The Parable of the Cylinder
by David Nickle

0

Revolver croppedYou not been to one of these. I’d remember if you had, even if you stayed at the back of the trailer, hiding your eyes as you do . . . pretty little brown-haired girl like you, with that tattoo’d crucifix right there . . . though I don’t remember everything with my cracked-up noggin as it is, so maybe I’m wrong . . . but you’d have made an impression, looking like you do.

So how’d it go way back when, in those bad times before the Lord set us on the straight road and our Ministry was proper begat? Gather ‘round, gather ‘round, you and your little ones in tow, and I’ll lay it out for you.

Zukhov set it up.

Back at the start  . . .  Never set it in the same place twice. I don’t know how he found the spots. Didn’t have no smart phone, didn’t have the Google. This was before all that.

He knew people. That helped. They and he would find places – kind of places you’d think but never suspect. Old auto shops  . . .  junk yards  . . .  rusty old steamers floating in the ass-end of harbours. Construction sites where the tools are down for the night.

Zukhov’s friends got the word out in whispers. They’d start at the dive bars but they’d make their way through town, settling anywhere there’s a bit of sad and a bit more money: public libraries, school staff rooms, the production lines at car plants . . . town halls.

And then the others . . . they come. Two kinds: one kind, curious – wanting to stand close to the flame, watch a pair of men not just tempt fate but hoist their skirts for it.

Then there’s the ones what hoist their skirts.

Things they got in common? Two things. A roll of cash. And sad. A bellyful of sad.

Now here’s a question for you: who do you think has more of each? Think it’s simple? Ones who watch pay a bit more when they bet, maybe more cash – and maybe just a bit less sad. Ones who play . . . you might think two bits’d get you in, but the weight of the world would be on your shoulders.

Not so, not so. Zhukov charges dear to play. If he didn’t, only stupid drunks would come. Man with serious sad about him is the one that can stake a thousand. What other use he got for it?

But he doesn’t have a tenth the sad of the ones who come to bet. They are lost, those ones. They know their wives don’t love them no more, or they never had wives; they work a job they can’t abide; or they lost one they didn’t know they loved. They think maybe there’s more to their lives but they too scared to do that thing. And what’re they most scared of? The cylinder. The spin.

So they watch it. Sad buggers, sadder than anyone.

Ah, that question. Was there ever one who smiled, and meant it. Anyone ever who loved this game?

Oh sure, little lady. There was that one.

He was the one what killed me.

*

WHEN I was young as the little ones here, my hair was long and lovely like a girl’s, and because of that sometimes they would think I was one. Should have just cut it. But think I would? I’d sooner lop off my pecker. I loved that hair. Though it sure made things shit for me.

Sure. Here’s an example, if you want that.

A carnival came to town each year. Just like this one here where you found me. Well not just like this one. No insulated trailer – no fucking Zhukov laying down law – didn’t have no surgeon. Sure didn’t pay off the cops  . . .

What it had was a Ferris wheel and a Tilt-A-Whirl, a spook house on wheels  . . .  and a row of booths with games of chance.

I went there with my friend, Kevin. Kev had a spastic arm. It was his good arm too. Could hardly write without it going off in a twitch-fit. Kids thought it was great. I guess Kevin didn’t have an easy time of it. Bet you think I was a pretty good kid, having a friend like Kevin. Nah. I liked that he was spastic. Meant I was better than him, eh?

So we went for the games of skill. They had different things: a ball you could toss to knock over milk bottles. A shooting gallery, with air rifles and plates to bust. Kevin knew better than to spend his money there. But not me. I spent my nut firing guns and flinging balls. There was a ring toss with Coke bottles and I did a round of that and that was it. Nothing to show for it. Last quarter spent. Fuck, eh?

Kevin still had all his money when I was done. So he thought why not? – try his luck at a game of chance. Kevin picked this one that seemed a sure thing: Win A Prize Every Time. Way it worked . . . there were a pile of prizes hanging on strings inside the booth, and up front, strings dangling. You could pull on a string, and see what prize it was tied to. And you got it.

