An unlikely Christmas story of loss and redemption.
By Mark Fenton
Published December 13, 2006
(Editor's Note: Unlike most of Mark's essays, which are surrealistic but based in real events, this is a work of pure fiction. Any persons or places in this story are either fictitious or are used fictitiously.)
Fisk had it all figured out by the time I was part of it.
Fisk knows a guy called Regan. Just met him, but the guy's OK. Gave Fisk a loan and a tip on a horse that came in slow, so he gave Fisk another loan. Pay him back whenever. Kind of guy who's there for people. Says he's good with cards. That's when Fisk has this idea of getting some fresh guys into a game. We can all win and Fisk can pay Regan back in the process.
Here's the system. We have tens or better we signal each other. Keep the bidding up. Take the new guys for everything on a good hand.
Got a plan for who we're gonna get in the game. We'll meet a couple of working stiffs. Guys who don't go out much. Work all day and come home to the kids. Make decent money so they can afford to gamble a fair bit this one night. It's Christmas, right? They'll lose. They'll feel stupid and won't come after us. Just go home.
No sure thing. But a good chance. We're not a couple of grifters. We just gotta eat.
* * *
We get into shooting pool with two guys. They come in right after the football game. Call themselves Beaky and Floyd. Beaky cause he's got a pointy nose and Floyd cause his name is Floyd.
Fisk got a style where he lies the cue on the four fingers of his bad hand so people can see he doesn't have a thumb. So he's using his right hand to actually make the shot and he's left-handed. Which makes him the worst player you'll ever play and everyone beats him. That's the part Fisk calls Gaining Trust. Acts like he doesn't care. Keeps looking out the basement window to the front streets. Sees legs. Tells them when women are coming in. Not even paying attention to the game.
He sometimes sinks a ball, which is amazing with what he's got to work with and everyone cheers. No reason not to trust him. People figure he used to be a hustler and someone taught him a lesson by taking his thumb and now he's humble and pathetic.
Sure enough. It's guy's night out for Floyd and Beaky and Fisk tells them he's got a friend with a game. After he's already lost five dollars to pool to these guys and he looks like he's got no money. They've just taken five dollars from a special needs guy. They got to let him have a try getting it back.
* * *
"Guys would have gone out for strippers if they hadn't met us." Fisk says cause he can tell I'm feeling sorry for them.
Fisk's good hand moves like a fish over the plastic of the tablecloth and his fingers swallow the last of the fried onion things and go in his pocket. "Would have lost the same amount of money. And those women bring in a killing anyway." Not like Fisk and me, who, let's face it, don't look so good and can't get by that way. Fisk's hair looks good though. He combed it out with gasoline when Regan was dealing out the first hand.
Floyd and Beaky looking at the mirror up with HARLEY DAVIDSON printed on it. On the wall in Beaky's garage, where we went so we could play in private. Fisk finds a can of gasoline and pours it on his comb. So he'll be a bit dangerous I guess, if they do figure they've been taken they might not be so keen to come after us.
That's what I figure, but I don't know what Fisk is thinking most of the time, cause he's mentally advanced compared to me. Fisk: physically advanced; mentally disabled. That combination is lethal. And then when he's done he puts the comb back in his pocket and checks his hair in the mirror. Then he takes the mirror down and turns it to the wall. "We play straight poker," he says.
We did good. The money's sitting in our pockets. We're sitting in the Taj Mahal on James Street and there's no one there but us and it's warm. Everything is good because we're eating. "Everybody wins this way." Fisk says. Cause he wants me to be happy. Fisk always wants everyone to be happy. "Floyd and Beaky get to have some night life and we get to have some meals."
When we left the game Regan divided the money three ways equally. Actually he minused out what Fisk owed him and then divided it three ways equally. So I lose out for what Fisk got loaned. I guess that's fair. After all I come into the deal through Fisk because Fisk knows Regan. We still got as much money as we usually see in a couple months.
Fisk's telling me we can run this grift ourselves if we move around. We're eating butter chicken and some onions deep fried in some special way. Fisk knows all about this stuff cause he went with an Indian girl. "One of my wives" he calls her. Anyone Fisk's slept with he calls one of his wives. "She was OK with that because a guy can have as many wives as he wants in India."
* * *
Just a hand from behind on my upper arm. WUMP on the back of my head, and then my eyes open and I'm looking at a pair of two-tone shoes just waiting for me. My cheek pressed flat by the bathroom tiles. But I don't know how long I been out. And he's on me again. In the ribs those shoes are harder than they look. No idea who it is. Doesn't work at the restaurant, that's for sure. Then he waits with me for five minutes. Fixing his hair and washing his hands. To remind me how a guy who hasn't been beaten just moves around however he wants. I figure he's waiting for Fisk to come in looking for me but he just gives me one last kick really hard and goes out.
