An old man sat in an arm-chair, mumbling into the scattering darkness. It was nearly dawn, and he sat by the window, barely discernable in the pre-dawn glow. He was bristly and disheveled, with a perpetual scowl that hung so low, he consistently needed to wipe the resultant saliva from his chin. He was dressed in an elaborate, frilly costume that had been out of fashion for a long time -- several centuries, at least. Decked out in cravat, waist-coat and shiny shoe gaiters, he looked like a Victorian banker's eccentric, shut-in uncle. He spat out a series of private little denouncements, under his breath, sending forth streams of scowl-induced drool. With each new bit of wrath-inspired chin-spittle, he would hasten to remove a saturated, soiled handkerchief from his breast pocket and dab away the wayward spit with pompous aplomb. He carefully re-folded the filthy rag and shoved it back into his waistcoat.
"Ha! Such family! Ha! You just wait -- that's right, wait and see, my dears! Yes ... you'll get yours -- get yours in hell! That's right, you heard me: hell it is! Oh yes!"
He sat wearing a bitter, sour-grapes grin and fingered his rumpled, wrinkled finery. He wriggled in furtive delight at his imaginings of his many enemies squirming in the blazing hell-fires. His attention was diverted by the sight of an ostentatious coat of arms that hung above his fireplace.
"Oh yessss," he drawled out, rising from his seat and hobbling to the fireplace, like a gardener shuffling over to beat off a flock of geese from his cabbage patch. He pumped his withered arms in wrath, oily eyes blazing, and began to snigger.
"Ha! My family! Traitors! Now I see your true colors, my dears! Know who else knows you -- the devil! Yes, the devil! The old rascal -- he'll show you a thing or two before you're through!"
The cantankerous patriarch gave a knowing, self-congratulating chuckle and looked up at the coat of arms, which proclaimed, in silent testament, his long, proud and noble lineage. A few drops of spittle fell from his chin. Fumbling for his fouled hankie, he blew his nose noisily, and proceeded to pat dry his profusely sweating face.
"So I'm an old ogre, am I? My own daughter -- my only kin! Running off with some fop on a motorcycle! Well, we'll see how she likes it, now that I cut her off -- without a penny!"
He raised his face to the coat of arms and gave a rousing laugh. He lifted up his cane, as if about to strike down his enemies, and shook it at the coat of arms, shouting defiantly.
"Ha-ha! Not a penny! That's right, the prestigious line of Struttongrup --former shoe-shines to the king of Austria -- she shall have none of it -- you hear me! Disowned! None of it!"
Giving himself over to his gleeful rage, the old man began to cackle uproariously, knocking at the coat of arms with his cane. By degrees, the massive, cumbersome coat of arms -- made of heavy wood -- began to jiggle precariously. It flopped down off the wall and crashed down on the head of the noble Struttongrup.
* * *
The old man came back to his senses, feeling very groggy, but conscious of his surroundings. Sunlight was dazzling him, and for a few moments he could see nothing but light. He grumbled in irritable confusion.
"Bloody light! Close the drapes -- Evans!" His butler, Evans, did not reply, and so he groped for the source of the light, intending to close the drapes. His eyes adjusted to the bright conditions, and he could see there were no drapes to grasp -- what was worse, the scenery outside his window was not stationary; trees and valleys flew past at dizzying speeds. A few moments of disoriented panic caused him to grasp his head and shriek.
It was only then that he noticed the tell-tale sounds of a moving train. That familiar noise of rhythmic commotion, mixed with the moving scenery, and the sight of innumerable, red seats, finally enlightened him as to his current situation --he was on a train. He blinked his eyes and shot bolt upright in his seat, looking left and right in astonishment. He had no recollection of having boarded a train, nor could he think of any reason why he would; his sprawling ancestral estate was the only place on earth that interested him.
