The game was hot . . . the shells performed their dance . . .
how they sang, enchanting the gamers with their siren call . . .
I walked out onto an empty train platform.
It was a hot and sunny mid-afternoon, and the platform should have been bristling with activity. Then I heard the humming sound.
I walked around the end of the station house and there they were. A group of young men with open collars, all intently peering at a small table, behind which stood an elegantly-dressed man. Despite the heat of the day, and in sharp contrast to the fact that the clothes of every man around him were dripping with perspiration, he was wearing a jacket and a dry forehead. His lips were drawn together, springing slightly upwards at the corner. I elbowed my way into the crowd, drawing closer to the table and then I saw them. I didn’t know what they were then, but I know now what it was that drew me . . .
Three enormous walnut shells had been inverted on the table and a pea was placed under the center shell.
The gentleman slowly, almost hypnotically, rearranged the order of the shells and the betting began.
Each time, a man placed some money down on the table and indicated where he thought the pea was located. On every occasion, the gentleman would smile, and almost sadly shake his head as he lifted up another shell to reveal the pea. This happened again and again, with a never-ending stream of men anxious to try their luck.
I never got a chance to try, because the whistle blew for my departing train. To my eternal regret, I, and the rest of the crowd, left to catch our train.
As I boarded the already-moving train, I cast a glance back at the worker and his “partners.” The man glanced up and exuding calm confidence in his instruments, he winked at me as if to say, “Perhaps next time . . .” For no reason I can comprehend, I nodded back and smiled broadly.
In the cool quiet of my compartment, I tried to comprehend my fascination. The sight of the shells sitting there, warmly embracing, yet somehow transporting the pea, commanded my attention. They were so simple in appearance, yet so complex in their appeal. Following the pea should not have been difficult to do, but was. Was it because of some special ability by the man behind the table? Perhaps the shells transfixed and transported you to a place beyond the heat of the day and the confusion of a busy rail station to a simple place where the shells invited you to join in their cavorting.
Where did the pea go? Why did it go? The money didn’t matter, you just had to be part of the game.
To this day, I remember the amazement I felt at the men’s reactions. The money ran like water, yet somehow the marks seemed unconcerned with the money making its way from their wallets into the purse of the man behind the table. Losing to a gentleman who played with such skill was considered an honor.
The quality of the shells were a reflection of the man who used them. It showed he cared, and who could begrudge a few dollars to someone who cared so for his audience?