Rules of the Game
RULES OF THE GAME
Daniel Riddle Rodriguez
Issue No. 10 – December 2015
Another night at John’s, another game of ring around the nostril. The coke was dope, fishscale phylum, and they were on their third gram. John handled things—the mirror, the asbestos white cocaine—and carved powder rails large enough to cast shadows on the glass. He saw things. Blinking lights that danced on the ceiling.
Rule number one is Stop Using When You Start Seeing Things.
John was breaking rules again.
Kelly and his girlfriend, January, were on the couch in John’s basement. Their faces were numb. They scraped gums. Kelly’s tongue a bucket-brigade pouring flora and fauna into her throat.
John, armed with a straw, chased the asbestos away.
The lights on the ceiling blinked until they didn’t.
The couch in John’s basement was really his mother’s couch because it was really his mother’s basement; John just sometimes paid the rent, the cable bill, but mostly he squatted with Kelly and hatched get rich slow schemes.
“So we’ll be doormen, then?” John said.
“No, not really, dude,” Kelly said, taking the mirror into his lap. “Think bigger.”
John was confused so he said, “I’m confused.”
January wiped her nose across her arm. “It’s simple,” she said. “The Berlin Wall needs guys, not bouncers really, screeners. Go-betweens. Rules say it’s hands-off but girls date anyway. You guys make sure everything goes right.”
“So…we’ll be like pimps, then?” John said.
“Not really,” said Kelly. “More like middlemen.”
“No,” January said. “John’s right. More like pimps.”
Rule number two is Stop Using When Your Nose Bleeds.
John breaks that rule whenever he can afford to.
He can afford to tonight because he’d already jumped the postman, filched his mother’s check, doubled down on a deviated septum. Bills were due the fifteenth and social security came on the first. He spent the mean time trying to make the latter meet the former.
The latter hardly cooperated.
It was a hard fight, but Kelly leased him some muscle. Besides squatting and hatching and coating his sniffles with powder, Kelly was good at other things: ambushing mail carriers and keeping close proximity to money. It was a gift. Like serendipity but with aforethought. The malicious kind.
Kelly was also good at having a bank account.
“That your mother’s check?” he’d asked then. “Sign it over to me and you’ll see at least double in a week.”
This is how plans are hatched.
“Double?” said John.
“In a week,” Kelly said. “Trust me.”
If you choose to trust Kelly you’ll find the way to double your money is to spend it all first. The trick is to buy enough for a deal, but not so much you sit on the onion. Money isn’t the only thing with a short shelf life. Kelly was full of little wisdoms. Did you know they’re paying more than triple the price in at least three states between the west and the mid? he’d say. Or, we can stay here, cut this with baby laxative, get a motel room in the city and really make a killing. Or, we can troll the Greyhound, poach a few souls willing to peddle themselves for a bump.
“Listen John,” Kelly said now. “If you don’t get high on your own supply, how in the hell are you supposed to get high? Sniff once and inspire that entrepreneurial spirit.”
John origamied Andrew Jackson cylindrical, said, “Baby laxative? Soul poaching? People still go for that?”
“People still go for everything. The bait and switch. The pig in a poke.”
“Guys selling TV boxes full of bricks taped to the bottom…” January offered.
“Exactly,” said Kelly. “A fool and his money soon part and all that. All you gotta do is keep their gaze. Never flinch, dude, and the possibilities are endless.”
Kelly told John of all things possible and endless, and popcorned the brick with a hanger, gorging on blow until rule number two came pouring out of John’s nose in globs and greebles, bloody horns that painted his face a Gaucho mustache.
“Dude,” said Kelly. “You’re getting red on Jackson.”
The former president, a cylinder no more, just a bill, blood smeared and curling.
John tried to wipe it clean. “My mom’s going to kill me,” he said.
“Jeez, dude,” said Kelly. “All I have are these crummy singles.”
Rule number three is Never Use Crummy Singles.
No one follows rule number three. Get them high enough people fucking lick George Washington’s face, his chalky hairline.
Or get them drunk enough, people try to fuck you with them.
