A short story based on a chapter from the novel The Backside of Nowhere
Eyes turn their way when Pop and Melissa glide into the Golden Eagle Casino. Dressed in a style she laughingly calls slutty-chic, Melissa looks like some kind of sexy film noir vamp. She wears a black fedora with a red silk band. The wide brim is tipped forward to cast a shadowed veil across her dark eyes. Her hair is not truly black but dark, dark brown tinted with Venetian highlights. It flows like oil across naked shoulders. Her black gown sparkles with red glitter that matches the rich red highlights in her hair. Men stare in anticipation as her breasts threaten to pop out and her long thighs scissor through a hip-high slit in her skirt. A tattoo snake slithers from her cleavage. The old man is bearded in white like the Spanish moss on the ancient oaks outside, and wears a white suit of a type long since out of style. He’s six-foot-six and holds himself proud but walks with a slightly drunken stagger.
As if Melissa in all her gorgeousness and Pop with his height are not striking enough, they are accompanied by three hundred pounds of muscle in the person of Freight Train Taylor, who splits off from them to grab a seat at the bar.
A buzz of excited whispers from the tourists. “Isn’t she the actress that was in that movie with what’s his name?”
“Yeah, yeah. And he’s that guy that . . . you know, he looks like Burl Ives but he’s tall and skinny?”
“He’s one of those character actors that you see all the time but you never can remember his name.”
“Right. Like . . . like what’s his name.”
Most of the regulars know them well. Pop owns stock in the casino and his entertainment company (slot machines, juke boxes, pinball machines) supplies a lot of the casino’s equipment. Furthermore, it is because of his political connections that the Golden Eagle has never had to worry about such inconveniences as fire and safety codes or payments to the state liquor control board. They’ve known Melissa since she was a kid and they know that Freight Train is Pop’s personal assistant and bodyguard.
Melissa makes her way to an unoccupied slot machine, and the old man gives her a handful of coins. It’s one of Pop’s machines, custom designed for the Golden Eagle with magnolias, eagles and rebel flags on the tumblers. She puts a coin in and pulls the handle, saying “Come to mama.” It whirs, comes up flag, flag, magnolia; she feeds it another coin, uttering incantations for a jackpot. This time it comes up magnolia, magnolia, eagle, then the same combination again. “Crap,” she says. “Two out of three. Every time it’s two out of three. So close but never a winner.”
The old man says, “Nose out a sinner? What the hell does that mean?”
She laughs. She repeats more slowly, “Close but no winner.”
Pop has a hard time distinguishing consonant sounds, and he refuses to wear hearing aids. Says they make ambient noises unbearable. He stands by and watches Melissa play the slots. Within minutes she’s lost fifty dollars.
“That’s enough,” the old man says. “You gonna send me to the poor house sure as shootin’.”
She shrugs. Fifty bucks is pocket change to Pop, and she knows it.
He walks away heading to the card tables. She follows, pouting. He goes to his favorite table, where they play what Pop calls “real poker” (five card draw, no wild cards). “This Texas whatever-the-hell they call it that’s so popular nowadays is a girl’s game,” he snorts. He stacks five hundred dollars in chips on the felt. She sits by him. There’s another empty chair to her left and only two other players at the table.
“If I lose this you got to promise to make me leave,” he says, indicating his stake.
“Why bother? You never listen.”
“Did she say never pissin’?” addressing the dealer. The dealer nods his head up and down while Melissa shakes hers side to side. Pop says, “Never mind.”
A bar girl brings a bourbon and water on the rocks and sets it in front of the old man. She places a Manhattan in front of Melissa. “Hey, Pop,” she says. “Hey, Melissa. Y’all doing all right tonight?”
“Fair to middling,” Pop says.
The dealer deals the cards. Pop fans his cards in his hands. Rearranges them. A pair of sixes, a jack, queen and a four. He discards all but the pair and draws an equally useless combination. There’s a flicker of a grin on his face. He shows Melissa his hand and she shakes her head, no. “I got nothing,” he says, “but I’m willing to bet you birds got nothing neither so I’ll start this’un out with ten bucks.”
