Fiction: No Hope On The River

March 21, 2018 Fiction , POETRY / FICTION

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Salvatore Difalco




Arnie yapped my ear off, while he peeled a banana. Told me about the Caribbean cruise he went on with his wife. He’d gained a pound a day on the two week trip. The food was unbelievable. He ate steak and lobster twice a day. Midnight lamb chops. Desserts made by a pastry chef from Paris. He kept talking as he ate the banana, right in my ear, the squish-squash of his chewing inducing vertigo and nausea. He only got seasick once, he explained, and just for a few hours. Then he hit the dinner buffet. Last time he went on a cruise he spent an entire week in the cabin, avocado-coloured. His wife thought it hilarious.

“Arnie, you’re up.”

He inspected his hand as though regarding an ancient text. “Call,” he said.

I called, too, even though I held two lumps of horse feces.

Cass followed eagerly, and after him Ammo decided a little mustard would bring out the red in our cheeks and dissuade the pretenders. Fu-manchu and mirror shades, Ammo played the bully well. He relished the role. But his tactics angered me. His leaning towers angered me. I looked at mine. I wanted to cripple him, but I lacked resources. The followers folded in turn and then Arnie said he was there to engage. Even swollen with inferiority, I decided the odds kept me hoping. Without hope there is no reason to move forward. Sicilians say where there is hope there is death. Perhaps they have something there. Cass also wanted to feel alive for a few minutes. His spirit seethed with ennui.

My neck ached. Stress accounted for that. Stress takes its toll on a body. I found Arnie stressful. His banana peel at my elbow stressed me out. His ponytail also stressed me out. Ponytails should be illegal on a man his age—and I’m only a few years younger. I had lost most of my hair in my 20s. A good thing baldness became cool. When I was growing up there were only two bald men in the world, Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas. Now we are many and we wear our baldness proudly.

“Arnie, you’re up. If I have to keep saying your name, I’m gonna lose my shit.”

“Hold your horses. Can’t a man think?”

“Think all you want, on your own friggin time.”

A swirl of isolator vapour tickled my nose. It reminded me of a freshly mown lawn spritzed with clove oil. Ammo held the vaporizer near his chin with a trembling white hand. His eyes rolled back in his head. After a moment, he flung himself forward in his chair and tossed the vaporizer across the green felt.

“Sammy boy, you look moosh as fuck. Haul.”

“I’m not feeling the best,” I said, truthful.

“This will help.”

Cohen across the table had fallen asleep, head on the felt. He also enjoyed baldness. But his face, asleep, resembled a cushion creased by the buttocks of an obese man or woman he had asked or paid to sit on it.

“Someone wake him.”

“Let him sleep. He looks so peaceful.”


“All you can eat!”

The others looked at me with circumspection, not fear. No one feared me anymore, not since all the teeth on the left side of my jaw had been removed due to an infection. Unable to afford partial dentures, I admittedly looked strange. Most found the asymmetry unnerving. My status diminished after the extractions. I seldom spoke now because no one listened to me. I served as a friendly ear for tribulations and summaries of events and situations of which I held zero interest. This had become my new role, but I was unprepared for it.

“No callers? Ship it.”

“You’re full of shit,” Arnie said, adjusting the elastic of his ponytail.

“There are remedies for that,” someone said.

“Did anyone ever tell you your breath smells?”

Arnie reared his head. He looked offended. But he only looked offended. Had he been truly offended he would have defended himself with the wisdom of the crusty old. Instead, he breathed into his hand and made a face like one cleaning a septic tank.

Max, sitting near Cohen, bearded and ursine, shoved Cohen as he leaned into his shoulder. Cohen had been puffing black Romeo all evening, old school with the red-wrapper, but it reeked of petroleum. The narcotic effects of smoking petroleum products have never been fully documented.

I hauled on the vaporizer, immediately hacking. My lungs resisted the hot fumes. I hacked and hacked. Arnie asked me was I going to continue? Today? Cass said he’d fetch water. Ammo sat there smiling, a mangy Cheshire cat, fading in and out of my consciousness as the isolator took hold of my head and squeezed it into a tiny ball.

I felt my mind retreating from my frontal lobe. That is to say, it sat back on its heels as I took in the hazy room. A flat screen flickering behind Cohen and Max featured men and women fighting. I watched a man in slow-motion knee another man in the face. Surprising he didn’t kill him. Almost killed me to watch. Fighting repulsed me, and yet I liked it.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Arnie said. “Have you? Have you seen a ghost? I see ghosts all the time.”

“Arnie’s one of those,” Max said, looking up and wagging his eyebrows. “But, let me tell you—other day saw a cigar-shaped UFO. No guff.”

“Where’d you see this thing?”

“Near my house. Think it followed me home.”

“Someone do something!”

“Yeah, what the fuck is this, a therapy session?”

People beheld their holdings. I handled horse droppings again. All night like that. And some nights are like that. You find yourself thinking, When are my cowboys coming? Or my pretty ladies? I would have been over the moon with a couple of hockey sticks, fuck sake. I drank the water Cass brought and it tasted like rust. I looked at it. Could have passed for iodine.

