by Ace Boggess
The clothes she brought him smelled musty from over a year boxed in his ex’s basement. Blue and gray flannel, off-white tee, cargo pants too similar in color to the DOC khakis for his taste. Mitch still wore his prison tennis shoes. He’d ordered them from a catalogue of permissible inmate goods. They were flimsy, overpriced Taiwanese knockoffs of Chuck Taylors, blue with no cushion so he felt as if he had cardboard taped to the soles of his feet.
So much awkwardness, so much discomfort. Mitch Bunting didn’t care. After a year inside—a year and a half of his life, counting time served on home confinement before his sentencing—he was free. He’d spent the morning lugging his mat, blanket, pillow, and uniform to laundry, then getting a checklist of names signed off to say that he had done this, returned that, had his personal property inventoried: the shoes, two James Patterson books, a CD player with headphones, and half a dozen compact discs, mostly classic rock. When the CO called his name to announce that his ride had come, Mitch smiled meekly but resisted the urge to laugh, shout, or even dance. He still needed to make it through the gates. As with all inmates discharging their sentences, it felt to him as if something still might go wrong.
Silent and anxious, he passed the final gate, walking about six feet behind his sister Elaine. All that was left was to survive the parking lot before he’d be off DOC property forever. When he reached Elaine’s merlot-colored PT Cruiser, he finally thought he was safe enough to speak. “Thanks for coming, El. It means a lot.”
She turned to him, her dome of brown curls bouncing in the valley wind. She stared at him for a moment, and he thought she might scold him. Instead, she grinned and stepped forward, wrapping his bony twenty-eight-year-old body in her pillowed arms. “Little brother,” she said, “it’s good to have you back.”
He returned the hug with one arm, the other struggling to hold his few possessions. “Mmmm,” he muttered. “Lot of life left to live.”
Elaine backed up and squinted at him. She wondered if he meant a lot of drinking. That was what put him here: third-offense DUI—mandatory one to three. If so, she didn’t judge him for it. She’d been pulled over for drunken driving once. She could’ve ended up like Mitch if she hadn’t straightened her life up after that.
Alcoholism was the heirloom in their family. Their parents were drunks who died relatively young—their dad Carl at forty-four from a heart attack, their mom Eleanor at forty-two from a wreck. Their paternal grandparents consumed so much that they kept distilleries in business, and though both were presumably still alive somewhere in the world, their father had cut them off decades ago because of the abuse he suffered.
“So, you’re good?” Elaine said. “Don’t have to check in with anybody? No risk they can snatch you up and send you back?”
Mitch said, “Free and clear. Like I told you, discharge means done. Parole Board had their crack six months ago, but they took a pass. Said I hadn’t done enough time. I figure they didn’t want to chance it with the likes of me. Alcoholics are notoriously bad risks on parole. You know how it is.”
She nodded. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m not about to offer you a drink. Once we get home, you do as you please, but I won’t be the one to get you started again.”
“No sweat, El.” He hesitated. “I’d like to get a pack of smokes, though. You don’t want to know what I’ve been smoking for the last year, or how exactly it got smuggled in.”
“I can imagine,” she said, although in truth, she couldn’t.
“The CO told me there’s a little convenience store up the road where I can cash my check.” He had it in his pocket: forty-three dollars and twenty cents—his mandatory savings from a year working in the kitchen. “You mind?”
“Anything for you, little brother.”
Elaine squeezed her olive army coat tight around her while her brother climbed out of the car. She felt a chill, although she wasn’t sure why. It was warm for February, especially in southern West Virginia: fifty-six and sunny, according to the weather app on her phone now that she had reception. The PT Cruiser’s heater purred on low—not too hot, not too cold. She thought it must be endorphins or adrenaline or nerves or whatever, probably the tension wearing off. She had overflowed with emotions that raced between joy and sadness. Her head fought through all seven stages of grief and whipped their asses. Now, exhaustion set in. It seemed as though calm might never come again. She also thought that if she closed her eyes she’d fall asleep in the car.
What a day, she thought as she watched Mitch stop to talk to a vagrant sitting on a yellow post outside the store. “What are you doing?” she said to no one. “Come on, little brother.” They still had a three-hour drive back to Charleston and home.
