The small guy rides behind the seats or in the bed in the F250. Tipping the scales at almost two hundy still makes me the small guy, and rather than straddling the stick and getting my balls smashed in both second and fourth gear or getting my ass soaked by a summer storm in the bed, I climbed behind Santa and The Vic and did my best not to get the seat of my pants wet from any unidentifiable fluids on the corrugated steel bed of the cab. Hell, even the identifiable ones were a guessing game. The blue shit was either slurpee or washer fluid, the black rainbow puddles were obviously motor oil, unless The Vic had managed to use his car seat as a saw horse again when he oiled up that big motherfucking chainsaw to knock a couple of trees down on Government land.
About three hours ago I got to sit on the seat, with a seatbelt, a fifth of Cointreau, and a pack of Nattys (Nat Shermans, for the fucking heathens) after The Vic pulled me out of my garage for “an errand run,” whatever the fuck that was supposed to mean.
“Fucking office, I swear to god I’m going to burn that place down making me wait in line with all those motherfucking trailer park assholes to get my check.” The Vic was on disability, they made him “hobble” in twice a year to prove he was still alive (check) and still fucked up (check) so he could get paid.
“Trailer park motherfuckers…” I let that dangle out there in agreement, even though The Vic was a full two-thirds of that equation his damn self. Despite owning three full acres and getting a pretty nice monthly all things considered, the tin box on blocks was where he slept. That’s the trailer part. The Vic was in his Carhartt overalls, no shirt, work boots and a John Deere cap (free with purchase), and when I noticed the big-ass chainsaw knocking around in the bed of his F250, I knew where we were going.
Fuck the Government, that was the motherfucker part of the equation.
The Vic grabbed the Cointreau off my lap and took a swig. Cointreau? I knew better than to ask, he probably swiped it out of the well of one of the locals when the bartender turned his back. I lit up a Natty and was through three more when The Vic turned off road, driving us on a no-track a few hundred yards into the National Forest.
“Hold this shit buddy, wouldya?” The Vic tossed the nearly empty fifth my way, which I dutifully emptied and tossed harmlessly into the brush. “What the fuck man, our prints are all over that. Pick that shit up and take care of it right goddammit.” I dug through the brush and found the bottle, then reared back and threw it flush against a tree, where it smashed into a couple hundred pieces. “Fuck,” said The Vic, to no one in particular.
The last time The Vic had gotten pissed off at the government was when they passed that helmet law for motorcylcists about two months ago. Despite not being a motorcyclist himself, I got picked up by an angry The Vic, chainsaw in tow, and found myself alone with a maniac screaming obscenites that the government was taking our freedoms, and god-knows-what-came-after-helmet-laws as he felled a good dozen trees in the National Forest.
No sense telling the motherfucker that was the state and not the Feds that made that law, it was all the same, and government trees were the fall guys.
The Vic yanked the cord of the chainsaw and was blessedly rendered inaudible as he took the first few trees down with an assassin’s efficiency. I poked around the cab of the truck while he was at work getting bureaucracy’s ineptitude out of his system, looking for just about anything to cut the Cointreau. Little paper squares in a plastic bag in the glove box were always a good sign, and I put two on my tongue, keeping my eyes on which way the trees were falling.
He was a pro, he ain’t hitting his truck.
Eleven evergreens toppled, and The Vic climbed back in the truck a bloody and sweaty mess. “You finished?” I asked him the question aimlessly, I was enjoying the leaf rustle all around me far too much to care. “Yeah fucker, let’s go get Santa and get wasted.”
Too late for that, but whatever.
The rain started slow, but came down in vicious sheets as we headed back towards just-out-of-town to get Santa. I was enjoying watching drops explode and get wiped clean with rubber blades, and didn’t really give a shit what was next, so long as I got a beer or twelve down my gullet in the process. Santa ambled out of the house with The Vic’s horn when we pulled in, and I eased myself off the seat to make room in back.
Santa was Santa not because he was a generous motherfucker or because he had a white beard — neither of those things being true in the least. He was Santa because he was a big-ass motherfucker who once kicked an off-shift department store Santa’s ass at a local, and wouldn’t give the guy his red hat back even after being chased out of the bar with the ass end of a pool cue. The hat was his trophy, and not a bar night from October through December went by without Santa and the hat and the story.
