Double or Nothing

Here’s a story of Patrick’s he started in the late 1990s and completed in 2013. I remember the beginning part first hand, and a bit more he didn’t mention, but the second part, well, I’d never heard a word of that.

From South Carolina, when we picked up my two girls and my son from my ex, the road directly west seemed the best way to arrive in Missouri.  True, there was Tennessee and Kentucky, and part of Ohio in between, and it was before the Interstates had hit off across these parts, but I didn’t know of a better route.

The highway was pretty well deserted after ten at night, and you didn’t run across many towns.  Those you did drive through were shut up tight as a drum, the proverbial sidewalks rolled away.  The only sign of life was the police cruiser outside the city limits, and a blinking caution light in the middle of town, meaning fifteen mph in this part of the country, or a midnight fine.

So when I dropped into the bottom and caught sight of the Tri-State All Night Diner, I pulled in and parked.  The girls as well as Mari were asleep but JP popped up in the back seat and had to join me.  He didn’t want to miss a thing.

The diner was deserted except for one guy slumped in the last booth along the wall, and a barrel-chested guy leaning back against the grill.  The coffee smelled burnt, but my eye were tired and I figured caffeine might help.  I couldn’t afford a motel, and we had another twelve hours or so before I could sack out in our bed on the farm in Peculiar.

JP slurped down a milk shake, and I went through four cups of coffee with toast and scrambled eggs.

When I got up to settle the bill, the local guy was arguing at the cash register about the price of a six-pack of Colt 45.

“Hell, it don’t cost half that at the grocery.”

“Maybe.  But the grocery ain’t open.  That’ll be four dollars.”

I stood off to one side.  It seemed a bit ridiculous to have to wait in line when there were only two of us customers.

“Tell you what, the local said.  I’ll match you for it.  Double or nothing.”

He worked a silver dollar up out of his jeans and held it for flipping.

“Heads or tails?”

“Aw, come on, Jack. Just pay me for the goddam beer or cough up for the coffee and get out of my life.”

“Come one.  Take a fucking chance.  Double or nothing.”

The guy behind the register gave me a disgusted look and shrugged.  “All right, heads.  If you don’t have twelve bucks don’t lip.”

The coin came up tails, and the local reached for the six-pack, a black-toothed grin on his face.  They both had hands on the beer, and there was a brief a brief tug of war.

“That comes out of my own pocket, buster.  Give me a chance to get mine back.”

He reached under the till, and there was a split second when I thought he would draw out a pistol; but he came up with a deck of cards still in the box.

“You break out the deck.  High draw wins.  Three cards each.” Hhe tore off the cellophane and handed the deck over the counter.  The other guy didn’t touch it.

“How do I know it’s a straight deck?”

“You saw me break the seal, Jack.  You too, mister.”

“You shuffle, Bud,” the local said, not looking at me.  “I don’t trust the son of a bitch.”

There was the deck in my hand, on top of the twenty I intended to pay with.

“I don’t think so.  You guys work it out between you.  I just want to pay my bill and get on the road.  I still got a long way to go.”

“Go ahead, shuffle the cards.  What’s it to you?”

It was my turn to shrug.  I laid the twenty in the tray by the cash register and mixed the card up two or three times.  I hadn’t shuffled a deck of cards since I was thirteen years old, but it was a familiar little buzz on the fingers.

I held the deck out between them.  They were glaring into each other’s eyes.

“I think this guy better deal the cards,” the customer said.  “And  make it three ways.” For the first time he looked at me directly.  “I wouldn’t trust this crook if it was broad daylight on a Sunday morning in the Methodist church.”

“Sorry, I’m not in this.  I told you.  Take the fucking cards.”

“Hey, wise guy.  Do us a favor.  Deal three cards, then three more, then three more.  If he gets the high card, I pay him, plus you got a free breakfast.”

JP stood slightly back from us, eyes  wide.  He picked up the bad vibes from these creeps, same as me.

I flipped out three cards face up.  King, deuce, ten of diamonds.  Three more: a six, a trey, another king.  Then I dropped an ace in front of the guy called Jack, a queen for the cashier, and a nine for my stack.

Jack scooped up the beer, my twenty, and hit for the door.  Before I could react, he had started up the Hudson Hornet outside the diner and fish-tailed out onto the highway, going back the way I had come, across the line into Tennessee.

The guy behind the counter, just a little late, rushed for the door, managing in the meantime to block me from getting a good look at the Hudson.  They looked like Kentucky plates, but I was not sure.

Disgusted with myself, I grabbed for the straight guy, for now I saw what it was.

“Hey, Buster.  I lost some bucks same as you.  What say you take a free breakfast and ride away before I get pissed off at the lousy hand you dealt me?”

“What happened?” asked JP when we headed into the long tunnel of trees lining US 40.  “Was you ripped off?”