The last time Mitch saw this convenience store, he’d been shackled in back of a prison van, his wrists reddened and sore from the locked box that held his cuffs together. He and five other prisoners had been transported to the independent dentist that Boone County Correctional Center contracted with for services. The armed officers sat in front, their massive blue forms like great waves smothering the air. Mitch stared out the mesh-covered window as they passed this rundown gray-brick building with one boarded up window and a sign overhead missing all its letters except for SH on the left and an E somewhere in the middle.
The other cons were watching, too. It was nearly nightfall, and they saw hookers in hot pants and halter tops huddled together on one side passing a cigarette in a circle. Their faces were as rundown as the shop, their makeup either running or overdone. On the other side of the building, several men, white and black, exchanged illicit handshakes. They, too, looked worn down despite their youth as if they’d been at this game for a thousand years. “Man,” one of the inmates said, “this town’s got some broke-ass drug dealers.” Everyone laughed, even the two correctional officers.
Today, at nine-thirty in the morning, Mitch saw nobody from that cast of grimy players. The only person around was a guy in a burnt-orange parka, faded Led Zeppelin tee, and jeans so full of holes they might have been stylish twenty years ago. The man had a gray beard that came to a point on his slim chin. He also wore an orange toboggin like the ones inmates were given.
“Just get out?” the guy said as Mitch passed him, heading for the door.
“The prison,” said the man. He sat hunched forward on an iron post recently painted the color of a dandelion. His arms rested on his thighs. In one hand, he held a deck of cards, the red backs familiar as a brand sold in the prison commissary.
Mitch stopped and faced him. “Yeah. Discharged this morning. How’d you know?”
The man nodded toward Mitch’s shoes. “Seen a lot of those over the years. Better believe it.”
“Oh,” said Mitch. “Right.”
“First thing a man’s got to do when he gets out is change his shoes. Second thing he’s got to do is change his mind.”
Mitch shook his head but couldn’t stop himself from grinning. “You a parking-lot philosopher?”
“Nah,” the man said. “I’m just Clyde T., trying to get by. T for trying, as my mama used to say.
“Well, wish I could help you out, but you know where I come from, so you can guess why I’m here. Got forty bucks to my name once I cash my check.”
“Whew,” Clyde T. said. “You better make that thirty-five. Devil’s got to get his cut.” He nodded toward the front door. “Service charge.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“Anyway, don’t want money. You come back out, you’re bound to have a pack of smokes burning a hole in your pocket. They all do. You’re a … USA Gold? You a USA Gold man?”
“I’m a whatever’s-cheapest man,” Mitch replied.
“Fair enough. Stop by on your way out and let me bum a smoke and a light.” His head rocked back and forth a couple times. He held up his deck of cards and added, “I’m not asking for a handout. Fair deal. Cash on wood. I’ll do you a trick. One trick. Life-changing magic, I promise. In exchange, you give me a cig and some fire. Sound right?”
Mitch shook his head, nodded, shook his head again. “I’ll think about it,” he said. “I have to go inside now.”
“Fair enough,” said Clyde T. “Can’t ask for more than that. You go on in and get your coins together. Clyde T. will be here waiting when you come back out.”
“Finally,” she said, watching Mitch open the front door and disappear inside the shop. She realized she’d been holding her breath as if she were in the audience for Houdini and his water tank, as if the guy in the orange coat brought death with him or menace of another sort. Maybe it was the angular chin and devilish beard. Maybe, she thought, it was how he looked a little like an older version of her granddad from photos she’d seen of him after he came home from Vietnam, long before the bottle took him out of his family’s life. Both thoughts added to the chill she felt as if there were a ghost in the passenger seat fiddling with the radio knob. That coldness dropped from the base of her neck down her spine and centered in her lower back. From there, it built a different tingle in her, and it needed to come out. She glanced around for a restroom, spotting the shadowy walkway on the left side of the building. It didn’t look safe or inviting, but she had no idea how long it would be before she found a rest area or McDonald’s. Turning off the ignition, she stepped out of the car, pushed the lock, closed the door, then tugged at the handle to be sure.
