The Raptor & the Wren
ONE PURGATORY AND LIMBO
The game: Egyptian Rat Screw.
The opponent: Rita Shermansky.
The location: Delray Beach, Florida, in the house that once belonged to the late Evelyn Black but now belongs to her daughter, Miriam.
The time: 7:35 PM, late August. Months after the events in Arizona.
It’s hot and everything is slippery. The air conditioner in the house is making a sound like a buzz saw trying to chew its way through a coconut.
Miriam’s mind is not well connected to her body. It’s like there’s a three-second delay—she wills her eyes to look left or right, she demands her hand move to the deck of cards on the table, she urges her hips to shift in this uncomfortable dining room chair, and each time she makes the command in her mind, three seconds later, her body wakes up like an old, slow dog before deciding to comply.
That’s wine for you.
She hates wine. It’s a mom drink. Basically vinegar. She thinks of it as a pickling solution—a bruise-dark brine of grape juice gone awry. But her mother had a lot of it. Miriam’s gone through it all, but now she’s settled into the same habit: going to the little
wine store on Atlantic Avenue, picking out a bottle of something cheap and red, and coming home and drinking it all in one go.
It sucks. She hates it. It’s gross.
She does it anyway.
Miriam closes her eyes, lets her nostrils flare, and sucks in wisps of cigarette smoke from the cloud hanging thick about her head. It smells like life. Like death. Like cancer. Like all her synapses firing at once.
“You can fuckin’ have one, you know,” Rita says.
It’s a not-uncommon offer. With it comes the compulsory gesture: Rita jostling the pack of Newports and turning the tips of the coffin nails toward her.
As always, Miriam shakes her head.
“No,” she insists, the word sloppy as it gushes out of her mouth. “I’m trying to be healthy, I’ll have you know.”
Rita sniffs. “That explains the wine, then. A real tonic.”
“Wine is good for you. It’s fruit juice. And alcohol is antibacterial. Totally medicinal. Doctors say that—” She thrusts up her finger to make a point, and then she forgets what the point was going to be. “Doctors say you should just shut the fuck up and shuffle the cards, Rita-Rita-Smelly-Feeta.”
The old woman lifts her lip in a fishhooked sneer. Rita Shermansky is seventy-two years old and looks like if you took a skeleton, glued little veal cutlet muscles to each of the bones, then wrapped it all in soft orange deerskin leather. She’s fit as a fiddle. Taut as an anchor line. Puts the tan in tangerine. The woman plays tennis, golf, racquetball, some made-up shit called pickleball, and bodyboards. She also smokes like a house fire, drinks like a diabetic bulldog, and curses like the ghost of a pirate who has been wandering the afterlife looking for a treasure chest full of fucks that’s long ago been emptied. Her voice is a throaty, mosquito-wing whine. That whine perfectly conveys that shrill New Yawk accent of hers.
Rita dies in eight years.
Her death is ludicrously pleasant. She goes to sleep one night. She dreams of being on top of the Empire State building, the wind making her eyes water. Then death steals her away, gentle as a practiced pickpocket. She never wakes up. Lucky old bitch, that Rita.
“C’mon,” Miriam needles her. “Let’s play.”
“We have time?”
“Pssh. Pfft. We have time. Mervin isn’t going anywhere.”
Rita raises a drawn-on eyebrow. “Merv’s going somewhere, honey.”
“Just cut the deck.”
Egyptian Rat Screw works like this: Everyone gets an equal cut of the deck. Nobody gets to peek at the cards. You flip over cards, flinging them into the middle pile, one after the next, player after player. The goal is to win the stack of cards and to rob the opponent of theirs. If the card is put on another card of the same rank (number or face), you can slap the pile. First hand on the pile gets the stack. Or, if a player puts down a face card, the opponent has a number of tries (three for a king, two for a queen, one for a jack) to put down a face card, too. Failing to drop a face card means the player gets the stack, boom.