Most of the prizes were crap. Key chains and little toy soldiers. But there were big stuffed animals  . . .  toy guns that looked pretty real  . . .  a space helmet with APOLLO writ on it. Place is run by this ugly carnie woman, big gold tooth, hair on her chin. Ugly. And knew it: cackled like a witch when Kevin come up with his cash. “Yank it, lucky boy!” she hollered, and Kevin, that spaz, something in her voice – voice like sandpaper on a copper pipe – it set him off. And oh boy, he yanked it! One great spasm, hard down, and enough to shake the whole damn rack.

It was a good choice: he got the machine gun, big black Tommy gun with a rattler in its magazine. I’d seen ones like it at the Five and Dime for eight ninety-nine. He got it good, too: pulled so hard, Tommy gun shot right up to the top of the booth, smacked against the rigging hard enough to snap the string and sent it back to the ground.

“We got a winner!’ screeched that old rhymes-with-witch. And she rooted around for a minute, and came back with Kev’s prize. Only it’s no machine gun: it’s a little dolly, with pink little girl cheeks and a bright pink skirt.

Well Kevin didn’t think that was right and said so. He won a machine gun. He kept his voice calm, but I could see his hand shaking. “I won the gun,” he told her. “Not the doll.”

And – I remember this like yesterday in the telling, it come back to me so clear – she looked at him, her jaw a little slack and mouth hanging just halfway open, that way it gets when someone just dares you – she say, looking over at me: “Doll’s good, kid. Why’n’t you give it to your little girlfriend there.”

I would have got shit for what happened next but as it turned out I didn’t.

I reached out, grabbed a handful of those strings, and pulled them hard: not as hard as Kevin had, but hard enough to do some bad. Maybe five toys came up. These strings didn’t snap, but they went high, and one came right over the top, and the whole rig started to shake and creak. Maybe something snapped. It sure got that old hag’s goat, tell you that. And I said some stuff too. When Kevin told that story later, he said I called her a cunt, and maybe I did, but I don’t think I knew that word then.

Whatever I said: It got her goat. She came around out of that booth and grabbed me. She raised up her hand and slapped me in the ear – I remember that, pain sharp like dunking your face in a bucket of ice and water. Maybe I kicked out at her, but she kicked at me, got me in the hip and knocked me down. Then she punched me, hard enough in the face that I got my first ever shiner, and bloodied my nose too. She was crying: She kept saying a name over and over again  . . .  Reggie? Think so  . . .  sobbing it as she whacked me.

So after all that, nobody gave me and Kevin trouble about the thing we did to her booth, with Kevin’s spaz arm and my bad temper. The guy who ran the show there even offered each of us whatever toy we wanted if we wouldn’t tell, and we took those toys. I let Kevin have the machine gun. He’d won it, after all.

Me, I took that helmet. Pull down the visor, no one could tell I been hit.

*


WHEN the game starts I think about that: about how I won, losing. I didn’t tell, Kevin didn’t tell, but word gets around and cops came for her. Old woman who tried to cheat us, got a time in jail. Kevin got his machine gun. I got bloodied.

Playing this game, one chance in six you don’t just get bloodied, you get dead. Or maybe not quite dead. But bad. Bad.

It’s not quite one chance in six.

Thing most people don’t understand about a revolving handgun is this: unless you’re holding it right above your head, barrel down, the spin’s not the only thing playing odds. Old gravity’s got its thumb on the cylinder. As long as you spin it every time, most likely the bullet will sit at the bottom and not come to the chamber.

Pretty safe right? Better odds than one in six.

Most guys want to do that game. They put down their money  . . .  come back into the trailer with their friends, sit down and give the cylinder the spin. Click. Hand it to me. I spin it. Click. Them. Click. Me. Click.

Most days, that’s where it ends. Guy takes back the gun and notices he’s sweating off his drunk, and his hands are slick and he thinks about what it would take for that bullet to slide into the chamber, quiet like a mean thought, like a tiny sliver of what that guy knows he deserves  . . .

Always deserves it. You don’t spin the cylinder unless you got a debt to settle.

But the guy, he’s not like you and me, ready to pay when the bill come due.

He puts that gun down, walks away, and I win.

I wouldn’t cut my hair.

There were kids who thought I should. Well a kid. Fat buzz-cut bastard. Steve Primock. Threatened to beat me up every day if I didn’t cut it.

