A Deal in Cards

For decades children have been collecting cards — cards with the college seals, cards with baseball players and pugilists, or just ordinary playing cards. It is one of their forms of wealth, and what happens when these cards fall into the hands of a young monopolist is told in this story by DANIEL CURLEY, who has worked as a welder in the Fore River and New Orleans shipyards and who is now teaching English at Syracuse University.



THE first day John brought out the Man on Horseback, Mr. Roberts thought nothing of it. None of the other children that he drove to school every morning seemed to think anything of it. John himself didn’t appear to have anything particular in mind. Mr. Roberts remembered the beginning because it was his first knowledge that old playing cards had trade value.

That morning he picked Elly up first as usual. She walked toward the car with all the prissy dignity of a four-year-old woman. She slid on a little patch of ice and then went back to slide again before resuming her progress to the car. As she came closer, Mr. Roberts saw that she was eating something — not, he hoped, peanut butter and toast, for he had been too rushed even for coffee before he left home. She stood by the open door. Mr. Roberts gagged — peanut butter.

Elly said something that contained the words “Mr. Roberts,” and Mr. Roberts decided to assume she had said good morning.

“Good morning, Elly,” he said. “How are you today?”

Elly ignored that sally and started winding the clock with a pair of pliers she had found in the glove compartment along with road maps, windshield scraper, repair links, whisk broom, Band-Aids, tissues, and, strangely enough, a pair of gloves. Air. Roberts cleared his throat forcefully. Elly turned her soft velvet eyes full on him and tried the pushbutton tuning device on the radio, which fortunately didn’t work and only went click, click, while a little muscle in Mr. Roberts’s jaw went tic, tic. Elly said, “Do we get Sophie next?”

“We always get Florence next,” Mr. Roberts said. “Here we are at Florence’s house.” He honked his horn and Florence came running down the walk with her arms full of books. As soon as he saw her he felt relieved. Things were generally better with Florence in the car, at times almost on an adult level of irrationality, but not quite, for at twelve — or was it thirteen? — Florence herself was not quite.

“Good morning, Mr. Roberts,” Florence said. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” Mr. Roberts said.

Florence popped her bubble gum reflectively. “I don’t suppose that horrid John is sick today, is he, Mr. Roberts?” she said.

“Not that I know of,” Mr. Roberts said.

“He’s awful,” Florence said. “All he wants to do is pinch girls and kiss them. It would be a good thing if they didn’t even let boys go to our school up to the sixth grade.”

“Is John in the sixth grade?” Mr. Roberts said.

“Only the fourth,” Florence said. “Two more years, worse luck.” She laughed her strange cackling laugh that, went with neither Florence the child nor Florence the young lady. “That crumb. I don’t see what Sophie sees in him. She even sits next to him in school. Not that I’m in their grade but sometimes I go past the door.”

“I’ll bring a saw and saw his head off,” Elly shrieked.

“Why, Elly,” Florence said.

Mr. Roberts stopped in front of John’s house. “It’s about time,” John said. He had been standing on the curb.

Mr. Roberts was tempted to put his authority in jeopardy, a thing he never did, but Florence said, Sit down and shut up.” In the mirror he saw John sit down and nonchalantly blow a big bubble. Almost at once, however, John bounded out of his seat and leaned over Florence’s shoulder. “Got your cards?” he said. “I got some that might be giveaways.”

“Let me see,” Florence said.

“Let me see yours,” John said.

To Mr. Roberts’s amazement Florence took from her pocket a bundle of playing cards about the thickness of two decks. “ I don’t carry my best ones with me,” she said, “but if you promise to bring your best ones tomorrow, I’ll bring mine.”

“You better,” John said, running through the cards, looking only at the backs but nevertheless coming to some mysterious conclusion. “These are mostly just giveaways.” It was only when they stopped for Sophie that Mr. Roberts was able to see that every card was from a different deck.

“There may be a couple of giveaways there but the most of them are good trading cards,” Florence said. . .

“Do you have any giveaways for me? Sophie said. She took out a small bundle before she was well seated.

“Sit down here and we’ll see what I’ve got for my old girl friend,” John said. He patted the seal beside him. Sophie sat down primly. He threw himself on her hugging her fiercely.