The next town was nineteen miles of two-lane blacktop down the road.  There was no sign this time of a cruiser with a cop snoozing under his hat.  I hunted up and down the side streets until I found the Town Hall and a light under the steps which turned out to be the local Sheriff’s office, though the man I surprised at his solitaire was a Deputy.  He rose with a sound of leather and metal, his belt catching on the key protruding from the desk drawer.

“What can I help you with?” he asked.  He looked like he might already know.  And when I launched into my story, he nodded.

“Well, them boys are still operating.  I sure to hell wish we could get the goods on them just once.”

“This time you got the goods.  I want my twenty back.”

“Right.  We been waitin’ for this a long time.”  He opened another door and took out some forms.  “You just fill these out, and we’ll nail those s.o.b.s on Monday, first thing.”

“Monday?  I can’t hang out here till Monday. This ain’t but Saturday night.”  I looked at my watch.  “Well, Sunday morning.  I got to be at Kansas City by tomorrow night.”

The deputy slipped the papers back into the drawer and closed it.

“Well, unless you want to swear a complaint before the judge, and that can’t happen till Monday, there ain’t much we can do for you.  That’s why they always pick out suckers with out-of-state plates.  They know there ain’t many people who would hang around for twenty bucks.  Hell, we don’t even have a hotel in this town.  There is a boarding house, I could maybe fix you up in the morning.  You alone, are you?

“There’s a wife and three kids in the car.  And we can’t stop over here.  You obviously know these guys and what they’re up to.  Why don’t you just take me along with you and scare the piss out of them.”

“Maybe you didn’t notice, but you crossed two state lines between the Tri-State and here.  You can bet ain’t neither one of those buzzards in this state, when they got so many to choose from five minutes away.”  He stood up again and put both hands on his desk.  “Well, what is it?  You goin’ to plunk down once and for all for law and order, or are you going to chicken out of here like ever other tourist that’s been swindled up the road?”

As it tuned out, I had just enough to buy gas and pay a couple of bridge tolls.  But I was simmering all the way to Peculiar.  And I didn’t forget it after the three week vacation with my kids and I drove them back to South Carolina.

This time I was alone, the kids with their mother, and Mari taking advantage of my absence to make things up with her family.  We had fooled them a little a couple of years back, and they were still suspicious of me.

It took a little effort, but finally I arrived at my goal.  It was late afternoon, and I cruised right on by.  No sign of a Hudson Hornet in the parking lot, though there were maybe a dozen cars parked and you could hear the juke on the highway.  About  a mile down the road, there was  cut-off into the country and I took it;  The clay road followed a stream, and when I came to a wide spot I pulled off onto the weeds and got out to stretch.

The stream had eroded away the banks at this point and someone had dammed the creek with sacks of sand to make a swimming hole.  The weather was too cool for swimming, and the fish had the pool to themselves.  I watched them feeding for a while and went back to the car to get the tackle JP had neglected to take with him when we got home.  I snapped the joints together, and as I had time to kill, leaned back against a tree and watched the line cutting into the still water.

I got to thinking about Mari’s family back in Missouri and was sorry we had lied to them a year ago.  It had seemed the right thing at the time.  Mari was still married to a coach in Belton, or so we thought, and her folks would’ve frowned upon her living with me.  So we had made up a story about her working for me in the baby picture business.  I was supposedly visiting relatives in Lawrence, Kansas and dropped her off on the way.  I was pretty sure they saw through the whole thing, especially when Mari made a trip with her sister into Kansas City where I was hanging out in a hotel.  Six months later, when I had my divorce and Mari’s marriage was annulled, we got married at a justice of the peace in KC and showed the paper to her father and mother.  They were impressed enough to let us spend the last night in the same bed before we headed back East.  In New York City we both got jobs and saved money for a junket to Europe.  That’s when we took the kids with us to visit Missouri again.  That was the first her people knew about my previous marriage.  I don’t blame them for being a little miffed, and their disapproval probably accounted for Mari’s current illness.  I just hoped she could buck up before September ninth, when we had reservations on Icelandic to fly to Luxembourg.

The shadows were long and the fish feeding happily on flies while totally ignoring the worms I had so carefully threaded onto a hook, so I reeled in and cleaned up the rig.  I figured the cheats wouldn’t go to work until later, when the yokels were at home with Roy Acuff on the radio.  It was Friday night, a month to the day since my twenty bucks took off for parts unknown.  It wasn’t the money.  It was the ignominy of it, to be hustled by a couple of hicks in the middle of nowhere.

I found a nice spot to park of the highway and walked up to where I could watch the joint.  The parking lot cleared by nine o’clock, but after a while a pickup peeled off the asphalt and raised a cloud of dust as it lurched to a stop by the entrance.  The minute he stepped down, I knew it was Jack.  He entered the diner and the two of them greeted each other like long-lost brothers.  Looking forward, no doubt, to another night of scam and scram.

