The Man in the Herringbone Hat
Well the tales have been told of the gaberdine rogue
and his surgical skill with the knife.
Many ballads been writ bout the two-toned-shoe kid,
his short tragic podia-cal life
But these songs beat to drum take an air of ho-hum
(and the air from a yawning at that)
when set side aside to my midnight train ride
with the man in the herringbone hat.
I lived high on the hog for a summer in Prague,
the fall found me well for myself
having made quite a name in a riverboat game
splitting aces and spitting top shelf.
Hence the wintertime's chill proved a sugary pill
sipping wine in an alpine chateau
till a man of low means I'd once grifted in Queens
bid me take it a quick heel-and-toe.
And so that's how I found myself riding by rail
through the Northern Carpathian pass,
late of hour new year's eve, dozing off cheek-to-sleeve
in a rich private cabin, first class.
I awoke some time on to a deep moonless dark
and the mountainous chill in my bones.
'Gainst the black and the damp I set fire to the lamp...
and discovered I was not alone.
He sat with his legs folded primly and thin,
his slender hands clasped at the knee.
By rights, thus surprised, I'd have reached for my colt,
but his eyes twinkled disarmingly.
"Is this cabin reserved?"
"Oh how rude then, I'm terribly sorry for that."
And he reddened, although he made no move to go,
but tipped lightly his titular hat.
I found myself staring a moment too long
at its fine woven pattern of wool.
Mathematic and tight though I knew it to be,
in this light it swarmed, random and cruel.
Where had I seen it? That zig-zag of lines
that smeared to a patternless gray?
It tickled my senses and teased at my mind.
For the life of me, I couldn't say.
"We've some time till the station." his voice broke my spell.
He leaned close to me, flexing his hands.
"And I find myself wondering, on this Auld Lang Syne,
if you sir are a gambling man?"
I reached for my cards just a little too quick.
He grinned. "Oh we might pass the time
by playing some gin at a penny a point,
but that's not quite what I had in mind.
"No my wager is this." He uncorked a flask
and poured us each out a wee dram.
"A lifetime of wealth against one of regret,
if you can just name what I am."
"What you are?"
"What I am. Guess as much as you like,
till we get to the end of the line."
So with less brains than brashness I lifted my glass,
thus accepting his wager. "Sounds fine."
"A hat maker?"
"Hardly." He dealt out the gin.
"An oil man?"
"O, would that I were."
"A tinker, a tailor? A candlestick maker?"
His smile was amused but demure.
I threw out vocations both highborn and low,
from tycoon down to carnival man.
And then realized, after an hour of "no's,"
he hadn't yet lost at a hand.
"A gambler." I spat. He smiled and said "No."
Then called "Gin!" and scooped over his haul.
"When I work a table, one hardly is able
to call the game 'gambling' at all."
In a rush of remembrance, this man's odd visage
leapt to mind from its fragmented shards.
Yes of course I did know it - I'd seen it each time
I had suffered a great loss at cards!
At faro in Denver! At poker in Spain!
Montecristo! Havana! New York!
At each fateful hand and at each cursed game
this devil had well been at work!
He'd not sat at the table nor played at the hand,
I'd have known the thief right off the bat,
but I see it now - standing behind all my foes
was a shadowy man in that hat!
I leapt to my feet. "O I've won your damn bet,
now I'll tell you sir just what you are!
You're a cheat!" His eyes flashed, and he reached in his coat.
But that slender hand didn't get far.
One shot to the heart and he fell to the floor.
I knelt by his side, and he stirred.
"You've lost, sir." he said, and he pulled from his pocket
a calling card bearing one word.
And then, just like smoke, the thin man disappeared
and the air took a tremulous chill.
I picked up his card and my heart turned to stone
as I realized what I had killed.
In the twenty years since, I've not won a game
be it gin, blackjack, poker, roulette.
And my sad golden years I spend soaking in beers,
pushing broomsticks and nursing regret.
Learn the lesson well told from the gaberdine rogue,
and the limited range of a knife.
Take your moral well writ from the two-tone-shoed kid,
how one's sole is not worth wealth in life.
But these valuable tales, if all set on the scales
would be tipped (maybe toppled, at that)
by the one piece of truth every gambler should know,
that is: Luck wears a herringbone hat.