Snakes, Thieves, Liars

Ron A. Austin

     
   

        When I was a ten-year-old kid, rubies flowed through my blood, microscopic corpuscles glittering, ventricles pumping gemstones by the millions. My teeth and bones and skull were all African ivory, noble elephants having died in some other life to form my skeleton. My skin was burnished brass. My spine was pure, unadulterated iron harnessed from the heart of a mountain, strong and refined. Flecks of twenty-four karat gold flashed in my eyes, buried deep in the irises. Every part of me was precious, valuable, more than worthy—that’s the kind of sparkling bullshit Dad told me before disappearing for days.  “You can be on your last two dollars and still be rich. Don’t forget that,” he’d say. And I wish I knew what kind of bullshit he told my older sister Yell. On those nights he left to try and win the Bad Beat, he’d whisper in her ear, and she’d resist him, her body coiled tight and trembling, hands scrunched into delicate fists, gnashing her tongue. At twelve years old, she was too old for bullshit, no matter how sapphire encrusted, but late at night, after Dad was long gone, and Mom had called every last riverboat casino bobbing in Mississippi sludge (Yes, hello, is a Richard Colt there? Yes. Poker table—who am I? I’m his wife. Yes. Okay. No. Okay. I’ll hold), Yell would heap candy necklaces around her chicken neck, stand on her tip-toes, and announce, “By holiest decree of the Nile and all earthly kingdoms, thou shalt address me as QUEEN!”   
         The bullshit Dad laid on Mom was more nuanced, not so outlandish. He sold some of his riverboat excursions as date nights. Mom fashioned herself like a back-up singer in a R&B group from back in the day, hot-curling her hair into copper spangles, snapping on a pearl necklace that caught milky rainbows, wobbling in too-high heels, smoothing clingy dresses over the pooch she blamed on my water-head, nails glossed like Red Hots, every tender keloid on her chest exposed. When they came back with purse and pockets fatally wounded, Dad would sit Mom on the porch steps and tell her about Easy Street, a mythical land where stone mansions full of marble fixtures hulked, and Range Rovers cruised the streets, behemoths in chrome. Those date nights devolved into Dad bringing home dinner at three in the morning, brown bags heavy with gristly hot-wings, mealy cheeseburgers, and soggy fries bought with his comp card. That gaudy peacock feather in his bowler would be wilted, his leisure suit wrinkled, and he had deep black circling his eyes like he had been pranked, but he blew velvety plumes of cigarette smoke and smiled, a man satisfied with his hard labor. When Mom got on his head about wasting the money she made grinding out double-shifts at Dillards, he’d sigh like the wind was crushed out of him and say, “Well, honey, I don’t know what I can tell you. I’m not doing this for my health. It’s for you. And Danielle. And Avery—no one else.”   
         Months later he lost his job selling vending machines. Whether he quit or got fired was a carnal mystery. Every day he slept deeply like a junkie, sunlight blazing on his bloated face, and every night he jaunted out that door as if he had stolen the key to infinite recess. Mom flayed me and Yell raw for leaving bacon grease in the microwave, but said nothing to him. And soon Dad treated bills like suggestions, not contracts or promises, and utilities in our house became willful, lazy. Lights blinked off at their leisure. The water heater stopped clanging and rumbling, leaving cold free to bully hallways in winter. The phone bleated robotic I’m sorry’s when numbers were dialed. Mom wore heavier make-up, slashed her lips red, and picked up weekend shifts, but said nothing to him. After losing grocery money on a rash of terrible bluffing one night, he returned home with enough nerve to beg Mom for her emergency stash of twenties and tens, she finally said something to him.