The next player matches his ten, and the next one matches and raises ten. Pop sees him and lays his cards down. The fat man across from him wins the pot with a pair of jacks.
“See what I told you,” Melissa says. “You never listen.”
He laughs and pats her hand. She says, “Don’t you be all paternal with me. If you’re just gonna throw your money away, I might as well go back to the slots.”
“Now you just hold your horses, girl. You’re my lucky charm. I need you here by my side.”
He downs his drink in one swallow.
From the lounge drifts in the sound of a Neil Diamond impersonator singing “Sweet Caroline.” At the next table a group of young men wearing Hawaiian shirts along with women in shorts and halter tops, red from a day on the beach, are laughing loudly. Behind a mezzanine window, a casino worker overlooking the floor is wired to dealers and security and wait staff on the floor. To the bar girl who waited on them he says, “Pop Lawrence finished his drink, get him another,” and before Pop has time to raise his hand to signal her, she’s at his side with a fresh bourbon and water. At the bar some fifteen or twenty yards away from Pop’s table, Freight Train sits quietly on his bar stool turned to face the gaming tables. He holds a tall glass of beer, which he sips slowly.
The old man wins the next hand with a pair of queens but then loses six in a row. He’s down by a little more than a hundred dollars.
A young man approaches the table. He’s wearing a fifty dollar haircut and a gray suit jacket over a dark red T-shirt. “Can I get in?” he asks.
“It’s your money,” Pop says.
The dealer nods, and the young man takes the seat next to Melissa. He smiles at her. “Hiya, sweet thing.”
His eyes go immediately to her cleavage. He picks up the cards that are dealt him and studies them, and then he glances back to her chest. She says, “You having a bit of a problem keeping your eyes on your cards?”
“Can’t help it, honey. You just look so fine.”
“Beware,” she says. “The snake bites.”
The dealer deals out another hand. The new guy wins with a pair of jacks. He scoops his chips up and antes up for the next hand. Then he whispers to Melissa, “You with the old geezer?”
“No need to whisper,” she says. “He’s deaf as a doorknob.”
“Anytime you’re ready to ditch him, let me know.”
“Thanks but no thanks. I kind of like the old guy.”
“Whatever.” He turns his attention to the card game. The cards seem charmed for him. The stack of chips in front of him starts to grow. Pop keeps losing but doesn’t seem to care. He’s in good spirits, joking, talking about football and politics, and tossing down the bourbon.
“Why don’t y’all shut up and play cards?” the fat man says. He’s not just fat, he looks like freshly kneaded dough. He’s an enormous man with puffy, bloodshot cheeks who has kept fairly quiet all night and who has lost even more money than Pop.
There’s a moment of stunned silence. Nobody tells Pop Lawrence to shut up. It’s like in an old Wild West poker game and Pop is the gun slinger nobody dares mess with. Everyone looks at him as if expecting him to pull out a six shooter. He glares at the big man for a few seconds, then laughs and says, “OK, let’s play cards.”
They resume play, and the young man sitting next to Melissa continues winning. He picks up his cards and lays them down. He drinks his drink, some kind of fruity, rose colored concoction, and orders another. He lights a cigarette and lets it smolder in the ashtray. He keeps looking at Melissa’s flesh, the deep cleavage and exposed thigh. He also keeps dropping sexual remarks. Pop can’t hear much of what the guy is saying to Melissa, but he can decipher his tone and read her expression. After another ten minutes or so Pop asks Melissa, “Is this snotfaced youngster bothering you, honey?”
“Well, he is starting to make my stomach crawl just a little bit.”
He addresses the young man. “Sir,” he says. “The lady says you’re bothering her. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave her alone.”
“What’s that, old man?”
