We were riding down the Pacific Coast Highway— Mac, his girlfriend Carol, and I. Mac’s the poker playing friend of Dave Duffy, the fellow who publishes this magazine. Mac and I have taken to palling around the last few years and on this particular afternoon, he and Carol had invited me to go along with them to a party her cousin was throwing in Malibu.
Mac drove with Carol beside him and me in the backseat. I was thinking about how he makes his living as a poker player.
I suddenly leaned forward and asked, “Do you believe in luck, Mac?”
“Do you mean as in good luck, bad luck, runs of luck, that some people are just plain lucky because they’re blessed with it and others are doomed to be unlucky all their lives? Like it’s some kind of metaphysical force?”
“Really? The way you make your living, I would have thought you did.”
He shook his head.
“I just thought all gamblers believed in luck,” I said
“Quite a few do.”
“How do you explain someone winning the lottery or a night when you get a good run of cards?” I asked.
“Well, in the first case, if you want to call someone who’s just won the lottery lucky, you’re using it as a descriptive word. It’s like calling them rich. But if you’re using it as a verb, as if some force called luck brought it about, no, I don’t believe in that.
“As for the way I make my living, I don’t win because I’m lucky. I win because I learned how to play the game well and I have the discipline to stick to the rules I’ve set out for myself. On a particular night, I may do a lot better or a lot worse than I ordinarily would, because of the random nature of the hands my opponents and I get. But that’s just the way things happen.”
“Do you believe in things like ESP?”
I saw him look at me in the rearview mirror. “No.”
“If it exists, no one’s ever provided reliable evidence of it. Given all the people who say they have it or have witnessed it, I would have thought it would have been demonstrated to the satisfaction of science a long time ago.”
“What about those guys like Uri Geller and others like him I’ve read about or seen on TV. How do you explain them?”
“Have you ever heard of a guy named James Randi?”
Looking in the rearview mirror, he could see the puzzled look on my face. “He bills himself as ‘The Amazing Randi,’” he added
“The name’s familiar.”
“He’s a magician. But he’s best known for exposing psychics. Show him a feat that any of the psychics claim to perform by using supernatural powers, and he’ll do the same stunt using nothing but the magic stuff he’s learned over the years. Card tricks, mind reading, bending spoons, or whatever; he’ll do them all, but he’ll do them without claiming to use any psychic powers, only deception and sleight of hand.”
“Well, if I know that a professional stage magician can do what these psychics do, why should I accept the explanation that psychic powers are involved, particularly when what they’re doing amounts to nothing more than parlor tricks?”
“But some of these psychics have convinced reputable scientists.”
“Scientists are out of their league when they deal with these guys. Scientists are by and large honest, and they’re not in the habit of dealing with people who are trying to fool them. They’d proclaim Randi a psychic if he told them he was one. I’m not impressed when some scientist proclaims one to be genuine. But let one of those guys get by a good magician and I might take notice.”
I sat back and was looking out at the sea again. Carol looked back at me. Her window was open and her hair was floating on the breeze.
“Mac tells me you write,” she said.
“He said you write poetry.”
I was flattered to find out Mac talks about me.
She turned forward again and fished something out of the glove box. It was a notebook. She handed it to me over the seat.
“Tell me if these are any good.”
I opened it and read the first poem. It was horrible. I read the second. It was worse. The third, fourth, and fifth were terrible, too. I was mortified. She wanted my opinion of them. I glanced up at her. She was watching me. How was I going to tell this beautiful woman, the girlfriend of a newfound best friend, that her poetry was atrocious. I read a few more.
I looked up again. She was still watching me. Looking into her eyes I knew if I wasn’t brutally honest, she’d know I was lying.
I had to be honest. But my mouth opened and I lied, “They’re pretty good. They’re not quite what we put in the magazine…”
She screwed her face up. “Really? I think they stink. They’re my cousin’s girl friend’s stuff. I can’t believe you like them. When Jeff’s girlfriend, Rita, heard you were coming, she insisted you read them before you got there.”
She turned forward again. I must have looked mortified because Mac looked at me in the mirror again and started laughing. Carol looked at him, then back at me.
“You just said you like them because you thought they were mine, didn’t you?”
