Hymn by John McCarthy

The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.

–Brigit Pegeen Kelly

 

i was a lost boy with a quiet ache, so quiet it was like listening

to a spider weave a web around a cotton ball in early autumn

 

the temperature dropped the trees breathed please with their long breaths

& my throat grew raw & thick in the scratched open light of morning

 

where i woke nervous & cold & found my naked feet bare

& the bed covers fallen from the bed with the fan left on

 

& my mother still gone like good sleep & i’ve never had a conversation

with my mother about our lost days or anything other than how i’m cold

 

& she can’t have a conversation because her geography is mapped

with a landscape of broken light bulbs & brown leaves & dirty snow

 

that is so dirty it looks like variegated feathers of a lost boy with lost wings

who remembers his mother singing hallelujah in church & i remember

 

being at church the whole time wanting to be in the trees hiding

& feeling the trees breathing please against my cold skin—please

 

& my father sits in a checkered lawn chair even when it’s getting cold

with a small radio listening to the baseball scores recount the losses

 

of men who have lost their whole lives swinging at a ball

that is sometimes a bird that a boy reaches for as the bird edges

 

the sky & my father is rubbing his hands on his knees & yelling

& i’m yelling sad in the trees & i miss everything that i have lost

 

even the song i once heard at church that goes guide me while i run this race

hold my hand while i run this race

i’m your child while i run this race

& i don’t know

 

how it goes & the air was plain like the color of my forearm

& i’m sitting in a children’s swimming pool that has deflated

 

to a swarming puddle of mosquitoes & it is scum-thick

& i’m trying to sing i’m your child but i’m a lost boy

 

who doesn’t know that lost song or how to sing his hallelujah

so he sits scratching the red bites on his legs until they bleed

Goshen Pass by Michael Alessi

The girl who had hit Allen’s wife with a truck was on the docket for baptism that Sunday. Though she’d broken every bone in Melody’s body just a year ago and murdered every part of her except her still-beating heart, she was about to be baptized. Her unblemished pickup glinting in the lot overlooking the Maury River almost made him squeal tire and head home. He could relieve the caretaker he’d hired for Melody and save himself thirty dollars.

He hadn’t wanted the girl to come, to accept Lipscomb’s offer of baptism at Allen’s hand, a show of repentance that might satisfy the pastor and the churchgoers of Goshen, but couldn’t halve his hate. A dozen times in the year since the accident, Allen had waded into the Maury with the members of his wife’s church and practiced drowning the girl. A dozen times, Pastor Lipscomb had bleated for those who were ready to come and be counted, and Allen had taken each one by the shoulders and pressed them into the riverbed while the pastor, too frail to lend any hand but his voice, prayed. Each one was the girl when Allen sank them, his grip always lingering a few ‘Mississippi’s more than was necessary before he lugged them out, water-blind and gasping, into the arms of the circle. This time his grip might linger too long.  

He pulled into the gravel lot shaded by hackberry trees and cut his engine a good distance from the girl’s Ford, its make and model greener than his by ten years at least. Members of the True Vine Church of Deliverance wiped their faces down by a picnic table on the river slope, waiting for the pastor to show. The girl sat by herself in the weeds with her back to the lot, ponytail swinging as she shook a pack of cigarettes. She had a name – Aggy – though he refused to pay it much use. Allen walked over to her truck, circled the body, stooping for signs the mechanics might have missed; a crack in the windshield where Melody had landed, snapping her spine, or a hollow in the grill gouged by her broken hip. Besides some red mud on the tires that gave him pause, it was showroom. The chrome sparkled in the sunlight and a glossy new Washington & Lee sticker filled out the rear window.      

Allen pulled the house key from his pocket. He wanted to carve a message in the side of her door, but couldn’t find what to write. If he wrote the right thing, then he could go ahead and tear the truck down to its tires and bolts. He could punch through the hood, hoist the engine, and claw it apart like a gray loaf of bread, or some other fantasy as foolish and toothless. Another bitter pageant to replay on the drive home. There was still time enough to leave.

“Wish you would,” her voice behind him said. “I hate that truck, Mr. Neels.”

