Published

Fivers

fivers
image : smithsonianmag.com

When the story was originally available for purchase as an eBook, the publisher wrote a nifty “dust jacket” description: A young man is out spreading the word of the Lord, despite the heat and his own weariness. He comes across a strange couple at a strange house, and finds his faith faltering as their oddly calm demeanor and intimate knowledge of things catches him off guard. Determined, he redoubles his efforts, only for them to offer him a deal – they simply want to play a simple game… First published by Branching Realities in February 2019.

 

FIVERS

by DL Shirey

When I met the Devil his wife spoke first. “Mornin’,” she said to me. Then to him, “Here’s the last of them.” She had on oven mitts and held a steaming colander. Her white hair wasn’t long enough to stay behind the knot of fabric behind her collar, so Mrs. Devil tried to blow the wayward strands away from her face. She rocked back and forth, a little dance of impatience, while she waited for his response. She met my eyes again. I had just approached the porch and was standing on a weedy patch of lawn.

“A bit warm, isn’t it?” I crowed. My enthusiasm hadn’t waned despite the three-day heat wave or the murderous temperatures that kept my partner from joining me today.

The Devil didn’t look at me. A cap’s brim shadowed his face as he hunched over the job at hand, pausing only to point to his left with the blade of a knife. His wife slopped the contents from the colander; white chunks fell and clattered to a plate. Standing below the porch limited my view, but the Devil sat at a low table, a leather apron bibbed his chest. I could see a magnifying glass on a stand in front of him and his hands worked below it.

Mrs. Devil swept the errant curls from her face and motioned me up to join her on the porch swing. It received her weight and swung back with a mournful creak. She placed the colander and mitts between her and the spot on the bench reserved for me.

“Sit, sit,” she said, “Come in out of the sun. Must be hotter than my kitchen out there. And my kitchen is pure hell.” She called to her husband, “Honeybun, be a love and go fetch that pitcher of lemonade in the fridge. I’ve been on my feet all morning. Thank you, sweetie.”

The Devil slapped his knife down on the old wooden table and scooted back his chair, the sharp scrape of wooden legs masked whatever words he muttered. There was a slight stoop to the old man’s back as he padded toward the screen door, as if the collar strap of the apron and his suspenders were enough to weigh him down.

“He may grumble and fuss but don’t mind him, that old Devil does whatever I ask.” There was a light in her eyes when she said it, a mix of affection and mischief.

For being so round in the middle, her legs and arms seemed quite thin, as was her face. Mrs. Devil had no chin to speak of, the lines of her neck ended at a wide, flat mouth. Her lips did not curl as she smiled, but her brown eyes did.

“I’d say ‘what brings you out on such a hot day’ but it’s not hard to guess.” She was looking at the book in my lap. “Can I have one of those?” meaning the pamphlets bookmarking my Bible.

“Seek and you shall find,” she quoted the words written below the likeness of Jesus and proceeded to fan herself with the brochure without reading it.

I confess, door-to-door evangelism is much easier with another missionary; someone who testified on a matter of faith while I looked up the perfect passage in the Good Book. I made my best attempts with Mrs. Devil but she rebuffed me each time I tried to turn the conversation His way. Not that she showed any impatience or anger at my efforts, but she always changed the subject to the wilted daffodils in her garden or the children across the street playing in the cool spray of sprinklers.

I began to think being by myself was a test. Perhaps I had counted on my partner’s presence too much. Carlo would have turned this lull in conversation back toward the righteous path. But it was only me today, with the Lord letting me work on my weakness to help make me strong. I could almost envision myself rising to the challenge, recalling the perfect passage, preaching with enough fire to sway this old woman. Almost.

The screen door banged open and the Devil said something that sounded like ‘soup’s on.’ He set one end of a serving tray down on the edge of the worktable, balancing the lemonade pitcher and three glasses. He moved the magnifying glass to one side and slid the tray fully onto the table. Ice cubes jangled against the sides of the glass decanter. With unsteady aim, the Devil poured three tall glasses, letting ice splash liberally into each.

“Believe we still got some Girl Scout cookies,” Mrs. Devil chirped, “Why don’t you spread a few on a plate, my sweet, and bring some for our guest.”

I declined the kind offer, but the Devil grunted and went to do what he was asked. The hinges of the door bore the brunt of his animosity. I still hadn’t seen the old man’s face.

Mrs. Devil tried twice to remove herself from the porch swing. On her second attempt, I planted my feet on the porch to help push her up. It did nothing but confuse her sense of balance and she fell back onto the swaying bench. I offered to fetch her drink and she was grateful when I did.

The glasses were already slick with condensation, so I handed her a napkin along with the drink. She waited patiently until I went back for mine. That’s when I noticed the Devil’s handiwork next to the lemonade. Closest to me, a dozen or so crude, sculpted cubes with holes drilled on all six sides—dice. On another plate, no longer steaming, were the bleached-white materials used in the making. The worktable, the Devil’s chair and the floor were littered with shards and shavings from his carving.

