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By Cole Thompson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Cole Thompson
All rights reserved.
EVEN ON A BUDGET TOUR BUS, HE'S AN UNUSUALLY GRUESOME passenger. Where his left eye should be is a big yellow rectumlike scar, and what few teeth he has are rotted to brown nubs. White beard stubble covers his cheeks and neck, greasy gray hair hangs from under his Dallas Cowboys cap, and his jacket, a navy blazer, is ridiculously long in the sleeves. He plops down beside me, looks at me with his bloodshot eye, and nods.
"Hey. I'm Luther."
As I nod and introduce myself, his BO hits.
I sit up and look over the lady's hair in front of me to find an empty seat. To my dismay, a horde of El Pasoans are filing up the aisle. There are no empty seats. Holy shit.
"Where you headed?" he asks.
"Uh ... Boston."
He slides his hand out of his sleeve and points to himself.
"I'm goin' home, bo. Tuscaloosa, Alabama." He smiles a rotten-tooth smile.
As we set out from El Paso, I put on my Walkman, crank the Femmes, and look out the window into the darkness. Damn, I wish it wasn't dark. This was one of the few pluses of this whole trip, getting to see Texas. I think they shot Giant out here somewhere.
Luther nudges my shoulder. I turn from the window and he holds up a deck of cards in the overhead light. I click off my Walkman.
He jigs his eyebrows and smiles.
"Game fer a hand or two?"
I shake my head.
"No, but thanks."
"Aw, what else we gonna do, bo? Texas is a long ways across." (For some reason he calls me 'bo.' I don't know why. It's not my name.)
I look at the cards and shake my head again.
"Sorry, Luther, but I'm just going to hang out, if you don't mind." I punch my Walkman back on and look out the window. In the corner of my eye I watch Luther produce a roll of cash from the inside breast pocket of his blazer. As he riffles through his roll, counting it, I see that Luther has quite a few ten- and twenty-dollar bills. I click off my Walkman. "Are you wanting to play for money, Luther?"
"Heck yeah, bo. Pokuh ain't pokuh if ya ain't got money out they-uh." He shoves his money back in his jacket and shuffles the cards on his thigh.
I have about a hundred bucks, which is more than enough to last three days to Boston. So when I ask Luther what sort of stakes he has in mind, and he says one dollar ante and one dollar bets, with a pot limit of ten dollars per hand, I think, What the hell. I could use the extra cash. I take off my Walkman and stuff it in my backpack.
"Okay, Luther. Let's play."
"Hey, bo. You all right."
Beneath the dim overhead light, the other passengers dozing around us and the Texas night rolling by outside, Luther deals the cards.
* * *
After about thirty hands I want to scream and gouge out Luther's other eye. The sonofabitch bluffs. Hand after hand he raises the bet past the point where I can reasonably stay, and after I fold, he smiles, buries his cards in the deck, and rakes the pot toward him. Given this is such a small-stakes game, several times after I fold and concede the pot, I show my cards and ask, "What did you have, really?"
"The meek cain't peek," Luther says, smiling his rotten three-teeth smile. "The meek cain't peek."
What an asshole.
About three hours into the game I get a whopper — a full house, three aces, two sevens. It's a cinch winner, but warming to the dramatics of the game, I hesitate as I bet a dollar. Luther calls my bet and takes up the deck.
"How many, bo?"
With a show of head-scratching indecision, I indicate that I want no additional cards, but will stay with my original five.
"Well lookee he-uh," Luther says, "bo gonna stay all the way." He picks up his hand and looks at it. "Not I. I's head-high in the shit sty." He discards four of his cards and draws four new ones. Upon seeing his new cards his eye opens wide. He laughs and slaps his leg. "I be goddam." He takes a dollar from his pile and tosses it into the pot. "I betcha a dollar on this one, bo."
I call Luther's bet, then, chewing my lip and feigning reluctance, raise him a dollar. To my surprise he calls my raise and, in turn, raises me a dollar. I know exactly what he's doing, but it won't work this time, not when I hold such a doozy.