Every day I’d say sure Steve, I’ll cut it tomorrow. Then I wouldn’t. This went on for weeks.

One day, I came to school with a knife – rusty old fish-scaling knife, given me by my old dad when I was too young for it, but he didn’t care.

Steve and me are in the yard at recess and he comes up to me and says, “Cut your hair or I’ll kill you.” And I take out that knife, pull it out of the sheath and put it in his hand. I say, “Kill me.”

And I take his wrist, and take the knife, and put it right at my throat. His arm was weak, he didn’t know what was happening. I could move it like it was a GI Joe toy. Kung Fu grip  . . .

I look him in the eye. “I’m not cutting my hair. So do it.” And I press the knife just enough so it cuts me. Draws a little blood.

Steve Primock  . . .  he gets weaker the more I do it. Can’t meet my eye. He starts thinking about what it is to kill. Maybe thinks about the shit he’s in already, knife in hand, cutting the long-haired girl-boy’s throat  . . .  And ah, he walked away too.

I knew he would. By then, I knew what I was doing.

I got a place on a lake. Up north. Cold in the winter, which is mostly when I’m there. But I like that. I fish, through the ice. Clean and scale them myself with that same knife. Probably still got a bit of my blood on it.

All the time I was on the mend, when it seemed like it was thundering every night  . . .  when food tasted like ashes and whiskey like gasoline  . . .

I never let that knife get far.

*

FELLOW who killed me that time wasn’t Primock. But I thought he was a Primock when he showed.

Name was . . . What? Nigel? Gus? It’s not important; don’t think it was a real name. He was from England, that’s all anyone knew, and he had a roll of cash like no other – and he wasn’t a bit sad. Little bit fat but not a man who looked as if he regretted it: wore a light grey suit cut to fit. Curly red hair and a bright red face from too much time in the sun. He came a long way to play. A long way to play.

Zhukov had set us up outside a town up north. We were in an old open-pit mine, all rock and sand, surrounded by scrubby weed trees here and there where the soil allowed. It had been an iron mine but it was closed then, two years.

There was a one-floor prefab office where they did things when the place was a concern. It was too near the edge. You stepped out the side door of it in the dark, or after too much to drink. You’d be sliding down some fifty feet of dirt and rock to the road that winded down the side to the middle, a deep pond made purest blue by all the iron in it.

Zhukov cleared old desks aside in the main office there. Place had no generator, so Zhukov and the surgeon wired up car batteries to lights on stands, shone them on the two metal chairs they put there. Gathered fold-up chairs like you’d find in your church basement, set them along two sides only, so there’d be two other sides a bullet might go to if the loser missed his shot, and nobody else dead. Chairs were in shadow.

Sun was low outside and I finishing my supper when he showed up. He and Zhukov talked awhile. Couldn’t hear what they said. I guess Zhukov was giving him hell for coming so early. The matches start at midnight and men don’t show before eleven. The only words I heard clear were his last before he stepped around the chairs and into the light:

“Why don’t we let the gentleman decide for himself?”

Zhukov stayed at the edge of the shadow and watched as the guy pulled out the other chair and sat down gave me a big grin.

“Last meal, hey?” he said. Made me laugh.

“It could well be,” I said. “Who knows what a day brings?”

“You’re not afraid?”

I took a bite of my beefsteak and when I was done chewing I told him the truth. Sure I was afraid.

“Trick is not minding,” I said, and that made him laugh. He told me that was from a movie, which I didn’t know at the time.

“You’re afraid, and every night —”

I interrupted: “Not every night.” We did this once every week or so, no more.

“But many nights,” he said. “What’s your trick?”

I looked over at Zhukov, who had settled into one of the chairs. He shook his head no. So instead of answering, I asked:

“You here to play or you making book?”

“Is it one or the other?” he asked, and I said that was how it went.

“I am a player, then,” he said.

“Well I guess we’ll see each other,” I said. “You know how it works?”

And he sighed, and looked down at his hands. “My good fellow, there is no one in the world who knows better than I.”

Then I asked him why, if he was so smart, he was asking me all these questions. Then he reached over and took a sprig of broccoli from my plate and chewed on it while he spoke.

“You see, before we proceed I need to determine: are you serious?”

“Dead serious,” I said and oh, that made him laugh.

