[This is chapter 6 of an ongoing work of fiction. You can read chapter 5 here.]
Suddenly, the whales stopped coming. The tenor abruptly changed. At Evan’s apartment, it was all sheets and bodily fluids and release. They stayed in bed till afternoon. They cooked their meals nude, curtains closed. They played Bill Evans and Pat Metheny while they took their swims. They brought their meals to bed, and afterwards, swept the crumbs off their sheets. Finally, after a few days, they dressed and did errands to Brasil ‘66, but their clothes felt ridiculous on them, so when they returned, it was back to nudité and erotiqué to Sade and Sonny Lim. Evan began to feel that, after all, touch and grappling and looking at somebody point-blank, eye to eye, breathing on someone’s bare skin, entangling himself in her legs, and running his hand over her soul to the right music, were the only important things in life. He felt sorry for accountants, conservatives, and religious zealots, for he imagined them to have a painfully meager allowance for release.
After a week, Evan met John for a drink at Binion’s on Fremont Street. Cotton covered his body and there wasn’t any good music playing. From where he sat inside, Evan could see buskers on the street. There was a magician, a guitarist, and a powerfully good break dancer. What most caught Evan’s attention, though, was a young man, perhaps 25, who gave off the unmistakable impression that he could easily fuck up any task you gave him, and who held a sign that said VERBALLY ABUSE ME FOR $5. There was a tale behind that one. You could see it on his face.
Everyone has his own gifts, Evan thought.
Evan sipped his tequila sunrise and played his John game, which involved his body, which he moved slowly and deliberately, no unexpected movements, his eyes, with which he tried not to offend, and his humility, which he played like an air guitar. He never knew an uncle could be like this.
Try not to get hurt, he thought.
“Why aren’t we meeting at the big casino?” Evan asked.
“We’re keeping a low profile on the Strip,” John said, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
“I only brought you there in the beginning to impress you.”
“Okay. Well, you did.”
John took a drag, lifted his head, exhaled into the air above him.
“Just want to tell you, s’only gonna last six months or so.”
“Why does anything end? Everything ends, pal.”
Evan looked away. There was a Fiona Apple tune playing in his head and it bothered him, all doom and adolescent cynicism.
“Because,” John finally added, “somebody always comes back with a beef or a gun or a bodyguard or a lawsuit. And my sponsor is heavy, as in hea-vy, but trust me, he can’t always protect us. Learn this lesson, son, if you don’t learn any other. You gotta be always ready to pack up and move in an hour.”
“Okay. So I should have a plan to go back to walkaround magic.”
Evan took a breath and felt a wave of relief pass over him. There would be an end this. At the finish line, he will have made many thousands in cash and he could walk away with it and never have to talk to his criminal uncle ever again.
“No no no, buddy, listen to me,” John said, smiling. “When we fold it up here, we take it on the road. I know a casino owner in Atlantic City what runs the same deal. Plus, I don’t mind your company.”
Evan looked at his new shoes, which for some reason seemed fucked up beyond all recognition, even though they were the same beautiful things he’d bought for $300 yesterday morning.
“You mean we’ll get a place in Atlantic City?” Evan asked.
Fiona Apple was growling about something in his head.
“Kara likes the East Coast,” Evan said, trying to look on the bright side, at least for show.
“Yeah, you could bring her, or you could find somebody else, don’t much matter. I’ve already gotten tired of her whining. I don’t like her hair, either, I mean, what’s that all about, that hair?”
“Because you can always trade up.”
“I don’t know.”
“Be the pin, not the balloon.”
“Then stick with her, I don’t care. I just don’t trust her.”
“Listen, son, you got good mitts, just like me,” John said, holding out both hands. “That’s worth some money, trust me. They’re gorilla claws and they can do things. And emotionally, when the heat is on, you have grace under pressure. Like, faking it is in your DNA.”
Lately, Evan had been thinking about his hands. When he was a child, he had studied piano, and his hands had started a labyrinthine journey to dexterity. When he became an adolescent, his hands grew so large and its tiny muscles so finely developed that he could do anything on the piano. In football, he played tight end and his hands were so big, he could catch anything. They called him Gluey, as in Hands Like Glue. Sometimes, he caught women looking at the hands lasciviously. With a deck of cards, he could hide a card easily in one hand, no effort, without a hint of it peeking around the edges or through the windows. When people see tension in a hand holding a palmed card, they sense that there’s a card hidden in it. But Evan had none of that. He had “all the gifts,” as the great card man Bodine Balasco had once told him. It was all about DNA, like Kendra and Kara, twisted döppleladders.
Just then, a chick who was mostly smooth porcelain skin punctuated by heavy mascara walked up, gave them the once-over, and lingered, leaving a question hanging in the air. John turned his head sharply.
Fuck out of here, John said.
She knew the tone. Her father had used it with her all the time growing up. She was out of there before Evan could blink twice. Within a couple minutes, John was outside on Fremont Street giving the homeless guy a C note, as he liked to call it. John bellowed insults at the guy for a full ten minutes, sometimes with his face two inches in front of the fuck-up’s face, stray spittle spraying out, before his voice started to rasp and he ambled away, hacking and smoking.