She laughed. “You men are such cowards.”
“Does the woman who wrote them want me to be honest with her?” I asked.
“Only if you think they rival Shakespeare’s.”
Mac laughed some more.
The rest of the trip was uneventful.
We arrived at a house in Malibu. It was one of those modern looking things that’s all pastels and straight lines. We went in and Carol started introducing Mac and me around. She introduced us to her cousin, Jeff, then she introduced us to Jeff’s girlfriend.
“Mac, this is my cousin’s friend, Rita.”
Rita was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. If there are desirable young virgins waiting on departed warriors in Valhalla, this is what they look like. She started to shake Mac’s hand and stopped. “Oh, you’re the poker player,” she said and pulled her hand away like he was pond scum.
“And you must be the magazine editor,” she said turning to me. Her face lit up and enveloped me. I was hers to do with as she pleased. My legs were like wilted celery stalks. No woman this beautiful had ever spoken to me before. She was going to ask me about her poems. I was going to lie. I’d hate myself in the morning. So what?
“Wrong guy,” Carol said. “He couldn’t make it. This is John, another card player.”
Her face changed. I no longer existed. I extended my hand but she didn’t take it and just as suddenly as she’d appeared, she was gone. I was stung.
“I told her that because you men are such cowards,” Carol said.
“You should have let John handle that,” Mac said.
“I would have told her anything she wanted to hear,” I confessed.
“I know that,” Carol said.
Mac watched Rita as she walked away from us, and Carol kicked him in the ankle.
“Hey, that hurt.”
“Do you guys both need drool cups?” she asked and she took Mac’s hand and they wandered around. Since I felt so out of place, I stuck close to them.
For hors d’oeuvres there were stuffed mushrooms I’d die for, marinated shrimp I’d kill for, and oysters on the half shell I couldn’t get enough of. There were cases of wine I couldn’t have afforded by the glass. I sensed there was so much money here a collection could have been taken up to buy Rhode Island and pave it over for tennis courts.
There were people talking the film business. I don’t mean Fotomat but MGM and Universal. Others talked music. Everyone was dropping names the way baseball fans drop statistics.
We stopped to look out one of the bay windows and I found myself gazing on a view of the Pacific I couldn’t afford. Suddenly, I was sure money could buy me happiness.
I looked around and Mac and Carol were gone. I felt awkward, like I was a fraud. I just hoped no one was going to ask me what I did for a living.
“Relax,” a voice said. It was Carol. She was back. “These people are liars, just like you were in the car.”
I laughed and wished I’d been honest with her when she’d shown me the poems.
“Mac’s casing the place. He’s trying to find out if there are any poker players here so he can wangle his way into their games.” She rolled her eyes. “I think I’m going to get a nightgown made out of playing cards.
“Come on,” she said and we walked into what I immediately realized was a large office. I still didn’t know what her cousin did for a living. At least half the people at the party had congregated in this room. A man was sitting at a table and looked like he was doing card tricks. Carol and I got closer and heard him say:
“Everyone has ESP to some extent.”
“That’s what I think, Ron.” The speaker was a woman named Helen.
“Here, let me show you,” Ron said and he stopped shuffling the deck and spread the cards in what looked like a random fashion over the table.
We all moved closer to the table.
“I want you to point to…” He hesitated for effect. “…point to a red card. Make it a ten. Make it the ten of hearts.”
She held her finger deliberately over the cards.
“Go ahead,” he said.
She giggled and pointed to one.
“Don’t touch it,” Ron said.
“That one,” she said. Her index finger hovered just millimeters over a card.
“Are you sure?”
He picked the card up and held it so only he could see it. When he looked back at her, his expression was noncommittal.
“Pick another one,” he said.
“Did I get the ten of hearts?” she asked.
“Just pick another one. Pick a black one this time.” He thought a moment. “Make it a picture card. Make it the king of spades.”
She hesitated. She was still thinking about the ten of hearts.
“Go ahead,” he said.
“But I want to know if I got the ten of hearts.”
“Point to the king of spades, first.”
She let her hand hover again and slowly moved it in circles until she settled on a card in the middle of the table.
“This one?” Ron asked as he pointed to a card.
“The one next to it.”