“That’s good,” he said, “then you won’t mind —“

That’s his name! Percival.

“My name is Lawrence Percival,” he said to me. “And I have a proposition.”

Percival.

*

NOW, there are two ways to play this game and I’ve told you about the first: spin the cylinder before each pull of the trigger, and again after it. Game can go on for a long time before someone ends up dead and usually before that, someone just quits.

Percival didn’t want that game. He came with not just a roll of cash but a whole case full of it. He offered half of that cash to Zhukov. Half of it to me, directly. He was willing to pay, because he was there for the other game.

One spin of the cylinder, and then take turns with the trigger. Odds are after that first spin the bullet winds up at the bottom: and that’s when gravity taps out of the game. From the start, odds are good the bullet’s three away. Could be two away, though; could be four away. Could be right there.

Wherever it sits in the circle, you know that bullet’s coming for you. You, or the other fellow.

In Chechnya, places like that, game plays like that a lot. Here – it was rare in those days.

But it was a lot of money he was talking about – so I looked him up and down, and thought about it, and said sure.

Percival wanted us to use his gun and Zhukov said hell with that. But I looked it over and it seemed all right: a vintage number, a single-action Nagant M 1895. Big cylinder, big enough for seven rounds, which Percival said made it more interesting: “One more chance at it!” he said.

Zhukov didn’t like it but I said sure, we could use that one, and when Percival wanted to do the round outside, on the edge of that pit, I didn’t see eye to eye with Zhukov then either, and so that’s where we ended up – me sliding the one bullet into the Nagant’s cylinder, and giving it to Percival, so he could give it a spin.

“Look at you,” he said to me as he put that gun barrel up to the side of his skull. “You look happy as a clam!”

I told him it wasn’t my turn to blow my brains out but his, and there was all that money over there waiting for me when he did that – so why would I be? He nodded, and it seemed to me he might be a little nervous, like maybe he’d bit off more than he could chew, which was fine by me.

“You could just take the money,” he said. “I’m here alone, after all. Who would know?”

“I wouldn’t get far,” I said. “You got a gun.”

He laughed, and squinted with the effort of it as he pulled the trigger.

“So I do,” he said. “But now, sir, it belongs to you.”

I didn’t dawdle like Percival, just put the barrel to my head, squeezed, and heard the click, which meant I was fine for another round. I noticed the Nagant had a heavy pull on its trigger and said so.

“That’s a Nagant for you,” said Percival. “Tough bloody piece of iron. The Russians used it fighting the Bolsheviks. They used to say that it was the sort of sidearm you could repair with a hammer, and there’s something to that.”

He put the gun to his forehead this time, faced backwards, two hands on the handle and thumb on the trigger. “Bottoms up!” he shouted, and squeezed it, and laughed one more time, and handed it back to me.

Now that was three triggers pulled, three draws. Odds were good the one bullet was there in the fourth. And sure, that had me worried. Zhukov wasn’t going to lose any money on this if there was a bullet waiting for me; Percival didn’t bring that money to lay a bet but to pay a fee. It was only forfeit if I welched. I didn’t want to welch.

But I’d handled that bullet – put it in by my own hands. I knew how it felt on my thumb – the shape of it. It was an old ball cartridge – bigger than the ones Zhukov bought for our games. I thought it might be Russian Army issue. It was big enough that in any spin of the cylinder, it’d end up at the bottom. It’d take four trigger pulls to bring it around.

Yeah, memory’s funny. Couldn’t remember Percival’s name just now – not until I got closer to that moment. Now, I recall that whole moment – the way the sun’d fallen over those patchy treetops  . . .  put us both at the edge of the Earth’s shadow. The sky was so brilliant – still blue at the height, but thin clouds all golden with the late night. I remember Zhukov, in the doorway to the building, arms crossed, scowling at us, like he was using old-country magic to push that bullet out of the way.

This is how it goes, I guess. Those seconds before you die. Even if nothing else is clear, those seconds are burned deep.

*

I did end up squeezing that trigger – and I did hear that click.

What a thing that was. I lowered the gun and felt my dinner climbing up my neck, piss pushing at my bladder. I swallowed and clenched and made myself grin, and flipped the gun around to hand it by the barrel to Percival.