They’d met just the one time, the night the girl barreled through his mailbox and sent Melody some thirty feet onto the neighbor’s lawn, but he could see that the year since then had dimmed the light in her face. Her lips were painted black. She had less color than he remembered, even in her hair, which hung brittle and wiry. He should have taken some sort of satisfaction in her shabbiness, but he had the urge to shout at her for more.

“I didn’t want to fix it,” she said, “but my parents told me people would think the wrong thing if I drove it like I wanted to, with the glass all smashed and the nose popped in. They thought people would say I was sick, when I just wanted them to know I was sorry. I could just drive it into the water and bury it, but then that wouldn’t make up for anything.”

He wanted to tell the girl how it felt when Melody squeezed his hand for the first time after the accident, what he had thought it meant then, and what he knew it meant now. Allen weighed the key in his fist and slid them both into his pocket.     

“No,” he said. “I don’t think this is a car sort of problem.”  

Beyond, the Maury churned, filling the silence. Now that she’d spoken to him, there was no retreating. Allen turned and made for the path that doglegged toward the river bank, where he could avoid everyone at the tables.

“You never responded to my letters,” the girl said. “I wanted to see you, see how you’re getting along.”

“Now you’ve seen me.”

 She said something else, but he was too far down the path to hear it.

 

He sulked by the boulders that rose from the sand as latecomers crowded the girl, sharing hugs and making her welcome the way they once had done for him. Allen had joined the church at Pastor Lipscomb’s insistence. The pastor was one of the first to visit Allen in the hospital, after the doctors tapped Melody’s skull with a shunt to stop her brain from swelling. They spoke about Melody’s love for the church, something of a mystery to Allen, who’d preferred staying home Sundays while she practiced for the both of them, but he nodded as though she’d kept no part of her life secret from him because that seemed the easiest thing to do. He’d been raised Christian, knew Lipscomb would ask him to forgive the girl, but told him that Jesus had never wed or had a wife stripped away. When Lipscomb left he’d thought that’d be the end of it, but two weeks later the pastor called and asked him to come to Goshen Pass for the first time. 

Here hobbled the old man now, coming down the river path with a box of old hand-knit robes. Pastor Lipscomb seemed to be pushing for ceremony; the gaudy sort of thing people of the highlands tsked at and whispered, Too Roman. Some of the crowd shifted on their feet, looking vexed by the changes. Allen marked the robes as a sign of the pastor’s high hopes for the day, but the sight of them kicked his pulse. The pastor had sworn up and down no spectacles. Lipscomb must have seen the color in his face because he beelined for him as soon as he laid out the robes, stopping just once to squeeze the girl’s hand in passing.

“I know you hate the robes,” the pastor raised his palm as if calling him to heel. “They’re on loan from the Pentecostals in Millboro. But today is an important day for our church -”

“Your church,” Allen corrected. “I’ve never had but the one part in it.”

“Our numbers have doubled since you joined us. You may have doubts, but anyone can be an instrument of God. The folks here believe it, as Melody did.” Allen winced when the pastor spoke of Melody as if she had died in the accident because he knew he did it himself sometimes, when he wasn’t thinking. “They see God working through a troubled soul. Even the few that don’t agree know you have my blessing.”   

The first time Lipscomb called him out to Goshen Pass, Allen thought the pastor had wanted him baptized. He’d been ready to turn the man down, but he showed up to do it in person because Melody was still in the hospital and he couldn’t look at the new mailbox someone had raised at the end of his drive any longer. He found them in a circle in the river, wearing tee shirts and shorts, heads bowed except for Lipscomb, who nodded at the empty spot to his left. The current tugged at Allen’s boots, numbed his legs, made him need to piss, which he did once he’d pushed waist deep. He took the spot saved for him, mindful of the gaps hidden in the rocks that might skin a calf or vice an ankle. When it came time for the baptisms, Pastor Lipscomb showed him how to hold each one with their arms pinned to their sides so they couldn’t struggle, how to sink them past the point they gave up panic, since the water was supposed to signify death as much as rebirth. The tremors in their limbs as Allen held them down reminded him of the girl sitting in shock on his lawn the night of the accident, shaking like she’d just run a race, too out of breath to answer his questions, cellphone clutched dumbly in her hand.

