The weekend the Hicks’ had their Bonfire Party, coincidentally, was five days after Grandpa Storms had won Jackpot at Casino, again.
It was Sunday.
We were already well fed from a breakfast that consisted of whiskey-hash and the venison steaks he’d pulled from his brand new utility freezer. It was one of Grandpa’s lifetime dreams to have an enormous store of food that lasted longer than a month, and not just to eat, but to eat well if we’d bottomed out into darkness, again. I remember Grandpa always held up his fork at the kitchen table with a venison steak on the end. ‘Credit is Bullshit. Cash is King,’ he always said.
Along with that utility freezer, with his most recent Jackpot money Grandpa had also bought a camouflage flat-bottom with a fifteen pony engine that was advertised as being able to hide like a cloud to the underwater eyes of trout and steelhead. He bought it from Dekryger Marina. There were pool tables along the showroom floor, and rope, and yellow canoes, life preservers for kids, and deep in the corner that camouflage Mastercraft shining with diamond dust within the carbon fiber. Gerry Dekryger owned the place, an old pal of our family who’d helped clear trees along our river property. But when he’d seen Grandpa fiddling with the throttle body and pressing buttons on the computerized fish finder, he emerged from his office and said, “Hank. You’re my pal, a damn lifelong friend, and you know that you can usually come to me for anything, but don’t make me do this in front of the boy.”
“What are you trying saying?” Grandpa asked.
“Basically,” Gerry said and tapped a non-filter to a gold lighter, “if credit scores were dead dogs, you’d walk out the door with her. But as far as I remember, old Dixie’s been rotting a little too long to be worth a shit.”
Grandpa’s eyes didn’t move from the diamond trim, the traction improved step-sides and the foldaway tackle boxes. Grandpa strolled over to the pool table, and from his coveralls splashed down a wad of hundreds like a firecracker blew in his hand.
“How ‘bout these dead dogs?” Grandpa said.
During that week Grandpa had also paid off twenty years of late fees at the Rent-All, not to mention a nagging bench-warrant for an incident with some pot plants next to the Gerber Factory. When the county deputy asked him how the hell could he dig himself out of a hole that most people died trying to wheedle themselves from, Grandpa said it was his ability to win, to throw all common sense aside at just the right moment which had saved our lives more often than steady paychecks. At Casino Grandpa said his biggest advantage to coming up roses was that he wasn’t superstitious. He didn’t sniff slot machines. He didn’t lick tit for luck, either.
So down the aisles of flashing machines with names like Slot-father and Volcano Gold which stood inside clock-less, air conditioned mega-structures where the disabled sat in wheelchairs with pink visors and mood crystals in their laps, grandpa patrolled in his rabbit coat. He’d pass a few dummy aisles, the Chippewa collection zones, he called them, and then pretty soon, holding the wishbone ends of a peach branch lightly between his fingertips, his elbows would start shaking. He’d fall forward like the spirit of Jesus had walked by and hit him with a towel. He’d close his eyes, herk, jab somebody in the side or in the back of the head before finding an empty stool at a blackjack table, or a machine about to burst while the branch bent clean toward his ankles.
“It’s embarrassing,” my dad said and smoked. We were cruising in the Mastercraft, the bottom scuffing the dirt, and then my dad said, “You don’t even want to be around him with people looking at us like we’re hillbilly dipshits.” He took a long drink from his can of Natural and closed the Mastercraft’s secret compartment. “And there isn’t a single person he won’t tip. Those drink girls that put umbrellas in your cocktails. Those door boys. Old women in pink hats. Then, and this is the funny part, he even tipped one of those Paws-for a-Cause dogs with the blue vests. Gave him a pet and tucked a ten right in his little vest. What the fuck is a dog going to do with ten bucks?”
“Buy dog biscuits,” I said.
“Cute. Thanks, Mark,” my dad said. “You’re a huge help.”
Grandpa gave a funny look like smelling rotten septic. He steered the Mastercraft around a felled log. “Mark? Who the hell’s Mark?” he asked. “The boy’s name is Rocky, now.”