Mr. Roberts couldn’t believe his mirror. “ He turned around. “John,” Florence shrieked, “you filthy boy.” John sat back and snapped the rubber band off his pack of cards. Sophie smoothed her skirt with great deliberation. Her face in the mirror showed nothing. Certainly, thank God, not hysterics, Mr. Roberts thought.

“Where are your giveaways?” Florence said.

“Giveaways,” Elly shrieked and fell over the back of the front seat onto the floor. She began to cry without great conviction.

“Be quiet,” Florence said. “You aren’t hurt.”

“Here’s a giveaway for you,” John said.

She stopped crying at once and looked at the card. “Man on Horseback,” she said. That was the way the trading cards were customarily designated, Mr, Roberts discovered: you traded a Windmill for a Sailboat, a Rosebush for a Horseshoe, an Airplane for a Puppy.

“That old Man on Horseback isn’t very nice,” Florence said, “but I’ll trade her for it and throw in a giveaway.”

Elly finally traded for a rather horrible Basket of Flowers and took as her giveaway an Old Darkie Playing a Banjo. She gave up the Man on Horseback and immediately began to cry to have it back.

“A trade is a trade,” Florence said and shoved the card with finality into her pack, snapping the band for emphasis.

“It’s good for her to learn,” John said. “She doesn’t have good opinions about cards, but after she trades for a couple of years, she’ll begin to have good opinions.” Elly went on crying. “Here,”John said, “here’s another Man on Horseback, crybaby.” He took another card from his pocket and gave it to Elly.

Florence reddened. “ You, John, I gave two cards for your old giveaway. Why didn’t you say you had another one?”

“A trade is a trade,” John said. Florence looked sullen and withdrew into her corner.

Sophie looked sideways at Florence and said, “Elly, let me see your old Man on Horseback. Elly held out the card, gripping it tightly. “Oh, come on,” Sophie said, “I won’t hurt it.

Sophie looked at the card carefully. “I ll trade you a Factory for it,” she said.

“And a giveaway?” Elly said.

“No, indeed, you can’t expect to get as much now that there are two of them.”

“Factory,” Elly said. She took the Factory and gave up the Man on Horseback. Immediately, however, she began to cry to have it back.

“All right,” John shouted, “here’s the last one.”He gave Elly still another Man on Horseback. Florence and Sophie glowered at him. Elly fanned her four cards in front of Mr. Roberts, who fortunately had just stopped in front of the school.

Nothing much happened that afternoon on the way home from school. For some reason John sat on the front seat with Elly and Mr. Roberts, and paid no attention to Florence and Sophie, who were trading eagerly in the back seat. He asked Elly to show him her cards, and Elly, ecstatic at receiving attention from such a big boy, passed him her small pack and sat watching him, her mouth open and her whole body intent and quiet as Mr. Roberts had never before seen it.

John looked carefully at the cards and put aside the Man on Horseback for another look. “You know,” he said, “1 think maybe I made a mistake giving up this card. I tell you what. If I bring you two good cards tomorrow will you let me have it back?”

“Okay,” Elly said, holding out her card.

“Not now, tomorrow,” John said. He got up to open the door, for the car had stopped in front of his house.I

“Remember to bring your good cards tomorrow, Florence said.

Barter, trade, values, Mr. Roberts thought, smiling inwardly at the childish simplicity and trust, a very school in life.


THE next morning John got in back and leaned over the seat to talk to Elly. They quickly effected the prearranged trade of t he Man on Horseback. Then John said, “If you promise something, I’ll give you another one.”

“Promise,” Elly said.

“If anyone asks you about the Man on Horseback, say you lost it.”

“Lost it,” Elly said.

John gave her an Old Clown with torn corners, and she laughed and sat down to talk to the clown.

“What were you doing with Elly?” Florence said as John sat down beside her. She barely looked up from sorting her cards.

“Giving her a couple of old giveaways.”

The duplicity that had begun to creep into the trading made Mr. Roberts more than usually watchful; otherwise he might have missed the unfolding of the coup which began so innocuously.

“Let me see your good cards,” John said.

“Now these,” Florence said, “are my very best cards. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. They’re Rembrandts and stuff.”