Lipscomb had kept waving new people forward. The longer Allen drowned them, the more grateful they seemed afterwards. By the last one, his hands were dead lumps. Seven dripping faces smiled back at him. He was sure if he grinned any harder, his back teeth would burst like popcorn. Later that day, Pastor Lipscomb had called him at home and said he could come back every month if he wanted. The pastor seemed to know better than to ask Allen what he felt drowning those first seven, or the ones that came after. He seemed convinced the baptisms were therapeutic for Allen, if not spiritual.  

The people on shore bumped sides yanking the borrowed robes over their heads. They looked like ghosts on the first day of training. Allen toed a pit in the sand with his boot and let it fill with water.                                                                                              

“I don’t know that I can touch her,” he said.

“You have to. You’re the only one who can dress that wound.”

“Let someone else dress it,” Allen spat. He shouldn’t be forced to give up the anger that was left him. The little warmth he had. Lipscomb reached out and knit a hand to his shoulder. Allen let the struggle sink silently into the depths of his body, like a stone dropped under water.

“If this goes right,” the pastor said, “We’ll have turned a corner. Think about what Melody would say if she were here.”

 

Pastor Lipscomb called them to a circle in the mud by the bank, and then rolled up his sleeves as if to perform a great labor. Allen stood to the left of the man, trying to split his tongue on the roof of his mouth. The robe he wore reeked of mildew and attics. It felt like wearing an old children’s nightgown. A small passel of townsfolk from Goshen, drawn by the promise of spectacle, fanned themselves with Church bulletins by the picnic tables. Among those to be baptized was a pair of boys who’d narrowly escaped a crash on the highway the week previous, and another teen whose car had been struck by lightning once on the way to work. It was safe to say the pastor had a theme picked out.      

“My friends,” Lipscomb began loud and earnest, “you have heard of the terrible accidents in our peaceful little town. This should remind you that death is ever near. Today we live, tomorrow we die. Every day one hundred people are killed by cars alone. Are you ready to die? Or are your souls in the dark?

“O God, speak to those souls who are in the dark, that they may see Thee and repent of their evil ways. Break down stubborn wills and prostrate sinful souls in fear and remorse. Remember that the Bible says, ‘Ye who do not repent will surely be doomed to Hell.’ I once saw white-hot iron flowing like water in a smelting mill in Roanoke. That molten iron was ice-cream compared to the flames of Hell.”

At the ‘flames of Hell’ part, Allen stared down the girl, but she was chewing her bottom lip, smearing the black lipstick on her teeth like ink. After painting the graphic death of an unconverted sinner, Pastor Lipscomb bid any who wished to be saved and have the prayers of the Christian flock to come forward and take Allen’s hand.  The crowd pushed the two boys from the crash into the middle and Allen wrestled them into the deeper water, sent them spitting back to their parents. Murmurs of roughness passed through the ring, but Pastor Lipscomb treated it like fervor. He led the congregation in a round of “Jesus Saved Me” until his voice frayed at the seams. He cried that if Christ was not raised, then the preaching done all down the ages had been wasted. Every single dollar spent on church houses had been spent in vain. They might as well march to the cemeteries, and break up the tombstones. He told them it would be better to sell the bodies for fertilizer and have the bones ground, because they would never see their loved ones again.   

Allen scraped his brow. The sun was all the way on now, and it made him a little drunk. If there was life after death, which Melody would he share it with: The woman she had been up until the accident, or the one that lingered, haunting her body? He looked for the girl’s eye, but she glanced around. She was really digging into those lips.

Sweat beaded the pastor’s face: “One more thing and then I’m going to hush. Salvation is not a progressive thing. If you are saved by grace, you are saved all at once. One moment, you are dead in sins: the next you are the ransomed child of God. It is not anything you do, but something that is done for you. In the grave every particle of dross will be cleansed away.

“Now, now, my friends, the light is coming, the face is shining in smiles. God has given his gracious love. Is there not someone else waiting to come forward?” Lipscomb looked at the girl. “Aggy, do not be ashamed. We are waiting for you.”