My dad might have been the biggest guy in the county but he had fifteen nicknames and hated every one of them: Big Bill, Honcho, Billy Donut. This is a man who used to be able to carry refrigerators up stairwells like suitcases. Now he was four hundred plus in 57 overalls. He’d gotten even bigger in the calves from getting laid off truck driving where he said his bosses didn’t give a shit if he was hungry. ‘Drive or quit,’ they told him. Only on the boat his shoulder blades were wider than the seat back, and if it wasn’t for Grandpa buying supplies for the party for a counter weight—steaks, six cases of Natural, ice, fireworks, bundles cedar logs, two gallons of Kesslers—with a single step of ‘Big Bill’s’ size fifteen we’d have lost Grandpa’s new boat long before any promises of opening the throttle were kept.
We had to keep the boat in first gear is what I’m saying. No sudden turns while the water crept up the sides and my dad bitched about its fancy seat. “Bastard won’t turn,” he said and kept shifting. We checked ours. They spun like swivels. Grandpa leaned forward and inspected the reinforced steel post underneath Big Bill. “Good God,” Grandpa said. “You’ve sheared off the swirly-do. That seat’s got your name on it, now. Actually, just so you don’t ruin the others, I’ll write your name on the bastard.” Grandpa took a marker from his tackle box, cut the engine, the boat floated rotila style underneath willow branches and in big letters he wrote, “Big Boy,” on the new leather.
“Biddy Boy,” Uncle Rick said and drank.
“Watch it,” my dad said.
The motor bogged through the shallows. Uncle Rick sat in the opposite, but still swiveling bucket seat. He’d had a few jobs in different states. Hated it when bosses wouldn’t give him time off and, as he said, did little accounting riddles with his paychecks. What can I say? Uncle Rick was living with us, again.
As we moved upstream I had my pellet gun and was shooting empty beer cans floating in the water. I popped one. A flock of birds flew from a willow and swirled like smoke. That’s when Grandpa dug inside the groceries and yanked out a Kesslers. “You know the trick to winning the Jackpot?” he asked and inspected the bottle. “The trick to winning at life?”
“Money,” my dad said. “Work.”
“Supreme confidence,” Grandpa said. “You gotta know you’re the winner above all those other poor folk. Tell it on the mountain if you have to. ‘I’m the winner,’ say. ‘I’m gonna find a trillion dollars with my divinin’ stick,’ say. Know it like you know you’re the toughest kid in the county.” He took another drink. “Ain’t that right, Rocky?”
I shrugged, kept searching for cans floating near the shores. I couldn’t shoot any because most of them were still inside the hands of tubers, actual human beings as they floated from the bridge to Maple Island wedged inside rubber tubes. Uncle Rick raised a can at them: the international sign for peace on earth.
“Member when Rocky knocked the hell out of that mugger bugger?” Grandpa said. “Pop! Out cold as February. I think they put your name in the paper on that one. I mean, I didn’t see the paper so don’t get your hopes up. But I’ve been telling that story all year. I’ll tell it every year. What’s her name? That clerk girl you saved.”
“Angel,” Uncle Rick said and threw a can in the compartment.
“Yeah. Pretty little Angel,” Grandpa said.
So I’d walked into Ashcroft’s Gas and Grocery a month earlier. So, while I was standing there about to buy some deer jerky, I hear, ‘put the money in the bag, bitch.’ It’s not that I knew what to do. Whenever Grandpa told me to cut wood or dig a hole for deer guts I did what I was told. I guess those muscles came in handy for once.
“Bullshit. He didn’t save that place of fifty cents,” my dad said. “Bastard kid held up the girl with a squirt gun.” My dad gave me a flat look with his chin tucked near his chest. I watched the shore, the dead ash trees like bones and wished his chair swiveled. I mean, this is a man, when he ate ice-cream, his entire hand engulfed the half gallon. His eyes didn’t move as he said, “Only now we have to get him working, again.”
“Naw. We’ll get him fightin’,” Grandpa said. “Them octagon or pentagram fights. King of the Cage. That’ll be Rocky in what?” He flipped a finger toward Uncle Rick. “Five years, ya say? Then we’ll see who the badass of the family is. Some guy named BoneCrusher will knock him square in the lips and he’ll get paid for it. We’ll eat for three years. ‘Bonecrusher money’, we’ll call it.” Grandpa made a fist, punched his palm and yipped. “Pay the Man!!”