The large, long car was full of vacant seats, and only on the far side, where a few tables were installed, did he hear any sounds of human life. He stared through the window, astounded by these circumstances, and for a moment he could see a small person -- seemingly a baby -- walking through the fields, a hat on its head, but otherwise naked. He gaped wide and his eyes popped out; he gave a double-take and pressed his hands against the glass, straining to see the babyish vision once more, but it had passed out of view within moments. He began to rub his neck, eyes still popping incredulously, and sat dumbfounded for a minute or two. Suddenly, the full scope of all this strangeness registered with him, and, eyeing the train window as if it were an unpredictable maniac, he shuffled off his seat and nervously made his way to wherever it was those sounds of humanity were emanating from. He hobbled up the aisle, trying to push down his rumpled coat and slick back his disheveled hair; his eyes bugged, watery and bloodshot, and were full of a flabbergasted uneasiness. He was anxious to see another human being; he wasn't sure if he needed to complain bitterly or beg assistance, but he knew he needed the reassurance of human company.
The old man entered an area of the car full of tables, noise and cigar smoke. Seated around the tables -- their voices blended into a noisy cacophony -- sat dozens of babies, dressed only in hats, playing cards with concentrated intensity. There was an endless variety of them, in a variety of hats. Their banter was loud, coarse and was more pool shark than baby.
"You dirty crook, you," snarled a gravelly-voiced baby with a big black cigar in his mouth, and wearing a wide-brimmed black hat. "You're robbing me blind, you drool factory!"
The baby across from him, wearing a checked trilby on his head, raked in the chips and laughed with sinister glee.
"Aw, Jackson, don't be such a sorehead, and take that stinkin' cigar out of your mouth, you're a baby, chrissakes!"
Jackson looked indignant, his little eyes bulging.
"Hey! This is the afterlife! Here I finally get someplace where I can smoke all I want without dying and you want me butt it out?! Just deal and keep it shut, Phillips!"
The old man took in this scene in flabbergasted wonder, no longer trying to restrain his own prolific drool output. He stood gaping, periodically jerking his head to the side in a questioning manner, as if he was standing next a tour guide, and was itching to ask what was the meaning of this bizarre display.
"Phillips! Come on now, deal em out -- deal em out!" croaked Jackson, as he squirmed in his seat, his eyes darting around the car impatiently. He caught sight of the old man and a crafty, disreputable little smile formed on his adorable little face.
"Hey Struttongrup!" The surly little tike blurted out, looking across the car at a baby wearing a blue baseball cap. The old man, hearing his name, jumped a foot and seemed ready to make a break for it, out the window. He had gotten past the point of being shocked -- he was now utterly terrified.
The baby with the ball-cap glanced up distractedly, absorbed in his game. On spotting the old man, he looked horrified and hunched down in his seat, hiding his face in his cards; this caused the churlish Jackson to chuckle mischievously and yell all the louder.
"Struttongrup! Ha-ha ... your grandpa's here!" Jackson, now turning to address the old man, spoke with thinly-veiled sarcasm. "Go talk to the guy with the ball cap over there, old timer, he'll take good care of you -- don't you worry! Ha-ha!"
The old man, rendered helpless by bewilderment, jumped to attention the moment the crusty Jackson had addressed him. Nodding frantically and jittering with nerves, he pointed to the baby in the ball-cap and gave a questioning, obsequious look. Deciding that he'd best just do what he was told, and hoping that someone would indeed take care of him and maybe even clue him in, made his faltering way over to the baby in the ball-cap; the baby, with a deep sigh, lifted his face out of his cards and looked at the old man with resigned distaste.
"Mister ... Struttongrup, yes?" the baby in the ball-cap asked him, reluctantly, as if hoping he was not. He continued, "Uh yeah ... well, do you ... have any questions?"
The old man's eyes once again popped out of his head and he leaned his head forward, as if he wasn't sure he heard right. He began to babble softly, growing louder as he went.
"How's that? Question? You ask me ... yes ... yes, I have a question! What is this, eh? You're a baby -- why all these babies?! Why?! Somebody tell me what this is about!"