John and Kelly know this because January said so. Sitting on the couch, she said, “And you can just tell some guys iron their ones because they smell like starch. The ones, I mean. Ironed flat but still grimy—give your pussy a paper-cut on purpose.”
January says all tricks are sadistic, right on down the line. Like all deadbeats speak the same language. She said, “That’s where you two come in.”
“Yeah, dude,” said Kelly. “The girls need us to translate.”
“Uh-huh,” said Kelly, winking, “Tell me: how’s your German?”
The Berlin Wall was built some time after the original was razed. Rumor spread like a whispersong that the owner was an old Eastern Bloc national, and the bar a tip-of-the-hat to the Iron Curtain, but January said the old man’s only nation was “Jew.” The hat a black kippah.
“The first thing you’ll notice is the smell,” January said. “Like body sweat and baby powder. The way bum niggas hot-press dirty jeans, spray cologne instead of bathing. But it isn’t ‘til you reach the private rooms that it all turns antiseptic. A coat on every surface. Like, if these walls could breathe they’d burp bleach.”
January said most tricks don’t notice cuz they’ve got twat on the brain. She said it just like that: Twat.
She said, “That is where you’ll be most nights, between the stage and the back rooms. All you have to do is stand guard.”
There was a large Hawaiian man whose job may not have been anything more than being large and Hawaiian. His name was Rock. All the girls said he was a teddy bear; his tattoos said he’d rather die than be dishonored.
“But you don’t have to trip on him,” January said. “He only covers the door, the bar.”
John’s post would be the no-man’s land between the baby powder and the ammonia. Screening for potential sodomites and papercutters.
Something like a pimp.
If San Lorenzo houses had foyers, John would’ve been standing in one. The consolation prize a cubic yard of tile—real marble, faux luxury for the rent control demographic. The air was dense, tart with the copper coin smell of his mother and TV dinners. She was in the living room, stabbing chicken fried steak with an oyster fork, watching TV.
This time it wasn’t MASH.
Tonight was courtroom drama, a police procedural: cigarette smoke in the interrogation room, good cop bad cop. John sat next to his mother, fingered the lace doilies and worked the remote. She coughed pieces of herself onto the floor, while he explained to her the nuances:
“He’s the one who did it, Ma.”
John dissolved pieces of black tar in a Visine bottle, sniffed deeply to keep from nose-diving into the carpet fibers, squeezing her hand to maintain spatial orientation.
The detective played the hambone card, the perp wilting under the combination of palm strikes and police jargon:
Where you’d hide the body, pervo?
Nights like these he’d squeeze her hand and say, “It was him, Ma.”
But mostly it was MASH.
Hunnicutt and Hawkeye.
John changed the channel.
“You were named after him,” his mother said, spitting flecks of food past her dentures.
“John Kennedy,” she said.
“That’s Alan Alda, Ma.”
“It was right after he died, remember? And the flags flew half-mast?”
“I was born in ’78, Ma.”
“But your father didn’t have a flag so he named you after him.”
“He never said nothin’.”
“After Kennedy,” she said.
Ma probed the insides of her cheeks, tongued the crest of her lips, searching for disintegrated crumbs. “He had high hopes for you.”
John said his father said nothing and it was true. He came from a generation that spoke mostly with their hands and wore blue collars like millstones—yoked masons and silent rebar twisters.
A working class hero.
Sodium of God’s strata.
“I said your father said he had high hopes for you,” she said.
“Could’ve been President,” said John.
“Not that high,” she said.
On the TV, two surgeons traded barbs back and forth—lunge, riposte, repeat—while a dress with some sort of man inside sashayed around the room.
“Looks like some work’s coming up, though, Ma,” John said. “A respectable place, too. Liquor license.”
Ma stared miles into the screen. “Look who’s hoping now,” she said.
John does not remember rule four, but it should be Don’t Trust Kelly With Ma’s Money.
A week after they should have seen at least double the money back, John and Kelly were standing in the living room, staring at snow.
“So what happened?” said John.
“I think it’s called white noise,” said Kelly.