“Knucklebones,” said Mrs. Devil, “They’re just the right size.”

She had no trouble extracting herself from the swing this time. Sweat rolled down the back of my neck like moisture beading on the glass of lemonade before me.

“You ever play Fivers, young man?” She leaned closer my ear, “It’s like poker with dice.”

I knew poker as well as I knew the harsh glint of morning sun on an empty tequila bottle or the stale breath of a sleeping, unnamed woman who helped me drink it. This was what my life had become before the light of the Lord shone upon me, before I knew the balm of His words could keep me from temptation. Scripture popped into my head and I was about to recite it, when Mrs. Devil said it for me out loud, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”

“Mark 8:36,” I nodded.

“Malarkey 8:36,” she laughed, “Shoot, son, it’s not gambling when you’re just playing games.”

It was then the Devil creaked open the old screen door, adding to what his wife had said, “And even the game ain’t real unless you play with these.”

There was no plate of cookies in his hand. Instead he held an old tin cup, palm over its mouth, rattling the contents. I could feel his look upon me, but I wasn’t interested in meeting his gaze; my attention locked on the hollow clatter coming from the cup. With a deft hand, the Devil upended the tin vessel and slammed it onto his worktable. The carved leavings of knucklebones flew in all directions.

I could hear his thin laugh turn jolly as he withdrew the cup: three of a kind; a trio of fours plus a two and a six. These were dice like no other, the same size as the rough-carved lot, but finished to perfection. Six sides of high-gloss black with pips painted red as a fire truck.

“The game only counts when you play with these beauties,” said the Devil, “But you’re not the kind to gamble. Or are you?”

He swept the black dice into his hand and shoved them into the pocket of his trousers. I finally looked the old man in the face. He had small, round, wire-framed spectacles perched behind a bulb of nose. There was nothing dead in his gaze, as I had feared, his eyes were moist and pale blue, powdered by bushy white brows. The Devil had on a railroad engineer’s cap.

Mrs. Devil interjected, “But since you’re here and the roll’s been played, let’s see if you can beat it. Just for fun.”

I felt danger in her words. And it wasn’t the thought of losing that made me wary. ‘Let’s see if you can beat it’ slapped me in the face, reminding me of all the dingy card rooms in my past. In every one a hand would play out: raised bets would circle around my table, discards selected and cards drawn, more bets to force weak hands to fold, leaving me and one other in a face off. I’d stare at my cards and know the man had me beat. I was certain of it. Still, I had to see his cards and pay the price of another bet just to watch the man beat me; a compulsion to witness my own demise, no matter the stakes.

The word of God was the only thing that redeemed me.

“No, I really shouldn’t,” I answered the woman, “Swore off such vices when I was saved.”

Her lilt couldn’t have been happier if accompanied by songbirds, “It’s only a game. Besides, we’ll use the raw dice here, then for sure it don’t count.”

“Don’t you want to know?” asked the Devil.

He handed his wife the empty tin. Her gaunt fingers plucked up five crude dice that clanked each time she put one in the cup. When the fifth one tolled, I thought I heard something stir from inside the house. My distraction was momentary as Mrs. Devil forced the tin cup into my hand.

“Roll them bones, Bible Man,” she said, “It’s not like you’re bettin’ your stake in the hereafter. Besides, without those black dice you’re not playing for keeps.”

We all laughed, but mine was a forced, voiceless hiss. The only thing I wanted was to caress the leather comfort of my Bible that sat on the porch swing behind my hosts. Then I looked upon this couple in a wholly different light. It was the moment I knew they were devils and temptation their intent. The Light of certainty blazed inside me when I realized this was more than a game.

It was a test.

They were offering a practice game to seduce me, the lure to get me to play for real. The white dice in the cup was merely an ante, just like poker chips tossed on the table before the cards are dealt. Yes, they looked like an old, married couple passing time on their front porch, being neighborly to a stranger on a hot, Sunday afternoon. But they were devils. I could see it by the way his back hunched in expectation, or as she wrung her hands and crowded the only exit from the porch.

Here was the reason for my being alone today, chancing upon this house. It was like Jesus in the wilderness when His faith was tested: 40 days without food, the demon tempting Him to make bread from stones. This was my opportunity to use the Devil’s own game against him by bearing witness to the word of God.

When I peered into the tin cup at the bland white squares with their unpainted pips, a vision came to me: it didn’t matter how the dice fell. I would win, whatever was rolled. My trust was in the Lord who would bless my tongue with eloquence. I had studied the Bible, memorized all the important passages, surely He would turn the pages in my mind and point me to the most inspiring verses. My passion and His words would create an oratory powerful enough to make Mr. and Mrs. Devil pause. They would stop the game to listen, and in this respite God would triumph.