“Nuts,” John said, “let’s see some of the cards you will trade.” He shuffled through her pack, occasionally stopping to inspect a card and very occasionally laying aside a card for further consideration. When he came to the Man on Horseback, he stopped. “My old Man on Horseback. I might like that back,” he said. When he was through he had narrowed his choice down to a towering craggy Castle, a Kitten in Bed, and the Man on Horseback. “Yes,” he said, “I think I would like that back.”

Florence began to go through his pack. For the Castle, she selected a Cottage with Rose Garden. For the Kitten in Bed, a Waterfall. “I think,” she said, ‘that because you cheated me yesterday I’m going to charge you two for the Man on Horseback.”

Mr. Roberts smiled, thinking that whatever John had had in mind he had met his match in Florence. The car stopped in front of Sophie’s house, and Sophie came running down the walk.

“Okay,” John said. “Pick two but don’t tell Sophie.”

“And why not?” Florence said.

“Remember she got stung too.” He winked at Florence. She winked back. She took an Automobile and a Telephone for the Man on Horseback.

Let’s trade, ” Sophie said as she bounced into the seat.

For the remainder of the trip there was much talk but little trading and, Mr. Roberts thought, a noticeable constraint when Sophie tried to trade her Man on Horseback.

On the way home there were only John and Sophie. Elly’s mother called at the school for her, and Florence went for her music lesson. Mr. Roberts was amazed when John, despite his deal with Florence, appeared interested in Sophie’s Man on Horseback.

“You got a swindle on that old Man on Horseback, John said, but I’ll take it off your hands.” Sophie gave it to him and took a prize B-29. “I’ll even give you some other good trades if you want.”

“No, you’ll trick me again,” Sophie said.

“Listen, would I tell you I swindled you if I was going to swindle you again?”

“I guess not,”

(It sounded reasonable to Mr. Roberts as well.) Here s what to do,” John said. “I made a mistake when I gave away those cards. They’re really worth a lot.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Sophie said.

And have you rob me? Nix. But Florence is mad with me and won’t trade for anything. If you can get her card away from her, I’ll give you five for it.”

“Five good cards?”

“Five of my best cards. You should be able to get it for two at the most. But don’t tell her it’s for me, or she’ll never trade.”

“Okay. You promise five.”

“Five good ones and the same deal if you get Elly’s. But I think Florence has got it already. Now what do you say, babe?” He threw his arms around her. She sat with her hands in her lap and looked straight ahead. John sat back and popped his bubble gum. Mr. Roberts clung to the wheel.


THE next morning the action moved rapidly toward its conclusion. John got in and sat in the back seat with Florence. “You know,” he said, “something funny is going on. Sophie has been trying to collect those Man on Horsebacks that I had. She’s been offering three and four for them. But I think I know what it is. She found out that the Polack kids on the back of her block will go as high as ten for one Man on Horseback.”

“I shouldn’t have let you get back that one I had,” Florence said.

“Maybe we can find some way of getting around her,” John said. “She hasn’t been very nice to me and I’d like to fix her good. I think she’s got Elly’s card already.”

“May we see your Man on Horseback, Elly?” Florence said sweetly, holding out her hand.

“Lost it,” Elly said.

John and Florence exchanged significant glances in the manner of melodrama conspirators. “I’ll get in front with Elly,” John said, “and you see what you can find out from Sophie.”

“Okay,” Florence said.

When Sophie got in, Florence said, “Let me look at your cards, Sophie. I feel like trading.” Sophie passed over the cards and Florence shuffled through them, remembering from time to time to stop and appear to consider cards for trading. With great casualness she said, “Where is your old Man on Horseback? I lost mine, and I’d rather like a new one.”

“I lost mine too,” Sophie said.

“Well,” Florence said, “if you happen to find it I might give you a couple for it.

“I might give you three for yours if you find it,”Sophie said. “It’s not very good but I kinda like it.”

Mr. Roberts followed the cautious bidding avidly. At all events John stood to make a clear profit of twelve cards on his three. Elly said, “Get in back. And because Mr. Roberts was woolgathering and not quick to distract her, she promptly began to howl. He stopped the car and let her change seats.

Sophie said, “ I’ll get in front and trade with John.”