The girl waded towards Allen, her robes swelling and bunching about her waist like a jellyfish. Her black lips reminded him of loneliness and sex, twin skewers that slid deep between his ribs. When Melody was swollen inside her coma the first month after the accident, he’d sat by the bedside clutching her pudgy splinted fingers, telling her what was going on. Once while she was under, she’d squeezed his hand as if to let him know she was listening, and he thought she was in there after that, despite the hemorrhages blooming in her brain. But Melody came home hollow. Her eyes held specks of light the distant way that water gleamed in wells. She still squeezed his hand when he touched her, but it was a response with no feeling: A reflex, not a message.

He keeled the girl into the water, slid his hands near her throat, when she reached up and guided them the rest of the way. Inside the cloud of robes that veiled his arms, her fingers brushed his wrists and squeezed. He rocked her neck in a cradle of his palms, his grip slack.

She looked so peaceful, that he forgot his anger, forgot even Melody. It was as if the current had slowed to a standstill around her body. The water swirled gently like the surface of a bath, as small schools of bubbles peeled from her lips, drifting farther and farther apart as they rose. The strands of the girl’s hair, which had looked so sickly before, bobbed in a dark bloom around her face, the soft ends combing his arms. Allen felt very small and lost and scared, and like the people behind him – Pastor Lipscomb and the church folk and the townspeople – didn’t exist, until one of them shouted, “Pull her up,” and then the current came crashing back, whipping the girl’s hair into a cone. Her mouth hung half open, as if she were about to say something, and her eyes slid back, which scared him because he couldn’t tell if it was too late. He wanted to pull her up, but she was stuck somehow.      

“What’s he doing to her?” a woman in the back shouted. The cry went up and other voices rushed to join. The men from town uncrossed their arms. The True Vine Church of Deliverance broke rank. Some of the members waded towards Allen, pushing the pastor aside.    

“Now friends –” Lipscomb flapped.

Allen tried to haul her out, but her legs snagged, and he saw how she’d stuck her heels between the rocks for anchorage. He dragged her hard. Her feet came up bloody and her head lolled. With her in his arms, he spun on them. He pushed through.                     

“What did you do?” the pastor moaned.

On the picnic table, Allen pumped her ribs with his fists. Breathed into her mouth. He thought he might break her ribs, pushing like he wanted to flatten her out. The people behind him clutched handfuls of his robe, and he wasn’t sure if they were praying or trying to hurt him or both.

If he saved the girl, he’d tell her she was ransomed whether Christ was raised or not.        Or he might tell her how earlier that morning, before he came to the river, he’d given Melody her bath. How he’d lain her sideways, careful not to gouge her with the faucet, so he could wash both sides without turning her. She’d run to fat since the coma, but he still managed to lift her in and out of the tub. The pounds started in her legs, sort of swelled up her middle, inflated her breasts. Food had become her last remaining hobby; she could enjoy it without knowing who she was or who was feeding her, and he’d taken to spooning it to her, five meals a day, just to see the change on her face. Melody’s cheek rested near his armpit on the edge of the tub, her face sort of shaking like Jell-O cake while he scrubbed.

He’d saved the hair for last, palmed a dollop of the honey shampoo that didn’t hurt her eyes, the kind they made for babies. Lathered her scalp. Rinsed and dried. She’d blinked like she might be about to say something, and he’d told her, as he often told her, that even if she never spoke again, he would wait.      

Lipscomb was still screaming over him when the girl coughed the Maury out her lungs. The last thing Allen did before they pushed him aside, he reached out and wiped her lips as he had countless times the scars on Melody’s spine – his fingers tracing their topographic map of a valley, searching for a sign of home across a distance too great to tell.  

Shakedown by Amy J. E. MacKenzie

My dad was a con man. And he taught me everything he knew.

He worked construction under the table for over twenty years, pocketing upwards of $1,000 a month in disability checks. He would cheat his friends out of hundreds of dollars in rigged card games. He would drop a previously broken item beside a stranger on the street and demand compensation. He would insist I distract someone, just long enough for him to pick their pocket or steal an item he desperately wanted.

Some people believe they can spot a con artist because they instinctively get an unsafe feeling; they don’t trust the person for one reason or another. But remember that the term con artist is short for confidence artist. A confidence artist: my dad. Once he asked to borrow a friend’s motorcycle, which he then painted, remodeled, and switched the VIN number on.

