King of diamonds, king of hearts — Steve Passey

We don’t come from much but we don’t come from nothing.

When we were young we had this beat up deck of cards. All of the Aces were gone, and some other cards too. We had maybe thirty-six cards out of a fifty-two card deck. We’d play ‘War’ but we had to make up our own rules to account for the missing cards. “I’ve done the math” is how Danny put it, so in alternate games the King of Hearts would be the highest card in the deck, then the King of Diamonds. No ties, no ‘wars’ with those two cards. They were the highest cards we had and they ruled, each in their turn, in a diminished kingdom.

Dad left before I could remember. Danny said he could remember a bit. Mom worked two jobs most of the time, and we lived in a rent-subsidized townhouse with new neighbors every six months and we walked to school, walked to get groceries, walked to catch a bus if we had to go anywhere else. Summers were slow, summers were hot.

One Saturday in June, after school let out for the summer and mom didn’t have to work she sent us to get some groceries with a list and twenty dollars. That would leave enough change to get grape sodas out of the cooler there that opened from the top. You don’t see that kind of cooler much any more. On the way back, walking slow and nursing my grape soda until it was warm, my plastic bag tore under the weight of its contents and a package of hamburger fell out, fell in terrible slow-motion and hit the sidewalk with a soft wet slap. The cellophane tore and the hamburger lay half on its Styrofoam bed and half on the sidewalk. I could see little specks of dirt and gravel on the meat and the blood of it left a ring on the concrete.

“Shit.” Danny said.

I said nothing, but two tears, hot on my face even with the sweat of a hot June day on it, rolled on down to fall and join the bloodstain on the sidewalk.

“Take my bags,” Danny said, and looked around to see if anyone saw us. No one had, or no one cared, and I took his bags and he took the hamburger, laid it gently with his hands back on the Styrofoam bed and picked up all the cellophane wrapping too and started walking. “We’ll wash it at the park,” he said, and I really had to hustle to keep up.

There was a drinking fountain at the park and Danny very carefully rinsed the hamburger, picking the bigger bits of gravel out of it with his fingers. When he was satisfied it was clean, he even more carefully massaged it back on the Styrofoam bed and wrapped the cellophane over it as tightly as he could, repositioning it so as to place the tear at the bottom of the package, underneath the Styrofoam. Flies were starting to find us and I shooed them away, this was as much help as I was. Two kids came up and wanted to use the fountain and just stood there while Danny was washing the meat. “What are you doing?” they asked in unison.

“Fuck off already,” was Danny’s answer, without looking up.

When he was satisfied that he was finished we drank the last of our grape sodas and refilled the bottles with water from the fountain and we walked home and turned over the groceries to mom. We had spaghetti with meat sauce that night. Red and warm.

On Monday we were mostly alone because mom worked. We played in the park all day and went home at six for supper. When we walked in there was this man sitting at the kitchen table. A short man, with thick shoulders and hands wearing brown overalls, a pork-pie hat and a white v-neck t-shirt under the overalls. He had a goatee. He smiled.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Danny said nothing.

“Patrick, Daniel. I’m your old man,” he said, and smiled bigger. He got up from the table and hugged me. He smelled like sweat and a cigarette and WD-40. Danny didn’t hug him, he stuck his hand straight out and they shook hands. The guy still smiled.

“I remember you,” was all Danny said.

We ate leftover spaghetti and mom suggested things to ask him but I just sat there and stared at him. Danny had nothing to ask either. Mom had her hair down. I never saw her hair down, she normally wore it up. She kept suggesting things for us to ask the guy.  I couldn’t think of him as “my old man”. I thought of him as “the guy”. But if mom brought up a question for us to ask we didn’t have to ask because then he’d answer her directly. It was like they were talking about him, to him.

The next day he took Danny to work with him so I was on my own at the park. The afternoon was hot and I mostly stayed in the house playing games of ‘War’ by myself with the deck and the Red Kings, careful to remember who was high card in each game and alternating them as per Danny’s math. Apparently our father was a handyman of some sort and he had a job working for a big landlord, swapping out air-conditioning units in the apartments the landlord owned. Every apartment had one of those little units that fit in a window and they were all getting new ones. On Danny’s first day on the job they came back with an old unit and put it in our kitchen window. “Shhh – don’t tell anyone,” the old man said with a wink and he and Danny hooked it up. Danny now called him “The Old Man” and so I did too. Mom folded her arms across her chest and had a look about her I couldn’t quite figure out but she watched them put it in and it worked and the kitchen was whole lot cooler and the rest of our place a little cooler.