The old man had grown progressively more agitated and was now yelling, eyes blazing. The baby in the ball-cap rolled his little eyes and the baby beside him, a thickset little guy with a black bowler hat, started to chuckle good-naturedly. The baby in the bowler hat, recovering from his amusement, tried to soothe and reassure the agitated old gentleman.
"Now, now, sir. Don't carry on like that, it's all quite straight-forward and really rather obvious if you think about it. You're dead, and this is the afterlife. You didn't think you were on earth, did you? I mean look at this place! Ha-ha!"
The old man stood agape for a full minute -- long enough for the baby in the ball-cap to make a few bets; he gave an involuntary grimace, tried belatedly to hide it under his ball-cap and then muttered resignedly, putting his face in his hands:
"Yeah, yeah ... I fold." After a few more moments, the old man, whose horrified expression had not altered in all this time, quietly croaked out the words: "Dead? I'm dead?"
The cheerful little infant in the bowler gave a cordial, mirthful nod of affirmation and the old man let out a gasp.
"But ... but ... the babies ... what is all this ..." the old man muttered, feebly trying to understand the situation.
"What about it?" asked the baby in the bowler. "This is just what the afterlife is like! I mean, what did you expect?"
"Well, I don't know ..." the old man replied in bewilderment.
The babies went back to their game and the old man stood for some minutes; a vague, unsure expression on his face. He occasionally would turn to look at something, and open his mouth partly, as if he were about to say something, only to shut his mouth again, face forward and continue his baffled staring.
After a few minutes, he had marshaled his thoughts enough to realize he was being ignored. He gave an incredulous stare at the baby in the ball-cap, and for the first time realized they were playing cards. He furrowed his brow and cleared his throat tentatively, speaking now in meek and hesitant voice.
"Well ... uh ... what is this? What are you doing?"
The babies looked up from their game and then at one another.
It was as if he had pointed up at the sun and asked them what it was, and the baby in the ball-cap hid his head in his hands, clearly trying to hide both his amusement and bemusement.
"We're playing poker! Ha-ha!" burst out the baby in the bowler. "What else?! Ha-ha. Seven card stud! Know how to play, I hope? That's all we do around here!"
The old man, torn between mystification and feeling as if he had said something stupid, gave a few flustered expressions and began to rub his neck nervously, stuttering as he did so.
"Well ... of course -- yes I do ... but I've no money -- nothing!" This time every baby in the car seemed to be laughing in response to his halting reply. He looked left and right, growing ever more disturbed and once more ready to run.
"Well, well, not to worry!" said the baby in the bowler.
"You don't need money here -- what can a baby do with money? Ha-ha! Needn't worry, old man, I'll show you how it's done ..." With that, the baby in the bowler signaled for a new hand to be dealt out and the old man was ushered into a seat at the game table.
"You see, old-timer, we're not playing for money. We're playing for desirable births back on earth -- that's good as gold to a baby! See, the families are ranked on the basis of how much a baby would enjoy them, and a new-comer like you would start at the bottom -- the, uh, let's say not the most pleasant of people, of families. Anyways, then you have to play a hand, if you lose that hand, you just have to keep playing that family till you win and if you win the hand, then you can go be born into that family, or you can choose to move up the ladder to an even better family. The more chips you have the better families you can play, or you can cash in and go be born somewhere -- see?"
The old man's brow, which furrowed ever deeper, in time with the ever deepening glaze in his eyes, showed that he did not see. The baby in the ball-cap, speaking in a meek and hesitant voice, made another attempt to enlighten the old man.
"You see, we're playing to get into a particular family. And ... well some of them aren't so good. Well, the cards you get, when you play a family, they're based on how good that family is, at particular things ... like the suit of hearts might mean how good that family is at playing with babies, or something ... and aces might mean how good the food is ... or ... well sometimes it's even something pretty, uh, small and, you'd think, unimportant ... like how good they are at playing chess or something. It's unique and different for every family. But anyways, uh, if that family is good at those things, you get good cards ... but if they're not ... well, you know ..." The baby in the ball-cap began to shake his head and look at the old man with a mildly annoyed frown, making him feel somehow guilty.