“I think you heard me, son. I’m the one that’s purt near deaf. I imagine you hear quite well.” He points at the bar. He says, “You see that man at the bar? I’m talking about that big black man that looks like a gorilla. His name is Murabbi but everybody calls him Freight Train. You might of heard of him. He used to play football. He got hit in the head a few times too many and now he’s kind of whacko. He’s a funny kind of guy. He likes to hear things crack. Like bones and stuff. He likes to hear people scream. I don’t know why. Just not quite right in the head, you know? He works for me. He’s my bodyguard. He’s kind of like a bulldog. You know how dogs can sense what their masters are feeling? Ol’ Freight Train’s kinda like that. If he senses that somebody’s irritating the bejesus out of me, he kinda goes crazy. You know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, I know what you’re saying. But guess what, old man? You don’t scare me one bit.” For all his bluster, his voice is shaky.
Pop just smiles and shrugs his shoulders. Murabbi stands up and takes a few steps toward the poker table, crosses his arms and glares like a black Mister Clean. The dealer has been sitting still with the deck face down on the table. After a long strained silence Murabbi goes back to his barstool and Pop turns to the dealer and says, “Deal ’em, Jimmy.”
They play poker for another hour or so, then the young man, who has perhaps not been sufficiently threatened by Pop, lets the hand that’s nearer to Melissa drop to the edge of her chair and graze her thigh. At first, just the side of his palm barely touching, but when she doesn’t push him away he turns his hand and slips it up around to the inside of her thigh. She reaches down with her hand and places it on top of his, gently enough at first for him to think she’s encouraging him. And then she squeezes with nails like cat claws. She digs in. She watches him grimace with pain, but he doesn’t say anything. His pride forces him to at least try to save face. He refuses to shout out or curse or jerk his hand away. She grins at him and continues to quietly claw at his hand. Pop watches. He can clearly see what’s going on, but he doesn’t let on. Melissa and the young Lothario wrestle in silence underneath the table until he signals with his eyes that he’s had enough, until he pleads with his eyes for her to let go, until she finally eases off and removes her claws. He removes his hand from her leg, lays down his cards and picks up his chips and pushes away from the table without a word and walks away. Once he has his back to the card table he looks at his hand. It is bleeding. Surreptitiously, still trying to act nonchalant, he reaches into a pocket for a handkerchief to stanch the bleeding. As he walks past the bar, Murabbi reaches out a hand to stop him. He speaks to him briefly and then lets him go. The young man walks quickly to the door and out.
Six Bourbons later Pop has lost half his stash. Melissa, who has been pacing herself with admirable restraint, is nursing her second Manhattan. The fat man across from Pop puffs on a fat cigar and then lays it in the ashtray. He’s got it all wet and chewed to hell. “Anybody want to bet on the Ole Miss-LSU game?” he asks.
“I’ll put a hunnerd on the Rebels,” Pop says.
“What kinda point spread?”
“You got spaghetti for brains if you think the Rebels can beat LSU. They’re nothing but a bunch a pussies.”
“What’d you say?”
“I said the Ole Miss Rebels are a bunch of pussies.”
Pop says, “I hear you talking but I don’t see your money.”
“Here’s my money.” He throws a wad of cash across the table. “Piss on the Ole Miss Rebels and piss on you too, old man.”
“Piss on me? Is that what you say to me? Over a gentleman’s wager you say piss on me?” He pushes back from the table and stands up. This time, sure enough, it’s like a Wild West standoff. Any moment the gun’s liable to come out. Pop circles around the circumference of the table in order to insinuate himself right in the fat man’s face, drunkenly scattering cards and chips off the table as he goes. His face may show every bit of his seventy years and he may be too drunk to stand without holding on to the table, but with his superior height, Pop is an imposing sight in his anger.
His face turns red. He bellows, “Here’s what I got to say to that! I say piss on you, big guy.” Pop reaches down. Is he going for a gun? No. He unzips his pants and pulls his penis out, and he pisses on the fat man. It’s a pathetic dribble that gets more on his own pants than on the fat man, but the message is clear. When he says piss on you, he means it.
Somebody screams; a bunch of people laugh, and the dealer scrambles out of the way. In seconds there are security guards on either side of Pop hustling him toward the door. They are laughing, and so is Pop. Melissa follows close behind. And Murabbi. Behind them the fat man heads toward the restrooms dabbing at his pants with a napkin.