He moved his finger slightly. “This one?”
“Are you sure?”
He picked this card up and looked at it, too. He gazed at her again and she laughed.
“Let me see if I can pick one,” he said. “Let’s make it a small card. Let’s make it the three of spades.” His hand floated over the table until it settled on a card near him and he picked it up and looked at it for a moment, then looked at Helen again as he shuffled the three cards in his hands.
“Do you think I got mine, the three of spades?”
She thought a second and smiled. “How would I know?”
He threw the three of spades face up on the table. She looked surprised.
“Do you think you got yours, the ten of hearts and the king of spades?”
“I don’t know,” she laughed.
He threw the ten of hearts and the king of spades face up on the table.
“How did I do that?” She was incredulous.
“I told you, you have psychic powers. I can detect that they’re not real strong right now, but with practice you could really start doing things with them.”
She looked pleased with herself. “You know, I always could tell things, like when things were going to happen. And the night my grandmother died, I remember worrying about her and thinking of calling her and suddenly the phone rang and it was my mother. She told me my grandmother had just died. How could I have known that?”
“You just have to develop those powers,” Ron said.
“Can we do it again?” she asked.
He was shuffling the deck again.
“Are you sure you want to?” he asked.
He spread the cards on the table again.
I suddenly realized Mac was with us now. I sidled up to him. “Did you see that?” I whispered.
“Do you know how he did it?”
He smiled and nodded again.
He turned and I followed him to a table that had more opened bottles of wine. He poured some for me, then some for himself. “I could ruin a perfectly good liver living here,” he said.
Across the room, the rest of the guests huddled around the table where Ron was asking Helen to point to the ace of diamonds.
“How’d he do it?” I asked.
“The trick? Each time he finishes, he reshuffles the deck. As he shuffles, he’ll glance at the bottom card. After he sees it, he can keep shuffling, but he makes sure the card he saw stays on the bottom. When he spreads the cards on the table he knows where that bottom card is. Say the six of hearts is the card he saw. He asks her to point to the six of hearts.”
“But she doesn’t know where it is.”
“That’s right. But she’ll point to some card. Whatever she points to, he’ll pick it up and look at it, being careful not to let anyone else see it. Say the card she pointed to was the ten of spades, now he asks her to point to the ten of spades. She can’t, of course, because it’s in his hand, but she points to another card. He picks that card up and looks at it. Again he’s careful to make sure no one else sees it. Say it’s the queen of hearts. Now he says, ‘I’ll pick the queen of hearts, and he picks up the card that’s on the bottom of the deck…”
“And that was the six of hearts that he asked for in the first place. So, now he has all three cards.”
“That’s right. He shuffles the three cards, just in case someone’s noticed the order he had them in. Then, with a little drama, he shows the cards to everybody and we’re all astounded.”
“How do you know that trick?”
“It’s older than I am.”
We worked our way back to the table. Rita was at the table now and Ron was using her as the subject. She was certainly a lot prettier than Helen, and Helen stood by watching silently. I don’t think Helen liked not being the center of attention anymore and she certainly didn’t like not being the focus of Ron’s attention.
“How do you do it?” Rita asked when he was done.
He shrugged. “We all have psychic powers to some degree. Most people don’t know it, so their talents lie fallow. With practice, though, they become stronger. I can sense that each time you do it, you’re powers are getting stronger.”
“Are you sure this isn’t just a trick?” Rita asked.
“It’s no trick. Even if there were a way for me to pick my card, how does that explain the way you were picking your cards?”
She didn’t have an answer for that.
“Let’s do it again,” she said.
I was itching to see what would happen when Mac exposed him. “Are you going to tell them how he does it?” I whispered.
“No. Everyone’s having fun.”
I watched Ron go on with the trick and suddenly I realized the reason I wanted Ron exposed was because I envied him and the way he was the center of attention. He’d already had Helen in his grasp, then threw her aside to focus on the vivacious, though vacuous, Rita.
When the trick was over, she said, “I’m not surprised. I’ve always known I’ve had psychic powers.”
On the other side of the table, a fellow named Chuck, a technological type who later revealed himself to be a computer scientist, finally said, “I don’t believe in ESP. That’s just some kind of card trick.”