"What?" asked the old man, genuinely concerned, "What about it? Did I do something?" The old man caught a knowing, amused look pass between the two babies and the baby in the bowler gave answer to his questioning glance.
"Well, Struttongrup, you see your ancestral suits are kind of unusual, and well ... you're not very good at them yourself, and well, your family's gotten kind of small because of it -- no one wants to go into your family! You see, don't take it badly, old man, but your suits are, well, ha-ha, let's just say they're bottom pairs -- at best! And it's pretty well known you, personally, are kind of an ogre ... well, ha-ha, well, you're kind of close to the bottom of the deck."
The old man, for the first time, felt he understood something that was being said. His seemingly long-lost sense of over-inflated ancestral pride was welling up to the surface.
"What? You mean ... Struttongrup? We're at the bottom of the list? No, no, you can't mean it! We are old nobility!"
"Well, sure, sure, old man." Replied the baby in the bowler, sharing an awkward glance with the other baby. The baby in the ball-cap, clearing his throat again, continued speaking.
"You see, well, nobility isn't really the thing here ... it's just the hands and how strong your suits are, see ... and well, how much people like you ... uh, yeah, well you see your suits here are: Hearts, how well you cook. Diamonds, how much money you have. Clubs, how big your sofa is. And Aces, how well you shine shoes. You used to have some good diamond cards ... but since you cut off your daughter ... well, she's kind of poor and she's the only one left in your family who has a womb ... so playing your family ... kind of ... well, it kind of sucks."
The baby in the ball cap hid his head under his visor and began to fiddle with his poker chips. The baby in the bowler could not contain a grin, but strove to hide it. The old man was bowled over by this. He could not believe his family was seen, by these after-life babies, as undesirable to be born into. In addition, he was astonished to consider that the after-life was based on nothing more significant than poker.
"You're telling me ... the only reason -- you mean, the whole point of life is to cook well and ... shine shoes? That's all that it's about? You mean ... that's the only purpose for me?"
"Well, for your family," replied the baby in the bowler. "It's different for every family, of course, but for you, yeah. That's all it's about. That's the meaning of life, I guess, as far as you're concerned ... well that and knowing how to play a good hand in poker! Ha-ha, donks don't do too good in life, Ha-ha!"
The babies all laughed, and on seeing the old man's clueless expression, the baby in the bowler explained:
"A 'donk' is someone who really can't play poker -- slang."
"Playing a good hand ..." the old man whispered in dazed disbelief. Another realization was dawning on him.
"You," said the old man, pointing to the baby in the ball-cap, "You're playing my family? Struttongrup? You're going to be my grandson? Are you?" Struttongrup heard the gravelly voice of Jackson; he was laughing hysterically. Stifled laughs burst out all over the car, and the baby in the ball-cap winced.
"Shh ..." said the baby, "yes, I am. But don't talk so loud. And maybe your grandson, maybe! I'm not sure I want to be!" The old man, slowly rising from his seat, looked around at the laughing broods of newborns, and began to feel a defensive anger. He was beginning to realize that his family was a laughing stock to these cheeky little squirts and his sense of familial honor was being bruised with every chortle.
"What are you laughing at?! You little brats! Respect your elders! That is, respect your betters! We Struttongrups are one of the greatest families on earth! How dare you malign my noble lineage! You need a spanking, that's what you need!"
The infants broke into a renewed wave of scornful mirth and the old man began to shake with indignation. Jackson was laughing the hardest, about ready to swallow his cigar in his spasmodic fits of levity. He let out a raucous yell, which stung the old man like a bee.
"Hey, Struttongrup! Better buy a new sofa before your noble lineage bites the dust! Ha-ha!" The comedic timing of this was perfect, and the sight of old man Struttongrup's impotent rage made it all the more hilarious. Laughter pealed forth from all directions like a raging thunder storm.
The old man, cowed by the public ridicule -- even if they were just babies -- and yet still fuming at the indignity of it all, sat back down at the table and began to thump it with his fist.
