Outside the bleak microcosm of the medical offices the sun stood tall warming the air. Flint agreed to let Chloe drive him home. No matter how many times he told her that he was an old man she refused to accept it always replying, But you’re an old man who’s also my father. Sixty-two when Chloe was born, Flint had not really known what to do as a father. Somewhere in her late forties, his wife Penelope had interpreted the pregnancy as nothing short of a miracle and insisted on going through with it. He would never forget the day she announced her pregnancy: December 12 1968 – the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Penelope, not a woman of Mexican descent, was a Texas transplant from Colorado’s ranching country. She believed in the Virgin, the myth, the power of Her more than Flint. She had insisted that he reassemble Flint’s parents’ shrine long stored in the attic since their deaths. When he entered the house Flint found Penelope on bended knee, eyes puffy and red.
“What’s wrong?” Flint asked.
“I won $77 today on Bingo. You are 62 years old.”
Flint stood silently.
“I’m pregnant.” She then stood up and leaned into the altar and began counting the rays of light beaming from the sun that framed the Virgin. Penelope counted down Her left side: 77. She then counted the pile of money placed beside the candles and dried rose petals: 77 one dollar bills. Not waiting for her husband’s response Penelope counted the lines of light on the right side of the Virgin: 62. Penelope then pushed a finger into Flint’s chest and ticked off the number of years his body held: 62. “Today of all days,” Penelope concluded and returned to her knees, pulling Flint down with her. Flint was reminded of his father’s lectures about the Virgin, her colonial remnants and indigenous appeal. The numerological wonder of the stars on her mantle arranged the same as the sky over the Valley of Mexico on December 12, 1531 when She made herself known to Juan Diego.
They could afford it and Flint knew it was a decision that he would not be permitted to change so he accepted it like any other of life’s occurrences, with the same acceptance of Penelope’s death four years after Chloe was born. Her cancer had snuck up on her. Flint often thought that for this reason Chloe could never handle talk of his death, of his health with any degree of composure, because talk of him, talk of Penelope really was talk of Chloe, all the same genes, potentially all the same problems.
But Chloe was of her time; the chirping cell phone was testament to that. She squawked into it for a few minutes as she drove. News radio mentioned a bank robbery, suspect on the loose, undisclosed amount of money stolen and moved onto a report about a school teacher teaching the alphabet using corporate logos: Apple Computers –A, BestBuy –B, Compaq –C, and so on. Flint stared out the window, just another person shuttling around from place to place, staring but seeing nothing. He couldn’t tell what he felt anymore. Look at them go, look at them go.
Chloe wanted to take her father back to her place for the rest of the day so he could have dinner with them but he declined. He had a card game that night at the Metro.
Back in his apartment Flint finally had a chance to take a look at his take. He laid out the bills on the TV stand that he took most of his meals on. Arranged the same as they had been arranged in the drawer before the teller removed them, he examined the little stacks before he counted the bills. He leaned back in his tired easy chair and picked at the pocked styrafoam exposed by the fabric worn away from years and years of use. It was the first time all day he felt at ease. An understanding of money eluded Flint his entire life. That’s why he had no problem stealing it. To him it was without value, without worth. Same reason he enjoyed gambling. With his army pension and Penelope’s life insurance Flint didn’t need to worry about money too much. Now that his days were numbered it really didn’t matter. Chloe would get everything he had – the apartment and a good chunk of savings. Her father’s stash would be a surprise though. It was something he collected because he could because it made him feel alive in a world where so much seemed dead.
Flint counted the cash. He started with the ones and moved up: 5’s, 10’s, 20’s, 50’s, 100’s. $3,500 was the final tally. Such a round number for the first customer of the day before the vagaries of financial exchanges unbalanced the figure. Flint creaked out of his chair and went to the bedroom. He moved a few boxes in the closet and pulled out an old Reebok’s box. He always liked the idea of storing his cache in the box spangled with his nation’s colors. Resettled in his chair, the box in his lap, he removed the top. Stacked identically as the bills on the stand, Flint unrubberbanded one denomination at a time, added the new haul and then replaced the rubber bands. The piles cinched up in the middle, bowing the bills on either end up just a bit as if they were vessels to be sailed away upon. Across the River Styx, Flint thought. There was about $10,000 in the box. Flint didn’t bother to count the entire sum. He was tired. With all the bills in place he returned the box to the closet, placed the other boxes on top of it and sank back into the chair and had a long, undisturbed nap.