         “Lose. That’s all you ever do, Richard,” she confronted Dad, curses bunched in her jaw. It was about four-something in the morning, and a full moon was melting into blue-black sky like a dot of candy on God’s tongue. A few stubborn, glassy stars held their orbits, spiteful of dawn. Me and Yell poked holes in the screen-door as Mom cleaved Dad with axe-headed truths. 
         “Then you wanna come to me, begging, telling me we can have this, we can do that, and every mother-fucking time I’m fool enough to follow you. Every mother-fucking time. But I say no just once. Just once, and you throw a fit like I owe you something.” She folded her arms over her long t-shirt, the one with the ugly Siamese cat on the front. Her flexed biceps were thick like uncut ham-hocks. “You got to pay the cost to be the boss, and baby, I’m telling you them I.O.U’s don’t cut it.”
         Dad didn’t fuss or cuss back. He just nodded coolly and nonchalantly chugged cigarette smoke as if Mom was simply asking his opinion about what flowers to plant in the yard and not punting his balls high over roofs.
         He waved his cigarette and said, “I’ll win it all back, easy.” He cheesed hard, trying to be debonair and reassuring. His smiles were dazzling but strained like an old theater marquee, bulbs overworked and about to blow.
         Mom shook her head violently and said, “I don’t want to hear it.”
         “With interest. Double or nothing.”
         “Kick that shit elsewhere, man.”
         “You know I will. I just need--”
         “What you need is a good ass-whooping. Now go on and just leave, Richard. Leave, before I find the strength.”       
         Dad’s shroud of cool cracked for a hot second. He scowled as if offended by a bad smell and the cords in his neck tightened, but then that second passed, his shoulders slackened, and he shrugged. He stubbed his cigarette on the porch ledge and stretched his arms to the sky like a kid bored in PE class. He turned to me and Yell for the first time that night, told us, “Wish me luck, ya’ll,” and bounded down the steps to his Taurus.
         Dad’s Taurus grunted and hacked before grinding into a rough, rocking idle. That stupid hooptie was in the shop every week, and even though greasy mechanics blamed breakdowns on hoses and dog-toothed gears, I knew the problem was gremlins—just had to be gremlins (I used my Batman binoculars to perform surveillance this one time, and I saw sparks popping, webbed claws fidgeting under the car, heard the high tinkle of bolts falling). Dad waved goodbye as the Taurus leaked fluid and loped away, a miserable, wounded thing.
         Mom turned on me next. She snatched Yell out of the way, thumped me against the wall, and told me through clenched teeth, “Avery, I have money in this house, and he knows it. If that man comes back here when I’m gone, don’t you dare let him in. I don’t give a single, sorry fuck if he’s bleeding, dying, spilling his god-damn guts—you do not let him in. You hear me? Do not.”
         I nodded a stiff yes ma’am.