I spun the pellet gun between my feet, smiled because I liked hearing that somewhere in the future I might get paid for once. I’d be the one that helped for once. Where other people would’ve been scared I’d have the guts for once. Maybe it was a million bullies I was fighting, but when the bastard held the gun on Angel Rojas shaking from nerves, skinny from hunger, it was like water crept toward my heart and the pressure dove straight toward my fist like spontaneous human combustions.
‘Holy shit,’ Angel had said. ‘Wait, wait. Hold him there, Mark. I’ll call my cousins. Wait. No. The cops! We’re all legal on this, I think.’
Sticks of venison jerky littered the floor and I may have piddled. Only my dad wouldn’t stop staring at me from his newly broken seat. “If he don’t quit first,” he said, because, in our world, the largest sin a person could commit was quitting. Hungry? Keep working. Tired? Fingers raw? Is the company docking your paycheck? Go to work or be fired.
“Baaa,” Grandpa said. “We’re tired of this talk.”
“No. Really,” my dad said. “You want to call him Rocky, now. Let’s talk about that nickname a second.”
“Don’t listen to this, Rocky,” Grandpa said. “It’s his own bullshit he can’t quite put a finger on.”
Underwater I could see the dark outlines of Salmon as they shot toward the banks from our passing. “Where’d you work last month, Mark?” my dad asked me.
“The Shack,” I said. “The resort with those log cabins. It’s not like everyone doesn’t know.”
“You worked for those bastards?” Uncle Rick said.
“Dishwashing right?” my dad asked me.
I didn’t say anything.
“Right,” my dad said. “So Mark gets this dishwashing job, right. Decent job. Not great. But decent for guys like us.”
“Sure,” Uncle Rick said. “Right where they like to keep us. With their boots on our necks.”
“The kid’s fourteen,” my dad said.
Uncle Rick mumbled and drank.
“Anyway, listen,” my dad said. “The thing is he’s got this boss. Guy’s got some kind of social problem. A real piece of love, this guy. What can I say? A bully. He bullied him. What did you say he said, Mark?”
“Rocky,” Grandpa said. “His name’s Rocky.”
“Fine. Rocky. Let’s get this out in the open, Rock.”
I kept watching people in their inner tubes, hooking their feet underneath coolers and thinking about how, a couple hours from then, they’d be in their cars, driving from the boat launches and back toward the city. “I don’t know,” I said. “He told me to shut up and stuff. Said I was stupid for not carrying glasses right or whatever…”
“That ain’t what you told me. C’mon, Rock. Let’s get honest here.”
“…‘sit,” I said.
“That ain’t it. Fine. I’ll tell it for you, then.” My dad found a way to spin his legs around toward the middle of the boat where both heels were now splayed over the carpet toward Uncle Rick. The boat leaned. Grandpa stepped left to keep her even. “So Rocky is carrying wine bottles. And this pecker wood of a boss pulls him aside every once in a while. He’s a real tall fucker, I guess. Liked to use that to his advantage. Usual stuff. Anyway, he gets Rocky aside and he says, ‘I know you eat at Sizzler a lot, but this is how you carry two wine bottles.’ He insults him by saying other shit, too. Like asking him if he knows what water is. Normal employee relations over there. But that one about the wine bottles should have been it.” My dad leaned over, grunted, took up a can and cracked it open. “But instead of keeping his face to the iron, Mark quits. Doesn’t do nothin’. Just quits.”
“What’s he supposed to do?” Uncle Rick said. “Either way he’s saved a girl.”
“All’s I’m saying is that, Rocky, if you’re going to call him that, you have to know the whole story. Especially if he ain’t workin’.”
“Either way is right,” Grandpa said to my dad. “Big Boy. I don’t care if you’re out of work or playing pixie stix, we ain’t bring that negativity shit with us, today. His name is Rocky and we’re winning. That’s the name of this day. This is winner day.”
From both shores of the river, the green banks with willows letting down their hair or the cliffs where the earth looked like it ripped in half from sheared sand and glaciers, smoke plumed from fire-pits. You could smell barbecue and rotten meat, something somebody in the city probably would eat with vinegar in the back of a bus.
