My daddy was a bail bondsman in Jackson, Mississippi, back in the thirties. Big, dark-skinned man with hands the size of those heavy iron skillets, the kind you cook cornbread in. He looked mad most of the time.
He was an all right colored man, bailed out the coloreds when they got arrested; and coloreds were always getting arrested, you know, because every week bad a Saturday in it and every Saturday night some fool was going upside some other fool's head and the white folks was calling my daddy.
See, my daddy had a reputation. Mostly because he made good money, but like I said, he was a big man and he was fair, but he could get mean enough to make a bull piss brown liquor or get the hell out of his way. You putting that in the book, too? Well, all right, don't misquote me now.
Anyway, I remember one time when Floyd Tatum was arrested for damn near beating his own cousin to death. Floyd was a white boxer with a body thick as a tree trunk and a head just as dense. Floyd's woman cried in my mama's chest all night long 'cause she didn't have no money and couldn't get old Jake Parsons, the white bail bondsman, to get Floyd out. So my daddy bailed him, and when Floyd got out, damned if he didn't turn tail and jump bond. Went all the way to Alabama.
Now, I know you don't know much about Alabama, but peckerwoods in Alabama would kill a colored man for waking up on Sunday. My daddy went over there anyway, and when he came home, he had Floyd with him. Had to break one of Floyd's legs and knock out all his teeth, but he brought him back. Yes sir, my daddy didn't take no stuff, but, you know, he kind of disappointed me that time, too.
I went with my daddy to take Floyd to the jailhouse, and when we showed up, old Judge Crenshaw slapped a fine against my daddy for hitting a white man. Told hirn to be grateful he didn't throw him in jail to boot. I thought my daddy would raise hell with old Judge Crenshaw, but he wouldn't even look him in the eyes. Just paid the fine and we went on home.
I asked my daddy why he let Crenshaw do him like that and all my daddy said to me was, "It's the law, son." Like that made everything all right. I knew right then that something was wrong with the law.
Anyway, since my people had money, they could afford for me to have schooling. That's why I talk better that most of these Negroes around here. I went to Tuskegee Agriculture School to study farming. Now, I don't believe they had real schools for colored then, and I only went because my mama was the sweetest woman on this earth and I would do anything my mama asked. But I couldn't stay at that farm school long. Farming didn't hold nothing for me. I couldn't stomach the smell of cow shit. So, I made my mama believe I got the "calling." My mama was a religious woman.
The only thing calling me was the streets. Shooting pool playing craps, living fast and sweet. I used to hang out at Pete Henson's place 'til the rooster crowed. Pete had a pool hall over on Sugar Creek. All the big-time gamblers and con men would come to Pete's, and I'd be right there, cutting my teeth watching that green pile up.
A smart player could turn as much green in one night sitting at a poker table as my daddy could make in one month going bail. Look a man right in his eyes while you doing it, too. Course, you could lose it just as fast, but that's part of the draw, see? When you gamble, you don't just play the hand, you play the man. You start with five. He starts with five. And that's the only law. Don't have to worry about no Crenshaw at the poker table. No, sir.
Now, there were rumors when I was a boy that my daddy wasn't my "real" daddy. That my real daddy was a white man and that's how I come to be so yellow with a daddy so black. My mama was pretty white-looking herself so ... I don't know. Sometimes, my daddy would look at me funny, like he was trying to see right inside me, and I could hear the rumors in my head like he was saying them out loud. I didn't get mad with him though because I'm a man, too.
My running partners knew better than to repeat that shit, but Jimmy Lee, this white boy I met in Pete's ... we used to hustle pocket change together. You know, Three Card Monty, 10/20 Switch, penny ante con, like that. Well, Jimmy Lee opened up his trash mouth one day and said the wrong thing, said I looked enough like the Wylers to be one of 'em and didn't my daddy do business with old man Wyler? Laughed like he thought he said something funny. Naturally, I went crazy on that boy. Went upside his head so fast that boy thought he'd been struck by lightning. But God wasn't doing the striking.
So I had to go. Even my daddy didn't have that much bank, and if the truth be known, I couldn't wait to leave Jackson. Get to the real cities: New York, Harlem, Chicago, Detroit. Man, you ain't seen ugly until you've seen Detroit, Michigan in the middle of winter, when traffic stops and the radiators wheeze and snort all night and you get trapped inside one of those little rooms with bare wood floors, where roaches drop dead from the cold and fall off the ceiling. I had days when a dollar wouldn't match a dime, but announced to the same thing, because I didn't have either one. But, like I said, I'm a hustler and a good hustler can talk honey-out-the-pocket, anybody's pocket. I shot pool played jack-legged poker and ran scam. Hell, I talked my way from a poor man's prayer to a rich man's Hallelujah.