        I kept diligent watch on the porch while Mom and Yell ran errands, but Dad didn’t come back through the front door. I was cutting the air with a limber, green switch, perfecting Ninjitsu techniques, when I heard thudding and crashing inside the house. I sheathed my switch in a belt-loop, banged through the screen door, and found Dad thrashing the living room. He kicked over ottomans, clawed couch and recliner cushions, battered closet shelves, all while shouting Lousy Bitch! and Bullshit! Bullshit! with nasty, thorned joy. I watched him quietly, sweaty hand on my switch, waiting for that rage to drain.
         Dad tore a curtain off its rod just to be ornery and flopped down on the couch, his bony-butt sinking into the flimsy box-springs. He picked his nails and pouted—there was nothing so disturbing as seeing a full grown man seriously pout. As he snatched a fresh cigarette out of his breast pocket, he paused, glaring at a hole slit in the couch’s fabric. Revelation smoothed stress lines in his forehead. He punched a greedy fist through that hole and rejoiced.
         “Ha-ha! Got ya’!” he trumpeted, his smile brilliant, a mess of bills wrinkled between his knuckles, but then he noticed me, and that cheap smile peeled right off like a dirty sticker. His whole body crumpled with uncontested embarrassment as if I had caught him pissing all over the toilet seat. He pinched creases out of his sleeve, offered a weak, “Heeeey, buddy,” and broke for the back door. 
         I leapt in front of him, drew my switch—SWIK! SWAK!—and barked, “You can’t go!”
         Dad sighed and jammed that cigarette in the corner of his mouth. “Avery, would you, could you please cut the bullshit.”
         I leveled my switch and pressed forward—SWAK! SWAK! “Mom said you’re not allowed in the house.”
         “Oh, is that right? She made you king of the castle, man of the house, hunh?”
         “Right,” I said. “That’s right.”
         “So you the man of the house and don’t know to lock a back door, keep some eyeballs in the back of your little head,” he lit that cigarette and pocketed the money so quickly, I thought it had to be a magic trick, “Mm….I’m sorry to say, my friend, but you’re not off to a great start.”
         “Whatever.”
         “Whatever,” he mocked me. “Whatever,” he sighed, “Now will you please move?”
         I didn’t move. I had a brief fantasy of flogging him with the switch, ripping that gaudy leisure suit to tatters, embossing his skin in red welts, and stomping on his hands until he gave back every last dollar, but I had all the muscle definition of a steamed yam, and I couldn’t beat down a grown man. So I lowered my switch and thought of a fair compromise. “I can let you go…under one condition.”
         “What in the world do you want out of me?”
         “Not a whole lot. Just take me with you.”
         “Oh-no, Avery. No, no, no, no, no. No.”
         “I just wanna see what it’s like.”
         “It’s none of your business.”
         “I won’t be a problem at all. Promise.”   
         “Boy, I bet you could sell a bucket of hot coals to the devil himself, talk a good church-lady out her drawers, excuse my crudeness.” Dad clapped his hands on my shoulders and leaned into me. Even though we were fighting, I relaxed at his touch. A mild sedative must have seeped from his fingertips. “But, lemme tell you something—”
         Dad spat a rank miasma of cigarette smoke and sour vodka breath in my face, and before I could rub that acrid burn out of my eyes, he swept my ankles and wrenched me to the floor. My skull banged off hardwood, my teeth clacked violently, and jagged stones swelled in my temples.
         Dad’s knock-off gators thumped out the back door, and I knew better than to chase, but curiosity was louder than the chimes breaking in my head. If my ribcage was perfect ivory, my heart a massive ruby, and Yell harbored the immortal soul of an Egyptian queen, and Mom was heiress to Easy Street fortunes, then what was so wondrous, magnificent, and irresistible about some poker room lodged in the belly of a glitzed up, sludge-farting steamer?  
         Groaning, I staggered to my feet and scrambled out after him. Cracked floorboards on the back porch wiggled under my feet, and the noon sun attacked me with salvos of cruel light, but I was happy enough to see Dad’s Taurus stalled out in the alley, stressed engine squealing protest, belching oily fumes. There was an abrupt, bombastic POP! POP! POP-ING followed by CLINK-CLINK! and Dad fumbled out of the Taurus then slammed the car door once, twice for emphasis. He saw me, grimaced, and jabbed a finger at me through the air so hard I could feel his nail in my sternum. “You stay. Stay in your place.”
         I should have listened, but I dogged him all the way to the bus stop instead.
         “Avery, I’m going to tell you one last time—Go. Home.”
         I jangled change in my pocket. “Look, I have enough to get on the bus.”
         “Why do you have to be so goddamn worrisome?”
         I counted the change in my palm. “Bus fare’s a dollar, right?”
         “Thorn in my side, boy. Bunion on my big toe—just worrisome as I-don’t-know-the-fuck-what.”
         “Dang. Ten cents short.” I saw a few flattened pennies and nickels glinting in the gutter. “Never mind—got it.”
         “Avery.”
         I fought off visions of mutant, saw-toothed rats equipped with toxic venom sacs as I scrounged change from the gutter.
         “Avery, you don’t wanna go down there with me. It’s not kid stuff—ain’t nothing nice. I am telling you. Nothing nice.”
         I thrust a greasy handful of scum-coated coins up at him. “See? Got it. No problem.”
         Dad gently laid a hand on my shoulder and said, “Son—”
         I shrugged his hand away so he couldn’t dump me again.
         That lazy charm he relied on melted, and he slowly collapsed into a deep sulk as if his spine had been jerked out with pliers. “Son, lemme try again. I can’t tell you what kind of hold that place has over you. I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it feels like. Smoke and whispers soak up hours, them free drinks make your brain nothing but a wet sponge, your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth like salt-water-taffy, and you bet and bet until your pockets are bone dry, then you bet some more—and for what? For what, I don’t know, but ain’t that ugly?”
         I ignored the plea in his voice and said, “Hey, the bus is coming.”
         “Did you listen to a word I just said? Sometimes I don’t know who in the world raised you. I’m telling you it’s awful, nothing nice at all. Nothing but a bunch of fools scrapping over gizzards and bones. ”