She got in and crouched down as if to hide from Florence. “Florence really wants those cards,” she said in a whisper. .

John said, leaning his head close to hers, I think she’s found some kids who’ll go as high as ten for those cards. If I knew who they were I’d trade myself. Rut I don’t know.

“Why don’t you trade her the cards for eight or nine?” Sophie said.

“I hate her too much to have anything to do with her,” John said. “She’s too bossy. But I’ll trade you the cards and let you trade her.”

“Okay,” Sophie said. “How much?”

“I’ll want five for each card,” John said.


“But look here. You’ll be making three or four on each card if you trade at eight or nine.

“Okay,” Sophie said.

John took from his pocket the three Man on Horsebacks that Mr. Roberts knew he had. He gave them to Sophie. Mr. Roberts’s eyes bugged out as he saw her laying it on the line: six Mills, three Towns, two Rivers, one New York Skyline, one Oil Derrick, one U.S. President, one Great Author.

“Back, back, no trade-backs,” John shouted. “Just in case you might want to back out of the deal. Anyway we’re at school now; so wait and get her this afternoon.”

That afternoon Mr. Roberts got to the school early in his anxiety to see the pay-off, but he was not prepared for what happened. John, Florence, and Elly came out and said that Sophie was rehearsing a pageant but would be out very soon. Did you"see how much Sophie wanted those old cards ?" John said to Florence while Mr. Roberts stood by the car window looking in. There was no doubt that Florence did see and regretted the loss of a chance to make Sophie pay the limit.

“Well, look, I’ve got all three of them here.” Mr. Roberts stared at the cards John spread out. I tricked her to get them out of her, and I d like to trick her again. I’m mad at her.”

“ Give them to me and I’ll get her good, Florence said, holding out her hand.

“No,” John said, “I wouldn’t feel I was really getting at her unless I made a good profit on the deal. I don’t want the whole eight or nine, but I do want something good.”

“I’ll give you five for each card,” Florence said. “Is that enough?”

“Well, I guess so,” John said.

And Mr. Roberts watched Florence pay off: six Rembrandts, two Raphaels, two Botticellis, one Michelangelo, one Hals, one Breughel, one King of England in full court dress with jewels, one illuminated Bible.

“Back, back, no trade-backs,” John chanted, closing the deal. “Now I’ll get in back and let you go to work on Sophie when she comes out.” He got in back and it seemed to Mr. Roberts that his pockets bulged with his twenty-four-card profit.

Sophie came out and Mr. Roberts started for home expecting the inevitable. The trading opened light on the back seat with the Man on Horseback not even mentioned. John in front was studying Elly’s cards. “I’ll tell you what, Elly,” he said. “Florence and Sophie will give ten cards for every one of the Man on Horseback. I’ve got three here and I’ll only take six cards for them. You’ve only got six cards; so I’m letting you off light.” But Elly could see no sense in giving more than she got. And there it stood when Sophie and Florence confronted each other with their Man on Horsebacks.

“You, John, you cheat, give me back my cards,” Florence screamed.

“I said back, back, no trade-backs,” John said in the peculiarly confident manner of a man who knows the law.

Sophie began to cry.

“You’re nothing but a — a cheat,” Florence said.

“I’m rubber, you’re glue, everything you say sticks right back to you,” John said calmly, complete master with all the answers. “ Who’d like some giveaways?” He took from his pocket the remainder of the deck of the Man on Horseback.

“Giveaways,” Florence sputtered.

Sophie cried louder.

“Me, me!” Elly shrieked.

“Here, take the whole pack.”

“See all my cards,” Elly said. “Florence give ten for one?”

“They aren’t worth anything,” Florence shouted. “They’re all alike.”

“All alike, all pretty,” Elly said. She looked admiringly at all her Man on Horsebacks. She turned them over. “Men and ladies,” she said.

“And lots more, too, if you look at it that way,”John said. He began careful inspection of the cards he had taken from Florence and Sophie. “Some of these are pretty crumby, Florence. I ought to make you give me better ones. You swindled me on a couple of these.”

Florence glowered out the window.

Sophie sobbed quietly.

Elly said, “Men and ladies, men and ladies.”

Mr. Roberts thought he would call his broker and have him buy something good, perhaps Tel and Tel or something safe.