This went on until Friday when the old man dropped Danny off for supper and went somewhere on his own. We ate supper in our cool kitchen and played cards and went to bed early, Danny was tired from working and I had nothing to do. It was hot, even with the new air-conditioner. I tossed and turned and dreamt fragments of fragments of dreams. I would close my eyes and drop the hamburger again and again, drop it with that wet slap and the flies would come and I’d drop it again and hear my mother cry and Danny was yelling, yelling at me and I’d drop it again and my hands were heavy and my head so hot and I could not for the life of me pick it up except to drop it and I wanted to run away but I could not, I was rooted to the spot. I woke up.

I got out of bed and in the hallway between our rooms the old man was hitting mom, hitting her with a half a fist, his nails in the palm of his hand his thumb not quite closed and hitting her in the side of the head with the heel of his hand, the part of the hand just before the wrist and he’d hit her and her hair would shake. Her hair was down and her hands were over her face and he’d hit her on the ear and her hair would bounce and she’d cover up more and that was the sound, the sound in my dream of the hamburger hitting the pavement and my mother crying.

Danny was yelling and he ran up to the old man, his head under the old man’s chin and his palms on the old man’s chest and he drove him up and back, up and back, and the old man reached up for balance and then fell back over, fell back down the stairs, ass-over-tea kettle, ridiculous in his brown overalls and sweaty white t-shirt smelling like a thousand cigarettes and when he went over I could see his calves naked above his socks because the overall legs rode up. He went over twice like that with his hands on his head to protect it and came to stop on his ass facing the other way at the bottom of the stairs. The neighbors on either side were banging the walls with their fists and with broom handles, banging, banging, banging and shouting muffled shouts but when the old man fell and mom quit crying and Danny quit shouting they stopped.

“Danny, Danny, Danny!” my mom said, her hands still on her face, “No! No! No! Someone will come!”

Danny stood at the top of the stairs breathing hard, red-faced, fist clenched tightly but very quiet and the old man sat at the bottom with his back towards us. Without looking up he patted himself down, making a show of it to let us see that he was alright, letting us wonder what was going to happen next. He got up and sat on the bench by the front door and put on his workman’s boots without tying up the laces. He stood up without looking at any of us, put on his pork-pie hat and shuffled out the door shutting it quietly behind him. We heard the soles of his boots scuff across the walk until he got into his truck and started it. Then he was gone. We never saw the old man ever again.

“Ain’t no one coming”, Danny said finally, “No one”. Then he hit the wall, the wall where the heat of previous summers has warped the paint and the belongings of previous tenants has scored it with gouges only half filled in. He hit it a few times with his fists and shouted “Fuck off already!” after each blow and no banging came from the neighbors in reply.

“Patrick,” he said to me, “It’s OK. You can stop crying. He’s gone.”

I guess I was crying.

***

When Danny graduated he went into the service and went to Afghanistan. When I graduated and eventually got into University he came back.

I asked him “what about Afghanistan?” and all he said was “It smells like weed, sweat and shit”. And that was about it.

“Did you shoot anyone?”

“Nah” he said. “Spec Forces got ‘em all. We just walked around a lot. It was hot. Army life. Lots of ‘hurry up and wait.’”

He put on a lot of muscle in the service. He got tatted up too – full sleeve on his left arm. Bands he liked. Phrases he loved. ‘Crooked Saints, Stand-Up Villains’ one said. On his right shoulder he got a King of Diamonds and a King of Hearts. He asked me if I knew where he got the idea for that one.

“I remember,” I told him. “You know – mom had those cards out at a garage sale last year. No one would buy them because it wasn’t a full deck – but all the little kids too young to read wanted them. I kept ‘em. Got ‘em in my room”. He liked that.

He got a job bouncing at a strip club. He joked that it was a high school reunion there every weekend – on both sides of the stage. “Times are tough,” he told me, “but the Titty Trade survives”.  He’d make five hundred some nights hustling tables.

