I once sat around a table in Purgatory with three of the world's most wonderful artists. We played a game of poker, sipping the finest wine and discussing the means by which we had died.
Van Gogh spoke solemnly, and with an aire of apathy. I suppose that apathy was appropriate, being that his life had been ended by his own hand. As he folded his hand, he spoke of fits of brilliant madness, unbearable to any human, which both fueled his art and forced the gun to his head. I asked, after a time, if he knew how lovely the world had found his work since he'd died and he said that he did not. "It's amazing how often that happens to an artist," he went on. "Perhaps, then, suicide was for the best." He puzzled, though, over why it was that his death suddenly made his passion into something beautiful and note-worthy. "It's a goddamned shame, sir," he mumbled into his cards, "the way society will torture a man.
It was disease that took Dali, I found. An awful fit of pneumonia, turns out. He talked little of it--it seems he was much too preoccupied by the wine. He'd take a sip, examine his hand, fill up his glass, then run a finger to the tip of his mustache. At one point, we four grew silent as stone, Dali having lost himself in his hand and the remaining three of us waiting eagerly to hear his thoughts. Oh, how we loved listening to him speak! Each word from his mouth was like a cliff from which one just barely hung, struggling, with intrigue, for comprehension. Finally, having grown bored with our impatient fidgeting, he folded his cards on the table and let out a sigh. "I have no regrets," He said, lighting a cigarette. He put it to his lips and inhaled, breathing smoke into the nothingness as he finished his thought. "Death is a beautiful thing, gentlemen. It is beautiful and lovely and we're all lucky to have experienced it. What are we, anyway, if not merely dancers in a great ballet, staged in the head of Death?" He leaned forward and sipped at his wine. "No, gentlemen, I've not one regret."
It seemed that both his bad luck at the game and the conversation had left Oscar silent. Death was a bitter subject in his eyes, Vincent told me, and it often led him to an angry stupor. Dali, ever vigilant in his quest to irritate, took this opportunity to poke at the beast a bit. "And what say you, Wilde? Share with us your thoughts on death, my good man! Yours in particular!" When Oscar remained silent, glaring over his cards, Dali pressed on. "After all, yours was the most noble of all our passings, were it not? I could be mistaken, of course."
It took all of us by surprise when Wilde slammed his hand down on the table. "Do you know how it came that I should die?" He looked us all in the eyes, one by one. "It were a damned sickness that took my life! An insignificant sickness! By chance I happened to contract an infection of the ear, which ended my life decades too soon. What a fool were I! Oh, what a damn fool were I!" By this time, he had begun to weep, damming himself for not having his sickness treated. "Foolishness was my murderer! And to think, in life, I thought death should be such a pleasantry! Now that I'm here, I have nothing, sir. Nothing!"
"You have your legacy as a poet," I declared, and the remaining two members of my insane company nodded in agreement, most likely having heard this story a million times before this moment.
"And what is that worth? Indeed, I was loved. Perhaps I am still loved, but I've no freedom here, no books to masque my sorrow, no moon under which I can lay and contemplate the life I have lived. I have nothing here." He sobbed a while longer, burying his face in his arms and clutching an entire bottle of wine in his left hand. We waited for what certainly seemed like a long while for Wilde to collect himself, Van Gogh awkwardly arranging his folded cards in various strange patterns which only he could decipher and Dali basking in his success in breaking Oscar to pieces. After only one fourth of the wine remained, Oscar's bitter self-loathing was reduced to a sleepiness throughout his being.
Each hand had been folded by this time, save for my own. It seemed the three had forgotten about the game, because it was ages while before anyone said a thing. At one point, Vincent had leaned over my shoulder, but this was in vain, for I held the cards to my chest. One by one, I lay my cards on the table. Card by card by card, I revealed my incredible luck in the form of a full house. There were many a discontented groan throughout the trio. Vincent and Wilde cursed my name, declaring me a damned cheat. Dali, on the other hand, was delighted. "Señor, how in Heaven did you manage that?" I shrugged prideful shoulders as I stacked the cards and put them back into their cardboard housing. "I was, by sheer chance, born a great gambler. I lived as a great gambler and I died a great gambler. Even now, as I wait patiently for the gates of Hell to open for me, it seems, I am a great gambler. Now, gentlemen, I do believe some collection is in order. What were your bets?"
Begrudgingly, and with great trepidation, Van Gogh presented to me a small, stemless sunflower. "She hasn't wilted since I painted her family portrait. They buried my earthly body with this, so take good care. Should this miraculous bloom become any dryer in Hell, may you dry up with it and wilt." I took the flower and pinned it to the lapel of the cheap, unflattering suit they buried me in. "I'll cherish it always." Vincent gave me a grunt, as if he doubted the immeasurable respect I had for him.
Dali, with a sense of eager sportsmanship, then reached into the pocket of his trousers to find the item with which he would pay his dues. From his pocket, he produced a small, silver pocket watch, which ticked incessantly. He placed it in my hand, the watch first, with the chain dropping slowly into my palm as he lowered it. "Something very dear to me," he said with a faint twinkle of mischief in his eye. "Don't you let it melt down there!" I placed the watch gingerly into the inside pocket of my coat and shook the madman's hand.
All eyes then turned to a rather sour-faced Oscar Wilde. Oh, what a bitter man he was! Bitter in all accounts of all situations. I found myself wondering whether it were his bitterness that murdered him, and not ignorance or sickness. He handed to me a scarlet fan, which he pulled from his sleeve. "You've won, so take it, sir. And may the Lord in Heaven have mercy upon your pitiable soul when those gates finally appear, with their fire and brimstone" We grew silent, the four of us, as Oscar held out the fan. I took it in my fingertips and lay it upon the table, hoping only to forget about its existence.
We talked on for a bit, discussing wine and literature as we smoked the last of Dali's cigarettes. After a time--an indeterminable amount of time there in Purgatory--the gate to Hell materialized and opened wide, calling me to it. We sat silent. "We three have seen many a miserable man walk through those gates," Vincent said nearly inaudibly. "Have you any regrets?" I told him that I regretted nothing, not even the manner by which I died, which I kept secret. With my final farewells, I rose from my seat and walked through the gates of Hell, leaving behind three men too strange for Heaven and too saintly for Hell.