by C.W. Mote
James Paul, the termite, begins his nightly sessions by taking lit match to the first cigarette and grumbling to his runner, "This is the last match you'll see me strike tonight," and then he proves his claim by tossing the matchbook with a flabby pitch into the kitchen corner.
The runner takes her time illuminating the cave, loose splinters lining the entrance and the walls crisp beyond burning, as she keeps the fire contained in the jars and feels the aroma rising, transforming the lair into an old country villa. She never has enough time throughout the night to take it in, until late one night, with their reserves dwindling after many ins and outs, she brings him the grave news.
"What did he raise? One hundred? It's...hhhmmmk...nothing but...hhhmmmk...it's chump change, if you mind." On he goes, passing the torch directly to the next stick and shoving the corpse into the ashes, his only exercise aside from talking and turning his head to spit. Decades ago, he should have exploded and let the tar erupt from his alveoli, like any self-respecting man, but he's still there. Still fits well into his park bench, which seats five. Five healthy grandkids that he never got, haaluuumk!
"The box, Sweetums," he signals to her.
"No," she answers, "we've cleaned it already."
"There's a fortune hiding in these drawers!" he persists. "And you'll... hhhmmmk...see about it." A thousand times he's shaken and it never comes out. It isn't a cough, it's a bottled canon, an implosion. Sweetums can't see his face in spite of the Appalachian Dew candles flanking him. She can better identify the table, a wobbly slab of wood assembled from the waste land in the backyard, propping up his heavyset figure.
"There's no more money," she says.
"Go to the middle drawer and you'll see it." He directs her with the stick to the sallow counter. "He's a bluff, don't you worry. We didn't think he'd take us this late, but Franco's a bluff."
She knows it is late when the cave has desensitized her, when she no longer has to wait for her eyes to adjust to the dark, when his internal convulsions become commas to her ears. The walls, unpainted and stripped, might collapse any day. Like Dorian Gray's picture, the house in its black shadows must reflect the dilapidated condition that the termite's lungs should be in.
"Franco always raises me at this stage," he rambles. "He was waiting for the others to drop out, is all. The rest was in it for too many rounds."
She opens the drawer. More candles, these ones boasting a cherry scent.
"No, the next one down," he says. "I knew Frankie back before he knew how to play, you know. And how he used to bond well with your how-d'ya-do before the law took him away? Now this is something we'd had saved for the both of you's. You'll see."
How d'ya do, she thinks, the only connection between the termite and herself. If she were inclined to see the old man's face, she would remember the resemblance between father and son and all the smokes between them.
The discovery in the new drawer stops her: a craftily-designed box with a full-bled advertisement on the surface. The panels are painted a healthier yellow than the countertop. The termite pivots in the bench and drags his seat across the baroque ceramic tiles, grinding the floor into powder, for a better look at the inside, a row of fat cigars separately wrapped and unopened.
"Give that to him," he says. "Don Mantecqua, they're the best brand I have."
She suspects his motives but tries to stall by remarking, with a blunt innocence, "There's no cash in here."
"No kidding!" His manner of hmm-hhhmmmk may be the only substitute for a snicker. "The Mantecquas are the wager. They'll clear his raise by at least seventy-five bucks."
"You know the rules," she says. "Standard betting."
"Stan who? I haven't played Frankie for the hell of it for twenty years. He's bluffing!"
She should gladly take the box on his advice and flee the joint for some fresh city air. A normal session never tops five minutes: name the players, size of the pot, cards in hand, any unusually long faces, aromas, whatever. Between sessions, she's running to report the news one way and return it the other, to leave him slouching and trembling and to return and pick up the pieces. And for her, this session is like every other, but it still feels too reasonably short. There has to be more wick to travel.
"I think we better fold," she says. "We can't wager this."
"Sweetie. Now." Hopping, inching forward, his chins spring from each other and collapse together with every rise and fall. "If I lived by the dollar I would die by it too. I wouldn't have my lumber investment if I thought it had no worth. I'm all ready to trade up in stock once I get a bigger safety net, if you mind." He continues his chain and shoves another butt into the pit.
"Will the lumber pay your bills?" she asks, her radiant eyes getting close enough to his to suspend a bridge between them.
"I don't owe anything. They would turn the lights on if they knew I lived here, hhhmmmk! There's not anyone on this block gets his bills anymore."
"Was it the fire?" she says. "Did they assume that you perished with it?"
The termite cackles. "That would have saved me. If it had done the job."
"Apparently it didn't. You're still here."
He counters sharply: "Shame on you! We would have all been saved, including Mother. She's the one that wanted to see her grandchildren."