These guys would come in, bankers or finance people, guys in suits and the place would be dead but he’d stop them at the door and apologize and tell them that he had a reservation coming in an hour so the best tables – up front on “gynecology row” – were reserved. Their group will have to sit in the back. The suits are like, “What the fuck – they’re empty now” and he’d look around and say, “Well ok – I can do you a favor and sit you up there now but you have to help me out. When  my party comes in you gotta move,” and they’d be happy. The place would fill up in an hour or so and sure enough, a new group of guys would come in and start looking around and he’d tell them, “in the back – you gotta sit in the back – that’s all we got room for.” The new group would be not that happy and he’d say, “I’ll tell ya what – those guys up there?” and he’d point to the guys on gynecology row. “I can probably move ‘em and put you in that table but it’s gonna cost something.” And the new group would pony up – often a hundred bucks but never less than fifty. Danny would take the money, walk on up to the first group and tell ’em his reservation was here – they had to move. And they would. He’d hustle tables like that all night.

Once in a while one of the guys he served with would come in and when Danny was off they’d sit and have a few drinks, watch the girls, and listen to whatever the DJ had on. I went and sat with him once, on a Tuesday if you can believe it. Some suits in there had figured out they were vets and were sending shots over to Danny and his buddy who would always thank them but mostly stuck to their beer. They’d pass the shots on to the girls.

Danny got up to go to the bathroom and when he was gone his buddy leaned in and asked me, “How does Danny sleep?’

“Good as far as I know,” I answered. Which was true. He had his own place now. Air conditioned, if that matters.

“What did he tell you about Afghanistan?”

“Not much. Said it smelled like weed, sweat and shit and that he never even fired a shot in anger.”

“All true,” the guy said, watching the bathroom door to see if Danny was coming. “All true. Did he tell you he killed a guy with a shovel?”

“He did not,” is all I could say, and my beer tasted warm.

“Yeah. Fuck. Killed this kid with a shovel. Fucking Haji trying to set up a mine. Spotters had seen something suspicious so we went on patrol, walking the road. Hajis like to plant their improvised explosive devices on the road to take out the gas tankers going to Kabul. It’s a big win for them if they can do that. Makes life hard in Kabul and if you’ve ever seen a tank full of octane explode you know it’s a hell of a show. It looks good on their videos. It was July, in a place where you could see Kashmir in the distance, the moon still visible above it even during the day. Shangri La. It’s so beautiful it’s distracting. It’s Africa hot out there, fat-kid-killing hot. You’ve been told about the smell. We’re in forty pounds of gear, just wet with sweat. I swear you don’t get that wet swimming. We have an armored fighting vehicle called a ‘Stryker’ backing us up and at one point the commander thought he’d seen movement in this field so he put about a hundred rounds from the fifty into the field and we went in on foot. Danny’s got a shovel off of the Stryker. Sometimes – all the time actually – the fucking Hajis would just throw some dirt over the improvised explosives if they thought they’d been seen so they don’t have anything on them when we catch them. ‘Rules of Engagement’ says we gotta let ’em go if they are empty-handed. They’ll come back later and set it up. But we want to find the bomb so they can’t come back and set it up. Plus, rumor had it the Hajis had bought some special ones, some of what they call ‘explosively formed projectiles’ from Iranian connections and those cock-biters can take out a main battle tank. So here we are, in the heat, walking through rows of marijuana plants – ”

“ – Weed?” I interrupted.

