“You ready to do this?” Carl said, sitting up in his hospital bed, as I delivered a water jug from my trolley. He had a face only seen in the portraits of civil war veterans: leathered, cross-hatched skin stretched over the skull and eyes like smudges. The unkempt calico beard that crawled down his neck was interrupted by an ancient burn scar. The first time I met him he had caught me staring at the jugular vibrating under the damaged skin. He had said, “you buy the ticket, you got to see the show,” and tugged at his half-ear.
“Carl, I can’t.”
“Shit you can’t. We’re gone fifteen minutes. I need smokes.”
“I’ll pick you up smokes.”
“I ain’t been outside in a month. Fifteen minutes. I’ll tell you what. I got something to show you. Just seeing it will give you good luck for a week. If I let you hold it, that’s you for a month.” A flash of silver peeked from his hand.
“Listen up, motherfucker. I ain’t never been a liar.”
“You’re going to be on my shit until I agree?”
“Let me give the rest of these waters out and I’ll help you into your chair. Cool?”
“Cool.” He lay back, smiling.
I set his feet on the foot-plates then straightened his jeans where they had gotten twisted from transferring into the wheelchair.
“This is my break time, you know.”
“Quit being a bitch. I’ll even buy you a pack of smokes, because I’m all generous and shit.”
The Florida sun smacked us as the hospital’s doors slid opened.
“Goddamn,” Carl announced. “Help me put on my shades.”
I pushed his chair along the sidewalk, to the corner and across the street to the gas station.
“I’m getting a Dr. Pepper. You want something?”
“I’m good,” he said. I left him at the counter to buy his cigarettes.
I got my drink and went over to browse the candy aisle. When I returned, Carl was gone and I panicked. I ran outside knowing that he wouldn’t have gone far, but he was nowhere. Cussing myself, I turned around to see Carl still in the gas station, pushing his wheelchair from the drinks aisle with a tall boy of Lone Star in his lap.
I came back in and set my Dr. Pepper and Reese’s Cups on the counter.
“His shit, too,” he said to the cashier.
We sat in front of the gas station with sweat stains blooming under our arms. He held up the can so I could crack it open.
“Ahh,” he said with such satisfaction that it was hard to begrudge the guy. The can was empty in a few gulps. I threw it in the trash for him.
“Thanks, boy. You ready for this?” He struggled with his pocket to pull out a silver case the size and shape of a matchbox. The lid was embossed with two angels unfurling a banner with the word ‘PAUL’ written in a flowing cursive script above the virgin of Guadalupe. The scene was framed by turquoise inlay.
“You got to open it for me. My fingers are shit.”
“Fucking hell, Carl. Where’d you get this?”
He nodded with crooked-smile satisfaction.
The sides were decorated with a tangle of sculpted bronze vines flowering gold roses. Tiny, but detailed, bees with garnets for bodies visited each blossom. It had surprising weight as I struggled to lift the small latch. The lid yawned open and revealed a rich red lining. I thought it was empty until I saw the thin, almost translucent, wire curled inside like the letter ‘J’ and sewn in place by a single gold thread. I was tempted to give a quick puff of air to clear it out.
“It’s a pope pube,” Carl said with beaming pride. “Back in ’79, I was a cleaner for this fancy hotel in Chicago, the Drake. The pope was doing a tour or some shit and he was staying in the Presidential suite. Fucking place was bigger than any goddamn house I ever seen since. It had like ten rooms. For one old dude, crazy. Every morning at like six, I had to go in there while the pope and his buddies ate breakfast in some other part of the suite I ain’t even been to.”
“Did you meet the pope?”
“Nah, I never met him. We weren’t supposed to be seen. While he ate, I tidied his room, you know, made his bed, cleaned his bathroom. I’m doing my thing and this little dude is sitting on the toilet seat. That’s like as close as you’re going to get to God’s own short and curly. It ain’t like a saint’s finger or skull or whatever they got in them eye-talian churches, but it’s got to have something. So, I snatched that shit up, put it in my pack of True Greens and finished up. A week later, I had the case made after a good day with the dogs. I still remember the bet: Norfolk Chance to win. Funny Money to place, then Bandicoot comes in just behind to get me 1500 dollars, bam, bam, bam.” He slapped the back of his hand into his other palm at each ‘bam’.
“Lucky indeed,” I said.
“Shit, I do all right.” He shook the box in his fist before returning it to his pocket, and I pushed his wheelchair back to the hospital.