“Jesus,” my dad said about it. “I’m losing my appetite.”
“Possum,” Uncle Rick said. “The other dark meat.”
“Get your mind off it,” Grandpa said.
We trolled upstream. With a little tooth whistle Grandpa Storms ushered Rick to take the wheel while he checked the pockets of his rabbit coat. Then he weaseled inside the secret compartments and under grocery bags.
“Get your mind off it,” Grandpa said, again. “And set your mind on these apples.” From a plastic bag he pulled out a stack of cash as tall as my hand was wide. Grandpa smelled it and snickered. He handed it over to Uncle Rick for a sniff while my dad jerked to turn around. He gave up when the bucket seat snapped down three more inches.
“The hell they doing back there?” he asked me.
Behind his back Grandpa Storms held a fist to his eye and his other palm against the side of his face.
“Drinking,” I said.
Uncle rick slowed, weaved the boat between people floating along on inner tubes.
“Listen up,” Grandpa said, which meant we knew there were rules coming. Like the time he told us not to turn on the headlights when pulling into private property, or the time we had to rub dirt on our clothes and faces before walking into the county court.
“We’re going to win,” Grandpa said. “That’s all that needs to be in your mind. Rick,” he said and slapped my uncle. “You’re on horseshoes. Bet big in the beginning to scare the chickens. And Big Boy. You’re on hatchet throwing. On your last toss bet the house to rattle their nerves. And Rocky?” He scratched his head. “I’ll figure it out. But you’re my ringer man.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’m on everything else. But there is one rule that matters above all the others.”
“Here we go,” Dad said.
“Believe,” Grandpa said. “Above all else.” He drank and lost his train of thought. “Less negativity and more positivity. And know you’re going to survive. And win,” he said. “And win and win. Until they’re naked on the ground giving you their last quarter. That’s your job. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said.
“And one more thing. If you get scared. If your little tiptoes start to quake and you think we’re going to be eating possum for another year, give your money to Rocky. He’ll take care of us.”
As we emerged from the shadow of the Bridgeton Bridge we heard the noises of river people. Horseshoes clanged iron stakes. The heads of axes thunked into Maplewood. The squeaks of metal folding chairs and the sounds of a hundred beer cans shuffling through ice and plastic told the world on two banks the party had started. We put the cash into our coats. We docked. We smelled sizzling pig, the warmth of cheese potatoes and cinnamon corn wrapped in foil. Like we did every year we came as a family, but when the old man arrived, from the fire-pit to the rope-swing people yelled Grandpa’s name as he strolled up with his rabbit coat bristling the wind. ‘Hank. Did you bring your divining stick?” Or, “Damn, how many Storms boys can fit into one boat?” “Hank, where the hell’s Biddy Boy?” The crowd grew quiet as my dad lurched over the hill half limping. “Jesus,” someone said. “Bill got big.”
Grandpa Storms shook hands like running for office. “We’re here to slow the economy,” he said.
The crowd of flannel shirts and dirty denim laughed. “What’s that you believin’ in?” someone yelled from the porch.
“I do believe,” Grandpa said and tightened his coat, “I do believe I have the fever.” And like a sword from his pant-leg out came the divining stick. Little boys pumped their fists and middle aged women in waders flapped their hands at the air. But Grandpa set to work. He closed his eyes, breathed deep, and with a quarter turn over the fire-pit, he stopped short. His elbows shook. The tip of the wishbone pointed near the horseshoe stakes, ‘the pits’ they called them, and bent downward where Jay Hicks, the owner of this property, stood with a tongue against his tooth, arms held high showing the world how to fit a fresh can into a beer koozie.
“Rick,” Grandpa said and shivered. “Quickly. I’m feeling faint.”
Uncle Rick took position and shook hands with Jay.
Grandpa moved on. Bodies cleared a path around the Euchre table, the Polish Ring Toss and the Ladder Bags. “Are you there, Big Boy,” Grandpa said. “Give me your energy.”
My dad hadn’t moved. He still leaned heavy against the porch from the climb up the bank. “Ya. I’ve been here,” he said.