Her name had been Elena. Early December and Flint’s mother had sent him out to the fields with gifts for the workers, gifts for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Carting a wheelbarrow brimming with cylindrical stacks of gorditas wrapped in pastel cellophane paper he passed out one package to every worker. Some of the small disc-shaped maize-based cakes were still warm, felt as if they grew warmer as the sun slipped behind the hills and the chill grew along with the shadows. Flint’s mother made sure to have one tower of cakes for each worker, the count made multiple times not so much for the workers as for the saint. With one stack left Flint asked who was missing. Elena had gone down to the river. With strict orders from his mother not to miss a soul, Flint left the wheelbarrow and walked to find her. Flat on her back on a washed up log, she balled up like an armadillo when Flint’s boots crinkled brush underfoot. For our little girl he said as he held out the yellow wrapped offering. Elena relaxed, sat up and patted the spot next to her on the log, inviting Flint. They knew one another, and Flint did not hesitate. She thanked him and told him she was resting. Flint nodded. She took the gorditas from his hand; her hand lingered and his nod became a contract bonded by her nod framed by vines of long, shiny black hair,
On this day the shared nods were the extent of the intimacy between the two. Flint’s father, on the day’s final inspection of the fields noticed the abandoned wheelbarrow and found his way down to where the two sat. Once noticed Elena scurried off and Flint embarrassingly moped up the bank where his father cupped Flint’s cheek and told him to get the wheelbarrow back in the shed.
Flint returned to the house. It was filled with the aroma of burnt copal incense. His father stood in front of the shrine, decanting tequila from a jug into two cups. Flint’s father often marveled at the myth of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe emblazoned upon the sleeve of Juan Diego’s cloak. The tilma he wore was woven from the maguey, the same succulent cactus used to make tequila.
“Rio de amor, rio de luz,” he said as he beckoned his son to him repeating it: Rio de amor, rio de luz. Flint’s father placed one cup beneath Her image and raised the other to Her. To Our Mother, to my little girl he said and drank. He then slung his arm over his son’s shoulder, raised his cup to Flint and repeated the toast and drained the cup.
Recounting the dream as he walked to the bar that night, the day overwhelmed Flint. He had not thought of Elena for years. Could she still be alive? Flint knew it was possible but when he considered the fact that most of the people he knew were dead he decided she was too. As that winter had turned to spring and the year’s crop was harvested Flint spent more and more time amongst the workers taking after his father, a white man with Mexican tendencies. One day he spotted Elena a few rows over, her rounded back draped in dirty muslin; he watched her rhythm of pick, pick, pick stuff, step, pick, pick, pick, stuff, step. She would surface at the end of a row of plants and watch him watch her and the nods continued. In the vertical heat of noon that summer the two nodded themselves back down to the river. Flint removed his shirt to rinse the sweat and dirt off. Reaching into the water Elena took the sopping shirt from his hand and wrung it out. She then coiled the shirt and snapped it at him. Flint retaliated with splashes. As she whipped the shirt at him again he caught hold of it and the two pulled themselves into one another. His hands wet he palmed her face; his thumbs wiped dirt from underneath her eyes. She kissed him. She pulled him on top of her. She unfastened his pants. She pulled her skirt up to her waist. She raised her arms over her head. Flint ran his hands up her bare arms smudging the grime, grabbed her wrists and pressed them into the river’s bank, her skin the copper brown of the earth on which they writhed. His skin the white of which these parts still were getting used to.