"Why, you! You brats! Deal the cards! I'll play my own family! I'll go back and I'll show you! I'll show you what a Struttongrup can do! I'll show you how to cook ... and ... and ... "
The old man, shaking with rage, began to trail off, forgetting his ancestral suits. The baby in the ball-cap clearing his throat, reminded him: "Sofa, shining shoes and money."
"Yes!" shouted the old man. "All the money and sofas! And we were the shoe-shines to the king! I'll show you! I'll show you how good we Struttongrups shined them!" The babies exchanged another glance, shaking heads slightly.
"Well ..." said the baby in the ball-cap, "anyways ... you can't play your own family because I'm still playing it."
"Well hurry up kid! How long are you going to be?!"
The baby in the ball-cap sighed, gave an ironic half-smile, and mumbled to himself. "How long, sure. And he's asking me this. With hands like you gave me, I'm guessing forever."
"Well, wait a minute," interjected the baby in the bowler.
"Besides that, you can't play, old man! You're not a baby!"
The old man, losing all self-control, shot up to his feet, banging his fists on the table. He began to shout in exasperation. "Well, why not?! What am I doing here then?!"
All the babies at the table exchanged glances. Finally, the baby in the bowler replied, as if not certain, himself.
"Well, I don't know. I guess you probably aren't dead yet."
* * *
The old man was somewhat dazed, but groped his way persistently out from under the massive weight which pressed on his chest and constricted his breath. He made his way out from under his massive family crest, gasping for breath and snaking along on his belly. Flopping over on his back, he stared at the ceiling and waited for his composure to return. He was back in his study and the morning light was now in full force, blanketing over his dusty possessions, and reaching as far as his sweaty, ashen face. He blinked at the bright light, and struggled to his feet. Rage was still burning in his heart, and for a minute he stood at his table, propping himself up limply and trying to recall to mind what he was angry about.
Presently, it became evident that everything was rushing back into his consciousness. His jaw set firmly and he shook with pent up anger.
"Evans! Evans!" he called out, and as soon as the face of his startled lackey appeared in the doorway, he began to rant with vociferous force.
"Evans! Call my lawyer! Give my daughter all my money! Buy a new sofa -- a big one! Er ... fire the cook! No! Tell her to come in here! Er, bring the recipes! Evans! My shoes! Bring them in here -- all of them! I need to shine them! Cards! Bring playing cards! We'll show that no-good pack of infants!"
The unfortunate valet tried in vain to memorize these instructions, and fumbling for a pen and paper, politely requested that his master repeat his instructions.
"You fool, you! I told you plainly! Wait -- I didn't mean that ... nice fellow, Evans! Very nice fellow. Yes ... see, I'm no ogre ... bring in the cards and the cook! We must play poker!"
The cook was brought in and old man Struttongrup sat with them, dealing out the cards. His two servants looked at him with a petrified dread, as if he had a gun pointed in their faces. The old man impotently tried to shuffle the cards, too excited and agitated to do it properly. They flew all over the floor and the old man himself flew into a rage.
"Evans! Pick them up! Blast you, you fool! We have to learn -- fast! Yes, yes, hurry, pick them up, you clod!"
Evans was frantically trying to retrieve the cards, when a sudden, guilty look of fear formed on the old man's face.
"Wait! No, I didn't mean that! Good man, Evans, good man! Yes, indeed, you're really quite a nice fellow ... yes ... you know how to shuffle, do you, my good friend -- that is, my good servant?"
Evans, now in his seat with a handful of cards, gave a hesitant nod, and replied timidly.
"Well, then, shuffle, will you? There's a good chap. Yes, yes, we're all very good, kind people, yes? Am I right?
"Yes, sir," replied Evans.
"Yes ... yes, sir. Of course," replied the terrified cook.
Satisfied, the old man picked up one of the shoes Evans had brought in to him and began to shine it with an absorbed passion. "Yes ..." he growled, once again losing himself in his anger. "We'll show those little babies how a Struttongrup shines shoes!" The cook and the butler looked at one another -- a look of terrified bewilderment slowly spreading across their faces.