Holdout Man

by Naben Ruthnum // from issue 1. Vol. 2

Naben Ruthnum
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Brooks laid his hands on the card table, as he was told, but he couldn’t follow the next order right away. 

“Peel your fingers back. Off the table. But leave your thumbs there. Right close and next to each other, so I don’t have to chase them around.” Uncle was the only name that Brooks had been allowed to use on the man, but people referred to this legendary game and room as “Dodo’s Pitch.” Brooks had nothing to identify the other five men in the room. No names, and he wouldn’t remember their faces with the alcohol and coming pain standing between the next morning and this night. And there’d be no one to tell, anyway.

Uncle pulled free the squat handgun that was stuck to the bottom of the table, tearing the lingering electrical tape off the barrel and holding the gun by that uncovered stickiness while he emptied out the bullets. Two of the other players, absolved of their own steady losses throughout the night by Brooks’s flub, had become instant enforcers. Each held one of his forearms steady.

“Get the rest of those fingers off,” Uncle said, testing the heft and swing of the gun against the air, as though he was unsure whether the small machine could function in the way he needed it to. “Or keep them there, fine, make it tougher on yourself.” Uncle went paternal, even putting a little placeless brogue into his speech. It jarred against his dark features, but other than the skin, he did look pretty much like a white guy. Some Indians are Aryans, too. Brooks remembered that from school, the ones from the north of the country. 

“If it was me, which it never will be, because I am no cheating fuck, I’d take my fingers off,” Uncle went on. 

“Fuck you, Dodo,” Brooks said, then curled his fingers down as the gun butt descended. Spittle from Uncle’s cursing flew into his eyeballs as Brooks arced and twisted from the pain, keeping his thumbs still to be pounded into wet-leather flatness, wondering if Dodo would push bullets into the gun when this part was over. 

He didn’t. One of the other gamblers even drove the unconscious Brooks to the hospital after they were done, leaving him in the parking lot with a pair of deerskin gloves pushed into his coat pocket. An incomplete joke. Brooks was an American with no travel insurance in a Canadian hospital, two of his digits looking like un-inflated party balloons, the X-rays showing them as pieces of chalk stomped to fragment and powder. They found a way to fix him up partially, and he left a few days later. Full of Percocet, the dead flit and grace of his thumbs mummified. Brooks asked a nurse to cut the too-large gloves open so he could fit them over his casts and exposed fingers, then walked to the train station. 


Brooks did his best to sleep out the hours of the trip to North Brunswick, in Jersey. Unwilling to complete the trip as the stops ticked closer, he got off in New Brunswick instead, and endured the disinterested, cautionary, or hostile stares of black men as he walked up George Street. It was about 9:15 at night, and he thought about going into a bar and getting a beer. “With a straw,” he practiced saying, rubbing an itch on his eyebrow with the back of his glove, wishing he had a free fingernail. The silvered thumb-casts were stiff, huge, vulnerable. Some of the guys eyeing him looked to be his age. Ten years ago he’d probably gotten into weekend fights with them, during those memorably violent clashes that the various neighbourhood gangs had organized the summer after The Warriors came out. 

In the doorway of one of the bars, place called
Cochise, a couple of guys wearing Adidas tracksuits under heavy wool coats lipped cigarettes that they didn’t seem to be smoking much. They watched Brooks walk over, both grinning. Brooks could have added to his injuries by uttering less than five words, but he waited to hear what they were going to say. The smaller of the two, who looked to be about twenty-one, Miles Davis dark with an interrupting yellow flake of french fry on his right cheek, gestured downward. 

“You want those tied?”

“No,” said Brooks, looking at the slush-marinated laces dragging alongside his boots. 

“No shame,” the kid said. “My mom got arthritis; she asks people on the street all the time.” Both of the men in the doorway laughed at Brooks, with a fairly minor degree of malice. He asked them an unnecessary question about transit to North Brunswick, just to be able to say something before walking right back to the train station. One guy told him while the other stooped, insisting, and tied Brooks’s shoes.


It was late, so Brooks decided not to ring the bell, instead approaching his mother’s garage through the side door, which involved getting the key from beneath the trash can. It was complicated, doing this without making noise. He had to nudge the can with his shoulder and extend his index and middle fingers as though he were making a move in rock-paper-scissors. The gloves were in his mouth, and he scraped at a frozen pool of garbage juice with his nails to liberate the key. When he had it in his grasp, slimed with melting scum, his mother walked past wearing a puffy Gore-Tex jacket over her housecoat and opened the door. Without looking much at him, without noticing his hands, she told him there was a cot and a space heater inside, to come into the house sometime after noon and they’d talk. The coat made her look even thinner than she was, belling grotesquely beneath her long, unwrinkled neck, the face mostly eyes in the glare from the security light that splashed off the snow around them. 

“Thanks,” he said.    

“Sure. Tomorrow. We’ll talk.”


There was a bathroom in the hallway that the garage opened onto, and Brooks used that the next morning, showering with his hands held above his head, keeping the bandages dry. The pain in his thumbs glowed white and sharp, but he told himself that was just healing, that it’d hurt a lot worse when he took the cast off and started stretching them back into their old, dexterous shape. He’d sold the painkillers the hospital had given him outside the bus station in Montreal, knowing they wouldn’t make it across the border with him. When he got out of the bathroom, there was a plug-in hotplate and a case of Kraft Dinner sitting on the cot in the garage. An anti-invitation to breakfast, lunch, dinner. He could hear his mother using the last of the hot water for her own shower, upstairs, and got to work peeling a macaroni box open.


The Sorceror’s Hut looked the same, maybe a little more crumble in the paint, but Brooks had rarely taken a good look at it in the morning. It was nights he’d spent here. He got the door open on the second try and asked for Cliff. Not in.

“Sold up,” said the man at the counter. “Fell down the basement stairs and busted both legs, decided he didn’t want the place anymore.” He had a deep voice that lacked any toughness, a rumbling timidity coming out of his torso, which was appliance-thick with settled fat that looked to have been layering on since the man’s childhood. There weren’t many bodies like this in his Montreal years, but they’d always been all over Jersey. 

“Was he drunk when he fell?”

“I dunno. Does he have something of yours?” A reedy black kid, about thirteen and wearing a huge Megadeth hoodie and what looked like tuxedo dress pants, watched Brooks and the guy talk, not doing much to conceal his eavesdropping. “Something of yours” was part of the stupid, transparent code for weed dealing that Cliff had jettisoned when he and Brooks had cut ties with the distributor and started their own grow-op four years back, in ’84. 

Brooks shook his head and thought about Cliff’s body thunking down the wooden steps and onto the cement below. His depth perception had done it, maybe. And the weight he’d probably kept putting on, torturing his rickety knees.

“Nope, I just wanted to pick up a couple prepped decks. I can’t do the work myself, right now.” Brooks held up his useless hands, unnecessarily: the man
had been staring at the thumb holsters since they’d started talking. 

“We don’t sell those anymore. Cliff made them. They’re all sold out now.”

“Alright, just give me five ordinary ones, then. Bicycle.”

“They’re behind you.” Bongs and used cassette tapes had slowly been overtaking the stock. Dungeons & Dragons stuff, too. The black kid was probably here for that.

“Help me out?” Brooks tapped the boy on the shoulder, gestured toward the playing cards. The kid picked out five decks without being asked, put them on the counter. 

Brooks took his wallet out from his inside coat pocket with a two-finger grip, brushing one of the thumb casts against his chest as he extracted the lightly packed fold of leather. Pain, a profound,
vicious bolt, thrummed along the pebbled bone and up through his arm.

“You got a scrip for that? Percocet?” The counterman looked more financially interested than concerned.

“No. Look, I’ll give you an extra twenty if you let me go into the basement for a few minutes, alone,” said Brooks. He could feel the kid behind him listening intently to this, and knew he’d be waiting in the store for as long as Brooks stayed.

“What? Why?”

“Old friend of Cliff’s, wanting to have a moment of reminiscing, that’s all. Expected to see him today.” 

“He’s not dead, pal. He does live out near Elmgrove cemetery, but he’s not in it. I’ll give you the address, it’s ten minutes out.”

“I know where he lives, but I’d rather go downstairs. Twenty bucks for ten minutes. I know it’s a little weird. But we used to work together, down there.” Hating himself for it, Brooks added a wink, figuring that a nudge to the grow-op past of the place would grant him enough petty-criminal camaraderie to get him down the stairs. It did, but the counterman still took the twenty bucks. 

The basement looked, as Brooks had hoped, much the same as it had on January 3rd, 1985, the day after the two Italians, so low-level that they hadn’t realized they weren’t really mobbed up and never would be, ripped the op out of the walls and ceiling after bagging all the usable product and handcuffing Brooks and Cliff to pipes, so they could watch. Carlo and John D’Angelo,
brothers. They started running a deli in Brooklyn around the same time Brooks crossed up to Canada.    

Brooks walked to the back corner of the basement, just under where the counter would be upstairs. It was piled with dead stock: unsellable, discontinued tricks and out-of-print books. Silk to Egg. Gilbert Mysto Magic. Learn How to be a Handcuff King and Mystery Man. Buddha Money Mystery. Wonderope. Looking at the boxes and bindings, paled to autumn colours under years of dust, Brooks thought they’d probably be worth a good amount of money to collectors. The guy upstairs was too dumb to think of that, if he was dumb enough to let Brooks down here unsupervised. 

In the smash-up, Carlo had worked on pulling out the fixtures after crushing the bulbs, while John uprooted plants and stuffed them into garbage bags. It was almost harvest time, so they were getting good product, in quantity. When John was done he sat around bored, watching his brother pound the walls apart and tear out the electrical guts of the operation. 

The walls down here still gaped with shocked holes and protruding whiskers of copper wiring. Brooks used his forearm to shift a column of boxes, stabilizing the stack by bracing it between his body and the wall. He wanted to get at the four Platt & Munk Houdini’s Magic Kit boxes below. Specifically, the one second off the floor, which he and Cliff had triple shrink-wrapped with the machine upstairs. An eternity of maneuvering freed it. Brooks kneeled, immediately feeling the dense cold of the cement floor communicating with his shins. He scraped at the layers of plastic with his fingernails. 

The top layer of the package was the booze. A flask, leather-wrapped stainless steel. Contents Remy Martin VSOP, a syrupy ash-tasting liquid that focused its effects on the right frontal lobe, settling an amber clasp that gradually extended into a golden spoke to the back of the eye: the morning’s hangover. Brooks and Cliff had drunk the companion bottle the night they’d packed the bottom of this box with the proceeds from the sale of their second harvest. Around eight thousand. Maybe $8,700. Brooks couldn’t exactly remember, but he was surprised to find all three flat rubber-banded bundles of cash just where they’d left them, a few months before John and Carlo had taken the operation out of the shop. 

“You do that clown shit at parties, right?” John—a short guy who’d played trombone in the same junior high jazz band that Brooks played trumpet in before they’d both dropped out—spoke softly, faking menace that felt real enough to Brooks. He talked to Cliff between his brother’s yips and sledgehammer blows.

“Magician shit,” Cliff had answered. 

“You did my niece’s,” John said. “I remember, last year. You had a fag shirt on.”

“Sure, sounds like me,” Cliff said. He could have slipped the cuffs that anchored him to the pipes and Brooks, but there was little point in doing that while their two steroid-mainlining keepers were standing a few feet away. 

“Had an eye patch, too,” said John. Carlo was swinging so regularly and often by now that John wasn’t able to wait for pauses, and had to speak up. Brooks turned away and watched the carnage, pulling against the cuff on his wrist.

“It was a pirate party, yeah,” Cliff said.

“I thought you had just the one eye.”

“I do, plus another one, you dumb wop fuck.” Cliff didn’t do defiance often, and he’d chosen the wrong time. John took out his keys and Brooks started screaming for Carlo, the louder and saner brother, who dropped the hammer and ran over when it was already too late. Cliff’s disrupted eye was leaking all over his cheek, along with too much blood. Carlo pressed the handcuff key into Brooks’s hand and the two brothers took off with the sacks of weed. They’d been acting on orders from no one, since Brooks and Cliff had been doing everything right from the beginning: checking in with the family before they started, kicking up a percentage when they started to sell. 

Carlo and John had taken a brutal beating for what they did, and lost their New Jersey rights. Couldn’t do anything out here other than come back to their mom’s house to eat, on penalty of taking a bullet from a real member of the family they’d wanted in on. Brooks had driven Cliff to the ER and left him there, without coming back to visit.

 When Cliff was out, wearing an eye patch for real, he asked Brooks not to come around the store, or his house, anymore. The grow-op had been Brooks’s idea. Cliff just wanted to sell card tricks to kids and the occasional dimebag to teens. The fact that the stash was now in Brooks’s hand showed how sour Cliff was on the time. Wouldn’t even touch the money.

“Moron,” Brooks said, putting one packet of bills in each of his outside coat pockets and nestling one next to his wallet. He walked up the stairs that Cliff had fallen down. Back in the light of the store, he beckoned to the black kid. 

“Want to make twenty bucks?” He picked the
bag of Bicycle cards off the counter and ignored the counterman’s questions. When the kid hesitated, Brooks said, “Fifty,” reassured him they were only going to public places, and they left together. 

After a stop at the modelling store for an X-Acto knife, which he let the kid carry to make it clearer that he wasn’t going to be murdered, Brooks bought him a cheeseburger at the Tack Diner. Brooks got soup, which he could eat by holding the spoon in a complicated three-finger grip. When the food arrived and he saw how greasy it was, he told the kid to finish eating and wash his hands before touching the cards. The kid inhaled the food as though he hadn’t had a meal in a couple of days, but it was either an act or normal teenage eating. To pass a few minutes, Brooks told him a version of the night that had gotten his thumbs ironed out.

The boy, Martin Press, looked like money, despite his weird outfit. That hoodie and the slick dress pants didn’t have any pilling, and the Megadeth logo was smooth and uncracked. 

“Are the brothers listening to thrash metal these days?” Brooks asked, pointing at Martin’s shirt.

“Not really.”

“So do you hang out with a bunch of white boys, or just spend your days loitering at magic stores?”

The boy stared at him, then got up to wash his hands. When he returned, Brooks let him open one of the decks of cards and take the X-Acto to it. 

“Follow the wheel spokes. A notch here, then one there—that’s for the suit, that’s for the number. And understand, anyone at a professional table or any table where bets of over ten bucks are being made is going to recognize that kind of fixed deck within a couple of hands. This is strictly for amateur games, where you’re ripping off your little friends. The ones who trust you to use your own deck. If you ever try to cheat in a casino, or a high-rolling underground game, you have to be better at cheating than everyone else at the table is at seeing. You have to be better than me.”

Cliff Freese had been a friend to Brooks, before they started doing any illicit business together. Gambling cheats, good ones, had finer sleight-of-hand skills than magicians, and Cliff wanted faster fingers, better misdirection. They swapped cash and lessons until Cliff was almost caught up, and they were
certainly friends. Brooks stopped charging him in cash, just letting him buy their drinks. If you could make the cards work for you when you were a little buzzed, you could make them your slaves when you were sober. 

“I don’t like that talk,” Cliff said. “You don’t dominate the deck, you work with it.”

“The cards won’t be there for you unless you force them to be.” They could have this dumb fight for hours, past the Pabst of the early evening and into the Remy after midnight. Cliff insisted on working up to the good stuff, and by then they were actually talking like themselves, even if they were still mostly sober. The blame for the eye wasn’t on Brooks, he refused to take it, and that’s all the hospital visits would have been about if he’d gotten around to making them. He’d wanted to skip over those fights, but instead they’d stopped talking, and then Brooks had left.

“Martin,” Brooks asked the kid, who was deftly marking up the six of diamonds. “Are you a cards guy to begin with? Gambling or magic?” Brooks pressed his left thumb cast into the protruding bundle of cash in his pocket and almost fainted from the pain, but anchored himself to consciousness with a smile and bitten cheek. 

“Neither. I go to the den to look at the tapes up by the counter when they get new ones in. Score weed sometimes, too. Why?”

“I figured you left with me because you thought I could show you something about card handling.”

“I left because you gave me fifty dollars and it doesn’t look like you could do much to hurt me.”

“Let me tell you what was going to happen. You’re, what—thirteen? Fifteen? Fifteen. I was going to teach you a few simple cheats, over today and tomorrow, then tell you that I couldn’t get into any of the local games anymore, that they all knew my face and I had a ban. That only the black-run games have no idea of who I am, and you’d need an adult with you to get a seat at the table. I’d take off the casts for the night and have you sit down at a table with some guys I know in New Brunswick, play three hands, they pretend they don’t know you’re cheating, then one of them ‘realizes’ and roughs you up a little. I’d go by your dad’s place—what business is he in? I know it’s something good.

“Dentist. Exactly. So you come home marked up that night, the next day I go to Doc Martin’s office and sit in the waiting room until he’s finished cleaning the morning’s African-American teeth, and I sit down and explain that you had some outstanding debts from the game where you got your purple eye. We walk to his bank, he comes out with $2,000 cash or whatever I can work him up to, and then I leave town again. And presumably you get yelled at and sent to some special camp for the summer, maybe switched out of public school into private school. Are you already in private school? Ah. Yeah. Well, that was what could have been.” Brooks slurped the last of the soup out of his spoon, chewing the reconstituted mushrooms chunks and staring at the kid’s hands, which had stopped doing their marking work.

“What are you telling me all this for?”

“Just giving you some potential pointers on what happens to good boys who hang out in weed-distributing lowlife-accumulating stores.”

“I smoke weed once a month, maybe. That doesn’t mean I’m going to fuck my life up as bad as you,” the kid said. He took Brooks’s fifty out of his pocket and slid it across the diner table, then put the deck he’d been working out back in its box. Putting the protective tip back on the X-Acto, he took the deck and blade and left the diner. 


The cab to Cliff’s house cost a good portion of the bill he’d gotten back from the kid, mostly because he’d stopped at Krauzer’s to get a couple grocery bags of food, and some beer to serve as the intro to the
cognac bottle from the Houdini box. 

There was a fresh coat of exterior paint on the place, a blue darker than a house really should be, a color that probably annoyed Cliff’s neighbours. Brooks gently swung the bag with the Pabst in it at the door until he heard steps.

Cliff didn’t have his patch on. The empty socket glared red, the colour of dry skin battered by constant cold. His brows had gotten thicker, and a long black beard threaded with white covered the bottom half of his narrow face. He hadn’t kept up the eating and beering, clearly—Cliff was leaner than Brooks, even, and in his black bathrobe and with that medieval torrent of hair, he looked like a wizard.

“A goddamn wizard,” Brooks said, laughing. “You look great. Skinny, Jesus, you got thin.” There was a moment where he thought he’d have to precipitate his entrance by putting a tentative foot over the threshold, but Cliff backed away on his own, let him in. The hallway and living room looked like chambers in a showroom condo: pastel and clean and anti-decorated, a couple of Monet prints and a factory-stitched
Persian carpet. Cliff didn’t have a cane, but he did have a painful-looking circular limp, and his left knee looked more like a crease in a straight column of flesh than a functional joint. He swiveled around and fell onto the couch, rather than sitting down. The skin of his legs was striated with scars, surgical and otherwise. He didn’t look so much like a wizard as he did a bum that someone had taken pity on and cleaned up.    

“I’m just back for a couple days,” Brooks said. “Maybe more, maybe less. Came for this,” he said, setting down the Krauzer’s bags and reaching into his right pocket for the wad of bills that was in there. He couldn’t quite get a grip, so he walked over to the coffee table and boosted the money out from the bottom of the pocket. It landed, thwacking solidly onto the teak. Cliff stared at it.

“Why didn’t you take it out of the store before you sold up, Cliff? And how are you, anyway?”

“You can take that back. I don’t need it,” said Cliff. “I’m set up.” 

“Set up how?”

“The brothers. D’Angelos. They kick over seven percent of what the deli makes a month. It doesn’t hurt them any, with all the shit that moves in and out through the back door over there.” Cliff pulled his legs up onto the couch and laid down, putting his left hand over the hollow socket. “House is paid off and I got a little bit for the business. It’ll last me.”

“That’s great. Fuckin’ least they could do, and I’m sure it wasn’t their idea, either. You should still take this cash, though.”

“No. That’s not half, anyway. There were three bricks in that box. And yeah, it was actually their idea. Carlo felt like shit about this from the beginning, and John didn’t take long to get around to it. They were dumb kids.”

“I thought you could do the split for us. Not exactly
in shape to riffle through bills, Cliffie.” Brooks was waiting for the smile, the backpatting break in tension that had always followed their tough banter about cash or cards.

“Yeah. Life’s been snacking on you too. Those thumbs ever going to be any good again? According to you, I mean.”

“A little healing and some good rehab.”    

“You’re finished. You’re going to need that money. Came back here to build a stake? A couple of cons to top up what you grabbed from the basement?” 

“I didn’t ‘grab it.’ I went to see if it was there, and if it wasn’t, I was going to come check on you anyway. I wanted to see a few people and get out of Montreal for a while, that’s all. How about you, still doing magic?”

“Yeah, I walk to the toilet in under five minutes and see if I can hit the bowl on the first try. Leave the flask, if you want to leave anything.”

“I didn’t do any of this to you.”

“No, the guy who pays for my food and utilities did. The guy who comes by and watches games with me and drives me to the video store, he did it. So what did you do?”

Brooks left, picking up only one of the grocery bags, the one with the twelve-pack in it. He caught
another cab, taking it right to his garage, where he started peeling beers open. 


When the cans were empty, Brooks counted out the money he had, stacking it on the cot. More than he thought, $9,100. Could have taken the black kid’s dad for at least half that much on top of it, too. But he was glad he hadn’t done it that way. There was a doctor up at the Montreal hospital—Shevit, a woman—she’d been confident about his thumbs. Had told him to stick around, that they could work something out with payment. Brooks hadn’t known if she meant officially, or not. He shouldn’t have come back to Jersey without finding out, whatever Dodo had to say about where he could and couldn’t go. 

The door between the garage and the house wasn’t locked. With a large handful of the bills he’d been counting out, Brooks went toward his mom’s room, the first door past the bathroom on the second floor. Lights off in most of the house, and not much to see, anyhow. His old room had a pool table in it now.

Her door was open and the bedside lamp still on, so he expected her to be upright. Reading, or writing on the TV tray she kept in there. She used to like writing a letter a night, usually to one of her sisters. Brooks mailed them for her in the mornings, proud that she was so casual about trusting him to do this, and pleased that he’d never even felt like opening one of the envelopes to see what she had to say about him, privately. There had to be at least a paragraph about him in each of those letters, if only to represent the portion of her day that she spent with him.

The tray wasn’t up, and she wasn’t awake. She was lying on her side, sleeping profoundly, wearing a black T-shirt with the blanket half-on. The guy next to her—he looked nothing like Brooks’s dad, which was the first thing Brooks noticed, but why should he—was asleep, too, his meaty right arm draped across her. His eyes were weirdly slitted open, green pits in an old man’s face. Brooks didn’t turn the light off, in case his mother had developed a habit of sleeping with it on.     

Brooks brought the cash back down to the garage and placed it with the rest of the bundle on his cot. He got it all into the inside pocket of his coat, after liberating a hundred to pay for his ticket and food on the way up. Leaving behind a dollar for each of the three boxes of macaroni he’d eaten, he started walking to the train station.