Grandpa stepped toward a Maple tree where three hatchets were stuck. The bunny fur of Grandpa’s coat stood on end as he wobbled and caught himself by opening his eyes. “I see a fifty score in your future, Biddy. Maybe eighty.”
At the head of the cabin the shudder doors were opened wide where concessions were served, pig meat and pound cakes and three for a dollar colas and gambling stubs in increments of five to one hundred. Enormous white coolers were strewn along the planks with packages of ice and burger buns. Grandpa tripped over those. “Easy, Hank. The games are back this way,” Lisa Parks said, and then led him down the stairs where he brushed my father’s face with his elbow, shifted left, and then right, until stumbling and knocking over the Euchre table. I grabbed him by the arms and helped him sit. That’s where he dug a pint of whiskey from his coat pocket.
“Rocky,” he yelled and slapped the card table. Everyone from the DJ near the river to the barbecue girls walking around taking tickets shut up and listened.
“Right here, Grandpa,” I said.
“Kill a few hours,” he said. He took a drink. “Call ya when I need ya.”
The music started again. A few moments later at the concession Uncle Rick did the work procuring betting slips, handing the stacks to Angel Rojas who stood indoors near the Hicks’ kitchen stove. She had a visor hat on, and even though she only worked at Ashcrofts three nights a week, most people thought it was nice the Hicks’ barbecue carnival was good way for her to earn a few extra. Kids chased each other around a dunking pool and its rope dangling over the water. I noticed a few people I worked with where I quit washing dishes: Earl Ashbaugh and Jeremy Hicks around the outhouses puffing a pipe. The horseshoes clanged. Ping pong balls plopped into beer cups. “Fifty,” someone yelled. “Make that seventy five.” The ticket kids set to running.
I strolled along, waiting for my turn, so I went over to the stakes where Uncle Rick had already gotten started.
Dave Burkle, the mechanic who’d given us a deal on a transmission for our four by four stood at the opposite end in his jean coat. “Alaska?” he asked Uncle Rick. “How’d you find yourself way up there?”
“Guy in Colorado said they needed welders. And I needed money.”
Uncle Rick mumbled. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Dave Burkle held one eye closed, sized up the stake through the open end of the horseshoe. He threw. The iron flipped twice and it landed perfect. “Ringer. Fifty,” he yelled.
Uncle Rick swore. He slapped another four tickets on the tree stump.
“You’re going to win,” I told him. “Believe it, man.”
“You wanna try?” he asked.
I threw up my hands. “It ain’t my turn,” I said.
He mumbled something, stepped forward and threw. The horseshoe spun midair; sand puffed as it landed. “Nothin,” Dave Burkle said. “Twenty me.” A ticket girl, no more than ten years old with a change belt, snatched a ticket from the stump and walked it over from our side to his.
“Believe,” I said.
“Shut it,” he said.
I left Uncle Rick to the business because it turns out people in bad moods can rarely be saved. I passed the rope circles, ducked around lawn darts and looped around the blanket run. I went over to where the Vincents were bouncing quarters from a refrigerator door and into plastic cups. The Vincent kids collected pennies all year for this single game, walked ditches and plucked empty beer bottles from the side of the road. It was all the money they’d had and wanted to double it wisely. I set down a ticket, ten bucks worth, and in three tosses lost triple that.
Grandpa watched from the Euchre table. “Get out of it, Rock,” he said. “You can’t scare people with nothing to lose. Those Vincents are devils.”
A band started, some copy-cat band that could play for three hours straight with steel drums and smokes and headbands like the motion of plucking the strings was a thirty minute song all its own. I finally went over to where my dad was throwing axes. He sweated like the only man in a thunderstorm. His pants were wet in odd places. He kept pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiping his glasses and neck.
“Good God,” I said “Have you got it in you?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think my ankle’s acting up, again. Or it’s this damn diabeetus. I might need to eat something.” He stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket. The score looked bad, 80 to 3, and a kid sucking a fruit box kept walking over and handing him hatchets from the dirt. Our Cousin Lou stood against him, our blood relation, a person might think would be on our side when things turned for the worse. But Lou lived on the opposite side of the river, went to the Ratskellar bar instead of the 7 Mile and liked herring fish and we were more fresh water. Sure, we could do thanksgivings and rally runs and skeet shoots together, but when it came to getting rich or staying that way, Uncle Lou was the outlier independent of his own misfortunes.