“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, man, but your bike was lifted from the grocery store parking lot!” my dad told his friend. “Nah, brother, nobody saw nothin’!”

His friend never questioned my dad’s “new” bike that appeared a few weeks later.

I inherited my dad’s charming, persuasive ways. His tools of the trade. I can pick a lock, hotwire a car, stack a deck, curse like a sailor, and hold my own in a fist fight. I can bullshit my way out of almost any situation, from a parking ticket to a bar tab. As a teenager, I was hanging out with my dad in pool halls around Richmond, Virginia, hustling bikers and construction workers for money and food.

Once, when I was fifteen years old, my dad decided he wanted to shoot pool at The Playing Field, a local dive-that’s-not-really-a-dive-but-only-locals-really-know-that. It was mid-June and I needed money for my mother’s upcoming birthday in August. My dad asked me if I wanted to make a little extra cash so we could pick out something nice for mom. His money was wrapped up in cigarettes, liquor, and lottery tickets. “Don’t tell your mom what we’re up to,” my dad said, “Tell her we’re going to the mall and to the movies.”

The hustle would always begin the same way. My dad would set me up, pretend like he was teaching me how to play. I would hold the pool stick awkwardly, giggle a lot, and get overly excited when I sunk a ball in the pocket. We’d always scope the place out, look for a group of guys who might find me – a fifteen year-old blonde – entertaining and cute. After a few rounds, I’d start talking like I was a pro, and then ask one of the lurkers if they’d like to take me on. Inevitably, some drunken biker would think I was an easy mark and make a wager, which I would always raise, because after all, I did just get all of my “stripey balls” into those “pocket thingies.”

My dad spent countless hours during my childhood teaching me how to play pool, how to play chess, how to gamble, how to spot an opponent’s tell, and how to hide my own: twirling the ends of my hair around my fingertips and/or biting my lower lip. As an only child, I grew up around grownups. I was comfortable around grownups. I wanted to be in their world: late nights sitting around the dinner table playing Rummy or Spades, eating chocolate cake way after bedtime, watching R-rated Patrick Swayze movies on VHS, hearing all the juicy grownup gossip and grownup jokes I was too young and too gullible to fully understand.

I don’t remember if The Playing Field allowed underage players in during the day or if my dad had to sneak me in, but as his sidekick, I never had any trouble getting inside a bar. Inside, the air was thick with gray clouds of cigarette smoke and rancid cologne. The room was dimly lit, with low hanging multicolored glass shades that resembled Tiffany lamps. As the sunlight streamed in through the windows and penetrated the lamps, it burst into a million shards of multicolored light that envied the interior of great cathedrals. It was mid-day on Saturday; there were around twenty people inside. Some were shooting pool, some were drinking at the bar, some were dancing on the wooden make-shift dance floor, and some were eating late lunches or early dinners. The music was loud, but I liked it like that; it drowned out a lot of the excessive coughing and chattering from the other players.

I chose the table beside a guy with tussled brown hair, a five o’clock shadow, and tight Levi’s. He told us his name was Mitch. He couldn’t have been more than thirty-five. Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, and Matchbox Twenty had been playing on the jukebox; I put five dollars in to shut them up. I began dancing and singing along to a few of my favorite artists from my childhood – Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, Billy Ocean – while making eyes at Mitch when my dad wasn’t looking.

“Your turn, Pockets,” my dad said, using the nickname he always called me during our hustles. He scratched, then placed the cue ball back on the table. “Go ahead and sink it anyway. It’ll be good practice.” He winked at me.

I saw that he had set me up to knock the eight ball straight in. I called it, right pocket, squealed, giggled, and even did a little shimmy in Mitch’s direction.