“Nothing to say?” he whispered.

In fact I didn’t, because if I did it might be with a crack in my voice, and it was no good letting Percival feel braver than me. It was chamber number five now, and if three and four didn’t have bullets in them, nor the ones before that – number five didn’t seem all that safe. I didn’t want him feeling brave about that at all. I wanted him to stop.

Soon as he took that gun I thought sure he would stop. I looked at his eyes, I saw that shift – that same thing I’d seen in Steve Primock’s face, when he looked it full-on. His hands were weak too – the kinds of hands that might let a gun slip to the ground. Then he looked at my eyes, and I saw clear that he wasn’t a Primock at all. I saw it as those hands found their strength and raised the Nagant, fired that single bullet right into my head.

Dead.

What’s that like? Gonna guess you spend a lot of time wondering about that. Maybe just nothing: maybe you stop and go away, like a fart on a breeze. Maybe you meet your judgement, climb a big stairway to heaven, just like your pastor told you. Maybe you walk the world a ghost, waiting for resurrection in the end time.

Well girlie – the rest of you – I’m here to tell you how it is.

You do meet your judgement. Just like you think. Lord Saviour Himself come down to see you. He doesn’t look quite the same as the fellow on your pretty little tattoo though; no long beard, and not all skin and bones hanging off that wood. He plumped up a bit, got a little saggy belly fat, and while His hair is long – long as a girl’s – He’s starting to lose it in the middle. So He combs it over and dabs it down with a bit of pan fat. But it’s Him. You can tell.

He called me by my name as I rested a moment on that long stairway up.

“You have met the Betrayer,” He said to me.

“He shot me in the head,” I said back.

The Lord our Saviour nodded and bade me sit on the step beside Him.

“He broke the rules,” he said, “to end the Miracle of your Ministry. It is the Betrayer’s way.”

And yes, since you ask, I did wonder if by Betrayer our Blessed Lord might’ve meant the Devil himself: old Lucifer. Percival might not seem a devil’s name, but of course the Devil wears disguises. And Lucifer did betray old God up in Heaven, who was just trying to do right. But I didn’t ask. Why didn’t I?

Saviour wasn’t done talking, just like I’m not. So hush.

Next thing He said to me was the most important thing ever been said.

“My son, you have spent your time on earth, looking sin in the eye, scrubbing it with its own spittle. Oh, I know. I have watched you cleanse the souls of sinful men, taking them to the very edge of perdition and letting them choose the righteous path of life on their own. You dare them to salvation. Just like me. But you aren’t done yet, are you?”

The Saviour didn’t say much after that. But when I stood up He took my hand and together we walked back down the stairs I’d been climbing. Pretty long walk, and by the end of it I was on my own.
Zhukov took me out to my cabin for a while to recuperate. He was different too. Felt a lot of regret for one thing.

*

THINGS were different when I came back. There was a piece of metal in my skull where the bullet’d blown it off. Zhukov’s surgeon put it there himself with the help of a veterinarian he knew in town. Didn’t think I’d wake up, but there was money enough in that case to care for me if I didn’t. Course I did wake up. Here I am, right? With you little lady, and all of the rest of you here in this trailer.

“I should not have let that guy near you,” he said one day, drinking up his bourbon whilst a storm come in over the lake. “He did not want to bet. He just wanted to pay. Should have told me everything I needed to know.”

“It was a lot of money,” I said, and he said back, “It was a stupid lot of money. Should have seen he was crazy.”

Another thing Zhukov regretted: letting Percival get away.

Right after I fell, Percival howled and slapped his knee, and while Zhukov and the surgeon saw to me, he took off running – right around the edge of the pit and down the road. It was getting dark down there – darker and darker, each spiral turn toward the middle. Surgeon told Zhukov that it didn’t look good for me, and when Zhukov got sad about it, surgeon said, “Go get that man. I got this one.”

By the time Zhukov got up and got his gun, which was the one we use for game – snub-nose Smith & Wesson – Percival was halfway around the first spiral. Zhukov was mad, and he aimed and pulled the trigger. The gun was empty but for a bullet, and likely that sat at the bottom of the cylinder. It just clicked and Percival kept running. Zhukov ran after but he would never beat him: for at the top of the mine, the road was long to get around and like with all spirals, the last turns were tight. Zhukov weren’t far by the time Percival reached the water at the bottom then slipped in and vanished. Twisting the cylinder to rights, Zhukov did finally fire off that bullet but neither it nor he nor anyone ever did find Percival.