"Well," she says, "you don't live by the dollar."
"Come on you, don't leave them waiting," he goes, tuning his coil-string voice like Nero's fiddle in need of repair. "Tell Franco I raise him the Mantecquas. And hurry up. I can't taste anything when I'm this anxious!"
Black clouds feel like gray when she is ready to evacuate. Eleven o' clock. The lights and shades flash and flicker. She takes the box, nothing but a hidden prop, and steps through the kitchen doorway to carry the message.
"And," James Paul adds, and jerks his flimsy right arm with a beckon. After his steel eyes, remarkably unchanging, peer into the box, freezing his dynamic frame, he says, "Tell him they were individually rolled and stuffed in Havana in 1957, which makes them older and worth more than he is!"
"Is that everything?" she checks, but she encounters resistance from his hands. By pure strength she could slip it out of his grasp, but he has the box protected with a fleshy hug. "Go already!" he says, and when he heaves the tarred air from his bosom and spits out the cigarette, the box slips and she almost loses it. After regaining control, she notices how it doesn't feel so pristine anymore, and passes through the threshold and its black cortex, even as the termite barges in all directions and shouts, "Don't drop it! You'll make it half its value!"
She stumbles around the unlit living room and feels her way across the narrower wall by the staircase. She can never lift her legs high and avoids the protruding floor planks by pure luck. Outside, where surrounded by a pair of faceless shacks, one boarded up, she turns right and follows the alley to the street lights in the distance. If she didn't do this twenty times a day, how would she gather any lower body strength? After enough rounds, the scratched cars, the trash and the overturned rust bins blend into the pavement. Two blocks to get to the house, two blocks. Enervated, she walks on nothing but the shredded joy of getting there while her thoughts drive her every place else.
The streets shift, the air exhales from a new corner and life abounds. She enters the house where they have been waiting for her in brazen light. Towers of chips overlooking the center pool, smokes without stains, a fountain of snacks and upright beer cans.
The men glance up at her.
"You never lose a step," one of them says. They don't see the box, as she did when she entered, how agonizing it looked in the light, how ugly it feels covered by clammy sweat, but they notice that she has something withdrawn behind her.
"What he give you? An arm?"
"No. Probably a two-by-four."
She finds her hand of cards, approaches the chair and sets down the box, waiting for the best moment to make the move.
"Hey, we're kidding, honest. Franco raised, now are you still in or are you out?"
At last she must answer, and she shamelessly takes the business route. She feels around for what will get her done for the night, pulls the dollar bills from her pockets, tallies off the one hundred and throws it in the pile, and everyone freezes.
"Call," she says.
Franco barely jumps at the wager, calm and almost drugged. He holds his face like the best of them before flipping over his hand. "Pair of tens," he says.
They snicker, not so much because he bluffed as much as her crushed face reveals her subservient role, nothing but an envoy to the termite, whose only trick in the bag is to never fold. She looks long at her cards but cannot get past the high king, the rest of it a bust. Her pockets always felt lighter, but now, so does she.
Franco surrounds his treasure with both hands and scoops it in. "He needed one more of those, toots. Too bad he hasn't made a pair in ten years. A'ight, who's upping the ante?"She makes it clear that she has made her last run for the night, and even as she struggles for escape she is already floating. "Better luck next time," they serenade to her. "Tell your old man-in-law to burn his house down again!" The hoots and hollers poke but do not burst her; she hitches on to the current and pops like a bullet into the streets. That's the name of that tune, but can it really stop playing? The sights behind the return trip are different. The streets narrow and shift back; she has once again failed to ignore the forgotten. She squeezes the box: it feels stiffer than it looks. It mocks her anger, sneers at her for being held. Still, she is kept nowhere because she did not sacrifice it; she has nothing left to carry.
In the cave his head is leaned over, mouth open, lips offering no resistance to the air, and his arms, once trying to force his body straight, fallen to the sides with the palms turned up. She breaks a yawn from the burning wax aroma above the flickering candlelight. On his rickety shard of lumber, she sets the box and removes two cigars. In a congratulatory manner she slips one into his enormous shirt pocket. As her fingers touch his chest, she smiles and looks with rested eyes at his unchanging tableau. "It's all right," she whispers. "Frankie folded. Now you can pay your bills."
She should feel the shame. But her realm is above the light, not in the flicker.
About the author:
C.W. Mote is a recent graduate of Holy Family University in Philadelphia. When he's not busy trying to break into stardom in the literary world, he works for a home equity consultant and lives in Bucks County, PA.