[This is chapter 2 of an ongoing work of fiction. Chapter 1 is here.]
At Los Angeles Union Station, Evan boarded the train, and by 10:30, the train was rattling through Ventura and he started his set. Ambitious card. Sybil. Three Fly. Pegasus Page. Trix all have names, just like songs have names, just like hurricanes, just like sins. It’s how we kick ourselves. We give names to things. But Evan had done the trix so many times, thousands of times, even, that he’d gone far beyond the names, it was automatic, it was like his hands were doing the trix and his mouth was saying the patter, but he was hovering above it all, just watching. It was the people’s reactions that interested him.
Don’t tell me!
That is so sick!
Am I being punked here?
I’m going to cry.
At lunch, after two hours of strolling magic, Evan was sitting in the dining car eating a sandwich across from Jazmine, one of the coach attendants, dressed in her smart royal-blue uniform. Lunch was over and the passengers had all vacated the dining car. While Jazzy ate clam chowder and talked casually about a graffiti incident that had just happened at her mosque, Evan was somewhere else entirely, wondering whether this was a thing he wanted to stay in, a relationship with a girl with silky black hair who sings in a country-rock band. Whose twin must be harboring a ginormous rage over the dawg she let into her litter box, although he wasn’t really a dawg, he told himself, he was just in the line of fire, he was just kind of there, he just let it happen. Twins are a whole other dopplefück, he knew that now. It must have roots reaching down to the center of the Earth, holding on with some death grip onto volcanic rock like Beast from Haunted Cave or Beast from Choose Your Dysfunction or something.
Okay, he thought sadly, I’m guilty, too.
That night, Evan collapsed in his cabin. He nestled in, reading a history book about gambling cheats in the 1930s, but it’s like a phenomenon he heard about once. Apparently, when nitrogen is chilled down to 271 degrees below zero, it becomes a liquid with strange properties. It has an incredibly low viscosity, which is the resistance it provides against a surface it’s flowing against, so low, in fact, that it can flow against itself, two streams of liquid nitrogen, one on top and another directly below that, each flowing against the other. His reading was like that, reading about gambling cheats, but beneath that, pondering dopplethängs.
The next morning, the train was passing through the Cascades. Every time he passed through here, passing by thousands and thousands of pine trees on hillsides of a valley that goes on for an hour or two, his heart suddenly swelled and he believed in God. Then he went back to Vegas and its heartless asphalt streets and he went back to believing in nothing. In the Cascades, the train climbed higher and higher up the hillside while Evan performed tricks for the gawking tourists, when suddenly, a face stood out to him. Evan did a couple tricks for him and then stopped.
I know you from someplace, Evan said.
Don’t think so, he said.
Strange. What’s your name?
It stopped him cold.
That’s my mother’s maiden name.
Evan looked at him hard. He looked a few years older than his mother, and come to think of it, he seemed to have a family resemblance. He looked at Evan hard. Without thinking, Evan said, Are you John?
A grin appeared on his face, and that’s when Evan realized that this guy was his uncle, the one the family lost track of 20 years ago. They heard he got kicked out of Vegas for cheating at cards, and shortly after that, he showed up at their doorstep. His parents put him up for a couple days, and then one day, he disappeared, plus $1800 Mom had stowed in a hidden compartment in the garage. The family never heard from him after that.
You’re good with cards, John said.
I don’t like to lose.
You don’t have to.
That evening over screwdrivers, Evan and John chatted amiably about card games, Chinese face reading, strategic thinking as another name for cheating, stepping on baby stingrays in Tampa Bay, and people you haven’t seen in 30 years and how your memories of them age like soft tomatoes.
Gimme that deck, John said, and Evan handed it over.
John started playing with it, and it was an eye opener, like watching chilly water flow over a series of rocks, a deck like the Holy Trinity, many and one at the same time, and it was like he wanted to touch it, jump into it, splash in it, let it wash over his hair, but he knew the water would freeze him to death, so he just watched. John started dealing seconds, which is a way of making people think you’re dealing the top card when you’re not, you’re saving the ace for yourself, it’s a scam that takes years of practice, you’re practicing to be devious.
This deck is light, John suddenly said.
It hit Evan, because he recalled the six of clubs that a 15-year-old brat pulled out of the deck and then, in a kind of antisocial act, crumpled up, popped into his mouth, and chewed up, and Evan just smiled weakly while his parents said nothing.
Fifty-one, am I right?
And Evan nodded his head in awe.
John ordered Evan another screwdriver that he didn’t need, because that was three now.
While John talked, Evan saw flashes of his mother in him, as if John were a variation on a theme.
If Mom had turned left rather than right.
If Mom had a twinkle in her eye.
If Mom had never loved anyone.
Evan flashed on Kendra saying, All you need to know about someone is the decisions they’ve made.
He also remembered Kara saying, I have a personality disorder. It’s named Kendra.
An hour later, Evan was thinking he had to start wrapping it up for the night when John turned his head in a strange way.
You know why your mother married your father, don’t you?
Evan shook his head no.
Because when she was a kid, she was messed with. Your father had a savior complex. Didn’t help much, of course. You can’t really fix it when you’re messed with.