Through the back window of the pickup, illuminated by the lights of the diner, I made out a rifle or shotgun in a rack behind the seat.  I definitely did not want to confront this guy when he was in the truck.  I thought of stealing the gun, but that didn’t sit right.  So I just  chewed on a piece of sour grass and waited.

Jack, if that was his real name, put on his hunting cap and kicked the door open.  “See you later.  I’m going to shake up some pussy,” he shouted over his shoulder.

He gunned the pickup in reverse, shifted gears, and headed back toward Tennessee.  I was about a half mile behind him, and stayed on his tail until he tucked the nose of his Ford into a dirt lot outside a roadhouse jumping on its foundation blocks.  I waited about ten minutes, then followed him in.

He was talking up a peroxide blonde who had seen better years at the far end of the bar.  I edged up to him, looking over the blonde’s shoulder.

“Hi, Jack.  How you doin’?”

He looked me up and down, not sure if he was supposed to know me, but sure he didn’t want to from the look in his eye.  The blonde made herself enough room to turn around and have herself a look.  She was definitely worn and torn, but after a few drinks who would notice?

“I don’t believe I know you,” he said.  “You got something you want to say?”

“You don’t know me, but you owe me twenty bucks, and I came to collect it.”

You could see his mind click in his eyes.

“I ain’t seen you before in my life, and I ain’t got nothing of yours.  So drop out, will you?”  He put his arm around the blonde and headed her off for a booth.  I took him by the biceps. His arm was hard as oak, and he flipped my hand away and squared off.

“I said get lost, punk.”

I saw it coming and ducked underneath his fist.  What I didn’t see was his knee coming up to meet my face.  When I came up from the floor the whole room was still and you could smell the blood lust.  Blood streamed down my chin and onto my shirt.  Clearly I was expected to lay into him now, we would pound each other until he bashed my face against the floor, or I got lucky and broke a bottle over his skull.  Instead, I turned my back and headed for the door.

“You yellow, chicken-livered bastard.  Behind me I heard a scuffle which was the bunch of buddies holding him back.”

The door of his pickup was locked.  I opened the trunk of my Buick 88 and took out the jack.  With one swing I took out his windshield, then carefully stowed the jack in its place and slammed the trunk.  The juke was jiving inside.  Nobody heard a thing.  Then I opened the cab, took down the weapon – it was a shotgun, a 20 gauge,  over and under, and loaded.  I emptied the shells from the box in the glove compartment into the garbage bin beside the roadhouse and wiped my nose on my sleeve.

I kicked the door open and stepped inside.

“Hey, Jack.” I shouted, banging the butt of the gun on the nearest table.  “You owe me twenty bucks.  Do I have your attention?”

Somebody pulled the plug on the Jukebox and the quiet was deafening.

“Holy shit, man.  Give him the fucking twenty bucks.  You want the cops on our ass again, and it’s only  Friday?” This from the bartender, who at the same time was waving his hand to keep the guy trying to sidle up to me.  The bartender was the one with the most to lose, unless I got nervous.

“Give it to the blonde.” I said.  “You can give her another one later, if you’re lucky.”

Slowly he reached for his wallet and slipped out a greenback which he held out to the girl without looking at her.  His eyes were boring in on mine like the gun barrels aimed at the floor just in front of his feet.

“Just tuck it in the hole, honey.  I couldn’t take it if you got too close to me.  You might smell like Jack.”

She did as she was told, jerking her hand back as if burned.

I backed out of the room, skipped the steps from the porch and blew out two tires on the pickup, tossing the gun into the back.  By the time they started shoving each other out the door, I was hitting forty for the state line of Kentucky.  It was time to pay another visit to the sheriff, but first I owed for a cup of coffee at the Tri-State Diner.

At the Tri-State I had second thoughts about seeing the sheriff in person.  I put in a phone call instead from the booth inside, seeing the guy behind the counter didn’t recognize me.

“There’s been some shooting down at the Dutch Shoe Inn,” I told the sheriff when he came on the line.  “I don’t know if anybody’s hurt or not.”

“Hell’s bells, and it ain’t but Friday night,” he said.

“It might be a tough weekend,” I said.

When I came out of the phone box, the guy looked me over.

“I think I owe you for a cup of coffee,” I told him.  “You got change for a twenty?”

I hit out for another state line, getting some satisfaction from the sirens and flashing lights passing me in the opposite direction.  By the time they got there, the roadhouse would look like a Teddy bear picnic.  Just Jack changing his tires, and by the time he got to his Hornet, I would be long gone and whistling Dixie.

Next trip I would take US 50, loop up through Wheeling.  Then maybe the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Hell, I could afford the tolls.  I turned on the radio.  Ernie Tubb told me:

 Detour there’s a muddy road ahead, De-tour paid no mind to what it said

Detour oh these bitter things I find Should have read that detour sign

I didn’t believe him.