Cass apologized with a bow and made excuses like I cared about his excuses. Let the water run, I thought, but said nothing. He darted off to the kitchen for another try at it. Sometimes it takes more than one go to get things right. Arnie leaned to me and whispered something I did not understand.

“Repeat that,” I said.

“I can’t,” he said, tapping his head. “Ha, I forgot what I just told you. Crazy thing.”

“The isolator impairs short-term memory.”

“Yeah, I heard that.”

“Deal, for fuck sake. What’s he doing? Get off your phone, Max.”

“It’s my mother.”

“It’s his mother!”

Laughter burbled like a saxophone septet confronted with lemon-suckers. Someone slapped several mules. The resulting brays added to the eruption. All men are not created equal, but all men have mothers. All men are sons of mothers. I looked at my holdings. Two radiant black bullets make even the saddest sack pull up his pants and tighten his rope belt. Feeling foxy, I slow-played, glancing at Arnie’s ponytail and wishing to lop it off. A pair of bright scissors would have sheered it cleanly. I thought: How he would dance, then. How he would dance.

Ammo said he would come along for the ride, pallor notwithstanding.

“You’re not going white are you? Fellas he’s going white.”

“I’m not going white,” Ammo said with lidded eyes

“Who’s up? Yo!”

Cohen had awoken abruptly and needed a moment to sniff his fingers and look at his hand. He studied it for an interminable length of time before entering the fray. His upper lip twitched, indicating superior holdings. So far so good, I thought, on the tell side of things. You sniff out these tells in the live variation. Sometimes the neck veins bulge. Sometimes the panting begins, flushed cheeks, shaking knees, sweaty palms. You would run away from this man in a plaza, were he to approach you. Max’s disgust made him want to inflict pain upon us and our families, so he said he would also join the fun.

Impossible things happen when you least expect them. The world, aye, the universe, is a marvelous carnival of violent, random collisions. For now, as I glanced at the crooked flop, another bullet sat there, red, already bloodied. It fit in nicely with the plan to take my colleagues by complete ambush, to be pythonic in my embrace of their egos and wish-fulfilment. To crush them without pity. The dangers of red never slipped my attention. Red of the wrong suit could destroy my aspirations. Two hearts and two hearts leave the draw to the gods for a fifth and a flush to bloody my citadel.

Pale Ammo, on a heart draw, played coy, even after I hammered him. The others fled like thieves discovered stealing big tomatoes from somebody’s garden. We were all there once, roaming through the vegetable gardens of our innocence. Then we grew hair on our privates and saw the world as a pair of thighs and breasts to be surmounted. How ugly we became. And now, degenerate, effete, we caterwauled to each other about our respective misfortunes. Arnie said something in my ear again and had my ear possessed razor sharp teeth it would have bitten off his nose and spat it back at him.

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

“Keep thinking, it won’t change the way things go.”

“No force can keep the inevitable from happening.”

“They say that brain function and consciousness are tied to universal energies.”

“Duh, like they discovered America or something.”

“No kidding. That’s more of that fake science they peddle to the masses to keep them from thinking for themselves.”

We all understood the parameters of our limitations. But sometimes willing a thing to happen and achieving a favourable conclusion reinforces the false presumption that the power of mind is all that. But nothing is further from the truth.

“Call,” Ammo intoned like an anemic monk in a monastery summoning the choir.

“Ammo calls.”

We are subject to the laws of entropy. Disorder is natural. Disorder will prevail. In time, the universe will stretch out and cool off. Everything will come to a grinding halt, even time itself. But at that moment, at that table with these men, the irony of the world kept me rooted to its reality. When the heart arrived, as feared, or as desired, it came with a heavy thud. All eyes documented the savagery. All eyes—brows superficially arched with pity or concern—cloaked their true emotion: schadenfreude.

Yes, we are not happy! Yes we are not happy! cried the little voices in my head. And tears that came to my eyes were lost in the haze of vaporizers.

“Deal the river.”

“Deal the river, man, it’s getting late.”

There was hope on the river?

There was no hope on the river, a moment later, when nothing paired. Nothing paired and I felt the life-force draining from the top of my head, not from the feet as one would think. It is a light energy, this force. It rises into the ether like hot air tinted slightly blue or pink.

We live to win, whether we believe that or not. Winning doesn’t obviate all suffering, but losing confirms our greatest fears: that we are losers. We cannot win. Take it with a smile, good sport that you are, but the eyes reveal leftover embers of hope, ever darkening.

“Running bad no fun,” Arnie said, chucking peanuts into his mouth.

Ammo, like a snake who just swallowed the tail of the rodent he earlier asphyxiated, licked his lips and half-shut his eyes, settling into a digestive somnus. Yes, life can make you feel like that, and when it does you have no one to be thankful to but the stars, and the random jitters of quanta driving this hologram.






Salvatore Difalco

Salvatore Difalco is the author of four books. He splits his time between Toronto and Sicily.

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