See, hustling is like making love to a woman. You got to know where to touch a woman, which spots will tickle and which spots will burn, 'cause when the fire starts, you don't want to be standing there with your mouth open and no water in your hose. And then you got to know when to let up, so the fire don't die out.
It's the same with a mark. You got to set him up real slow, whether it's poker, pool, or wise-crock con. Make him want it. Make him want it so bad that by the time he gets it and he didn't get it, you got it and gone.
Hustling can be good. Damn near good as getting your jones off, knowing you're smart enough to talk a man into giving you something he wants to keep. Hell, something he ought to keep and, there he is, white or black, giving it to you with a smile, be it his money or his woman.
That's how I met my wife, Virie. Met her in Chicago and never will forget the first time I saw her. Flame-red hair wrapped around a shining black face like a red halo. She had this tiny black mole on the left side of her cheek right over some sho 'nuff ruby-red lips. That woman was the prettiest thing I'd seen since I looked into my own mama's face, and they didn't come no prettier than my mama, just darker. Virie used to be a pinup-girl for the colored boys during the war, but she was never what you would call a patriot. She was a sporting woman; we called them playgirls back then, and Virie didn't play unless the money played first.
Virie belonged to a Mexican named Two Peppers. I heard about her before she ever hit the strip because a hustler has got to know faces and places, so he won't get tripped up by one and get lost in the other. Word on the street was Virie was too much for Two Peppers to handle.
One night, me and Cripple Dave were in Little Cicero's joint - used to be a classy little joint down on Michigan Avenue - when Virie came in. I watched her sashay up to the bar, order a gin and tonic with a twist of lime, and when she sat down, I swear I heard that barstool smile. That woman had an ass on her that could put Cadillac out of business. Don't squinch up on me now. You wanted to know, and I'm telling you.
She finished her drink and moved to the game room where big money was floating like fish in a pond. Naturally, I had to see what kind of pepper this woman was shaking, so I got into the game, too, and watched her go to work.
Virie had this sweet little scam where she would pick a fat, juicy, square white boy, lose two or three hundred dollars to nobody but him, then pull him from the tables and whisper daddy in his ear like she was calling on God. She would tell him she was looking for a smart white man to be good to, and wouldn't he like to be her daddy? Then, she drops that fine ass in his lap, plops two plump titties in his face and, before long, the square is drooling. She feeds him a song and dance about how she's been trying to get away from her "dumb daddy," 'cause he don't know how to take care of business, but she can't get enough money at one time to "buy him out." That's the hook. There's not a white man alive don't think he can take care of business better than a colored man. The square gives Virie all the money she lost in the game and however many bills it takes to "buy out" her dumb daddy Then the sucker sits back fat, semi-fed and grinning, waiting for Virie to come back and be his personal 'ho.
So now I'm interested 'cause Virie was not your everyday 'ho. I cool my heels because I know Virie has got to get lost, give the mark time to cool. Then I send Cripple Dave over to Virie's hotel to tell her she ought to lose that lame she called a man and come on and be with a real man, namely me.
So I'm back in Little Cicero's, sipping on a scotch and soda, smoking a Pall Mall cigarette, cool as you please, when I see Virie's reflection in the bar mirror. She had on one of those shiny red dresses, sequins you call 'em, with no straps on it, and a red foxtail slung over her right shoulder damn near touching the floor. She looked like a black bird on fire with all that red flying around her.
She came up behind me and pressed into my back with the only part of her holding that dress up. I almost fell off the barstool, but I had to maintain. She put her left hand on my shoulder and turned me around to face her as she slipped her right hand, covered with enough rocks to light up Wrigley Field, between two fat, chocolate mounds that had my mouth watering, and pulled out a huge roll of bills with one-triple-zero showing on top. She waved those bills under my nose like she was waving a bouquet of sweet-smelling flowers and, smooth as the scotch I was drinking, said, "Real men don't send messenger boys." Without another word, she strutted out of that bar like she was Queen Damn Sheba.
Naturally, I had to be her man. Not because she made my dick hard. Any good-looking woman with titties and a fresh ass can hard-up a soft dick, but Virie made every move count, and that made Virie a woman worth having in my book.
Now, I knew Two Peppers would be mad as a cockeyed rooster about me pulling Virie. And the man didn't get his name for being overly fond of chili peppers. Two Peppers carried two snub-nosed, custom-designed pistols that broke a bullet in seven pieces when it fired and was guaranteed to pepper your ass. I also knew I had to make good on whatever Virie heard about me because she wasn't the kind of woman to jump in a cold pond when she could soak in a hot tub, if you get my drift. And I wasn't the kind of man to get shot full of holes over no woman. So I knew I had to play Two Pep right.
