When I was about twelve the kids on my block got the grand idea of sticking playing cards in the wheel-spokes of our bikes. They made a pretty cool clickety-clack sound with each turn of the wheel. If there were enough of us when we raced down the street, our wheel spokes sounded like a battalion of machine gunners going at it full blast on D- Day. We soon copped this cocky attitude about having the cards in our wheel-spokes. It almost made it seem like we were riding honest-to-God motorcycles.
The first day we put the cards in our wheels we rode along the riverfront and peddled our way up to the trace road that ran along the heights of the town. Then we raced back down to the bottom where we put out our kick-stands and hung our arms over the handlebars, all sweaty and exhausted. There was about seven of us. We were winded out but ribbed each other about how fast – or slow – we were in the downhill race.
We gave each other nicknames like Bottle Rocket, Midnight Racer, Downhill Don and Slingshot. They called me Riverboat because I liked to coast down the hill with my legs stretched out and the wind in my hair. They also called me that because my old man liked to gamble. Hell, he was a perv when it came to Lady Luck. He’d place a wager on his own dying day if he could. I bent my playing cards through the spoke of my front wheel in the fashion of a royal flush: Ten of diamonds, Jack, Queen, King and Ace. I put the rest of the cards in the back wheel. I thought it might impress my dad or make him a little proud of me.
I’d gotten the cards from the top drawer of the chester-drawer set in his bedroom. I chose the most worn out pack among the others still in their cellophane wrappers. My dad had about ten packs stacked atop some dirty magazines and the cigar box where he kept an old .22 caliber pistol that he called his peashooter.
I honestly didn’t think he would mind. I’d always seen him play poker with his friends at the kitchen table with a new pack anyway. He’d never sit down to a game with a secondhand set of cards. We lived in a wretched little trailer park near the Missouri River. It was just me and him by that summer. My mom had already left us to go live with her new boyfriend on the Pacific Coast.
By the time I was sticking his playing cards in the spokes of my bicycle wheels we had been so flat busted for such a long time that he stopped going to the horse tracks or playing back-room card games altogether. My mom taking off the way she did was a big blow to him. When the old man wasn’t working he hung around with his low-life friends. They were a bunch of divorced-can’t-pay-child-support-losers just like him. They’d come over on Saturday afternoon with bottles of cheap gin, jugs of wine and beer to entertain the women they met the night before down at the Wagon Wheel, or some other dive in the county.
What always got me was how my dad and his pals acted around these women. For Chrissake, these women already had plenty of mileage on them but they treated them like Hollywood starlets. Maybe that’s why the women came around. They liked being treated like beauty queens, even if it was by a bunch of half-ass deadbeats.
My dad liked music at these cookouts. He grilled hot dogs and burgers for the ladies on this rinky-dink grill he kept chained to the porch. The old man and his friends would put on nice slacks and clean short-sleeve dress shirts open at the neck and josh each other like they were some sort of trailer trash version of Sinatra’s Rat Pack sizzling twenty-dollar steaks at a pool party for a bunch of pretty girls. Some of the women who came to the cook outs had this sad look on their face that the layers of cheap rouge and eye shadow couldn’t hide. It was like you just knew they were waiting for someone to get out of jail.
The day I took the old man’s cards from his room I came home late in the afternoon when he was having one of those BBQs. He was at the grill wincing in the billowing smoke, a spatula in one hand and a sweaty gin-and-tonic in the other. When he saw the bike with the cards in the wheels, he threw the drink down on the ground and ran over to me. He pushed me out of the way and yanked the mud-splattered cards out of the spokes. He was mad as hell and dragged me into the living-room by my ear, smacking me on the back of the head with the greasy spatula.
One of his friends was sitting on the couch with his arm around a fat woman. She was in a tank top and tight-fitting miniskirt. Her swollen ankles spilled out of her cheap white high heels. The woman’s lipstick was smudged from kissing the guy. But when we barged in she acted like her and the man were only watching TV. She had this embarrassed look on her face as she gently tried to put her hair back in place. He pushed me onto the couch next to them. They were nursing beers and the impact made them spill their drinks. My dad’s friend leapt from the couch, pulling at his wet shirts and licking the spilled beer from his hand.
The old man’s eyes were red with rage. He turned to me. He looked like something from a horror movie with the flickering TV screen behind him, spitting out things like you stupid bastard and little shit. Then he started shuffling the cards. He threw them at my face one-by-one like some pissed off sleight of hand. Every time I tried to swat a flying card away from my face he’d kick my legs and tell me to sit still. He had a lot of rude things to say about me and my mother that day. He said I had ruined his luck by putting those cards – for Chrissake those cards, he whined – in the spokes of my wheels. The old man said he had those cards since Parchman where he did time.
The fat lady stood up and tried to get him to calm down. Dad was drunk and there were no words to soothe when he got in a state like that. But the woman kept on trying to talk to him in a low sweet voice, like he was a spoiled child having a tantrum in a store.
He finally blurted out that he didn’t need any lonely old bitches coming around and telling him how to raise an ungrateful kid. The women got pissed off at that. Righteously so. She started waving her hands around shouting at him. She threatened to call the police for child abuse. The woman acted like she was trying to defend me but I just wanted her to shut up too. Dad ignored her and she finally stormed out, slamming the aluminum screen door behind her.
My dad’s friend murmured something about calling him later to see if everything was okay before he followed her out to her car. Some other people came inside trying to get him to stop his ranting, but he just shrugged them off. He made me pick up the scattered cards from the floor so he could flick them at me again. It didn’t matter I was crying. The other partygoers left because of his crazy ruckus. The old man beat me so bad with the belt that night that he had to keep me home from school for three days. Even when I went back to classes, he had to send a note to the gym teacher excusing me from exercising and showering with the other kids. The handwritten note said I had a rash or something like that. It took a week for the green-blue bruises on my ass and lower back to fade. For once the old man felt bad for knocking the snot out of me.
The next Saturday he tossed me an unwrapped pack of cards from the drawer. He said they were for my bike. I nodded, took the cars and rode down the old portage road to a river station where the Missouri emptied out with great force into the Mississippi River. There were towering bluffs on the opposite bank overlooking the white swirling caps atop the sediment-rich waters. It was freaking’ loud. The rivers crashed into each other like two armies. Sometimes when my dad was on one of his benders my mom would bring me here. We’d sit for hours looking at the rushing river with the sun and clouds and swirling birds casting shadows on the waters with their outstretched wings. But she was gone.
I sat there that day with a brand new pack of cards in my sweaty hands and for the first time since she had left I realized how much I missed my mother. I undid the cellophane wrapper on the pack and took the cards out. They were stiff and glistening in the sunlight and had that new smell to them. I shuffled them slowly – just like I had seen the old man do before he dealt out a hand. I flicked each one of those cards into the tumultuous waters before me and watched them disappear downstream. The cards jerked and tossed on the turbulent waters. Sometimes the wind picked one or two of them up just for a second before they pirouetted back down onto the rushing river where the rapids swallowed them altogether.
Tom Darin Liskey lives in Texas, but spent nearly a decade working in Latin America.