That made Zhukov sad and thoughtful. He told me he was stupid getting into this business. Worse than stupid. “I am like vampire!” he shouted as he drained his glass and the lightning flashed between clouds. “I take money from misery!”

He felt sadder about meeting me – from the time we said our how’d-you-dos after that near thing that night at the Fenlan Bowl-a-Rama – sadder about keeping it going, bringing me up through his stable. “Should never,” he said, crying over his glass, “should never.”

Poor old Zhukov. He fell asleep in his own tears as the waves of rain come in, the thunder cracked, and my brains itched from electricity. Didn’t wake Zhukov, but I couldn’t sleep. I paced around and watched the lightning flash and even went outside and stood on the dock while the storm raged and thunderbolts hit everything standing but me.

When Zhukov woke in the morning, he went and got his Smith & Wesson out and a single bullet too.

“Let’s play,” he said. We’d spoke about Our Lord and Saviour, and Zhukov thought he needed saving. I didn’t like the idea, but all the same, there I was, not yet fed breakfast, feet dangling off the dock next to Zhukov, the gun between us. Zhukov took it first – spun the cylinder – closed it up and pulled the trigger. Click. Then it was my turn.

Sun was high and getting low again and still I hadn’t pulled. Zhukov had pissed twice and made a third pot of coffee. He brought it back and sat down at the dock, and I could tell he’d been bawling again. The moon was in the sky, I remember that: a pale ghost of itself in the late day. Finally I raised the Smith & Wesson, aimed it out at the lake and squeezed two times before the bullet flew.

“I won’t play you,” I said. “You don’t get that. Not yet. Maybe not ever. The Lord got work for you. For me and you.”

*

WE sat it out for the winter while my head healed up. Didn’t matter: we had a lot of money, putting together the two halves of Percival’s stake. By spring, we were raring. Zhukov paid cash for this big rig you see here. Found a driver. And put out word, like he always did.

But not just like that.

Whispers now travelled along church pews, at picnics, through the basements where Alcoholics Anonymous would meet  . . .  at meetings beneath tents, in food banks before a holiday  . . .  when the Pope came to town  . . .  everywhere.

We wouldn’t draw people to sad old ruins, those “palaces of despair” as Zhukov called them. No no – we come to towns that need us, and we park with the other games of chance. At fairs just like this one.

And they come. Sad ones with tears in their eyes, sadder ones with big grins slapped over their tears. When the fair opens its gate this morning, they’ll have cotton candy in their arms, toys from the games of chance, as they put down the rest of their money to come with me to the edge, spin the cylinder and see.

No trouble for that. What we’re doing now, little lady, the rest of you – that, we still got to be quiet about. The grown ones in town – they’ll all be sitting in their church in a few hours, and maybe praying to their Lord and Saviour about coming by here later. Wouldn’t do for them to know about you being in this here place at this early hour. Why would they even think you were here? Little ones are innocent of sin, hey? Sad doesn’t touch you.

Might not touch you – but your pretty little Sunday School marm now  . . .  she might feel different. Fine tits she got – I wonder about those. Maybe perking up for a baby inside her? Maybe not that. Maybe they draw the eye of your pastor though – maybe they draw more than his eye.

That right, girlie? Maybe, maybe not. Fair enough. Maybe something else.

But you talked your way through Zhukov for some reason – some reason you want to test your faith with me here.

Well, nothing else, you giving these little ones a gift. They see you step to the edge, make up your mind – give over to the cylinder, or walk back, it’s up to you – they learn something the Good Book won’t ever learn them better.

See, little ones: she got one thing to learn and only she and her Saviour can say what it is. You all got something else to take home to your beds at the sunrise, as your moms and dads wipe sleep-sand from their eyes, and you trick them into thinking that’s what you’re doing too . . . not coming here to learn the true gospel.

Remember it, children.

You wear your hair as long as you like. Someone says cut it, you don’t turn the other cheek.

You offer it.

 

From CNQ 95 (Spring 2016)

Comments are closed.