Evan asked him what he meant.
I don’t want to say it any plainer than that.
Evan’s mind was reeling and it wasn’t just the liquor. It felt like he’d known it all his life, but only now had it come to the surface.
I’m 10 years older than your mother. When I was 15, she always wanted to hold my hand. She worshiped me. But I always wanted to be somewhere else, on the road, I’m just that kind of guy.
Liquid nitrogen was flowing through Evan’s head again, on the surface trying to look like he was listening, but below that, pondering the repression that his mother had always conveyed to him somehow, he didn’t know how, that strange, shaken look she had when he first kissed a girl in front of her, his first open display of sexuality, and later, the unexplained hostility she displayed towards him occasionally when she saw him as a man rather than as her son.
What did you do on the road? Evan finally managed.
Learned how to bend a note.
Uh, come again?
You know that feeling you get when you come up with a winning hand? I mean, an unbeatable hand? Three kings or something? Well, I knew I’d never get that feeling in that dirty little town. That dirty little state. Plus, I was tired of cheating Jimmy Maggart out of his lunch money just to get my blood going. So I hit the road and started doing everything my folks told me to never do.
Evan glanced at his watch.
I gotta call this girl before I go to bed, he said.
Oh, so that’s it.
I could see it in your eyes. There was this thing eating at you. I couldn’t tell whether you were bored with our conversation or thinking about a girl.
It was a girl.
There’s always a reason to leave ‘em, you know. Remember that. Every girl does something that you can blame her for. And if they’re a saint, you just say, ‘You always act like you’re too good for me,’ and that’s it, it’s her fault, that’s your freedom.
Evan glanced at his watch again. He stood up. He looked into the eyes of this old man who was, strangely, the man in the mirror.
Where do you live? Evan asked.
I’m not really living anywhere right now.
Well, I mean, where’s your stuff?
You don’t really need stuff, buddy. All you need is money and a way to get it.
Yeah, well, I hope I see you again.
That’s doubtful, John said with a grin.
Well, good luck, then.
Evan turned to leave.
Listen, John said.
Evan turned back. John reached for Evan’s breast pocket and stuffed inside a thick wad of bills, then raised an index finger in front of his nose.
And if you thank me, I’ll hurt you.
Evan started say something, but then stopped.
I had my reasons for what I did, trust me, John said. I mean, I was going to get hurt, okay?
Evan looked at John’s face, which was dead serious now.
There’s interest tacked on, too, John said. Now piss off.
John got off the next morning in Klamath Falls. Evan was still in bed in his cabin, leaning his toasty forehead against the chilly window. Evan caught a glimpse of John carrying one duffel bag off the train and into the snowy morning, his breath condensing in the wintry air. He stopped and lit a cigarette. The way he did it, with immense relish and patience despite the cold and snow, Evan realized that he’d been waiting to do that all night. Evan tried to remember this moment, this scarred diamond that he’d never see again.
Wow, Evan said out loud.
Evan got up and did his six hours, and that night, he checked into the motel next to the Space Needle and finally called Kara.
How’s the trip been?
I miss you.
I miss you, too.
Evan heard flashes of Kendra, as if Kara were a variation on a musical theme.
If Kendra had turned right rather than left.
If little Kendra had always wanted to hold her big brother’s hand.
If Kendra hadn’t had fangs.
Evan had to play it differently. They weren’t photocopies, after all.
I’m sorry, Evan said, I just met somebody on the train.
There was a conspicuous silence, and then he realized what it sounded like.
An uncle I never thought I’d see again. We had a long talk last night over too many screwdrivers, and he gave me thirty $100 bills.
There was a silence, and then Kara said, Three thousand dollars?
Yeah, it’s payback for the sins of yesteryear.
What does that mean?
And then Evan explained the whole thing.
So you gonna take me out and spend it?
Honey, I can’t.
No, look, he stole $1800 from them, right? So we just give them the $1800 and don’t tell them about the rest.
I can’t do that.
Because I can’t.
That’s what your uncle intended.
No it isn’t.
Then why did he pay you so much? He threw in a little for you.
No, that was interest. To take care of inflation.
You can’t even….
Not even just a thousand?
For the briefest moment, Evan had entertained the idea. But he had done so many bad things lately.
Evan felt his soul standing on thin ice. Sometimes, he could hear the ice cracking. Evan saw himself as being honest and good. He returned lost wallets. He was teaching magic for free to a foster kid whose mother just gone on a drug binge. For three months, he gave lodging to some stranger who had inherited $900,000 from his mother and then spent it all in two months on poker games in the Bellagio.
Now, he had done one terrible thing. This whole dopplestuff had messed with his sense of who he was.
After they had hung up, Kara breathed wearily. She had never had a sense of being good and pure. She saw herself more in terms of flow and hitting the high note. Trying to be good was just a fucking inconvenience.
[To continue reading, Chapter 3 is here.]
If you like this fiction, you’ll like David’s newly published enovel, What Happens to Us. Download it onto your Kindle for only $3.99. Click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU
Read excerpts from the novel here: