We gathered under the willow, just like always, and Billy broke out the cards.
“So, ah, what it’ll be amigos?” He said, shuffling with his smooth-skinned hands.
“Hey, Chiefy, d~ju bring the firewater?” Mikey asked me.
Chiefy, that’s what they called me. It wasn’t my name, but who lives in their real name anyhow? I got the name after Chigger visited. Granma was sitting on the porch, skin wrinkled like an old oak, eyes open wide like two flaring black tunnels that lead to nowhere. She had the scars. But then again, so does every one if you look close enough. It’s in the eyes. Aunt and Shelly were coming up from the river, hands full of laundry, dripping soap and dirt, mouths open. Mamma was weeping in the corner, under a lamp. Her and her wine. We ran up the rickety stairs to the attic and Chigger looked around and around. Then turned to me and said, “You’re an Indyun, ain’t cha?” and I said, “Course I am, I’m the Chief.” The next day, I went into town and everyone called me Chief and I figured Chigger~d probably told them about me. So, now they call me “Chiefy.”
I pulled the bottle of wine I’d found under Mamma’s bed from my shirt. Opened it and said, “You guys got glasses or this goin’ raw?”
“Raw!” They shouted in unison, the sound reminding me of Mamma. Some night, those nights I felt most alone, staring at the fog rolling through the cornfields, I heard her screaming that word. I imagined her thin pink lips pulled open, stretched and that word rushing out from beneath her tongue, right above where all the spit lays. Just as the man beneath would whisper something, that word would fly out and hit him unexpectedly. Like he’d never heard it before.
I passed the bottle to Cho, taking a deep gulp, wrinkling at the sour-sweet tingle.
“Well?” Said Billy as the bottle reached him. “What we playing?”
“Blackjack.” Said Mikey, his eyes glazed. Mikey was older than all of us. A hard-core like his father. He laughed at us when we got drunk, maybe ~cause we always got drunk quicker than him. It was his trophy. His right to leadership. “And are ya gonna drink this time, Billy, or not?”
Billy scratched his hair, fine black silk, and shrugged.
“Mamma’s…” He mumbled. “You know she keell me if I do.”
“Mm-hmm. We know all about mamma, Bee-lly.”
“Bee-lly.” His mom called him that. Every night around six, you hear her thickly, accented voice, smooth and strong yelling, “Beee-llleeee! Bee-lly es time four deener. Beee-llleee!” He said she was a “beetch”, but I figured anyone who feeds you ain’t all that bad.
We laughed. Had to, alcohol was the rite of passage. I’d gotten in about a month after my twelfth birthday, Cho and Chigger a couple years later.
“So how much we playin’ for?” I asked, Mamma would probably notice the missing bottle.
“I, ah, I got ten bucks.”
“Chigger, you cheap-ass!”
Chigger never had any money. Worked a lot, more than the rest of us though. At a little grocery store on the other side of Cheyenne Rocks. Spent his weekends there cause his dad had lost his job and hadn’t gotten around to finding another one. Lazy man, I thought. Ugly, little man dressed perpetually in a t-shirt and stained boxers. Chigger looked up to him though, told us that his Pa supported everything he did, even the guitar lessons, and that was real important seeing as how they didn’t have much money and his Pa could be bitter, right? Still, I thought the man was waste of flesh, he stunk, he drank, never even set a foot outside their trailer.
“What do you got, Chiefy?” Cho said, a thin line of wine running down the side of his face. A red ribbon against stranded in the white sands of a desert.
I’d found it in Mamma’s big coat as I was walking out. She had a whole stash of bills, all crumpled up and stained with cheap wine.
Mikey and Cho threw in their twenty, Mikey’s all in wrinkled, old ones and dirty change and Cho’s a crisp bill. Billy began passing out the chips just as the wind thickened.
We played two hands before we decided to use the chips, Cho winning both preliminary hands. The bottle was half-empty as we were about to start for real and Billy picked up the cards, sliding them through his hands, long finger nails rubbing against each one.
“Hey Billy, ya wanna take a sip? Dealer gets the first one.”
He frowned, eyes dark and looked at us. We stared at the grass and fidgeted with our chips.
“Yeh, sure. Course I em. Mamma can screw heerself.”
Everyone laughed. Even me. The rite of passage. Growing up, leaving home, living alone, they were all wrapped in that bottle. It’s called being a man. Pass the rite, drink the drink and you’re a man. A man who still thinks and feels like a boy, but a man nonetheless. You can go riding out through the cornfields alone at night when the fog’s as thick as your bedroom’s sheet, just not as comforting. But you’re a man. Ride out to some random bar and see all the other men. Watch them smoke and laugh, big hearty, lumberjack laughs and hear them talk about women. Listen to them talk about this tall, dark glass of wine whom they’d met the other night. Listen to them talk about how she gasped and begged for more and how there was this old lady sittin’ on the porch staring at the sky and when they left in the morning, same old lady was still sitting there. Hadn’t even moved, eyes still to the horizon. Yeah, a man can do anything.
And he took a gulp and frowned as his first taste of alcohol slid down his throat. “Yeck!” he sputtered and we all laughed at the Mexican boy holding the cards named Billy whose Mamma called him Bee-lly and whose father worked at the local fabric company and came home every night to have dinner with his family. Laughed at the funny, stupid face of Billy as he began to feel the warmth in his chest after the second gulp. And we played cards.
Billy left drunk, real drunk. Hit his head on one of the branches, staggered home. You could smell him, drunk.
The next week when we gathered under the willow tree, Billy didn’t come. Or the next or the next. When Billy finally came again, his eyes were silent and he told us his Mamma had whipped his hide. Laughing quietly as he told us. He didn’t touch the bottle I’d found in Mamma’s closet, didn’t even look at it. And we said nothing. Nothing to the boy with the cards cause he was still a boy and we couldn’t steal him from his mother or her funny accent.