The inside of the convenience store felt colder than the February air. Mitch stuck his hands in his pockets and wished Elaine had found him a coat among the bags and boxes of damp clothes.
He passed a row of coolers on his way to the counter. They covered the entire wall to his right. He’d never seen a shop laid out like that. There were eggs, cheeses, milk, and deli meats, then water and sodas, followed by six-packs and cases of generic American beers, along with a couple shelves of cheap flavored wines.
Mitch stopped to look. The only alcohol he’d tasted in more than a year had been some watermelon hooch his cellmates worked up after the 4th of July when the cooks gave out fresh slices and half the prison smuggled theirs upstairs to make homebrew. It tasted awful, but just a few sips gave him a pretty good buzz. He loved that sensation, that first moment of going from high stress and constant worry to a sudden warmth releasing through his body, allowing him to slump and breathe. He first experienced that as a sophomore at Marshall while his major was undecided and he spent less time studying than thinking about pledging a fraternity. He spent an evening drinking with the Delta boys. He’d tasted alcohol before, though never more than a few sips of his father’s beer. This night, he downed a whole bottle of pinot noir that one of his older classmates bought for him. It was like a bomb went off in his head. The world suddenly seemed to make to sense to him. He felt as if this were where he’d been meant to be: swimming in a warm, bubbling pool of serenity. He didn’t end up joining the Deltas, but the alcohol initiated him into different secrets and rituals.
Mitch loved the joy of being drunk. God, he craved it. Now especially, now yes, now that he was free. He wanted to open a cooler and reach for a pint of Mad Dog, but he didn’t. He’d promised Elaine he’d wait. He could make it another three hours on the road.
“Help you?” the man behind the counter asked. He looked dirty, his black hair in a greasy fade, bags like flattened grapes under his eyes. Blue tattoos sleeved his forearms under a stained white shirt. The man looked at Mitch and must have thought he seemed poor or poorly kept as well, possibly homeless. “You got money? As you see, we got plenty of beer.”
“I … no, no beer. The lady at the prison said….”
The man smiled. “Made it out, huh?”
“Need a check cashed?”
“Sure thing, partner. Store policy’s five dollars for cashing, and I need to see your prison ID.”
Mitch dug the check and ID card out of his pocket, laying them on the counter.
“All righty. Looks like we have us a winner. Need you to sign the back of that thing.” He handed Mitch a Bic pen that looked as if a dog had chewed it in half.
“One more thing,” Mitch said as he signed. “I need a pack of…” He stopped to scan the shelves behind the counter. “…Dorals.”
“Menthol or regular?”
“Reds. Full flavor. And a lighter. Cheapest one you have.”
The clerk nodded as though this scene had played out more times than he could count.
Elaine locked the door to the grimy restroom. The place disgusted her. There was mildew on the mirror, mud all across the floor, squares of toilet paper scattered here and there. At least the hookers had been considerate, she thought, staring at a pile of rubbers stacked neatly in the rectangular wastebasket. The same couldn’t be said for the junkies who’d left needles, some of them rusted from age, in a corner behind the toilet. She didn’t want to think about it. She also didn’t want to think about using this restroom. She held her breath so she didn’t inhale the stink of what could’ve been a rotting school of fish. “Maybe I’ll hold it,” she whispered.
All the same, there was one thing she needed to do in here—out of sight, away from her brother. She opened her checkered faux-leather bag and reached inside. There it was: the airplane bottle of Crown Royal she’d brought along just in case. The time of just in case was now. When she thought about how she’d cleaned up her life, she didn’t mean she’d given up drinking; she’d just given up being stupid about it. Did this count as being stupid, she wondered, deciding it was a gray area. Lifting the bottle, she twisted the cap and broke the seal.
“Brother, how about that trick?”
Mitch thought about blowing straight past Clyde T., but he saw that the PT Cruiser was empty, his sister nowhere around. Stopping, he turned toward the man and said, “Hey, buddy. Sure, I’ll give you a smoke. It’s a happy day for me, so I might as well share it.” He peeled the top off the pack of Dorals. “Don’t need any magic. You can have a cigarette. No charge.” He walked over to where the man sat on his iron post.