* * *
I don't know how much time passed before I can push myself up without crashing back down on the hard tiles. Maybe an hour. No Fisk. Just the owner doing paperwork in a corner and smoking a little cigarette when I come out. I fall over, and he yells at me to get out and not come back. I don't even check for my money. I know it's not there. It's stopped snowing outside, just wet, which makes me feel worse. But if it hadn't been snowing when I came in, and just started snowing now, I'd think that made me feel worse.
I go up the alley a few feet and lean against the wall. Just to rest cause I think I'm gonna fall down again. There's a body up the alley about 30 feet. Fisk in a puddle. Thin ice forming just around the edge of the pool under the light from a fire escape. Rainbow swirls in the water around his head from the gasoline coming out. Fisk's body heat must be keeping it melted in the middle, which is a good sign.
I guess they took him outside. Or they were waiting for him. I never asked. He doesn't wake up, but he's breathing. I bend down and check his pockets.
Yeah. No money.
* * *
The first day was OK. We just slept in the doorway of the armoury. Then it got bad. The hunger and the bruises. Everything stiffened up while we were sleeping.
Fisk gets an idea. "Hey! I think there's an old girlfriend who I can stay with."
"She got food?"
"See, I gotta be sly cause she might feel I didn't exactly treat her right."
"Maybe if I talked to her it would be better, since I ain't treated her any way at all."
"Tell you what. I go in. Feel it out. And then send for you."
"Send for me soon."
We shake hands and I turn and watch him go. There's nothing to Fisk. Just a stick heading down the road until it disappears. No hat. Just a big circle for a head on a skinny neck. Like a small letter 'i', where the big guys with their heads covered who walk past him are capital 'I's.
Guys go into the armoury in trucks and the exhaust feels warm on me. They get out. Do some stuff. Get in. Drive out again. Seems like a good enough life. It gets colder and I burn books of matches to warm my hands and with the charcoal I write on the wall of the armoury. So that Fisk can see it if he comes by. I run out and have to get more which isn't easy because the stores don't want me there. Advice: Pack of matches doesn't go far for writing. Pick your words carefully.
Fisk walking away like a small letter 'i'. That's the last I see of Fisk till I come through. Armoury closed up and no one but the pigeons huddled up around the smoke from the chimneys trying to keep warm.
* * *
I figure I'll walk until I see people working. Ask where the personnel office is, and write up an application because writing is the one thing I got going. Even if they're not hiring I can be inside for a while. Hands can warm up. First place I go to, they have a big gate with a security guy. He doesn't like me. I can get by with people who don't like me when I have friends. I can get by with no friends and no people that don't like me. But people who don't like me when I got no friends is just about more than I can take.
I go to say something to the security guy and he says:
"You shouldn't be here. Who are you?"
I say, "I'm sorry." I can tell it's not gonna happen for me here.
"This is no good." He says. "You shouldn't be here."
"Sorry. I'll get going." He wants more so I give him some conversation. "I like the booth you got there. They could have just put up four walls but they put real work into it. Bet it's warm in there. I'll just leave you to your work." It was good to hear my voice talking, after two days walking.
Fisk told me about a guy in China. He fought the government so they put him in solitary for years. He had to re-teach himself to talk when he got out because he just forgot how to make the words with his mouth. Make sure that doesn't happen to me by talking even if people don't like me. But I figure I shouldn't push it so I start to walk away.
"Hey! Where do you think you're going?" He was talking about me now on the radio.
"I thought you didn't want me here?"
"Sergeant got to talk to you NOW."
We stood. He was at a distance where I couldn't grab anything attached to his body. But he could block me if I tried to run.
"You shouldn't be here." He said it again and again. Like the words were bullets.
Smoke going up out of the stacks behind him. Poisoning everyone except the people making it cause they're underneath it.
The sergeant's car and two other cars come down. All get out together and doors go SLAM in the same beat like they practised it for weeks just for me. Like I'm important.
Ask me questions but don't give me a job. And I can go.
* * *
Walk past a bar. No money. Walk past a grocery store. No money.
Walk past a convenience place that advertises fresh sandwiches. No money, but I can't go any farther. Look inside it and it's colourful from the decorations and better. It hurts to look cause I know it would be so warm. But I'm almost too tired to go in and they'd just throw me out anyway.
Lie down out behind it. Don't care if I ever wake up. The woman who works there brings me sandwiches that are just going to get thrown out.
"I got a daughter that looks a bit like you." She says.
Oboy, I think. She thinks I'm the guy. Anyway, I know I had nothing to do with that. Fisk would never be able to know for sure. But I can keep track easy enough. But turns out that's not it. She's just trying to make conversation.
Sits out smoking with me after her shift. Clouds are gone again. You can see stars and as far as I can tell it's cold as anything, but she doesn't seem to mind.
"I like it out here. No one comes around this part of town. You can watch the trucks."