“Hundred,” we heard Gerry Dekryger yell, which meant Grandpa was losing, too.
Cousin Lou lined up along the rope, held the first hatchet above his head, flexed his neck, threw and scored ten. His eyelid twitched as he threw the second, thirty points it was, and then the third which stuck within inches of the bullseye. The kid with the juice-box walked up like Einstein deciphering figures. My dad coughed. Cousin Lou patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Biddy,” he said. “You can come over, anytime. Over to my side of the bridge where the possum’s always fresh.”
The kid handed my dad the hatchets. “You want me to believe?’ he yelled. A few party goers perked up, gave dirty looks like he’d interrupted their conversation.
There was a brief pause in the action for that. “Yeah,” Grandpa’s voice answered.
“I believe I’m about to kick the shit out of Cousin Lou in three seconds,” Dad said. “I believe, if my diabeetus gets worse, that it might be the end before I get hold of him. I believe I’ll eat that entire pig if someone don’t fix me a plate. I believe I’m about to eat this damn hatchet kid.”
“Yeah, Dad,” I said.
“Easy, Biddy,” Uncle Rick’s voice said.
He threw the first axe. Missed and people scoffed. He threw the second. It stuck into the roots of the tree. “Ah hell,” he threw the third as hard as he could. The axe head clipped the tree and the shard bounced from the coin-toss table.
“Two Hundred,” Cousin Lou said and raised his hands.
Just then Jay Hicks cleared his throat and talked through a microphone on the front porch. “Now don’t forget to stick around everybody. There’s a special surprise this year. The great unveiling is coming soon. So eat up, drink, and buy those tickets.”
“Triple it,” my dad said and slapped more tickets down on the stump, but his missing went on for hours. A chair and a plate were finally brought to him. He threw hatchets while sitting down and eating. While chewing he grew more and more depressed between throws, until betting everything, and then busting zero.
“Biddy’s down!” a voice said.
The night drew on. The humidity settled along the river, and what was left of the sun evaporated along the leather seats of the Master Craft. River folk were getting richer: Cousin Lou and Jay Hicks and Gerry Dekryger. Even Angel Rojas had collected about three hundred of Grandpa’s casino money, not to mention the kids with the change belts who would stuff it inside bell jars and forget where they buried it.
A few cars kicked dust as they rattled uphill and toward home. “There’s still a surprise coming,” Jay Hicks said over the microphone. “Until then, there’s plenty of beer, and if there isn’t, we can afford to get more. Stick around,” he said, and the band started playing again.
As far as the Storms family was concerned Grandpa was drunk and leaning sideways in his folding chair. Uncle Rick had disappeared into one of a hundred parked cars with smoke seeping from the windows. Along picnic tables my dad picked over the deviled eggs saying, “Hey. We’d better stock up now or we’ll be eating possum for the rest of the year.” Small niche groups melded into one another. Beer cans crushed. Blue buckets were filled, and at that time of night, whether you’re in the mood or not, the people you hadn’t talked to in a while, or ever—except for the times you caught them searching for dope plants along your property—liked to squeeze your arms and slap your back like beating an old rug.
They drool-talk about the shit they’d heard you’d done. Their accents grow thicker. “Yawmp,” they say when agreeing. “Yawmp,” they say when you ask them where they’ve been.
This is all to say that Brian Earl and Stacey Parks came up to me while I was standing alone by the fire. “Rocky,” they kept saying. “It’s good to see you. What you been up to? How’s life treating you?” Followed by about ten or more back slaps and then I swear they tried to kiss my ears for falling.
“Fine, I guess.” I suppose I could have asked them about the pot pants they’d tried stealing to pay the rent, which was understandable. You do what you have to do, but talking about anything even slightly incriminating was just that, and not quite polite.
Their faces shined red in the light of the fire and you couldn’t see their eyes for their constant smiling. They only widened their mouths and stared at you from the side while pouring the last of a cold-one down their gullets. I stood there watching the flames.
“’Member, Stacey,” Brian Earl said to his friend. “This kid saved Angel’s life. That’s your damn sister.”