         Once me and Dad boarded the bus, it wouldn’t be long before I saw a bit of that ugliness. The bus was a flea-market pumped-up on hydraulics, staffed with all manners of sheisty hustlers. In the front row of seats, a woman with long black and orange dreadlocks creeping over her face like tarantula’s legs sold bootleg DVD’s and packages of socks. I got that new-new, three for ten, five for fifteen, and get you a clean pair of socks, too--you hear me? Get them stank rags off your feet. And in the middle row of seats there was a greasy dude in a frumpy suit selling mismatched kitchen knives out of a briefcase. He held up and described each knife: Carving knife, nine and a half inches, pure stainless steel. Chef’s knife, ten inches, triple-riveted, one-hundred-and-twenty-percent premium carbonite. And in the back row of seats an old man invited passengers to play a shell game. 
         “Come to bat and get ‘em skinny pockets fat!” the old man hollered as he flicked bottle-caps into tight circles. Clockwise. Counter clockwise. Clockwise again. He shuffled three bottle caps on top of an employment guide, flashing a pinto bean here and there, his fingers intelligent, articulate machines concealing motives all their own. "Ya’ll don’t be scary! Place a bet, we'll be set! Throw down five, this game come alive!"
         Those hokey, taunting rhymes lodged sparkling hooks in my soft, jelly-head, fascinating me, willing me to study the dizzying swoop and spiral of those bottle-caps as if I could discover coded rhythms and claim the pot, but I couldn’t buy in with just a stick of Juicy Fruit cocooned in pocket lint. Passengers pulled musty, crumpled dollars from sneakers and bras, crowded that old man, and laid cash at his feet, whooping after winning once or twice, cursing as losses stung methodically like trained wasps. Not one of the passengers dropping cash was a jewel-laden big-shot, no bright wrists plated in platinum, no squat necks laced in gold. No, they were just regular folks who had bad haircuts, bad teeth, and thrift store clothes on their backs, all of them wishing Lady Luck might appear by their side and trap that bean between her fingernails.
         The shell game was a lusterless vortex spinning under that old man’s hands, sucking up money and whatever else passengers dared to bet. Shuffle. Shuffle. Shuffle. Stop. Shuffle. Stop. Left. Right. Middle. Choose. They bet and lost dollars, coins. Shuffle. Stop. Shuffle. Stop. Left. Right. Middle. Choose. They bet and lost anklets, glass baubles. Shuffle. Shuffle. Stop. Shuffle. Stop. Left. Right. Middle. Choose. They bet and lost cans of potted meat, bags of synthetic hair.
         Those sparkling hooks of fascination dislodged from my brain with a wet, squelching pop. That old man wasn’t running game. Na’ll. He was selling cheap, bargain-bin hope to the desperate. A stupid kid like me could see that, but somehow, Dad couldn’t.                      
         Dad told me, “See him? See this man working? You better see him, because he sure sees us. I bet he could tell your future from a pile of chicken bones, make a mink coat out of rat hide. Shoot, I bet he’d snatch the damn moon out the sky and sell it to you for twenty-five cents. Yeah, buddy—but you know what? I got his number all day. Got him like a bad cold. Like how them thugs say: Game recognize game, and I got him. Now watch me.” Dad tossed five dollars on the floor and called, “Right here!”
         “Step right up, go’n lay it down!” that old man announced, withered fingers shuffling the bottle-caps. Dad straightened his bowler, hunkered in front of the shell game, looked back at me, and nodded. His carefully acted front of boyish confidence had finally gassed out, leaving behind weary, skeletal frustration. But even with a sour frown curdling his mouth, he had enough nerve to wink and play the game.

     
 
   
     
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Ron A. Austin holds a MFA from the University of Missouri St. Louis. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review and other places. He teaches composition at Florissant Valley Community College while writing a collection of short stories: Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar. He currently resides in his hometown of St. Louis with his wife Jennie and their dog, Carmen.