When they get to the elevator the security guards stop. They let go of Pop. One of them starts brushing at Pop’s jacket as if to smooth out any wrinkles they may have caused. He’s giggling. When Pop staggers a bit the guard puts his hands on his shoulders to steady him. He says, “I’m sorry, Pop. I hope we didn’t hurt you or anything, but you know you can’t just go around pulling your prick out and pissing on the customers. It ain’t right.”
“You’re right. I shouldn’t oughta done it.” He hardly sounds contrite.
“Well, I guess you can go back now. If you feel like it, maybe you oughta tell that fat fucker you’re sorry.”
“He insulted the Ole Miss Rebels.”
“Well okay. It ain’t right. He insulted the Rebels.”
“ ’course I am.”
Pop slings an arm around one of the guards, leans into him and starts staggering toward the elevator. The other guard helps steady them. Melissa slides in between them, slips an arm around Pop and says, “I got it from here, boys.”
Murabbi sidles up alongside them. He looks like he’s tickled by everything that’s transpired. “Pissing on the fat man was a nice way to end the discussion,” he says.
The elevator door slides open and they lurch in. Melissa pushes G6. He leans against her with a silly grin on his face as if he’s dreaming about some long ago peaceful moment. The elevator dings. The door slides open and they step out on the top floor of the parking garage. It’s dark and almost deserted. Wind from off the ocean howls through the empty space. The night air is humid, but there’s a chill of approaching autumn in the wind. There are only three cars parked on this level: a black Mercedes, a yellow Humvee and Pop’s new red Corvette. Melissa has one just like it, but this night they came together. The Mercedes is Freight Train’s. He says, “If y’all got it from here, I think I’m gonna head on home.”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Melissa says. She kisses him goodnight and he takes off. Pop and Melissa stagger to the Vette. He steadies himself with one hand on the top and bends to unlock the door. The keys slip out of his hand. “Shitamighty. I dropped the keys.”
He bends farther, unsteadily, falls to his knees, feels along the floor, sits back on his haunches and drops his head to his chest and starts crying. “Shitamighty, they’s under the car someaires.”
Careless of her designer gown, Melissa sits down on the floor. She reaches under the Vette and feels around for the keys. “I got ’em.”
“Oh, you’re a darling,” he sniffles, tears and snot dampening his beard.
“You want me to drive?”
“Nah, I got it.”
“Sure I’m sure.” Steadying himself with one hand on the door handle and the other pushing off the floor, he pulls himself up. She helps by reaching under his arms and lifting.
“I think I’d better drive.”
“I can handle it. I drive better dunk then most people do sober.”
“You can’t even talk.”
“Gimme the fucking keys.” He snatches them out of her hand.
He fumbles around the lock again and finally manages to fit the key in, opens the door and gets in, and then leans across the seat to unlock the passenger side door for her. She goes around and gets in.
He starts the car. She buckles her seat belt. He backs out of the parking slot, aims for the far end and jams the accelerator to the floor. The car rockets toward the far wall, which is not a full wall but a mere three-foot-high retaining wall of concrete blocks open to the night air six floors above street level. Melissa pushes back against her seat and slams on imaginary brakes. She screams, “Oh god!”
In six seconds he’s up to fifty miles per hour. Rows of concrete pillars are a blur. He hits the brakes and gives the wheel a hard turn. Rubber screams on concrete and the Vette misses the wall by two feet. It’s a tight-turning machine. “Whooeee!” he shouts.