“Yawmp,” Stacey said. “We owe him.” She pointed at nothing with her beer-can-hand. “The family owes him.”
“The Storms’ are good people,” Brian said. He too raised his can and wiped the spittle.
“Tell us the story,” he said. “What happened? I heard it a hundred times from Angel, but I want to hear it from you. The horse. I mean the source.”
“Ain’t much to tell,” I said.
“Bullshit. I heard this guy came into the store just nuts, crazy like rabies, and as soon as you seen that gun, before this guy could even aim the thing, you had him laid out with a left.” Brian dug a couple jabs at the air.
Stacey said. “Angel’s pregnant now.”
Brian said. “So you pretty much saved her baby.”
I looked toward the concession window. Angel cleared plastic cups from the windowsills, rinsed them in the laundry sink and talked away to my Cousin Lou who was holding a plate of pig in one hand and a shot of whiskey in the other.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You just feel like you don’t want people pushing you around. Like water comes up to your heart and you act on it. Then it’s over and people talk to you a lot more.”
“I didn’t really save her life,” I said. “It was just a squirt gun.”
“Still. You don’t know what that guy was capable of.”
“Maybe he had a knife,” Stacey said. “Then where would that baby be?”
We stared at nothing, an empty cardboard case and the way the logs were consumed by the flames.
It got dark not long after.
The porch had cleared of coolers and bun wrappers. Moths swarmed around the yard light behind Jay Hicks and his microphone. “Five minutes, folks,” he said. “But before we get going I want to thank everyone for coming. It’s been a record breaking year and I don’t think any of us would trade in this living…” He paused like hiccupping. “Hell with it. We just have to count our blessing around here,” he said. “But if you’re waiting, want to kill a few minutes. Hank Storms’ and Gerry Dekryger are still at it. They’ve been going at it for what,” he bent toward his wife who stood beside him. ‘Wow. Really?’ he said with his hand over the microphone. “Six Hours, Ladies and Gentlemen. And it’s coming to a head. Don’t blink.”
A few stragglers and I moved over toward the card table in the dark. Those who didn’t stayed by the fire. In his chair Grandpa was smirking and leaning left and his fur coat looked ragged as if someone had picked him from the dirt with it a few times. “Rocky,” he says to me, “Just in time. You still got your wad?” he asked.
I felt in my pocket. I’d only lost thirty bucks on the coin table and still had about nine hundred to spare. I could barely take my hand from my pocket without it falling. “Yawmp,” I said.
Grandpa Storms coughed until his eyes watered, coughed until he beat his chest and his heart went back on rhythm.
“Jesus. You allright,” someone asked.
“No,” Grandpa said. “But I’m still playing.”
The orange flash of the bonfire lit Grandpa Storms’ face. He leaned over like his stomach had gone weak. Gerry Dekryger watched his stack, the last remnants, two-hundred at most, as Grandpa watched the air, not the willow trees or the card table, his eyes wider than Croton Dam which stayed fixed on nothing.
“Hey, Ticket Girl,” he said. “Come over here.”
One of the kids with a change belt came over, her dirty rainbow shirt about three sizes too big.
“You’re a Vincent, aren’t you?” he asked. “You’re momma drove bus for a long time. Didn’t she die driving that bus?”
“Hey, now,” Gerry said.
The little girl nodded.
“You’ve been doing a good job tonight,” he said. “And you’ve put up with too much. Or let’s say enough.” He took up the rest of his stack and handed it over. “That’s for you,” he said.
Gerry Dekryger slapped the table. “I ain’t won yet,” he said. “C’mon. Gimme a chance to win.”
“Easy,” Grandpa said. And just as Gerry was about to stand up, jump over the table to snatch him by the rabbit collar, Jay Hicks’ voice squealed over the microphone.
“AND NOW IS THE TIME,” he said under the beams of the moth-light. People stopped, listened; even Gerry eased away from the Euchre table. “If you look to your left we have the Grand Finale. I’ve been working on this baby a long time and here she is. So Double Down. Someone’s about to get rich if you got the guts.”