“I meant the money.”
“Oh, that. Crazy, dude. First I grossly miscalculated supply and demand for stepped on blow in our beloved Bible Belt. Stepped too hard, we did. Plus my mule got arrested.”
“I am mule-less.”
“That is totally fucked.”
“She was on her way back. It was kinda random apparently, a totally unrelated incident—”
“My mom’s going to kill me.”
“—except they found the money on her.”
“So in a way I guess it does relate.”
“What happens now?”
“To her? Nothing probably, a court date, juvenile probation, maybe.”
Kelly clicked the remote, surfed static. “You need to pay the bill,” he said.
They stared at the TV screen, the army of black ants marching.
“At least we have January,” John said. “At least we have some work.”
“Au contraire, mon frère,” said Kelly. “I have January. You have an interview.” Kelly looked at a watch John hadn’t noticed before. “In T-minus ninety minutes. So, you know, look sharp or whatever.”
John looked himself over: Fruit of the Loom wifebeater and a pair of denim jeans that sprouted from the loom, Pro Keds. “How do I look?”
“Like a shoe in,” Kelly said, clicked the remote.
Don’t Tell Them You’re Here For The Pimp Job.
Before he broke rule five John went to the Berlin, dressed in a Polo shirt and khakis borrowed from his father’s closet, his blue-collar formal wear. He stood outside the club and checked his reflection in the tinted windows. The shirt had an embroidered reptile. The khakis cuffed under the rubber soles of his Keds. There was a sign above the door that said The Berlin Wall and a German Shepherd leashed to a truck tire, sleeping.
John looked at its ragged ears, the button of callous on its nose. He reached into his pocket and then dumped a pinch of powder onto the meat of his fist, sniffed it. He addressed the dog.
“Here goes everything,” he said, projecting indifference.
The sleeping dog snorted once, projecting the same.
Inside the club the shift was changing. New dancers. A man in a grey shirt and a pompadour shoved a mop around, while the old guard—journeymen dancers grinding the rent—spent the last part of their shift with the alkies, trying to fleece them for singles, maybe a shot of Beam for the cab ride home. The DJ stacked his records. Rock was behind the bar doing barman things: polishing glasses, toweling top. He pointed a martini glass at John and said, “You’re here.”
“Yes, I am,” said John.
Rock slapped the towel over his shoulder and placed a rotary phone onto the bar top, hunched over it like he was calling the Kremlin. The phone was all red bulbs, no numbers, the center of the dial like an all white eyeball.
The Kremlin answered.
“Man says he’ll see you in a minute. Just wait here by the bar.”
One of the dancers, an old guardian in leopard print, saddled a barstool next to John’s, fingered his collar. “I love your shirt,” she said. “Crocodiles are, like, my second favorite reptile.”
Before John could ask about her first, a voice said he’s not a barfly.
“He’s not a barfly,” said the voice. “So you might as well give it up.”
January, a cigarette dangling from her lip, shooed the leopard away and, leaning in, gave John one of those one-armed hugs where tits kiss the chin. “You gotta light?” she said.
She was wearing a dye job and china bangs, body glitter and pasties, cat ears.
Because everyone likes pussy she told me, just like that.
“You ever wear those for Kelly?”
“Used to,” January said. “Not lately. Withdrawals, I guess. It’s been, like, whiskey dick but without the whiskey.”
“No dick, either.”
“Is there anything I can do,” John said. “I was named after a president, you know.”
“Yeah, which one?”
“I don’t know. The dead one. ”
“My favorite.” January tossed her cigarette into a beer stein, prompted a hiss of smoke. “I’m up next.”
John worked his elbows on the bar top. The DJ worked the ones and twos, the wobble bass.
The strip tease is an awkward waltz, but tricks don’t notice cuz twat’s still on the brain. For most girls the pole is more prop than dance partner, something to grab while you fling your box at the crowd, shake stretch marks invisible. Even experienced girls are graceless, in any other context an oddity—think back-bend contortion or Cirque de Soleil without the esteem—an oiled down and sparkling hood ornament. But January was a star, a constellation even. She got on stage and spread her singularity, breathed life into shitty metaphors. On the brass pole, she made dubstep feel like Mozart.
