I used a little magic trick. I used a little magic trick that I used when I ran my monte game on Park Avenue. That ain’t cheating. That’s making a living….”
by ed markowski
It’s raining. At 1300 hours, I’m summoned to the commanding officer’s tent.
I salute. He hands me a photograph of a bare chested black man, who’s grinning, and pointing his carbine straight into the camera.
“Know him? Ever seen him around?”
“No sir. Who is he sir?”
“He’s a nigger. He’s a nigger from New York. Where are you from son?”
“Can you tell me what those people did to your city last year son?”
“What did they do sergeant?”
“Burned it down sir. They rioted. They rioted because the police raided a blind pig. They rioted because the police closed down an after hours club.”
“What did you think of that?”
“Not much sir.”
“Do you love spooks sergeant?”
“I’m from Detroit sir.”
“I figured you didn’t.” He lights a cigarette, and slides a 45 caliber pistol across the table. “It’s your job to deliver him to the military prison in Danang. If he so much as threatens you, shoot him. I’d rest easy knowing a bullet I loaded killed him. Any questions?”
“Yes sir. What’s his crime?”
“He’s a coward son. A coward, and a card cheat. He’s going to learn that no big city nigger is going to get away with cheating a white officer. He’s going to learn that this isn’t Harlem, or that god forsaken rat trap that you come from. There won’t be a parade of shines demanding his release from jail. That boy’s going to rot.”
I hand back the photograph. It’s raining. It’s raining as hard as it rained last year when Cheevers and I arrived in country together.
The M.P. leads me down a dank, narrow hallway that’s lined with cells. He unlocks the last door, and hands me the keys to Cheevers’ shackles and leg irons.
On the way to my jeep, Cheevers extends his thick scarred arms. “Well sarge?”
“Jesus Cheevers, what the fuck did you do?”
“Beat them boys at poker sarge.”
Beat ’em or cheat ’em, or a little of both?”
“You know me sarge. I used a little magic trick. I used a little magic trick that I used when I ran my monte game on Park Avenue. That ain’t cheating. That’s making a living.”
“It worked so well, you’re going to prison.”
“We only got a month left sarge. I’ll be safe and snug in that cell. It sure won’t be as bad as Rikers Island. They decide to give me a dishonorable, who gives a damn? The point’s always been survival.”
“Look Cheevers, the chopper doesn’t leave for three hours. When we get off the base, I’m going to the Parisian. Go and do what you gotta do. I’ll be at the hotel bar.”
When we reach the Parisian Hotel, Cheevers blends into a mosiac of street people. I pass the time drinking alone.
I think about what Cheevers said in the jeep. We’ve survived up to this point for no good reason, and I know better than to take anything for granted. In a place where lives end in tenths of a second, thirty days is longer than a light year.
I think about the safety of a concrete cell. I think about the security of seven foot by seven foot rooms with dirt floors and armed guards. I think about my prisoner, my buddy from New York. What a fucking genius.
Three hours pass, and I’ll be damned. Here comes Cheevers weaving his way through a pickett of hookers. There’s an opium glow varnishing his eyes, and he tells me, “I’m ready sarge. I’m ready to do my time for playing that card trick.”
The chopper ride is uneventful. Cheevers and I look down on the passing countryside. Terraced rice paddies yield to a vast naked forest. The far horizon is dulled by falling rain, but both of us can see all too clearly what is occurring both on and below the ground.
In Danang, I tell Cheevers we have two hours before the door closes. We split up.
Two hours later, I walk into the bar at the Embassy Hotel. I can’t believe what I see…Cheevers and another brother are sitting at an upright piano doing a duet of People Get Ready. He sees me and he yells, “This one’s for my man Detroit.” He shifts into the opening chords of My Girl.
When the song is over, he says, “Thanks for the chance to run sarge, but I’m ready. I’m ready to do my time.”
I think of the time Cheevers and I spent on that hill.
I think of the heat, and I think of the dead.
I think of how day became night, and how night became day.
I think of the way rifle flashes and tracer bullets made a man see the world in monochrome
I think of the magic.
I shake Cheevers’ hand, and we leave it at that.
Ed Markowski lives and writes in Auburn Hills, Michigan. More of Ed’s stories can be found in the Vault of Smoke.