Suddenly, the Devil grabbed the cup out of my hand. He held it high and rattled its contents as trying to shake my conviction.

“Of course I’ll understand if you don’t want to play,” he said in a haughty voice, “We’ll just leave it at howdy-do and let you be in your way.”

And fail the test, I thought. No!

I almost fired back, but the words tasted of acrimony. Instead, I humbled myself to wait for lines of inspiration that I prayed would come. This pause was moment enough for another epiphany: if the Devil didn’t want me to play, perhaps he was afraid the Lord was on my side. So I snatched back the cup, immediately covering the top with my sweaty palm and shook the dice with purpose. I had faith that as the white dice spilled, so would a gospel of perfection; words that would ring with such resolute earnestness that even these two devils would succumb to revelation.

I closed my eyes, not caring about which numbers fell. I opened my mind to divine inspiration and tipped the tin cup onto the worktable: Two pair, ones and threes, dotted fire-engine red. The other pitch-black die didn’t matter. I had lost.

The Devil pulled his hand from the pocket of his trousers, the five raw dice in his palm. “Thought you had me there. If only you’d checked the cup again before you rolled.”

I looked from the table to his hand to his shining eyes. He pushed up his glasses so they rested atop the short brim of his engineer’s cap. “Guess that’s why they call it gambling. And they also say a bet’s a bet.”

My scalp jumped. The knot in my necktie seemed to tighten by itself. My words somehow inched past it, “There was no bet.”

“Ahh, but you didn’t ante up,” the Devil whispered.

“You of all people should know the rules,” his missus chided, “There’s always an ante. Something’s got to be on the table before the game ever starts.”

The Devil cocked one bushy brow, “You’ll pay what you owe, but I want you to think up a proper wager to go along with it. Then I’ll roll you double or nothing.”

Double or nothing. I heard the words echo and the sound was coming from the house. From behind the screen door a drone began, first one voice, then many, intoning those five syllables: ‘double or nothing, double or nothing.’ The room beyond was shadowy, but darker still were the silhouettes crowding the doorway. A young woman pressed up against the screen, suddenly illuminated. She had once been lovely, but her party dress was now filthy and her hair an unkempt pile of straw atop her head. Smudges of old lipstick colored her chin, but her lips were cracked and bare.

“Double or nothing?” she keened, “I got next.”

“Gina, dear, your turn again so soon?” Mrs. Devil said, “You got your dice?”

Gina nodded and held up her own tin cup. She rattled the contents for the old woman on the porch, the clink of dice on thin metal was barely heard above the resentful murmurs from the house. One harsh voice cried from within, ‘it’s not fair, I called next.’ Gina placed her other palm against the mesh of the screen door and pushed it open. Two fingers were missing from her hand, and of the two stumps, one was freshly scabbed.

“Three more chances to go. I’m sure you’ll be lucky this time. You have a wager in mind?” Mrs. Devil looked hard into Gina’s eyes, “Yes, yes. Your first-born will certainly do. That plus another finger if you lose. Double or nothing.”

Then the Devil said to me, “Jules’s your name, isn’t it?” Well, Jules, you’re going to have to wait your turn. We’ve got another player now. Why don’t you take your cup and dice and go wait on the swing. We’ll settle up in a minute.”

The Devil held up one finger, for the minute I had to wait. But we both knew it was also my price to pay for playing; my stake in the game. I pulled back my lips to coax out His words, but felt only bared teeth and clamped jaws. My mind tore through page after page, chapter and verse, but all I found was wrath and vengeance. The words I spat were all mine.

“You said it was a practice game. You cheated and switched the dice.” I balled my fist and took a step toward the old man.

Gina wrapped her three good fingers around my wrist, trying to hold me back. Soon there was another hand, then two more. I looked over my shoulder and saw a line of people pushing past the door.

“What was it your Good Book said?” somewhere behind me Mrs. Devil quoted, “For it was little which thou hadst before I came, and it is now increased unto a multitude.”

They crowded around me—men and women of all ages and descriptions—using their mangled hands to grab me and pin me back. And each held a battered tin cup that rattled whenever they moved.

I looked at the Devil who still had his hand in the air, a single finger pointing skyward.

“It’s not fair. You cheated,” I screamed, but was unable to move.

The Devil crooked up a second finger and held them both close to my face; a question of whether I’d rather lose two. No, I shook my head, and the grips on my right arm loosened enough for me to raise a hand. My index finger was raised in recompense for the original wager.

The pages of my mind went blank. Words failed me.

The arms about me constricted again, and more hands reached around me to brace my raised arm. I used every bit of strength to try lowering it. The rattle of tins and dice filled my ears as I struggled in vain. Mrs. Devil stepped to the front of the pack and held my wrist firmly, then gently patted down the knuckles of my other digits so my index finger remained aloft. Her eyes were soft with consolation.

“First of five chances to win,” said the Devil, reaching for his knife, “That’s why we call it Fivers.”

END

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