From the shadows of Ash trees they wheeled the contraption: Cousin Lou and the change girls pushing, digging in their feet and shoving like finding something pulled from the deepest mud. Its wheels squeaked as it moved over the grass. A blue tarp strained over an enormous wooden bowl made of two-by-twos and bolts and bungee straps. Water sloshed like a hundred hot tubs. The girl in the rainbow shirt darted over and helped with a final shove as the wood strained and the entire contraption rested under the willow tree, a thick rope dangling from the strongest branch above it.
“Rocky,” Grandpa said to me. I could only twitch. I didn’t have time for anything else. He yelled, “Rocky boy has nine hundred on it.”
The fire popped and even the river kids perked up their heads and looked at me scratching my neck.
“Okay. We already have takers,” Jay Hicks said. “But if you allow me to finish, what we have here ladies and gentlemen is a Jay Hicks Original. Well,” he said with his wife standing by his side, “Lady Hicks had the idea. I just had the hands. The material from Hank’s scrap heap.” Jay shot a can into one of the can buckets. “The longest anyone has lasted is five dunks, but it’s up to you how long you last, how long you can hang, as Lady Hicks, says—and the wagers are on the table.”
A log dropped in the fire. “I’ve got fifty on that,” Cousin Lou said from the picnic coolers.
“Put me in for thirty,” Angel Rojas said from the concession window. And then Brian Earl in his jean coat. And then Stacey, and then Dave Burkle the mechanic. Even the Vincent kids put theirs quarters on the table after a small tug-of-war over plastic bags.
From the woodshed two ladders were hurried over and set apart next to the contraption. Slapped across their tops were two painters’ planks. “There you go,” Jay said. “Flip that one over.” One of the change kids climbed up, flipped it, went onto it, snatched the rope that hung from the tree and a pulley system, and then threw down one of the rope ends where it thumped to the ground. “And now it’s time for the wager,” Jay Hicks said. “Rocky Storms,” he said to me. “How long do you think you can last? “Three? Four? Maybe seven if you have it in you?”
Of course I didn’t know what to say. “You got this, Rock,” Grandpa said from somewhere. I tried to believe in it, the wager in itself as if whatever I said would come true, but when I said it I wasn’t exactly sure where it came from.
“What’s the record?” I asked and scratched my neck.
“Five,” Jay Hicks said. “And Dave Burkle almost died tying that. So don’t go too nuts.”
“Make it seven,” I said, maybe not thinking, maybe not worrying or wondering what might be best, or where I’d stand amongst a million outcomes. The drummer of the band did a roll on a pickle bucket as I climbed the ladder and lay down on the planks. Above me the willow branches swayed from the wind. My feet were tied with the rope that felt like hard twine, something for a small horse or to keep a mean dog from chewing through and wandering. They pulled and hoisted, Cousin Lou and Gerry Dekryger, arguing about who was stronger and who had the best foot position. “Fine. Your skinny ass wants to be the anchor. Be my guest.” They yanked. My feet rose. And then again and again until I was finally suspended and looking down at the tub of water with dead leaves and a beer can floating along its edges.
“You ready, Rocky,” someone asked.
Bodies were upside down and they’d turned to something like shadows from the yard light behind them.
“Ready,” I said.
“And on the count of three. One, Two, …”
The rope loosed, and before I could catch my bearing of being submerged they hoisted me back out with water stuck up my nose. I coughed it out and noticed blurry black and yellow shapes and smelled smoke.
“Again?” a voice asked.
“Again,” I spat.
They let go; I dunked twice, and then three times, and then four, until I didn’t know the timing, just spitting or blowing bubbles, or when to open my eyes and be safe and finally say I’d won. Of course in my life I thought of what it’d be like to drown, a warm crawling into bed feeling after the last gasp.
“Okay?” they said.
I had my thumbs up, the international sign for keeping the shit rolling. “Okay,” I kept saying, maybe under water, maybe until all of the shapes turned into a blurred mass of yard lights and smoke. “Okay,” I said again after rising and spitting. “Okay,” but winning or not, for as long as they kept at it, for as long as the pulley squeaked and my shoulders splashed and the lights faded, I felt, for everyone along the river, I’d be putting up for those who’d spent their entire lives trying to remember, like strange dreams fading after long mornings, what it was like to come out on the winning end when a million forces told us otherwise.