I knocked around uncomfortably, but giddily watching the slurpee pool meet the motor oil pool, the rainbow black eating through the neon blue with ruthless efficiency. I put my finger in the puddle and swirled it around, but regretted my decision when The Vic hit a curb on the way into the bar’s parking lot, and I managed to disperse the puddle across the other ridges and valleys of the truck’s cab.
Santa, The Vic and I grabbed a table in the corner near the jukebox. That country singer with the stutter who was in the Cannonball Run movie was singing some old shit, and I was just hitting the peak of my buzz. I needed a beer.
Four or more later, I rolled up to the bar to get another pitcher, and heard from my right, “Hey, you the champion around here?” Without looking back, I pointed to a picture mounted behind the bar. It was me, the bar’s owner holding my left arm up in victory while my right hung limp by my side, wrapped tight with bar towels. “I want a piece of you Champ. Wanna see what all this shit talking is all about.”
I turned to face my nemesis at the end of the bar. Dude was big, Santa big, had me by about a dozen years, and was trying to intimidate me with an unwavering stare. His right hand was wrapped around a bottle of Stroh’s, while his left continued to pluck tiny Vienna sausages out of an opened can. “I’m the guy who’s going to pull that picture down and piss all over it,” he said.
I giggled a little under my breath. My aura-sensing visuals combined with this guy’s aggressive and uneven breathing showed me he wasn’t kidding, but was a little chagrined. Guys my size aren’t supposed to be good at this shit, let alone champions. It’s speed, sure, but it’s power too.
“Dollar a point?” I was baiting. His beat-ass DEJ T-shirt told me he’d have a hard time paying off a one point victory. “Penny a point,” he barked, “and pride.”
“You’re on,” I said. Just like that, the dozen or so drinkers in the bar snapped to attention. I cracked my knuckles in each hand as the bartender went below for the box of equipment. We moved across the room and the small crowd gathered in close.
“Slap-Jack gentlemen,” the bartender stated as he set the box on the small round table between us. “Local rules — we need a dealer,” Santa grabbed the decks from the bartender’s box, “and we need an official scorer.” A middle-aged woman held up a notepad with a kitty on the cover. I blew her a kiss. Just then, my opponent shook his right hand free of the Stroh’s, and flashed an enormous class ring.
“What the fuck man, you’ve gotta take that off.”
“Whassa matter chump? Think you’re going to take a pounding?” I was too wasted to debate semantics. I really only had one thing left to say anyway.
“It’s ten cents a point now. And you’d better make sure there’s enough ice laying around to cool that fucking ham steak of yours after I pound it clean flat.”
Local rules Slap-Jack is simple. Two decks of cards, one dealer, two men battle to the death. Every time I hit the Jack first, I add up the number of cards under the Jack and those are my points. Then again, if I’m getting to the Jack first, Chubby McFucker across the table is laying into the back of my hand. The strategy is obvious. You hit every Jack, you make the money, but you lose the crown when your right hand gets tenderized past the point of recognition and you ultimately concede. You’ve got to pick and choose your spots to make a play.
I wasn’t listening when Santa gave the instructions. Neither was McFucker. We weren’t even watching when the first five cards hit the table between us, though it was obvious none were Jacks. Seven piled up, nine, twelve. You’ve got to keep mentally sharp and keep track of the numbers, let alone the Jacks left in the deck. Vegas card counters ain’t got shit on me in Slap-Jack. My magic number here was fourteen. Anything past fourteen, and that Jack was mine, punishment be damned.
Santa was flipping the cards from the low corner of the deck, just as we had practiced. I caught the first glimpse of face/no-face before it flipped, and knew on card seventeen it was likely a Jack. I wouldn’t flinch, waited for the moment, and struck.
My palm hit the Jack and an upside-down ring drove itself into the meat of my hand. The first one was always the hardest, and I liked to be the one to receive the pain rather than deliver initially. Call it Slap-Jack rope-a-dope. The dull hammer pain flew up my elbow and Chubby twisted his hand slightly to let the ring dig just a little under the skin as he let it go. I could almost read his graduation year in imprint on my flesh.