“Then how’s he do it?” Rita asked.
Chuck didn’t answer but looked smugly doubtful just the same.
Rita was hanging on Ron, now. He wasn’t interested in Helen anymore.
“It really is ESP, isn’t it?” she asked Ron.
“What do you think?”
A woman on the other side of the table said, “My sister can tell what people are going to say before they open their mouths.”
“Oh, come on,” Chuck said. “This is just a parlor trick.”
Others joined in the discussion and the room quickly broke into two camps: those who believed in psychic powers and those who didn’t. Of the two dozen or so other guests, only about four said they didn’t believe. Chuck was the most vehement of those four. Two of the other three, all men, merely said they were skeptical but wanted to remain open minded. Chuck’s friend, Ira, halfheartedly supported Chuck but he really seemed to be a fence sitter, and if Chuck hadn’t been there, I’m sure he would have been in the other camp.
But the consensus seemed to be that if Chuck couldn’t explain away all the psychic phenomena the others had seen, then he should concede their point. He wasn’t willing to give in. But he wasn’t articulate either, and his objections started to get more strident and he seemed to be making a fool of himself.
Mac left the room. I thought he’d gotten bored with the discussion. But just as suddenly, he reappeared at my side. He followed the discussion intently, and I wondered why he wasn’t taking sides.
“Excuse me,” he suddenly said. “I think I know a way that we can settle all this quite convincingly.”
Only a few of the people seemed to notice he was talking, at first. But he went on and voices fell quiet as people paused to listen to him.
“I have a friend who can perform quite a spectacular feat and I think it would be a real eye-opener for everyone here.”
“Who?” Rita asked.
“Well, since we’re working with cards here, let me have the deck. He gathered up the cards before anyone could object.
“Someone…you, Helen…shuffle the cards a few more times and then remove a card from the deck.”
She shuffled. “Now what?”
“Have Rita take a card from the deck. Any card, and show it to us all.”
Rita took out one card and showed it around. It was the five of clubs.
“Are we all satisfied with the five of clubs?” Mac asked.
Several people nodded their approval, but no one seemed to know where this was going.
“I have a friend in Florida,” Mac said. “She’s half Gypsy and she has some uncanny powers that I’ve never been able to explain. But I think I can cast new light on the discussion here.”
“What does she do?” Rita asked.
“She’s a true psychic, the only real one I’ve ever seen. She can do things I never believed possible until I witnessed her powers. She said they came to her after she had nearly drowned in a boating accident 10 years ago. Three other people died in the accident.”
I was stunned. Could Mac really believe in psychic powers after what he’d said in the car?
“I want everyone to concentrate on the five of clubs,” he said. “May I use your cousin’s phone?” he asked Carol. “I want to call Madame Elinor in Florida. I’ll use my credit card.”
“Jeff’s loaded, dial direct,” she said.
Mac picked up the phone but used his calling card, anyway. Then he waited.
“Hello?” he said. “May I speak with Madame Elinor?”
He paused and seemed to stare intently into space. “Hello? Madame Elinor? This is O.E. MacDougal. Do you remember me?”
He looked down at the phone and asked Carol, “This is a speaker phone, isn’t it?”
He stared at all the buttons on the phone. “How do you…”
Carol reached over and pushed the speaker button and Mac hung up.
“There. Can you hear us Madame Elinor?”
“Yes,” the voice on the other end replied. It was a soft, smooth voice and sounded a little exotic.
“We’re out here in California,” he said, “and I’m with a group of people who are discussing the existence of ESP. I know you don’t like to be bothered like this, but I was wondering if you could just give a short demonstration of your powers.”
There was a pause on the other end. “If you know I don’t like doing this, why did you call, Mr. MacDougal.” Her voice was cold and accusatory.
“I want to apologize. I just thought perhaps you could help us.”
“You already have me on the phone. So, go ahead.” She sounded impatient.
“We’ve chosen a card out of a deck and I just wanted to show them…”
“Would you all please concentrate on it?” Madame Elinor interrupted.
All motion in the room seemed to have stopped. I was breathless. Where was this going? Mac had just told me…
“There is someone in the room who’s mind is drifting,” she said.