John wondered how long it would last. How long before the lambskin pops and she’s squatting an eight-pound hatchling? How long before she’s just another quivering mass of black leggings and swollen ankles stuffed into pink Crocs, a stoop mom smoking Newports to the filter, yelling at the back of her son’s head? Will the son look like Kelly? What color would that be—tan? Is mixed a color? John remembered when flesh came in the Crayola box; remembered, too, that it was a damned close match.
He took a powder bump for nostalgia’s sake.
January spun back up the pole, her redbone legs like chopper blades.
“It’s like she has an extra hand down there.” He wondered what her flesh tone was.
“You keep those dick beaters in your pockets,” Rock said, pointing to John’s dick beaters. “Come on. The man will see you now.”
The man had an office upstairs with one-way glass that oversaw the club, and a bank of closed-circuit televisions that assisted the overseeing. The man was old, reed-stalk thin, his face all bone and sharp angles, skin like cracked porcelain. “Can I offer you something to drink?” he said. “Water? J&B? Rock, get…I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“John, sir. Like the President…”
“Right. Rock, get John here a J&B.” The old man smiled. He looked like something carried by the neck, a patchwork of wrinkles stitched to the ears. He sat behind a desk too large for the room, for himself, probably for the world. An oak desk with nothing on it but the old man and a steel nameplate that read: Obadiah.
The old man smoked electronic cigarettes that blinked red when he inhaled and produced vapor instead of smoke. “I’m trying to cut back, you see. Doctor says four packs a day is four packs too many. Had a cancer scare a while back, turned out to be nothing, but still…”
John pictured scopes and forceps, bits of larynx sandwiched between cover slips. He cleared his throat. “It’s never too late to quit, I guess.”
“Wise words, young man. Just because something’s broken doesn’t mean you keep on breaking it, am I right?”
“As rain, sir.”
“Please, call me Obadiah,” the old man said, tapping the nameplate with his cigarette.
Rock came back with the J&B and stuffed it in John’s lap—a scotch-blend joey in the crotch of his jeans.
“So,” the old man said. “What do you have for me?”
This was John’s moment now. His alone to prove he belonged with the real world schemers—the ones outside his basement, the ones who live up to their namesakes and straddle desks like gods do. Because the real world is more than hoping and hatching plans. It’s execution. It’s sitting down and looking the man in the eye and making him flinch first, give up the goods. Or at least a prevailing wage, some bennies maybe.
John looked the man in the eye. “The first thing you should know is I’m a man of rules. Lots of them. I believe a man is only a man who lives by certain rules, parameters and whatnot. The second thing is I do not believe in resumes; that’s one of the rules. I cannot stress that enough. But in the interest of full disclosure I should tell you, my résumé, if I were to have one, would appear a tad spartan. You see, I’m a family man. I don’t have any kids, per se, but I do have a mother, an ailing one. I take care of her. I take care of the bills, too, and the doctor’s appointments, the medications. I believe family should always come first; my father taught me that. Another rule. He taught me a lot of things, my father. He was a blue-collar guy, a union man, real salt of the earth, worked with his hands, tools.”
The old man cocked his head some. Rock leaned back on the wall, crossed his arms, glared.
John cleared his throat. “What I’m getting at Obadiah…”
“Sir,” said Rock.
“Umm, yeah. I mean, what I’m getting at, sir, is what I lack in actual job-market experience I make up for in real-world experience. I’d be a valuable addition to the staff.” John unbuttoned his collar then buttoned it again and, trying to muster up some Kelly courage, said, “I never flinch, sir.”
The old man leaned back in his chair, impregnating pause. Rock flexed his wifebeater tan and exhaled through his nose. John could feel the wobble bass through the hardwood, wished he could ride the sound and bodywave himself back to his small world, his mother, her basement. He stared at the spot in between the old man’s eyes. The old man finally spoke.