"My condolences, Luther, but unfortunately you can't bluff your way through this one."
"You sho, bo?"
"Yes, I'm sure." Matching his raise, I put another dollar into the pot, taking it to its limit of ten dollars. I start to lay down my cards, but Luther reaches up and stops me.
"Hang on, bo." He carefully lays his cards facedown on the seat between us. "Maybe we should ferget our pot limit and play this one big as we want."
I look at my cards again to make sure I haven't misread them — no, it's definitely a full house, aces over sevens.
"I might agree to that," I say. "How much do you want to bet?"
"The bet's yo's, bo. I made the last raise."
"So you're saying on this particular hand, I can bet however much I want?"
"Yes suh. We playin' New Awlens rules on this one. No limit."
I sit back and perform a quick calculation. With aces as the group of three in my full house, it's impossible that Luther can beat me with a full house — he must, at the very least, have four of a kind. And since he discarded all his cards except one from his original hand, in order to have four of a kind, he would've at least had to draw three matching cards to go along with the one he held. I'm not exactly sure what the odds of that are, but I know they're ridiculous, like about one in a million.
"Luther, I will bet you twenty dollars." I take the money from my wallet and lay it in the pot. I'm sure such a beefy bet will snuff Luther's bluffing tactic, but instead he pulls his roll of money from his jacket.
"I'll see yo twenty, bo ... and raise you ... two hundred and fifty." He places his roll of cash on the pile of money between us.
My first instinct is to throw in my hand, accept the thirty-dollar loss, and quit the game altogether. But I'm sick of this moron, his ridiculous bluffing and haughty posturing. I remind myself this is a situation of numbers. Cold facts. I rethink the odds. There's no fucking way. Luther, this stinking hick, is bluffing. Like a gunshot my resolves quickens. I take all my money from my wallet.
"I don't have two-fifty to call your bet, Luther. I only have seventy here, but I guarantee you, my credit is good."
He throws back his head and laughs, his three-teeth mouth open wide.
"Ain't no credit rollin' on a bus, bo. If you ain't tall enough to call, then that's all." He puts up his hand, indicating this is the end of the betting, then reaches toward the pot to gather up the money. I grab his hand.
"You liar. I know you're bluffing. You've been bluffing all night."
He jerks his hand back and stares at me with his one eye.
"You really wanna see my cards, bo?"
"Yes, I do."
He looks down at the stack of money in my hand.
"How much you got they-uh?"
"I told you. Seventy dollars."
"All right, bo. I'll draw down my bet to seventy, and you put in yo seventy, and we'll just turn 'em ovuh."
"Okay. It's a bet."
He takes 180 dollars from the pot and I lay down all of my remaining money.
"Fo fo's," he says. He turns over his hand and fans out his cards. There they are, four fours. Staring in stunned disbelief, my head swimming with panic and outrage, I slam my hand down on the pile of money between us and close my fist around my stack of bills. Instantly he grabs my wrist with one hand. With the other hand, from somewhere in the long baggy sleeve of his blazer, he brings out a switchblade knife.
He flicks it open and presses the blade to my throat.
"You let go uh that money or I'll cutcher fuckin' throat."
I stare at his eye and release my grip on my money. Holding the knife to my throat, he wads together the money and stuffs it inside his jacket. He takes away the knife, folds it up, and slips it back into his long sleeve.
"No hard feelin's, bo, but don't evuh fuck with my money." He licks his lips, leans back in his seat, and looks away.CHAPTER 2
THE WIND HOWLS THROUGH THE STREET, SWINGING THE traffic lights in a loopy yellow-blinking ballet. As the bus pulls away, a tumbleweed comes blowing down the sidewalk. Bounding and rolling in the wind, it bounces off my hip, then blows down the street beneath the swinging traffic lights, bounding and rolling.