And still the whales didn’t come. Evan and Kara drove to L.A. in the new car and enjoyed themselves a little. Blasted road music, like R.E.M. and Led Zeppelin. They hung out with Evan’s old buds at the Magic Castle and talked monkey moves. Before, he’d been much more interested in entertainment and punch lines, but now, he was in a different game. Sleights took on a whole different hue of green.
“Whatcha working on?” said his old cardician acquaintance Benito.
Evan never used to be that interested in Benito.
“Gambling sleights,” Evan said.
“Now you’re talkin’.”
It turned into a jam session, a full hour. The best thing he got from it was some work on the corner-short, which is a way of keeping track of a card by cutting the corner by the amount of just a fingernail clipping. Nobody notices it. But just by clipping that corner, you can completely control a single card in the deck, or even a stack, which is a bank of cards in a predetermined order. Gambling moves didn’t used to make any difference to him, but now, clipping that corner could make him some serious green.
“Dai Vernon has some work on it,” Benito said.
They were truly magical words, Dai Vernon, it was like saying, God offers some advice on that move.
“Six pages on the corner-short. It’s the real work.”
“Give me the gist of it.”
“Okay, look. If you tap the deck on the table just once….” and then, he did just what he was describing his own deck “…then look what happens.”
Benito turned the back of the deck towards him. Evan squinted. By the tiniest fraction of a millimeter, not enough for anyone to notice, one card was now subtly jutting out the back of the deck.
“It’s a ledge,” Benito said.
“Holy Christ,” Evan said.
“It’s fucking gorgeous.”
All night, Evan smiled just thinking about it. He used to ignore Benito, obsessed with all these card moves that didn’t amount to any kind of entertaining card trick. Now, everything was different. Just like Uncle John and Wynton Marsalis, two masters of two different instruments, Evan was now learning how to bend a note.
While Kara was in the restroom, a slender beauty walked by in the tightest red dress he had ever seen, with a cutout that exposed a circle of skin around her fabulous midriff. She had glittery raspberry lipstick, carried hardly an ounce of fat on her, and possessed gams that stretched all the way to Ipanema. Passing by, the girl gave him a familiar look, like they had had a previous acquaintance at the Castle.
“Do I know you?” Evan asked, puzzled.
“Oh, you should,” she said with a twist.
Evan felt the blood rush to his face and looked away.
“I’m going to get in trouble,” he said. “I’m with somebody.”
“You don’t like trouble?” she said.
“My girlfriend is coming back any moment.”
“That’s okay,” she said with sudden disdain. “In my head, I just fucked you for a month and then broke up with you.”
She winked and then slinked away.
The next evening, they drove up to Corcoran to visit his parents.
John was right, Evan thought as he sat in the kitchen watching his mother tend to a couple different pots on the stove, she can’t cook. Kara had taken the car for some mumbled errand.
“Are you eating properly?” she said, giving him an accusatory glance.
“I’m eating pretty well, actually.”
“Vegetables, too? Four basic food groups?”
“Mom, they don’t use those food groups anymore.”
“Of course they do. I’m just concerned about you.”
They talked about Evan’s father, sister, and then the cousins for a while. All the while, Evan was angling how to talk about John. He had the money in his back pocket, 18 Benjamins. He wondered what his mother would say. Even more, he wondered what his father would say.
“Where’s Dad?” Evan said.
“Business trip,” his mother said with a smile.
“He’s not around much anymore, is he?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the last three times I’ve visited, he’s been on a business trip.”
“He works too hard.”
There was something in the way that she said it, with a touch of something that rang hollow and dark, like a drumstick on a carved-out pumpkin, that piqued his curiosity. Evan placed his hand on her forearm and realized that she was silently crying.
“Mom, what is it?” he said softly.
“You know what.”
Evan waited for the longest time. Finally, she looked up at him with the sorriest eyes he had ever seen.
“He’s moved into an apartment,” she said softly.
She started to tell the story, but everything about it was pumpkinny, even the way she ended her sentences.
“Mom, you can tell me.”
She took a deep breath. She looked up at him. Then she took another. She started to speak, then closed her mouth. It took her ten full minutes before she came out with it.
“He’s not your father.”
Evan’s mind began to swirl, and he immediately knew. He had always known, but not in the place where we live, only in that underwater place of archetypes and nighttime eternities.
His mother started to spin this tale about not knowing, that it could be either of two people, blah blah blah, but Evan could see through it. It wasn’t either of those two. He had all the evidence before him. It was all coming together now.
“I know who it is,” Evan said softly, looking into her eyes.
They looked at each other for what seemed like forever, his mother’s eyes more naked and guilty than he had ever seen them. Naked like a wound, guilty like a scar. He did know. He had always known. When he heard Kara drive up, he walked out the front door. But not before leaving the 18 C-notes, to use his father’s patois, on the kitchen table.
[This is an ongoing work of fiction.]