A tribute to Paul Quarrington (1953–2010), presented in October 2009, during the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, on the occasion of his receiving the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Award. Quarrington was a writer, filmmaker, musician and teacher, author of ten novels and many other works, and recipient of a Governor General’s Award and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.
About ten years ago, Paul Quarrington and I started a poker circle that met every month or so in various hotel suites we would rent for the purpose. Eventually we wore out our welcome at most of the better downtown hotels and began to hold our games at a bachelor pad Paul had moved into at a point when his domestic life was, shall we say, in a state of transition.
Now, anyone who thinks of Paul as the calm, modest, easygoing type he is often portrayed as in the media has clearly never played poker with him. Here is how a Quarrington poker evening unfolds. We start, always, in the milling that goes on before we have fully assembled, with a Quarrington card trick. These tricks are like a cross between a 42 nd Street shell game and a David Copperfield illusion, beginning with the casual air of a parlour amusement but then slipping over, at some point, into the unfathomable. A card suddenly flies from your fist and turns out to be the chosen one; an ace somehow tele¬transports from one side of the table to the other. These are not pastimes learned in whiling away the hours of a Sunday afternoon but the mark of an obsessive, someone who has taken pains to master the subtlest sleights of hand, who knows the best magic stores and the best magicians, who travels to Vegas not to spend long nights at the gaming tables but to attend magicians’ conventions. What these tricks tell us, beneath Paul’s casual smile, is to beware: he is a force to be reckoned with.
From this initiation, which hangs over us the whole evening like a blessing and a curse, we move to the deal. If you think of Paul as a man not averse to an evening of friendly banter, you’d be wrong when it comes to poker. “If you want to chit-chat,” he says, “do it at home. Don’t bring it here.” At the table, the game is all. Talk of past games is permissible, or of future ones; also, talk of online poker or poker on tv. In exceptional cases—his own, for instance—talk of other poker circles is also allowed, though most of us regard consorting with other poker circles as a form of adultery.
Much of our talk about the game centres on The Rules. Who is the Big Blind and who the little one? Should one burn a card before a flop? To the uninitiated, this talk would seem equal parts simple childishness and utter nonsense, but the highest sort of metaphysics is unfolding, over which Paul sits as the final arbiter. Invariably, at some point in the evening, he poses the great question: Is it possible, in a moral universe, to have five of a kind? Much turns on this question, not only the pot Paul is about to lose, but also issues of a truly cosmic urgency. Is there some preordained shape to things, some structure that provides an absolute moral order, or is it all a matter of chance and contingencies and wild cards? Paul, a purist, abhors the wild card. He will use one if he has to, but the question always lingers: at what price?
None of us ever sees it coming, but this moment of The Question is always a turning point in the evening, as if the abyss has opened up. The wild card has been played and can’t be retracted—it is every bad decision ever made and every good one too; it is every jury that has ever passed you over but also every one, against the odds, that has given you the prize. It is the whole mess of luck and unluck that makes up a life, and that no sleight of hand can unravel. Now the crack in the firmament has been revealed, and as we wend toward the boozy later hours of the evening, Paul rants and raves like Lear on the heath, throws tantrums, picks on his friends. If he is winning he bets wildly, daring us to match him; if he is losing he pulls out his Canada Savings Bonds and his old stamp collections and his children’s college fund and bets it all.
Then, finally, the storm subsides, and there comes the calm. There are no bodies on the stage, not yet, at least, just scattered ashes and crumbs and a broken glass or two; and while the last rounds play themselves out, Jimmy Webb plays on Paul’s stereo, it is always Jimmy Webb. In the earlier parts of the evening there is no predicting what musical arcana or Quarrington memorabilia will make itself heard, but these little hours of the morning are saved for the dulcet tones of this man who wrote the songs we all know, though we didn’t know it. “Wichita Lineman.” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” “MacArthur Park.” Webb is the Quarrington closer, getting his due, the moral order restored, and as MacArthur Park melts in the rain we pack away our chips and our wild cards, and head for home.