Melissa shuts her eyes tight and squeezes the edge of her seat with all her might. He guns it again, heading for the other end. Just before he begins to turn again everything goes black. Something that feels like a steel band tightens around his left arm. There’s a sudden pain in his chest and his eyes water. He’s blinded by pain for a mere second, and then he’s unconscious. They hit the wall at sixty. The collision shakes the whole building and the wall crumbles in a cloud of dust. The car bursts through and then stops. It teeters nose down and tumbles hood over trunk and is caught up as in a giant spider web by steel cables that hold in place a forty-foot wide neon sign that flashes GOLDEN EAGLE CASINO in colors that flow through the spectrum from red to violet to orange. The passenger side airbag deploys, Melissa’s seatbelt holds, saving her from being thrown through the windshield. Pop’s not buckled. His long frame is thrown over the opening bag and against the steering wheel. His neck whiplashes and his head slams into the windshield. The steering column crushes into his chest. He’s unconscious already, his face a smear with blood. Melissa cries out, “Pop, Pop, are you okay? Are you alive? Pop? Pop? Oh my god, ohmygod. I can’t feel my nose. My nose is gone.”
She hears commotion above them. Feet pounding. People shouting. Someone shouts down at them, “Hold on. Help’s coming.”
She tries to answer, but her voice is a strangled squeak that doesn’t carry much beyond the car.
She can’t hear Pop breathing. “Are you okay, Pop? Can you hear me? Oh please, don’t be dead.”
She hears an irregular whirring sound like fle-fle-fle-fle. It’s the wheels slowing to a stop. She thinks of hummingbird wings and then of the flapping paper sound from childhood when kids put pieces of cardboard in their bicycle spokes. These thoughts and these sounds seem to be far off and playing in slow motion. She begins to drift into unconsciousness. She sees herself as an eight-year-old. She’s riding her bike. Sunlight slants through willows and oaks and stands of bamboo along the bayou. She’s riding the dirt packed trail on the side of Freedom Loop. The road is wet from a recent rain, and she aims at every puddle, thrilling at the rooster tail of water that fans out as she splashes through. She’s dreaming. She knows she’s dreaming because grown-up Melissa is watching a sweet little Melissa doing something she never did in a place she never was until she was much older.
She’s not even herself, she’s a little black girl with tightly braided hair festooned with colorful ribbons. She’s at the Lawrence’s store—or Pop’s, as everyone calls it, or just the store. The store is a low slung wooden building with a tin roof and a candy striped awning over a front porch that looks in her dream like something from a bygone era: an overturned wooden barrel, wicker chairs, a reach-in drink cooler with bottled soft drinks floating in icy water. Little fishes darting among the bottles. She climbs off her bike and carefully leans it against the sweet gum tree out front. Wet grass darkens her white sneakers. Calliope music. A merry-go-round. Melissa astride a magnificent horse, holding on with one hand and laughing, waving at all her friends. Her friends shout back. They call her Tashee. A bunch of old men are sitting on the porch. “Hey kid, how you doing? How’s your maw? How’s your paw?”
She’s barely aware enough that she’s dreaming to wonder why she had taken on a different name in her dream. She sees Murabbi in the store. He’s a child growing into a man. He grows bigger and bigger and bigger like a balloon man expanding with helium. Or is she growing smaller? She’s Alice in Wonderland. He leans over her.
She wakes up suddenly. She glances around to see where she is. White walls, a television mounted on brackets up high, flowers, Mylar balloons wishing her a speedy recovery. She’s in a hospital bed. She’s wearing a hospital gown, and she has a hospital bracelet on her wrist. It looks to be early morning judging by the sunlight slanting in through the blinds. The overhead light is turned off, but there’s a bedside lamp and green and blue and red glowing numbers on machines hooked to her arms. Murabbi is there. He looks gentle and sweet as he always does. “Hi, honey,” he says. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a goddamn freight train ran over me.”
“Hey, I didn’t touch you,” he laughs sympathetically. “You just ran off the top of a building, that’s all. You have a broken nose and a few cuts that are pretty minor, but you’re going to be fine.”
“What about Pop?”
“He had a heart attack, and he’s banged up pretty bad, but he’s alive.”
*Clayton is a self-published novelist and feature writer. His work includes six novels and a book about art with the latest novel is due out this summer. Clayton writes a theater review column for The News Tribune and an art review column for the Weekly Volcano. He resides in Olympia with wife, Gabi. Together they founded and run Mud Flat Press (www.mudflatpress.com), a home-based company dedicated to helping other self-published authors prepare manuscripts for publication, including editing, formatting and cover design.*