At fifteen, I was a lot of things: a con man’s protégé, a flirt, a tease, the class clown, and a boy-crazy virgin. At fifteen, flirting and teasing was fun, all fun, because this boy-crazy virgin didn’t understand the dangers of flirting and teasing, because, at that point, flirting and teasing never went any further than flirting and teasing. When I think back about my exchange with Mitch, I find myself cautiously grinning at the thought of my naiveté, but I also recoil in horror. I was fifteen years old, flirting with a thirty-five year old man in a pool hall. I never went along happily with our cons; my dad didn’t hold me at gunpoint, but it was a confusing matter. I didn’t really want to con innocent people, but I did want to make my dad happy, proud even. Therefore, on one hand, I didn’t want to do it, but on the other, I wanted to do it well. And let’s be honest here, the attention and flirting was fun.

Mitch grinned, took a sip of his beer, and then asked if he could play winner.

“I don’t know, honey,” I said. “Do you think you can handle all of this?”

My dad smiled, exhaled, and shook his head side-to-side. This told me everything I needed to know: continue.

“I think I can handle it, sugar,” Mitch replied as he started to rack the balls.

“Wanna make it interesting?” I said. “Say, twenty-five dollars?”

I had hustled men like Mitch many times before, so I was feeling pretty confident, though looking back, I realize I shouldn’t have been. I should have been scared shitless. Today, I would be scared shitless.

“How ‘bout we make it real interesting?” Mitch said. “Fifty dollars. You good for it?”

I looked over at my dad who was putting out his cigarette. He started shaking another one loose from the hard pack. “Don’t look at me, Pockets. This is your wager.” He then placed his cigarette between his lips and began to cough as he lit it and inhaled. It was my wager, but my dad always expected to split the winnings fifty-fifty.

“Yeah, I’m good for it,” I lied.

Mitch looked over at my dad who slowly nodded his head up and down as he closed his eyes, verifying the existence of my non-existent fifty dollars.

I agreed to the fifty dollar bet, even though I had spent my last five dollars in the jukebox on Van Halen, Poison, and Guns n’ Roses, and even though I feared my dad would cut and run if push came to shove. Still, I never intended for push come to shove; it never had before. Mitch and I agreed to play a warm-up game, and then the fifty dollar game. He let me break both times. The first time I broke straight, the second time I broke from an angle. I goofed off during the first round, even asking Mitch if I was holding the pool stick correctly. “I’ve got my index finger on the top and my thumb is at the bottom. Is this right?”

He looked me up and down. “Darlin’,” he said, “you’re doin’ just fine.”

During the second game I noticed that when Mitch was lining up a shot he would sway from side-to-side and brace himself occasionally against the edge of the pool table. Drink another one, my man, I thought, as I smiled at him.

Mitch hit two combination shots in a row, only the second one was a foul. It was the end of the second game and all I had to do was sink the eight ball; Mitch had three balls left on the table. As I examined my options, Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” began to play on the jukebox. “Oh, I love this song!” I confessed as I started dancing in place, moving my body side-to-side along to the beat. I sang along with Seger and then I leaned over the table and looked up at Mitch. “Hey, Mitch. Don’t you think it’s interesting that the eight ball is black, like death, and when the eight ball goes into the pocket, the game is over? You know, like death?” I smirked, feeling pretty confident; I looked back down at the table, called the shot, and sank the eight ball in the left corner pocket.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Mitch growled.

“YES!” my dad shouted.

I laughed and looked over at my dad; he winked at me and gave me a quick thumbs up. Was he proud of me or was he just happy that he made an easy twenty-five bucks off of his only child? I realize now that it was most likely the latter, though at the time I thought he was impressed with his little protégé.

“Alright, Mitch,” I said. “Pay up, sweetheart.”

Mitch stared at me without saying a word. He cut his eyes over to my dad and then back at me. He pulled out his wallet, threw a crumpled fifty on the table, and sucked on his teeth.

I grabbed the money and tucked it into my bra, the way my dad had taught me to do. “They won’t go reachin’ in there for it,” my dad would say, “And if they do, knee ‘em and push ‘em to the ground like I showed ya,” he would laugh. “Ain’t nothin’ worse than a grabby man.”

My dad and I stuck around to set up the next hustle. After another pitcher of Budweiser, Mitch decided he wanted to revisit our fifty dollar game.

“I want my money!” Mitch screamed, as he abruptly backed me against the wall. I could smell the stench of beer and menthols as he leaned down towards my face. “All of it, you conniving little gypsy!”

