“It’s All in the Wrist”

Author Nelson Algren (1909-1981)

The following poem is how novelist Nelson Algren ends his best-known novel, The Man with the Golden Arm (1949). It is a tale of lowlifes, mostly of Polish ancestry, trying to eke out a living in postwar Chicago with no money and a hankering for drink, drugs, and gambling. It is perhaps the most compassionate novel ever written about the lower strata of American urban society. Its hero is Frankie Machine, a war vet who is a card dealer in a gambling club who has an unfortunate addiction to morphine.

Epitaph: The Man with the Golden Arm

It’s all in the wrist, with a deck or a cue,
And Frankie Machine had the touch.
He had the touch—and a golden arm—
“Hold up, Arm,” he would plead,
Kissing his rosary once for help
With the faders sweating it out and—
Zing!—there it was—Little Joe or Eighter from Decatur,
Double trey the hard way, dice be nice,
When you get a hunch bet a bunch,
It don’t mean a thing if it don’t cross that string,
Make me five to keep me alive,
Tell ’em where you got it ’n how easy it was—
We remember Frankie Machine
And the arm that always held up.

We remember in the morning light
When the cards are boxed and the long cues racked
Straight up and down like the all-night hours
With the hot rush hours past.

For it’s all in the wrist with a deck or a cue
And if he crapped out when we thought he was due
It must have been that the dice were rolled,
For he had the touch, and his arm was gold;
Rack up his cue, leave the steerer his hat,
The arm that held up has failed at last.

Yet why does the light down the dealer’s slot
Sift soft as light in a troubled dream?
(A dream, they say, of a golden arm
That belonged to the dealer we called Machine.)

A steerer is a person hired to lure customers into a gambling den.