“… You know it bro. Remember what your brother told you about the smell. Weed and opium are the only things those poor bastards can grow for cash over there. They have a metric ass-load of it. Plus it’s not forbidden in the Koran. Anyways, they cultivate it in long rows and they flood irrigate, so between each row is a little ditch, more often than not fertilized with human shit. There’s the smell again. It’s fucking disgusting. So we’re walking along, row by row, shit by shit, and I have my rifle at my shoulder and Danny’s got a shovel and we’re in past the point where we can see the Stryker up on the road when Danny practically steps on the guy. The Haji had hidden down there in the rows in his long brown shirt and pants and just hoped we wouldn’t find him but we did and he got up and tried to run still holding a plastic bag with the explosives in it. Danny’s after him and I’m yelling, “Down, down, down,” because I know I can shoot the fucker but I’m afraid I’ll hit Danny. But Danny – your bro is an athlete by the way – caught the guy by the collar and slung him back around on the ground and then as they say: A fight broke out. Somehow Danny gets a knee on the guy’s chest like he’s schoolyarding him. Our guys are starting to shoot down their rows. Everyone’s yelling, ‘Contact! Contact! Contact!’ and sending rounds down their rows but it’s really just Danny and the Haji. These fucking Hajis are never more than fifteen years old and might weigh a buck-twenty five if they’ve eaten that day. The Haji is – I can’t quite describe it – he’s clawing at Danny his hands like he’s treading water or climbing a ladder and Danny’s got a knee on his chest and he’s stabbing at the kids hands with the shovel yelling, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ but the guy doesn’t and Danny starts stabbing at him with the shovel only a lot harder now – adrenaline and all – and pretty soon he’s just fucking hacking the guy apart. CHUNK! CHUNK! CHUNK! The shovel is hitting bone and I can remember this part very clearly: At one point he hacks him so hard with the shovel he cuts off one of the guy’s fingers and the thing cartwheels in the air like a fat red fly almost above Danny before coming down and finally CHUNK and the guy dies with Danny on his chest and the last bit of air rattles out of him like a slashed tire and he has almost no face left. Already there are flies on him, flies and dirt. That fine brown dirt that’s like silt is filling in his face. Already. I put my hand on Danny’s shoulder to get him off the guy and he threw up, thin and sour, on my boots and on the ground. There’s a lot of that in Afghanistan too.”

I said nothing.

“Hey bro. It’s not like it’s a crime,” he said. “I’m not sure the Rules of Engagement would have been an issue man, but when we debriefed we told the Lieutenant that we found the guy that way. We said that we thought he’d taken a round from the fifty on the Stryker when the Stryker commander hosed the field. The bag has a bunch of Semtex from the Russian days – more than enough to set off a tanker, and some other shit. Bomb-making shit. We gave it to the engineers. I don’t know what they did with it. They are supposed to blow it up but Afghanistan has way more of that shit than we have engineers, so for all I know someone still has it. Anyways officially the guy took a round from the fifty on the Stryker. But you can bet your ass I made sure word got out around base and your brother should have got a purple heart for being injured by high-five. Everyone hates the fucking roadside bombs. Everyone loves your brother. Those bombs, those ‘IED’s’ are a chickenshit way to wage war. Killing a guy with a shovel – that’s straight up honorable. Straight up.”

Danny came back from the bathroom in good spirits, jerked his thumb towards the booth and said he’d gotten the DJ to throw some Guns N Roses on. “G n-fucking R man,” he said, and then, “what have you ladies been up to?”

“Talking about Afghanistan and how you say it smells like weed, sweat and shit,” his buddy said.

“That it does,” Danny said in return. “That it does.”

The guys who have been buying us shots sent over another round and ‘Paradise City’ came on and we toasted each other and hammered a shot and sang with the G n-fucking R.

We decided to finish all the shots those guys sent us and the rest of the night I don’t remember all that much of but I woke up the next morning just in time to not pee the bed and when I was in the john I looked in the mirror. I had a new tattoo, a King of Diamonds and a King of Hearts.

#

A couple of years and a couple of binges later we got some scroll work done below the two Kings. ‘I have done the math’ it said. I just had to look at it and I’d laugh. It was a moment in time. You had to be there. No girlfriend I ever have ever understands.

Danny left the club. He had some trouble, beat up a few guys, typical strip-club bouncer shit. There were charges, some of them dropped, some got plead down. A couple of lawsuits.

“One too many assholes,” the club owner said. “It all adds up.”

He was referring to the people who walked in through the front door. He understood how it can be, working the door at a place like that but it was best if Danny moved on. You can’t beat up everyone just because they need it.

Danny talked about re-enlisting but he opened a gym instead. Mixed-martial arts stuff. He was always the baddest guy in there. Guys wanted to train with him, wanted his tattoos, wanted his reputation. I graduated from university. I wasn’t all that bad – but I had the tattoos. The gym was downtown on a one-way street. Danny had a beater of a pick-up he used to run errands for the gym and on Saturday’s when the traffic was lighter he’d park right in front – right across two angled, metered stalls, load/unload because he could do it faster than if he had to park a block away.

Saturday in August, nine in the morning and no one around, and Danny and I are unloading flats of Gatorade and carrying it in the gym. There weren’t many flats so he let the truck idle and left the radio on and we unloaded to whatever songs came on. After the last flat had been put away we came back out and he’s getting ticketed. The parking enforcement officer, some old guy in a little uniform, is there writing Danny up.