That night Flint’s skin blistered and oozed puss. He soaked in the tub. His mother rubbed aloe on his back, eliciting winces. Later his father called him over to the altar. Flint wore pants and one of his mother’s light shawls. The incense and candles were lit. Flint’s father poured three cups of tequila. One was placed underneath Her, tucked into the crags of candle wax. He picked up the other two cups and lifted them to Her image and said, Rio de amor, rio de luz. He knocked the cup in his left hand back and set it down. Flint’s father lifted the shawl off Flint’s back and splashed the other cup’s worth of the spirit onto the burn. It stung and Flint flinched. Rio de amor, rio de luz. The two cups were filled again. This time Flint’s father handed one to Flint. Rio de amor, rio de luz. Flint’s father lifted his cup to Her and Flint followed. Rio de amor, rio de luz they both said. “To our little girl,” Flint’s father said and Flint repeated his father. Both of them drank. Flint’s father placed his empty cup back on the altar and patted Flint on the head and left Flint alone in front of the shrine.
Was that when the cancer found me? Flint wondered. The guys were already out front of the Metro by the time he loped down the street. The evening’s first smoke break. Gene stood apart from Darnelle and Jimmy. Nothing new in that, Gene usually was the sacrificial loser at the table. Flint didn’t understand why Gene didn’t call it quits. Gene nodded at Flint as he passed, Gene’s eyes shielded behind his gambling goggles, mirrored black lenses in a thick black wrap-around frame. The way Gene smoked reminded Flint of an overactive oil derrick, rapid violent pulls, one after another.
“Yo old man thought you dumped us after last night,” laughed Darnelle.
“This is all I got,” stammered Flint.
Jimmy said, “Nothing new here.”
Gene squeezed by the three men, brushing against Darnelle and hastily went back into the club.
“What’s with these bald white folks thinking to grow a ratty ass ponytail like him?” Darnelle said. “All pulled back and combed over, even in the projects they got mirrors. Shit don’t he know what we see? Greasy ass curly-cued mess looks like a pig’s tail.”
Jimmy said, “Maybe he thinks it will help him sniff out money.”
All three of them laughed.
“Doesn’t do him much good,” Darnelle said.
“Should we go see how much more money we can take from Gene?” Flint asked. “Oink, Oink,” snorted Darnelle.
Anita gave a big smile when Flint walked in with the other two. They headed straight for the back room; he went for the bar. She had a Lone Star and a chilled glass on the table for him before he had the chance to say anything.
“Worried I wouldn’t see you tonight, Flint,” she said.
“There’s only one reason you won’t see me one of these nights sweet Anita.”
Though she blushed slightly, Anita did not miss Flint’s insinuation. She pursed her lips, little lines on either side of her mouth burrowed into her cheeks. Her face was mostly cheek.
“The guys are beating up on Gene again tonight,” she said.
“He’s left his hat on the bed.”
Anita stood perplexed.
“Old gambling term,” Flint said. “If you leave your hat on the bed might as well not even roll the dice or get dealt a hand or whatever else you want to bet on, gamer’s logic says you don’t do any of it if you leave your hat on the bed.
“The same as saying MacBeth for theatre people. It’s bad luck the play might as well not go on if that name is mentioned.”
“Yep, same idea,” Flint said as he sipped through froth, topped off the glass, drained what was left in the can and pushed off from the bar headed to the back room.
“Where’s your hat?”
“Right here in my pocket,” he said as he patted his hip.
A framed photograph of Hank Williams, a corner-frayed poster of Snoop-Dog and team poster of the Dallas Cowboys were no more a mysterious grouping than the one that sat around the cheap little folding card table where the Thursday night game always took place. Anyone could come into the Metro but not anyone could join the game. Flint served as the elder of the crew, Gene the rookie. A regular at the bar for about two years, Gene had always struck folks as a pushover. He begged to get into the poker game. People told him it wasn’t a joke. No penny ante. Gene persisted until one night a few of the guys sat around in need of a fourth and they knew he was out front waiting for his chance. He jumped at the invitation. He lost close to $400 the first night and kept returning for his weekly fleecings.
Gene, Darnelle, and Flint watched Jimmy collect a pot on a bluffed hand. Jimmy reveled saying “I sure do love to watch myself with all this money in those stupid ass glasses of yours, Gene.”
“My deal, right?” was Gene’s sole reply.