Okay, I set him up in a skin game, that's a fast-money card game most white folks don't know nothing about. Naturally, I fix the game so I win all Two Pep's money, and I talk shit all through the night about how I got my Mojo working for me. There's not a hustler in the world don't believe in a good-luck Mojo. Two Pep begs me to show him mine. I show him a three-carat piece of well-cut glass with a bright red spot in the center. I tell him it's a real rock with real blood in it, my blood. Naturally, Two Pep has to have one. I tell him to get three rocks about the size of mine and meet me on the West Side of Chicago where I introduce him to Sweet Hannah the best little Mojo hustler New Orleans ever sent north.
Now, Hannah has her place all spooked up and shit, and she takes two rocks as her pay for the Mojo. Then she starts swooning and crying, making hoodoo and moodoo over Two Pep while she's pricking and squeezing his finger so his blood will spill in the rock. Soon as his blood hits the rock, a black cat runs into the room. Naturally, I let the cat in, but Hannah jumps up and down like she been shot, talking about bad signs and evil spirits. Two Pep's about to go crazy looking for a way out of there's when Hannah calms down. That's when she shows Two Pep the rock with his fresh-squeezed blood in it.
Only, the "blood" is almost black. Hannah gets real spooky then and asks Two Pep does he have any real black gals working for him? He tells Hannah about his new gal, Virie. Hannah tells him that the black cat jinxed him, fixed him good, but if he gets rid of that black gal, she might be able to turn that jinx back. Only he can't just cut Virie loose without no man to look after her. She tells him the spirits won't like it and his luck never will get right. So Hannah looks over at me and Two Pep gets the picture. He asks me to take Virie. Says I'm damn near white anyway, so Virie can't hurt me none. I tell him Hell no! I don!t want no black gal messing up my luck. So we go on like that a good while, when finally, out of the goodness of my heart, I agree to take Virie, provided Two Pep throw in five or six hundred dollars because my luck was bound to go bad for awhile, black as Virie was. Okay, so this time Hannah has me hold the rock while she hoodoos up a storm. I make a second switch and give my man another piece of glass, this time with the bright red dye in it.
From then on, it was me and Virie. City to city, pool halls to racetracks, juke joints, and ballrooms - lots of ballrooms, 'cause Virie loved to dance. We played short con and long, Triple Dons, Blind Willies, you name the game we played it. Virie was good for me. Made my hand good and my luck long. Then one day, she got pregnant.
We were in a lumber mill town up in Michigan running short con on paper mill workers, trying to get up a stake for St. Louis, when my first daughter was born. Quick as a wink, three boys and another girl followed.
Virie came from a big family with twelve or thirteen kids maybe and knew how to handle a bunch of kids, but I was just getting used to handling myself. And, I know it isn't right, but I never was too sure about that middle boy. For my money, he looked a bit too much like one of those mill boys. But I fed 'em, clothed 'em, and sent 'em all to school. I used to tell 'em to put "interior decorator" on all those papers that wanted "occupation of the parent." It didn't matter much to me, you understand, but everybody don't see hustling as a job and Virie needed something to tell the PTA.
Small towns don't offer much hustling, though, so after awhile all the hustlers end up trying to hustle each other. Virie got a real job working at the paper mill and wanted me to get one, too, but hustling was all I had ever known or wanted to know. Truth is, I couldn't much stand to look at a white man, let alone work for one, and the only business coloreds had that I cared to know about was running numbers or joints, and I was already in that business. Working for my damn self.
I stayed on until the baby girl turned 10 or 12; then I had to go. Didn't leave the state, because I was still their daddy, but I put a considerable distance between us.
These days, I run a little gambling house in Detroit where I turn a nice piece of money. Not him the old days when me and Virie could damn near sleep on hundred dollar bills every night, but I get by. Once in awhile, I go back to visit, but I feel like a stranger most times, so I don't stay too long. Me and Virie don't have much to say to each other. Might be we said it all. The kids are all grown up; two of 'em even been to college and, don't you know, they still telling people I'm in the "interior decorator" business?
So now, here I am, and that's how I come to be. If I could get a pension, I'd be about ready to retire. Lord knows I'm getting too old to be looking over my shoulder and trying to cut the house at the same time.
And these young hustlers coming up ... they don't know what it means to stand toe to toe with a man. Look him in the eye and watch him fold. They use cold, blue steel for a hustle. Mess with that bad dope, that crack shit. But they know who I am. They know me. That means they respect me.
I see 'em sometimes, pointing at my back, whispering, "Hey, ain't that Mississippi Red? Man, he used to be ...." But I don't listen. Hell, I know who I am.
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|Title Annotation:||Black South Fiction, Art, Culture; short story|
|Author:||Grisham, Sam L.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1993|
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