“Are you shitting me?” Danny said to the guy, “it’s Saturday”.

The guy wouldn’t answer.

“Are you fucking shitting me? There’s no one else here!” Danny said again, walking up behind the guy, walking within arm’s reach.

The guy wouldn’t answer, just walked away.

“Are you going to fucking answer me?” Danny said, quieter now, and I’m too far away to do anything. The guy just walked faster.

Danny put an arm around the guy and slung him to the ground, spinning him around and choking him hard. The old guy wheezed and his eyes got wide. I ran up to them, trying to get Danny to look me in the eye.

“Danny,” I said, my hand on his shoulder, “let the guy go. He’s only doing his job. I’ll pay the fucking ticket. I’ll pay it in pennies. Fuck the city. Just let go.” But Danny just choked him harder. The guy wheezed, a thin and high and lonely sound, a sigh. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he blew bubbles out his nose. His hands fluttered along Danny’s arms and back towards his face but Danny kept his chin down and held on. I had my hands on Danny’s forearm, trying to get my fingers in between Danny and the guy’s throat but I just couldn’t, Danny, all muscle and ink and rage, was just too strong.

“Tell me when you smell shit!” Danny said and really bore down on the guy and held him for the length of a song, the music coming from Danny’s truck. The guy’s eyes closed and I smelled shit and he was dead, his lips covered in spit and snot and his pants full of his own bodily wastes and  he was dead in Danny’s arms, his little meter guy’s hat out in the middle of the street. Dead.

“You gotta go,” I said to Danny, standing there, but Danny held the guy – hard like he had been, for the length of another song. When the song ended and advertisements began to play he let the guy flop over and then stood up and dragged him to the curb and propped him up in a sitting position and just looked at him. The smell of feces was overwhelming and flies had begun to come around. There was a wet spot on Danny’s t-shirt where the guy’s head had been against Danny’s chest; whether from Danny’s sweat or the dead guy’s I do not know. Both I think.

“Danny, you gotta go.”

“No,” he said. “Someone will come.”

“No Dan, just get on out. I’ll call an ambulance. I’ll say I just found him here”.

“Nah,” He said, and sat down beside the guy, brushing the flies away. “Where’s your cell phone?”

“In the truck,” I said and motioned with my head.

“Go on and call an ambulance”.

“I think he’s dead.”

“Well. Maybe they can bring him back. That might be good. Can you just call someone? Anyone?”

Danny had an arm around the guy now, to keep him upright, and was still shooing the flies away. The smell was intolerable. I went and got the phone and walked back over.

“Do you remember that week the old man came back when we were kids?” Danny asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “It wasn’t that long ago, really.”

“You know that week I worked with him, swapping out those air-conditioners in those apartments?”

“Yep.”

“You know he never paid me right? Nothing. I know we gave him the boot before the job was over but still, he should have paid me. He said he’d pay me.”

I nodded.

“What he was doing was taking the new air conditioners and selling then out of the truck to acquaintances for quick cash. He’d take the cash and buy old air-conditioners – way older than the ones we were pulling out, and put those in. He would pocket the difference. If anyone asked he’d say they were ‘refurbished’ and as good as new. ‘Full warranty’ he’d say, and whatever blah-blah-blah it took. The old man could talk. No one ever called him on it. The used ones he pulled out? He’d sell those too. It was one of those he put in our place. I think mom knew something was up but she didn’t know exactly. Anyways, he never paid me.”

I nodded again.

Danny let the body down, gently, and laid it against the pavement. Flies started to settle on it, darting this way and that.

“Do you still have that deck of cards?” he asked. He never took his eyes off of the body. “The King of Diamonds, the King of Hearts? That deck?”

“I do” I said, but I lied. Somewhere, in one of my moves, it had been lost.

“Is anyone coming?” he asked, less to me than to himself, still looking at the body.

“Someone will be here soon,” I said. I walked back to Danny’s truck. I turned the key in the ignition to shut it off and started to dial.


Steve Passey is from Southern Alberta. His fiction has most recently appeared in Existere Journal, Big Pulp, and The Molotov Cocktail, and is forthcoming in anthologies in the USA and Canada in 2015. @CanadianCoyote1.

Image: Old Cards, © jacsonquerubin, Creative Commons.