Light glows in the windows of a restaurant across the street. Several pickup trucks are parked in front under a red neon sign: Wildcat Cafe. Suitcase in one hand, backpack in the other, I duck my face from the blowing dust and walk across the street.
It's not even dawn yet, but already a half-dozen men sit at a big round table near the door, drinking coffee and talking in low mumbles. Some wear their cowboy hats, others have set theirs on the table before them, revealing short, neatly oiled and combed gray hair. Their faces are tan and creased with wrinkles. They stare as I walk past. As I sit at the counter I hear one say, "Got off the bus over 'ere while ago."
A gum-chewing waitress stops behind the counter, sets a cup before me with a clatter, and fills it with steaming coffee. She lays a laminated menu on the counter, chews her gum, and winks.
"Lemme know when yer ready, doll." She walks away, leaving me with my coffee and chaos.
On the bus, pissed off about losing all my money, not to mention having a switchblade shoved to my throat, I snatched down my suitcase and backpack and got off at the next stop: Abilene, Texas. I guess I could've just starved and rode it out penniless for three days to Boston. But hell, no way was I going to stay on the bus with that stinking one-eyed hick. But now what? Jesus. I don't even have a buck to pay for this coffee. Fuck, what else can I do? I guess I'll have to call home and ask Mom and Dad to wire some more money. God, Dad will go insane. All the stunts I've pulled lately, and now this. Just the fact that he had to send me four hundred dollars to get out of LA was enough — I'll hear about that for the rest of my life anyway — and now I don't even make it halfway home. Holy shit. Oh well, maybe I'll say I was robbed.
As I mull my situation, a lean broad-shouldered guy in a cowboy hat walks up to the counter beside me. About six feet tall and a lanky 175 pounds, he wears gigantic tan cowboy boots, brown slacks, a belt with a silver-and-gold buckle, a long-sleeved white shirt, and snugly atop his head, a big wide-brimmed straw cowboy hat. I do a double take on his boots. They're huge, with massive tall heels and long sharp toes. They must be real Texas cowboy boots. I'm the only customer seated at the counter — there are at least a dozen other empty stools — but he sits right beside me. He turns to me. Under his big hat brim he has a handsome sun-weathered face of about forty-five years. His sky blue eyes are large and searching, his nose is thin and long, and he has a deep crevice in his chin. He nods in a curt earnest gesture.
"Mornin', Merle," the waitress says.
"Looks like another windy one."
"Yep, lil breezy."
Faye puts a cup before Merle and fills it with coffee.
"How's thayngs?" she says.
He pushes up the front brim of his hat with his index finger.
"Aw hell, Faye, I'm goin' broke hand over fist. And now on top uh that, I'm so damn worked up about it, my love-makin' equipment's goin' bad on me."
"Well honey, you shouldn' letchurself get all chewed up like 'at." A bell rings and a plate of steaming pancakes appears in the stainless-steel service window behind Faye. She turns, snatches up the plate, and carries it away.
"Yer right, Faye," Merle says, though Faye is gone. "Yer goddam right." He reaches down, slips his hand into his huge elaborately stitched boot, and brings out a flat silver flask (about six inches by four inches). He unscrews its cap and pours a splash into his coffee. He turns and offers me the flask. "Lil hair fer yer monkey?"
"Uh ... no, thank you."
He raises his eyebrows, as though surprised that I have declined.
"Ar-ight, well, reckon I better have yers." He dumps another splash into his cup, caps his flask, and slips it back into his boot. He sips his cup of coffee/liquor and nods toward my luggage. "Where ya headed?"
"Boston? 'At's goddam Yankeeland, ain't it?"
"That's my home."
"Oh. Goddam. Where is Boston, anyway?"
"It's in Massachusetts."
He stares at me blankly.
"You know," I say, "New England?"
He keeps staring at me.
He slaps the counter.
"Goddammit, 'at's it."