We all looked at each other accusingly, but I was sure it was me. We concentrated harder.
“I see a black card,” Madame Elinor said.
There was another pause. It’s a small card…but not a real small card…I think I see…”
I thought five of clubs as hard as I could.
“I see the five of clubs.”
I was stunned. Rita started laughing. Even Ron looked surprised.
“Thank you,” Mac said. “We won’t be bothering you again.”
“It’s okay,” Madame Elinor said. “I’m glad I could help you, Mr. MacDougal.”
The phone went dead and Mac turned off the speaker.
“Wow, there it is,” Rita said. She was jumping in place.
After everything Mac had told me, I wondered how this could have happened. I watched him for a sign, but he never even looked my way.
Those who believed in ESP were now triumphant. The three who had sided with Chuck now fell into the other camp. And even Chuck started to crumble. “Well, I want to be open minded,” he said. “This might be the real thing. But most of the stuff you see I think is phony.”
“What about what Ron was doing?” Rita asked.
Ron was silent now. He obviously wasn’t about to let on he was just doing a card trick. Not now.
Strangely, Mac had backed out of the discussion and was just listening again. He seemed to be interested in how opinions had changed.
Chuck was obviously uncomfortable. He repeated that he still felt most demonstrations of ESP were phony.
“Oh, you scientific types are so anal,” Rita said. “You just got living proof and you still want to deny it. Science can’t explain everything,” she said, and most of the people in the room agreed with her.
I was starting to have doubts about what Mac had told me in the car. I thought, I must have misunderstood him. He still didn’t look at me.
Chuck fell silent.
“One other thing of interest,” Mac said.
“What’s that?” Rita asked.
“What you think you saw, didn’t happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what you saw was not evidence of psychic phenomena.”
“But you just…”
“There is no Madame Elinor. Earlier, while you folks were talking, I went to the phone in the hall and called my sister in Florida and told her what was going on. I told her that, when her phone rang again, she should pick it up and start saying ‘Hearts, club, diamonds, spades.’ I would say hello as soon as she called the right suit. After I asked to speak to Madame Elinor, she was to slowly start saying, ‘Ace, two, three, four…,’ etc. When I said hello again, she knew the face value. Then I put her on the speaker phone and…well, you know the rest.”
“Why did you do that?” Rita asked and walked across the room to stand in front of him.
“Because so many people jump at the first romantic explanation for unexplained phenomena that is presented to them. If it’s not ESP, it’s flying saucers or visits from angels. I just wanted to show you that even after someone offers you proof of something unbelievable, you should be skeptical. Seeing is not always believing.”
Then she kicked him in the same ankle Carol had and stormed from the room while he hopped about on one foot.
“It think she likes you,” Carol said.
“I thought I was being helpful.”
“People don’t want you to help them. Do you think they play with you because they think they’re better than you? About 30 minutes at the table and they know you’re the best player but they think God, luck, or the poker fairies will help them beat you.
“You, of all people, should be grateful people are the way they are.”
“I guess you’re right.
“She kicks harder than you .”
“I’m sure that’s all she does better than me,” she said and kissed him.
The rest of the party didn’t go well for Mac. Most who were there were aloof from him. Even Chuck was angry because he felt that even though Mac had basically agreed with him, he waited until he’d caved into popular opinion before saying anything. Chuck had wanted to be part of the “proof” that people are gullible.
On the way back to Ventura, Carol said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, we won’t be invited back to Jeff’s for a while. Rita will make sure of that. But she won’t last forever.”
“Would he let something as beautiful as Rita go?”
“He tosses out women the way most men take out their trash.”
“I just can’t believe that backfired on me the way it did,” Mac said. “I didn’t anticipate them getting mad.”
“They felt they’d been made fools of,” she said.
“I still thought I was being helpful. I even had a lead on what could be a good game down in Hollywood. That’s shot, now.”
“There are other games.”
“Well, you certainly made a fool out of me,” I said.
“That wasn’t my intention. It would just be nicer if people realized they should give some thought to things before accepting explanations, and even then to be skeptical.”
“I just want to know when we’re going back to your cousin’s,” I said.
“Why,” Carol asked.
“I’m going to pick through his trash the day he throws Rita out.”