“Mitch! C’mon. Seriously?” I wasn’t sure what to do with a word like gypsy. “You lost fair and square…”

“You hustled me and you know it, you little bitch!”

I leaned to my right. “Dad, a little help over here?”

“You got yourself into this, little girl,” my dad replied, as he dropped twenty bucks down on the table to cover his tab, “You can get yourself out.” He lit a cigarette and walked outside.

“Your daddy ain’t got nothin’ to do with this.” Mitch slammed his open palm against the wall beside my head. “Now give me my fucking money!”

I wanted to say prove it; prove that I hustled you and I’ll give you back your fifty dollars, but instead I stuck with my original story: “Mitch! Seriously! I’ve never played a single game of pool before today.”

This was the first time anyone had called me on my hustling; my dad and I were in a different part of town and he didn’t have the pull that he did in our usual radius. In our usual radius, guys would let shit like this fly because after all, I was just a kid and my dad’s little girl. Mitch didn’t get that memo; Mitch held no allegiance to my dad or his little girl. My cons went smoothly when we were in our usual radius because everyone knew my dad: the ones who believed his wild, exaggerated tales; the ones who knew he was always full of shit; and the ones who had heard wild, exaggerated tales about the man, the myth, the legend: his victims-in-wait. All of those observers always observed drunk; an advantage for the sober fifteen year old who was quick on her feet and full of sass and lip. If dad told me that day why we were playing somewhere new, the dialogue we exchanged is lost to the ether of time. Maybe he didn’t tell me and I just went along with it because that’s what I did: monkey see, monkey do. Follow the leader. But I have to wonder why he would risk the chance of our con going awry? Was it the thrill? The fact that I was the only one really in play? Had he exhausted all of his options in the old haunts closer to home? Or did he just need or want a new playing field?

With my back literally against the wall, I didn’t want to admit it, but I was starting to panic. Mitch was at least 5’ 10” and a good 170 pounds. I was 5’ 2” and around 120 pounds.

“Mitch, I appreciate your tenacity,” I said. “But, seriously, I didn’t hustle you, man.”

“You held your pool stick three different ways, you knew to chalk your stick, you broke two different ways, and you sunk every shot you called. Don’t tell me you didn’t fucking hustle me!”

I stared into Mitch’s beautiful bloodshot eyes. My eyes were open so wide, I had to fight to keep them from closing. Everyone knows that the person who maintains his or her gaze shows dominance and the person who looks away first signals their submission.

I was not submitting.

While I was still staring at Mitch, I heard the rusty bell chime in the doorway. I heard the engine of my dad’s 1978 Sportster rev outside. I wondered if he was going to come back inside to save me. I wondered if he was making me live the words he just spoke moments before: “You got yourself into this little girl, you can get yourself out.” Did he really have faith in my ability to talk my way out of this situation or was he saving his own ass, mine be damned?

I didn’t realize it until that moment, pinned between a poster covered wall and a ruggedly handsome drunk, but I was one of my dad’s victims. He gained my confidence just long enough to get his hands on my money, my morals, my innocence. I was so busy mimicking his tricks, that I missed the fact that he had in turn tricked me: by gaining my confidence, he was able to exploit characteristics of my psyche such as (dis)honesty, vanity, naiveté, and greed.

Mitch slammed his open palm against the wall again. I looked around the room and realized no one was within ear shot; the music was too loud. Eye to eye with my opponent, suddenly aware of the true danger I was in and the consequences of a game well played, I realized my dad wasn’t coming back inside. Mitch reached towards my chest. I pretended to sneeze and as he backed up, I kneed him, just like my dad had taught me to do. I pushed him back with all my weight, and ran outside as if the bar was engulfed in flames.

I remember the contrast of the air conditioned pool hall that I ran out of and the moist humid air I tried so desperately to breathe in outside. I was trembling. Was I still in danger? I looked out into the parking lot; steam was rising from the asphalt. I swiped my bangs back; I was covered in sweat. I heard my dad’s engine rev again. He was already in motion.

Was my dad speeding towards me or away from me?

I continued to try to catch my breath as I ran towards him, still trembling. He slowed down just long enough for me to jump on the back of his Harley and wrap my arms around his waist.