Hands passed and Flint lost and folded early, played distracted. Darnelle noticed and said as much. Flint waved it off but after a few more similar hands Darnelle didn’t question but accused Flint.
“What’s the trouble, Flint?”
Cancer, time, stolen money, feeling too alive were just a few answers Flint mused on but instead he said, “You know I like to keep my troubles on the windy side of things. That way no one can smell them out.”
Darnelle and Jimmy had known Flint close to fifteen years and they couldn’t argue with him. Never been to his house, not really sure exactly where he lived, if he lived with anyone, if he had anyone in his life aside from this motley crew at the Metro. All they knew of Flint Ford was cased in this bar, a frothy, stained, dark dive.
Flint lost $100 fast and called it quits on the game for the night.
A few days between the bank job and now Flint felt full of death. Pregnant with it, en cinta, the same as the Virgin in the portrait. He stared at Her in the candlelight, the very one he had grown up with now out of the closet for the first time since Penelope had passed. Flint raised a bottle of tequila to Her supplicant palms as she waited perpetually, not to receive a miracle but to deliver one. Because in the end is the beginning. The black crescent moon she stood on, making her of this world, had always struck Flint as a grim symbol, the reaper’s rictus grin. The previous night’s dinner at Chloe’s had been too much. Still reeling from Dr. Adama’s prognosis of her father’s condition Chloe made Flint’s death seem just days away. That’s what I can give her, Flint now thought. Devin had provided his usual moment of morose comic relief. With a handful of Flint’s face, stubbled with a few days worth of patchy, wiry white hairs, Devin had told his grandfather that his face felt like his toothbrush when it had been used too many times. Time to throw me out, Flint said. Into the trash, Devin replied playing along. Chloe got up and left the room slamming the bedroom door behind her.
The two had hardly spoken during the car ride back to Flint’s. She pulled up in front of his building and the two sat in silence. I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you, Chloe. That’s why this is all so hard she cried as she lowered herself into his stomach and sobbed and squeezed. He rubbed her back, his tears running over the cancer. It’s all become too much Flint thought. This must end.
Morning light smudged across the streaked clouds. Flint had pulled his pistol out sometime during the night and loaded it with his last two bullets. He would show people what it meant to live, the ultimate acceptance of the idea, the same as Our Lady and Her son. He made a cup of coffee and drank it sitting in his easy chair. He stared at the revolver set alone on the TV table. The coffee passed through him quickly. Out of the bathroom he went to his closet and pulled out his black jacket. He put it on. The morning sky was no longer dramatic. Flint picked up the gun and stuck both hands into his coat pockets. With his right hand he dropped the gun in the pocket, with his left hand he pulled out his black hat, smelled it, tossed it on the bed and walked out the door.
Now they’ll all know how I lived. Why I lived, thought Flint upon entering the bank. He had chosen the closest one to his apartment. No reason to belabor this. The big Roman numeral clock affixed to the wall over the tellers read close to 9:30. Flint made eye contact with a baby in a stroller who reached out at Flint, waved a teething toy and then dropped it. Flint picked it up off the carpeted floor and knew he was ready when he handed the toy back to the child and felt his smooth warm clammy hand, warm in a way Flint could never know again. Look at them go, look at them go.
He drew the gun as he mazed through the red velvet ropes that matched the carpet. The teller screamed and ducked behind the counter out of sight before he had the chance to announce his intention. A sudden panic pulsed through the building, coursed through Flint and he realized he was the conductor through which all of this passed. The electricity made his finger twitch. Flint turned back towards the entrance, the gun pointed up at the ceiling. He fired the two rounds but heard a third and felt it pass through his chest. Smoke drifted from the barrel; Flint smelled incense. Thank you Flint gargled, a mouthful of blood drowning the words.
Flint fell prostrate to the floor. The ceiling’s bullet pocked plaster rained a white constellation onto the black space of his jacket. It was over. Quick as a spark struck from a flint.
The first half of Flint Ford was published May 24th.
Buzz Poole's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square, Kitchen Sink, Paragraph, ISM
Quarterly and [sic]. He is the author of the Mark Batty Publisher title, Playing Cards, a look at the graphic design of playing cards from the 1930s and 40s.