“Champ gets sixteen!” Santa announced. Crowd went nuts, I went numb. Chances were good fat boy over here cared a little too much about the money, I saw him flinch just a little and wipe his nose when he found himself $1.60 down. This game was going to run a little while, and he didn’t want to inflict all the damage early.
My next over/under was seven. With two decks mixed together, the Jacks could all be bottom loaded, but chances were better that we’d see another one quick. I hoped I could sandbag this one and give him some payback.
Card five, and McFucker slapped out fast. Not so fast, I could have beaten him there, but I took fifty cents off the end to give him some retaliation. My fingernails were sharp as always, and I whipped into the back of his hand like a scythe. One flick of the wrist and the fat meat slap was accompanied by the cross-cut I had perfected with my old man in the basement. They weren’t brutally punishing like the class ring, more like three two-inch long paper cuts — but deeper.
Chubby felt the sting of the slap, and yanked his hand back, protecting it with his left. He let the right go, and felt the sting in the incisions as the cigarette air picked at the freshly shorn skin. “Fuck,” I heard him mutter under his breath as he saw the blood. Fifty cents of catch-up weren’t worth that.
Six cards later, and I feinted a grab at the Jack, only to pull back and cross-hatch those first cuts with a fresh batch. Fuck the money, I was still fifty cents ahead, and Chubby was bloody.
We played through the rest of the double-deck with the score at +22 in my favor. I took a pounding on more than a couple of occasions, but always found that my dulled and nearly paralyzed right hand was fully operational in the whip capacity I employed, and as long as I wasn’t breaking bones, I was still ahead of the game.
Santa reshuffled the deck, and Chubby moved to get up, maybe to get a towel or rinse his dripping red hand. “You leave, you lose pal,” I said with a smile. “No one takes care of their battle scars until the war is over.” Chubby grunted and motioned for Santa to start the deal again.
One more round through, my hand looked like a sausage patty. I conceded most of the small Jacks to Chubby, but took a couple of big ones in the process. He managed six of eight, but the gap was only narrowed from +22 to +16. By this point my right hand was purple and bleeding from under four of the five fingernails, but Chubby’s eyes were watering badly from the sting of the polluted air hitting muscles and open veins directly. The bruises only hit where I slap/snapped my whip-like fingers on his hand, but the cuts were all over. With precision, I was able to carve almost every square inch of skin off that side of his hand — fingers and all.
I only had one move left to make to finish him. The ring. After every battle in the contest I’d clean out his skin from under my fingernails while watching him readjust the thick metal band, big rock underneath with a wince. The ring was an irritation to him and to me, and I needed to take it out to take him out.
Santa shuffled and started flipping the cards into the pile between us. I was going for the win here, fuck the money. His eyes were greedily observing sixteen, seventeen, eighteen cards passing by without a Jack. I never looked at the deck, only his eyes. Card twenty-two was like slow motion. I saw the reflection of the Jack falling to the pile in his eyes as they widened. Chubby’s shoulder lurched forward, motivating his elbow and bleeding ham steak to the pile. I waited for an instant before reacting, I needed a single strike to end this here.
Chubby’s hand hit flat, the blood from his palm vacu-sealing his hand to the cards. The gem ball of the ring was underneath, and I went after that spot on his ring finger to try to dig the edge of the band deeper into his exposed flesh.
I hit him perfectly. The butt of my palm dropped his finger flat to the table, and the ball of the ring rolled underneath. With all the damage I had done to the back of his hand, I should have known what was going to happen next. As the ball rolled, the band turned into the bone, cutting like a knife through a tomato, and we heard a sickening sound.
Chubby’s hand shot immediately back to his lap as he wailed from the bottom of both lungs. There, on the twenty-two card pile, sitting on top of the Jack was his class ring in a pool of blood.
And his right ring finger.
“We done here?” It was rhetorical. He was wheezing admonitions at me, but it was apparent my picture was going to be staying on the wall. “Tell all your friends, I’ll take everyone on, and everyone out.” My left hand dug fifty cents out of my pocket, and I grabbed the finger off the top.
“That’s plus five for you, here you go.” I tossed the coins, ring, and finger into his lap. “Don’t forget to tip the barkeep.”