None of it has anything to do with Egypt, rodents, or fucking.
This is Rita’s game. She’s vicious. Fast like a lightning strike with card-dropping and hand-slapping. Worse, she hits like she’s trying to kill a wasp.
Miriam puts a four of diamonds down on top of a four of clubs, and in a rare moment of her mind and body pushing past the wall of wine to sync up, she slaps. Bam! First on the pile. Rita’s slap is close behind: whap.
Pain blooms in the back of Miriam’s hand. She recoils. “Jesus tits on a banshee,” she says, shaking her hand as if to fling the pain away. “You’re not killing actual rats here, you old bat.”
Rita shrugs it off, like she always does. “Honey, back in the day, if we played this game, I’d put on my old wedding ring and turn it diamond-side down. You get slapped with that, it’d pop the skin of your hand like a hole-puncher. Blood right on the playing cards—but we’d keep playing.”
Miriam takes another sip of the wine. It tastes like raisins and anger. She winces. “You rolled hard back in that so-called day. You have some kind of competitive Egyptian Rat Screw league? Smoky basements and money changing hands? Italian mob? Chinese tong? Illuminati?”
“Let’s just say I had an interesting life once.”
“C’mon. Tell me. For fuck’s sake, Rita, give up the goods.”
Rita’s eyes sparkle behind pinched folds of flesh as she takes a hit off her Newport. “You’re talking. Which means you’re shitting up the flow of the game.”
They keep playing. Back and forth. Face cards hitting face cards. Hands hitting hands. Stash goes this way, then back, then the other way once more. Rita’s winning. Rita always wins. Miriam’s drunk and slow and her hand is starting to throb, but Rita—despite this being her fourth gin and tonic (just a finger-flick of tonic)—doesn’t lose a step. And doesn’t seem to feel pain.
Finally, Rita takes the stack.
“Almost time,” Rita says. “Merv’s nearly off the clock.”
Miriam looks over Rita’s shoulder at the clock on the microwave in the kitchen. She has to squint to get the blue LCD numbers to hold still. It’s like trying to psychically control ants. Wouldn’t that be a horror show? she thinks. Ants? Yuck.
Finally, the time stops dancing. It’s almost eight. Rita’s right. Merv’s hour is nearly upon them.
“Lemme ask you something,” Rita says.
“What are you running from?”
“Not running from anything.” Miriam urps into her hand. “In fact, I’m sitting right here. I am as stationary as a motherfucking sea cucumber.”
“You drink at night.”
“I drink starting at noon. It’s very precise. If I drank before noon, then I’d be an alcoholic.” This is literally her logic. She tells herself the fact that she can wait to drink is a sign she is not a certifiable boozehound.
“You jog in the mornings.”
“I run in the mornings. Jogging is for old people.”
“You don’t have a job.”
Miriam snort-laughs. “Could you imagine.”
“Yet I still see it in those bloodshot eyes of yours. You’re running from something, honey. Maybe you’re running from it in your head, but running is fucking running, you hear me?”
Another puckered-lip drag off that Newport. Another plume of smoke. Miriam feels lost in it for a moment, like a boat in the fog. What am I running from? I’m not running. I’m just staying real still like a scared little fish, hoping the big bad shark of life swims on by. There’s so much she doesn’t want to think about, and trying not to think about it just means she’s thinking about it—Louis, his fiancée Samantha, Samantha soon dying by Louis’s hands, Miriam’s dead mother, Miriam’s ex Gabby, the little boy Isaiah, Miriam being out there in the Arizona desert, dead but not dead, birds stitching her wounds with their beaks like she’s some kind of Satanic Disney princess, then the news that she has a traumatic brain injury ready to blow.
“Fuck this,” Miriam says, lurching to a soggy stance. “It’s time.”
“It’s time. I’m going. You can come or not, I don’t care.”
Rita shrugs. “I’ll come. I still want what’s mine. But I hafta pee first.”