“I am confused,” he said, turning toward Rock. “Rock, are you confused?”
“Very confused,” Rock said.
Rock slapped the darkness into John. “Cut the shit!” he said and slapped him back to light.
The old man blew vapor and watched Rock slap John out of his chair, rip the collar off his shirt.
“Where’s Kelly, John?” said Rock. “Have you seen Kelly, John?”
John saw stars. “I don’t understand…”
“Neither do we, John,” Rock said. “Kelly owes us money, John. Kelly said he’d pay us, John. Kelly said he’s sending John with the money, John. Where’s the goddamn money, John?”
Rock punctuated his words with his hands. He took John by the ears and thumbed the lobes until the cartilage broke and through him cackled blood and pain. He forced him to his feet, held him by the hair to keep him standing. He looked at the old man who looked back and said, “Well?”
Rock stuffed his hand in John’s pants, cupped his balls, ripped the pockets off his khakis.
“Well?” the old man said. “What?”
“Not even a wallet, just some scale.” Rock held the baggy up, tongued it.
“Ours?” the old man said. “Jesus Christ, Rock.” He came from around his desk. “We don’t care what you do with it as long as you pay for it. Don’t they know that, Rock?”
“They don’t even know,” Rock said and put a knee in John’s stomach. Dropped him.
“Please,” John said. “Pleaseplease.”
The old man leaned in and said, “Please?”
“Please,” John said.
“My god, man. Where do you think you are?” the old man said. “Don’t you know why you are here?”
“I only came for the pimp job,” said John, his lip busting blood.
Rock leaned in, busted some more.
When John woke up he was back in his basement, shirtless and not alone. January in poom-poom shorts and a scoop-neck sweater. She brought ice, held it on his puffing mouse, his cauliflower ears. “At least he didn’t close his hand,” she said.
“He’s a real teddy,” said John.
“They actually make you look tough.”
“Tough is always good.” She switched hands. Dripping water traced her forearm.
“How’d I get home?”
“Checkered cab,” January said. “Tipped extra cuz of the blood.”
“And my mom?”
“She’s up there. I was going to make something up about your shirt but I don’t think she noticed anyway.”
January and John sat in silence for a while. And then they didn’t.
“Kelly’s sorry, you know.”
“Yeah?” said John.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably.”
She dropped the bag in his lap and shook water from her hands. She pulled a wad of bills from the nest of adipose tissue, due south, and peeled off a crispy few. “For the cable,” she said. “She’s staring at snow up there.”
John followed her red calves up the stairs, her fingertips on the banister. He heard the front door close and static from the television. He got up and palmed the money, squeezed it.
In the kitchen he warmed his mother’s dinner—black bean patty and broccoli, something she’d have appreciated back when she remembered to appreciate things—he knuckled digits, prompted the whir and the yellow light. He leaned his crotch in toward the microwave and imagined the next scheme he hatched to be a sightless, wailing thing. Its primordial ooze made mordial through electromagnetic waves, dielectric heating. He’d leash it, drag it around the important places: Yellowstone, Stonehenge, all the stones. Even the corner where he copped stones. He’d hoist its dwarfined body onto his shoulder, sing praises into its soundless Tiny Tim ears.
“I have hopes for you,” he’d say.
The microwave dinged and his mother came salivating, dragging her walker with the tennis ball feet. John imagined another life in which her entrance would’ve been accompanied by studio applause, canned laughter, an obligatory nod to Pavlov. A world where a sandy-blond, Tiger Beat cupid would play his son, spout out wisdoms too wise for his age. John would trade barbs with him until he was too old to trade anything, his son old enough to hatch his own schemes, pilfer his own Social Security checks. He would let him shoulder the world for a while. Inherit a rule or two.
Daniel Riddle Rodriguez’s real name is Daniel Riddle Rodriguez. He is a full-time student and father from San Lorenzo, California, where he lives with his son. Previous publications include Juked, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Stream Magazine, Fourteen Hills, and others. Winner of the 2015 CutBank Chapbook Contest, his book Low Village is forthcoming. He is thrilled to be here.