the coin a third time. The same. And again. The heart. And again: the heart!
He gulps from the bottle. He sends the coin up another time on its divining. Another. Another!
His heart is beating wildly now. It’s not possible. Against all odds the coin keeps coming up the same. There’s only one explanation: he has stumbled into a raging current of good luck.
“My God,” he cries. He swarms to his feet. He has to find a gaming table, immediately. But it’s at least an hour back to the city. Another muddy village looms ahead. He rushes to the slowing ferry’s side and leaps precipitously onto the shore, heedless of the ferrymen’s shouts. He barges through the dockside tables of a slovenly café, heading for the first tavern he spots. They refuse to help him there, because of the state he’s in. He moves on to the next low tavern, where grudgingly they point him the way.
Scrambling furiously around a couple of corners, he locates the dingy social club, and in the back, a card game. Ignoring the chill looks, he hands over all the money he has on him (a pittance of his debt, of course), and starts playing. He’s in a feverish trance. Hand after hand he wins. The cards seem spellbound by his presence. At a certain point the resentment around him becomes general and barefaced. The cartoonist registers this finally. Time to move on to another venue, where the tide of incredible luck can keep roaring him along to salvation. He sweeps his winnings into a pile and gets to his feet, eyes glittering.
At this point the first accusation of cheating bursts from someone’s lips. It emerges as a quick, almost fearful spurt of raw words. But the words release a beast that rears up in the badly lit room, swelling and menacing as other voices pile in.
The cartoonist snatches out his gun and brandishes it, backing away. The room turns immobile, except for one part where crummy beaded curtains hang in the doorway. These sway as a local steps through with a length of wood and smashes the cartoonist from behind. So his run of good luck ends, as it inevitably has to.
He crumples to the floor, gun clattering, the bottle clanking in his jacket, his prodigious winnings scattering. Going through his pockets they find the fateful coin. Someone, standing up, tosses it contemptuously at his bloodied skull. It bounces away on the floor and rolls to a corner. To the head, it shows now, naturally.
“I can never remember my dreams so Mr. Yourgrau’s stories are a pretty good substitute.”— David Byrne
Writer-performer Barry Yourgrau is the author of books of surreal, funny, intensely short stories, including A Man Jumps Out of An Airplane, Wearing Dad’s Head, Haunted Traveller, and The Sadness of Sex, in whose film version he starred.
He’s also written a memoir, Mess, and anti-kids’ stories for kids, Nastybook.
Barry is the only American author who’s published short fiction on Japanese cellphones (keitai sosetsu) His work has a fine following in Japan.
As performer, he and his stories have appeared on MTV’s “Unplugged: Spoken Word” and NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and “All Things Considered,” among others. He won a Drama-Logue Award for “Wearing Dad’s Head: The Live Version” and was invited to Sundance Theater Lab to workshop Haunted Traveller. He is proud of starring in Anthrax’s heavymetal music video, “Black Lodge”.
Yourgrau’s fictions have appeared in New Yorker.com, The Paris Review, VICE, Story, Bomb, Poetry, Film Comment, Monkey Business Int’l, Little Star, Harvard Design Magazine, and various anthologies. He’s also written for the NY Times, New Yorker.com, Wall St. Journal, Spin, Paris Review Daily, The Baffler, HuffPost, Salon, Independent (U.K.), Artforum. He’s blogged for PsychologyToday.com.
Born in South Africa, he lives in New York and Istanbul. And travels a lot.