"I been sittin' here tryin' to figger out who ya remind me of, and by God, I just did. It's ol' what's his face. 'At movie actor from back in the ol' days. Ya look just like the sumbitch." He snaps his fingers again. "Aw hell, ya know who I'm talkin' about."
I do know who he's talking about. Ever since I was about fifteen, people have told me I look like Montgomery Clift, the Hollywood star of the fifties. And I guess it's true. My eyes are blue and I have big eyebrows like his. And my hair's brown and pretty thick. I know in a way it's a plus — I do get a lot of compliments on my head shots — but still, sometimes I get tired of hearing it. Anyway, rather than help Merle put a name to the face he has in his mind, I shrug and play dumb.
"Goddammit," he says. He puts his hand on top of my head and turns my face so that I'm looking down to the end of the counter where Faye is stooped over, adding a check. "Hey Faye!" He points to my face with his other hand. "Who's this kid look like? Ya know, 'at ol' movie actor."
Faye looks up from her calculations, chews her gum, and ponders my face. She smiles.
"Montgomery Clift. He looks like Montgomery Clift."
Merle slaps the counter.
"By God, 'at's it. Montgomery Clift. Ya look just like the sumbitch." He sips his coffee/liquor and stares at me again. "I'll be damn."
Faye refills our cups, then brings out her order tablet and grabs the pen behind her ear.
"Wanchur usual, Merle?"
"Ar-ight. Why not. Ain't had it since yesterday."
She writes down Merle's usual, flips the sheet over, and looks at me.
"How aboutchoo, handsome? What can I getcha?"
"Uh, nothing to eat, thank you. Just coffee."
She nods, tears off Merle's order, and puts it in the window to the kitchen. As she hurries away with the coffee pot, Merle brings out his flask and dumps another splash in his coffee. I look back out the windows. The sky over the bus terminal across the street has lightened to a soft gray. The wind gusts and swirls clouds of dust past the window. Merle sips his coffee/liquor and sets down his cup.
"How old are ya, son?"
"Uh ... twenty-one."
"Goduhmighty, twenty-one. What I wouldn' give to be twenty-one again. Joo go to college?"
"Harvard. Goddam. You must be sharper'n a snake's ass."
"No. Actually I got in because my father teaches there. They had to let me in."
"Yer daddy teaches at Harvard?"
"What's he teach?"
"Math. Crap fire. I bet he's a smart sumbitch."
"Well, he's a sonofabitch, but other than that, I —"
"Ha-ha." Merle laughs and slaps my back. "I like you, Harvard. I like to hear ya talk."
Faye sets a large oval-shaped platter of greasy food in front of Merle: three fried eggs with bright yellow yolks, an enormous round sausage patty, fried potatoes, and two biscuits. My stomach growls. I haven't eaten since yesterday in Albuquerque. Merle cuts into his sausage and takes a bite.
"Yep, boys and daddies are funny. Ya never know how it's gonna turn out. I got a boy aboutchur age. Be twenty in June."
"Oh? What does he do?"
"Aw, he's in the pen right now."
Merle saws off a flimsy strip of yolk-dripping egg and forks it into his mouth.
"Naw, never could do nothin' with him. Hardheadedest sumbitch ya ever saw. Ran off down 'ere to Houston to live with his mama and started snortin' 'at cocaine. They finally caught him with a sack full of it."
"God. That's terrible."
"Yep." He sets down his fork and sips his coffee/liquor. "So, yer on yer way home to Boston."
"Where ya comin' from?"
"California? Good God, whatcha doin' out 'ere? Ain't nothin' but prune pickers and prick lickers out 'ere."
"Well, actually, I was trying to find a job."
"What sort uh job?"
"Acting. I'm an actor. Or at least I wanted to be. I'm still a stage actor. Sort of. Anyway, I was trying to get in the movies."
"I'll be damn. Hey, Faye!"
Faye turns from the coffee machine. Merle points to me.
"Harvard here's a movie actor."
Excerpted from Chocolate Lizards by Cole Thompson. Copyright © 1999 Cole Thompson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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