"I don't think I'd like living out here."
"Of course you don't. I wouldn't like it either if I was living outside."
"But you're looking better. I'll get you all fixed up."
A truck went by with two big sheets of steel coiled up.
"Guy stopped here once. Told me those things weigh 6 tons each. Can you believe it?"
I liked having her here but I was too tired to say anything, and I hoped she didn't think I was rude.
"You'll be ready to go again tomorrow."
"So you and your daughter got a house?"
"Don't get any ideas."
I just lay there and looked away.
"I can tell you're not a bum. You'll do alright."
She smiled and gave me another cigarette. I smoked for a while. I didn't want to say the wrong thing again. Looked away at the fence and the dumpster but she caught my eye. I looked away quick and then back and she was smiling and then we both laughed. Then she held my hand until my cigarette went out and I fell asleep.
She was right. I had some more food from her in the morning and could stand up and didn't even feel so bad.
"They're hiring at the hazardous waste disposal place," she said. And I left.
* * *
Bunch of guys in masks at the hazardous waste disposal place. "Get back in your car!" one of them shouts when I walk up. I tell them I don't have a car I'm here to apply for a job. When I get closer the guy in charge turns out to be Floyd. I figure I should run for it but don't have the strength.
"Gee. I guess I didn't do so bad out of the game. Compared to you." He looked surprised to see me. Didn't look away or go cold. So I don't think it was him set us up. Maybe he felt guilty. But I don't think so. I think it was Regan. Unless he was in with Regan.
"I can start right now."
"Can't get you on the payroll to next week."
"I'll work for nothing until next week."
He looked at me for a while.
"We're always short during the holiday. I'll pay you half out of my own pocket. Until then. We need the extra hands."
"You can pay me back."
It was so warm with the gloves and the mask and the overalls. I love work. After all the other things I tried, I love work. All I ever want to do is work.
"Just don't play cards with this guy," Floyd said when he introduced me. I think it was a joke.
* * *
I got a place downtown. I'm working inside in the office now. Cause I can write labels neatly and do forms. Want to find the woman who gave me the food. See if her daughter really looks like me. She might feel different if she sees me now. But if she doesn't I can act like I just want to say thanks the way you would for a Christmas present.
* * *
Fisk runs into me on the street. I don't tell him I got a place. Which I feel bad about. But then he never sent for me.
"What happened with that woman you were staying with?"
"Husband got back off the strike. I struck out."
Turns out Fisk showed up at the right time. See, Lorissa was working full time and her husband was on strike. Just getting strike pay and has to picket. So they don't have enough money for the babysitter. Turns out she first met her husband back when she was seeing Fisk. No way of knowing whose kid it is. Sure the kid's got two thumbs but Fisk's thumb was removed, so genetics wouldn't factor in.
So while the husband's out on the line, Fisk's working as their nanny. They watch cartoons, Fisk makes the kid a snack at 10:30, and then they do a craft. Fisk even teaches him stuff about the planets cause he knows the solar system cold. He'd be a great daycare worker if he could get to work on time.
Anyway, the husband isn't too keen on this cause the kid seems to like Fisk better than him now, and he's wondering if that's genetics and he's trying to make his wife make Fisk get a blood test cause sometimes they can tell. Screaming at her at night that if he proves it's Fisk's kid he'll turf the three of them out.
Anyway, husband gets back on full pay and out goes Fisk.
"It's not being thrown out. It's just that she said the door would always be open for me. No matter what. And then finding out it's not true. Makes you fear you won't be able to trust a woman again." Fisk's a small man who hardly ever seems small, but once he'd said this he looked shrunk, liken someone hollowed him our with a spoon. But he puffs back up in a few seconds. "Just as well though. I think Lorissa was starting to have feelings for me again, and that puts stress into the whole work relationship. It just doesn't feel right."
Then Fisk tells me how we can intercept some money getting dropped under the bandstand in Gage Park. He overheard Lorissa's husband talking about it on the phone. Easy money. He just needs a lookout. 50/50. The main thing is to get the timing right. I make an excuse and buy him a drink. Some young ladies get talking to him and I disappear. I don't want him to know where I live. He's a good guy. But I've changed.
When work doesn't feel good I think of how I felt sleeping in front of the armoury. I wonder if that message to Fisk is still on the wall. Probably the rain took it out. But I don't know. Whenever I have to go by it I just stay on the other side of the street.
* * *
(Author's Note: I have a fondness for Christmas stories. I remember, years before I read it as a small child, my mother, in a basement apartment in Regina, telling me the plot of O'Henry's Gift of the Magi. It stayed with me more than the memory of most of the presents I got as a child, which I suppose is part of the point of the story: sentiments, not things. I never made the connection but I like the fact that O'Henry was a criminal, and found his vocation of a writer in jail, which isn't so different from the guy in the story I've written.)
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