Clyde T. shook his head and waved the cards about. “Oh, no. Fair exchange. No robbery.”
Mitch aimed the pack at him but was waved off. “Really, man. It’s cool. Take one.”
“Not until I paid for it.” He shuffled the cards with his clumsy, pale hands. Fanning them out, he said, “Come on, pick a card. Take a sec. You won’t regret it.”
Mitch shrugged with his eyes. “All right,” he conceded.
“All right, all right.” He reached out and eased a card from the deck.
“Look at it but, Lord Almighty, don’t show it to me.”
Mitch did as he was told. “Okay.”
“Now slide it back in there face down.”
Mitch carefully buried the card.
Clyde T. straightened the deck and again started shuffling. “You ready for this?”
“Seriously, I mean it. You ready?”
“I’m ready already.”
Clyde T. kept shuffling. “My hands are busy. I need you to reach into the inside pocket of my coat.” Seeing Mitch’s hesitation, he added, “Go on. Nothing gonna bite you in there.”
Mitch felt awkward about it as if there were something more perverse than a card trick happening. Prison, even for a short time, taught him to be wary and never to trust people’s intentions. One never knew when another inmate might be running a con or worse. “Which side?” he said, a tremble in his voice.
“Right. My right. Your left.”
“Okay.” Cautiously, Mitch stepped forward and leaned down. With a slowness as if he were trying to catch a timber rattler by the tail, he reached under the man’s coat, trying not to touch him any more than he had to. It took a few fumbling seconds to find the pocket, hot and a little moist. He felt the playing card right away.
“Come on, now. Take it out.”
Mitch removed the card and stepped back.
“Look at it. That’s your card.”
Mitch saw a black-and-red-capped jester riding a little horse.
“That’s your card, ain’t it?”
Mitch showed him. “My card was the three of clubs.”
“Then it’s the three of clubs,” Clyde T. replied. “Joker’s a wild card. Like a man fresh out of prison, like you maybe, the possibilities are endless. That card can be whatever you want.”
Elaine returned from the restroom in time to see her brother reaching under the vagrant’s orange coat. She started to yell for him, but when she spotted the playing card, she understood. It was a game, all a game, as it seemed her brother’s life would always be a game. Her naïve little brother had been scammed, she thought. She hoped no money had changed hands.
Reaching into her purse, she found a pack of spearmint gum, took a piece, unwrapped the foil, and popped the stick in her mouth, chewing fast to hide the scent of liquor still burning that familiar brand on the back of her tongue. As she did, she heard the vagrant say, “That card can be whatever you want.”
Family of alcoholics, she thought. We’re all a bunch of fools.
She knew she’d need another drink when she made it home. She’d already fought with her husband Kevin twice about bringing her brother to stay until he got back on his feet. Kevin didn’t like Mitch. Her husband was as straight-laced a man as she’d ever known. He wore a suit and tie, sold dreams from a wide lot, and didn’t drink a drop. He never judged others for it though, unless it got out of hand. That’s why they fought. Mitch had a history of letting it get out of hand, and Kevin knew it wouldn’t be hard for him to take Elaine along for the ride.
“Time to move on, little brother,” she said loudly but without shouting—at least, she hoped she wasn’t shouting. She watched Mitch give the man a cigarette and light it. Then he headed her way. “What was that about?”
“You should see that guy’s card trick,” he said.
“Yeah?” she said. “Pretty impressive?”
“Life-changing magic,” said Mitch. “Not a good trick, really, but life-changing magic just like Clyde T. said.”
Maybe she should see it, she thought, but she’d already caught the reveal. Kind of spoiled it. Besides, she’d performed her own trick. A bit of sleight of hand. She’d made that bottle of Crown Royal disappear. No one would see through the illusion.
ACE BOGGESS is author of the novels States of Mercy (Alien Buddha Press, 2019) and A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016), as well as four books of poetry, most recently I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So (Unsolicited Press, 2018). His fiction appears in Notre Dame Review, Superstition Review, Lumina, The Sonder Review, Flyway, and other journals. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.
Photo: “Four cards” by Nacho Rascón