The cigarette butts are sodden and autumn leaves cling to the footpath like starfish. When it’s cold and wet the thing is to keep moving. Walk, walk, walk. Walk away from the cold and the stomach pains, walk away from the hunger and vertiginous thoughts. But it’s hard today, I am so very tired. Yet I must continue. You never know when God is going to talk to you – today might be the day I find the last card.
My jacket is not made for Melbourne winters and the cold stabs my bones. If I were someone else, someone with a full stomach and warm clothes and a safe bed and a loving family and a calm head then I might find the sight of me funny. An old bum with a white, tangled mop of hair and a weather-seared face wearing a pinstriped jacket. With cold-clumsy fingers I feel the playing cards in the jacket’s pocket, 97 of them held together with an elastic band. My life’s work, as yet incomplete.
I turn onto Sydney Road near McDonalds and look in the bin beside the tram stop. Even while looking through the bin I keep an eye out for a card. You never know where they will turn up. God moves in mysterious ways. In the first 30 years of searching I found an average of three cards a year, but in the past week I have found seven cards, one a day.
The first card I ever found was not long after the Fall. Everything had turned to shit so quickly that I was stunned. How could this smart young man, who had gone to uni, worked hard, obeyed the rules and believed in the system, suddenly be out on the street? I didn’t know anything about survival back then so ended up sleeping in a mausoleum in the Melbourne General Cemetery. One morning, while thinking of ways to kill myself, I found a card on the steps of the mausoleum. A seven of diamonds, the pattern on the back like a Persian carpet. Who had lost this card – just a single card – and why had I found it? I turned the card over in my hands. Diamonds were my birthstone and seven had been my lucky number. What did it mean, if anything? Something within me shifted. It was the first time since the Fall that I had thought of anything other than my own grinding despair. I put the card carefully in my pocket and began to walk the streets.
I dig deeper in the bin and sure enough, it provides. I find a nearly full packet of French fries and half a Big Mac.
I eat as I walk towards the city, continuing to scan the broken footpaths of Brunswick. The Vic market is on today, and the market’s always good for a few bucks. It’s hard to ignore an emaciated old man when your arms are full of imported cheese and organic bananas. But it’s the cards that are my main mission, my purpose. I’ve found two cards at the market over the years, the first a ten of clubs, the second, about eleven years later, a five of spades. The seven cards I have found in the last week have been seven of the eight I need to complete the full pack. That alone proves something, because statistically it would be impossible, not only to find that many cards, but to find the exact ones I need. The more cards you find the harder it becomes until, with a few cards left to find, it becomes mathematically impossible. Or so the ignorant might think.
I long for the last card, the final proof I need that God exists.
I cross Brunswick Road, cars honking – as if I care – and walk down Royal Parade beside Princess Park. Joggers lope past in Lyrca and headphones, some pushing prams. Their breath juts from their mouths in white plumes.
The pain flares again in my stomach, the tubes of my guts writhing like snakes on hot sand. I toss away the food and bend over and howl at the pain until it begins to recede. When I straighten I am lightheaded and shaky.
I used to walk 30 kilometres a day. I walked everywhere and saw everything. I ranged as far as Fawkner in the north, Yarraville to the west, Kew to the east and St Kilda to the south. There is not a street or a lane I do not know. But recently my steps have become brittle, the restless energy that has always powered me has begun to fade. Getting up this morning took all my resolve. Fortunately I still have an abundance of resolve: I must achieve my goal. I must know for sure.
The cold’s menthol breath is chiselling the edges off me, making me lose focus. My hands feel like frozen rissoles. I massage some feeling into them and then rub my eyelids with the heel of my palm, as if I can cram concentration back into my skull. I can’t afford to drift away now, not when I’m so close. I set my eyes on the leaf-strewn track and resume walking.
After finding that first card in the cemetery I began to look for more. It’s amazing how once you look, you see. A queen of hearts in a gutter near a Lygon Steet brothel, a king of clubs on the steps of the parliament, a three of spades on a construction site in North Melbourne, a mouldering joker near Luna Park. Pacing the streets I had time to think about each card’s meaning and the meaning of the cards as a whole. Even then I knew that there was clarity locked within them. After some time, perhaps a few years, I became certain that I wasn’t finding the cards by chance, but was guided to them by a higher power. The cards were the crack in reality that allowed me to glimpse God. After that, every time I found a card it reaffirmed that my life was worth living.
I trudge on beside the park. An old guy jogs past, wiry legs in flapping shorts, chest hair bursting from beneath his singlet. That should be me. Fit and healthy, getting some exercise before heading to work at Melbourne University. If my cards had been different I could be an English literature lecturer in a building draped in ivy. But that wasn’t to be. It riles me that most people have no idea of how close to a Fall they are. You split up with your partner, get a little sick, lose your job. It’s only when the bills mount up that you realise how alone you are and how much your mortgage is. The next thing you’re sleeping on somebody’s grave and using a bin as a larder. It’s so very easy. Still, despite it all, I pity them, these people who focus only on the air in front of their faces. I’m the one who has been chosen to prove God exists. But there is blood in my shit and I still need to find the last card.
I force myself into longer steps, eyes scanning the brown grit of the jogging track, legs feeling as flimsy as reeds.
The cold is deep into my bones. My feet are carved from ice. As I approach the end of the park I suddenly turn left towards the cemetery instead of continuing down the road towards the market. I follow my aching feet beneath the ornate ironwork gate into an avenue of graves, the tombstones arranged as neatly as a model city.
I am close now. The cold recedes as a tingling starts at the nape of my neck and flushes warm through my body. My steps falter as I follow a small track through a row of marble graves, bunches of plastic flowers sadder than nothing at all.
I stumble and fall to my knees beneath a cypress. And that’s where I find it, at the end of the row of graves, face down beneath the tree.
I pick the card up. The back of it is blue, another Persian carpet design. I feel the card in my fingers, the surface roughened from exposure to rain and sun. I smell the bitter-lemon tang of the cypress’ dusty leaves. Nearby a wattlebird screeches.
As I turn the card over I feel euphoric, shot through with warm embers and sunset clouds. The proof feels wonderful. The proof feels right. This is how it feels to find the last card.